Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 17

Chapter 17.

One major advantage of being thought a dumb animal was that you could look at pretty much everything whenever, and however, you wanted, and no one would even notice, let alone wonder why you were looking; at most they’d pick you up and throw you out, or return you to your apparent owner. Poplock smiled to himself. He’d spent almost four years in Zarathanton honing that skill, disappearing underfoot or being ignored sitting on a low table or wagon.

It did require a lot of patience and restraint, of course, and even with the signals they’d worked out, there were going to be plenty of times he had to just hope the others did the right things. But on the other hand, he might be able to learn things no one else could.

The three humans alighted from the coach and walked up a curving, gently illuminated pathway to the double doors at the front of the Manse. The doors stood open on this warm, pleasant evening, the light spilling from them to guide visitors inward. Poplock caught a passing darterfly and was reminded anew of the perfection of the place. Which keeps me suspicious. Nothing’s perfect, not without gods meddling. And when gods meddle, little mortals get hurt.

As the three paused in the entryway, adjusting to the brightness, Poplock surveyed the room. He was impressed; Sha Murnitenzei wasn’t a huge city, not compared to Zarathanton, but even so there was quite a turnout for this shindig, as his distant cousin Lormok might have put it. He guessed there must be over a hundred people in the brightly lit hall. And you’d think this would be a pretty select party. But maybe not, they seem to act as though everyone’s basically equal.

“We’re here, everybody!” Miri announced to the room at large as they entered. Heads turned, and a ripple of laughter chased around the hallway. Everyone’s smiling – kind of smile you give to someone you like. She’s popular here, and this informality’s almost certainly part of it.

That happened to put Light Miri right up at the top of Poplock’s suspicious list. He didn’t have any evidence, of course, but it made sense. If the baddies could use this overpowering goodness as a cloak, then the best disguise would be as the nicest person you could find – and as someone with enough power and authority to go anywhere and do anything, which seemed to be what a Light did.

Of course, she could just be as nice as she appeared, in which case she might be in more danger than anyone else once the real baddies showed up.

Many of the partygoers immediately gravitated towards them, but the mass parted in the center to let through the short but impeccably dressed form of a Child of Odin. He was clean-shaven, which was rather what Poplock had expected – his name implied a follower of Balder, who was depicted by the Odinsyrnen as clean-shaven – but his silver-and-gold hair was very long, reaching almost to his knees, and while styled was not restrained in any way.

“Haldengen Baldersedge,” Miri said, a touch more formally, “allow me to present to you a Justiciar of Myrionar, called the Phoenix, and an Adventurer of – Zarathanton, was it? – yes, Zarathanton, named Tobimar. They have crossed the mountains themselves to come here.” She turned to Kyri and Tobimar. “Phoenix, Tobimar, allow me to present to you Halgenden Baldersedge, Reflect of Sha Kaizatenzei.”

“An honor to meet you, sir,” Tobimar said, with Kyri making a similar greeting.

“Not at all, not at all,” Halgenden said. “Far more an honor to meet you. Crossed over through the Pass of Night? By the Light in Darkness, that’s a feat I never thought I’d hear of, let alone done by some coming from the other side. Decidedly impressive, I must say.”

The phrase Light in Darkness got Poplock’s attention, especially since he could feel Tobimar’s shoulder tense on hearing it. They’d seen no temples that appeared dedicated to Terian, but “The Light in the Darkness” was one of the most common of his titles. Interesting.

“Thank you, sir,” Kyri began, and Halgenden shook his head.

“None of this ‘sir’ business, or ‘Reflect’ or any of that dustballery! You call me Halgen, like everyone else who’s not mad at me, and I’ll call you Phoenix and him Tobimar, yes?”

Kyri laughed. “All right, Halgen.”

“Agreed, Halgen,” Tobimar said with his own smile.

“Let me introduce you around, here.” He gestured to another Odinsyrnen, a very pretty woman (at least as far as Poplock’s admittedly limited judgment of humanoid beauty was concerned) of about Halgen’s apparent age and as solid has he. “This is Freldena Baldersedge; I’m her husband, and a lucky one as well, given that her family’s been –”

“Frigga’s name, Halgen, you needn’t bring all that up!” Freldena said in a mildly exasperated tone. Her fond smile took the edge from the rebuke. “Honored to meet you both, Phoenix, Tobimar.”

