Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 12
Poplock tasted the air. Definitely more humid. “I think we’re nearly down. Look at the mountains.”
Tobimar’s gaze flicked to both sides, then he paused. “He’s right, Kyri. This canyon’s coming to an end, and the warmth, the feel of the airâ€¦ I think we’re almost there.”
Almost in Moonshade Hollow.
It hadn’t been â€“ quite â€“ a nonstop series of battles from one side of the pass to the other, but there had sure been more than their share of ambushes by things that might look ordinary but would be more savage, malevolent, or lethal than their ordinary equivalents, and sometimes by things that weren’t in any sense ordinary. One out of every three nights was disrupted by some thing that couldn’t let people get a decent night’s sleep.
Poplock shook his head slightly (which was about as much as a Toad’s anatomy allowed). Even though he could often take naps on Tobimar’s shoulder, he was still exhausted; he couldn’t imagine what it must be like for the two humans. Kyri was constantly called upon to heal any of them â€“ though Tobimar could heal himself to a limited extent, and Tobimar had to keep his unique senses constantly attuned.
How in Blackwart’s Name are we going to get through this place alive, let alone in any shape to deal with, well, whatever things are hiding here, and find the key to Tobimar’s quest?
He knew Kyri‘s answer to that, and â€“ to a certain extent â€“ he understood and agreed with it. Her mission was based on maintaining faith in her god Myrionar and that if she maintained said faith, somehow things would work out. And it was true that if you couldn’t rely on the gods to carry through with their promises, they weren’t much good to anyone.
On the other paw, though, was the fact that Myrionar had been systematically weakened by some truly monstrous enemy that managed to corrupt Myrionar’s own order, and either did this without Myrionar realizing it until too late, or under some kind of circumstance that prevented Myrionar from telling anyone. Either of these possibilities was pretty shockingâ€¦ and caused Poplock to privately doubt that Myrionar could absolutely guarantee anything.
Which meant they had to make their own luck. Which seemed pretty challenging in this place.
It was warmer here, as Tobimar had noted, but the comfort to which they were accustomed didn’t do much to make the little Toad relax. The very atmosphere made him feel prickly all over, as though he’d rolled in a bed of groundthorns.
He caught movement from above, ducked aside. A tendril from the tree nearly caught him â€“ and was neatly bisected by a blow from Tobimar’s blue-green glittering blade. The entire tree shuddered, then started to reach forward, a low, wood-tearing rumbling issuing from it.
The clearing was suddenly lit by golden light as Kyri drew Flamewing, and not only that tree, but several others, suddenly leaned back, away, moaning. Yeah, you’re a tree, and that’s a flaming sword seven feet long. A holy flaming sword.
“Stay back, corrupted forest,” Kyrie said, tense but sure. “Touch my companions, touch me, and fire will cleanse this place from one side to the other.”
It was something of a bluff â€“ if Myrionar had the power to cleanse entire valleys with fire it probably wouldn’t have its current problems â€“ but Poplock saw with great satisfaction that none of the trees wanted to call her bluff. They drew aside, fell into inaction, and moved no more than ordinary trees as the three continued their journey.
After a few moments, Kyri sheathed her greatsword. “Myrionar’s Balance, the forest itself is against us.”
“I know. Andâ€¦ I must speak honestly, Kyri â€“ I have no clear idea of where we must go from here,” Tobimar confessed. “We only knew the homeland must exist somewhere, but I need proof that I have found it. From what the Wanderer said, the Seven and One were held by my people, and we do not have them, so they must still be here. But all the Seven could have been held in two cupped hands, and the Sun itself in two more, so they are small enough clues to search for here.”
Kyri nodded. “I know. But there can’t be just monsters and jungle here. We already know that â€“ Thornfalcon arranged for that gateway. Someone lives here and creates monsters even worse than the ones we’ve met thus far. I can’t believe they’re completely alone. So there must be people here, good or bad, and if we can find anyone native to this place, they’ll be able to guide us.”
