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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190671
Lunar Roses

Lunar Roses

“Once you believe, the signs are everywhere.”

Divider (2)

Magic hour in Fairlawn City. At least, that’s what Isabelle’s father used to call it when she was a kid. It was that time of day when the summer breeze cooled and the sun began to set, and she would sit beside him listening to him talk about parliament, or the birds, or the weather. But mainly it was the sound of his voice she had loved the most. The comfort it gave her, as if it was something tangible she could wrap herself in like a blanket. There was a feeling back then that nothing too serious could happen whenever he was around. She missed him very much in that moment, and had realized in the time since Lornda Manor that she never really had the chance to mourn him. He had only been gone for a month before the comet attacks began, and her life since then was a blur. He would have also been very disappointed to see her smoking again as she sat alone on a bench, but with the year she was having, he would have also understood.

He always understood everything.

The last time she had sat like this, so close to this city, the feint sounds of alarm bells carried over the miles to the camp. They would have been deafening had she been sitting this close on those nights, but now everything was quiet. The only sounds were of crickets, of children laughing, and the occasional, rhythmic grind of carriage wheels over the cobblestone street behind her. A sketchbook lay slanted against her hip, its pages ruffling with the breeze, as she had made serious, recent effort to get back in the hobby.

From the time she was little, always with crushing pressure and noise pressing in from every direction, drawing had been her escape; her soothing focus. A place where she could create her own worlds and live in them. Where she made all the rules, and the real one left her alone.

But it wasn’t working tonight.

Whatever she tried to draw just made her sad. Instead of that escapism, the sketches seemed to bring the grim weight of reality to bear. Because she knew what she was seeing and observing was just an illusion. The tranquility of magic hour was no more real than the idealistic scenes she created in her mind and put to paper. This was nothing but the calm before a horrific storm that would conquer and enslave this place forever. It was a strange thing to think back on those cold nights trapped on the Tenzan Plains, in the Ring of Fire, wishing all the time to be somewhere else. To have somewhere to march, or something to do to stop the comets. Every day, every night back then felt like an eternity. Now she would have sold her soul to have the Helix Legions outside Fairlawn’s gates. Just as she would have given anything for the people she so desperately missed to be there. Every moment she spent in that camp back in Citrine was like walking through hell. Now the memory, the safety of the past, felt like heaven compared to the dire uncertainty of the future …

… drawing closer with each passing breath.

Isabelle narrowed her eyes, cigarette rising like a scarlet firefly to her mouth. Children were shouting and playing, and she leaned back into the curve of the bench, letting the sound wash over her with the breeze.

Wind the clock, wind the clock went the jump-rope rhymes, little voices fading one by one with the last embers of dusk. She looked at them the same way she looked at the poison between her fingers – with a sense of dread.

Bad habits, she could still hear her father say. Like old friends come to kill you in the dark.

Yeah, well … Isabelle thought and almost said out loud. Maybe none of it means a damn thing.

After all, he also used to say: History is a sketchbook, and she had often wondered if that had contributed to her love of drawing in some subconscious way.

She shook her head and sat up, eyes sparkling in the flare of crimson ash as she tilted her head and crossed her legs. “Pretty damn,” she mocked, voice absurdly deep.

“Isabelle?” a voice replied, and the Outrider turned to the shadows. She didn’t say anything, she just glanced down and to the side with a peculiar look on her face, as someone trying not to laugh might do. It was a silent sentiment exchanged and Cleo got it right away. “Isabelle,” she blurted again, but then paused and cleared her throat. “Outrider Tala—.”

"Nope, you were right the first time," Isabelle said. She was back to staring straight ahead and brought the cigarette a little closer to her lips.

Cleo cleared her throat yet again, a nervous tick that was very familiar in moments like these.

"Outrider Avery ... Relic ... and Mr. Foy sent me to find you. They're waiting for us at Queen’s Gate, near the Fairlawn Bazaar."

"Mm," Isabelle mused. The ash flared like a firefly as she expelled a thin stream of smoke through her lips. "Okay," she said, and at last turned her head to look at her. "But there's something I wanna do first. Come on."

Cleo watched as her hero rose from the bench, dropped the cigarette to the ground and stepped on it. After days of getting to know her on the road, there was indeed a familiarity that had grown between them, she felt it, appreciated it, and yet it didn't seem real somehow. Isabelle didn’t seem real. She was more like the embodiment of an idea — a walking, talking projection of everything she wanted to be.

"W ... Well, Gabriel was rather insistent ..." Cleo stammered as Isabelle came towards her, sketchbook under her arm. She fought the urge to clear her throat again. "I mean … he … I was supposed to find you and—"

"They'll wait for us, I promise," Isabelle said with a smile. She touched Cleo lightly on her shoulder as she passed, and the younger woman could have sworn she felt a charge of some kind shoot down her arm to her fingers. "Come on, senator. Let's walk."

For a moment, Cleo only stared at her idol's back, and that moment seemed to last forever. But then she was jogging, as if someone else were in control of her legs.

"Still having those nightmares?" Isabelle asked as soon as she felt Cleo beside her.

"Sometimes," she admitted, breathing heavier with the exertion of catching up.

"Have one last night?"

Cleo sighed.


"What was it about?"

She hesitated, opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

Isabelle spared a quick glance.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of," she said. "Tell me."

Cleo pursed her lips and sighed again. Had she been standing still, she would have bounced a little in place.

"Same as always. One minute I'm walking … or doing something else, I don’t know … and the next everything goes black and I'm falling." As someone was passing by, she lowered her head and her voice, as if someone might overhear her. "Always falling."

They continued to walk and the surroundings grew more familiar. Cleo had once taken this very same route to surprise Malcolm at the Fairlawn Memorial.

"You do what I told you to?"

"Close my eyes real tight?"




Cleo frowned.

"It didn't work."

Isabelle stopped so abruptly that Cleo actually took several more steps before she realized and had to come back. When she was directly beside the Outrider again, she expected her to say something immediately, or at least give some indication as to why she had stopped. But all Isabelle did was stare.

