Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 15
Kyri gave a full, formal Armed Bow to the five young people–all of them definitely younger than she was, Xavier’s age, sixteen or seventeen at the most. “Welcome to my estate, all of you.” She was dressed in the Raiment; not only was this an official council of war, with hopefully new allies, but also if somehow their enemy realized what was going on, she wasn’t going to be caught offguard.
Her companions clearly felt the same way; Tobimar had cleaned up and probably had Poplock help, but he was in traveling gear, Poplock was on his shoulder, and Rion had simply added one of his old traveling cloaks to his armor. Lythos stood to one side, watching, his sword-hilts visible on the left and right.
The newcomers bowed back, emulating the bowing pirouette, but aside from Xavier none of them appeared to be armed; fortunately, she wasn’t a Sauran, so she wasn’t going to take offense. But how in the world could they have traveled so far and seen what must have been a great deal without weapons or, as far as I can see, armor of any significance?
Xavier stepped forward. “Thanks, Kyri. Let me introduce my friends here.”
Seeing the five closeup, she was once more struck by their impossible beauty. In their own way both the girl with white-blond hair and the taller one with locks of forest green rivaled Miri and Lady Shae in appearance, and that was without the shining rightness of Kaizatenzei to help the perception along. Similarly, the other two boys–one with hair as straight and black as Xavier’s but with brilliant blue-green eyes that seemed to take in everything about him at a glance, the other tall as Rion with golden-blond hair and exotic violet eyes–were almost otherworldly in their beauty. I had gotten somewhat used to Xavier’s appearance, but seeing all of them together is still strange.
Apparently oblivious to her musings, Xavier proceeded with the introductions. “This is Nike Engelshand,” he said, gesturing towards the silver-blond girl whose crystal-blue eyes were set off by the unusual golden-pale skin, tanned yet far lighter in shade than almost anyone Kyri had met except Miri. “The emerald-haired girl’s Aurora Vanderdecken, this guy who stole my hair is Toshi Hashima, and the too-tall fashion plate there is Gabriel Dante. Guys, this is Kyri Vantage, Rion Vantage, and my real good friends Tobimar Silverun and Poplock Duckweed.”
“Xavier’s told us a lot about you,” Gabriel said, and his violet eyes twinkled at her in a way that reminded her, with a pang, of Condor–Aran–before everything changed. “I must say his words failed to do you justice, Lady Kyri, although that is perhaps not so much his fault as that of words themselves.”
Kyri noticed Aurora give him a gentle jab in the ribs with an elbow; Gabriel grinned and slipped an arm around her waist. Together, then. “I see you have someone capable of flattery, if not diplomacy, in your group. But please, all of you, come in. We’ve laid the table for all of us to sit and eat and talk.”
“Eating and talking sound like a good idea to me,” Nike said.
“But there is one other issue first,” Gabriel said, and his gaze was on Rion. “Xavier, I see what you mean.”
Gabriel turned to Kyri. “You are aware that he is not human; are you aware that he is demonic, and something else–undead, I believe–as well?”
“Well mudbubbles!” Poplock said in chagrin. “You know, it took days for me and Hiriista to analyze all that, and you and Xavier can just look at him and see it? How?”
“Let’s leave ‘how’ for later,” Gabriel said. “We have very good reason to be suspicious of such creatures. Demons do not just hunt your group, they are hunting ours as well, and the unliving even more so. What of thisâ€¦being you are calling your brother?”
Kyri started forward even before she knew she was doing it, but both Rion and Tobimar caught her arms. “Kyri, calm down. Let me answer them.”
She couldn’t keep from glaring at Gabriel Dante, but forced herself to control the anger at his words. “All right.” I am overreacting. I knew people would be wary of Rion’s nature, to say the least. Why am I soâ€¦touchy over what I already expected?
Tobimar faced Gabriel. “Your suspicions are perfectly reasonable–and echo our own when we first discovered Rion.” He quickly summarized the situation. “Do we know that this is really Rion? No. He could still be a spy or worse, but if so he knows Rion’s past and personality to an incredible degree–enough so that Kyri has no doubt that it is him. Either wayâ€¦we had no choice but to bring him with us. And with that, we’ve had to trust him in our counsels or we might not have gotten out alive. If he’s what we believe, then Rion lives again, and we will be using one of our enemy’s creations against him. If he’s notâ€¦well, at least he’s not out of sight.”
