Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 17
The Watchland’s Fortress lay in front of them, only a few hundred yards distant. Of their dual group, only Rion was not present; he had remained behind with Lythos at Vantage Fortress. His presence would have vastly complicated the entire issue. Kyri looked to the five younger people. “Ready?”
Toshi nodded. “This should not be complicated, only potentially dangerous. For our purposes, there are really only three scenarios. First, we discover the Watchland is our enemy immediately, and the battle is joined; at that point I would hope that all of us together will be able to overcome pretty much anything.”
Remembering the Elderwyrm Sanamaveridion, Kyri shuddered. “Maybe. But we can’t just use the full powers we’ve talked about here. Jeridan has a staff of at least twenty people; we’re not very far from the center of Evanwyl. If we fight a battle anything like the one we fought in Kaizatenzei–”
“Lady Kyri,” Gabriel interrupted, “please–we understand. We very much understand.” She saw in his eyes that he, too, was remembering something devastating. “But if you are right, your ultimate enemy is the cause of most of this. We are choosing to confront him here; that leaves the possibility that such a battle may be fought here.”
“You wanna abort?” Xavier asked. His expression was serious, not judging her, just asking a question. “Drop it and try something else?”
In her mind’s eye, Kyri saw her golden fire contesting with night-black destruction, shattering hills, blasting buildings, igniting fields. Can I even possibly risk that?
Tobimar and Poplock were silent; neither seemed willing to advise her to either go forward or retreat.
Myrionar, guide me. Do I move forward, or back? Do I risk this, or is it wiser that I do not, and seek another course?
She waited, but there was nothing, neither an omen of danger nor something drawing her forward. Even Myrionar is saying to me ‘this is your choice, and yours alone.’
The fortress ahead gleamed white and silver in the afternoon sun, a structure whose design made massive walls and watchtowers seem delicate and airy, faced with polished white marble and enchanted steel. She remembered the Watchland from her youngest days, always present yet always moving, and remembered their talk at Rion’s dance years before. With a shock, she realized that the towering older figure she remembered from her third year must have been a youth, someone no older than Gabriel or Xavier. He’s been protecting our country since he was younger than me, since his father died fighting something out of Rivendream.
That, somehow, decided her. I have faith that I am right about him, and that it will not come to destruction, not here. “Come on,” she said quietly. “It’s time.”
The others followed in silence. As they approached the Watchland’s Fortress, Kyri saw the guards at the gate snap to full attention and bow. “Phoenix! By the Balance, you’re back?”
“Hello, Renthas, Yomin,” she said with a smile at the pair, one blond, solid, and cheerful, the other tall, dark, and deceptively dour. “We are indeed. Would the Watchland be available? I would like to introduce him to some important visitors.”
“It would be extremely improbable that he would not receive you,” Yomin said, a rare smile flickering on his long face, softening the expression of disbelief that had also been there. “Give me a moment to check, of course.” He stepped into an alcove with a speaking tube, while Renthas kept watch; the guard’s gaze scanned the group with abject curiosity, but no suspicion. I’d be stunned if there was, actually. My advantage here really is being utterly above suspicion. And hopefully, there is no need for suspicion.
Yomin emerged and nodded. “The Watchland says he would be most pleased to receive you and your friends; go straight in, you know the way. He’s in the library.”
Kyri felt her heartbeat accelerating as they approached the dark-red polished wood of the library doors. Please let me have made the right decision.
Jeridan Velion rose as she entered. “Kyri! You’ve returned from beyond Rivendream?” Before she could answer, he strode forward and embraced her. “Oh, welcome home, welcome home, Phoenix Kyri! And Tobimar! By Myrionar’s Blade, I had begun to give up hope that you had survived!”
Kyri felt unexpected tears welling up. This isn’t an act! I canâ€¦feel him here. Not distant, not cold hiding behind a warm face! This is the Jeridan I was hoping to find!
She returned the embrace, but at the same time felt tension rising in her. But that’s just my feelings, and it’s what I wanted to find. It really depends on what the others seeâ€¦
“We did, Jeridan–not easily, I admit. And that’s a long tale that you’ll have a hard time believing,” she said. “But first, I want to introduce you to our visitors.”
Watchland Velion immediately straightened and gave the customary Armed Bow, allowing all to see the straight, double-edged sword in its sheath on his hip as he completed the turn. “My apologies to you; all of us in Evanwyl have been concerned for Kyri on this venture, and to know she was well–”
“Don’t worry about it, Watchland,” Xavier said with a grin. “I was just as glad to see them.”
