Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 04
“Ready,” said Poplock.
Kyri looked around the large, rectangular room and saw Miri, Tobimar, and Lady Shae in combat poses. “Do you actually think he’s going to lunge out of the tube to kill us all?” she demanded, feeling a somewhat unreasonable annoyance at this suspicion. We don’t know it’s Rion, she reminded herself. It really can’t be him. Can it?
“Expect, no,” Hriista said from beside her. “Think it is a possibility not to be utterly discounted, yes. You yourself admit that you saw your brother killed, were present when your priest failed to keep him alive due to his soul being torn apart. It is, therefore, vanishingly unlikely that this is indeed your brother. It is thus rather more likely that this is some form of trap. I am still unclear as to what the nature and purpose of such a trap would be, and the fact that apparently this tube was present for well over a year prior to your arrival argues against it being a trap in the conventional sense. But such caution is wise, would you not agree?”
“Iâ€¦yes, I do,” she admitted reluctantly. She sighed and looked down at the shadowy face behind the glassy port of the tube. “What do I have to do?”
“If this is your brother, it is obviously best that you be the first person he sees,” Hiriista said. “By your account he was a formidable warrior, and awakening without warning to an unknown group of people could beâ€¦unfortunate for all concerned. Physically it appears that these tubes have provisions to keep the being within in good health for some indefinite time; we know that this should be the case as Zogen Josan was able to be retrieved and returned to duty as his living body relatively quickly without anyone noticing anything particularly odd. But I would still doubt that he is actually going to emerge with all faculties and physical capabilities at full strength.”
He pointed to a series of three gold and blue catches. “Release those three–first this one, then the one on the other side, then the third–and then you can lift the cover up. Poplock and I have performed all other preparations; you may proceed when you are ready.”
Kyri found herself hesitating, her fingers trembling as they rested on the first catch. Am I afraid of finding out it’s not him, or am I afraid of what it will mean if it is him? What will it mean if it is?
With an effort she banished the questions. They’ll be answered once I open this thing. With swift, precise motions, she unsnapped the catches, the smooth clack of their operation echoing around the laboratory that was currently being borrowed from one of Kaizatenzei’s best alchemists. Taking a breath, she threw the cover back.
The top of the casketlike tube was hinged in the vicinity of the figure’s feet. As soon as the cover had risen nearly vertical, it seemed to trigger something within; the cloudy liquid with its faint, sharp smell began to drain out the bottom of the tube, running swiftly towards the drain set in the floor. Slowly the liquid level dropped and the figure within was revealed; lighter-skinned than she, blond hair matted, and features she knew almost as well as her own. It’s Rion! Noâ€¦it’s Rion’s face, she corrected herself. I’ve heard it said that everyone has a double in some other town. Maybe this is Rion’s double, someone I’ve never met and never would have.
But the coincidence that this “double” would have been sealed in a tube “a year or two” ago–perhaps, even, the same time that Rion had died–how likely was that?
Liquid dribbled from the figure’s nose; a blue-green light shimmered from the sides of the tube and the liquid fountained from his nose; the chest suddenly rose and fell.
With abruptness that startled her, blue eyes snapped open and the figure half-sat up, a weak, pathetic scream wheezing from the mouth that was open in a horrified “O.” The eyes blinked, then focused on her. “K-Kyriâ€¦”
It was her brother’s voice, speaking her name. She couldn’t forget that, couldn’t possibly be mistaking it for any other voice. “R-Rion?”
He took a deep breath, then coughed, reached up a hand to grip her arm shakily, spoke, staring at her with horror still written across his face. “Theâ€¦Justiciarsâ€¦Kyri, they’re corruptâ€¦it was Thornfalcon, Kyri, Thornfalcon whoâ€¦”
His other hand moved to his stomach and froze. He tore his gaze from her and looked down, then back up in disbelief. “Whatâ€¦was it a nightmare? Iâ€¦”
She didn’t know what to say or how to respond. It sounded like Rion, it looked like Rion, it was saying what Rion would say if, somehow, he had been brought back from the moment of his death, yetâ€¦
In that moment it seemed that the young man became aware of the surroundings. “W-w-where am I?”
