Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 06

Chapter 6.

“You’re sure about this, Kyri?” Tobimar said, glancing involuntarily downward. The base of the mountain already seemed a very long way away.

“As sure as I can be about anything which has not yet been proven,” the blue-haired Justiciar answered with a smile. With the helm off and the Raiment mostly cloaked, she looked less like the Phoenix Justiciar, deadly avenger of Myrionar, and more like the young woman he’d come to know in the past few weeks. “And even if this doesn’t work out, I am sure we can get some of the best advice on Zarathan here.”

He nodded, following her lead up the mountain. He suspected that he could climb at least as well as she could, though she wasn’t bad, but she’d been up the mountain before, and he hadn’t, so he let her keep the lead. “I can’t argue that. Though I don’t want to infringe on your honor against these false Justiciars.”

She paused as they reached a small ledge and looked over at him, those amazing gray eyes serious. “Tobimar, I guess… I would have been worried about that before Thornfalcon. But if I believe in Myrionar at all – and I do now, with all the faith my heart can hold – then I must believe that It arranged for you, Poplock, and Xavier to be there, either Itself or through Its allies, Terian, Chromaias, the Dragon Gods, even,” she flashed another smile at his shoulder, “Blackwart the Great or the Three Beards. And however it was arranged, it is a sign. You came seeking justice and vengeance, and with wisdom you saw past Thornfalcon’s lies just in time, and saved me from – oh, very literally – a fate worse than any ordinary death. You are a part of this, and – by the commands of justice – I am now bound to your mission as well. So nothing you gain here can infringe on my honor; it is my honor.”

He blinked. “Kyri, my quest might be a never-ending one, a fool’s mission. I may never find the answers, the homeland we left, the Stars or the Sun. There have been dozens of such seekers exiled from my homeland. I would not have you bound to something that may take you from your clear and urgent duty.”

She shook her head. “Justice requires balance. Nor can either of us ignore the fact that too many things appear to be happening at the same time. The power behind these false Justiciars may be the same one – or related to the one – that has set all these other plans in motion. And your ‘Khoros’ already links us. I think, if I’m going to resolve the mystery of the False Justiciars, I will in one way or another have to enter the heart of your mystery, as well.” She gazed upward, judging the angles. “And as Sasha determined, that gateway under Thornfalcon’s mansion went somewhere into Moonshade Hollow, which you believe – I think rightly – is what’s left of your homeland.”

“She’s right,” Poplock said, moving to his other shoulder as they continued the climb. “We’d already come to that conclusion, and it makes more sense the longer I think about it.”

Tobimar shrugged. “I can’t argue that. But… Kyri, while I respect Myrionar – now that I’ve met you and seen Its power in you, and heard Its tenets, I respect It very much – I’m dedicated to Terian Himself, as are all my family. I can’t be one of your Justiciars, so…”

“Don’t say can’t,” she said with a smile thrown over her shoulder. “I’ve been thinking about that, and do you know, I can’t find a single word in the Teachings that says all the Justiciars have to be dedicated solely to Myrionar. The power of the Justiciars is from Myrionar, yes, and obviously you have to conduct yourself in a manner that the Balanced Sword would agree with, but a follower of the Infinite, the Light in Darkness, would hardly do anything that would disappoint a Justiciar.”

I hadn’t exactly thought of it that way. “You mean a Justiciar could be a follower of another god?”

“I mean I don’t see anything that says he or she couldn’t be such a follower. But don’t worry, I’m not trying to force you into that decision.”

“But then what…”

“… do I think we can gain from this?” she finished. “The Spiritsmith is one of, if not the, greatest armorers who has ever lived. He’s also normally very jealous of his privacy and his knowledge, so much so that he made things work the way I described – such that many who sought him must have died in the attempt. But he did not extract from me any promise to keep his secrets, or place on me any of the requirements or commands he did on the nearby villages. If you aren’t going to become a Justiciar, I don’t know if I can convince him to help you… but I’m very sure he’ll at least have some good advice, a name or three of those who can help us.”