“Xavier Ross! I admit this is a pleasant surprise.”
“Jeridan, you recall that Xavier mentioned he’d come here with four friends?”
“Indeed.” The golden-haired Watchland raised an eyebrow. “Then these are your lost companions?”
“Jeridan, allow me to present to you Gabriel Dante, Nike Engelshand, Toshi Hashima, and Aurora Vanderdecken,” Kyri said. The natives of Earth, being somewhat close together and not practiced in the idea, didn’t do the Armed Bow but instead bowed from the waist.
“Welcome, all of you,” the Watchland said, his blue eyes studying the newcomers keenly. He also clasped hands with each of them. “All from the legendary other world? A momentous occasion for my fortress, I must say. Please, come with me to table, I will have some refreshments brought and we can talk a bit before I must tend to other duties.”
“How could we refuse?” Nike said. “We’d be honored.”
“I assure you, the honor is entirely mine. There must be a grand story behind your arrival here as well, and I look forward to hearing something of it.”
As the Watchland led them to his private dining room, Kyri glanced quickly at the others.
Gabriel gave her an emphatic nod, but raised one eyebrow; Xavier gave a thumbs-up gesture which she knew meant “yes,” then also shook his head. Poplock also bounced once on Tobimar’s shoulder.
Relief surged through her again, this time so strongly she felt herself momentarily weak. He’s nothing monstrous. But they’ve found something else. Now we find out if he can be saved.
It took only a few moments for everyone to be seated. “Once more, welcome, old friends and new. I will call to have us served–”
“Wait, please,” she said. He paused, hand reaching for one of the gems that would have brought servants in to take direction. “There is something we would rather say to you in private, now.”
“Ah. Something more than a social call, then? I should have suspected as much, since I had heard no word of your coming, despite having heard that there was a small group of strange youngsters at old Kell’s place.” Instead of touching for a summons, he passed his hand over another, which was meant for privacy; Kyri felt a faint wash of magic. “As you wish, then.”
The others looked at her. This is all mine; they’re right. “Jeridanâ€¦Do you trust me?”
He opened his mouth to answer instantly, but then paused, seeing her expression. “Completely and without reservation, Phoenix Kyri Vantage,” he said quietly, after a moment. “Speak, then. I gave you my trust that day in the temple, and you proved me right. I shall always trust you.”
She took a deep breath. “Then I must tell you that–somehow–yourâ€¦likeness, at leastâ€¦has been used and is perhaps still being used by our enemies.”
Jeridan’s eyes narrowed. “How do you mean?”
“She means,” Tobimar said, “that the architect of not just the fall of the Justiciars, but of most of the current troubles of the world, has been wearing your face, Watchland. We found yet another part of the plot beyond Rivendream Pass, in a country called Kaizatenzei, and one of those high in the counsels of the enemy was able to show us the likeness of this master manipulator. That likeness was yours.”
Watchland Velion was on his feet, and his face was dark with anger. But there was no anger in his voice when he spoke to her. “Kyri Victoria Vantage, do you trust me?”
“I doâ€¦now,” she said. “Jeridan–Watchland–understand, we have already seen evidence of the ability of our adversaries to work through others, so that sometimes they wereâ€¦themselves, and sometimes not. I had reason to believe that this was true of you. I know that–at least for now–you are the man I have always known.”
The Watchland slowly examined those seated at his table. “I see. What is your purpose in this visit, then?”
“Initially,” Toshi said, “to examine you at close range and determine whether you were a monster hiding in the guise of an ally, or the man you appeared to be.”
“And have you found that I am who I appear to be?”
“Yes,” Gabriel answered. “But not one without mysteries about him. There is a complex enchantment woven about you; I can see it, but I do not yet have the knowledge to interpret what I see fully.”
“Right,” said Xavier. “There’s a layering of something through your soul, but from what and what exactly it does, I don’t know.”
“We think at least part of it is memory implant,” Poplock said, causing Jeridan to jump.
“So you are a member of their party, Poplock Duckweed, not merely a pet!” he said. “I had wondered about that more than once. What do you mean by ‘memory implant’?”
“Do you remember what you said to me, when you came to bid Aunt Victoria, Urelle, and myself goodbye?” Kyri asked.
“I confess that I do not remember it in detail, no.”
“I do, though. You said ‘â€¦for many of the last few days I have felt almost outside myself, watching what I have been doing, seeking to make it all right, yetâ€¦not able to let myselfâ€¦truly reach those who needed me mostâ€¦.'” She met his gaze. “Do you understand what I am saying?”
