Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 18

Chapter 18

Tobimar watched as Xavier and Rion sparred. Rion wielded what Tobimar thought of as an Odinsyrnen sword and some others called a knight’s weapon–a fairly long one-handed blade, double-fullered along most of its length, with a dragon-motif hilt–and a small shield, slightly larger than a buckler, and wore chain armor with some plate elements. Xavier, of course, wore no apparent armor and used two swords. As usual, Poplock had put safecharms on the blades so they wouldn’t kill each other.

The two circled cautiously at first, but Xavier chose to go on the offensive quickly, striking out to disarm or create an opening–and nearly getting a sword in the face for his trouble. But Rion’s attempt to follow up on that ended up catching nothing but air, as Xavier backflipped rapidly away and landed in the Tor combat pose, prepared.

Rion is good, Tobimar realized. He’d seen Rion in combat in their trek through Rivendream, but here he was watching Kyri’s brother dueling Xavier, someone whose skills he knew well; the two of them had practiced together, sparred frequently, both during their travel from Zarathanton to Evanwyl, and in the few months Xavier had remained after Thornfalcon’s defeat. Rion was holding his own against an increasingly serious assault by the Earth native.

Rion was grinning at Xavier. “You’re not even trying. Where’s your real skill, your real strength?”

“Dude! I’m not trying to kill you here, and I want to leave Kyri’s house intact, too.”

Rion blinked, as did Tobimar; for Rion, the blink was more costly. Ow! That blow to the ribs must have stung. “Are you joking with me, Xavier?”

The gray-eyed boy glanced at Tobimar, then looked back to Rion, catching his opponent’s sword on one blade and turning aside a shield-bash with the other, then dodged back, leapt completely clear. “I can keep up with my friends. And your sister. So no, not joking.”

A sudden bright grin. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something I can do!”

The swords slashed down, ten feet distant from Rion; but pearl-white light streaked out, extensions of blades and spirit. Rion’s eyes widened and he brought up his own sword and shield barely in time. Even so, the impact sent him sprawling; he rolled badly, turned aside to evade Xavier’s follow-up, and found his neck touching one of the bright leaf-green blades.

Rion flinched away from the blade surprisingly violently, but then laughed. “I asked for that, didn’t I? Well struck, Xavier.”

“Well, we’ll try that again when you’ve got your Justiciar mojo back; I’ll bet it won’t be so easy then.” Xavier’s eyes narrowed. “Hey, Rion, did I cut you? I swear I was careful–”

Rion’s hand came up, touched the bright red mark on his neck. “No, I swear you barely touched me.” His face darkened. “Is there…a special virtue in those blades you carry?”

“Well, Khoros said that I wasn’t ever going to find better blades. My sensei gave them to me. And Idinus seemed to think they were interesting.” Xavier started to hand them to Rion, glanced at the red mark and obviously thought better of it, settled for holding the slightly curved sword where Rion could study it.

Tobimar was, of course, intimately familiar with the weapons, which both Xavier’s sensei and the Spiritsmith called vya-shadu. At the base of Xavier’s blades was a symbol, parallel swords and seven stylized towers; the ones the Spiritsmith had forged for Tobimar incorporated a similar design but used the Seven and One of Skysand.

Rion’s eyes widened as his gaze focused on Xavier’s swords. It was a momentary thing, almost instantly hidden, but Tobimar was sure he had seen it. However, all he said was, “They’re beautiful. And I think I can sense…something there.” His gaze dropped. “I was made by…monsters. From monstrous things. Perhaps the reason I’m not a Justiciar again is because the holy power would burn me.”

“Might be right,” Poplock murmured to Tobimar. “You notice his–”

“Yes. Talk later.”

Xavier had put his hand on Rion’s shoulder. “Hey, c’mon. Maybe you’re right, but I’m sure you and your sis will work through that somehow. Your god’s into Justice, and it wouldn’t be fair if you couldn’t get back into your old profession, right?”

Rion looked at Xavier and gave a snort of laughter. “An unbeliever reminding me of the basics. All right then, no need for me to dwell on that.”

“Maybe we should do something less strenuous, anyway. I have a–”

At that point Toshi poked his head through a doorway into the practice yard. “Oh, here you are. Come on, we have something to discuss with everyone.”

Poplock gestured and a twinkle of light showed he’d dispelled the safewards. “Looks like we’ll be doing something a lot less strenuous, sitting in chairs.”