She paused to catch her breath, and so did Tobimar, grateful for the respite. Where does her family get their stamina? Her strength, her speed, her toughness… they’re just stunning. Without Khoros’ training, I couldn’t keep up at all.

Once they reached the chimney she had described, Tobimar realized they were now only a short distance from the top… and minutes from a legend. The Spiritsmith.

He emerged from the narrow vertical tunnel, breathing hard, and heaved himself upright.

The massive form of an Ancient Sauran loomed over him, scarcely ten feet away and standing over eight feet high, taller than Toron himself, his scales having a patina of depth and iridescence that Tobimar guessed indicated his age far more clearly than any wrinkles could have.

“So you have returned, Phoenix Kyri, and with true blood of false Justiciars upon your sword. It is well. It is very well indeed. Yet you also bring another…” he paused, narrowing his gaze, and then smiling, “two others, with you.”

“Good eyes,” murmured Poplock. Tobimar nodded, impressed; most others didn’t even notice the Toad, let alone realize Poplock’s significance.

“So, Phoenix,” the Spiritsmith continued, “Is this boy – or this toad – to be the next of your Justiciars?”

Even Kyri, serious though she was, could not keep a straight face as Poplock leapt onto Tobimar’s head and struck a grandiose pose. “Indeed, behold the next of the true Justiciars of Myrionar, and my trusty steed!”

The explosive snort of laughter from the Spiritsmith almost blew the little toad off Tobimar’s head. “I see, I see indeed; yet such as yourself are already so mighty that one such as I can do little for you.”

“In seriousness, sir,” Tobimar began, not without some lingering smile on his face, “I do not intend to become a Justiciar – at least not at this time,” he amended. Why cut off the possibility? Many things may yet happen. “But various events have made it clear that my path and Kyri’s are joined, and thus I may face her enemies, and she mine; and,” he drew his blades and presented them, “I have far too clear evidence that my weapons are inadequate to the challenge.”

The Spiritsmith looked very interested in his swords – more so than Tobimar had expected. “The twin curved swords… interesting.” His gaze traced the blades carefully, visibly pausing when reaching one of the dents or minor cuts on the blade. He then gestured for Tobimar to sheath the swords. “I see indeed your reason for travelling here. And you have done well to have wielded your blades with such skill and power that they sustained such slight damage, overall.”

“He helped me slay Thornfalcon,” Kyri said simply.

The huge Sauran studied him for several moments, then turned and strode slowly, thoughtfully, across the plateau. Tobimar could see that to the West, other peaks rose, but there seemed to be one clear path – which, if it was truly clear, might actually provide a narrow, straight glimpse at the land called Hell itself. The Spiritsmith was not, however, looking in that direction, but rather pacing with slow, measured strokes towards the rocks that surrounded the entryway to his underground forge, his massive tail swinging in time to the steps.

“The intersection of heroes at a battle is not unusual,” he said finally. “What other events or circumstances link your two causes?”

Tobimar glanced at Poplock and Kyri, trying to figure out how to go over all of it in the shortest amount of time. It was the little Toad who finally said, “Well… have you ever heard of an old wizard named Khoros?”

The pacing stopped as though the Spiritsmith had run into a stone wall. For a long moment he stood silently, staring seemingly at nothing except a distant peak to the south. At last, he said, “Konstantin Khoros taught me much of my craft, in the days when the world was younger, when Elbon had only the Fifteen and none of the T’Teranahm had betrayed their hearts and souls. And after all had fallen into darkness, he came again, no longer a man of mirth and gentle humor, but grim and fell, and taught me other ways of guiding the powers I was still just beginning to understand. I have forged for him many times, and his designs have guided others; indeed,” he nodded to Kyri, “it was he who spoke to me of the designs which became the Raiment of the Justiciars, as well as others. You mean to say, then, that Khoros himself has brought you together?”