The abruptness with which they stopped was causing quite a few people to have to walk around them, and they were standing in the middle of the street. And what was more, some of the passers by had begun recognizing the famous Outrider, and their whispers and mumbling started rising up around them like a muted tide — more of a feeling ... a buzz of sensations than actual noise.

It was this attention, as well as the awkwardness of Isabelle's silence, that caused Cleo to look down and away.

But then Isabelle made a clicking noise that brought her eyes back to her.

"You know where we are?"

Cleo looked up and down the street, first in the direction of where they’d been staying — the Red Lion Inn — then back toward the Queen’s Gate, which was the direction they should have been walking. When she looked back to Isabelle, it was as if the Outrider was protected by a shield from everything around her. Her singular focus was on Cleo. She raised her arm, a bracelet jingling with the action, and she pointed over the senator’s shoulder.

When Cleo turned, she saw a limestone amphitheater. There were a few people, mostly couples she noticed, sitting on the stone benches. But there was nothing on the stage, just a giant potted plant, a prop perhaps from a previous show.

"Nope," she heard Isabelle's voice behind her. "Past the stage, to the field. That’s where I gave my first major speech when I was younger than you."

"Yeah, I know," Cleo said, a little surprised she hadn't recognized where they were before now. "The Fortresses into Courthouses speech." She thought about mentioning that it was required reading at the Apprentice Legislature, but refrained.

"Every night before that speech, for a month, I would wake up in a cold sweat. And when I was awake, my hands would shake just thinking about it."

Cleo nodded.

"Because you were the first woman Outrider prospect in over a century?"

Isabelle made a dismissive expression that could best be described as squinting with one side of her face.

"What? Why would that be— No," she said after smacking her lips. "Because I hate public speaking. Speaking to large crowds, especially. You think I’ve always wanted this?"

Cleo spoke without even realizing it.

"I ..."

"I didn't. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was draw. It was like I couldn't turn my mind off. Everywhere I went, everything I did, I found inspiration. I had an undying love for sketchbooks," she lifted her hand to motion at the one she was holding. "And notebooks. I'd write down my experiences, my thoughts, my emotions, and my ideas."

"I'm ... I'm not sure why you're telling me this."

"Because the point I’m making is I wasn't born an Outrider of Veil'driel. I became this." She nodded over Cleo's shoulder toward the field, but this time neither turned toward it. "Actually giving that speech was nothing compared to the countless moments, the sleepless nights I spent obsessively worrying about it. If you want to understand your nightmares ... I mean really understand them, then pay attention to the words you use to describe them. The way you describe how they make you feel." When Cleo tried to look away, Isabelle placed her hand on one of her shoulders and rested her forearm on the other so she could still hold her sketchbook. "There is no difference in the body’s reaction to being nervous and being excited. The only difference is the lens your mind filters it through. Once you become aware of that fact, you can accomplish anything.”

Cleo looked lost and mystified for a moment.

“You make not being afraid sound so easy,” she said.

“It’s the farthest thing from easy. But if you remember nothing else I’ve told you, remember this: Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision. And confidence comes with time and experience. Things like anxiety and doubt are only growing pains on the way to getting there." Cleo nodded, but when she turned her face enough for Isabelle to see it, she wore an expression the Outrider did not expect: Cleo was fighting back a smile. "What?" Isabelle asked, amused and surprised to be.

"Nothing," Cleo said quietly, still avoiding making eye contact.

"What?" Isabelle pressed.

"Nothing," Cleo said, stronger this time and with more of that confidence Isabelle had been talking about. "Seriously, it’s nothing, it's stupid.” She was fully smiling now, and brushed her blonde hair behind her ear.

"Cleo," Isabelle said, narrowing her eyes. "We're not moving until you tell me. So you might as well—"

"Okay, okay," she said. Collecting herself, she looked into Isabelle's eyes. She cleared her throat again but it was more toward centering herself than that nervous tick. "They say that's the night you first met. When you gave that speech at the Harvest Festival, that was the night you met Jace."

The tension left Isabelle's body. She had known Cleo was hiding something, and was relieved at how trivial it was. And she lowered her arms to her sides.

"Mm," she mused, lowering her arms to her sides. "Well they would be wrong." Cleo's face grew serious again and she nodded, but Isabelle went on before the transition to insecure melancholy took hold. "It was the first time he saw me. But we didn't meet that night.”

Cleo's body steadied. There was no sign of the fidgety, nervous energy. Her demeanor was strong and true, and the glimpse of the confident senator she could one day be was brought to bear.

"Are you worried about him?" she asked without thinking.

And now it was Isabelle who seemed distracted.

"No," she said, clearly lying, and then she took a step closer to the amphitheater where the couples were watching the empty stage, a play put on by ghosts. "The boy can take care of himself." She was trying to sound dismissive, confident, but in truth, she was feeling like that girl who was dreading giving her speech. "Besides ..." she went on. "I know he's okay ... I can feel it."

Cleo's eyes widened a little, and it was like the confirmation of everything she imagined. The stories about them were real!

"Really?" she asked, enthralled.

Isabelle smiled. She let the moment hang in the warm breeze with the fireflies and sound of crickets. Just then, music began to play distantly on the edge of their senses, like the chorus of a past production playing out on the empty stage.

"No," she finally said, tapping her sketchbook against Cleo's side. And with that she was walking again. "Come on.”

This time, Cleo never hesitated, and walking briskly beside the Outrider they left the ampitheater behind.

Divider (2)

Relic was leaning against the stone wall within the arch of Fairlawn’s Main Gate, staring at Westwood Forest as the sun slipped below the horizon. There was something very familiar about this, a feeling of coming full circle, and if he tried hard enough, he could imagine he was back in time. That Caulurn was out there walking on the Tenzan Plains, Marcus White and Damien Calloway were up in their watchtower, and Cedwyn was walking around somewhere out of sight, but never out of mind.

The forest was lush with summer foliage now, but like an enemy wearing a different mask, the feeling was the same. It stared at him, saw deep into him. It saw his doubt, his fear, his confusion.