“I hope you’re right,” Tobimar said, impaling a black and gray scorpion, about the same size as Poplock, as he spoke.
They continued on; Poplock’s ears suddenly caught a hint of a new sound. “Hold up.” He turned slightly on Tobimar’s shoulder. “Over there. I hear a river or big stream.”
“That could be good,” Tobimar said as they shifted their course somewhat. “Almost all cities and villages are built close to water sources. Follow this one down and we should meet up with someone.”
“Probably,” Poplock agreed, “but you’d better watch your step closely, because with what we’ve seen so far, what do you think’s living in the rivers and streams?”
Kyri grimaced. “An excellent point. Let’s not get too close to the water, then.”
It was a small river â€“ fifty yards across at the point they emerged from the jungle and found themselves on the banks. “Whoops. That’s too close.”
On a sandbar a few hundred yards away, Poplock spotted a very large reptilian shape, ridged and sharp with a long, blunt head and lots of teeth. “Way too close.”
The others agreed and quickly backed away from the shimmering, poison-green waters. Based on sound and occasional sights through the trees, the little group followed the river at a distance of twenty or thirty yards from the edge.
For several hours they followed faint game-trails through the jungle, and were mostly unbothered; given that some of the trees seemed to not only be able to move but made sounds, Poplock suspected that word had spread through the forest that the three newcomers were not easy prey. The sun was becoming low, as shown by slanting beams of light through the canopy, and Poplock began to think about camping and how to keep themselves safe during the night in this place.
Without warning, Kyri and Tobimar pushed through the next line of greenery to find themselves standing at the edge of a small clearing, about two hundred yards across. Looming up not far away was a monstrous thing, an armoured grub with wide mandibles, gleaming red eyes, and hissing breath, large as a house, glowering down at a tiny figure â€“ Poplock guessed no more than five feet high â€“ in delicate blues and greens, seeming frozen before it, scarcely fifty feet from them. The creature gathered itself and screeched.
But it never had a chance to complete the lunge. Kyri and Tobimar had reflexively sprinted forward, and the creature balked as it found itself face-to-face with two armed opponents, one holding a blade seven feet from pommel to tip, the other with two swords gleaming cold and bitter. Glancing backwards, Poplock saw a dumbfounded expression on the green-blue clad girl, a look of disbelieving shock that told clearly how very little she had expected any intervention.
But the creature was only momentarily taken aback; it gave vent to a rippling roar and flowed forward, extending its body as grubs do. The great mandibles rebounded from Kyri’s armor but sent her tumbling; Tobimar, however, leapt up, bounding from the mandibles to the top of the creature, and then spun, bringing both swords down at the juncture of head and abdomen.
The roar turned to an ear-piercing shriek of agony, and the thing began to whip its body back and forth, Tobimar barely maintaining his grip (and Poplock hard-pressed to keep a grip on Tobimar). Black blood oozed from the sword-wounds, as the creature turned to writhe on its back; Tobimar barely yanked his swords out and rolled clear in time, with Poplock almost getting squished beneath the Skysand Prince’s body.
Their attack had been more than enough distraction, however, and before the monstrous grub-thing could do more than turn towards them, the golden fire lit up the clearing with promise and peril. “Myrionar’s FLAME!” Phoenix Kyri shouted, and the flaming blade impaled the creature, detonating fire throughout its body; it stiffened and fell limp.
Tobimar immediately turned to the little figure. “Are you all right, Miladyâ€¦?”
Poplock now realized that the figure wasn’t a little girl, but a young woman, just a very diminutive one. Her blue and green outfit was a strange combination of diaphanous clothing and what appeared to be crystalline armor. She had short golden hair, a bow tied in it to one side of her head, and no weapons in evidence unless something was concealed in a few small pouches at her waist, or, possibly, the wand or tube by her side that glittered with multicolored gems.
