Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 07

Chapter 7.

Aran stumbled, fell to his knees, remained in that position, unmoving, for long moments, waiting for his head to clear. I’ve been … driving myself hard. Far too hard.

A part of him tried to force him to lunge back to his feet, but now he knew that much of that was anger at himself, rage and guilt. “Sit still,” he told himself, and sat down. He was near his destination, though he saw nothing to indicate that a path to the Hells lay here, in the tangled jungle of the land that was, itself, called Hell; but if there was, he would not be wise to come before Kerlamion exhausted, weary of mind and body both.

He forced himself to sit, to eat of his rations, to drink water. But even sitting still, in the quiet greenery, he was tense, trying to watch everywhere, for he had learned all too well in the last weeks that danger could be anywhere.

This place deserved its name, he felt. He had spent years as a Justiciar of Myrionar – or, as he was now being honest with himself, as a false Justiciar empowered by what was almost certainly a great demon, perhaps drawing power directly from the King of All Hells himself. But though his true nature as a Justiciar had been dark, he had in fact spent much of his life as a defender of Evanwyl, protecting it because Myrionar, the so-called patron of Evanwyl, was too weak, or too uncaring, or both, to do so.

In that time he had faced many enemies – bandits and murderers and other ordinary people turned against their own kind, yes, but also many worse things. The blade-legged doomlock spiders, monstrous creatures which could lash out with cutting forelegs to drag you, slashed and bleeding, to their deadly venomous fangs, or who might first entangle you in paralyzing webs before closing in; graverisen, fearsome shambling undead things that seemed slow, clumsy, until they would suddenly scent the living and rush upon them with terrifying speed, rending men limb from limb and feasting on their entrails; flame-ants, dwelling within the earth and carrying the fires of the interior with them, swarming and consuming everything they touched like a conflagration; even, once, something for which he had no name, an armored monstrosity the length of a dozen wagons that came ravening out of Rivendream Pass, with a mouth like a cavern of blades and claws that cut stone like grass, and healing so swiftly that wounds closed even as the blade passed through the flesh.

But such things were the ordinary here. All his powers had been needed, every day, as he made his way through the twisted, hideous contradictory terrain of the Circle of Hell. He could not imagine how the true Hells could be much worse than this place, where he had seen a floating black cloud, like a thunderhead come to earth, turn and pursue a creature, rend it apart with screaming wind and crackling bolt, leave a shriveled, desiccated, scattered corpse behind; where a great stone had suddenly moved, become a hunger-howling mass of granite which he had to trick into a fall and shattering hundreds of feet below; where a lovely flower had suddenly bent down towards him, opening a maw that dripped corrosive sap upon him that even left a scar on his nigh-invulnerable armor.

He had often thought of turning back; but now, he knew, there was nowhere for him to go back to. The false Justiciars knew he had been sent on a special mission; if he returned without that power he sought, they would know his will and courage had failed, and worse he had given up on the oath so fiercely and publicly sworn to their … patron. And before he left he had been told, by that same patron, that Thornfalcon’s fall had torn the veil of secrecy, and because of that he knew that Evanwyl itself was now no longer his home. He could never walk the streets again as Condor. There was little he knew of the lands beyond, and he didn’t know how he could have made his way through the lands elsewhere, even if their patron allowed him such a simple escape.

And even if he would have, he now held himself in utter contempt, unworthy to return until he truly redeemed himself. Whatever the excuses of rage, of revulsion and terror and denial, he had himself betrayed his father, Shrike. Oh, he had excuses – shock, white-hot anger, unthinking escape from a horror he had never imagined – but the last comment of their patron as he departed had struck deep and reminded him of how Condor was as guilty as the one he sought. “You have little time and a long distance to cover,” their patron had said, smiling falsely from beneath blonde hair and blue eyes, “so make haste. Worry not; we shall tend to Shrike’s body and hold a funeral in your absence.”

I who was so furious at this … Phoenix for leaving my father to rot… I did the same thing in my anger and need to find vengeance.

There were even brief moments he wondered if he deserved to find vengeance. I’ve helped murder people. Should I seek vengeance if there are those out there who would seek the same on me?

