Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 16

Chapter 16

Poplock watched from his perch on one of the unlit candleholders, nibbling on a thimbleberry, as the others slowly filtered in. Xavier practically leaped back into his chair and started eating. “You know,” said the Toad, “you seem to eat like twice as much as everyone else.”

“Yeah,” Xavier mumbled around a mouthful of crispwing, “my sensei said something about that being a consequence of burning more energy than everyone else. Then there’s Rion who doesn’t seem to eat much at all.”

“We figure that’s because he’s, well, not human.”

“Makes sense. Maybe an advantage in some ways.” Xavier reached out and poured himself more water.

Gabriel and Tobimar came in from opposite directions, while Lythos finally seated himself rather than standing and observing. “These matters run deep and strange,” the Artan warrior observed. “And I suspect your stories will prove even stranger.”

“I can’t say for sure on that, sir,” Gabriel said. “As Nike observed, I would hardly have expected their tale to include what we would call a classic mad scientist–which surely fits your Master Wieran to perfection–so they already have from my view something of an advantage on us.”

Most of the others had returned and gotten settled. Nike nodded at Gabriel’s comment, and smiled at Xavier; Poplock noticed that Xavier’s gaze often strayed to Nike even when he was talking to someone else. Which, if there’s mutual attraction, would leave Toshi odd man out. He couldn’t tell if there was a mutual attraction, though; Nike’s demeanor was calm, professional most of the time, even with those she traveled with. Xavier said she was raised by guardsmen–police–so she obviously takes after her parents.

“Where’s Rion and Kyri?” asked Toshi.

“I think they were out getting a little air before coming back in,” Tobimar answered.

“Huh. Dude, I would’ve thought you would be taking her out for a walk, not her brother.”

Tobimar laughed. “He was thought dead for two years, and she always…well, rather idolized him. Besides, he’s been confronted with his nature a couple of times tonight, they’re probably talking some of that out. He’s…not happy with it.”

“Yeah,” Xavier admitted, “I wouldn’t be too comfortable finding out I was a half-undead demon-duplicate either.”

“Please don’t say stuff like that casually, especially around Rion,” Tobimar warned him.

As Xavier nodded his understanding, Poplock saw the two remaining people coming in from the front entrance. Without her habitual helm to conceal her face, the Phoenix Justiciar seemed noticeably more tired than usual, but cheerful, greeting the room with one of her flashing smiles. Rion looked also more relaxed than he had before they left; as per usual habit, he waited for Kyri to seat herself next to Tobimar before taking the seat on her other side.

“Okay,” Poplock said. “We’re all here. It’s you guys’ turn to tell us what you’ve been up to.”

The five young people looked at each other, and then Gabriel nodded. “Aurora and I will go first.

“You all know that we managed to escape from the prison under the Dragon’s Palace. When we did that, it was agreed that we would split up; I believe that Xavier has already told you that Khoros had apparently foreseen this?”

“Yes,” Poplock said, searching his memory for the exact wording. “So you could, um, ‘…find answers to the tasks before you, the powers within you, and the doubts that surround you,’ right?”

Aurora snorted, her expression an odd blend of fury and gratitude. “Yes. I will still kick that old bastard in the balls before I thank him, though.”

Gabriel shook his head. “I think the first may be difficult to achieve. In any event, we were agreed that we had to go our separate ways to minimize the chance of all of us being recaptured. So we attempted to…flee as quickly as possible.” Toshi had glanced at him during the last sentence. “Exactly how is one of the things we won’t detail. We found ourselves, eventually, in a desert, something which was most distressing to me as I am–as you so correctly observed–inherently of the Water element. But with Aurora’s support we were able to travel until we came in sight of a city, which turned out to be Tempestward.”

“Tempestward?” Tobimar repeated. “You traveled from Zarathanton to the northernmost desert of Skysand in such a manner you knew not where you had gone or how?”

Poplock was at least as stunned. Thousands of miles, in what they imply was an extremely short time, without knowing the territory they passed through? But teleportation’s severely limited these days. Makes sense as to why they don’t want to explain just how. Big useful secret there.

“We did,” confirmed Aurora. “And then we were chased into the city by something that we figured out later was a demon. Which did at least get the attention of Sundrilin.” Her face fell.

“You were friends with her, weren’t you?” Tobimar asked quietly.