“You’re in the city of Valatar in the country of Kaizatenzei,” Miri said, apparently having decided at least for the moment that he wasn’t dangerous.
“What do you remember last?” Hiriista said.
Rion (Kyri couldn’t help but think of him as Rion now) blinked and his brow furrowed at the sight of the mazakh, but then he shrugged slowly. “Iâ€¦had finally found the proof I needed that the Justiciars were not what they seemed, and I was running home, when Thornfalcon caught up with me. We dueled, but he–”
His gaze snapped back to Kyri. “Kyri, he’s a monster, he’s not even human, I couldn’t beat him, even Myrionar’s power was–”
She found herself laying a hand on his arm. “Rion, it’s all right. It’s over. Thornfalcon’s dead.”
“Dead?” He stared with comical disbelief. “How?”
“I killed him myself. Though not without a lot of help.”
“Youâ€¦?” His eyes finally seemed to focus on what she was wearing, and the horror drained away, slowly replaced with dawning wonder. “Byâ€¦theâ€¦Balance. You? A Justiciar? My little sister, a Justiciar?” He started to rise, but his arms wouldn’t support him enough to let him stand. “Butâ€¦I don’t recognize that Raiment.”
“You found out the Justiciars were corrupt,” she said. “So once Myrionar answered my prayersâ€¦well, actually,” she blushed, remembering, “once Myrionar answered my demands, I had to go get the Spiritsmith to make uncorrupted Raiment.”
He burst out laughing, and it was Rion’s laugh–weak, interspersed with fits of coughing, but Rion’s laugh, oh, so very much. “You demanded something of Myrionar? And then went and found the Spiritsmith toâ€¦how long has it been?”
She thought back over what had happened: Rion’s funeral, packing and traveling over the Great Road to Zarathanton, confronting Myrionar in the Forest Sea, finding the Spiritsmith and gaining her Raimentâ€¦killing Mist Owl and Shrike and nearly being killed by Thornfalconâ€¦then all the terrible and wonderful adventures since that took them through Rivendream Pass and Kaizatenzei to where she sat nowâ€¦”Almost two years, Rion.”
“Two years?” He fell silent, staring first at her, then looking around the room, studying everyone and everything with the careful, considered gaze that she remembered so well. “Where is Urelle?”
A pang of worry that she had repressed for months resurfaced. “Iâ€¦I wish I knew for sure. We left Evanwyl–went to Zarathanton, andâ€¦well, after I was chosen and headed outâ€¦” she stopped. “Oh, gods, Rion, it’s too much to explain right now.”
“Especially,” said Tobimar, stepping up, “since we have much more important questions to be answered. I’m sorry, Kyri,” he said to her, and she could see his genuine sympathy, “but we can’t hold off on this.”
Rion raised an eyebrow, then glanced up. “I suppose you know what you are doing here. More than I do, at any rate. But could I get out of thisâ€¦elaborate coffin and get some clothes on?”
Miri burst out giggling. “Our apologies!” she said. “Poplock, could youâ€¦”
“No problem.” The little toad hopped onto the edge of the tube, Rion regarding him with bemusement, and did a mumbled gesture that caused a rainbow mist to march from Rion’s head to his toes, leaving him–and the interior of the casket–perfectly clean and dry. Hiriista handed Rion a robe. “That will do for now, I trust.”
“Sufficient to be acceptable, yes,” Rion agreed, and slipped it on and tied it before standing slowly up; he wavered and Kyri caught his elbow, steadying him. “I guess I am not entirely myself,” he muttered.
She guided him to a table on the other side of the room and let him sit down; the others followed and took their own seats around the table. She remained standing for a minute, worrying, before she forced herself to sit.