The worst of those, of course, would be Kyri Vantage. Condor faced that truth. He’d helped kill her parents – even though it had been Shrike who struck the killing blows. And he’d known what was going to happen to her brother, even though – in all honesty – he couldn’t have done anything about it. He wondered how she was. Maybe she’s found some peace in faraway Zarathanton. I hope so. As long as she’s alive, I know there’s a bright spot out there, somewhere.

He rose and dusted himself off, finally, feeling much more himself. Food, drink and rest; a soldier, or a Justiciar, needs these to keep going. He’d neglected himself from shock, pain, guilt, and desperation, and that could have gotten him killed.

I have to be almost there. Their patron’s directions had been clear and simple – follow specific landmarks that, despite his fears, had been easy to spot, and even in thick jungle he’d been able to find spots to verify his heading often enough to not get lost.

But he had no idea of what to look for after he got there.

Green sunlight gave way to unfiltered gold, and he stepped from the edge of the jungle to see a plain of waving green and rose grasses – with some rippling movement that was not just wind – before him. The plain stretched several miles before him and to either side; towards the horizon, low, jagged, bare mountains rose abruptly, smoking faintly in the lowering sun. On his right, the plain gave way to a dusty, cracked plain with what appeared to be ancient ruins wavering in the distance through the heat of the day. On his left, the plains reached a river, on the other side of which lay a dark-green forest of pines. He shook his head at the warped and contradictory sights. The monsters are bad enough, but this place is insanity incarnate.

Without warning, shadow seemed to boil up from the ground, flow from the air above, and the ground shuddered. He was suddenly assailed by a feeling of such terrifying foreboding and evil that the darkness he had known all his life seemed light and friendly.

And then there was a concussion, a roar and scream of earth and air rent and crushed, and he was blown from his feet, deafened, battered, cast aside like dust before a storm. He tucked and rolled, but all around him he heard creaks and tearing, rending, ripping sounds as the screaming manic wind blasted the forest flat, sending the boles of mighty trees smashing down around him, shattered limbs battering Condor, trying to crush him even through his Justiciar’s Raiment.

The air was cold now and the sunlight gone, and he smelled chill of ice and the scent of decay of eons, and looked up.

He came to his senses slowly, aware by the stiffness in his limbs and dryness of his mouth that he had been gazing in unbelieving horror for minutes with no thought at all, just absolute disbelief and terror.

Before him loomed the Black Wall as told in some of the oldest tales, polished like an obsidian monolith a thousand feet high and more. But even as tall as it was, still beyond it he could see twisted spires, dark buildings, and far beyond, in the center so far off that it would be beyond the horizon, a tower of pure ebony that rose towards the roof of the sky and faded into… elsewhere.

Now he understood his patron’s knowing smiles, Kerlamion’s laugh. There was no passage here to the Hells.

The Hells had come here, to Zarathan itself.

The forest was deathly silent now. Even the worst monstrosities he had seen would have fled, be cowering in their burrows or still running, flying, swimming through the ground until they dropped of exhaustion.

And then there came a sound: the sound of an incalculably huge lock opening.

Directly before him a gate began to slide open in the impregnable black wall. Sterile, sharp white light poured from within that gate, a light so cold and dead that its touch seemed to leach away color and life. Silhouetted against that light was a black form, round in outline but with hints of much worse.

As Condor’s eyes adjusted to the fell light, he could see the Thing more clearly, and wished he couldn’t. An ovoid, leathery-skinned body was supported by four talons like those of a gargantuan bird of prey, and sported night-black wings like a monstrous bat. A long, flexible, wattled neck held a long head that shone like black bone or perhaps the carapace of an insectoid abomination; the dead-white glowing eyes certainly had the pupilless, faceted look of the eyes of most insects, but the mouth was long and jagged, as though the beaked mouth of a snapping turtle had been crossed with that of a wolf, or perhaps a dragon. The long, slender tail included black, bladed spines.

And then it spoke.

“Condor False-Justiciar, step forward.”

The voice was startling. It was pleasant, gentle, sweet, like that of a young girl – though beneath and behind it, almost beyond the range of hearing, was an undertone that sounded like distant screams. It was the last sort of voice he would have expected from that monstrosity, and it added a crowning touch to the horror.

But I long since left my choices behind. Shakily, he walked towards the monster.

It smiled, a flexing of a face that should be incapable of flexure, another horrifying tiny detail. “Well done. You have arrived precisely as directed. The King of All Hells will be pleased indeed, for to cross the land called Hell is a considerable feat.” It turned and moved a wing down, an ebony ramp. “I am to bring you to the King immediately.”