Nike nodded, smiling wryly. “I see. ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.'”
Gabriel bowed. “A perfectly reasonable position. I apologize, Rion; I meant no offense.”
“None taken,” Rion answered with the smile she remembered so well; she felt herself relaxing as she saw that Rion wasn’t bothered by the situation. “It was the right question to ask. But now, I think we should take our seats.”
“I’m starved,” Xavier said, heading for one of the chairs nearest the largest roast.
Toshi spoke only after everyone had been seated and served. “Xavier has, as Gabriel mentioned, told us a fair amount about you. I think it’s only fair we tell you something of us.”
“You’re right,” Aurora said suddenly, “but first–Tobimar, you’re from the country called Skysand, right?”
She saw Tobimar quirk an eyebrow. “I am–technically in exile, though don’t take that negatively.” He flashed a brilliant smile. “And that will end soon enough, if I can only get home.”
“I just had to be sure. We just came from Skysand, and–”
Instantly Tobimar was up, leaning eagerly–and fearfully–across the table. “From my home? What has happened? Even the Sauran King could not get word–is my mother all right? The city? How–”
“Whoa, slow down!” Xavier waved a hand. “Dude, get a grip. She was going to tell you and now you’re like all freaky.”
She watched Tobimar take a deep breath and then looked at Xavier. “I can’t blame him,” she said, realizing how Tobimar’s reaction echoed hers about Rion. We’re both tense. “I’d feel the same way if I hadn’t been to Evanwyl in a few years.”
“Can we do this in some sort of order?” Toshi said, looking slightly put out.
Nike’s laugh was a light glissando, a sparkling sound in keeping with her looks. “Oh, Toshi, you know how crazy everything gets. But you’re right, we should do things in order or it’ll all get confused.”
Tobimar seated himself slowly, and Toshi looked around the table before speaking again. “All right. Firstâ€¦what has Xavier told you about us?”
“Not too much,” Poplock said. “He said that he actually hadn’t known you guys all that long to begin with, but that you were all from Zahralandar–what you call Earth–and that Khoros had brought you all together and dumped you here.”
“And that Khoros somehow expected you to find a way to break the Great Seal itself, or you’d never go home,” Tobimar continued; at that statement she saw Lythos give a noticeable start. “We were at the Dragon’s Palace when everything went to the Hells, so we ended up seeing something of your conversations in the cells–though,” he paused and nodded to Toshi, “you should know that Willowwind Forestfist was exceedingly impressed by the way you made it almost impossible to drag meaning out of those recordings.”
“Almost?” Toshi looked crestfallen. “I’d hoped I had made it actually impossible.”
“Take it as a compliment,” Poplock advised. “Willowwind is one of the best there is, and you managed to really mess up most of his reconstruction work. Don’t get all hung up on it not being perfect.”
He shifted on Tobimar’s shoulder. “So, anyway, you got caught, broke out of prison, and scattered, leaving Xavier to watch everything and decide if he could talk to anyone. I think that’s pretty much it. Oh, yeah. You’re elementals of some kind–Willowwind figured that out–and we know Toshi’s gotta be Air, and Xavier’s obviously Spirit.” The little Toad squinted. “Somehow Aurora just screams ‘Earth,’ to me, which makes Gabe and Nike the last two. I’m gonna make a guess and say that just because she looks cool as frost that she’s probably actually Fire, and Gabe’s Water.”
Toshi raised an eyebrow and looked over at Xavier, who was wearing a vindicated grin. “That Toad is good,” Toshi said finally.
“You have no idea,” Kyri said. “But I think that is pretty much we know about you. Do we need to know more?”
“Need, I don’t know. But there is a lot more to know. You are aware, I presume, that all of the simultaneous assaults around the world were part of a larger war launched by Kerlamion?”
