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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190666
Riding the Gauntlet

Riding the Gauntlet

“This one’s a little nuts even for me.”

Divider (2)

The force of the explosion was so great that hardly any debris was left to fall on Jace and Malcolm. The entire roof of the apothecary, and most of the top half with it, had been completely incinerated. Jace's ears were ringing like bells, and he was hunched over, having barely reoriented himself, when Malcolm sprung up like a cat. In a flash, the Whistler was up on one knee, aiming over what was left of the shop's outer wall, and nocking and drawing arrows before Jace could even draw breath. He loosed shots with a speed that did not seem human. Each arrow flew on a path of perfect accuracy. Overshadows staggered and fell back over each other one-by-one in a mishmash of panic. Three of them were dead in the blink of an eye. A fourth fell and was killed before it even hit the ground. The fifth robed enemy kill was nowhere near as dramatic, but just as impressive: The Overshadow was killed after it scrambled back to its feet and attempted to flee.

Malcolm looked to Jace with the threat now totally gone. The commotion seemed to be dying down back towards Raven Square, growing quieter, even as it sounded like a hurricane was kicking up on the street directly outside the now crumbling building. The sharpshooter was still on his knee in his shooting position. Jace stood upright and walked over to him.

"I thought ..." the Outrider paused, swallowed and cleared his throat. "I thought they had shields." He laid a hand on Malcolm's shoulder as the dust settled down all around them. Enough of the wall was left so that street outside -— ironically named Serenity Avenue — could not be seen in full, but the area straight ahead of the robed corpses was clearly in view.

"They're vulnerable right after they fire," Malcolm said, rising to his feet. "They can't fire a comet with only two, so that leaves a very short window to try and get three." Malcolm was fully upright, but Jace's hand was still on his shoulder, and he was still staring at all five of the dead. "I'm sure that was in the briefing they gave you last night. Considering I'm the one who contributed it to the meeting."

Jace nodded.

"Bryce Valley?"


Malcolm was expecting some sarcastic comment or a joke. But when he looked over to make eye contact with Jace, he found his friend's expression totally serious.

"I'm glad you're on our side, kid, you know that?"

The comment felt all the more potent to Malcolm because Jace's hand was still on his shoulder.

"Goes both ways, Jace. Trust me."

The moment seemed to draw out for longer than it probably should have given the immediacy of the threat all around them. It was as if Jace was thinking of something deeper, felt something deeper, than what he had said, but then the sentiment faded from his expression and a genuine smile replaced it. His hand fell to his side.

The sound of airships boomed down and shook the surroundings, lapping like waves of sound in a deafening ocean. Serenity Avenue itself seemed to tremble as comets of every color launched into the sky; a testament as to just how many of the Sky Fire Units were hidden all over the city. It was an attack run, and the two looked up through where the roof should have been to see a dozen or so airships emerge from the clouds and break off into different directions. A couple of them flew so low that they appeared to be landing until they started firing. Thundering past the apothecary caused a concussion that kicked up dust and debris that had just begun to settle, and it brought the two men back to the present.

Malcolm sighed as he looked around.

"Nathaniel's gonna be pissed," he said.

Jace was clearly turning his attention to their next move, walking cautiously, but deliberately, back toward the shop's door that had blown inward and fallen flat in across the doorway and into the room. His attention was drawn down to the the copper numbers 109 that had been nailed into it, facing up like the open eyes of a corpse. Its purpose in marking the apothecary's street number was now lost and irrelevant, looking up through the ruined remains of the building's body. "I'd bet Nathaniel's been dead for at least two years," he said. "We gotta make it to the Dock Complex." The Outrider's back was against the door frame now, squinting down Serenity Avenue at a view only he could see.

Malcolm was still further inside.

"What's the best way to get there?" he asked.

Jace cleared his throat again and ran his hand back through his hair. Malcolm knew exactly what that meant.

"Seriously? You don't know? I thought you grew up here."

Jace pursed his lips into a dismissive frown as he looked back inside the ruined building. This was also an expression Malcolm knew well.

