Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 26

Chapter 26.

The echoing, many-layered murmur ahead of them was unmistakable; they had heard something similar on the day they had – with Xavier – confronted Bolthawk and Skyharrier. It was a crowd, perhaps a mob.

Hiriista broke into a trotting run, his tail held high, head maintaining a steady level to guide him. Kyri sprinted alongside of him. Please, Myrionar, let us be in time!

The forest opened up ahead, and a cluster of buildings – a moderate-sized mansion to the far right on a rise, houses and small shops a bit below it, docks and boathouses and other buildings at the edge of a rippling sheet of water that extended and widened to the north, more forest closing in beyond the town they could see.

Filling the main intersection, a sort of rough rectangle, was a mass of people; Kyri guessed it at over a hundred, and all of them were armed. As they approached, she could hear murmurs and shouts in which Zogen Josan’s name was recognizable, and not in a good way.

Cirnala stumbled up behind them, pushed past as the two slowed. “Let me… tell them you are here…”

The Artan took a deep breath and shouted, “LISTEN!”

His voice was startlingly powerful for his slender frame, and heads immediately turned in their direction. A murmur went up, and, gratefully, Kyri heard the angry rumblings subsiding, giving way to surprise and curiosity.

“Cirnala! You’re just in time!” The speaker was a tall, very handsome human who appeared to be in his late 50s, with his greying black hair and sharp black eyes that glanced in the direction of the other travelers before returning to the exhausted Artan. “We were just about to go confront Zogen.”

“I’ve brought… help,” Cirnala said, still catching his breath. “To solve the mystery.”

“No need to solve it anymore,” said a woman with dark brown hair, hefting an axe that looked almost as large as Shrike’s had been. “Saw him, Nimelly did – Zogen Josan, running into the woods with Abiti under his arm!”

“Abiti! Oh, Light, no.” Cirnala was momentarily stunned.

“That’s why we can’t wait any longer,” the older man said. “But we’ll be glad of any help.”

Hiriista bowed to him. “Magewright Hiriista of Sha Murnitenzei.”

“I have heard your name, Magewright. Reflect Namuhan Jenten; I welcome you to my small village.”

Kyri had suspected this was the Reflect from the way the others had instantly parted to let him through and he seemed naturally in charge. She thought his bow was a trifle stiff and hurried, but given the circumstances that wasn’t surprising.

Hiriista gestured to them. “My companions are guests and welcomed as equals by Light Miri and the Lady Shae herself, for they have come to us through the Pass of Night from the world beyond.” Eyes widened and breaths caught at that statement, as the mazakh magewright continued, “Warrior of Justice and Vengeance, the Phoenix, and her companion, Tobimar. They are here to assist as well.”

“As I said, welcome indeed. I will not pretend that the thought of assaulting a former Color of the Unity is less than tragedy… or less than terrifying.” The others were getting restless, but the Reflect held up a hand. “And justice and vengeance surely is what we need here.”

An opening. “Then allow me to go first, sir. I am the Phoenix Justiciar of Myrionar, and my god’s first directive and highest duty is to apply wisdom and mercy to arrive at justice, and when justice demands, to deliver the vengeance of the gods. I have seen the things your Unity Guard face, and I have survived the forest that surrounds Kaizatenzei; my friends and I may survive a confrontation with this Zogen Josan far more easily than would your people, who are – if I see a right – mostly unused to such combat.”

The head tilted slightly, but then nodded. “You see truly. We have a few warriors… but none trained with the Unity Guard, and what little we know of Zogen is fearsome. Very well; if Cirnala has come so far, so fast, to bring you here, and you are vouched for by the Magewright and the Lady herself, I yield gladly the forefront. But I hope you are ready –”

Kyri was already striding in the direction of the forest; she could tell that Tobimar and Hiriista were right behind her. “Children are missing; of course I am ready.” Cirnala had told them roughly where the retired Color’s cabin was, and as she expected the Artan quickly jogged up to guide them.

The villagers – not so much a mob now, thank the Balance! – trailed close behind, with the Reflect leading them. “This Abiti – boy or girl?” she asked.

Cirnala closed his eyes as if in pain briefly. “Daughter of Genata and Ivilit – they run the local tavern, great favorites of everyone as you might guess, and Abiti was… is a charmer. Fearless girl, helped track the depthshade just a few weeks before this happened.”