After they exchanged greetings, Halgen continued introducing them – two dozen introductions in the space of a few minutes, which Poplock knew would lead to Kyri and Tobimar having to ask most of them their names again shortly. He was pretty sure the one that would stick was that of Hulda, Freldena and Halgen’s daughter, who looked to be an adorable six years old and knew how to play on that – clearly the darling of the party.

“So, I hope you’re enjoying your visit to Murnitenzei, Phoenix, Tobimar,” Halgen said, leading them over to a table laden with mostly-unfamiliar foods – though Poplock could see parallels to some of the cuisines he’d seen in Zarathanton.

“Very much so, Halgen,” Tobimar said, starting to load up a plate at Halgen’s gesture inviting him to do so. “Not something we expected, I’ll tell you!”

Most of those around laughed. “No, I wouldn’t think so!” Freldena said. “So on the other side of the mountains, it’s like this, then, not like the forest outside our walls?”

“Not exactly like this,” Kyri said. “But not monstrous like that, no, definitely not.”

“Then what in the name of the Seven Lights brought you here?” Halgen demanded mildly. “Even one like Miri, here, wouldn’t assay that crossing without an exceedingly good reason!”

Poplock hid his grin. This was another area they’d had to discuss and plan out; they needed someone to ask that question and bring up the subject so that they could turn the questions around and find out things about this place. And we had to know what story we wanted to tell, to keep from revealing things we don’t want told.

“We had a few reasons, actually,” Tobimar answered. “In Phoenix’ country – which is just the other side of the Pass – we found evidence of a particularly vile conspiracy, and some of that evidence seemed to show that they had support from something on the other side of Rivendream Pass. Seeing this place rather throws doubt on that, though.”

“Do not go quite so fast, Tobimar,” Miri said, looking more grave than usual. “While it would seem almost beyond belief that anyone in Kaizatenzei proper could be involved in anything dark – and even less so in anything that contacts people we did not know existed – I would not exclude the possibility that something in the surrounding forest has had such contact and influence. Despite all our efforts of the centuries, the forest still surrounds us, presses against us, and yields only grudgingly to us; I would be unsurprised to find there is something more than mere dumb malice lurking there.”

She’s able to be serious and focused. Not surprising, but she sure works that bouncing, laughing girl business a lot.

“But you said a few reasons,” Halgen said, a question in his eyes.

“Well,” Tobimar said slowly, “the main other reason is that I’m chasing a legend.”

“Oooh! A legend! I love legends!” said Hulda brightly.

“So do I!” Miri agreed. “Can you tell us this one?”

“Well, it’s not the most happy story…”

“It’s okay,” Hulda said. “Some of the ones Father has told me aren’t always happy. Just let me know when you’re coming to really sad parts.”

“I’ll do that,” Tobimar promised.

The story Tobimar told was – pretty much – the one he’d told Poplock and, later, Xavier and Kyri, of the lost homeland, the flight to safety, and the unique curse that his ancestor had discovered and that now had fallen on him.

“But I had a few clues, and one of them was the way the oldest stories of my people began: ‘Long ago, when justice and vengeance lay just beyond the mountains’. We’d known we were looking for some place on the other side of, and protected by, mountains, but when I remembered that old saying, it stuck with me. And then I realized that the country on the other side of the Pass from here – a country called Evanwyl – had as its patron deity a god called Myrionar, the god of Justice and Vengeance – I suddenly realized that I might have found my answer.”

“A fascinating story,” said a quiet voice with just the hint of a hiss in it. “You may well be correct.”

Poplock found himself nearly face-to-face with a mazakh standing over six feet tall; it took no acting at all to jump in startlement and scuttle around behind Tobimar’s neck; Tobimar himself twitched a bit, as might be expected given the two encounters he’d had with the so-called snake men.

“Ahh, Hiriista, good to see you could make it!” Halgen said warmly. “Tobimar, Phoenix, this is Hiriista Twice-Hatched, one of the finest magewrights in all the Seven. Hiriista, Tobimar, Adventurer of Zarathanton, and the Phoenix, Justiciar of Myrionar.”

