Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 09
“All went well, then?”
The light-destroying figure in the mirror-scroll smiled. “Exactly as we expected, yes,” Kerlamion said in the eerie deep, howling tones of tortured air. “Condor is on his way back to you even now.”
It nodded, smiling; despite the human form, anyone watching would have known there was something desperately wrong from that smile alone. “Excellent, my King. I will keep an eye out for him; it would not do for him to meet up with anyone else along the way who might reveal some unfortunate facts.”
“Even so. But enough of your private projects.”
“My apologies, Majesty. If I can only be assured of the one other â€“”
“Yes. I have given the directions. Balinshar is not entirely pleased, but you have assured me of the necessity, and so what you requested you shall have. Now, of the other mattersâ€¦?”
Very good. Very good indeed. With the Black City now arrived and all wars progressing, Kerlamion had been delegating more of the details of remote operations to it, trusting the humanoid yet inhuman figure with completing the plan which, admittedly, had been more its than Kerlamion’s.Â This did unfortunately demand rather more of its time than it had expected, especially with the promising and extremely capable Thornfalcon now regrettably out of the picture. “Aegeia is in complete chaos now; I expect the endgame of that little farce to play out in, oh, the next few months. The Academy appears to be out of the picture, or so I am assured by Kurilidis and, indeed, no communications other than Kuri’s have been forthcoming, so I’m reasonably confident that the job has been done.”
It gave a sigh and shook its head. “There has unfortunately been some sort of â€¦ disruption in Skysand; forces that we were unaware of. Shangvaldi thinks she can still prevail with the additional resources granted her, but I am, regrettably, dubious. Whenever someone starts in on that ‘everything’s under control, I just need a little help’ approachâ€¦”
Kerlamion frowned and nodded slowly. “But if they are delayed even a few monthsâ€¦”
“Yes, that’s how I view it. Even if Skysand recovers fully, it will take them months to get any of their forces anywhere that matters, and by then the battles should be decided. Same for Balgoltha and his debacle. All he needs to do is keep the Artan busy for even the fourth part of a year and his failure need not be fatal.” Though depending on how things are going at that point, it may well be fatal for Balgoltha in any case. That one’s been dodging the consequences for failure since the Fall, and I think his time’s just about up.
“So. What of our greatest adversaries?”
“The Empire of the Mountain, I am afraid, cannot be prevented from mobilizing, though they, like the Dragon-King’s State, must keep some of their forces busy bottling up our puppets in Dalthunia. News of the emergence of the Black City will reach Zarathanton soon enough; in the Empire, well, it will be heard there as well in very short time, if the Archmage has not sensed it on his own.”
“No matter. We have anticipated this, and their armies will be ineffectual by the time they reach us. But â€“”
“– yes, Majesty, I was just getting to that. Of Khorosâ€¦ I must candidly say I cannot find him. I did not expect to, honestly; he isâ€¦ very good at evading detection. The Wanderer is in fact on the move as well, but I cannot say precisely where he is, either; you know how hard he is to track. Nonetheless, he will tend to be both more straightforward and more cautious. I would expect him to choose some group or location to aid and travel there directly. Khoros is undoubtedly playing the puppetmaster as usual, and thus his hand may be felt anywhere, even if his actual location is far distant.” He shrugged. “Our plans attempt to take him into account; his, presumably, attempt to do the same for us.”
“And the Gods?”
“The Cycle of the Dragon is not in their favor, as we hoped. Elbon Nomicon sleeps now, and will not be easily roused; so, too, for many of the others of the Sixteen, and of those awake, several were not incarnate on Zarathan when your bargains were struck, so they cannot face you directly.” He debated momentarily with himself on whether to reveal some details, decided that it was wise to continue to appear as honest as possible. “The Mortal God, on the other handâ€¦ there are signs of his activity. I have sensed something of his essence in several locations, and you are of course aware of the Skysand Prince.”
Kerlamion’s eyes narrowed. “Yes. But if he follows the path you expect, that shouldâ€¦ eliminate the problem entirely, yes?”