"First of all, I left ten years ago. Second of—" A loud explosion cut him off. It was so powerful that Jace had slid instinctively down to where he was now sitting on the floor. Malcolm was still standing but remained crouched. They waited a few more moments, as if to make sure what was left of the structure wasn't going to collapse down around them. When they grew quiet again, Jace continued. "Second of all, I didn't grow up here. I just lived here awhile."

"Yeah. So?"

"So I was younger than you when I left. And last time I was here it wasn't, you know ... exploding."

Malcolm held his bow with white knuckles horizontally across his body, parallel to the ground.

"Alright. Then what do we do?"

Jace rose back to his feet.

"Down that way's the City High Marketplace. At its entrance there's a monument dedicated to Khayn Ahara. We should be able to get there, no matter how crazy it is out there. I mean, I could literally throw a rock and hit it from here. That’s how close it is. And if we get there, there's a bunch of residential alleyways just to the east." He looked away from the street, still filled with dust, to Malcolm. "To the right."

Malcolm rolled his eyes as he joined Jace in the doorway to look out for himself.

"Yes. I know which way east is."

"Alright. You have the only weapon between us, so—"

"I know, Dabriel. Don’t worry about it. I’m ready when you are."

Jace turned his attention back down Serenity Avenue. It was another situation impossible to contain within the neat structure of strategy. But where such circumstances might lead an Outrider like Relic to suffer paralysis by analysis, Jace always seemed at his best in the times where there was no time for rational thought, only reaction.

"Alright, then. Let's go," he said.

Malcolm bobbed a little in place, preparing himself for the adrenaline rush to come.

"So, I mean ... what are you gonna do, just like ... improvise?"

Jace squinted, then paused.

"Yeah, Mal," he said absently. He appeared to be contemplating something, but whatever it was was a mystery. "I'm gonna, like improvise."

Divider (2)

Jace was first out the unobstructed doorway, stepping on the heavy, fallen door as he did so. Now, having left the apothecary behind, the dust was suffocating, filling their noses and mouths as they ran. Blinded, Jace took the lead and stumbled a moment like a man in the dark, waving his hand in front of him through murky clouds attenuating the sunlight. Every Overshadow or Golden Rider on Ciridian could have been standing, waiting mere feet away, and they would have been near totally hidden. All Jace could do was hope. Hope he didn't find a barbed-wire staff with his outstretched hand, or a crossbow bolt in the chest. In all the confusion, he was struck with a sudden instinct to turn and make sure Malcolm was still behind him, and to remind him to stay close, when his foot caught suddenly on something on the ground. Looking down, the Outrider saw it was an Overshadow; dead. Its cowl was pulled back, and the corpse showed signs of decomposition that should have taken years. It was a strange combination of elements, but one he had seen before; the corpse appearing simultaneously recognizable and yet also … as if it could have been lying there for centuries.

Jace waved his hand in front of his face in an effort to further clear the air and coughed a little.

"That's the monument down there," he said, and he was already running toward it before he finished talking.

Malcolm was in immediate pursuit, his head on a swivel to the surroundings, instinctively surveying, imagining where he would set up if he were the one sharpshooting them. But Jace was right when he said how close the monument was, and almost as quickly as they started running, they came upon it.

The monument, dedicated to the accomplishments of Khayn Ahara, shone in the mid-afternoon sun, a thing of marble and white granite that seemed to hold up the sky with high pillars upon which no roof sat but the heavens themselves. Each one was massive, yet delicately carved; and surely all of them had in their time been masterfully painted. Now they were whiter than ivory, full of figures with gazes both eyeless and timeless.

At the elaborate forefront, a white bull reared up in challenge or triumph; beside it, a man’s muscular form curved torturously around the arc of a column as he stretched out his arm for berries that would be forever out of his reach. On it went with a dozen others – heroes and beasts that seemed faintly familiar, yet utterly alien. But there was one thing to which the eye was drawn, even amidst all of the urgency and chaos. And that was what was not there, in the center.