“An honor,” Hiriista said, bowing fluidly with a pose similar to that which Miri had used. Viewed when not attacking, Poplock could appreciate the severe beauty of the creatures; not really snakelike, they were more like very tall hopclaws – bipedal reptilian creatures with colorfully patterned scales, a long balancing tail, and two arms with powerful hands; Xavier had said they reminded him of something called ‘velociraptors’.

“And comfort your pet,” Hiriista went on, “I am not in the habit of eating toads.”

“Duckweed will appreciate that,” Tobimar said, reaching up and giving Poplock a reassuring pat. Poplock relaxed visibly, and gave an inward smile. Using his original given name made him sound a lot less suspicious than ‘Poplock’, if anyone guessed what that meant. “So you think I may be on the right track?”

“In some of the few ancient writings unearthed,” Hiriista said, “I have seen a very similar phrase, something like ‘Justice and Vengeance were as near as the other side of the mountain’. And your story mentions your interest in the number seven, which is surely of interest here.”

“But was there a ‘seven’ before Kaizatenzei itself?” Kyri asked. “Because I get the impression that Kaizatenzei as you know it is much more recent than the last Chaoswar.”

Hiriista hiss-shrugged. “I do not know your ‘Chaoswars’, but it is true that Kaizatenzei is not ancient. And yes – there are ruins of towers, from which it was said that light used to shine and protect all about them, found in the cities of the Seven Lights, and only in those seven cities – aside of course from the Unfallen Tower in Sha Kaizatenzei Valatar, the capital. Indeed, those cities were founded around these ancient towers, and there is reason to believe that there is, or was, some special virtue associated with them.”

He restrained himself from exchanging glances with the others, but he knew Kyri and Tobimar did so; that confirmed their suspicious about the Seven Stars almost completely. “You mentioned ancient records?”

“All the most ancient records are kept in Sha Kaizatenzei Valatar. If you would learn more on these subjects, I would suggest you travel there.”

“We had already expected to do that, but you give us even more reason to do so,” Kyri said. “If I might ask, what exactly is a ‘magewright’?”

“You know not the term? A magewright is one skilled in all the arts of magical creation and use – alchemy, gemcalling matrices, summoning arrays, mystical constructs, symbological circles, and so on. Halgen may exaggerate –”

“He does not,” Miri put in.

The mazakh bowed. “I shall argue not with one of the Lights. Then I am indeed quite adept in these areas.”

“You’re a gemcaller?” Tobimar said, asking one of the questions Poplock really wanted to ask. “I’ve heard of it, vaguely, but apparently it’s hard to make it work where we come from. I’ve generally only heard it mentioned in connection with Elyvias, which is itself if anything harder to reach than Kaizatenzei.”

“In truth? I am surprised. It is one of the most useful and formidable arts, for those who can master it, but it does require considerable preparation initially. I would demonstrate, but not here; it is not something to do casually.”

“Then perhaps another time?”

“Certainly; are you a student of things magical?”

“I dabble a bit,” Tobimar said honestly. “Mostly I just like to see everything I can, as does Phoenix.”

Miri suddenly stood up. “Ohh! The Lady of Lights says she will come!”

All eyes were focused on the diminuitive Light. “Now?” said Reflect Helgen, eyes wide. “Oh, Miri, I’m hardly prepared to –”

“Piffle. She knows perfectly well what the situation is, but people from outside? She’s not going to wait until they can make it all the way to Valatar!” With a “shoo” gesture, Miri waved others back until she had a clear space twenty feet across. “All right!” From one of the little tubes or arrays of crystals on her belt she took a large, water-clear gem. “TO ME!

She threw the crystal on the ground and it exploded in brilliant, multicolored light that dazzled everyone, Poplock included. When the light faded, Poplock saw to his startlement a tall woman, as tall or taller than Kyri with hair red as bright coals, in gold-trimmed crystal and cloth armor similar in style, if not details, to Miri’s. She held a staff of crystal as well, a staff that shimmered through the hues of the rainbow, and there was a great sword slung over her back. She had none of Miri’s bubbliness, but instead had the same serious demeanor and appearance of quiet strength that characterized Phoenix Kyri.

Summoned by a crystal that size? I’d say it’s impossible, but I just saw it!

Things are really starting to get interesting!