Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 19

Chapter 19.

Finally starting to wind down, Poplock thought to himself. He’d managed to wander around most of the huge house of the Reflect while the others were in conversation; as he’d expected, in most cases people didn’t even notice him if he was at all cautious, and at most they picked him up and moved him somewhere they felt he belonged.

There wasn’t a single thing he’d found that was indicative of anything wrong here; it was, he admitted, perhaps a bit contrarian that this made him more suspicious than he had been. But while there were prison cells – and not many of them – they were comfortable, and mostly not in use, nor with much sign of use. He couldn’t find any secret passages, heavily warded locations – aside from basic defensive wards around the perimeter of the grounds – and the armory was about what he expected in a good-sized town, allowing for the fact that they didn’t have spellslingers but did have these “magewrights” to provide them with good equipment.

Even the conversation had been interesting but absolutely harmless. Mostly of course they’d been asking questions about the world beyond their mountains, and been riveted by Tobimar and Phoenix’ descriptions of Zarathan’s other countries and cities, but now that things were starting to break up, the newcomers were finally getting their turn to ask questions. From his current location on a mantelpiece, Poplock could hear Phoenix talking to one of the local Hues, Zelliri. “… you are all trained at Valatar?”

“Yes,” Zelliri nodded, her medium brown hair moving little because it was tightly braided around her head. “Every few years there’s a competition among all the children of the right ages – between thirteen and sixteen, for humans – and the ones that show the best talent, dedication and focus in the needed arts are selected as candidates to replace any of the Tenzeitalacor who may have been lost or chose to retire.”

“Is that common? Members of your Unity Guard being lost?”

Zelliri shrugged. “Common… no, but it happens. I think it’s probably one or two a year across all of Kaizatenzei. We don’t often lose a Light – if you ever see Light Miri in action, you’ll know why – but you’ve also seen what’s in the forest… outside. And sometimes there are still things inside, between the cities.”

That was at least fairly similar to home; get far away from the cities, things got less safe. But here, Poplock was pretty sure, it had to do at least partially with the magic that surrounded the city itself. I’m betting that the pure perfection we’re sensing here will be less in the in-between lands.

“What’s the training like to become a Hue?”

Zelliri got a faraway look in her eyes. “What’s it like? I’m not sure I could describe it to someone who wasn’t there. Oh, some of it’s just exercises, weapons training, and so on… but there’s techniques we’re taught…” She shook her head emphatically. “Really, I can’t tell you. Secret, honestly.”

“I understand. There’s things I guess we couldn’t tell you about our skills and training, too.”

Poplock scuttled along, moving behind vases and bowls and other things that dwarfed him. This was a typical conversation; a few interesting tidbits, nothing to hang anything real from.

Looking around, he noticed Hiriista was no longer immediately visible. That surprises me. He was obviously trying to pump us for information on magic, and could tell that there was more to learn.

Poplock slid down from the mantel and scuttled around, sniffing. There was a particular scent to mazakh and he was familiar enough with it to get a good trail if the traces were recent.

The trail led outside; easing out into the darkness, Poplock let his eyes adjust to the night before moving farther along.

It didn’t take very long to find Hiriista; he was standing in a small grove of bushes, laid out like a five-pointed star, to one side of the house entrance. The reptilian creature was squatting on its tail and looking up at the stars.

As Poplock stopped, the head swiveled. “Ah. The third and most interesting of our visitors arrives.”

Does he know, or is he guessing? Poplock just sat still and blinked stupidly at the mazakh.

“Naturally you’re too smart to speak. Or perhaps I am wrong and you are, indeed, no more than a pet, or a familiar, with a touch more than the wild gives you but not an intellect on a par with your companions. Yet, I think otherwise.” Hiriista looked back up at the stars. “Here we are in private; no others are here to observe. So – as you move not away – I will indulge myself with the speculations, and see if you agree with my conclusions, little toad.

“Firstly, it is your pose, your way of moving and sitting; the body has a language of its own, and while often yours says ‘I am nothing but a foolish toad’, at other times – often when others seemed not to be looking – it said other things to me. I saw your attention focused strongly on those speaking of certain things; I noted you kicking or nudging your companion Tobimar subtly, and shortly afterward he would ask certain types of questions. I am, you see, somewhat adept at reading the words of the body, as my people are rare in Kaizatenzei, and to live with humans well means to understand their meaning in movement as well as words.”