It was plain to see that the arrangement and proportion around them was meant to encircle something; yet there was nothing there in the midst of it except a smaller, fainter circle — as if something had been moved completely out of place. The stone glittered when it held the eye.

“They either moved, or destroyed, Khayn Ahara’s statue,” Jace said.

“Why?” Malcolm asked.

​Jace turned around in a slow circle to take it all in.

“I can think of a reason or two,” he said, but his tone had once again shifted to distraction. He felt like being in a nightmare and being back in his childhood all at once. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish between the two. The scent and feel of saltwater intensified, and Jace glanced up into the pale blue sky. Across the way was the series of alleyways, beyond which, he knew, the Dock Complex waited. Raven Square was now well out of view, as was any knowledge of what was happening there. The only thing to do, their only option was to keep moving forward.

The sapphires were dark and useless now, just as Jace had expected. In fact, that they had lasted this long was testament to just how little Hazel and her Illumanatii had regarded the impending threat — having been taken completely by surprise.

Airships dipped and dived from all over, evading comet blasts and firing the same energy back at them with the new weapons Jaden helped them harness and install.

"What are you thinking?" Malcolm asked.

"That if we can make it to those alleys over there, we might actually have a shot at this thing.”

“At what? Not dying?”

Jace shrugged.

“I was talking about reaching the Dock Complex. But ‘not dying’ works, too.” He cleared his throat and sniffed. “Don't look around, don't even think, just run."

And together they did just that, towards the alleyways in that direction, Jace following his instincts and the smell of the sea. The sound of boots slapping stone marked their progress, the only two souls in what would have normally been the busiest point, in the busiest city in Sindell. Then suddenly that slapping was drowned out by the sweeping blasts of airships attacking some distant part of Zarponda.

They came to a crossroads where two long cobblestone lanes converged into the residential alleyways they had seen from the threshold of City High Square — and the monument that marked it. 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. And what Jace had said was true — everything looked different to him. 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 had 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 home and his family. His weapon of choice looked to be the largest ladle on all of Ciridian.

​“You’re … not what I thought was coming,” he whispered. He sounded, almost, like he was lost in a dream as he stumbled further out into the street. “Why is there something ...” He dropped the ladle with a resounding clang, both of his hands on the Outrider’s face as a blind man might do. “Something familiar about …”

​Malcolm lowered his bow, in shock.

​Jace moved back a little, briefly grabbing the old man’s shoulders before letting them go. He was still trying to catch his breath when he smiled, hunched forward a little and placed his hands on his knees.

​“No,” he said.. “I’m not. What you thought was coming, that is.”

​The rest of the family was coming further out from the shadow of their townhouse now, further out into the street, unable to resist their curiosity. All around, shutters on windows were creaking open on rusty hinges. Other doors cracked open to provide hopeful peeks.

​“Tell me, lad,” the man said. There seemed to be a strength gathering around him. A surety. “Tell me your name.”

​“Jace Dabriel. I’m an Outrider of Veil’driel.”

​“An Outrider?” one of the little kids behind him said, probably the man’s grandson. “I thought they were just a—”

“Myth? No.”

The boy cocked his head back.

“How did you know what I was going to—”

“Outriders haven’t been allowed in the realm since The Looking Glass War. And all due respect, you don’t look like one neither.”


“Look more like …” The old man hesitated a moment, taking the time for proper scrutiny. “One them ice bloods hang out down on the docks.”

Malcolm glanced over to Jace, whispering: “What’s an ice—”

But the Outrider was talking again, his full focus on the stranger.

“Yeah, well,” he said, regarding his own appearance. “That’s a long story.” Now Jace rose to full height, bringing his hands to his hips and taking a couple more breaths. “You a vet of that war?”

“I am, lad. I am.”

​“Maybe you’ll recognize his other name,” Malcolm said, and there was something faintly indignant in his tone. “Dorsey Trent?”

If the sharpshooter was expecting a dramatic reaction, he was disappointed when a feminine voice started laughing. The old man she stepped out from behind, however, was not laughing at all. He just narrowed his eyes, still staring into Jace’s.

