Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 14

Chapter 14

Once more, Tobimar found himself hiding in shadows, watching an inn. A misty, warm drizzle of rain wet his hair and dripped from the eaves above. Poplock was on his shoulder as they stared at the Balanced Meal from the darkness of a narrow alley between a clothier and a farrier’s stables across from the main inn of Evanwyl proper. “This is going to be difficult,” he murmured.

“Why in Blackwart’s name aren’t they at the Vantage estate?” Poplock complained. “I’m sure Vanstell would vouch for Xavier, right? And it’d be so much easier that way.”

The problem was that they still didn’t want Evanwyl at large to know they were back. No telling what their enemy might be watching for or planning as a sort of welcome-home present. They could have gotten to and into the Vantage estate without anyone noticing easily enough–even Tobimar and Poplock had been there long enough to know the less-obvious ways inside–but walking into the Balanced Meal would be practically hiring a crier to announce their return.

“Because he’s too polite to do that,” Kyri said quietly from next to Tobimar; Rion was all the way at the other end of the alley, watching in case someone seemed likely to intrude. “He wasn’t entirely comfortable staying at the estate even when it was just him; I’m sure he’d feel that he was imposing far too much if he showed up and asked Vanstell to put up not just him, but four other friends of his as well.”

That fit with Tobimar’s memory; Xavier was, from his point of view, a bizarre mixture of the formal, casual, and utterly alien who was nonetheless one of the best friends the Skysand prince had ever had. “We’ll have to do something soon, though.” Tension made him feel as though he were being watched, and he glanced around, then looked back at the inn. “We know they’re in there, but not how long they’re staying, or if they’re watching the area…or if someone else is spying on them. Probably is. We were lucky to get this close without being seen, but who knows–”

“–what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” asked a voice that was, impossibly, behind him.

Even as he spun, swords unsheathing in a single motion, a part of him recognized the voice, and by the time his blades were parried in mirror-perfection, he was grinning from ear to ear, feeling a startling joy surging through him. “XAVIER!”

The gray-eyed, black-haired boy grinned back, his swords crossed before him in the exact same pose as Tobimar’s. “You really have to stop saying ‘hello’ with your swords, dude. Someone could get the wrong idea.”

“Xavier!” Kyri said it quietly, but still stepped forward, caught up their friend, and hugged him so emphatically that he gave a little oof! sound. “I’m so happy to see you!”

“Same here,” Poplock said, bouncing onto Xavier’s head and looking down. “What was that stupid line you just said?”

“Oh, it’s a quote from some old show and comic my mom and dad had around. I’ll tell you later, it’s kinda cool. Anyway, who’s the guy down there?”

Kyri gestured to Rion, who was looking in their direction, but still at his post. “Come on down, Rion.”

“How in the name of the Balance did someone get past me?” Rion hissed as he approached.

“We’ll show you later,” Tobimar said with a grin, sheathing his swords. “Rion, this is Xavier. Xavier–”

But as Rion’s face came into the dim light of the street, Tobimar saw Xavier’s face go gray beneath its olive complexion. “M-Michael?”

As they stared at him in confusion and consternation, Xavier’s face slowly started to regain normal color. “No…no, you’re not Michael. But Jesus you look like him. I mean, you really look like him. Even sound like him, I think. Holy crap. I’m kinda freaked out here. Who is this again?”

“This is Rion, my older brother,” Kyri said. “Rion, this is Xavier Ross–who helped us clean up Thornfalcon’s final revenge, and helped Tobimar get to Evanwyl in the first place.”

“Pleased to meet you, Xavier. Balance and Justice be with you.”

“And you,” Xavier said, shaking his hand. He squinted at Rion narrowly, and without warning there was something else in his gaze. His voice didn’t sound different, but Tobimar was suddenly sure he was looking as something that the rest of them could not see. “Wait a minute. Rion. Your brother. Your dead brother?”

“Yes. In a way, anyway. It’s a long story and not suited for an alleyway. Is there any way for you to get your friends to come meet us at the Estate?”

Xavier hesitated; he glanced to Tobimar, and in that wide gray gaze Tobimar saw both a question and worry that surprised him. “Is something wrong, Xavier?”

The native of Earth looked back up at Rion, then at Kyri. “Do you know that he’s…not normal? Not like an ordinary human?”

Kyri was startled. “How can you…Oh. That sense of yours.”

“Yeah. I wasn’t really looking at him before, but now that I do…there’s something wrong there.”

Poplock bounced back to Tobimar’s shoulder. “We know there’s something weird about him, yeah. Like she said, long story. But do we want to go through that now?”

Xavier studied Rion a moment longer, then gave a shrug. “I guess we can wait if you’re cool with it. As for the Estate, yeah. We’ve been…well, arguing a lot, and letting them know you’re back will end a lot of the argument.”

Tobimar saw the embarrassed-yet-defiant expression and leapt to a heartwarming conclusion. “You’ve been keeping them here. Waiting for us.”

Xavier looked down, and his cheeks were a shade darker. “Yeah. We’ve got important stuff to do…but I tried checking out that Rivendream Pass, and knowing you guys went there, well…I didn’t want to go without knowing what happened to you, no matter what else was going on.”

Kyri beamed at him. “Thank you, Xavier. So yes, can you get them to meet us there…perhaps in two hours, if you’re all willing to stay up a bit later?”

