Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 21
“A vampire?” Kyri repeated in shock. There hadn’t been a vampire of any type in Evanwyl for years, maybe decades, at least as far as she knew.
“And it might be Rion,” Poplock said.
She found herself half out of her chair, hammering her fist down on the table. “Rion is NOTâ€¦!” Then she realized how ridiculous her reaction was. These are my friends and best companions. They wouldn’t say things like this to me idly. She sat back down slowly, not looking at either of them as she took a drink of water from the glass nearby. Then she looked up at them, deliberately meeting both Poplock and Tobimar’s gazes. “I’m sorry. Please, tell me what you know and why you thinkâ€¦think Rion might be involved.”
“Wellâ€¦” Tobimar looked hesitant. Poplock took over.
“We’ve been keeping tabs on him all along. You guys decided to let him walk around if he kept himself out of the public eye, but–sorry!–we don’t trust him all the way yet. So me and Tobimar have been watching him. We were also thinking of having Xavier in on it, but him and Rion have gotten to be pretty tight.” She noticed a small furrow in Tobimar’s brow at that. I don’t think he’s aware of how he’s a little jealous of that; he and Xavier spent a long time together and got to be good friends, too.
The realization her friends had decided to follow her brother around–and not tell her–was a bit of a jolt, but she didn’t need to be told the logic. And since Xavier’s group was leaving this afternoon, they couldn’t hold off on telling her any longer, either. “Go on.”
“Well, most of the time we didn’t see something too suspicious. But then a few days ago there was that attack on Helinaâ€¦”
“Helina? What does she–”
“If you’d let me finish you wouldn’t need to ask!” Poplock said acidly. “Like I said, there was that attack on Helina, but the details of what we know weren’t in what went around the village.” He detailed what had happened the night that he’d lost Rion temporarily, then continued, “Arbiter Kelsley kept it quiet while we looked into things, but he’s about ninety percent sure that it was a vampire that attacked her.”
“What type of vampire? There’s at least three I know of.”
“Five, as far as I know,” Tobimar said. “We think it’s the sort called, more formally, the Curseborn.”
“Balance. They’re almost universally monsters, aren’t they?”
“Yup,” Poplock said, no trace of humor in his voice. “Transfer the curse by blood exchange, feed off of both blood and soul, usually go insane from the transformation, and even if they recover they’re usually pretty much monsters from then on. Tough to kill because they’re fast, strong, and invulnerable except for a few difficult-to-exploit weaknesses. Helina’s description of what she saw could match one that was very powerful–a very old one–and that’d be even harder to kill.”
“How does Kelsley know it’s a vampire?”
“The first and strongest indicator,” Tobimar said, “is the signature bite–twin punctures. Kelsley said he found them, er, lower down, where ordinary circumstances would never lead them to be discovered. Then there was her weakness, which Kelsley determined was due to her spiritual energy–her soul–being severely drained of energy, as well as to a significant though not dangerous loss of blood.”
“With that as a clue,” Poplock said, “I did a little poking around and found that there were at least two other people in Evanwyl–both women–who showed similar symptoms over the last few weeks, before Helina. Though they just claimed they were sick–no one mentioned an attack or anything. They just suddenly got ill, no warning.”
Kyri tried to think about this rationally. “So your theory is that Rion is the vampire in question, and that normally he would complete hisâ€¦feeding and then use whatever mental magic or powers he has to make the person forget they were attacked, but you interrupted him. Right?”
“I am not entirely convinced,” Tobimar said, with a glance at Poplock. “Helina’s story has a couple of inconsistencies if I assume it was Rion who attacked her, the most important being that she claims she heard a shout, and then felt herself falling to the ground as her last memory before blacking out. But she was already on the ground, and had been for at least a couple of minutes, when we came running up to Rion. If her memory is even close to accurate, then whoever shouted as she lost consciousness wasn’t us–and would seem likely to have been Rion, as his story would have it.”
“Of course, if he can mess with minds, he could’ve already started, and her story isn’t accurate,” Poplock said.
Kyri found the idea that Rion might actually be a monster incredibly painful. It had been so hard not to believe in him at first, and nowâ€¦”Do we have any way of proving this?”
Tobimar frowned. Both he and Poplock were silent for a few minutes.
