Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 08
With a slight groan of effort, Aran heaved himself over the sharp edge of the black-glass scar across the land. Ahead, he could see that the Necklace continued down a gentle slope a short distance away. If he’d been willing to walk down the dark-polished miniature canyon for another quarter mile, it would have ended due to that downward slope. But the slope rose again in the distance, and Aran Condor could see the smooth-crescent bite that had been carved out of the hill, directly in line with the glass valley.
Looking back, he could not repress another shiver of awe. The Elderwyrm’s rage had carved the land like a sword straight from the forge, in lines from the battleground that cut irresistibly through everything in their path for incredible distances. This glassy ebony mark on the land ran past Syratenzei and, he thought, had even left a mark on the far-distant mountains ringing Kaizatenzei itself; depending on how the ground rose and the curve of the earth had presented itself, it had reached depths of hundreds of feet at points along the way, at one point boring straight through the earth as a vast black tunnel that was slowly flooding from both without and within.
And the Phoenix–and her companions–defeated this thing, surely, or the Dragon would reign supreme hereâ€¦if he had not simply leveled everything for a hundred miles.
The thought was beyond merely daunting–it was sometimes almost enough to make him reconsider his mission. Even the Demonshard Blade had hesitated at the thought of facing the Elderwyrm, and it was really the Demonshard that offered Aran his only hope to overcome the Phoenix and, finally, get his vengeance for Phoenix’s murder of his friend and adoptive father, Shrike.
He shook his head and took a grip of his courage. It’s a little late now. You asked the King of All Hells for his help hunting the Phoenix down; you’d been serving his son Viedraverion for the years before. Do you think there is any other way out of this?
Morbidly he mused that the best outcome might be his own death following immediately after striking down the Phoenix Justiciar.
Then he shoved that thought, too, away. I’ve done good since then. I have! Maybe I can’t ever make up for what I’ve doneâ€¦or what I will doâ€¦but I can make the cost less. I can be remembered for something other than evil. There’s people here who won’t hear my name and spit, even when the truth comes out. At least I hope so.
As he got farther from that vile dead wound in the earth, the shining peace of Kaizatenzei returned, and with it some of his own spirit. He’d held off the Demonshard’s influence in this place, forced it to serve his ends, helped rebuild Sha Kuratenzei and Syratenzei after the disasters, rescued others along his way. He smiled wryly. “And I’ve been calling myself the Condor Justiciar of Myrionar. Who knows, there may even be a believer now somewhere along my route.”
Which would in its own way be quite a blow against his so-called master. Aran felt the smile tighten to a near-snarl. That was the real reason he couldn’t afford to die even after taking down the Phoenix. Phoenix was a personal issue. But the “Patron” of the false Justiciars? He–or to be more accurate, it–was the cause of the whole issue, and wouldn’t it be just indeed for the creature to meet its downfall at the hands, not of its greatest known enemy, but someone it thought was its puppet?
Aran reached the crest of the hill and looked down upon Sha Kaizatenzei Valatar.
The legendary Valatar Tower was fallen; most of the floating bridges that had crossed the town in lines of crystal and dream were shattered. Yet the beauty of the great city remained, and for a few moments Aran, the Condor Justiciar, could do nothing but stare, drinking in the shining rose-sunset tinted loveliness and feeling it ease, for at least a few moments, the tension and guilt and fear.
Finally he shook himself and moved down the last stretch of the Necklace towards the town. Evening now. Tomorrowâ€¦tomorrow I think I’ll have to go to the current palace, whatever they’re using while rebuilding the Valatar Palace, and see if I can get an audience with this ruler, Lady Shae. She must know where the Phoenix isâ€¦if the Phoenix isn’t still here.