The “depthshade”, Kyri remembered, was the local name for a crocodilian monstrosity which was equally at home in water or on land, with legs suited for running as well as swimming. It had been lurking around Jenten’s Mill for weeks, apparently, ambushing sithigorn chicks, young forest antelope, and herd calves until someone noticed the reduction in livestock and a hunt was organized – a hunt that cost more than just the life of the monster.

One more reason for us to go first. If hunting even a local predator is dangerous enough that some of the locals get killed, fighting a trained warrior of this Unity Guard would be so much worse.

She remembered that Hiriista had said Zogen might kill all of those who came after him. That puts him up on our level, maybe better. And I am weaker here.

She concentrated, dragging the power down through whatever monstrous resistance it was that nearly blocked her connection to Myrionar. But drag it she did, and she felt the strength building up within her. I’ll be prepared as well as I can by the time we get there.

“Zogen will be expecting some kind of assault from the village by now,” Tobimar said quietly. “Wouldn’t you say so, Cirnala?”

A reluctant nod. “Probably, yes.”

Kyri understood what he was getting at. “Then can you and the others stay back? Not only will it be safer… but if anyone can somehow talk to him, get some sense out of him, won’t it be someone he doesn’t think is pre-judging him?”

Cirnala’s face wrinkled in surprise. “Well… I hadn’t thought of that. But –”

“I can understand reluctance – and obviously the Reflect and the rest of you have a feeling of responsibility. But if you’re right, he has at least one child now, perhaps still has the others. If it begins with an assault, might he not use the children as a defense?”

The Reflect had overheard them. “A grim thought, but true enough. But if you take too long, he might do more.”

“If we can keep him talking, he will be less able to do anything else, I think. Especially if he is trying to understand who we are and what we’re doing here,” Tobimar said.

The Reflect hesitated, then took a pained breath. “My heart screams out that I must run forward… but your words ring true.” His dark eyes measured both of them. “Very well. We shall wait at the gray stump – it is well out of sight of the cabin, but if battle is joined we can hasten to your aid in moments. I cannot guarantee how long I can hold my people back, you understand.”

Kyrie grasped his hand impulsively and bowed over it. “Thank you, Reflect. I understand entirely. Honestly, if we cannot reach him, or find some advantage, in a relatively few minutes… I think there will be no need to hold any back.”

His startled face creased in a momentary smile, and his returning grip was powerful. “Then I wish you luck; I hope for a way out of this horror.”

The three of them – four, counting the generally-unnoticed Toad – moved forward past the stump; while there were some murmured protests, Kyri felt great relief as the crowd stopped, many of them looking relieved themselves that their confrontation with an ex-Color was postponed. Myrionar, show me the way. Let us find a way to prevent any more deaths. Let us find a way to save that child, or all the children if they still live.

“So, want me to do some scouting?” Poplock said as soon as they were out of earshot.

Hiriista blinked, even as both Kyri and Tobimar grinned savagely. “I did not fully comprehend the other advantage of your size, little Toad, but now I do. While we confront Zogen, you will gain entrance and find out the truth within.”

“If that’s Phoenix’ plan.”

“It is exactly Phoenix’ plan, Poplock. If we can get his attention, get in, find out what you can, and get back fast. We’ll keep him talking.”

“Got it.”

She turned to the mazakh. “Does Zogen know you?”

“Oh, certainly. We weren’t close friends, but casual friends, good acquaintances and colleagues in a way; I have been one of the major consultants for the Unity Guard as they traveled through Sha Murnitenzei for the last, oh, twenty-five years, and often travel with them for various missions.”

“Good. Good. That might just give us an opening.” They could see the retired Color’s cabin now – a large construction of logs with multiple sections, obviously several rooms. Pretty good-sized house.

“How do you mean that?”

Kyri felt her face going cold. “I was thinking on the way here. What could make a man like Zogen Josan, the one you described at his retirement and evidently the one they saw here for a while, change, retreat like that? And after our other conversations, the first thing I thought of was… what if he felt there was something wrong with him?”

A slow hiss. “You mean… what if he somehow sensed or acknowledged whatever it is that we have noticed in the others. He is retired, no longer active. Perhaps in the slow passing of peaceful days, with no activities to distract him… yes.”

“A good thought, Phoenix,” Tobimar said. “And you have a plan?”

“Sort of. I’m playing this by heart, not head. Just… follow my lead.”

He touched her arm and smiled. “Always.”

She smiled back, then turned to the silent cabin. “Zogen! Zogen Josan, once-Color of the Unity Guard, I would speak with you!”

Her voice echoed through the forest, more powerful than any ordinary human voice, and forest-sounds momentarily quieted in its wake.