Jeridan Velion’s gaze dropped, and he was silent for a moment. When he looked back up, she saw something bleak and frightened there. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, Kyri. I’veâ€¦felt that many times over the years. I would awaken one morning, and remember what I had done over the past days or weeks, and yet it would feelâ€¦flat, cold, colorless, as though I were trying to remember someone else’s dream. The facts would be there, the images, but the feelings, the connection, would be wan, dim, cold.”
“As though you had not, in fact done it,” Toshi said. “That someone had instead effectively given you the memory, but without the associations that make living memories so rich and strong.”
“And you are saying that this is exactly what has happened to me?”
“Yes. The very nature of the memories confirms it,” Toshi answered, after a quick glance at Poplock. “Our adversary could certainly give you memories of what they had done–but those memories, to be innocuous to you, would either be entirely synthetic, made-up, and thus expected to be thin and less convincing, or would be actual events but stripped of our enemy’s actual thoughts and reactions, which would have been far too revealing.”
Kyri put her hand on his shoulder. “Jeridan, where we came from, our enemy had effectively made duplicates of people, ones they could leave acting as though they were those people and then take over whenever needed; they described similar symptoms. We need to find out what, exactly, has been done to you–and if our enemy has any hold on you, to break that hold.”
“And can you do this without our enemy being aware of it?”
“Probably not,” Poplock said. “But we’re getting ready to go after him and he is probably aware of that. Making sure he doesn’t have you as a battlesquares piece? That’s worth it.”
Kyri saw Jeridan looking with grim curiosity at the group, and she knew what he saw; children, mostly, with her an unusual and still very young exception. “When you say this being who has been using me is the ‘architect’ of the current troublesâ€¦what exactly do you mean? Is heâ€¦”
“â€¦responsible for the Black City arriving? Yep,” said Poplock. “According to our sources, he planned the whole thing, including the assassination of the Sauran King, the attacks on Artania, Skysand, Aegeia, all of it. He arranged a trap for us, too, in Kaizatenzei. And he is the one behind the False Justiciars, the corrupter of the order. He is the son of Kerlamion, called Viedraverion.”
Jeridan shuddered. “That nameâ€¦Iâ€¦feel something, something terrible, when I hear it.” He raised his head, looked into her eyes. “I trust you implicitly, Kyri, the Phoenix of Myrionar, the one who tore the mask from Thornfalcon and the other fallen Justiciars. And thisâ€¦this explains other things, veiled comments, occasional odd looks I recall from the Justiciars. Yes, Kyri.” He straightened. “If you must do something, then do it. Even if it is something lessâ€¦gentle than you imply.”
“Less gentleâ€¦?” For a moment she wondered what he meant, and then saw the bleak acceptance in his eyes, the stiff rise of the chin. “Oh, Myrionar, no, Jeridan. I did not come here to kill you.”
“If in any way I can be used against you–against Evanwyl–you should kill me,” the Watchland said, hands clenched at his side. “I–”
“Let us try something less drastic first, sir,” Gabriel said; the very slight smile was apologetic.
“Yes,” Poplock said, interrupting the Watchland before the man could more than open his mouth. “We know that anything Viedra put on you will probably be mud-sticking hard to break, but we’ve got a couple advantages. First, he probably doesn’t know we’re going to try that now, and second, I don’t think he knows anything about our friends, and even less that they’re here. His daddy’s opposing forces got pretty much wiped out without a chance to report, and no one’s going to believe they all got here from there so quick anyway. And I’ve learned a few tricks since we’ve been gone, too.”
Jeridan Velion looked at them with dawning curiosity, and then smiled weakly at Poplock. “Well, I recall being warned by Adjudicator Toron once, many years ago, to never underestimate a Toad. It seems I might do well to remember that advice.”
“Yeah, you should. He forgot it and had to slap himself later,” Poplock said dryly.
“Then the moments pass no less swiftly; can you perform whatever spells or rituals you envision here and now?”
“If you’ll let us move the table and chairs out of the way, Jeridan, yes.”
“Burn them if you must!” The vehemence of Velion’s outburst made them all stare. “My apologies,” he said, face dark with fury. “I am not angry with you, Kyri, nor with any of your friends and allies. Only at this monster who has used me as a tool. Any price is worth paying to free myself of that.”