There was of course a considerable danger in meeting up with the Phoenix here. Presumably the city knew–had probably watched–as the Justiciar of Myrionar and companions had done the impossible; they’d be uncontested heroes and any assassination attempt would probably result in him getting lynched. So he’d have to be somewhat circumspect until he discovered whether the Phoenix was still here. If his target had left recently, though, Aran could probably catch them on the road with no witnessesâ€¦
The gates were still wide open as he approached. He nodded to the two guards standing attentively at the sides, but evaded conversation. A quick glance at the buildings ahead showed him one with a sign–the Dawning Light–that was clearly for a travelers’ inn.
Aran hastened his steps slightly as he neared the inn. His legs ached–all of him ached, actually, because climbing in and out of the scar and walking down the slick glassy surface had been what he’d done for most of the day, and was far more wearing than ordinary walking. A meal and a good bed will do me a lot of good.
Arranging for a room took a little longer. Refugees had taken many spaces, and apparently Lady Shae and her right hand–Light Miri, whom he’d met earlier–had decreed that refugees be housed and fed at the inns (expenses, he heard, borne entirely by the Lady of Light). But he was able to get a small corner room finally, and sat in the quietest corner of the downstairs dining room that he could find.
In the middle of finishing his gyllidat–an interesting grilled dessert pastry he’d never tried before–he became aware of someone standing near his table.
Glancing up, Aran saw it was a young woman of about his own age. “Yes, miss?”
“Excuse me, sir, butâ€¦would you be named Aran?”
What in the Balanceâ€¦”Why do you ask, miss?”
She tilted her head, studying him. “Because you fit the description. The armor you’re wearing, like a great condor?”
Cautiously nowâ€¦”What description?”
“I was given a letter to deliver to you, if you ever arrived in Sha Kaizatenzei Valatar. Told that if you were coming, you’d show up in one of the inns soon. If your name is Aran.”
His heart felt as though it was sinking through his chest. Who would act in this fashion to get a message to him? Not the Phoenix. Not anyone he knew of an ordinary sort. But Viedraverion? Quite likely. “Yes, my name is Aran,” he said, trying not to sound too angry. It wasn’t her fault she was being used as a messenger. “Do I have to payâ€¦?”
“Oh, no, sir–paid half in advance, I will be paid again once it’s delivered.”
And how will it knowâ€¦
As he took the thick parchment envelope, he was surprised by its weight; more than ordinary paper was within. The seal on the envelope was also complex, and now Aran understood; once the seal was broken, whoever sent it would know the delivery was complete. “Thank you, then.”
She bowed and moved off–apparently with other deliveries. They have a delivery service in the city for messages? Wellâ€¦yes, I suppose they must. We didn’t need any in Evanwyl, but I did see something of the sort in Sha Kuratenzei.
He finished his dinner first; there was no particular reason to rush, and the contents would be likely something he didn’t want exposed to public view. Once he was done, he went up to his small room, set as many wards as he reasonably could manage, and only then sat at the tiny wooden table and placed his hands on the seal. “Aran Condor,” he said, and bent the seal; it popped with a flash of green and eerie yellow.
Undoubtedly our Patron, he thought grimly, as the contents slid into view: a polished mirror-scroll, silver trimmed with gold. He remembered with a chill his last viewing of such a scroll–the mirror-finish replaced with the pure-black face and dead-blue eyes of Kerlamion himself.
With a sigh, Condor picked it up and held it before him. “I am here.”
There was no immediate response, and Condor had a sudden hope that there would be no response. Maybe something had happened in the intervening time. If his Patron was no moreâ€¦
But if that were the case, he would have known; the powers it gave them would have faded away.
On his third attempt, the silver faded suddenly, replaced with the cheerful smiling face of their Patron. “Ah, Condor! How wonderful! You’ve made it all the way to Valatar.”
“Not without incident. I still haven’t caught up with Phoenix, always just a few weeks behind them, and in the meantime thisâ€¦place almost got destroyed–by a Great Elderwyrm, no less!”