“It should indeed. As you have agreed to my one request, I am confident things will proceed according to plan. Myrionar continues to weaken; the other gods will react as we expect, but the pact limits them. Only the Golden-Eyed and the Reclaimed Temple remain unknown factors in those realms, but while they are definitely in opposition to us, they are also not terribly powerful.”
“Acceptable. I expect you to continue to direct events outside of the Black City; my attention will be focused here.”
“As you direct, so it shall be, Majesty.”
The communications scroll went blank, back to silver-on-gold. It leaned back and chuckled quietly. Ah, the excitement of beginning the real game at last. It had not â€“ precisely â€“ lied to the King of All Hells, but the way in which it had reported certain facts, deductions, and expectations was certainly misleading. For example, while indeed there had been no new communications other than those of Kurildis from the isolated valley of the Academy, it had also been a significant time since Kurildis had communicated at all. Kurildis always did seem a bit overconfident; when planning an assault on the institution that trains Adventurers, one would be wise to remember what Adventurers are best known for doing.
The fact was that while the figure did not in any way oppose Kerlamion, Its goals were not those of the King of All Hells, and it was important that Kerlamion not grasp exactly what It intended, until it was far too late to change the outcome.
Time to set the rest in motion. It touched the scroll, spoke several words in the demonic tongue with which the scroll had been forged, and saw the silver fade to cloudy gray. You had best answer, my friend.
“You interrupt me again? Speak, then, but quickly. I have little time to spare for distractions, and my other patrons demand enough as it is.” The voice was sharp, yet despite the annoyance it was also dispassionate, cold and measured in words and timbre in a way that the inhuman figure found extremely comforting. Here is someone who will be unswayed by any considerations other than his own.
“My apologies. But I have excellent news. I promised you an assistant, and have found one that I believe will meet even yourâ€¦ extremely demanding requirements. One who also has knowledge that touches on your specialty.”
The voice was suddenly a touch warmer. “Really? One who could understand my work?”
“I believe so. At least as well as I understand it.”
“Hmph. Well, you understand it better than any other I have met, vastly more than these idiots I currently work for. If it were not for the challenge and the resources â€“”
“I understand. But truly, would you give that up?”
“Never!” the voice snapped. “This has brought me close indeed; even with their demands and distractions I have made great progress.” A hesitation, then, “Andâ€¦ I will thank you for assisting me to find this place. They do, at least, appreciate what I can do for them, even if they place far too much importance on the trivialities.” The unseen speaker’s tone warmed again. “So when may I expect my new assistant?”
“In a few days. I am arranging the transport. Alsoâ€¦ you may expect the key you have been seeking soon, perhaps in a month or three. I cannot control this, you understand, but I have every reason to believe it to be true.”
“Excellent. Excellent! I must begin preparations for the unlocking. Thank you for this news.”
The scroll cleared abruptly, making the figure laugh and shake its head. Unable to even bother with the niceties. I doubt he will remember, or care, to mention this to his main employers. Well, he will play his part nonetheless, and I can attend to his minor lapse of courtesy.
Once more a gesture and a few words and the mirror turned to gray, and then showed the person he had expected.
“Ermirinovas, how kind of you to answer my call.”
“How could I refuse, Viedra,” she asked, with a brilliant flash of a smile, “given how rarely you have called of late. Besides, Kalshae is currently â€¦ occupied.”
“Our King has given meâ€¦ many assignments in the past centuries. But I have not forgotten you. What news of you and your sisters? How goes your extraction operation? Has my little referral to you given you assistance?”
“He is arrogant and insolent and one day I will likely kill him, but yes, he has achieved much. More power have we gained than I had imagined possible, especially given the circumstances. But there areâ€¦ side effects.” She grimaced and gestured at herself.
“Well, yes, a pity â€“ though there are those who would find the effect quite pleasing. Still, given what you are working with, there are many dangers from theâ€¦ waste products, so to speak.”
“And not just in appearance. I have lost at least three of our own people toâ€¦ well, you can guess.” Her face fell for a moment.
“Sentiment? I hope you are not â€“”
The face hardened immediately. “Certainly not. But the waste and loss of capable labor are extremely regrettable. Unfortunately, the last and greatest source has proven difficult to extract.”
“You may expect the key to that extraction soon enough; I informed our mutual friend of it just ere I called you.”