Kyri dragged the massive table to one side as the others gathered up the chairs and stacked them; Xavier locked all the doors and Poplock put a seal on them to prevent any possible interruptions.
“Now what?” Toshi asked. “We’re not magicians, Poplock, so this part is up to you.”
“You’re right that you’re not magicians,” Poplock said, “but you’re something even better. You’re elementals, and not just any elementals, but ones probably designed by Khoros himself. For a guy like me, that makes you, um, how would Xavier put it–oh, yeah! Makes you the biggest batteries ever.”
Aurora looked suspiciously at Poplock. “You’re not going to drain us or anything, are you?”
“Well, yes and no,” Poplock said, his voice somewhat muffled as he was digging through his neverfull pack at the moment. “I’m not going to rip out your spirits to fuel a dark spell or anything, but I am going to be tapping the power of all of you in this. Might leave you tired, but shouldn’t hurt anyone.” He emerged with various ritual tools, including colored sands and drawing materials.
“Elementals?” Jeridan looked intrigued, even as Poplock chivvied him to the center of the room and started drawing a complicated circle around him. “Truly?”
“Probably more than that,” Toshi admitted. “We’re trying to figure all that out ourselves, but at least one of our allies said something about also having virtues associated with us–”
“Oooo, that makes sense!” Poplock said. “But keep the conversation down, please–if you distract me I might put the wrong symbols down and that would end badly.”
“Should we get the others set up?”
“Please do. I’ll give you some guidelights.” Poplock muttered and gestured, and suddenly a pyramid of light appeared, each of the five points glowing a different color: white at the apex, then light blue, crimson, green, and violet around the perimeter of the base.
Xavier looked up, nonplussed. “I suppose I can get up there, but if I’m in my not-here mode I don’t think I’m going to, well, be here.”
“Trust me,” Poplock said. “I’ve thought of that. Just jump up there–pretend there’s a little platform up there, because there is. You just can’t see it.”
The gray eyes closed. “Oh, yeah. I can see it now.” Xavier gave a somersaulting leap that took him fifteen feet up, brushing the ceiling, to come down atop what looked like empty air. “On station!”
Toshi nodded as the rest took their places. “The color associations are common?”
“Will I need to do anything?” asked the Watchland.
“Justâ€¦don’t move. I’ve got your circle done here, and you know that damaging a ritual circle can be a bad thing, right?”
“Yes, I’ve seen the results of one that was damaged during the ritual. ‘Bad thing’ indeed.” Jeridan looked carefully around him and then removed his sword, then sat down on the polished wood floor. “Now it should be safe.”
Kyri watched the remainder of the preparations, the Toad carefully drawing complex circles around the four positioned at the points of the pyramid, and felt tension once more return. Poplock was much more skilled than he had been when first they met, there was no doubt of that. And if even half the stories of Xavier and his friends had been true, they would represent an immense amount of power.
But on the other hand, if they were right, Poplock was trying to break the bonds of one of the most powerful demonlordsâ€¦bonds in use for years.
“Ready for you too, Kyri, Tobimar.”
Two more circles had been drawn–one on each side of the Watchland, a line facing towards the rising sun, if the room had been open to the sky. Kyri could recognize symbols for Myrionar, Terian, Chromaias, and the sketched pop-eyes of Blackwart, and saw others scattered through the symbolic pyramid. He’s invoking just about everyone on the side of Light in this. I think that double lightning bolt is the symbol of the Three Beards, and there’s the Triad, and definitely that’s the Hammer and Spear. The little Toad gestured with a tiny wand, sketching more mystical symbology into the air itself, following the lines of the pyramid and encircling Xavier as the boy sat in meditation. The others of the Five had also seated themselves. Only she and Tobimar stood, facing each other and the Watchland between them.
“Almost there,” Poplock said gravely. “Once this starts, though, it’s going to get dangerous. I can sorta see the enchantments in Jeridan, and they’re gonna be tough.”
“I can see them clearly,” Gabriel said. “They are strong. But I do not think they are stronger than we are.”
“Bet on it,” Xavier said. “We’re ready.”
Nike nodded. “Ready.”
“So am I,” Toshi said.
“Do it already!” Aurora said.
Poplock bounced a grin at that. “Okay! Watchland, get ready. This might hurt, or might not, but I can’t promise anything.”
The figure of the Watchland tensed.