And if Relic closed his eyes he could see the Night Mare fleeing riderless and panicked from the sylvan shadows. He could feel the heat of the comets.

And that’s what he did. He closed his eyes.

And let the sounds, and feel, of his surroundings consume him.

Refugees from the Tri-State were filtering daily into Fairlawn City. They knew what was coming. They had known it for months, despite the denial, perhaps willful, of the Veil'driel Parliament.

A warm breeze brushed past him and he sighed, eyes still closed.

Could it really be Peridot already?

How could it have only been 9 months since he first stared out at Westwood, exactly as he was doing now?

9 months ...

I got boots older than—

But when his eyes opened and he turned, Caulurn wasn’t there. No one was. Not his cavalry legion, not Arthur Sayre or the Unicorn Youth Brigade. Jace wasn't off somewhere about to ride the gauntlet. He was alone. Even in a sea of activity.

No one was watching over them from a hill. No one would be ordering him into the shadows of Westwood, and yet he would be going there just the same.

Those days of endless waiting in the cold on the Tenzan Plains, tortured by the shadows of that forest were hell. Helpless in the face of those comets overhead, the scars of which were still evident in the city all around him, and on his psyche as well.

But there was a part of the Outrider, even if it was a barely conscious part, that found himself longing for those days as he stood in that archway. Because hindsight provided an ending to that horrific experience.

That's what made the past safe.

It was kept in stasis.

But it was also dead. And as the shadows of Westwood stretched toward him like the fingers of a phantom's glove, it was the future, not the past, reaching out. It was hungry and tired of waiting. It was here and he would be face it one way or the other.

Waiting is the hardest part ...

Relic didn't realize he had said it out loud, and his mumbling had earned a confused glance from the light-keeper as he lit the massive torches in the arch. The red-orange glow of flame and purple-black shadows began their ceaseless dance in the arch called Queen's Gate, and it was just then that he realized he didn't actually know why it was called that. It was one of the few things he didn't know about Fairlawn City, and now that itch of obsession, that need to know crept into him.

That nagging—

"Zelda Sayre,” said Gabriel Foy, having come up quietly beside him. “The last Queen of Veil'driel, she died here. Refusing to retreat any further than the spot on which this wall now stands. At least, that’s the legend. Wasn’t a queen at all, but an empress of course. Didn’t really die here, either. But no matter.”

“No matter?”

Gabriel shrugged.

“Stories upon stories become legend, young one, and history is the myth people choose to believe."

"Uh-huh. How do you always know what I'm—"

"A mystery," Foy said, seeming distracted. “Just a mystery best left mysterious.”

Relic sighed and rolled his eyes, having grown used to that kind of response in the passing days.

"Where’ve you been?"

Foy motioned past the windowless carriage, in the direction of the Fairlawn Bazaar.

"Had a bit of business with the bowyer," he said.

When Relic looked away from the merchant, back to Foy, he saw that he was holding a horn. He also knew he had seen it before, knew it immediately with the same shock as biting one’s tongue. He could have sworn ... he knew he had seen it before, like something out of a dream. Another mystery best left mysterious.

“What is that?” the Outrider managed.

"This here? Why, it’s known in certain circles as the Horn of Cambria."

"And what do you call it?" Relic asked, still spacey.

"A precaution," Foy answered without hesitation. "An ancient reset of sorts that I hope will prove unnecessary this time and go around. Alas, it is a precaution nonetheless."

"I feel like I've seen it before. But I can't ... I don't know from where, though."

Gabriel took out his corncob pipe and set about lighting it.

"You will, Avery. In time." Shaking out the match and squinting one eye against the smoke, he smiled. "No pun intended, of course."

Relic sighed again, as involuntary an action as he ever committed.

"Luna Scarlet's gonna be bright tonight," he said, staring up into the same sky he had once watched the comets streak across. Gabriel only nodded, seeming unaffected, which was right in line with his character, Relic thought. "You know what that means, right?"

Gabriel toked the pipe, and now he was the one who leaned against the wall, replacing Relic who was now standing upright.

"I know what you think it means."

"The Luna Scarlet Monks believed it was an omen of-—"

Another carriage of refugees from the provinces rumbled past them, on through the archway, and Relic lost his thought. But as he turned back to Foy, he found the old man staring at him; a strange whisper of a smile on his lips as he brought the pipe stem out from between his teeth.

“Scholars would tell you it’s because Luna Scarlet is in a constant state of Lunar Eclipse. Which is a fine forensic description if I do say so myself. And I do. But it isn’t the mechanical logistics I’m interested in at the moment, and the moment’s all we got. Instead I have a thing or two to ask about a thing or two regarding a certain nightmare. Recurring, I gather."

"What are you talking about?"

Sometimes Relic thought he should just make a sign with that question on it, so he could hold it up to Foy every 10 minutes or so.

"I'm certain you know. A child running into Westwood. You and Jace chasing after?"

Relic looked back to Westwood Forest, the phantom gauntlet having reached all the way to the city. To him.

"That isn't just a nightmare," Relic said, sounding distant. "That really happened."

"Are we sure about that?"

"I ..." Relic closed his eyes again, listening to the crickets as a flash of heat lightning lit the sky over the trees, outlining their silvan silhouette as if the forest had taken a breath. "I don't ..."

"Why don't you tell me about it? Specifically about who you two encounter in those woods when it happens."

Relic opened his eyes, moving to the opposite side of the arch Foy was leaning against and doing the same himself as if a mirrored reflection of the man.

"Is there time?"

"Well, that's always the question, isn't it?" He nodded to Relic's watch chain.

Avery picked the watch out of his pocket and glanced at it:


"Cleo and Isabelle will be back any minute," he said.

Gabriel smoked and stared quietly straight ahead, across the Tenzan Plains and into Westwood Forest. In fact, he could see it so clearly under the bright crimson glow of Luna Scarlet, that it could have been directly beside him.

"No," he said. "They don't come straight here. They make a stop first."

