Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 23
Poplock looked at Kyri, who was clearly weakened and shaking with reaction from the attack and shock, and Tobimar standing near her. Right, I can take this myself.
“Okay, you’ve got a chance to talk. Better make the talk good. So you’re a demon under Viedraverion’s command?”
Tashriel’s face twisted in half-amusement, half-misery. “I wasâ€¦on loan to Viedraverion. He made my real master, Balinshar, give me to him for a special project–and used his father to put pressure on Balinshar to do it.”
“So the first big question isâ€¦why you?”
“Because I’mâ€¦not really a demon. Not entirely, not in myâ€¦what’s left of my soul. I was a human being, once. Then I became a vampire, then the demons came for us and they captured me instead of killing me. At the time,” another twisted smile, “I almost thought they did me a favor. I was deep in the madness that all the Cursed get when the blood takes hold. Iâ€¦I think I’d killed some of my own people, it’s all blurred, but I know that when I came to myself I really was grateful for a moment. Before I realized they’d simply killed everyone anyway and were making me one of them.”
“Interesting,” said Toshi. “But you must have had something special about you that made you worth saving.”
Tashriel paused, then swallowed, looking at the others. “Yes. It was a huge secret. Balinshar kept that knowledge absolutely hidden from everyone; he figured that I might be a hidden weapon, a blade from nowhere, if he played things right. Realizing that Viedraverion already knew about itâ€¦that was a shock.”
He took a deep breath. “I was trained in Thanalaran–I don’t know what to call it in your language, exactly. It combined alchemy, sorcery, the powers of the mind, and mechanisms of science, devices–”
“Technomancy!” Xavier blurted out.
“Technomancy? Wellâ€¦I suppose, yes, that’s not a terribly bad way to put it. It was an ancient and secret discipline even in my era, long, long ago.”
That makes sense. Poplock gave a satisfied bounce. “Okay, so now I understand why you were sent to Wieran. He was doing a lot of that technomancy stuff already.”
“I found it almost impossible to believe when I saw it. He seemed to have singlehandedly reconstructed things not seen since Atla’a Alandar. I was there as an assistant.”
Gabriel was nearby, leaning against one of the unbroken trees. “Pardon me for saying so, but you’re being very pleasant, apparently forthcoming, and so on. If you’re such a pleasant fellow, why were you working for these people?”
The yellow gaze dropped, Tashriel’s expression went nearly dead. “Theyâ€¦made me what I was. They canâ€¦areâ€¦making me do things. You’ve beaten me for the moment, I can think and act for myself for a little whileâ€¦but soon I’ll have to go back.” He bit his lip hard enough to draw blood with one of his sharp fangs. “Iâ€¦don’t want to. But it’s so hard to fight. Now that the matrix is gone and my service to Viedra’s failed, I’ll have to return to Balinshar, and I don’t want to do that. Butâ€¦I’ll have to.”
“Not if you’re dead,” Aurora said grimly. “And you haven’t said anything that makes me sure you’re leaving alive.”
“She’s got a point. We still don’t know how you got in that tube, and whatever you have to say about Viedraverion.”
“Iâ€¦Speaker’s Name, this is hard for me! I am fightingâ€¦very hardâ€¦to try to tell you. If I wasn’t sort of between masters, not formally returned to Balinshar, I wouldn’t be able to act at all!” The white-haired youth’s hands shook; he clenched them into fists. “The tube was prepared by Wieran to Viedraverion’s precise specifications and secured as you found it. Wieran was simply told to leave it available for later use. I was told to enter the tube, and what part I was to play and how I was to disguise myself, when it became clear that the ‘endgame,’ as he put it, was starting. At that point Wieran would be far too focused on his own work to worry about my location.”
“So Master Wieran had no knowledge of this trick of Viedraverion’s at all?”
“None. Wellâ€¦I’m sure he knew that there was a much larger purpose in the tube’s presence, but not what it was, nor did he care much.”
Poplock saw Kyri’s head come up. “How did you manage to play Rion so well? You knew things that only he should know. How?”
“That was the ‘matrix’ I mentioned. Viedraverion transferred it to me when he sent me to Wieran, but didn’t activate it until I entered the tube. It wasâ€¦” He met Kyri’s gaze; Poplock saw more sorrow there than he had expected. “You had already guessed the essence of it, really. It was a part, a scrap of the real Rion’s soul, that I couldâ€¦well, wrap around my own like a cloak and make into a sort of front that reacted on its own, using my soul and strength to translate its echoes of memory. I’ve never seen anything like it; I didn’t think it was possible to do that soâ€¦perfectly. When I spoke as Rion, I almost was him. If I didn’t let myself think too much as myself, if I didn’t try to look ahead or behind like an actor, but rather let ‘Rion’ actâ€¦it could be nearly perfect. There were only a few minor gaps in its memory, but you already noticed and discounted those.”
“What about our truthtelling? It covered that, too?” Kyri demanded.
Tashriel shook his head again, a slow, disbelieving motion. “In truth, I thought I might be discovered then. The matrix was already breaking, I had become tooâ€¦caught up in it, too interested in becoming part of what I saw, for it to remain untouched. Iâ€¦I didn’t want to PLAY the part, I was trying to make the part follow what I wanted, and that stressed it too much. It managed to still hide my nature, but I had to be very, very careful about how I answered and literally force the remaining matrix to help in the answers. Some of them wereâ€¦evasive, at the least, such as whether I attacked Helina–I made myself believe it was not really an attack, because she was cooperating with me–or whether I was your brother, because I was, with the matrix, the only part of your brother left. But at that point I knew that I had very little time left. Days, perhaps not even that. Soâ€¦”
“Let’s go back. Tell us about Viedraverion. We’ve heard the name, we know he’s a demonlord and a plotter and all, but can you tell us more about him?”