“Probably not as boring as a conference on Earth,” Xavier said cheerfully. Rion followed them, still not looking entirely happy.

Can’t blame him, Tobimar thought. What must it be like knowing you’re the creation of your own enemies?

Once more the table in Vantage Fortress was laden with food, and there were plenty of seats already filled by the others. “We’re all here, Kyri,” Toshi said. “Can we back up a little and let everyone know what we’re talking about?”

“Of course, Toshi,” Kyri said. She waited until Tobimar and Rion had seated themselves on either side of her, and Xavier had decided which dishes he wanted to be sitting near. “Toshi and I were discussing the critical time problem. If they were to set out immediately but had to go through Hell’s Edge to get to the Black City, it would take them several months; the distance is almost as far as getting to the Fallen Hills, and the last part of it would be going through Hell itself.”

“Although with two armies having gone through there recently,” Poplock said, “that probably wouldn’t be so much of a slowdown as it might be otherwise. I’d bet both the Empire of the Mountain and the State of the Dragon King are keeping supply lines open, too.”

The Toad scratched his head. “You might have trouble convincing them to let you through Hell’s Edge, though. You can’t just walk through…” He trailed off, seeing Xavier grinning broadly at him. “Okay, no, that won’t be a problem.”

Remembering how Xavier had been able to use his power to help him and Poplock literally walk right past Dalthunian guardposts, Tobimar had to grin along with Xavier.

“But I realized that there might be another solution, if you can manage to scale a few really difficult mountains.”

“Hey, wait,” Poplock said, and Tobimar continued, “Kyri, you won’t be able to escort them.”

“I don’t think it will matter,” Kyri said.

“Begging your pardon, Lady Kyri, but it might make things clearer if you finished telling us about this other solution,” Gabriel Dante said.

“Sorry, Gabriel–and Aurora and Nike. Poplock, can you get out a map for us?”

“Hold on…yes, here you go!” The Toad pulled a scroll of paper out of his neverfull pack–a scroll several times longer than the Toad and pack combined, a sight that always looked peculiar even though Tobimar ought to be used to it by now.

Unrolled, the paper was a detailed map of the known continent of Zarathan, with Artania also up in the northwest corner. Kyri leaned over it, pointing. “Evanwyl’s here; we’re just about in the center of that star-shape that marks the city. Way down here is Hell’s Edge. You do not want to go through the Gyrefell Forest; no one does. Even the Dragons warn against it.

“So you have to either go right along the base of Hell’s Rim until you get to Hell’s Edge, which will be a very rough journey, or you have to go south, catch the Great Road, and travel along here until you reach the Odinsforge Range and can take the northwest fork. That will be faster, although Dalthunia’s hostile territory and there’s no telling what you might run into there.”

Nike nodded. “Yes, we’re generally familiar with the map, although talking to someone who’s actually been through those areas will certainly be helpful.”

“Hey, I was through there not all that long ago,” Xavier pointed out. “But they’re right about it not being safe.”

“In any case, you can see that’s a long trip. But when I had my Raiment forged, and Tobimar got his new swords, we visited the Spiritsmith, and he lives here.” She pointed to a point on Hell’s Rim which was slightly north of the easternmost part of the circle of mountains, and thus part of the section of mountains not too far from Evanwyl.

“But he’s still on this side of Hell’s Rim, right?” Aurora asked.

“Technically, probably,” Poplock said. “But Kyri’s on to something. From one part of the plateau the Spiritsmith lives on, you could see straight into Hell, and we did see the…black glow, whatever you’d call it, when the Black City manifested.”

“That might work,” Toshi said slowly. “If you can actually see into this place you call Hell, then the mountain range must be considerably narrower there. Still high enough to serve as a bulwark against the things you mention live there, but if we can reach this plateau…Between me and Aurora, we could probably get us down from there with minimal noticeable power, avoiding calling attention to ourselves.”

“But he’s notorious about not wanting visitors, Kyri,” Tobimar reminded her.

“But he’s not there now,” she said. “Remember, he was packing to leave when we left. He’s gone with the army by now. Oh, his forge itself is probably all secured, but there weren’t any signs of any traps or enchantments or wards on the plateau itself. Poplock?”

“No, no sign of any, or any sign there’d ever been any. I think he considers it pretty secure as it is.”

“Can you give us clear enough directions so that we can get there ourselves without you having to lead us?” asked Aurora. “Because Xavier’s never been there either.”