Relic crossed his arms, but remained motionless otherwise. He was also looking at Gabriel again.


"They're going to make a stop first. Now about this memory-nightmare of yours ... The night of Isabelle's speech if memory serves ..."

Relic let the watch slide down his hand, guiding it back into his pocket, thinking about his father as he did so.

Another flash of heat lightning and Westwood sighed with him.

Luna Scarlet blazed overhead and the skeletal shadow-fingers overtook the city completely. He thought of his nightmare and every detail came into focus with the terrifying effortlessness he had grown accustomed to. It was the first night he had met Jace. Isabelle was giving her speech, and one of the monks looked Jace in the eyes. He could see the ceremony Creed had since outlawed. The Harvest Festival could have been happening at that very moment.

He felt transported back to the past, a past clouded by the same haziness that clouded memory and dreams. He felt like he was out of his body, but he was still standing in the Queen’s Gate Archway. The Queen who was really an empress. As he basked in the island of torchlight, his own private atom made of lightning and fire.

Divider (2)

"Yeah, but hold on," Cleo was saying as they walked. "Mirror Lake is a real place. Like it's actually a town, I've been there."

"It's both."

Cleo huffed out a breath but she was focused.

"But that's why you needed my mirror?"


Cleo was clearly about to ask another question when she realized the Outrider had slowed, and when she looked forward, the Fairlawn monument looked over them.

Isabelle stopped to take it in before taking a step forward to touch it, her eyes fluttering shut as if that physical contact brought her closer to the names.

"To be fair," Isabelle whispered, sounding more like she was talking to herself than anyone else. "I'm not the expert. I was just following his lead.” She kneeled and touched her forehead to the stone. “Like with so many other things, right bud?”

She was oblivious to the throng descending upon them, and that she had become the center of attention to a crescent semi-circle of bystanders. Cleo, however, was almost hyper aware of the situation, and just then her attention was drawn to a young mother who was pointing at the Outrider, directing her small son’s attention and mouthing: Isabelle Talabray.

Isabelle touched the blanket of Lunar Roses scattered all around the monument’s base.

"It would have been his birthday next week," she said, the sound of her voice bringing Cleo’s attention back to her. "We've all missed birthdays, I guess. Even those of us still here."

"He was a great man," Cleo said, saying it out without thinking.

Isabelle brought the sketchbook out from under her arm and ripped out a blank piece of paper. Then she slipped out a sliver of charcoal from its binding to make a rubbing of the name she had knelt before.

Cleo watched as the black spelled out:


"He was okay," Isabelle said as she stood, sniffing and wiping the corner of her eye as she did so.

It wasn’t until she turned to face Cleo fully that she noticed all the attention, and the speed with which she transitioned into a role was an impressive thing to behold. Cleo had gotten to o ow her well enough in the days it to you teach Fairlawn to know that it was just an act, but somehow that made it more amazing. To be able to pivot so seamlessly like that was something that seemed, to the young senator, like an insurmountable feat.

Vulnerable one moment. Untouchable, Fallen Angel the next.

And yes, it was a role, but there was nothing phony about it. It was about channeling emotions and instinct in a different way. It was about being inspirational and solid and it was still her.

And yet … Not-her.

It was more about wearing a mantle of responsibility. About understanding that role and embracing it. And she was doing it in the same city she had done so years before. Only the stage was different.

As Cleo watched her. interact with the crowd, smiling that gorgeous smile and shaking hands, she was in awe. She imagined her wading through the same sea of people after having given that wonderful speech. To look at her now, one would never suspect she was the slightest bit uncomfortable with who she was. The Outrider was centered and beautiful and strong. She was perfect.

When Isabelle reached the mother who had pointed her out to her son, she leaned forward and beamed at him.

“Ooh, and what is your name?” she asked the boy, eyes now level to his. He couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8-years-old.

“Chase,” he said as if he were answering a question, and he exchanged a brief glance with his mother as if to confirm he had answered correctly. Isabelle and the mother exchanged an amused glance at this as well, and then Isabelle’s eyes were back on the child.

“That’s a really good name,” she said.

“Thank you.”

Isabelle smiled as she rose to full height, motioning for Cleo to come over.

“You’re welcome.”

As Cleo came to her side, the boy’s voice drifted up to them again, and judging from Isabelle’s expression, she thought it a welcome surprise.

"Do you know why they use Lunar Roses for the monument?" he asked.

Of course she did.

But a baffled, exaggerated expression of confusion swept across her face as she crouched down to meet his eyes once again.

"No," Isabelle said. “But I sure wish there was someone here who could tell me."

Chase started twisting slightly from side to side, like a top being turned back and forth.

Cleo sheepishly recognized that same nervous energy in herself, and the thought drew her attention toward Calafree Square and the roof of the Magistrate House.

The boy had his thumbnail in his mouth, but after glancing up at his mother for some encouragement, he looked back to Isabelle. And when he spoke again, it brought Cleo’s eyes back to him, along with, she noticed, the rest of the silent crowd now completely enthralled.

"It's because they grow and flourish in every season," Chase said. "Like the memories of those we've lost."

An approving chorus of expression rose up like a melodic hum from all those gathered around, some even laughed, as much for the child’s cuteness as the sentiment expressed.

Isabelle never looked away, and that energy at her back and around her seemed only to strengthen her reaction.

"Are you serious?" she asked, mouth gaping open. "Oh my goodness, thank you, now I know!" She opened her book and carefully ripped out a drawing she had done of the camp, the one she had barely completed the last time she had been to this city. "And this is for you," she said. Then she reached back to her back pocket and pulled out a leather shooting glove. “And so is this,” she said, handing it over.

There were several oohs and ahhs at this gesture, but the boys’ attention was completely on the drawing.

"What is it?" Chase asked, the straightforwardness of genuine curiosity lending him confidence.

"It's the camp outside these walls, the last time Fairlawn was in trouble."

"When the comets came?"

"That's right."

