Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Tobimar heard the triple twang-twang-twang as Poplock’s clockwork crossbow fired. “Behind you!”

Tobimar whirled, silver-green swords out, slashing across the shadow wraith which was already burning white in three places, shattering it to fading shards of night. “Close.”

“We’re not done!”

Two more shadow wraiths, graverisen affected by the dark powers in Rivendream Pass, had materialized from the dimness beneath the twisted trees–trees that were now ripping their roots free of the soil and bending towards them. One wraith raised a hand and gestured, carving symbols of light in the air. It’s a mage! What–

The symbols blazed up, and instantly a roaring sphere of flame streaked towards the little party.

To Tobimar’s surprise, it was Rion who acted first. Bracing and focusing on his sword’s edge, Kyri’s brother cut down and split the attack, both fiery pieces passing harmlessly to either side. Justiciar or no, he’s damned good. The skill to cut enchantments isn’t something learned easily.

That pause had given Kyri her chance. She charged out from behind her brother, Flamewing carving straight through an outstretched, coiling branch, and bore down on the shadow wraiths. “Myrionar!” she shouted, and the immense sword burst into its own golden flame. The shadow wraiths flowed back, trying to disappear into the gloom, but the fire of Myrionar left precious little to hide in.

By then Tobimar had caught up. He sprang across the remaining distance, focusing his awareness and strength through the swords the Spiritsmith had forged, and felt the essence of the creature resist, then fail. It, too, exploded in fading mists of night. Rion harried the third while Kyri kept the hostile trees at bay; then Poplock put another of his alchemical flame-darts into the shadow wraith’s half-substantial head and Rion’s swords finished tearing it apart.

With that, the trees shuddered, sinking slowly back into the ground, moaning and leaning away from the terrible flaming sword, one of them beating ponderously against its own branches that had caught fire. Gradually the poisonously green, dimly lit jungle subsided into its eerily watchful near-silence.

Rion wiped his brow, shaking slightly. “I had wondered…if you were exaggerating. I started to think you had not when we left Kaizatenzei. Now I know you did not describe this abominable place well enough.”

“To be fair,” Poplock said soberly, “I don’t think anyone could describe this place well enough. You have to be here to understand. And honestly, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

“Oh, there’s a few I would wish it on,” Kyri said grimly, looking around warily. “If I wasn’t afraid they’d find it pleasant.”

“I don’t suppose we could go back to Sha Murnitenzei?” Rion said with a wan smile. “It’s only a day and a half. They’d probably welcome the chance for another party.”

“We’d just have to come back out here again,” Tobimar said with an answering grin, as the little party began to move cautiously up the slowly increasing slope of Rivendream Pass. “And I don’t know about you, Rion, but I think I’d find it worse, having gone back into Kaizatenzei for but a day or so.”

“I can’t disagree,” Rion said after a moment, with another shiver. He looked up the tangled slope where only the faintest of trails was visible. “How far is it?”

Kyri answered, though her eyes were still scanning the brush as they moved upslope. “Well, we didn’t measure it…but that’s the pass through the Khalals, so we’re crossing through a mountain range, at least partly–even if this valley sort of dents the Kalals in. A hundred and fifty miles? Two hundred? Weeks of travel, anyway. Maybe we can move a little faster since we’ve done this before, and we’ve got you with us, but…”

Rion’s eyes widened, then his jaw set. “Weeks. In this place. Myrionar’s Mercy. And you three came through here without even knowing that Kaizatenzei was on the other side? Maybe I wasn’t really worthy of being a Justiciar, because I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to do that.”

Kyri flashed him one of the smiles that seemed reserved for her big brother–filled not just with affection, but admiration that only a younger sibling could have for their older, better brother. “You would’ve done it alone, if you had to. I know you, Rion.”

Rion glanced at Tobimar, as if to say well, if she says so, and then chuckled. The sound was both a relief and somehow alien in Rivendream Pass. “I suppose if anyone does, it’s my sister. So…” he glanced around, including Poplock in his survey, “…do we have a plan as to our next moves?”

Poplock shifted on his shoulder; Tobimar caught Kyri’s eye; she nodded. At that, Poplock relaxed slightly. “Okay,” the little Toad said. “I guess we should bring you up to date. Sorry, but we’ve done those kind of discussions mostly among us three. We should probably include you from now on.”

Rion shook his head. “I can’t blame you. I wouldn’t entirely trust me either, yet.”

“I trust you, Rion,” Kyri said firmly.

“You are prejudiced,” Poplock said just as firmly. “And you know it. It’s good you trust him. Just as long as you know we don’t, yet. Honestly, until we’ve dealt with this Viedra guy, I’m not going to relax.”

Kyri sighed, then stuck Flamewing into a suspicious-looking bulge on a tree root; the bulge screeched and splayed multiple clawed legs before collapsing. “Agreed. You shouldn’t.”

“All right.” The Toad shifted to the shoulder nearest to Rion. “So, our next moves–after not dying in Rivendream, that is. The plan’s pretty simple, based on what we’ve learned. Oh, first–that other figure that Thorny was talking to when you caught them out. Could it have been the Watchland?”