Her expression was startling â€“ somehow both annoyed, amused, and impressed. “I am perfectly fine.” Her voice was a sweet soprano, even more startling for its purity and beauty in this distorted forest. “I am surprised you and your companion are unharmed, and I am quite unaccustomed to being interrupted in my hunt.”
Teeth as bright as sunlight on flowers flashed as she gave a sudden smile. “But I see the interruption was well meant, and you had no idea of what you did, so I thank you for the thought.” Her brow furrowed. “Yetâ€¦ which of the Sha do you come from? Your speech is strange, an accent I do not know, and your clothing the same; yet I thought I knew them all.”
Of all the things he’d expected, this wasn’t one of them. Poplock, as usual, kept his mouth shut; best to let the others talk.
Tobimar shook his head in bemusement, then bowed deeply. “My apologies for what I now see to have been a crude interruption in your own quest. I am Tobimar, and this is my companion, Phoenix.” They had agreed that there was no immediate reason to reveal any possible connection between Tobimar and the past; it might be dangerous to do so, given the fact that demons were hunting his people and trying to prevent him from completing this mission. And, of course, when on duty as a Justiciar, Kyri was not Kyri Vantage, but merely the Phoenix. No reason to give her name, either.
“We come from beyond the pass in the mountains,” Tobimar continued.
Now her eyes widened. “Fromâ€¦ there? But we are taught that none live beyond any of the Mountains, not from the North to the South nor East nor West. Do you speak truly, Tobimar?” Before he could answer, she shook her head. “Yet it must be true, for how could you be so strange to the world that you did not recognize one of the Lights themselves? And I am remiss!” She bowed to them, a gesture with one arm across her body, the other gracefully held more aloft. “I am Miri, Light of the Unity. I thank you for your aid, needed or not.” She glanced about. “This is not a place for talk or questions. Come, let us go to the city.”
“So there is a city?” Phoenix asked, a relieved tone in her voice. “We had begun to fear there was nothing here but monsters and evil.”
Miri laughed. “A city? Say, rather, the greatest of cities, and her children. Follow, and you will see.”
Inwardly, Poplock had to smile. Perhaps these people had somehow survived and built themselves a civilization, but as the three of them had been to Zarathanton, it would be rather hard to top that as the “greatest of cities”.
Following Miri, it took only a relatively short time â€“ perhaps fifteen minutes â€“ to arrive in front of a startling wall of shining green-gray stone, fifty feet high. A wide, solid gate was set in that wall, of solid steel, or so Poplock thought. That would be quite a challenge for most things to get through, he had to admit.
Miri stepped up to the gate and put her hand to it; Poplock, watching her carefully, could see that she was inserting a ring on her middle finger face-first into an aperture in the gate. It instantly clicked and the gateway swung open. A wide corridor led through the wall a short distance, and the three humans’ footsteps echoed sharply on the polished stone as they walked to the ending of the corridor; the gateway at that end swung open as they reached it, and a haze of golden light greeted them.
Poplock blinked his eyes in disbelief.
They stood atop a ridge, looking down on a sprawling town dotted with great trees amidst a sweep of pure, green grass that stretched down to the blue-green of the river that passed through the middle of the town. Great white, fluffy clouds drifted through a sky bluer and more pure than he remembered even from Evanwyl; in the distance were tilled fields, and a winding road extending to the horizon. Birds flew, trilling, and he could smell the purity in the air, in the land.
A buzzing insect flew near, and he snapped out his tongue. Even the taste of the creature was like something new, something born pure and unique into the world for the first time, and Poplock could see the stunned surprise on his friends’ faces too as they gazed on the world about them, smelled the fresh and untainted breeze, looked upon even stones and earth that seemed more right than anything they had ever seen. The setting sun cast a glow over the clouds and everything else that touched all with the wealth of the heavens.
“Welcome,” Miri said. “Welcome, travelers from afar, to the Unity of the Seven Lights; welcome to Kaizatenzei.”