“Yes, indeed, Sanamaveridion himself. But about Phoenix–I’m afraid we were both a bit misled.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you would be very ill-advised to go talk to the lovely rulers of Kaizatenzei and bring up the subject; you see, while I had thought they were–in a general sense, mind you–on my side, both Lady Shae and Light Miri betrayed my cause, and that of the King of All Hells.” He looked sincerely apologetic. “I am afraid that while you thought you were following the Phoenix, they were just laying a false trail. The Phoenix was going the other way around the lake.”
For a moment Aran sat still, dumbfounded. Tricked? Following a false trail all that way? Hundreds of miles following NOTHING?
Then he cursed and turned away. “Myrionar’s Balance, how stupid could I be. Of course, that makes sense of everything.”
“Really? What does it make sense of?”
He gestured vaguely. “I kept running into problems–real people problems, monsters, kidnappings, all that kind of thing–that it seemed obvious to me were the kinds of things a real Justiciar would have to deal with. It passed belief that the Phoenix would just pass them by unless there was something just incredibly immediately important driving them on, but I never got a hint of what important thing that could be.
“But now I know I was just getting whatever false hints they wanted to keep me going in the direction I was already headed. Thunder and Fire!” He kicked the wall so hard it left a hole, and winced. Great, I’ll have to pay for that.
“Yes, I see. Quite correct, of course. From what little I got from Miri when she severed our relationship, Phoenix did indeed get involved in such things along the route the party actually took.”
“Do you at least know if Phoenix is still here in Valatar?”
It smiled apologetically. “I am afraid not. You are now, in actuality, in the position you thought you were in earlier–a few weeks behind the Phoenix. The last symbol of Myrionar is now on its way home–to Evanwyl.”
Aran closed his eyes and counted from fifty backwards to zero. This kept him from cursing again, at least, and saved the walls and furniture from more abuse. “At least I know where Phoenix is headed. I should be able to make up distance, unless they’re pushing forward on a hard march.”
“They shouldn’t be; they have no reason to think it is necessary, and why would there be? Everything’s fine at home.” The smile was suddenly just a hair too sharp and shiny, and Aran shivered. “Get your rest tonight, Aran. You will catch them this time. I guarantee it.”
“And if I don’t? If they reach Evanwyl? I–”
“Aran, Aran, I understand your oath completely. I assure you, none of us will stand in your way.” Its eyes lit up with sudden amusement. “In fact, I think we could help you.”
“What?” He was immediately–and he felt justifiably–suspicious.
“What do you think the Phoenix is going to do when he–or she–arrives in Evanwyl?”
“Now? After what they’ve done here? Come after you, of course!”
“But how will they find us?”
“Theyâ€¦oh.” He paused. “Oh, I see. If I work it correctly, I could lead them to you. And thenâ€¦”
“And then,” agreed the other with a chuckle, “You can get your vengeance and we canâ€¦deal with the Phoenix’s companions so that no one interferes with you at all.”
The idea worked. If Phoenix had companions, and they’d even lived through that last battle, they’d be dangerous, dangerous adversaries. Having his Patron and his old comrades taking on those adversariesâ€¦”Agreed. If I don’t catch and kill Phoenix before we enter Evanwyl, I’ll find a way to get them to follow me.” He felt his lips twist in an ironic smile. “Given that Phoenix will want to kill me about as much as I want to kill them, that probably won’t be too hard.”
“No, I wouldn’t think so. Well, then, Aran, I leave you with wishes for a peaceful night’s rest. Good night!” It hesitated before making the final cutoff gesture. “Oh, this scroll–break it after we are done, please.”
“As you wish, sir.”
“Farewell, then.” The scroll went blank. Aran immediately picked it up and bent it double. It split and cracked down the center, and instantly began to evaporate. A summoning or temporary creationâ€¦maybe a functional duplicate of some original our Patron has elsewhere? He’d never really studied magic in detail. The important point was that no trace of the mirror would remain in a few moments.
He grinned suddenly. Yes, an excellent plan, Patron. Bring your most powerful enemies to our stronghold, where they will be most vulnerable.
But you will be in greatest danger there, too, for there will be nowhere for you to hideâ€¦and once Phoenix is dead, no reason for me to wait.