“Your Outrider story was better,” a woman said, presumably the daughter of the man before Jace. “So who are you really?”

​Jace smiled again, but he was remembering himself and the gravity of the situation. This battle wasn’t over, and it wasn’t safe for these people in the streets.

​“Look, you don’t have to trust me. Just listen to what I’m telling you,” he said, starting by looking into the eyes of the woman. As he continued, he expanded his attention to the other eyes he knew were on him. “I can only imagine what ya’ll have been through, and the questions you must have. But right 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. And if you have any communication sapphires, I’m sure you know by now that the Golden Riders have deactivated them.”

The old man scoffed.

“‘Golden Riders,’” he said. “They’re the Illumanatii. And not to be trifled with, I assure you.”

Veteran of The Looking Glass War,” Jace said, nodding slowly.


Jace clapped the man on the arm.

“All the same, soldier. It’s not safe to be out here. Not until General Lockhardt tells you it is.”

​“General Lockhardt!” an unseen voice yelled in triumph.

​“Our general lives!” cried another.

​​Jace bent down and picked up the ladle.

​“Is the Dock Complex within view of your roof?” he asked.

“Yes,” the woman said, though her tone was confused.

Jace handed the ladle back to the man. Then he looked over to Malcolm who was already moving. The Whistler started climbing up the side of the house by way of flower boxes mounted beneath each window. The flowers they were filled with were purple and pink, and even as he ascended with his bow slung across his chest, he was mindful not to trample them. Someone in this family had taken the time to plant and care for them — no doubt as a distracting activity during these troubled times — and there seemed to be something important about preserving them, beyond just mere respect.

After Malcolm reached the roof and climbed briefly out of sight, Jace looked down to the woman and to the other people gathering around him. The moment was brief, but felt like it stretched on into an awkward eternity. The Outrider cracked an embarrassed half-smile, and found it no small relief when Malcolm’s voice broke the relative silence.

​“If they’re trying to escape by sea they’re gonna be disappointed! There’s no ship there!”

​“See anything else?” Jace shouted up.

​Then, suddenly, his attention was taken to the sound of thundering hoofbeats. The Outrider immediately stepped forward, instinctively putting everyone else behind him. Then he stood still as a statue and listened.


​“Can’t see!” the bowman yelled down. “It’s obstructed!”

​Malcolm was already on his way down the side of the building, hopping with impressive agility from one window sill flower box to another. He stopped at one that would give him a good firing angle on whatever was about to come around the corner. Whoever or whatever was on its way, the first of them would be cut down before they knew what hit them.

​Jace reached down for his crossbows, feeling nothing but air, muscle memory forgetting reality.

​​“Maybe they’re just passing by,” the old man said.

​“No,” Jace said with certainty. “Definitely coming this way.” Then he did a double take as if right then registering his presence. “You should get back inside, sir, I’m serious.”

The old man shook his head.

​“I’ve been cowering in that house long enough, lad. I’d rather die on my feet if it’s all the same to you.”

Jace sighed.

“Well, you got anything better than a ladle at least?”

“Bah. Bastards took all our weapons.”

“So no.”


​The horses grew closer.

“Well … at least get the rest of your family …” Jace glanced back over his shoulder and saw the look in their eyes. Even the boy had a fierce determination smoldering there, holding his ground. “Nevermind,” he said, accepting the inevitable as he turned back toward the impending threat.

​Jace had been expecting Golden Riders, and Overshadows along with them. But Malcolm must have realized who it was immediately, because he lowered his bow as soon as they emerged around the corner, well before the tension even began to ease from Dabriel’s muscles.

​It was Ferris Lang, with two other Outriders on his flanks, and he was holding the reins of a riderless horse. Coming to a hard stop, he looked more than surprised — he looked shocked — to see Jace.

​“Dabriel? What the hell?”

​“If we live I’ll tell ya later,” Jace said, overwhelmed with relief. “How we lookin’?”

​“Lockhardt’s on the city. The Golden Riders only seem to engage as they have to. Buying time and falling back. The robed comet ones, too. There’s something methodical about it. Like they’re protecting someone … or something. Most likely the docks.”