Tobimar stared at him, trying to answer while his mind tried to grapple with the implications. Khoros taught the Spiritsmith… in the days before the Fall? But that’s… He could see the same stunned incredulity on Kyri’s face, and realized once more how deeply laid were the plans of his old teacher. “I’m not quite sure we can say that exactly… but Khoros taught me to wield these swords – instructed our people in how to forge them, in fact — and he helped Kyri to reach this place originally at a much greater speed than she could have managed otherwise, and even Poplock ran into him once. And there were some others we met who were connected to him.”

The huge reptilian creature gave a sigh that sounded almost like a snarl. “Then truly there is a connection. I must think on this. He would have expected you to come here, I believe, and in that he would expect and require that I assist you in some other manner.”

“You don’t have to –”

hGrrrk’HA!” The Draconic obscenity cut Kyri’s protest off instantly. “There is nothing to be said against it, Phoenix Kyri. I owe Khoros much. Two worlds owe him much. He, too, owes the worlds, but his debt is not yet due, while mine is, and has been for many millennia past. Come,” he gestured, turning back to his caverns, “Let us go inside, and you may rest and be refreshed while I consider what I may do.”

Tobimar did not object to that thought at all. For three days they had been climbing and – training or no – he could use a real sit-down meal, rest, maybe even a bath or shower. A cleansing spell was all well and good, but it simply wasn’t the same.

Kyri had mentioned that the Spiritsmith’s delvings were extensive, but even so, Tobimar was startled by the size and number of caverns and tunnels. Of course, if he’s been here since the Fall… or a little after, since these mountains were created around then! … he could have dug only a foot a year and still have honeycombed half the mountain.

With that much space, it was perhaps not so surprising that he not only offered them guest quarters, but quarters of great size, decoration, and luxury. Even the air, normally thin at over three miles above the lower plains, was heavier and richer here. Tobimar took advantage of the time for a truly marvelous bath; an hour later he emerged, toweling his hair off, to find all his clothes on the bed and Poplock cleaning them off with mutters, gestures, and a bit of bouncing that invoked a mixed-elemental cleaning enchantment.

“Thank you very much, Poplock.”

“Well, didn’t have that much to do while I waited, and I can use the practice. I’m still learning a lot about magic, and after all the Summoning practice I need to keep up on the elementalist side. So you’re welcome.”

He watched as a swirl of airy water wove in and out through one of his travel cloaks, a flickering thread of fire somehow encased within. “You may still be learning, but that’s pretty impressive. Three-elemental cleaning is a pretty fancy trick, instead of just doing the usual selective displacement.”

“Elemental’s a lot easier for us Toads, usually, and I figured fire for heating the water, water for the cleaning, air for drying. You already had enough earth in there.”

“Ha! Indeed.” He picked up one of the finished outfits. “Looks like it worked pretty well to me.” He sniffed. “Smells like there might be food waiting outside somewhere, too.”

“Then get dressed and let’s go!” The little Toad, of course, didn’t really have to dress, and even his miniature pack and items tended to conceal themselves magically. You had to look carefully to notice he was carrying anything.

A few minutes later they found their way to a small dining hall; Kyri was just sitting down, her hair and a change of clothing showing that she, too, had taken advantage of their host’s amenities. The blue hair cascaded over her brown shoulders in sky-colored waves, with the white flash over her forehead like a cloud drifting in the vault of heaven. She is gorgeous, Tobimar thought. Beautiful and strong as …

At that point it suddenly dawned on him – really dawned on him – where his thoughts were leading. Sand and dust… that could be a complication. I don’t know what her thoughts are on the matter, but we don’t have time to follow the path of Learning the Other. Don’t know what her people’s traditions are, either.

He shook himself mentally. This certainly isn’t the time. She can’t be bothered by my attentions when perhaps the whole world is at risk. Focus! Pay attention to what is now. Dismissing the distraction – as much as he could, which was far less than he wished he could manage – he returned his attention to the dinner.