“Ehh, sure, most of us don’t go to bed all that early anyway. And they’ll really want to meet you.” He glanced speculatively at Rion again, then nodded to Tobimar. “Okay, see you in a couple hours at Kyri’s place.”

With that, he closed his eyes and vanished. Rion gave a startled curse. “Invisible…no, more than that. I can’t sense him at all.”

“Nope. As far as I know, no one but me’s ever been able to sense him,” Tobimar said, now leading the way cautiously back up the alley, and trying to figure out the quickest way to get to the Vantage estate without being seen.

“And why you?” Rion asked, eyebrow raised.

“Because both of us were trained in the same discipline, called Tor.”

Rion stopped in his tracks for a moment, then resumed walking; but Tobimar thought that his face had looked shocked for a moment. “Tor? The name’s very vaguely familiar,” Rion said, in a voice that sounded faintly brittle, tense. “Is that what gives him the ability to do that trick?”

“Yes,” Tobimar said, trying to figure out what those reactions–if they were real reactions, and not just a figment of Tobimar’s imagination–meant. “He learned it in a different way than I did, from a different teacher, so each of us knows different parts of the art.”

Rion seemed to be walking normally now, and his next words sounded perfectly at ease, so Tobimar wondered if he had actually seen and heard what he thought. “Well, whatever that art is, I’m very impressed. I would have sworn no one could pass me unawares, not a magician, not a spirit, nothing. Yet he apparently did.”

“Or he just stepped through one of the walls without even going past you,” Poplock said. “He can do that kind of thing.”

Rion looked even more impressed.

Between the four of them, it took about three-quarters of an hour to work their way to Vantage Fortress. There was no one in sight of the front gate, but they weren’t planning on taking chances, so they went to a rear entrance concealed in an area of brush. Walking through the short tunnel, they emerged into a small courtyard that Tobimar remembered fondly from hours spent practicing and sparring.

A door opened at the far end of the courtyard, a tall, slender figure visible holding an unsheathed blade. “Who enters Vantage Fortress unannounced? Speak, or you shall pay a short and bitter price for trespass.”

“Lythos!” Kyri said, her joy clear in face and voice.

The gleaming blade vanished, and the Artan master of arms, or Sho-Ka-Taida, ran lightly across the courtyard to stop and bow before her. “Lady Kyri,” he said. “I had hoped for your return, but not looked for you to enter your own home as a thief in the night.”

“We have reason for caution, Lythos, as we’ll tell you shortly,” Tobimar said.

“I will expect to hear every detail, Lord Silverun,” Lythos said calmly. “Now, I–”

The Artan stepped back, his blade materializing in his hand as if by magic; only the tension of his voice and a slight widening of the eyes showed how shocked and startled he was. “…You cannot be what you appear. Name yourself truly, or be destroyed.”

“Lythos,” Kyri said sharply. “This is Rion, as best we can determine.”

“That is impossible,” Lythos said coldly, his blade a literal hair’s breadth from Rion’s throat; Rion stood frozen, his eyes wide and staring at his former teacher. “I saw his body, I prepared it for its final rest myself, I helped the Arbiter perform the final rites. Rion Vantage died and passed from this world. I say a second time, name yourself truly!”

“Stop it, Lythos,” Tobimar said emphatically. “We know there’s something wrong here. We know there are questions we haven’t answered. But–”

“Tobimar, you will stand silent, guest though you are. I am Sho-Ka-Taida, and I am also the guardian of House Vantage, and now thrice I say to this one: name yourself truly!”

Rion swallowed, and then said, slowly, “Rion. Rion Vantage, Lythos. It is me. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but it is me.”

For a long, long moment Lythos gazed straight into Rion’s eyes, and Tobimar was tense, hands gripping the hilts of his swords. He knew that Kyri would act to defend Rion if Lythos chose to act, and that the tableau could abruptly dissolve into incredible violence. Despite Kyri’s earlier words in Rivendream Pass, he was not at all sure of the outcome of a duel between Kyri, himself, and Sho-Ka-Taida Lythos.

But the Artan’s blade was sheathed again, and Lythos bowed. “There are mysteries behind your eyes, Rion, and I think there are some not yet spoken. At the same time, I see you, and ask that you forgive my caution.”

Rion laughed. “There is nothing to forgive, Lythos; you were protecting my sister and our home.”

“Well enough, then. Welcome home, all of you–including you, oh mighty Toad.”

“Thanks!” Poplock bounced onto Tobimar’s head and bowed. “Now, we’d better get ready.”

“Ready?” Lythos looked at them questioningly. “For what?”

“For a council of war,” Kyri said. “Our friend Xavier and his four companions will be here shortly, and we all have much to tell one another. And then I will have to speak of our true enemy.” Her face was once more the cold vision of Vengeance. “And you will not be pleased to hear that truth, Lythos.”

Lythos studied them an instant, then bowed again. “Then I shall tell Vanstell to prepare. Your room, Rion, has been maintained since your…death, at the wish of your sister and aunt; as they accept you as Rion, so shall I, and thus you know where you may go to refresh yourself. I shall await you all in the grand dining room.”

He bowed and left, and the four of them left by one of the other courtyard doors. Tobimar felt tension rising in him.

The final preparations were about to begin.