Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 25

Chapter 25.

“Magewright Hiriista,” the Artan said, his delicate features taut with concern, “I implore you and your companions to give us aid.”

Hiriista cocked his head, and Tobimar thought there was a miniscule smile implied. “Perhaps if you were to state your problem, my companions Tobimar and Phoenix, and I, might be able to say if we can be of any assistance. Your face is somewhat familiar, but I regret to say I do not quite recall…”

Atcha!” The sound was an explosive one of distress and self-reproach. “Many apologies, Magewright. I have been searching the Necklace for assistance and my mind is not focused or calm. I am Cirnala of Jenten’s Mill.”

“I recall Jenten’s Mill – a village quite some miles north of here, approaching the shores of Enneisolaten – on a narrow inlet from the lake. You are one of Jenten’s – the third of the name, I believe – hunters and warriors at need. Yes?”

“Exactly so!” Cirnala looked much relieved that Hiriista recalled so much already. “We are not large, only a few hundred people, but we have always done well and had no unexpected troubles…”

“Until now,” Tobimar finished. “What is the problem?”

“Children,” the Artan said quietly. “Children have been disappearing.”

That was enough for all of them; Hiriista simply glanced at their expressions and nodded. “Lead on, Cirnala. Tell us the rest as we travel; it will be a few days to reach Jenten’s Mill, and if children are at risk we should waste no time at all.”

Tobimar could hear a particular emphasis in the mazakh‘s voice, and suspected the reason. Hiriista had said that there were so few of his people in Kaizatenzei that they probably would eventually die out; it was likely, then, that their hatchlings were prized even more highly than they were normally. Anything threatening children…

“How did it start?” Kyri asked.

Cirnala’s story was mysterious and chilling. A few months before, his cousin’s son Tirleren had disappeared while playing in the forest near the inlet. A few weeks later, another child, this time a human girl named Demmi, vanished, also while playing. It emerged that Tirleren had claimed to have been playing with Demmi in the days before his disappearance, while Demmi said she hadn’t seen him much beforehand, and that Demmi had claimed she was going off to play with an Odinsyrnen child named Hamule – who hadn’t seen her on that day, or several other days Demmi had said she and Hamule were playing. This was verified by Jenten, the Reflect and grandson of the founder, who had seen Demmi go into the woods on her own, and Hamule’s father, who had been fishing with her all day.

The town had of course immediately tried to keep an eye on all the children, making sure they were always escorted, and searched for any clue as to what could have lured the lost children away and misled them into thinking they were meeting with children that were elsewhere. No traces were found, however, except for a few personal possessions – Tirleren’s fishing rod on the shore of a stream, Demmi’s dagger in the middle of the woods. Tirleren’s mother had descended into complete apathy, having lost her lifemate Siltanji only a few weeks before her son, and the entire village was in a state of near panic.

But panic can’t be maintained forever, and in small villages even children have tasks to complete, so while they kept trying to maintain escort, it was inevitable that at some point they would be out of sight of someone. And a couple of weeks later, Hamule disappeared, between her front door and the Reflect’s own home.

“And you have no clues? No monsters or creatures spotted in the area, no blood or trails, no one acting strangely?” Kyri asked carefully.

“No, we…” Cirnala trailed off. “Well… there is one thing.”

“Don’t hold us in suspense!” Tobimar said, as the Artan paused again.

“There is one person. His home is in the woods, outside of town, and not that far from where Tirleren and Demmi disappeared. He’s refused to come into town during the emergency, and when we sent a delegation to talk to them, he threatened them. But…”

“These hesitations are useless,” Hiriista said sharply. “What is it? Who is this person?”

“Zogen Josan,” Cirnala said reluctantly.

Hiriista stumbled to a halt. “What? What did you say?”

“Zogen Josan,” Cirnala repeated.

Hiriista stared. Tobimar finally nudged him. “What is it, Hiriista?”

“Zogen Josan was once the Color of Sha Alatenzei,” Hiriista answered finally. “It is rare for any of the Unity Guard to retire in any manner than via funeral, but when he reached the age of forty-five years he did so. I remember the occasion well, it was quite an event in the capital – he was thanked for his service and he even gave a short speech, in which he said something like ‘I’m quitting now while I’m still beating the odds, instead of the odds beating me. I hope you don’t hold it against me.’ That was only ten years ago. Always cheerful, like most Colors, a magnificent warrior, spent more than twenty years as the protector of the Earthlight City…” The mazakh shook his head. “That he would not be helping, and instead refusing contact…”

“If you knew him, did you ever notice anything … unusual about him?” Tobimar asked carefully. They didn’t want to reveal their particular concerns, but in this context the question shouldn’t be revealing.”