“Before we do anything else, I need to introduce you,” she said. “Rion, this is Tobimar Silverun, Seventh of Seven of Skysand. The Toad on his shoulder is Poplock Duckweed; together with another friend of theirs, Xavier Ross, they saved me from Thornfalcon’s trap and helped me finally kill him and wipe out the monsters he had brought into Evanwyl.”
Rion bowed from his waist. “Then both greetings and my thanks, Tobimar and Poplock, for helping my sister avenge our parents’ deaths–and I suppose my own–and making my country a cleaner place.”
“Believe me,” Poplock said, “it was our pleasure. Some people just need a lot of killing, and Thorny there, he was about top of the list.”
“Yes, he was,” Rion said, not even a trace of a smile visible.
“The mazakh with the magnificent crest is Hiriista, finest magewright in Kaizatenzei, and a wonderful companion to have on any journey.”
Hiriista shook his crest in pleased embarrassment as Rion acknowledged him.
“And this is Miri, Light of Kaizatenzei–that means one of their protectors and warriors, like the Justiciars back home–and one of my new and best friends.”
Miri nodded and blushed at Kyri’s praise, but Kyri felt it was important to emphasize her position both personal and professional. It couldn’t hurt to make sure that an ex-demon remembered why they decided to make that change, and more importantly would help prevent unfortunate reactions when they had to discuss her nature in front of Rion.
“Finally, this is Lady Shae, the Lady of Light, ruler of this country,”
For that Rion did rise and do a proper bow of respect. “You should have introduced her first, sister. Don’t you know etiquette at all?”
She giggled, and Shae laughed and responded, “Nay, young man, she introduced the saviors of my country first, and so I, being the ruler who made certainâ€¦errors that led to it being in danger in the first place, am truly the last that needed introduction.”
Rion looked at her with half-disbelieving eyes. “Savior of another country–that I never heard of–after managing to become a Justiciar and killing off Thornfalcon? You’ve been awfully busy, little sister.”
“Yes, she has,” Tobimar agreed. “But we have to turn to the more serious question of whether you have the right to call her ‘sister.'”
Rion’s head snapped around. “What?”
“Well, that was a little more blunt than I would have recommended putting it,” Poplock said with a kick of reproof to the blue-eyed Prince, “but, yes, basically. See, you died two years ago in front of your sister and that nice old priest Arbiter Kelsley, who practically killed himself trying to put your soul back together–and failed. You had your funeral and everything, and your body was there for it all. Soâ€¦how can you be here at all, and still be Rion Vantage?”
His wide-blue gaze returned to her, eyes now wide with shock. “Kyri? Is thisâ€¦true?”
“Yes,” she said, and restrained the impulse to comfort him. My heart thinks this is Rionâ€¦but my head can’t see how that’s possible.
“Well.” He sat in silence for a few moments. “I certainly see the problem,” he said finally. “If my body, or what’s left of it, is back in Evanwyl, and I died in front of Kyriâ€¦then I shouldn’t be here. But by the Balance I sure feel like Rion Vantage!”
Hiriista leaned forward. “You mentioned what happened to you, Rion–for I suppose that is the best name for us to use for now, provisionally. Think back. Think carefully. Tell us the details of your last thoughts, and I especially want you to pay attention to those which may seem nightmare or delirium; this may provide us with key insight as to what truly happened to youâ€¦or what was used to create you.”
Rion shuddered. “Iâ€¦suppose so. But while it has been two years for you, for me it wasâ€¦just moments ago, by my memory.” He paused. “And yetâ€¦yet it feels longer. As though my death was far in the past.”
“Go on,” Miri said gently.
Rion drew in a deep breath and let it out. “All right.
“I was at the Justiciar’s Retreat, trying to find the last piece of evidence I needed to prove what I had come to suspect–that the Justiciars were, somehow, false. I don’t have to explain that to you now, I guess, but do you realize how hard it was for me to even think of it?”