"An orange one almost hit our house, but it didn't. But it did hit the bakery down the street. And we couldn't get the bread we like or the cookies I like that are shaped like windmills. I can get them again now though because they rebuilt it fast."

He glanced up to his mom again as if to verify what he had said.

And his mother smiled again, but this time there was an underlying sadness in it. A sadness Isabelle detected.

"Well, that sounds like quite the adventure," she said, standing up. "You must be a very brave boy." Now she looked around to address the crowd directly. "This is an entire city of brave people," she said. "I know you're all afraid. I know you're uncertain of what's to come. I know you've heard the rumors of the approaching army from those who have come from the Tri -State. You should know that Burnhardt Stone’s protest, and the envoy you sent with him, reached Telminster. And after that a new, secret plan was conceived. I’m on that mission." She turned down to the boy. "Do you remember what stopped the comets?"

"The Outriders!" the little boy said.

And there were cheers at that.

"That's right! And we're gonna do it again, I promise you!” She turned toward Cleo who felt the weight of Isabelle's unexpected affection, like the air wrapped around her like a cloak, crushing her movement and thought. "And with your permission, senator, should we set about it?"

There was just the flash of a meaningful exchange between Isabelle's blue eyes and Cleo’s green ones. The cloak seemed to lower and she focused.

"Yes, Outrider Talabray," Cleo said, surprised by the sound and feel of the strength in her voice. "I believe the time has come for us to embark." Isabelle bowed her head in service, and a rush of energy rushed out of her being that she turned back out on the crowd. "Your concerns have not fallen on deaf ears!" she yelled and when all eyes went to her, Isabelle could afford the expression that betrayed surprise. "There is a plan in place, led by Parliament and the Outriders of Veil'driel. We won't let you down. The repairs from the last crisis will not be in vain. Have hope, and hold to that hope!"

The crowd cheered louder than before, so loud that it echoed up and down the stone streets. The surprised look on Isabelle's face transitioned to approval, even pride. And then they started back toward the gate, amidst that deafening throng, in the direction from which they had come. Amidst the ruckus, the boy’s mother mouthed thank you before they left, and Chase held up Isabelle’s drawing of the camp as if he could jump into it and into the past.

When they were far enough away, Isabelle turned slightly and whispered: "Have hope and hold to that hope?"

Cleo bit her lip.

"Too much?"

"No, I liked it," Isabelle said. And she noticed Cleo was looking toward Calafree Square and the Magistrate House again. "Just remember that confidence when you see him again."

"Oh," Cleo said. "I ... I wasn't even—"

"Yeah, I know. I wasn’t even-ing long before you, believe me. And I was better at it, too. Just remember … it's only being pensive when they do it. Comes off as pining when we do." She looked down at the paper in her hand. "Double standards are like that."

Cleo seemed to be amused.

"Um. I'll remember?" she said with a laugh, and they were walking again.

As they got farther away, they left the lights of the monument for the dimmer, more regular streetlight, and through that more subdued lighting, Isabelle noticed the brightness of Luna Scarlet. Still, she didn't allow herself to contemplate what it meant. If, indeed, it meant anything at all.

As they passed the bench where Cleo found Isabelle, neither noticed the Mazhiran Hunting Cat jump down and watch them with interest.

"Alright, guiding light," Isabelle said. Her sketchbook was back under her arm, and she folded the torn out page, kissing it before tucking it back in her pocket. "Let’s see what happens when we dare to follow."

Divider (2)

"You don't look convinced.”

"Should I be?"

Gabriel shrugged.

"Once you believe, the signs are everywhere."

Relic rubbed a hand across his chin and looked around.

"Yeah, well ... that's only part of it."


"I don't like sending our horses ahead of us with strangers," he admitted, and his tone might as well have added: to say the least.

"Ah, yes. On that one you'll have to trust me," Foy said. "Irick knows how to handle them, but since the Crossroads were reopened, it's not just any animal that can pass through Westwood. They would go mad in the hands of the uninitiated. The unwary, one might say. And I do."

"Nobody knows our horses the way we do," Relic said.

"Normally that would be true. But things are in motion now beyond common understanding."

Relic rolled his eyes as he took out his pocket watch again. It felt like they had been waiting and talking forever.


"Where the hell are they?" he said, letting go of the timepiece.

"Right behind you," Isabelle said as she came up beside them.

Relic thought she had a pep in her step, and Cleo was smiling at something the Outrider had recently said to her. And it wasn't until they had seemed to just suddenly appear like that, that Avery realized how enthralled he had been in his conversation with Gabriel.

"Nice of you to join us," he said to Isabelle as she brushed passed him to climb into the carriage. It was heavily laden with giant trunks and other baggage, having been reloaded, with no small amount of effort, in preparation for setting out from the inn this very night. Just as he had not at all sensed their approach, Relic also could not recall when he and Foy had gravitated back towards the wagon, but now the present was catching back up to him.

"Waiting on you no, handsome," Isabelle replied.

And then winked at him, closing the door behind her.

"If I didn't know better, I'd say they were a little bit drunk," Foy observed.

"They're not drunk," Relic said with certainty, but then his tone wavered as he climbed up to join Foy in the driver's seat. "I mean ... they're probably not."

Foy smiled and snapped the reins, his corncob pipe stowed away again. The carriage lurched forward with a jerk, but then the pace stabilized and grew steady. Foy exchanged a final glance with the bowyer as they passed through Queen's Gate, and Relic noticed a long coil of rope sitting between them, picked up, he assumed, from the Fairlawn Bazaar as well.

A moment later and they were out of the city.

Luna Scarlet blazed overhead, splashing the Tenzan Plains in crimson.

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"Can I ask you a question?" Cleo asked as the carriage rumbled forward.


"How did you know I was thinking of Malcolm on that first night at the Communion Vault? When Gabriel first arrived to take us to Fairlawn?"

Isabelle smiled.

"Because I recognized that look."

"What look?"

"There's a look, young one."

Isabelle appeared distracted as she reached up to touch the carriage's wall, which flashed white and became transparent as she did so. She found herself looking at where the old camp had been. And hill where the Command Tent used to be.