Hiriista glanced at him with a neutral expression, and only said “Not that I can recall; he was as most others of the Unity Guard in that regard.”

And by his estimation “most others” of the Unity Guard have shown the behavior that he and Kyri noted. So I can take that as a “yes”.

“Now you comprehend our problems, sir. Do you think you can help?”

“I think I must help,” Hiriista said flatly. “My companions –”

“– feel the same way. And if this does somehow involve a former Color, I presume he would be extremely formidable.”

“Undoubtedly why they sent Cirnala looking for help. Alas that the farcallers are so difficult to make; it would be useful to have them in all towns and villages as well as the major cities.” Cirnala nodded.

“Did Zogen Josan only begin acting oddly after these disappearances began? Kyri asked. “After all, I suppose that if mysterious disappearances started happening, some people might get nervous.”

“A former Color? That seems unlikely,” Hiriista said skeptically. “What would you say to a similar statement about one of your Justiciars, Phoenix?”

“A point. Cirnala?”

The Artan hesitated again, then shook his head. “No, Phoenix. I am afraid not.” He looked to the north, as though hoping impossibly to see his village ahead of them. “At first, we were overjoyed at the thought that a former Color would be retiring to Jenten’s Mill. And for the first … oh, year, he was everything we hoped – helpful, multitalented, hard-working. But then…”

He shook his head helplessly. “He just slowly seemed to… fade. Or retreat. Sometimes he’d still come out to help when needed, and he didn’t seem any less capable, but he’d be quiet, not joking or laughing or staying any longer than he had to. Zogen would just go back to his home in the woods and stay there. He didn’t even trade in town much anymore – just hunted and fished alone. The children –” his breath caught, then he continued, “the younger children, the ones who hadn’t seen him early on… they called him ‘Shadowman’ because he would come and go through the woods like a shadow. He was … their scary story, I guess. Though not scary enough to keep them out of the woods, and several of them said that if they actually met him in the woods he was quite kind – helped them find berries, gave back toys they lost, things like that.”

“Did he get any worse?” Tobimar asked, guessing what that poke from Poplock meant.

“Recently, yes. Jenten went by to see how he was after we’d had one nasty incursion, just a few weeks before all this started, and he reported that Zogen threatened him – even loosed fire at him – to keep him away from the cabin.”

The three exchanged glances. It sounded like a case of mental deterioration – someone who started out reasonably sane but something went wrong and then they steadily and unstoppably degenerated until they were completely insane. In the State of the Dragon King or even in Skysand there were usually ways to stop or even reverse this, especially with the help of the priests or mages, but here that didn’t seem likely.

Especially – now that he noticed – that the supernal rightness of Kaizatenzei was fading. We’re between cities, where their influence is weakest, where the Seven Stars did not reach.

Where there can truly be monsters.

“Were there any more disappearances?” Kyri asked after a moment.

“Another little boy – one that, as you might guess, Hamule had said she was playing with, disappeared the day before I left. He was with his parents visiting with the Reflect and his family, and vanished while he was playing inside the mansion. A side door was found open and running footprints going into the forest could be distinguished on the ground. There were some other marks on the ground farther in but they could not be distinguished clearly enough to make any sense of them.” Cirnala sighed. “And since it will have been more than a week since I’ve been gone, I suppose another child may have been taken.”

“Tell me truly; they were already speaking before you left of Zogen being the one responsible, yes?” Hiriista asked.

“Yes, Magewright.”

A long hiss escaped the mazakh‘s lips. “Then it will not be long before they overcome their fear of the strength of a Color and decide to use sheer numbers to put a stop to this. If they are wrong and, somehow, Zogen Josan is not to blame, an innocent man will be killed, and if they are right, Zogen will kill many of them… perhaps all of them… before it is over.”

All of them?” Kyri repeated incredulously.

“It is … possible. If he has fortified his home and is prepared…” Hiriista shook his head and his whole body followed suit.

“Then we’d better hurry,” Tobimar said, and picked up the pace.

“We will hurry,” Kyri said, and her voice was chilled steel. “And we will put an end to this, before any more innocents are killed.”