​“Or Hazel,” Malcolm said, and this drew the newcomers’ attention to him for the first time. He looked back to Jace. “Or both.”

Dabriel put his hands in his pockets, looked down at the street and sighed. He said nothing, but nodded.

Ferris ​Lang and Malcolm exchanged a meaningful nod, the first time they had seen each other since Bryce Valley. But then he turned back to Jace with a sigh of his own.

There was something defeated in it.

​“Regardless, I don’t see any way we could get there. We just came from the main thoroughfare leading into it, scouting out any possible approach. There’s enemy positions taken up all along both sides. And those are just the ones not bothering to conceal themselves.”

​“Is there anything obstructing the lane itself?”

A confused expression came across Lang’s face.


“That thoroughfare you’re talking about is hugely wide,” Jace began. “It’s also the most bustling part of the city when things are normal. It’s wide like that so that giant pieces of cargo can be brought directly into City High Square.”

Lang shrugged.


“So I bet something moving fast enough could get through it. So did they obstruct the actual—”

All Ferris Lang could do was scoff. It was that thing people did when they didn’t know where to begin. And it was a reaction Malcolm had seen Jace bring out in people a lot in the last few months.

“What?” he asked again, more flabbergasted this time. “No. But it’s as compacted an urban environment as I have ever seen. Buildings on both sides are basically built on top of each other. It’s like … I don’t know, it’s like architectural chaos or something.” When he saw that Jace had turned to the side and was having a quiet, private conversation with Malcolm, he knew whatever Jace was planning had already been decided. So his expression changed quickly from confusion to resignation. Again: a reaction Malcolm had seen Jace cause on many occasions. ​“What are you gonna do?”

Jace didn’t immediately answer him. He had taken note of the riderless horse as soon as the Outriders rode up on him, but he was just now recognizing it and who it belonged to. The horse’s name was Bela. And it belonged to Darvin Nash.

​“Is ….”

​“We don’t know,” Lang answered immediately. “He was one of the first in with Lockhardt. We were able to meet up with him while we were scouting the docks, but got separated. Bela came out of the dust after one of the airships attacked … Darvin wasn’t … I mean, he …”

“Alright, alright,” Jace said, patting the air in front of him. “Relax. We don’t know anything yet, alright?” He could tell Lang was drifting, looking off into the distance. At nothing. “Hey!” He waited for Lang to look down at him, in the eyes. “Alright?”

Life came back to Ferris Lang’s face. The look of coming back to the present. He nodded. Mouthing the word: “Yeah.”

​Jace stepped forward with no hesitation and hopped up into Bela’s saddle. He didn’t let himself think of the Outrider who should have been on it; the potential loss of yet another friend. There would be time for that later. There always was. But then he caught sight of the blue beaded bracelet woven into the horse’s mane. A bracelet Jace knew belonged to Darvin’s daughter, and he closed his eyes.

​Another huge crash, and a squadron of airships raced over. One of them was hit by a comet and went screaming down in flame. It was out of sight before the impact was heard and the wide trail of black smoke was eerily reminiscent of comets disappearing over the Fairlawn cityscape on the night when all this began: the buildings the new tree line.

​“You can’t be serious,” Lang said. “Jace, even for you you can’t be serious.”

​“The positions they’ve taken up are meant to stop the advance of a large force,” Jace explained. “Not one rider.”

“Well, I mean … alright …” He touched Jace’s shoulder and waited for his friend to look at him amidst the preparations he was making. ​“Alright, I’ll go with you,” Lang said turning around in his saddle, looking to an Outrider Jace had never seen before. “Gilson, give me one of your bolt belts.”

​“No,” Jace said. “That’s an order.”

​Lang sighed.

“You can’t give me orders.”

“No? Ask Thean if that’s true when you get back.” Now Jace suddenly stopped as if an important thought popped into his head. “Oh, and also, while you’re at it, tell him my infamous dalliances came in handy after all. So he was wrong about them not being important. But only if this works. If it doesn’t, and I die, don’t say anything. So I don’t look stupid.”