"And what about you, did you ever have it? The first time you saw Jace?"

Isabelle turned away from the window and laid the sketchbook on the bench between them.

"You see how you're asking me so much about Jace? You were doing that earlier, too."

Cleo looked away.


Isabelle placed a hand on her shoulder, bringing her eyes back.

"It's because you're in love with him."

Cleo gasped.

"Isabelle, I assure you, I'm ... I don't even ... I couldn't possibly—"

"Not Jace, stupid. You know who I'm talking about. Sooner you admit that to yourself — and to him — the easier things will be. He won't do it first."

"Why not?" she asked, letting the pretense fall away.

"Because he's too proud ... and stupid, so you two should get along great." Cleo smiled at this as Isabelle went on. "Don't ever run from reality. Ever. No matter how scary it is."

Cleo nodded.

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Relic glanced back at the sound of Cleo laughing, but was facing forward again as the carriage swung parallel to the wood line of Westwood Forest. The foliage was so close he could have touched the green leaves as they passed. It hardly felt different from that night, and yet ...

"It's good to hear her laugh," Gabriel said. "They're good for each other, those two."

"Yeah," Relic agreed.

Foy noticed the Outrider looking absently into Westwood.

"Getting reacquainted, are we?"

"You could say that, I guess," Relic said. "The last time I was here I was almost killed, and had my mind shredded." Foy was focused completely on driving again. Or at least he appeared to be. "I saw you that night. As a young boy. Same as in the well in Sandia." Relic expected this to be a profound admission, and it had taken courage to say it. But Gabriel barely reacted. "Was that real?"

"People see what they will, Outrider. Best left at that."

"What does that mean?"

"It means deception requires complicity, however subconscious."

"So you're saying I was deceived?"

"I'm saying we want to be." Relic looked forward, looked away, and then back to Foy. "And your mind was never going to be shredded. We would have never let that happen."

"So it was you. You and Jaden ... you helped me."

"I suppose, in a manner of three dimensional speaking, yes. Because you were capable of being helped." The entrance to the Fairlawn Thoroughfare came into view. "People like you can drink the water."

Relic realized his hands were shaking, and then, as if on cue, he caught sight of where Jace had almost died in Isabelle's arms. And he wondered if she was looking at the same spot, thinking of that same night. That same experience.

But when he heard Cleo laugh again, he figured not. And this time he smiled as well, enjoying the break in tension.

The carriage started its turn onto the Fairlawn Thoroughfare, and all of the road lamps were shining brightly. But there was no one else on the road. Relic took notice of a discolored, square-shaped patch of earth where it looked as if the foundation of a structure had been for a very long time, and now wasn't. But there was no evidence of a demolition or deconstruction of any kind. It was as if whatever had been there had merely ... vanished.

"Is that the shack where Cedwyn and Isabelle used the mirrors to enter Mirror Lake and—"

"It is."

"But how did it ... Where did it go?"

"Had another purpose to serve. On the Ezru Plains. To provide a bow for Malcolm Hawkins if memory serves. And in this case it does."

"But ..."

"I've always thought of archery as stabbing at a distance. Wouldn't you agree?"

There was so much Relic wanted to ask and he didn't know where to being. Not just about the shack but the carriage and then night. They were immersed in Westwood again. Enveloped in it again, and it came back together in his mind. It felt like perfect timing, it felt meant to be, and then his mind seized on the sight of the abandoned railroad buildings destroyed during the Tri-State Civil War and he wanted to ask about those too. It made him think of Arthur Sayre and—

"Wait a minute. Stop. You hear that?"

Westwood looked serene as they started onto the Thoroughfare, but Foy's reaction still had Relic's hands shooting down to his crossbows. Scanning the trees and shadows that all at once seemed more foreboding and threatening, as if the past were coming alive.

"No," Relic admitted. "What is it?"

Foy looked down from where he had been looking intently, into the trees.

"The present," he said, relaxing feigned tension in his shoulders. "Now what say we stay in it for awhile?"

Relic frowned as his hands came away from his weapons.

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"Then you say ... so are you gonna kiss me or not?"

"I don't think—"

Before Cleo could finish her thought, Isabelle held up a finger and her face grew suddenly my serious. She looked down to the floor of the carriage as she sensed it slowing, and then it stopped completely.

“What is it?”

“Don’t know yet.” The Outrider was looking through the transparent panel for any idea, but there was only trees and darkness. The lanterns were lit, but there was no one else out on the road. Everything appeared tranquil, but there was an undercurrent of uneasiness about it that Isabelle knew all too well. She heard mumbling between Foy and Relic, but it was too muffled to make out the words. Still, she knew Relic's tone well enough to be on full alert. "Do me a favor, senator, hand me those." Cleo reached her and handed her the short swords Isabelle had placed on the seat next to her sketchbook. And then she maneuvered to put the criss-crossed sheathes on her back. "Thank you."

Cleo couldn’t help but be impressed by her. Even as she was afraid, she felt courage as if absorbing it from the presence she was in. They felt the carriage rock slightly as Foy and Relic dismounted. And then their voices grew more feint.

"Do you think it's highwaymen or something?" Cleo asked.

"I don't know," Isabelle said, listening intently. Then quickly added: "Probably not," while paying more attention to Cleo.

And in that moment Cleo was struck by the sensation that she was now the crowd in Fairlawn:

The audience to the role.

What was even more confusing to her was that, even being aware of it, it still worked.

And then in that moment the carriage door flung open, startling them both. And in a flash, Isabelle had drawn her crossbows, pointing them at a startled Relican Avery who held out his hands.

"Woah! Easy! he yelled. And then gushed out a sigh of relief as she lowered her weapons. "Damn, girl."

"Maybe knock next time, genius,” Isabelle said, rolling her eyes with the same relief Relic was feeling. “What’s going on?"

"You're gonna wanna take a look at this."

Cleo slid towards the door as well.

"I'd feel more comfortable if you would wait here, senator," Relic said. "At least until we have a better handle on what this might be."