The Spiritsmith was at the far end of the table – as was common with Ancient Saurans and Dragons and their kin, his eating area was well separated from the rest, as their diet and manner of eating was often… unsettling to others. Tobimar sat down and, after examining the several dishes available, selected a blaze-and-honey style mixed flashfry, one of his favorite types of food. He didn’t recognize all the vegetables in this particular recipe, but the meat smelled like hopclaw… and there was some sort of seafood in it too. He seems to live here alone. Must have some very interesting food preparations charms and devices, or he’s a very good cook.

“Sir… Can you tell me something?”

The Spiritsmith looked up from his platter, and swallowed the ten-pound chunk of meat his teeth had just torn from the boar’s leg. “Perhaps. What is it you wish to know?”

He wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it. “Well… As I said, Khoros taught me – not just how to fight, but how to use this… internal power of mine. And a lot of other little things, ranging from philosophy and logic to theory of magic. I always rather liked him, even if he could be pretty maddening in the way he preferred to answer a question with another question and force you to figure it out yourself.

“But… everyone else who’s known him seems almost, I don’t know, afraid of him. They talk about him manipulating people, using them, and then they seem really careful about telling us anything at all. What do you know about him? Is he… well, not on our side somehow?”

The Ancient Sauran gave another of the snarling sighs and took another bite from the raw meat. Finally he raised his head again. “It is… not that simple a question, and thus the answer you seek is not simple either.

“How much evil must a man do in the name of good before he is, himself, no longer a good man?”

Kyri looked troubled. “You can’t do evil deliberately and remain good.”

“You are a child of direct faith.” The draconic Spiritsmith smiled – in a manner that was probably meant to be tolerant, perhaps even fond, but the sharp teeth covered with fresh blood made it disquieting. “Then how much good must evil achieve before it is no longer evil? Is there no repentance, no salvation for a soul once lost?”

“Well, you can repent… but you can’t keep doing evil and actually be good! You have to actually repent of your evil, and try to make amends for it, and stop doing bad things!” A slight flush touched her cheeks as she seemed to realize how naïve those words made her sound, but she didn’t retract them.

“And you, Prince of Skysand? How would you answer this riddle?”

Poplock spoke first. “We all do little evils to achieve good, I think. You killed that boar so you could live. Trees get chopped down to build houses.”

Tobimar nodded. “We killed Thornfalcon – and killing people is pretty much one of the absolute wrongs. But by doing that we prevented him from killing who knows how many people, and avenged those who had been killed before.” Tobimar shook his head. “But that’s a long way from the kind of thing people imply Khoros does.”

“Then, Tobimar Silverun, I can say only this: that Konstantin Khoros is, I believe, on ‘our side’, as you put it, but that he will manipulate both sides to achieve his goals. It would not be beyond him, for example, to have realized what would happen to the Artan in the months past, and to have not only allowed it to happen but even have guided the method of its happening, if that apparent victory of darkness would, in the long run, lead to a greater victory of the forces of light.”

Kyri shuddered. “How could anyone live with such choices, if they understood what they chose?”

The Spiritsmith looked at her gravely. “I do not think he intends to live with such choices; he simply postpones his death until all such choices are finished, and – I hope and believe – so that never again will any need to make such choices.” He stood. “But he will tell you nothing unless it fits his plans. You will meet him again – of this I am certain. But you will not find him, he will find you. This guides my own decision, you see.”

Tobimar looked up. “You have made a decision, then?”

“I have.” The Ancient Sauran gazed at each of the three in turn. “You have need of new weapons, yes. And those, I believe, I can supply, for I see the design Khoros used, and understand what purpose lay behind that design; so, in his way, he has arranged that I do this, by sending his designs in your own equipment – echoes of work done so long ago that the world was a different place, then.

“But more, you must begin to oppose the entirety of this plan that has undermined the power of the Balanced Sword, which has beseiged Artania, thrown Aegeia into chaos, and soaked the Forest Sea in blood, and that means preparing to face them in all their guises and in those places where their evil is most ancient and strong, where they began the work of felling the powers of light.”