“Damn it, Jace, this isn’t a joke. The hell’s the matter with you?”

Jace was back to the present again, rocking back and forth, testing the feel of the saddle.

“Now you sound like Relic,” he said.

Yeah, because he’s smarter than you, you crazy idiot!” Jace smiled, and this made Ferris purse his lips in frustration. “Alright, look. Wait a minute. We could have the Air Force hit the buildings on either side of the lane.”

“Yeah? And how we gonna do that?” Jace asked, having moved on to making some adjustment to the stirrup on his right foot. For a second he looked up at Lang. “Sapphires aren’t gonna work in this city again until this over. And even if they did, how do we know there aren’t any people in’em?” He motioned with his head to their surroundings, before looking down again to continue his work. Lang looked around, taking in the crowd that had gathered around them for the first time. The other two Outriders with him did the same as Jace continued: “Things have changed, as you can see.”

Lang gritted his teeth and leaned closer to Jace. It would have seemed like he was trying to say something that only Jace could hear, if not for the fact that he yelled his next words.

“Damn it, man, you’re not even armed!”

Dozens of citizens from all around were amassed before him on either side of the alleyway, dozens more still flowing toward him. Even here, it was as if people gravitated to him; Jace was a cyclone wherever he was, collecting activity and sucking it in.

Malcolm was back on the roof, sticking his arrows into the soil of a vegetable garden so that they were positioned in a straight line.

​“What about going around?” Ferris asked quickly, sounding increasingly desperate. “We could still get to the dock by—”

​“You three could go around. That’s actually not a bad idea. But it’ll take too long for what I’m lookin’ to do. There’s something happening on the docks right now and I have to get there. We can still get her, Ferris, I know it.”

​“How can you know that?”

​“I just—”

​“Yeah, I know. You just do, you crazy son of a bitch,” Lang said cutting him off, annoyed. And he looked around to see the people hanging on his every word, and then past those hanging out of the windows, up to the rooftop where Malcolm was. “And you’re just as crazy as he is, kid!”

​“Actually,” Malcolm yelled down, now totally focused. “This one’s a little nuts even for me.”

The look on Lang’s face was very serious, and Malcolm smiled as if he had sensed it, and was amused by it.

​Jace looked back to the Outrider he didn’t recognize.

​“Have we met before?” he asked.

​“No, don’t think so,” the man said said, extending his hand. “Gilson.” He took Jace’s hand in a firm handshake. “Rob Gilson.”

​“Jace Dabriel.”

​Gilson smiled and laughed a little.

​“Yeah, I know. Everybody knows, it’s good to finally meet you.”​

​“Gilson,” Jace said, as if the two were meeting on this Zarponda street in some casual way, on some normal, calm day. He tilted his head slightly to the right. “Why is that familiar?”

​“I was one of the scouts sent into Westwood before you and Outrider Avery,” he said, his tone sobering. “Got bogged down by golems and had to hide in the brush for days. After what you did, the creatures retreated, and I was able to make it back. So you can add my life onto the long list you saved that night.”

​“If you wanna thank someone, thank yourself. You’re the one who survived long enough to make it back,” Jace said. And he lightly slapped the side of Gilson’s face. “At least you got a promotion out of it, right?”

“I guess,” Gilson said. “But now I’m here, so …”

Jace smiled widely.

“Good point,” he said as he looked over at the other Outrider. This one he did recognize, but he didn’t know him very well and acknowledged his presence with an upward nod.

“Lincoln Chase.”

As soon as Jace heard the name, he instantly recognized it. It was another name on that map in Creed’s tent.

“Chase,” Jace said out loud. “Gilson and Chase. You look pretty good for a dead guy, too. And how’d you make it back?”

“Spent over a week living on grubs, leaves, and snow. Dodging minotaurs the entire time. The Fairlawn Sentinels found me two days after you destroyed the enemy’s wagon.”

“And look at ya now. Both of you. Outriders of Veil’driel.”

​Malcolm’s voice brought all of their attention back to the roof.