Cleo said nothing, just slumped back.

When Relic walked away, Isabelle reached for her crossbow bolt belts laid neatly on top of each other on the carriage floor. As she started the task of putting them on, she winked at Cleo.

"Probably should have done this before we got here.” She smiled as she finished fastening the last belt around her waist. “Don't tell anybody."

Cleo smiled back, but her eyes didn’t.

“I hate moments like these. I feel so useless.”

"Listen to me," Isabelle said. She took a full step closer to the wagon. "Are you listening?"


"You don't need to have a sword in your hand to be powerful.” Isabelle ever-so-slightly lowered her chin. "There's a quiet strength that has nothing to do with weapons or fighting. You are gifted and brilliant, and I know this because you remind me of me ... and I'm gifted and brilliant."

Cleo laughed a little and nodded.

"Iz!" Relic's voice came from down the road, and Isabelle looked to her right, perfectly framed in the open carriage doorway. She held up a finger and mouthed: "one second," before turning back to Cleo and unsheathing one of her short swords to hand it over.

"That said," she began. "Stab anything that comes in here that isn't me or Relic.” She let go of the blade so that Cleo was the only one holding it. “And maybe not Gabriel, either. But I mean, accidents will happen.”

Cleo laughed again. Loudly this time.

“Got it,” she said.

The Outrider reached up and closed the door, double tapping it with the tips of her fingers so it became transparent as she did so.

"I'll be right back."

Cleo sighed, cleared her throat, and picked up Isabelle's sketchbook, thumbing through it more as a means of distracting herself more than anything else.

Her flipping through pages stopped as she came across one particular drawing she was shocked to see. It was dated 9 months prior, almost to the day: Citrine 5. It was a sketch, done in remarkable detail, of the brazier she used to stand behind to watch Malcolm take target practice. In the bottom left-hand corner, in Isabelle's flowing penmanship read the words: Shots Untaken.

Cleo looked up with a start, through the transparent door, overwhelmed by the realization that Isabelle had always been watching her, and closely. Closer than she could have ever imagined. Her idol had joined Gabriel and Relic, but she couldn't see what they were gathered around. One of the road-side lanterns illuminated the trio, but Relic was still holding an illumination crystal as he leaned over whatever they were examining. From this angle, Cleo could read Isabelle's lips in that light, asking: "What are we—"

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"—looking at?" Isabelle asked, looking down for the first time.

In the exact instant Isabelle had spoken those words, almost as if the words themselves had caused it, Relic felt a knot growing in his stomach. He had felt it before, and his hand dipped into his pocket to withdraw his pocket-watch.

He held it in his palms for a few seconds, but it was freezing cold. The illumination crystal he had been holding disappeared from his hand, and the note on the watch sounded bizarre. But familiar, and that familiarity allowed Relic to keep his focus.

Although that wrong sound burrowed into his skin.

In Relic’s mind, it sounded like blood drip-drip-dripping from the dead bodies, but he remembered thinking that once before.

And he was able to keep his focus.

With mounting dread, but dread quickly followed up by acceptance, he brought the watch’s face to his and splayed his fingers to confirm what he already knew—

It watch was ticking backwards.

It was a sound like unraveling—a sound that could only come from one place.

“Mirror Lake,” Isabelle said slowly, and when Relic turned to her he saw she was staring down at her hands.


Yes. That was the name – somehow, Relic was sure of it. Like last time. He pressed his hand closed again. Ten.

He would smash the watch and stop it. He wouldn’t go back there. But just as he thought so— Nine.

There was a tightness in his chest—


Followed by the sensation of being sucked through a straw made of blinding green light.

And when it faded Isabelle started laughing. She flexed her hands a few times and looked up into the woods again. The abandoned train depots she knew we’re crumbling and abandoned beyond, we’re hidden by the thick summer foliage, and she found herself thinking about how different things would be if those trains still existed and connected and …

All sound ceased completely. It was like being engulfed in a vacuum.

She screamed but nothing came out, confirming the suffocating silence that had descended on them like a shroud. But then she did hear something: Howling wind and then … wind chimes?

Her mind darted to thoughts of an abandoned storefront? And this made her think of Sandia. And then she was thinking of the abandoned train depots again.

Yeah … the train depots. Now train conductors knew how to keep time. Flawless time. And now the green leaves started shriveling and dying, falling off the branches as if she had been transported to the past, to autumn. She could actually see the abandoned buildings now. There was something both eerie and striking about abandoned places. Whether it was a train cemetery in Brevinda, a station off the Fairlawn Thoroughfare in Westwood Forest, or a village overtaken by sand dunes on the outskirts of Mazhira. Each location was a snapshot of history frozen in time.

A gust of icy wind swept across her, the feeling from a different time of year. The feeling of ... Citrine?

It carried the scent of the trees and jostled a row of crystal necklaces swaying from a propped up sign that appeared from thin air. Or maybe it was always there? At first, it was all curves and crescents that resolutely resisted her eyes.

But on the third try, she found she could read it:


Bad habits come back in the dark …

22 + 22 + 22 + 22 = 88

Isabelle bowed her head and tightly closed her eyes.

Cleo was right. It didn’t work.

The trees parted before her, forming a perfect path to the train depot, and the sign was placed perfectly beside it as if marking the way. Only it wasn’t abandoned anymore. The building was pristine.

It was a one story, rubble stone building with a hipped, green tiled roof. The roof featured broad, overhanging eaves. The windows had concrete lintels and sills; the oriel window on the south elevation had a dentilled wood cornice. The northeast corner of the station had been enclosed with concrete block, as had the center door on the north elevation. Buck's Skins, housed at the east end of the station, had an aluminum and glass storefront on the south facade. The—

Isabelle paused.

These were not her words, they weren’t her thoughts, They were … Relic’s. It even sounded like Relic’s voice saying them in her head. She looked down at her hands again but there was nothing in them.

Isabelle …

This is what it felt like to be in that abandoned supply depot with Cedwyn that night. When she had borrowed the mirror from Cleo to—

Isabelle, listen to my voice!