The wing was frighteningly solid beneath his boots; it did not feel like a leather pinion, but rather a bridge of stone. The creature’s back was softer, dry and flexible as the hide of the elephant Condor had seen once; yet there was something repellent about it, perhaps a faint scent of dry decay, as of a house abandoned in the desert for centuries.

Smell of decay or no, the Demon – for such Aran knew it had to be, and a powerful one indeed, to be sent on a personal errand for the ruler of the Black City – leapt up and arrowed into the now-darkened sky with speed and agility a smaller creature would envy.

Now Aran could see the city from above, and knew his horror had not reached its limits. The Black City stretched from horizon to horizon, a ten-mile circle of blackness – black walls, ebony buildings, night-shadowed streets, all arranged in perfect circular arcs. The city rose slowly, a vast cone-shaped arrangement of structures and roads all converging on the gargantuan castle in the center, itself echoing the design of the whole: a ring of walls, a ring of towers, and in the center a great single keep that rose up and somehow faded away; it hurt his eyes and mind to look at how it went from something that was to something that was not. At intervals along the great outer walls were guard towers, posts with guards and with great engines of destruction that looked like nothing he had ever seen.

Below, demons – monstrous forms of all shapes and sizes – moved busily. Many were marching, drilling – parts of an army so huge that Aran couldn’t grasp it – but many others seemed to be going about their business as though they lived in an ordinary city. Yet even there something seemed wrong, off, as though even in living daily lives there was something terribly twisted and unnatural about them.

The Demon upon which he rode flew straight up one of the great thoroughfares, a road running true as a sword-stroke to the central tower. The gates of the castle were already open, and nothing challenged his mount as it flew directly up to the door of the central keep itself.

“Here you dismount,” it said in its eerily pleasant voice. “None save those granted audience may enter the Tower of the Black Star.”

Condor said nothing; he wanted to save his breath and his courage for the coming confrontation.

The doorway to the Tower was open, yet nothing could be seen within; it was deadly black. Aran glanced back, but knew there was no choice. I made this decision as soon as I demanded I be given the power for my revenge.

He brought the image of his foster father’s face to his mind, drew strength from the anger he felt as he contemplated that face as he had last seen it: glaring open eyes beneath a fragment of Shrike’s own axe, plunged lethally into his forehead.

With a deep breath, one scented with old decay and something sharper but no less deadly, Aran strode through the doorway.

The echoes of his footsteps… changed as he passed into the Tower; they whirled upward in pitch, then dropped so low as to be beyond hearing, chasing themselves in a rumbling, squeaking chorus around the interior. Within a few steps, the darkness lightened, slightly, and now he could see the Throne.

It stood in the center of the Tower, and the Tower was but a single titanic room, an empty, unadorned space of pure black polished stone a quarter-mile across. The black Throne was simple, a cone that rose from the floor, carved out so that Someone could sit in it, and then continuing up, up, out of sight into darkness, impossibly fading, blending into the void above.

And in the throne sat Kerlamionahlmbana, the Black Star of Destruction, a figure hewn from the darkness darker than his surroundings, with only blazing, eerie blue-white light showing where his eyes were. The black figure was itself surrounded by a faint blue-violet aura, and a distant wailing howl emanated from Kerlamion, as though the air itself feared his presence.

Aran, the Condor Justiciar, felt his heart hammering faster than ever before in his life, even more than when he was confronted with his patron and Thornfalcon’s true power. This was the King of All Hells, and no name had ever been spoken with greater fear, save perhaps only that of the Slayer of Gods, the Hunger without End, the King of Wolves, Virigar – and even he, it was said, would not care to casually offend the one who sat upon the Ebon Throne.

Aran knelt and bowed his head.

“Rise and approach, Condor,” the King of All Hells said, and his voice was both rumble and howl, the sound of air or water being sucked into a void, screaming and growling at once.

Aran stood, feeling his knees trembling. I asked for this. I asked for this. I must move forward. Doomed and damned I may be, but at least I must not fail in following my own course. I will not collapse and be shown a coward here, not now.

Somehow he found the courage to stride forward as though at a review, steps rhythmic and steady as a drumbeat, ignoring the eeriness of the echoes and the deadly darkness that loomed ever higher before him.