​“Hey, Dabriel!” he shouted. “If you’re gonna do this, you better do it. Because I’m right on the edge of losing my nerve up here!”

​Jace exchanged a last glance with the two newly promoted Outriders, nodded, and there was a collective gasp, audible from all around the alley. He didn’t look back to Ferris, knowing he would still be genuinely aggravated.

​His instinct was to look up at the roof, at Malcolm, where the bowman was tracking something. But the sharpshooter’s expression betrayed nothing of what he was seeing, or the intense stress he felt. And then, after what felt like an eternity, he fired an arrow that whistled in a blur out of sight. The entire crowd was staring up at the Whistler, as if watching the only person who had a view of the lane to the dock might allow them to see it as well.

Jace leaned forward. All sound fell away in his mind.

“It’s true! By the light of the Scarlet Monks, it’s true!” bellowed the old man they had first encountered. His eyes were filled with tears as the revelation washed over him. “That Outrider’s Prince Dorsey Trent!”

There was the slightest moment of shock, of stunned quiet amidst the crowd, but Jace never reacted. He just narrowed his eyes ahead.

And with that, he clacked his heels into Bela’s flanks.

Divider (2)

All the moves were the same, but this was nothing like riding the gauntlet. Not like he had ever known it, at least. Jace’s muscle memory took over, and it was like he was back in camp on that very first night. He had ridden like that a thousand times, but it was that night, that first night that consumed the Outrider now. Jace moved to the side, dodged down, but this was faster. Insanely fast. This was more than adrenaline. More than anticipation. This was his heart in his throat, an outer body experience. This was the first time he had gone on a mission with Donovan Kerrick and saw him take a life. This was galloping at full speed in the saddle for the first time. This was Isabelle saying his name for the first time. Touching him for the first time. This was …

This was the sensation of being shot at, but feeing as if it was coming from some distant, unimportant place. In his mind now, there was only concentration. He felt like he could close his eyes and still see everything around him, before him, behind him. It was like being swept away in a riptide: surrendering to it was the only chance you had. But Winterwine-bred or not, this was not Jace’s horse. Bela belonged to Darvin Nash, and the sacred, symbiotic connection wasn’t there. This wasn’t Highfly. There was only trust. There was only feel. There was only …

There was only horse and rider bolting ahead in an unstoppable blur. Chaos was unleashed from the buildings on both sides of the thoroughfare, and he heard the jeers, threats, and curses of enemies, not hooting and hollering. It was hot, but Jace imagined watching his breath, with Bela’s, burst out like steam from a forge. Hooves of iron pounded the cobblestone, and he bent low in the saddle. A gray Outrider cloak could have been swirling in his wake, and in his mind’s eye it was.

The first shots missed Jace outright, his blinding speed leaving a cascade of arrows thudding harmlessly in his wake – a sound like rain falling into parched leaves. Small comets — like the one he was attacked with in Westwood, like the one Artemus had threatened him with in the Tunnels of Armageddon — blazed by and missed him by inches. Illumanatii and Overshadows looked after him, too stunned to express dismay, and many could not move fast enough to do anything more.

A single crossbow bolt whistled toward him, planned perfectly to intercept his course. Like a leaping cat, Jace shifted his weight to his forearms and leaned to propel himself upward. The arrow cut past, and as he came down again, he snagged the edge of the saddle to hurl himself back into it.

It was a perfectly executed jack-in-the-box maneuver.

Amidst all the sounds of battle, there was a deeper note – the curses of the Golden Rider who had missed, a sound that brought a smirk to Jace’s lips. A flurry of bolts arced down ahead, timed to strike his bullet-straight path. Head down, Jace launched into dizzying twists and turns, then swung through a full circle that left every arrow shy of the mark.

By the time he finished, he could no longer hear the frenzy over the blood pumping in his ears; but he had won, and blasted now across the final stretch.