She looked up again and a light in the storefront popped on. As it did so it illuminated a beautiful set of wind chimes and the Outrider felt an irresistible urge to take her first steps down the path.

There was only one path.

For her, there only ever was.

“This is no place for me,” Isabelle told herself, and there was sound again when she said the words. In that moment of dissonance she was afraid.

Until Relic laid a hand on her shoulder.


“What!” she screamed, and her miniature crossbows were back in her hands when she looked back down to them. She realized she was sweating, and then saw the trees were back to normal before her, a wall of thick foliage and shadows.

She looked right and saw the wagon had vanished.

Foy was also gone, and then something Cedwyn once told her came inexplicably and unbidden into her mind:

A Mazhiran hunting cat can smell things that aren’t even real yet – things that only exist in potential.

“They also protect us during the night, so that no unwanted spirits enter our house or our room while we sleep,” Relic said. And he waited for Isabelle’s bleary eyes to meet his. “That's why they like to sleep in our bed. And if they think we're fine, they won't sleep with us.”

Isabelle opened her mouth to speak, but her throat was dry, as if she had been sleeping a very long time. She swallowed, cleared her throat, and slowly looked around again.

“How did you know what I was thinking about?” she asked.

"A mystery," Relic said, seeming distracted. “You with me now?”

“I think so. What happened?”

“You almost got a firsthand account of what happened to me with the gypsy wagon in Citrine.”

“But …” she was clearly disoriented, but she was also clearly intent on reorienting herself with every breath she took. “But what stopped me from—”

“Because I’ve been here, done this before. Along with your ability to stay in the present. So I need you to do that now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean we’re not out of the woods just yet, no pun intended. We’re still in between, I can feel it.”

“Okay.” Isabelle took a deep breath. “Yeah, okay, so what do we do?”

Relic knelt down, examining the ground beside Isabelle.

“Focus,” he said. “Focus only on what’s in front of us. Don’t think about anything else, that’s important.”


“Can you do that?”


“Can you?”

Isabelle shrugged.

“I don’t know. Maybe.” She crouched down beside Relic. “I guess we’ll find out.” And now she came full circle, back around to her original question.

“What are we looking at?”

“A skeleton,” Relic said, leaning over it for further inspection. “A bloody one.” Isabelle knelt down beside him. “Some of it’s still wet, but it smells rotten. The entire area does.”

The loud, strangely familiar screech of some far off, nocturnal bird called out from the trees.

Isabelle sighed at being spooked.

Relic glanced towards the trees with an annoyed expression.

“Damn that raven,” he said.

“How do you know it’s a raven?”

“I know.”

Their attention came back to the skeleton.

It was lying on its stomach, almost completely bare of flesh, and there was nothing where the head was meant to be. Someone had skinned whoever this was and then repositioned their skeleton neatly on the ground.

Relic was intrigued.

And Isabelle knew that look.

“What?” she asked. “You’re doing the face.”

“There’s something odd about this,” he said.

Isabelle crossed her arms and glanced around.

“Oh yeah, you think?”

Relic rose to his feet and stood away from the gruesome sight, curiosity keeping his stare. And this shift in vantage revealed something.

“Wait a minute,” he said, cocking his head before bending back down. “This isn’t human.”

“You sure?” Isabelle asked, reconsidering the remains. “Looks human to me.”

Relic nodded.

“Yeah, I’m sure. It’s the missing head.”

“Of course it is.”

Relic slid one of his short swords from its sheath behind his back and took to counting something near the neck, using the blade to do so.

“See? There’s something off here.” Relic's memories of Westwood, of that night and the first time he had felt this way, experienced this, continued to act like a shield against the sensations, preventing them from consuming him. As such, he maintained the wits to realize lingering here was unwise. However, he was also attempting to determine what kind of creature they were looking at. “There are quite a few animals with skeletal structures similar to humans,” he went on. “This could be a large cat, or …,” he paused, growing frustrated. It was right on the tip of his tongue. “I don’t know. Maybe a—”

Isabelle was on the verge of telling Relic to leave it when she happened to glance up and down the road. What she saw led her to stand completely upright, and her eyebrows rose simultaneously with her stance.

“A bear?”

Relic snapped.

“A bear. There ya go!” He looked up to Isabelle with a satisfied expression. “How’d you know that?”

When he saw the frozen expression on her face, Relic turned his head to follow her transfixed stare. He reached back and re-sheathed the short sword he was holding, then pulled his miniature crossbows from his belt as he rose to full height.

"Just a hunch," Isabelle said.

Relic was careful as he stood, cautious, seeming concerned about the effect any sudden movement might have on the horrific-looking scene before them.

Isabelle looked lost and mystified for a moment, then announced:

“Someone told me there were no bears in Westwood anymore. Hunted to extinction he said.”

Well then ... they would be wrong.

There was a man standing in their path, having apparently emerged from the shadows when Isabelle and Relic had stopped to assess their situation, and then the bones. Or maybe … maybe it had been lurking there all along, they’d just never noticed.

Have you ever heard of Papa Bones.

Relic narrowed his eyes.

Papa Bones, Papa Bones.

“They were hunted alright," he said, and he happened to look down to his partner's hands. “Why do you only have one glove?”

He takes all the children from their homes.

"Shush." Isabelle’s attention never wavered from the man in their path, and the breeze against her forehead burned cool.

From their homes.

At least, it appeared to be a man. But it was twice the height, smothered in a ragged, patchy cloak. One leg was bent at a grotesque angle as it stood there loose and relaxed, slouched to one side as if waiting to greet the travelers. Even in this threatening state of being in between realities, it may have seemed welcoming and sincere …

From their homes.

… if not for the bear head it was wearing as a mask.

“Welcome back to Westwood,” Relic said.

I went out to the hazel wood,

“Yeah,” Isabelle replied.

Because a fire was in my head.

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Chapter Ten  (E)
Welcome Back to Westwood
#2190672 by Dan Hiestand
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