Hiriista reached slowly into a pouch at his side – a movement clearly intended not to frighten either dumb Toad or intelligent Adventurer – and brought out a metal and wood something which he put into his mouth. Scent rose from it, which Hiriista inhaled. “Still, this is mere circumstantial evidence, and a matter of interpretation. More telling, I think, is your face. A casual observer might not understand what they see, but I do. You are not an ordinary toad such as might be found in local swamps and ponds. Your eyes are set more forward, looking more as a human does, able to focus both eyes on targets. Your legs – fore and rear – seem jointed just slightly differently, and your forepaws appear more dexterous than ordinary. Your head, too, is somewhat higher and broader – perhaps to hold more of a brain to think with?” He gave an amused sigh, and a puff of the scent was faintly visible in the air. “Still, these may just be signs of a different variety of toad, one more suited to being a pet or familiar.”

Well, he’s doing very well so far. Wonder what else he has? Poplock mused. He wasn’t going to decide what he would do about the mazakh’s observations yet, and might as well hear everything he had to say.

“Third… ahh, that has to do with tactics. The Phoenix and Tobimar are both clearly warriors. They have some powers of their own, implied in their stories and the way in which they move, but the conversations on things magical clearly say to me that neither of them is well-versed in the ways of magic – whether that of your home locale, or of this. Yet does it make sense, I ask myself, for a party to set out to solve such a mystery as Tobimar describes, without at least someone who can, if not use magic, at least understand it well enough to address magical barriers and opponents? I would say not. And that, my friend, leaves you as the only possible candidate. Unless you happen, of course, to have another ally who is invisible and undetectable.” The magewright gave a hissing chuckle.

Ironic that in theory we could have just such an ally. Xavier would scare the scales right off you.

“Now, I have no intention of telling anyone else my deductions. I understand perfectly why this would be your tactic, Duckweed. Tiny, unnoticed, and potentially deadly; what a wonderful resource you must be, especially if your adversaries do not suspect your presence.”

Poplock grinned and gave his own shrug. “It’s proved useful a time or two,” he said.

The sharp hiss of startlement showed that despite his deductions, Hiriista had been uncertain. “So it is true! I thank you for speaking, little one. You are their magician, are you not?”

“Oh, I dabble – more than Tobimar or Phoenix, that’s true. But yeah, I’m the one they’ll be asking whenever things get magical.”

“So it was on your behalf that Tobimar was asking about gemcalling?”

“Basically. Sure, he was curious too, but I’m the guy actually interested in learning it, if I can.”

Hiriista spun and squatted again, now facing Poplock directly. “Well, since we shall be travelling together, I think I may be able to enlighten you on this. There are certain… limitations of the art which may make it generally more difficult for you to practice, but we shall see.”

“I can teach you about magic from our side of the mountains, too. What I know, anyway, which isn’t a huge amount but probably is enough to give you an idea of how we work.”

“I would be extremely interested to learn such techniques. Now that we are aware of the world beyond, I feel certain I will travel there one day, as you have travelled here.”

“Don’t try that alone. Rivendream Pass is just as nasty as you think.”

“Indeed, indeed. I have ventured outside of the wall… not far, you understand… and I know well what sort of monstrosities I might face.” A hiss-click of pride. “But they know not what they might be facing, either.”

Poplock figured the mazakh was probably right. Light Miri respected Hiriista, and given what she’d seemed perfectly happy to take on by herself… that made Hiriista pretty darn dangerous. “You say there’s not many of your people around?”

The magewright’s head bobbed from side to side in a negative. “Indeed, not many. In all honesty, not enough for us to maintain our population; we reduce in numbers and I fear it will be not too many generations at all before we are gone.”

“Well… there’s lots of mazakh on the other side of the mountains, but most of them aren’t very nice people.”

The crested head tilted. “What do you mean?”

Poplock gave him the same tilt. “You want the water-pure truth?”

“I do.”