Kyri would have laughed, but it hurt too much. “No, you don’t, Rion. Even after youâ€¦died, they fooled us again. I only found out the truth almost by accident.”
“Wellâ€¦The problem for me was that while everyone acted as though Mist Owl was supposed to be the leader, he would often put off a decision and then come back with his orders an hour or a day later. He usually excused this as his preferring to think on things, and at his age that took time, but somehow it felt as though he was going to ask someone else for advice and coming back with his orders later. And every once in a while it seemed that he would glance at someone else–usually Thornfalcon–as though seeking confirmation.
“So I managed to enter the sanctum, where the leader of the Justiciars is supposed to hold council in case of emergencies, special events, you know the kind of thing. I’d done this as carefully and quietly as I could, even praying to Myrionar for the ability to hide myself and pierce illusions. And as I said, I managed to get the door of the sanctum open and looked in.
“It was very dark, with only a faint light about a quarter of the way across what was a much, much bigger room than I’d imagined. But there was a person outlined against that faint light, and I could recognize the thin, tall figure easily: Thornfalcon. He was talking to one of the other Justiciars–Skyharrier, I’m pretty sure–and the bit I heard mentioned my name in a tone that wasn’t positive.
“Honestly, I hadn’t expected anyone to be in that room, or that if anyone was there that they’d be in the dark. Even as I heard my name, Thornfalcon glanced around and I knew he couldn’t possibly miss me outlined in the light from the hall. I slammed the door to as soon as I heard Thornfalcon’s sword sliding out of its sheath, and threw a sealing prayer at the lock, then ran like Hell itself was after me.”
His face was even paler. “I think it was, then. I called on Myrionar, and I was fast, so fast that even Mist Owl barely had time to turn and gape as I passed him and was out into the forest. I knew that all I had to do was get to the temple. I was sure in my heart that Kelsley was still untouched, still a man of the Balance, and so I didn’t have to hold back, just run, run faster than any man, so fast with the power of Myrionar that they would never catch me.
“Andâ€¦I thought they wouldn’t. I was sure. It takes many hours to get to the retreat normally, you know that, but I think I was almost home in two, the jungle flying by, Myrionar’s power buoying me up, and I had hope, Kyri, I was sure that Myrionar would not fail me–
“–and then I saw Thornfalcon step out of the shadows ahead of me, smiling.”
Kyri shuddered herself, and saw both Tobimar and Poplock shiver. They had faced more powerful adversariesâ€¦but she wasn’t sure that any of them, even the parasitic itrichel, could have matched Thornfalcon for sheer, vile malevolence.
Rion looked at them and managed a faint, wan smile. “I don’t suppose I need to describe how I discovered that I was outmatched.”
“No,” Hiriista said. “But you must describe your final moments, to the very end, in as much detail as you can. Because there we may find a clue as to whether you are an impostor, or in some wise the true Rion, impossible though that would seem.”
“Of course.” Rion’s shoulders hunched, part of him trying to crouch, to hide and protect himself from hideous memory. “Could Iâ€¦have something to drink? Stronger than water, please.”
Kyri reached into her neverfull pack and brought out a bottle of Gharis Sunset–an ale that was one of her favorites, but that Rion really didn’t like at all. “Here.”
Rion took the bottle, pulled the seal aside absently, and took a swig. Immediately he made a face. “Oh, Balance, I should’ve guessed you’d have packed some of that swill along,” he muttered. “Oh wellâ€¦it’s better than nothing right now.”
If he isn’t really Rion, he’s incredibly well-trained.
The blue eyes were haunted as he continued. “Thornfalcon and I exchanged several passes of blades. I’d sparred with him before, but I knew even before we drew swords that he had been holding back. Then again, so had I, some.