“I honestly don’t know,” Tobimar said after a while. “We already knew he was made from something dark, at least in part. We’ve seen what happens when Xavier’s blade touches him. But all that means is that his essence isn’t entirely human and holy, which tells us nothing we didn’t know. He’s walked plenty in sunlight, but if he’s really one of the ancients then walking the sunlight is something he can do pretty well, even though it probably weakens him. And as Khoros once pointed out to me, the fact that a wooden stake kills a man doesn’t say much as to whether he is in fact a vampire, so to speak.”
“About the only think I can think of that might work is if you directly interrogate him about it using that powerful truth-sense you can get from Myrionar. If you’re willing to do it.”
A part of her wanted to refuse, but with great difficulty she did not even permit that part of her to voice an objection. I need to remove this doubt–or reveal the truth–and this is for our good, not just mine. If it truly is Rion, this will do him no harm, and if he is not, it may save us all. “I will see if he is willing.” She stood. “Now.”
Poplock and Tobimar both looked relieved, which at least confirmed that she was making the right decision. Our general truth-senses have claimed he was genuine, but this will be something more detailedâ€¦and confrontational. Very, very few things could carry off a deception under those conditions.
They found Rion reluctantly handing Xavier’s LTP handheld game console back to its owner. She couldn’t quite repress a smile, even under these circumstances. Rion had been bitten hard by the fascination of the strange electronic game device, just as Tobimar had during his travels with Xavier. This was another reason that he and Xavier had bonded so much during their relatively short acquaintance. “Rion, could we talk to you?”
“Since when have you had to ask to talk to me?” he retorted with a smile. “I recall you sometimes starting a conversation in the middle of the night, when I was trying to sleep.”
That was so very Rion a response–and so very true–that she wanted to just stop right there. She was so sure this was Rion, in all the ways that really mattered. But she refused to allow herself to waver. “Rion, this is serious.” As Xavier and his friends started to leave, she held up her hand. “Actually, I would very much like it if you would stay. Just in case.”
Gabriel gave one of his courtly nods. “We are then entirely at your disposal, Lady Kyri.”
She waited for everyone to be seated. “Rion, you know there are a lot of questions about exactly what you are, and that Poplock and Tobimar caught you out under some very suspicious circumstances. I really, really hate to do thisâ€¦but I must ask you to allow me to ask you some questionsâ€¦as the living emissary of Myrionar, with Myrionar’s Truth manifest to give me the ability to sense any lies you may tell.”
“Iâ€¦see.” He looked around, then shrugged and smiled. “And if I said ‘no’?”
She’d expected that; Rion would ask it. “Then we’d have to cut you out of any further discussions, keep you confined to the estate, and make sure you were secured here–imprison you, to be honest, until we’ve dealt with Viedraverion and the False Justiciars.”
Rion nodded. “Of course you would.” He folded his arms, as he sometimes did when preparing himself for a confrontation. “All right, then, Kyri; ask.”
She closed her eyes, shutting out the sight of all the others staring at her. Myrionar, I need your Truth once more. Let me see through lies and disguises, through deceit and misdirection, and come to the knowledge only of what is.
The golden power flowed up and around her. As she opened her eyes she could see that it bathed the room in an auric glow, and there was awe in the faces of those around her, awe from what they could feel within that power.
At the same time, she could tell that the power was weaker than it had been. Myrionar really is dying. We have to finish this soon, orâ€¦
She buried that thought. Focus on the present. “Rion, are you a vampire?”
Rion raised a brow. “I can’t say that I’m not a vampire. I don’t know exactly what I am.”
The first part could have been a neat evasion, but the second part was a pretty clear statement. Her sense of truth did not show a falsehood. Unless his power was sufficient to mislead Myrionar’s power even in direct confrontation, Rion actually did not know what he was. So if he is a vampire, he doesn’t know it. “Did you attack Helina?”
“I did not attack Helina,” he said flatly. She was startled to find herself not merely relieved, but surprised, when she sensed nothing of falsehood in his statement. A part of me really did suspect him.
Feeling lighter in her heart, she continued. “Rion, are you truly my brother?”
He looked directly at her. “I am.”
“Have you informed anyone of any of the plans we made here, or the discussions we have had on Viedraverion or the False Justiciars?”
“I have not.”
She let the power go, feeling the strain on herself and Myrionar, and allowed a huge smile of relief to spread. “Truth.”
“Truth,” agreed another voice; she saw Gabriel Dante nod. “I sensed nervousness, but no lies.”