“Eventually…once I stopped being paranoid about everything. She brought us to Skysand, the capital, and that was when the real trouble started…”

Poplock saw Kyri reach out and take Tobimar’s hand in hers as Gabriel and Aurora continued their story–a story that included mystery and intrigue and even betrayal within the capital city, a siege, and eventually a counterstrike against demonic forces that seemed endless and unstoppable…

“…We had to fight for them,” Aurora said, and by now there were tears in her voice, her eyes wet. “I’d been…we’d both been…difficult to deal with. But your mother and Sundrilin and your other brothers and sisters…they had patience, they helped keep us alive in more ways than one. And then these monsters were trying to wipe out your people, it was a planned assault, and time was running out…”

“The demons were, of course, beings of fire and sand, taking advantage of the terrain,” Gabriel said. Poplock remembered the sand demons that had ambushed him, Tobimar, and Xavier, and thought about what an army of such monsters would be like. “We tried to fight them…did fairly well…but while demons of fire are certainly things I can fight well, those of sand could sap my strength easily; not so much Aurora’s, but she did not have any particular advantage against them, and many of them seemed able to ignore ordinary blows entirely.”

Aurora swallowed, then sat straighter. “And then the royal family took the field.” She looked directly at Tobimar. “Be proud of them all. They were amazing. They rallied everyone–including us–and drove towards the leaders. I was…not fighting as well as I should.”

Now it was Gabriel’s hand taking Aurora’s, even as the girl forced herself to continue–even as Toshi shot them another warning glance. “I…I can’t tell you everything. But I was…fighting myself, I guess, my own mistrust. My parents…kinda screwed me up without meaning to, and I made things worse. But even with us not doing our best, me and Gabe…were pretty obviously dangerous targets, so they sent a force against us…and when one of them almost had me, Sundrilin…”

She stopped, unable to go on, not that she had to; Poplock had seen more than enough battles to understand the rest.

“And then?” Kyri asked finally.

“And then…we found the key we had been searching for, the answers that Khoros had spoken of,” Gabriel said grimly, “and we scoured the desert until not one of the monsters was left standing.”

Rion stared at him. “By…by yourselves?”

Aurora gave a predatory, vicious smile from beneath her tear-streaked face. “Oh yes. By ourselves, then.”

There was a short silence as Poplock and the others took that in. “Okay,” Poplock said finally. “I guess you are playing on the same level as we were, there. Ouch. How’d you end up back here?”

“A few weeks afterward, the Nomdas–the high priestess of Terian?–called us and said that she had been sent a vision by her god, a message that was clearly for us. Once Gabriel unraveled it, it basically said for us to head to a particular place and we’d find what we were looking for. And sure enough, when we got there, we ran into Xavier.”

“Which means it’s time for our story,” Nike said, “since we ran into all three of you a little while later.”

Poplock saw both Tobimar and Kyri take some havaja, a herb and fruit brew that helped maintain alertness, as Nike and Toshi related their own adventures–with the same vagueness on key issues. Even so, Poplock could pick out the same basic threads and implications of the narrative. The two had arrived in a forest filled with dangerous demonic things and barely managed to escape to a city under siege–the city named Nya-Sharee-Hilya, Surviving the Storm of Ages, capital of Artania, home of the Artan. Lythos listened to their story even more intently than he had the previous one–a story with similar complexity, subterfuge, espionage, and danger, culminating with a battle against the forces of the Demonlord Balgoltha–a battle that ended with yet more vague generalities.

“Then, sifting through what was left of the besieging forces’ materials, we came across a reference to Evanwyl that seemed promising,” Toshi said.

Nike raised an eyebrow. “Boy, you make that sound easy. Took both of us to piece together that–”

Toshi held up his hand, and Nike paused; Toshi continued for her. “Anyway, we decided to go. Queen Mithras felt she owed us, um…pretty much anything we wanted,” for a moment he looked embarrassed, “so we got passage on the fastest ship she had and they sailed us up the Nightsky River as close to Evanwyl as possible.”

“And ran into our friends a little before actually reaching the city,” Nike finished. “Xavier?”

“Heh,” Xavier said, dropping a bone into a plate already stacked with them. “Mine wasn’t nearly as combat heavy. Kinda funny, since only me and Gabe really started out as fighter types.” He leaned back and took a drink. “Anyway, I set out to get to Mount Scimitar, like you guys already knew. Unlike my friends here, I don’t have some super-fast trick for travelling, so that was a long haul. Had to dodge around what looked like a big force headed for the Broken Hills, then hiked pretty much straight East for a long time. Spent a lot of my time invisible, figured that’d make me harder to track and keep me out of trouble. Still, there were times…”

Xavier had continued through most of the Empire of the Mountain, occasionally running into people who needed the kind of help he could provide, and getting better directions from them in turn. Eventually he’d gotten close to the legendary Mountain.

“Man, that’s a different place. Scimitar’s Path, that is–the capital of the Empire? It’s sorta like I figured Vatican City must be like, everyone all religious and faithful and like that, except that the god they’re worshipping isn’t somewhere beyond the sky, he’s right there at the top of the mountain.” Poplock didn’t exactly get the “Vatican City” reference, but he remembered well enough that on Xavier’s world the gods didn’t ever seem to act, at least not the way they did here.