Poplock Duckweed began to intone a ritual. It was a strange, patchwork ritual. Some of it, Kyri could tell, was in the peculiar language of the Toads, sound and motion interspersed. Other parts were in the more common language of Zarathan. Some words of Ancient Sauran were used, and even a few ancient phrases which clearly came from the old language of Kaizatenzei. Poplock invoked gods ancient and new, recited words of reinforcement and strength, murmured pieces of ancient prayers, and, once, touched the Gemcalling matrix on his arm, sending a glitter of power through the symbols.
The pyramid began to glow brighter, the previously invisible faces of the figure shimmering with five colors in constant interplay. White light surrounded her and Tobimar and the Watchland, flowing and shifting and running through the dozens of symbols invoking both magical power and deific assistance. Myrionar, stand with me, she prayed. Help to free the Watchland, my friend, your servant, from the grasp of our enemy. She could see Tobimar’s eyes also focus on something beyond him, praying.
Suddenly the Watchland gave a gasp and a grunt, and dark, sharp-edged mists swirled from within him, darting, slashing like knives of shadow or swarms of black, vicious insects at the circle enclosing him. She saw Poplock stagger, then hold Steelthorn up and shout words she did not understand in a tone that reminded her of Hiriista, the Magewright of Kaizatenzei.
Red-gold fire ignited in her circle, blue-white flame erupted from about Tobimar, the two channeling into and reinforcing the circle around the Watchland. At the same time, the circles around the five from Earth blazed to life, pure white from Xavier streaming out to encircle the entire pyramid, outlining its shape as the colors of the others welled out to the walls, lambent solidity manifesting.
“Got you!” Poplock shouted. “Living binding, master-ward, seal of the soul–I banish you from Jeridan Velion! By earth, by air, by fire, by water, by spirit, I abjure you! By passion and knowledge, judgement and trust, by truth I cast you out!”
The swirling, sawtooth-edged blackness surged, making the lines ripple, and a line of dark vapor streaked out, clawing and ripping at Poplock, who barely caught it on the shining silver blade of Steelthorn. For moments Poplock dueled what she now realized was a sentient, fighting spell with nothing but a mystical blade and his own will, cuts appearing by malign magic across his brown hide. The shadow-darkness rose higher, split in three, struck like a snake; Poplock evaded it, then reversed, barely keeping himself from crossing one of the mystic circles. A keening, hungry sound rose from the eldritch thing as it slashed out again, the Toad’s blade only barely parrying the razor-sharp gloom.
But then Poplock somersaulted over the next lunge and slammed Steelthorn down. To her astonishment the enchanted steel impaled the shadowy, half-living construct of sorcery. “To the Circle and then oblivion!” the little Toad bellowed, his voice far louder than Kyri would have believed possible. “By the power of the Five Elements and Five Virtues, be you sealed!”
There were gasps from the five around the pyramid, and Kyri saw that they were sagging, visibly weakening, as the energy was pulled from within them to streak to the circle surrounding Jeridan; with a subliminal shriek of fury, the black-bladed shadow was drawn back to the dark storm within.
Blood streaming from a dozen places, Poplock levered himself upright on Steelthorn, then raised his sword high; he no longer looked small or innocent or funny–he towered within the space of the pyramid, and his voice was filled with fury. “Begone and be obliterated by my will, by my magic, by my friends, by my teachers, by my name! Myrionar and Terian are with me, and by the Companions and Blackwart the Golden-Eyed himself, you are ENDED!”
The light of the circle imploded, crushing in on the seething darkness within, and the scream was not soundless. A detonation echoed out from that nexus, and Kyri was flung backwards to crack against the wall with stunning force. She made herself scramble to her feet, grasping at her sword, afraid for a moment that something new and terrible had been born.
But instead she saw Jeridan Velion, slowly raising his head from where he was sprawled. His eyes were wide, surprised, but clear, and they warmed when they met hers, and she knew it was the man she had come to save.
“Poplock? Poplock! Are you all right?”
Tobimar was crouched over the limp form of the tiny Toad. “C’mon, Poplock!”
Vaguely, she could tell that the others were barely able to move; Xavier had fallen from above in the detonation, to land a short distance from Jeridan. The others, like her, were around the perimeter of the room.
She ran painfully to where Poplock lay. “Move away, Tobimar, please.”
She touched the little body, felt the faint pulse of life. “He’s alive, but very weak.” She heard her own relief echoed in Tobimar’s sigh. “I can take care of that.”
The healing power of Myrionar came in red-gold light and Poplock opened one eye. “Are we done here? Because that really hurt.”
As concerned shouts and pounding began from the locked doors, Jeridan Velion began to laugh.