“Yes. We also know who planned it–and that he’s here in Evanwyl.”
“The man behind the man,” Xavier breathed, leaning forward. “You know who was pulling Thornfalcon’s strings.”
“We do.” She saw that Lythos was also standing straighter; they had not yet told him, since they planned on explaining everything all at once. “His real name–at least, the name that anyone will speak–is Viedraverion. He is rumored to be the first son of Kerlamion himself. Andâ€¦” She hesistated, finding that saying the last part was surprisingly hard–painful, in truth.
Lythos stepped from his position near the door. “Andâ€¦?”
“And he is known to us as Jeridan Velion.”
“Oh, crap,” Xavier muttered. “The big boss of this whole country? The Watchland? He seemed like a pretty cool guy while I was here.”
Lythos had simply closed his eyes as though in sudden pain; when his eyes opened, they had clear understanding. “Of course. It answers many mysteries. But you do not look as I might expect you to look, having finally found the architect of this evil.”
“Because I am also sure that there is a real Jeridan Velion, Lythos. That many of his words and deeds are as honest and true as those of any in this room.”
Toshi’s head tilted. “Possession? A duplicate?”
“Something possibly more complicated than that,” Tobimar said. “Look at Rion for one possibility. I think we will need to tell each other our stories, since at least the time that Xavier left us, and ours might be the more urgent here. But, please,” he looked intensely at Aurora, “tell me at least–my mother, my brothers and sisters–are they all right?”
Aurora looked at Gabriel for a moment, then shifted in her seat. “Your mother Talima is well. Most of your brothers and sisters are also. Butâ€¦Terimur and Sundrilin fell defending Skysand. Sundrilinâ€¦defending me.” She looked down. “I’m sorry. It was my fault.”
Kyri’s heart felt pierced through as she saw the stricken look on Tobimar’s face. Then as his expression relaxed, with an effort only she could sense, she thought the pain was worse from her love for him in what he said next.
“Auroraâ€¦” A hesitant glance up. “Did Sundrilin know what she was doing? Did she choose to do what she did?”
“Iâ€¦” Aurora’s swallow was audible across the table. “Yes. Yes, she knew what she was doing, and why.”
“And did she achieve what she hoped?”
For an instant, Aurora’s face was transformed, to one of anger and certainty. “Yes. Oh, yes, she did.”
“Then do not apologize.” The hint of tears in Tobimar’s voice could have torn Kyri apart, but there was only gentleness in his voice. “We are Silverun. We are the defenders of our people, of our lands. We know our duty and the peril of our lives, and the most any can ask of their deaths is that they gave their lives well. And it sounds to me as though Sundrilin died well.”
“As did Terimur,” Gabriel said. “Both of them died very, very well, and gave us the time we needed.”
“That I needed,” Aurora said quietly. “Gabe, I know you’d like to take part of that responsibility, but it was my fault.” She looked up, eyes shimmering with tears, but she smiled. “Butâ€¦thank you, Tobimar.”
“You are welcome.” Tobimar sat down slowly, and his head bowed; Kyri saw Poplock pat his friend’s head gently.
“More of that story in its place,” Lythos said. “Kyri, I believe you were going to tell us all of what has passed since last we saw you.”
She took a deep breath. “Yes. Well, first we traveled back to the Spiritsmithâ€¦”
The tale was long and involved–longer, now that she had started, than she had realized. As time passed and dishes were cleared and refilled, Tobimar roused himself from his private grief and began to help, giving his keen observations, with Poplock adding key insights along the way. Even though the five visitors–for the most part–listened quietly, it was still a long time before she was finished.
In a way, she was reminded of the night they had first met Tobimar, and each had told their stories to the others. It is similar. We are on the same quest, in a way, and guided by Khoros’ phantom hand, and I think now is one of the most crucial moments of all our lives.
Finally she reached the climax, the duel against alchemy and madness culminating in a battle of gods and magicians, and then the recovery and rebuilding where it was possible. “â€¦and then we made it back through Rivendream and, well, here we are.”