“Okay, then. Most mazakh – and I mean something like ninety-nine out of a hundred – are demon-worshippers, following their own demons called the Mazolishta. Ran into one once, not very friendly at all.”

Even with his minimal experience with mazakh, Poplock could see the shock and disappointment in Hiriista’s pose and movements. “I… see. Then I apologize in the stead of all my misled brethren.”

“Hey, not your fault,” Poplock said cheerfully. “On my side… I’m guessing there aren’t any Toads here at all.”

“None I have ever heard of, no. Are all your people so small?”

Poplock gave a croaking laugh. “Ha! No, I am a runt by their standards too. Most of them are at least the size of one of those flagstones on the path to the house, and some weigh more than you do.”

“So, even in your home lands, you are oft ignored. I see. Well, as I said, I shall not betray your most interesting secret. Do you intend to keep yourself hidden from Light Miri – assuming she has not already guessed?”

“I think so. She doesn’t need to know my abilities right now, and having an unknown resource can be a lifesaver. I’ve saved lives before now with that.”

“I do not doubt it – and I now guess there are parts of your friends’ tales that might be told a bit differently if they were to include your role in affairs.” Hiriista stood, putting away his scent-device. “I believe the festivities are nearly over. Is that your friend?”

Faintly, from the door, he heard Tobimar calling “Duckweed? Duckweed!

“Whoops! Gotta go. Thanks for a really interesting talk.” They exchanged bows. “Once we start travelling, I guess we’ll have a lot to talk about.”

“I think we will, yes.” Hiriista agreed.

A few moments’ hopping took him to Tobimar, who relaxed as he felt Poplock’s familiar weight clambering up to his shoulder. “Thank goodness,” he said, in the tone of someone chiding a pet, “I was worried. Don’t go wandering off like that!”

Poplock maintained his own silence until they returned to the inn – and until he’d managed to verify that there were still no spy charms, scrying, or other means of observing them without being detected. “Whew! So, you guys find out anything?”

Kyri made a face. “I found out that everyone’s curious about Evanwyl and the rest of Zarathan, that I’m already being compared to Lady Shae because we’re both very tall and built like warriors, and that I can’t sense a single thing worse than petty jealousy and human anger anywhere.”

“Pretty much the same here,” admitted Tobimar. “Not a trace of darkness that I could sense anywhere. Their Colors and Hues all were given secret-secret training that they remember fondly but can’t talk about, that’s about the only interesting thing I found out.”

“Yes, I had similar conversations,” Kyri said. “They’re very proud of it – reminds me a bit of the Justiciars, but mostly just because it’s a tight-knit group with strong spirit of unity.” She glanced to Poplock. “Same with you?”

“Well, mostly. I poked around everywhere I could reach in the mansion and found nothing. But there was one interesting event. I got caught.” He summarized his conversation with Hiriista.

Tobimar exchanged an impressed glance with Kyri. “By the sands, he’s good. We were trying to hide you but he still saw through it. Do you think he’ll actually keep you a secret?”

Poplock thought about it. “I think he wants to. What I don’t know is whether he’s got obligations to, say, the Lady of Light or Miri that might require him to let them in on the secret whether he wants to or not.” At their expressions, he snorted. “Hey, someone here has to be the cautious one!”

“No, you’re right there,” Kyri said slowly. “We know there’s something wrong here, and that means we can’t take anything on face value.”

“On the positive side, it means that you’ll actually be able to work with him on the various talents that work here and don’t back home – and, I guess, vice-versa.”

“Exactly,” Poplock said, catching a passing fly. “And I really need that information. If they do all their major magic by this gemcalling and summoning and alchemy and such, I have to get a grip on how that stuff really works here, and how I can deal with those if things turn ugly.”

He noted the yawns of his companions. “But you guys are tired – and so am I, I just don’t yawn like you. Tomorrow we choose which way to go and get going, right?”

“Right,” agreed Kyri. Tobimar snagged her for a kiss before they went to their rooms – a kiss that went on long enough that Poplock was tempted to set up a timer; instead, he just hopped to his place in a corner of Tobimar’s room.

Tomorrow we stop hanging around and get to moving again!