“At first it looked like we might be evenâ€¦and that meant that with the Vantage strength and my endurance, I had a good chance, I could wear him down, eventually hammer Skytalon right through his guard. But then I heard screams in the distance and I saw him smile–the coldest, most bone-chilling smile I’ve ever seen.”
Kyri couldn’t repress another shudder, remembering that smile herself.
“I remember demanding from him what he’d done, and he explained very calmly that the entire idea was to arrange my death in a way that none would ever associate with the Justiciars.” He drew a shaky breath. “And then heâ€¦he changed. This huge, dark shadow seemed to grow out of him, a shadow with moon-blank eyes and huge claws and spectral fur, and I suddenly felt my sword sagging, feeling as though it had become a dozen times heavier.”
His hands tightened on the bottle, and there was an abrupt crack; loam-dark ale foamed across the table as Rion jumped back with an apologetic curse.
Poplock rolled his eyes, but repeated his cleansing spell; the table and Rion were neat again, though there was a sparkling mass of broken glass in front of his seat.
Rion smiled weakly. “Wasn’t even aware I was doing that.”
“Don’t concern yourself with it,” Lady Shae said, and gestured; the glass vanished. “Continue, please.”
He nodded. “Of course.” He swallowed, then went on. “I called on Myrionar, of course, and for a moment I felt strongerâ€¦but as we fought I felt my power draining away and I finally understood what kind of a monster Thornfalcon was. But that was far too late, and his sword started carving me apart–one cut at a time, and with every cut I felt my strength departing, my endurance failing, the night growing darker, with him laughing, laughing all the timeâ€¦”
He paused. “â€¦or was he? Part of me says he stopped laughing at the very end, but another part says I heard that laughter for a long, long time.”
“You don’t remember me reaching you? I talked to you, Rion! You tried to tell me what was going on, you just couldn’t beforeâ€¦” Her voice wavered and she stopped.
Rion’s brow furrowed and he was silent a moment. “N-no. I’m sorry, I can’t remember a thing. And I wanted to see you, so much, Kyri. You and Urelle and Aunt Victoria. But it just went black, with that laughterâ€¦”
He trailed off again, but this time thinking. “The laughter did go on a long time. But thenâ€¦I don’t know how long, I wasn’t really conscious I think, these are more impressions than memories, if you know what I mean?” He looked anxiously at Hiriista, who gave a slow assenting nod.
“So after a long time the laughing faded, and I felt cold, icy cold, andâ€¦I don’t know, I felt as though I had suddenly been brought into a gigantic chamber, a chamber filled with the essence of ice. But there was fire, too. And it wasn’t either. Myrionar’s Blade, I can’t say what I mean.”
“You mean to say that these were impressions, analogies, not literal truths,” Hiriista said. “You do not, for instance, believe you were brought into an actual giant chamber.”
“Yes, that’s it. I’d been somewhereâ€¦warm yet deadly, with laughter, and now I was somewhere huge and both hot and lethally cold, and instead of laughter the cold was amused and thenâ€¦”
Kyri was so tense she realized her nails were digging into her palms. She forced her hands to relax. “Then?”
Rion stared into unguessable distances. “Thenâ€¦I was forgotten, I think. Or put aside? I don’t know. I can’t make sense of these sensations. My words just aren’tâ€¦it’s something I feel but it wasn’t real, not like here. But after some time I can’t guess I finally I felt something change around me, more darkness, but with feelings that weren’t all dark and laughing and hate-filled, and then everything faded away completelyâ€¦” he glanced to her, “â€¦until I opened my eyes and saw you.”
Kyri didn’t know what to think, and from his frown neither did Tobimar. But Poplock and Hiriista were exchanging glances, and she saw both Miri and Lady Shae nodding slowly.
“All right, it seems that made sense to most of you,” she said finally. “What did that mean? What happened? Is he Rion?”
The four looked at each other, then the others nodded at Hiriista, who rose and bowed slightly.
“There areâ€¦tests I would like to do, but I believe that we all have a good idea what happenedâ€¦and if we are correct, then he is, indeed, Rion–or a part of him.”