Kyri glanced at Tobimar and Poplock. Tobimar thought back to the trip they’d made, then looked at Poplock for confirmation. “I think so. The three of us could work out the route to Waycross, and from there it’s a pretty straight walk following the split-peak landmark.”

“How far from that plateau would you guess the Black City would be?” Toshi asked.

Tobimar shrugged, looking at Kyri, who also shrugged. Poplock rolled his eyes. “You guys can’t even guess that? Figuring elevation at around twenty thousand feet, and the fact that the city itself was still over the horizon, something over two hundred miles, I’d guess.”

“Twenty thousand feet!” Nike was startled. “Good Lord, Toshi, you’ll need to be providing us with oxygen or something.”

“It’s not that difficult to breathe up there,” Kyri said. “Though it is colder than down here.”

“Hmmm,” Toshi said, frowning. “But this planet has similar gravity to Earth and apparently similar diameter. Why would the scale height be so much different?”

“They call it magic for a reason, dude,” Xavier said.

“But why? Why would the magic do this?”

“It’s possible that the Spiritsmith arranged it,” Poplock pointed out. “He needs air for his forge, and probably doesn’t want any visitors keeling over just because the air’s too thin.”

“Might be,” conceded Toshi. “Which might mean that it’s no longer in force when he’s gone. But Nike is also right that I could manage to address that problem. So this seems a very viable alternative and one that would reduce our journey, even taking into account the need for a very slow and cautious descent on the other side, by at least two months, possibly more.”

“In that case, I think we should stay for at least a couple of weeks,” Nike said, “and see if they or the Watchland can somehow locate this ‘Justicar’s Retreat.’ If they can do that before we leave–”

“–we’ll go in with you and help kick this guy’s ass,” Xavier said firmly. “Which for all we know might make things easier all around, if he’s been the guy pulling all the other strings.”

“You don’t have to–”

“Of course we don’t,” Gabriel said immediately. “But you and Tobimar and Poplock are Xavier’s friends, and we now know what a terrible enemy you will be facing. We do indeed have our own rendezvous with destiny…but you have shown us a shorter way to that destination than the one we would have taken. It is only just, as your own god would say, that we devote some of that time to you. And a few weeks of rest, after what we went through, also sounds attractive.”

Toshi bit his lip, then gave a little bow. “Agreed, unless Aurora has an objection?”

Aurora smacked her fist into her open hand; the concussion shook the conference room. “I would love to punch the guy who put that disgusting spell on the poor Watchland. Two weeks, maybe three.”

“Done, then,” Toshi said. “Do you have any leads on how to find your target?”

“I’m going to talk with the Watchland again tomorrow,” Kyri answered. “You–any of you–could come if you like. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to draw out some repressed memories of the Retreat. Either the Watchland has been there, or he’s been repeatedly possessed by a being that has. It seems at least reasonable to think that somewhere inside, Jeridan knows how to find it.”

“Right,” Tobimar said. “Poplock and I are going to go talk with Arbiter Kelsley; it seems to me that the remaining high priest of Myrionar and his temple might have some clues, even if they don’t know they’re clues, so to speak.”

“And at the least I might get an idea of how to get through the diversion wards they must have set up,” Poplock said. “Since they’d have to be real similar to the original wards.”

“Diversion wards?” Aurora asked.

“Enchantments to keep people from reaching a certain spot,” Poplock said. “You get diverted around it, no matter how hard you try. Gets more and more blatant as you fight it harder. If you don’t know it’s there, what happens is that even if you started going straight for whatever-it-is, you just gradually change your course. If you’re following a compass, you’ll keep misreading it until you’re well past, and so on.”

Poplock rocked side-to-side, frowning. “Real hard to get through unless you’re either a lot more powerful than the person who put them up, or you know whatever the trick is to get past, or if you’re able to focus a counter-diversion ward and get through. That’s what I’m probably going to have to do if we can’t figure out how to just walk there…and I’m guessing that Viedraverion set it up so that only False Saints can get through.”

“But that’s tomorrow,” Xavier said. “We’re not getting any of that done now.”

Gabriel raised an eyebrow at him. “And you have something else in mind?”

“Well, I’m not saying people who have more deep thoughts can’t keep talking, but I’m not planning on it. Instead–partly because he reminds me of Mike–tonight, I’m gonna teach Rion, and anyone else who wants, my brother Michael’s favorite card game.”

He produced a pack of cards of a type that Tobimar had never seen before. “Time for this world to learn five-card draw poker!”