“Oh, wonderful!” Lit up with such anticipation, she was quite lovely, the humanoid figure thought with wry amusement. “And then â€“”
“Then I believe you shall achieve what you seek, indeed. I hope you will remember me fondly.”
“If we succeed?” She laughed, and though the sound was light and airy, something within and behind that laugh could have sent chills down an ordinary man’s spine. “Oh, then, Viedra, I will perhaps have my own offer to you of something even our King cannot give.”
“Indeed? Then I wish you all luck, indeed. I am sending a new aide to assist in the project, and he will also carry details of what to expect and my advice on how to handle the matter.”
“You really should call more often, Viedra, if all such calls would be so hopeful!”
It chuckled, and the lights about the room flickered. “You are too kind, Ermirinovas. But I must go; much to do, much to arrange.”
The scroll blank again, it nodded, a satisfied smile on its face. Ermirinovas was powerful, even by demonic standards â€“ one of Kerlamion’s second-generation children, rumored to be spawn of Kerlamion and one of the Elderwyrm. But like so many demons, she wanted more â€“ enough to carve out her own realm, either within the Hells, or on Zarathan itself. Her current project â€“ if it succeeded, and nothing went terribly amiss â€“ might give her both. That would be amusing, and for other projects It was contemplating, could be useful as well.
To make that happen, of course, required arranging one more thing.Â He waved and spoke to the scroll once more, and this time the scroll cleared to show a face â€“ one proud and handsome yet twisted, horned and gray of face, muscled like a warrior but with the wisdom of ages in the hate-filled eyes, one of those that exemplified the word demon. “Ah, Balinshar, how good of you to answer.”
“Viedraverion.” The Demon’s voice echoed tightly-leashed anger. “So you have managed to kiss your Father’s â€¦ feet enough to get him to order one of my finest servants into your hands, have you?”
“Oh, very good, his Majesty has already told you.” It smiled broadly at Balinshar, not rising to the bait in the least. You, yourself, are of much less account than you wish, Balinshar, and think yourself of greater power than you are. You are not half so interesting as your favorite servant. “Send the boy through, then. I have many things to do today.”
“I look forward to the day when you stumble, Viedra,” Balinshar hissed. “On that day many of us will compete for your soul, if the King of All Hells does not take it himself.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure. Send the boy through.” It stood and held the scroll up sideways, left it hanging in midair. “Or must I call Father for moreâ€¦ encouragement?”
The answer was a rather pedestrian insult, but then Balinshar had never been terribly creative. A major flaw of most demons, really. “Very well.”
At Balinshar’s gesture a tall, slender figure moved forward hesitantly. “My lord?”
“Do not be afraid, Tashriel,” It said. “I have a unique task for you.”
Still looking nervous, the figure â€“ appearing to be a human youth in his late teens or very early twenties, with long white hair and a face whose sharp-carven features reminded It strongly of someone else â€“ stepped forward, and in a blaze of light emerged before It.
The being then passed Its hand over the scroll, returning it to inert blankness, and smiled. It saw the young man shiver slightly. At this range, the yellow eyes revealed some inhuman blood within Tashriel, but he still looked mostly like a young man.
How very deceptive. Even the shiver is deceptive; he would be a most formidable opponent if he chose to be. “Tashriel, I have need of your unique knowledge â€“ your most ancient unique knowledge.”
His eyes went wide. “My lordâ€¦ I am forbidden to â€“”
“Tsk, tsk, Tashriel. The King of All Hells himself has assigned you to me, for this very express reason. I assure you, in this case I have pressing need for the talents you learnedâ€¦ in A’Atla’Alandar.”
There was still a trace of uncertainty, but much more of excitement and anticipation in the eyes of the boy-who-was-not-a-boy. “Truly, Lord Viedraverion?”
“Truly, Tashriel. I have aâ€¦ most fascinating assignment for you. One that you will carry out as honestly and humbly as if it were truly what you wished, and have to act otherwise only if the enterprise fails. And in that caseâ€¦”
As It explained, the yellow eyes began to dance with excitement, and It knew that success was assured.
Come, Phoenix and your friends. All will be ready when you arrive.