Xavier went on, “And it’s kinda creepy; he’s got all kinds working for him, including undead, some demons, other pretty shady types, but they don’t cause trouble in the city.

“I figured I could just head on up the mountain by myself, but the only decent path up had a big temple straight across it. I could sneak around, but…well, anyway, I started asking around, and it turned out that anyone could try climbing the mountain, but no one actually knew anyone who’d gone above a certain point, basically where there was a little shrine, and come back alive. There were a few stories–but always the ‘a friend of a friend’ kind, where you can’t actually find the friend of a friend who reached the top. Turned out that I couldn’t even get a good idea of what this Idinus guy really looked like.”

Xavier had finally set out on his climb, and found that even with his unique powers it was hard to progress. It took him a couple of months, he said, and there was a trick to it that took him most of that to figure out. “And I felt kinda stupid when I did, but anyhow, I got to the top finally.”

Tobimar stared at him, then shook his head in disbelief. “Really? You got to the peak of Mount Scimitar? And…was he there?”

“Idinus?” For a moment, Xavier’s usual breezy, casual manner vanished; he was deadly serious, his eyes seeing something beyond the room they sat in. “Oh yeah, he was there. Scariest son of a…gun I ever met, except maybe my sensei if he got mad. Never raised his voice, barely moved most of the time, but he didn’t have to. But…he told me what I needed to know.”

“The location of the Great Seal?”

“Yeah.” He glanced at the others; Toshi gave a nod. “It’s in the center of the Black City–probably in Kerlamion’s throne room itself.”

“Great Balance,” whispered Kyri. “You mean that you…”

“…have to find this Black City, get into it, find the throne room, and then somehow break this seal, yeah,” Xavier confirmed. “And the longer we wait, the stronger those guys are getting, the more their grip on this world tightens, at least as I understand it.”

For a moment even Poplock couldn’t speak. These five people–five children, really, not even as old as Kyri and Tobimar–were supposed to invade the fortress of the King of All Hells, enter his castle, and then undo his greatest work, a work that had endured for half a million years. What in the name of Blackwart is Khoros thinking? I mean, these kids obviously have got something or they wouldn’t have survived what they did, but that’s…way, way out there.

Finally he bounced, shrugging off the mood. “Well,” said Poplock, “We know that the Empire and the Dragon have armies there, so Kerlamion’s invasion isn’t proceeding without a hitch. He’s not going to just brush the Sauran King and the Archmage aside, no matter what he’s set up. Plus if I don’t miss my guess, what you guys did has seriously messed up his plans; I’ll bet he was planning on having both Skysand and Artania totally dealt with, so he could be calling in the forces he had there to help him with the main battle–and from what you said, he’s not even getting most of ’em back even in retreat. Still…”

“We understand why you do not wish to wait for long,” Tobimar said. “But now that you know that the architect of these events is here in Evanwyl…what we need to know is can you stay at least a little while to help us?”

Toshi looked at his friends. “For a little while. What we need is to figure out a route to the Black City, preferably one as quick as possible. We could go to the city of Hell’s Edge, but that is a long, long way from here, and we have good reason to suspect that using any of our…quick methods of travel would get us noticed immediately, especially as we get closer to our goal, now that the City is actually manifest here. Also, taking the expected route will mean a route that is under constant observation. If we can determine a better route, it will be worth some time.”

“Besides,” Nike said, “Your group’s also been guided by Khoros. We’ve got a mission in common along the way, I think.”

A wrinkle appeared on Toshi’s forehead, then cleared. “So desu,” he said. “In both our stories, one thing stands out: nothing like our meetings is left to chance. Khoros has mapped out every encounter both of our groups has had. The fact that Kyri did not meet Tobimar and Poplock in Zarathanton, but rather only in desperate need at the end of their journey; the way in which Tobimar and Poplock first met; the exact ways in which each of us was…brought in by Khoros, the encounter between Xavier and Tobimar that brought him here twice before–Khoros obviously planned that.

“Given that, it’s completely ridiculous for us to think he didn’t plan this encounter, and the only reason I can think of for that is that he wants us to help you, and maybe something else, something we haven’t thought of. Maybe you even have a way for us to shortcut getting to the Black City.”

Poplock blinked at that. You know…maybe we do. Not one I’d recommend to anyone else, but…I’ll talk about it with Kyri and Tobimar later.

“So…” Toshi went on, “…unless there’s an objection, yes, we will stay for a while.”

“What do you have in mind that we can help with?” Gabriel asked immediately.

Poplock gave his widest grin. “Be our backup when we pay a social call…on the Watchland.”