“A part of me?” Rion echoed.
“A new body–manufactured from what I cannot be sure–but with a fragment of your soul placed within, to grow and heal. If we interpret those images correctly, Thornfalcon had taken parts of your soul, but instead of simply consuming them, gave them to someone else, I would presume this Patron–”
“Who is almost certainly Viedraverion,” Miri put in.
“–as I said, his Patron, possibly the Demonlord she has named, and certainly a being of far greater power than Thornfalcon. The Patron kept your spirit-fragment intact within himself or possibly some sort of spirit container, and eventually placed it into the body you now wear and shipped you off to Wieran. For what purpose I cannot fathom, but this would appear to be the likely scenario.”
Rion was studying his arms and hands as though they would give him a clue as to how this had all happened. Kyri was however more interested in something else. “Miri, who is ‘Viedraverion’? You’ve mentioned him to us earlier but in all the other work we’ve been doing we didn’t have time to talk.”
“Viedraverion,” Lady Shae answered, “is one of the most powerful Demonlords–a Child of the First to Kerlamion himself. In fact, Viedra is supposedly the actual first child of Kerlamion, which would make him vastly more powerful than any Child of the Second and even most other Firsts.”
“Heâ€¦helped us a lot,” Miri said hesitantly, something which caused Rion’s head to snap up in consternation.
“Sorry, Rion. You’re not the only mixed-up entity here,” Poplock said. “Our two good friends over there used to be Demonlords themselves before they changed their minds. And that wasn’t all that long ago.”
Rion blinked. “Used to be Demonlords?”
“It’s a long story,” Miri said uncomfortably. “And I’ll tell it to you, later. But let me finish. He wasâ€¦well, not a direct ally, but a resource. He sent Weiran to us, let us know you were coming, verified that Tobimar was the Key, all that sort of thing, but that’s not really the important thing. The really important thing is that he’s the architect of Kerlamion’s grand invasion.”
Kyri felt her mouth drop open. It took a moment to close it again. “Wait. Are you saying thatâ€¦that the monster responsible for making Thornfalcon, for corrupting the Justiciars, is also the one who arranged the Sauran King’s assassination, the invasion of Artania and Aegia and–”
“–yes. I am saying exactly that. He has been living in Evanwyl most of the time, and I think his private project is there, somehow, but he’s been directing almost everything that Father and his forces have been doing.”
“Terian’s Light,” Tobimar murmured. “I remember talking with King Toron about all this; we couldn’t figure out who was responsible for the coordinated unrest; we even contemplated it being one of the Great Wolves that assassinated the prior Sauran King, because of the perfection of the disguise.”
Poplock bounced assent. “But we knew that couldn’t be the case because this was an assault by demons and lots of other nasties, all across the continent, and the Wolves don’t work for anyone except–”
“Yes,” Miri said. “Except the Godslayer, Virigar, their own king. They do not work with any other creatures, which is just as well.”
“But it being the first child of Kerlamion, one of the most powerful of all demons? That fits, especially with the tricks he might have gotten from Master Wieran along the way. And this all connects to Evanwyl somehow.”
“I presume so,” Miri said. “I’ve seen his current human guise many times; would you like to see it?”
Kyri’s hands tightened into fists. “See the monster responsible for all this? Oh, yes. I want to know him when I see him.”
Miri concentrated for a moment, then touched one of the gems set in her left armlet.
Light shimmered in the air between them, coalesced into a human figure.
Kyri found herself on her feet, her chair clattering away unnoticed, feeling as though a terrible abyss had opened at her feet; Rion had risen too, and Tobimar as well, all of them staring in disbelieving shock. “Oh, drought,” Poplock finally said, and his tone was utterly devoid of his usual humor.
Before them, floating perfectly defined in midair, was the handsome, blond-haired figure of Jeridan Velion, Watchland of Evanwyl.