Tobimar looked at Kyri; for a moment both exchanged puzzled gazes, but Kyri’s eyes suddenly widened. “You mean –”

“Khoros’ commands to you, Tobimar, were clear enough; you simply had not the knowledge to understand them. But the same forces are moving now, and you have met them, and in the end you must face them down, drive them from the lands of your forefathers.”

Now he understood, and saw the Phoenix’ face pale. “So it’s true?”

“I know little of it; Chaoswars have passed, and even this memory was faded from my mind until your presence and urgency made it clear. But there is no doubt; why else do you find the threads lead here? What importance is there in Evanwyl, what importance was there ever in that small country, save for two and only two things: the first the presence of Myrionar, the highest holding of the Balanced Sword, and the second being that singular gap, the only passage through the Khalal range, through which once flowed riches and heroes, and now is a place of terror and death, Rivendream Pass and, on the other side, Moonshade Hollow, what is left of the lands of the Lords of the Sky, whose name echoed your own, Tobimar Silverun.”

As the Spiritsmith spoke these words, so heavy with ancient legend and fear, Tobimar felt as though the cavern swayed with the import.

Then he realized that the cavern had swayed. The hanging lights were swinging, and both he and Kyri were suddenly on their feet. “What…”

The earth shuddered again, and this time a wave of nausea and foreboding washed over him, pressing on his spirit. As he fought it off, he saw Kyri stagger and lean against the table. Poplock shivered.

The Spiritsmith looked even sicker; he stumbled, fell to the floor, took long minutes to rise. But he lunged back to his feet and charged for the exit. “Come. Quickly!”

The three raced after the Ancient Sauran, as yet another shockwave of force and wrongness passed through the mountain. “What’s happening?” Kyri asked, nameless dread in her voice.

The Spiritsmith did not answer. Poplock was muttering something that Tobimar couldn’t catch.

They burst out of the entranceway onto the plateau. At that moment a final concussion of earthshock and evil knocked them from their feet, and the sky overhead flickered, as though the sun itself had been momentarily stunned.

Tobimar picked himself up slowly, reaching out and helping Kyri, who seemed even more affected. He became aware that the Spiritsmith was staring off to the West, walking almost as though in a dream towards the far side of the plateau. The massive draconian form slowed, then – shockingly – collapsed to its knees, still staring in numb disbelief.

Tobimar followed the Spiritsmith’s gaze. Through the narrow gap in the mountains, a thin sliver of land was visible, cracked and seamed plain interrupted by virulent green tangle of growth, jagged tumble of stone shards hundreds of feet high, steaming pools of water and mud, flat and empty desert – an impossible and repellent patchwork of terrain that could not possibly exist together… yet did.

But it was not this which the huge creature stared at in mute horror. Beyond the abominable landscape, far away, at the very horizon or even beyond, was … darkness. Tobimar blinked. The bright sky dimmed there, dimmed and went to complete blackness, a darkness that rose up in the center to a knife-thin line that seemed to stretch upwards to the roof of heaven, draining the very light from everything around it and turning it to ebon shadow. And despite being so far away, something about the sight pressed in on the Skysand Prince’s senses, as though merely to look upon it was enough to weaken life and break hope. The land shuddered again, this time with the groaning motion of an earthquake, and pebbles and rock cascaded down. “What is it? What’s happening, Spiritsmith?”

The question, spoken so urgently, managed to penetrate the creature’s shock; he turned his head slightly, and the deep-set eyes were wide, with a fear that nothing so ancient and powerful should be able to feel. “T’Ameris Kerveria,” the Spiritsmith said quietly. And then he translated, and Tobimar understood the true meaning of horror. “The Black City. The Fortress of Kerlamion Blackstar.

“The Gateway and Nexus of all Hells is come once more to Zarathan, and Kerlamion its King sits in his throne and gazes out upon our living world.”