Jace was coming up to a steep incline, all of stone, and Bela hit it with ferocious speed. All he could do was hold tight, laying as low as he could in the saddle to make himself a smaller target. The feeling was as intense as any maneuver of the airships above. It was the sensation of being rocketed straight up at absolutely reckless speed, even for him. But then the terrain started to even out, and that transition was so extreme that Jace almost lost his balance and tumbled out of the saddle. He knew he was through to the docks, but he also knew there was more of the enemy up here, taking cover and firing from behind towering stacks of crates. It was only when he blasted through, however, that he realized there was not a lot of room. In fact, by his frantic, spit-second reckoning, it was less than thirty yards to the water — and between the docks and it, a massive cylindrical wooden railing.

Twenty yards now. Fifteen.

And a desperate final salvo was unleashed.

Jace pushed his weight forward and kicked his legs up so his body rose vertically. Arrows spun through a vacant saddle, bounding off the leather or pinging away against steely barding.

Darvin’s steed whickered, but did not stray. They moved as one.

As he sank back into place, even Jace did not see the last archer.

It was just by luck that the shaft of a bolt grazed his back, inches from the mark.

Knowing he was too far from the end to ride it out, Jace made to slide sideways down the saddle so he could ride the horse's flank. Many of the whistling arrows he heard were being fired by Malcolm — cutting down would-be attackers and saving the Outrider’s life more times than he knew.

There was nothing to do but prepare to jump, and even in those fractions of seconds he had, all that could go wrong flashed through his mind. Jace should have prepared to stand on the saddle. But that railing would have meant Bela’s death. So he stayed in the saddle, waiting until the absolute last instant to execute a jump. It was only the animal’s discipline and courage that gave it a chance.

The Outrider grunted, then screamed, pulling up on the reins and standing full in the stirrups with all his might. The force sent all the breath from his lungs; balance lost, and Jace tumbled from the saddle.

The fall to the water was over 30 feet, and flying through the air, he hit it awkwardly, shoulder first. Bela plunged in just beside him.

It was over in seconds.

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​Lang just stared, not even breathing. Though he knew the commotion of the battle all around Zarponda had not diminished, he heard nothing but the sound of his own pounding heart. Whatever Jace was doing out there on the open thoroughfare, he couldn’t imagine it was any more impressive than the intense, almost preternatural concentration and calm of Malcolm Hawkins — and the blinding rapidity with which he reloaded, grabbing arrows out of the vegetable garden beside him.

​In the end, his lightning-fast hand shot down to one of the final arrows, but froze right before grabbing it. A second later and Malcolm lowered his bow, standing straight. He stood against the backdrop of the high cityscape behind him, turned and walked further along the roof.

The Whistler staggered and suddenly looked very vulnerable. When his words finally came, they came as if he were talking more to himself than to anyone else:

​“He made it,” Malcolm said. “Sort of.”

​A deafening cheer went up in the alleyway, the sound of emotion that had been bottled up for years. Ferris Lang just shook his head and stared up at the young man in awe. He and Jace, as they had been for months throughout Sindell, were the first real rays of hope the kingdom had seen in years.

In that moment, not even aware he was doing so, Ferris Lang laughed.

“Unbelievable,” he said. His horse whirled around to go back the way he came. “The both of them.” Then he snapped the reins and was off, Lincoln Chase and Robert Gilson fast behind him.

The battle raged on all around them, but that one street seemed to be shielded from the rest of the world. As if optimism itself became something tangible and lay over it all like a blanket. People were celebrating, jubilant at the prospect of something more … a progression of sorts, if nothing else.

The old man looked up and hollered at Malcolm, holding a trembling hand above his eyes to shield them from the sun.

“You and your lot make bad blood dry, lad! Veritas vincit!”

The phrase, which Malcolm did not understand, was repeated throughout the gathering below, as were a whole host of other assenting calls and sentiments. Still more cheered wildly and yelled out their windows.

To Malcolm Hawkins!

Malcolm only nodded. His body felt as if it suddenly weighed more than his legs could support as the adrenaline dump started to fade. Without a word, he slouched into a sitting position, and gave a clearly exhausted thumbs up.

Best bowman in the legions!

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Chapter Five  (E)
A Study in Scarlet
#2190667 by Dan Hiestand
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