For a few moments, the room was silent as it had not been for over two hours. Nike broke the quiet with a sudden laugh. “Well, I thought we had had something of an adventure, but I’m not sure it compares. Mad scientists and dragon-gods!”
“It compares,” Toshi said calmly. “I think we are of rather equal footing overall–which is frightening in its implications.” He looked at the others. “Our own stories might take even longer to tell. There are aspects that I think would be best kept to ourselves, as well. Meaning no offense,” he looked at Rion, “but if there is even a chance that one of the people here could be–willingly or not–a spy, there are details we shouldn’t discuss. I am presuming Rion was already familiar with your own story, so it was not an issue there.”
Kyri wanted to protest, butâ€¦Toshi was right. There weren’t that many secrets she had to hide from Rion, but these fiveâ€¦”Understood. But there is one question I want to ask Xavier first.”
“Sure,” said Xavier.
“When you saw Rion, you called him by another name. Who–”
“Michael,” Xavier said quietly. “And jeez, I still see Mike over there if I don’t look carefully.”
“Hold a moment,” Kyri said, suddenly dizzied. “Xavierâ€¦Michael, of course, I’d forgottenâ€¦that was the name of your brother? The one you were planning to avenge?”
“Yeah.” Xavier cast another incredulous glance at Rion. “Here, lemme show you.”
He dug through his pack for a moment, then held out a leather wallet which he flipped open to show a small picture. “There, that’s Mike.”
“Great Balance,” she murmured.
Michael Ross did indeed look very, very much like Rion Vantage. The hair and eyes were identical; the faces shaped much the same, the smile was very like Rion’s; even the build of the two men was very similar. She could see some small differences–the darker shade of Rion’s skin, the slightly narrower cheekbones of Michael–but the effect was startlingly similar; the two could have been brothers, almost twins.
“Terian’s Light, no wonder you thought it was him come back from the dead,” muttered Tobimar.
“Oh, Kyri, please,” she said, glancing over to see that it was Toshi addressing her.
“Kyri. Just so I understand–you had an older brother who died, and for whom you swore vengeance against his killers, yes?
He glanced to Xavier. “And you are one of three children.”
“And you and Xavier share eyes of a rather unique shade of grey.” Toshi considered. “Your brothers are startlingly similar in appearance as well as circumstance. There seem many peculiar parallels here.”
“Want another?” Poplock said. “Xavier’s middle name is Uriel, right?” A nod. “Well, Kyri’s little sister’s name is Urelle.”
“Fascinating.” He looked over to Nike; the silver-blond haired girl nodded.
“Does it mean anything?” Aurora asked.
“I think it means Khoros,” said Nike bluntly. “We know he manipulated our lives–our families’ lives–for as far back as we can count. And we know he can travel between the worlds. So it makes sense he’s doing the same thing here.”
“Still, one has to wonder what the purpose is.”
“I don’t think it matters at this point. Perhaps one day we shall have the chance to ask him,” Gabriel said reasonably.
Nike shrugged. “Perhaps. Now, we have to tell you our storiesâ€¦maybe with a little less detail and a little faster.”
“I’ll trust you to tell ours,” Toshi said.
The white-blond girl raised an eyebrow. “You do?”
The blush was just visible under Toshi’s skin. “I have learned a few things.”
“We’ll both tell ours,” Gabriel said. “Different experiences and perspectives. But Toshi will probably hush us at points.”
“And then I’ll tell mine,” Xavier said, “since I was the only one there.”
Kyri glanced at the clock. “We lack only a few minutes of midnight. Does everyone still wish to go on? You could rest here–”
“Not unless you’re too tired to listen,” Toshi said. “We are in a hurry–not a desperate one, but a hurry nonetheless–and finishing this will help you understand that, just as we now understand what you might need of us.”
“All right,” Tobimar said. “But I need a few minutes to visit, er–”
“Yeah, we all need a bathroom break, I think,” said Xavier bluntly. “So, what, let’s all take a break, let Vanstell and the others clean up our mess, and meet up back here in fifteen?”
“Agreed,” Kyri said, smiling at Xavier’s straightforward handling of the situation. “In fifteen minutes, then, you’ll tell us your stories.”