“Not one hundred percent proof,” Toshi said bluntly. “We do not know the limits of our powers, yours, or those of our adversaries. This truth-sensing of yours might be very strongâ€¦but we know our adversaries are also very strong.”
She sighed, but smiled again. “True enough. But we have done what we can. I asked him questions that were direct, he answered them, I sense that they are true. Should I retain suspicion and allow it to destroy my hope?”
“No,” said Poplock. “Sure, he could be fooling us somehow, butâ€¦well, that turned out to be the case in Kaizatenzei, and somehow we came through it all right anyway. Let’s just say he’s Rion and not worry about it unless things go south.”
She suspected the little Toad would still keep a close eye on Rion, but she appreciated him at least making a public acceptance of her judgment.
Looking around the group, she saw backpacks, weapons, and other equipment assembled. “Soâ€¦you’re all really leaving.”
“Now that we’ve settled–as much as we can–whether Rion’s a problem? We kind of have to,” Nike said. “Fact is, that war’s not stopped while we’re here, and even if your shortcut’s saving us timeâ€¦well, we don’t know how much time we actually have, soâ€¦”
“You don’t need to explain,” Tobimar said. “Khoros brought us together, but he gave you a mission too. For all I know, you’ve already done whatever he expected you to do here. It’s not like we’ll all know for sure.”
“True enough,” Toshi said. “And we’re leaving in the evening because most people would expect us to leave in the daytime, if we left at all.”
“What about the possibility of spies?” Rion asked. “If you’re leaving and you’re followed–”
“Leave that to me, guys,” Xavier said. “Remember, I got us all out of a prison that your people thought was impossible to escape from. And got Tobimar and Poplock past guard posts, too.”
Kyri laughed, startled. “You can do that with your whole group?”
“If we all keep hold of each other, yeah, for a while at least. If I can do it for a mile or three, it’ll be almost impossible to track us. And I’ll do it a few more times along our route.”
Knowing how utterly impossible it seemed to be to detect Xavier when he used that strange Tor ability, she felt he was right. “Is this goodbye, then?”
The cheerful gray eyes were suddenly not so cheerful. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.” He looked at Tobimar and Poplock. “Umâ€¦Khoros said that this was the only way for us to get home.”
“I know,” Tobimar said quietly. “You told us that. All of you were stuck here unless somehow the Great Seal was broken.”
“But I guess once it’s broken we go home,” Xavier said. “I thought I’d be happy about that. Nowâ€¦well, I am, butâ€¦”
“I know,” Aurora said, and put a hand on Xavier’s shoulder. “We felt the same about leaving Skysand. And I guess Toshi and Nike, leaving Artania.” She laughed suddenly, a great bell-like laugh that reminded Kyri poignantly of Lady Shae’s. “Boy, I was so pissed at Khoros when he brought us here, and I would never have thought I’d be sorry to go home.”
“We all will be,” Nike said. “Butâ€¦we’ll all be happy to get home too. Xavier may have a real mission at home, but all of us have reasons to go back.”
“Thenâ€¦” Tobimar stepped forward, and suddenly Xavier hugged him fiercely. The two held the embrace for a long moment, and then Xavier picked up Poplock and looked at him; the Toad looked only slightly bemused by the handling.
“Have I ever told you you’re kinda cute, Poplock? My sister would think you’re adorable.”
“Wellâ€¦fine, thanks. I guess. It’s okay for this once, anyway.” Poplock’s voice was a little unsteady.
Xavier then went to her. “Kyriâ€¦you finish your job, okay? Kick that bastard’s ass for me. Promise?”
She laughed and swept him into a bear hug. “I promise, Xavier.”
Rion said nothing, just embraced the boy from Earth, and then shook his hand. But as Xavier turned back to his friends, he spoke. “Xavier?”
“I pray for you to get your vengeance. Butâ€¦don’t leave your family alone.”
The smile was brilliant and the gray eyes, so like her own, were happy again. “I won’t, Rion. And when I go on the hunt againâ€¦well, I’ll say a little prayer to your Myrionar, just in case.”
Rion smiled back.
The other goodbyes didn’t take as long. While Kyri liked all of them–studious, sometimes oblivious Toshi with his razor-sharp mind, analytical, dangerous, yet cheerfully friendly Nike, the ever-charming and talented Gabriel, and strong, awkwardly loyal Aurora–they hadn’t shared adventure with Kyri and Tobimar, been part of giving her the first real chance to avenge her family. Finally, the five shouldered their packs, bowed to all of them, linked handsâ€¦and disappeared.