Tashriel nodded vehemently. “Oh, yes. Balinshar hated Viedraverion, so he made sure I knew all about him, and spent time studying him to find weaknesses and blind spots.” He looked at the others regretfully. “Butâ€¦he doesn’t really have any.
“Viedraverion is the first son of Kerlamion Blackstar himself. He has served a key role in many plans by the King of All Hells. After Atlantaea was brought down and the Sauran Kingdoms shattered, Viedraverion was sent out to scour the galaxy for remnants of the old civilizations and destroy or neutralize themâ€¦until there was effectively no chance for anyone out there to learn the truth.”
Toshi looked up sharply. “That would have taken nearly forever. Galaxies are big.”
“He knew that too. So–according to the records–what he did was let civilizations rise to a certain level, where they started locating and collecting the relics themselvesâ€¦and then arrange the civilization to collapse. In effect, he got literally trillions or quadrillions of people to act as his searching parties.”
Oh, mud and drought. “He’s a long-term thinker.”
“Very long-term. He spent over a hundred thousand years on that assignment.”
Nike stared at Tashriel. “I know Khoros was that old, but I still have a hard time imagining something living that long without changing.”
“Oh, it can change even Demons some. Balinshar used to rant about that; apparently before he spent a hundred thousand years manipulating civilizations, Viedraverion was really bright and manipulative but had a cold, hard approach that tended to drive people away. After he came back, he had learned how to work with people.”
“I see,” said Toshi. “Then when he sent you to Wieran, he had already planned your integration with Kyri’s party. He was certain they would triumph over all odds, and return here.”
“He wasn’t certain,” Tashriel corrected. “He believed things would work out as they did–with many, many contingencies prepared for various alternative outcomes.” A corner of his mouth curled upward, and the yellow eyes were distant for a moment. “Heâ€¦it was one of the good things about working with him, that I could see something so incrediblyâ€¦well, beautiful as his strategies, laid out like a map of the future, illuminated in gems and gold.”
“Screw your admiration for the artist,” Aurora snapped. “What had he ‘mapped’ for you?”
Tashriel looked at her and Poplock saw what seemed honest guilt in his eyes. “I was supposed to gain your complete confidence, let you ‘help’ me regain myself, er, well, Rion’s self, and then lead you to the Retreat where Viedraverion and the other Justiciars would be waiting for you.”
“Then what were you doing–”
For the first time, color flamed on Tashriel’s cheeks. “Rion loved his sister very much. And I was playing him for months. But I’m not her brother, and those emotions going through meâ€¦being near herâ€¦I found I didn’t want to lead her into danger. I didn’t want to. And my feelingsâ€¦weren’t brotherly, really, not once I started feeling them myself. Combined with everything elseâ€¦I stopped thinking.”
There was a moment of silence; Poplock could see that most expressions were a combination of sympathy, anger, and revulsion. Complex situation. “So,” he said, “The important questions: what’re his powers, and do you know any weaknesses or quirks he has we might be able to use?”
“Powers are easy. He’sâ€¦really powerful in most areas. In his natural form–which is about seven feet tall, really broad, gray-skinned–he’s phenomenally strong and fast, even for a demon. He’s very resistant to most forms of magic and very tough against weapons of all kinds. He’s also a rannon master–what you call psionics, powers of the mind–with a lot of experience in using it to kill, control and so on. Telekinetic, telepathic, self-enhancement, he knows how to use it all at an extremely high level of power.”
Tobimar looked grim. “When you say ‘extremely high,’ what–”
“That big wall of stone Aurora threw in front of me? He could just think at it, and it’d fly up a mile and come down on top of you. That’s ‘extremely high.’ And he might be a lot stronger than that.”
“Great Balance,” muttered Kyri. “Iâ€¦don’t know if we can face this.”
“Maybe you can,” Tashriel said. “If he has any weakness, it is that of all demons: the power of the Gods of Light is a major weapon against them, and you are Myrionar’s only real representative, now. Tobimarâ€¦I know he has true holy power as well. Together you mightâ€¦”
He stopped suddenly, and his face showed horror and regret that sent a chill of fear dancing along Poplock’s skin. “Oh, no. Oh, I’m sorry, Kyri. I’m so, so sorry. That’s whyâ€¦”
“What? What’s why? Why what?” Poplock knew that didn’t sound very coherent, but it asked the questions he needed answered.
“Iâ€¦that’s why I couldn’t stop, why I had toâ€¦” Tashriel trailed off, cursing in a Demonic tongue. “No! By the Speaker and the Lady! That was why I couldn’t stop myself! It was his contingency–he’d made sure I would do it!”
“Do WHAT?” Poplock bellowed.
Tashriel’s face was even whiter than it had been. “Iâ€¦exchanged blood with her. Some of hers in me, then some of mine to her.”
Tobimar’s blades whispered from their sheaths. “You monster. You meanâ€¦”
“Yes,” Tashriel whispered. “She’s got the Curse now. In a few days the change will begin. The madness will strike. And even before thatâ€¦she will be no threat to Viedraverion.
“Because if she so much as tries to summon the holy power of Myrionar, it will burn her to ashes.”