Rion thought, then shook his head. “No. My gut feeling was Skyharrier, and the height and build…they’re not right for the Watchland.” He looked apologetic. “Of course…there’s no certainty that I remember everything right either.”

“No, there isn’t,” agreed Tobimar. “Given that you’re at least in some way a construct, there’s a lot that Wieran could have changed, especially with a major demon helping.”

Kyri frowned. “So, no evidence one way or the other on the Watchland there.”

Tobimar shrugged. “No, but honestly? Miri’s evidence is more than enough, if we trust her–and I do, and I think the rest of us do, too.” Kyri nodded.

“Anyway,” Poplock said with a slight emphasis, “the plan is first to scout out Evanwyl–see if everything looks okay. If it is, we’ll sneak in a little farther, see if Xavier and any of his friends have shown up.” Poplock gave the broadest grin his not-terribly-mobile lips allowed. “They’ll kinda stand out, so that’s not going to be too hard.”

“If they are there?”

“Well, we make contact right away, clue ’em in. Believe me, if we can get Xavier in on the party, we want him in on it. You’ll like him, he’s a neat guy, warrior, looks kinda like your sister Urelle, fights like Tobimar.”

“Except better,” Tobimar said.

“Different,” Kyri corrected him. “You both learned the same basic discipline, but he was taught different parts. It’s true he has a couple of pretty frightening tricks, though.”

Poplock looked at them like a sage interrupted in a lecture. “If I could finish?”

“Sorry,” Tobimar said contritely.

“So, as I was saying, if Xavier and his friends are there, we make contact. Might have to spend some time talking with them, get to know ’em–you can’t work well with people you don’t really understand, after all.

“After that, or if they’re not there, we’ll be ready to start the dangerous part of the operation–the parts that might or will tip off our enemies that we’ve got ’em pegged. First, we go to the Temple of Myrionar and see if Arbiter Kelsley will let us dig through the Temple records. Somewhere in there they’ve got to have some idea of where the Justiciar’s Retreat is.”

Rion nodded. “We can’t confront our enemies if we can’t find them.”

“Right. So, whatever comes of that, our next stop is the Watchland himself. Preferably not in his home, of course.”

“You’re going to confront him before going to the Retreat?”

“Of course,” Kyri said firmly. “There’s only three possibilities, Rion. The first is that I’m right that there’re two sides to the Watchland, good and bad–and maybe we can use the good side against the bad. The second and third possibilities come from the chance that either I’m wrong, or whatever’s good in him can’t really stand up to Viedraverion. In that case, either he will decide to take us on immediately, or he’ll decide to run for the Retreat. I am pretty sure that no matter what tricks he may have in place, he will not be able to keep me from finding the Retreat if I’m following him closely enough. If he leads us to the Retreat, or we beat him and can find our way there with Kelsley’s help…well, then the final chapter of this plays out one way or the other.”

Rion nodded. “I see. But what if…well, he’s made his move? What if Evanwyl…isn’t Evanwyl?” He was obviously tormented by the thought, and Tobimar couldn’t blame him; Tobimar probably had the same expression when he wondered what had happened to Skysand in the time he’d been gone.

Kyri’s face was suddenly cold and hard as stone. “Then we go straight for the Watchland, no pauses, no chance for anyone to raise an alarm or prepare. At the most we try to scout things out as carefully as we can beforehand, but we can’t take a risk of alerting them. There’s only four of us; we can’t afford to give them time to get a larger force against us, even if we’re stronger individually. And yes, Rion, Tobimar, I understand that depending on…what Viedraverion is, and what allies he may have and powers he may use, we may end up fighting our own friends.” She held them all with her gaze. “If that’s the case…we try not to hurt them. But we have to win, or this was all for nothing. We continue until we are all down…or we’ve won.”

The three others looked at each other, and then nodded. “Agreed.”

Rion touched her arm. “You know…that means we might have to fight Lythos.”

She nodded. “I know.”

“He could kill us.”

She looked momentarily infinitely sad. “No, Rion. I don’t think he could. Not me, anyway. Oh, he’s a better warrior than me–than probably all of us put together. But if you remember, Lythos himself told us ‘enough skill can overcome power. But enough power can overcome skill. Those who have both…they are the masters.’ Well, Tobimar and I fought an Elderwyrm and lived. I think we’re…well, out of his reach, no matter what his skill.”

Rion stared at her, then shook his head with a grin. “I…still have a hard time grasping that.”

Tobimar snorted. “So do we. There are times it still doesn’t seem quite real. Even though we fought it, and you and I crossed the scars on the landscape the monster left. I don’t think our minds are really meant to be able to comprehend something on that scale.”

“Oh, it happened,” Poplock said calmly. “Otherwise I’d still have that crystal, and wouldn’t have had to replace that Gemcalling matrix.” He patted the elaborate ring around his upper arm, a ring with a glittering blue-purple gem set in it. “And wouldn’t have the scars where my arm got shattered.”

“In any case…don’t worry about it, Rion,” Kyri said, and hugged her brother. “Time enough for that when we get there.”

Tobimar agreed with her. Right now, they had to stay alive–though that really should be easier now, given the powers they’d learned to use. But no point in borrowing trouble from the future.

Whatever was waiting for them…wouldn’t be waiting much longer.