“Stop,” commanded the King of All Hells, as Condor had come to within fifty feet of the Throne, and Kerlamion rose to his full height, his nigh-invisible head thirty feet above Condor’s own.

Kerlamion looked down upon him, and there was power in that gaze; the mere regard of the Ruler of the Hells was enough to feel as though a leaden blanket had fallen over Aran. But Condor held tight to his pride and purpose, and raised his head to meet that terrible, blank, flaming stare.

Kerlamion chuckled suddenly, and that was perhaps the most horrid thing Aran had ever heard, causing a sick sweat to spring out across his brow; it was a laugh that had humor and understanding in it, yet mixed with malice and hatred, all twisted and warped by the distortion of sound around the King. “So, Condor, called Justiciar, you come seeking power, power to match and outmatch your enemy, the slayer of the father of your heart?”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

He nodded. “Know, then, that this is a great boon you seek; for you wish a power sufficient to withstand the power of a god, and return against it enough power to break that god’s wards on its last champion. Yet,” and suddenly a blaze of howling blue-white showed as Kerlamion smiled, “yet, in truth, it is well within my power to grant you this boon; for I am called “demon”, but I am as much god as Myrionar. Indeed, I am greater by far, and have faced the Light in the Darkness himself, contested power with Elbon Nomicon, and still I hold my throne and none dare oppose me here.”

I must not be utterly cowed. He is volatile – this I know – but he will not respect weakness at all. “This is true, Majesty, yet the boon was already asked, and you bid me here to receive it, not to impress me with your power, which is indeed beyond compare.”

The deadly blazing eyes narrowed, but the tone showed it was with more amusement than annoyance, and Aran permitted himself to relax the slightest bit. “So. I have devoted some small time to contemplating how best to provide that which you have asked. And seeing you, I now see the best – perhaps the only – true choice. Give me your sword.”

Aran’s hand was already complying, even before he realized it. Disobeying him would be almost impossible. The sensation was itself frightening; he had never found himself so unquestioningly obedient to anyone or anything before. He extended the blade to the King of All Hells, hilt-first.

Kerlamion did not bend down; the Justiciar’s blade Skyvault floated up and hung before the burning blue eyes.

Then Kerlamion reached back and drew forth his own Sword. The blade blazed as black as Kerlamion himself, devouring any light that approached. “The Sword of Oblivion, the Consuming Blade,” the King of Demons said. “Greatest of all weapons, before which none may stand.”

To his astonishment, Aran saw that the outline of the Consuming Blade was nearly identical to his own, merely immensely larger. “There is a kinship between us, Aran of Evanwyl,” Kerlamion said, with another touch of that monstrous humor. “We wield similar blades in much the same way, and for much the same purpose of vengeance against those who have wronged us. So to you… I give much the same power.”

There was a rending sound as though something had torn sky and stone, and a tiny shard split from the Blade of the Demon King and dropped slowly. It shimmered with the terrible blue-white fire, and descended until it touched Skyvault –

And Skyvault vanished. In its place was an identical sword, save that the blade was black as night, glinting with the deadly azure-tinted white power. “A piece of my own weapon I give to you. The Demonshard Blade will strengthen you, guide your hand, and deliver absolute force to your blows. Even against the Phoenix Justiciar of Myrionar it will be unstoppable.”

The Demonshard drifted down to Aran’s upraised hand, and as soon as his fingers touched the hilt he felt a surge of strength, of confidence and power such as he could scarcely believe. Even the King of Hell, while still awe-inspiring, seemed less fearsome. Stunned, he raised his head. “I thank you, Majesty. Is there anything that can withstand this weapon?”

The eyes narrowed and that terrible smile drew a line of consuming dead fire across the face of night. “Its source and parent, my own blade, of course. But other than that? Aran Condor, even were Terian himself to come before you, he would be cut, yea, and the wound pain him for ages to come. Once you have left my presence, I do not believe you shall find anything to withstand the Demonshard. Wield it well in our service, Condor, and I shall be well content.”

Slowly, the King of All Hells seated himself. “You may go.”

The confidence of the Demonshard allowed him to bow calmly and turn, striding to the exit.

But inside, he desperately wanted to run. And a part of him thought, perhaps, that he would be much wiser to cast this blade aside, and keep running.