For a little while it was hard to accept that they’d left; no door had opened, they had simply vanished in the dining room. But as the much quieter evening began to lengthen, she accepted that the group from Zahralandar–Earth–was gone.
“Wellâ€¦we’re on our own,” she said finally to Rion, Tobimar, and Poplock.
“We are,” Rion agreed. “But we knew we would be. There has to be some way to get to the Retreat.”
Tobimar grunted. “So far we haven’t had much luck.” He yawned. “Look at that. This early?”
“You stayed up late last night,” Poplock pointed out, “Hanging out with Xavier, as he’d put it.”
“Yeah. Well, I’m going to at least do a little sparring before I wash up and go to bed. Want to join me, Poplock?”
“Why not? You need someone to beat you once in a while.”
“How about you, Kyri, Rion?”
Kyri didn’t quite feel like sparring. “Not right now. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Okay. See you in a bit, then.”
She looked back at Rion as the two left. “Well, as they said, we haven’t had much luck. I can only think of one possibility, but unfortunately I don’t control that possibility.”
“What possibility is that?”
“If we could somehow get you back yourâ€¦connection to Myrionar, maybe you could find your way there.”
Rion tilted his head, puzzled. “Butâ€¦you are a Justiciar, and you can’t find the place.”
“True, Rionâ€¦but I haven’t ever been there. As a Justiciar, you were there. And since Myrionar was the source of your strength, it wasn’t through our enemy’s power that you could find the Retreat, it was through Myrionar’s and the fact that you were already admitted to the Retreat.”
Rion’s mouth dropped slightly open and he stared at her. Then a slow grin spread across his face. “You knowâ€¦that’s just about simple enough an idea that it might just work.” Then his face fell. “If it could work.”
He stood suddenly, started to walk out. Then stopped. “I want to go for a walk. But you’re welcome to come and keep an eye on me, if you want.”
“I’m not suspicious of you.”
“Your Toad friend still is. And maybe he’s right.”
They stepped out into the deepening night. The sky was awash in brilliant stars, shimmering in soft colors and sharp, infinitely small and bright points, the great arc of dark-streaked light that the Sauran’s called the Dragon’s Path crossing the entire sky. She heard the faint trilling cry of a Least Dragon in the distance, the sussuration of insects much nearer at hand. Rion was a black outline on black in the darkness.
“If we aren’t going to suspect you, do you need to be so hard on yourself, Rion?”
“Kyri, I can’t even touch holy objects. I’m surprised I can touch your hand without being scorched.” He walked towards the rear of the estate–not towards the town; obviously he wasn’t taking any more risks. “Can you imagine what it would do to me if Myrionar was even willing to take me back? I’d explode in fire.”
“There has to be a way around that.” The idea that her brother–that Rion–was barred from the thing he had dreamed of, had worked for, had achieved–was maddening and tragic. “We’ll find one. Somehow.”
He stopped, the two of them in the deeper shadows beneath the trees that shaded the rear of the estate. Even in that darkness, she saw a phantom flicker of white teeth as he laughed. “And maybe I should just accept that you will,” he said quietly, laying a hand on her shoulder. “You’ve been beating the odds all along.”
“I try,” she said.
They stood that way for a moment. Then Kyri became aware she could see his eyes, a faint shade of a shimmer in the darkness. “Your eyes are–”
“Yes, I know. Subtle, but one sign that can remind me of what I am. Is itâ€¦scary?”
“No,” she said with a faint snort of laughter. “I’ve seen things that were actually scary.” She concentrated on the faint discs of light. “A little eerie, but I can just about make out the detail–not just a general glow of light for the whole eye. Faint touch of blue in the center.”
“Really? You can see that much?”
“Yes.” She found herself concentrating on the eyes again. Wait. Why am I paying so much attention to this?
But now the eyes were shimmering with yellow.
Oh, Myrionar, NO. “R-Rionâ€¦”
“Iâ€¦I really don’t want to hurt you, Kyri. I’mâ€¦I’m sorry, but I just realizedâ€¦I don’t have a choice now. I don’t know whyâ€¦”
Desperately she fought to move, feeling the same helpless fury that she had when Thornfalcon had caught her–but made worse by it being Rion, by the genuine regret and self-loathing in that voice.
But she could only raise a hand slowly, weakly, as Rion–or whatever it was that wore his face–bent towards her throat.