A moment went by. Two. Then, as she was about to call again, a voice answered from the cabin, a deep but weary voice. “You are not from the Mill. Surprising. But perhaps no less enemies, for that. Who are you?”

“I am the Phoenix, Justiciar of the god Myrionar, patron of Justice and Vengeance.” As she spoke, she saw a tiny flicker of motion, a scuffle of leaves; Poplock was on his way.

“Myrionar… I have not heard that name. And a strange title you have. As to justice, alas, I fear no justice can be found here.”

She beckoned to Hiriista, who stepped fully into view. “Zogen, do you know me?”

“M.. Magewright? Magewright Hiriista? Could that be…?” The incredulous voice suddenly hardened. “But no. It would too glad a coincidence, too fine a chance.” The voice wavered, hope and fear evident. “But if you are… If you truly be Hiriista, then tell me, what words did I speak to you in Sha Alatenzei, when we stepped from a particular drinking establishment?”

Hiriista tilted his head, then suddenly gave vent to a steamkettle laugh. “You opened your mouth, yes, but it was not words that came out! And then you fell nigh-senseless and I had to carry you to your room in the Steamvent Inn.”

There was a faint sound, as of a man dropping heavily into a chair. “Light… it is you, isn’t it? But…” the suspicion was back. “Those with you… they must be Unity Guard, then.”

“Do we look like Unity Guards?” Tobimar asked quietly.

“No… no, you do not. There is something strange indeed about you. I know not the workmanship on your armor, Phoenix, nor the pattern of your clothing, young man.”

Kyri shook her head, trying to make sense of this. His voice is tense, exhausted… near the edge of a breakdown. Yet he does not speak as a madman. At the same time, there was a witness to him actually abducting a child.

“That,” Hiriista said, “is because you see before you far travelers indeed: Phoenix and her friend Tobimar hail from beyond the great mountains, through the Pass of Night; Lady Shae herself has looked into them and seen their truth.”

Truth. That’s it! I’ve never tried it…but I know it can be done. She concentrated, let the power she had been gathering flow into her. Myrionar, give me your eyes and ears. Let me see what truly is, not what others desire I see, nor what my own beliefs would like to see. Let me hear the truth, and be deaf to falsehoods.

She sagged as though a massive weight had landed on her; the power she had gathered before was suddenly all needed merely to support her as she was forced to reach out, grasp the distant power, yank it towards her, an effort like dragging granite boulders. Myrionar, I had never realized… the POWER needed for the truth-sight. Only the mighty prayer and miracle she had called forth on the night of her defeat of Thornfalcon, when she shattered a mystic Gateway and evaporated an almost uncounted host of foes, had demanded more focus and power from both her and Myrionar. And it was harder here, even harder than it had been in Rivendream Pass, harder even than her sensing for hidden evil in Sha Murnitenzei, for truth-telling meant discerning the secrets hidden in another soul without injury – in short, seeing into that strange place beyond the living realm where the real and the possible intersected and tracing those threads, rather than seeking to break the target’s will. That suppressing power is stronger, much stronger here. And it is darker here, not even merely less good. This is a dangerous place.

Zogen Josan had recovered from the expected surprise. “This is truth? Do you swear it, Hiriista? Swear by the Light that these are no Unity Guards nor any of their servants, but new-come heroes from beyond the Pass?”

Hiriista’s voice was puzzled, but at the same time she heard relief in it – relief that his old acquaintance seemed willing to talk, might be able to be reached. “I swear it, in the name of the Light in the Darkness, the Seven Lights and the One Light, by my Oath and by my Family.”

“Then… then I believe you. I have to believe someone can be trusted. But… but I think it is too late, far too late.”

“Maybe not, Zogen Josan,” Kyri said, the power finally come into her. She saw the world now as though it was both brighter and darker than before, flickering with strange fire, whispering hints of words. “But I must ask you. Did you kill any of the children that have disappeared?”

“No!” The voice was emphatic. “I have killed no children! I would never do anything like that!”

The first part was true; she could hear the truth in it, the rightness in the statement like the beauty of a pitch perfect note. But the second part sounded a hair off, the glow was dimmed, grayish. Why would he say he has killed none of them, yet be less sure of what he would do? Does he doubt himself?

“But you were seen taking a child today.”

“To protect them!” Zogen said emphatically. He had come forward, and she could now see him, a tall black-haired man with a haggard, drawn face that must normally be quite handsome. “Though I fear there is nothing I can do to save them.”

And the truth, twice more. She knew she could not keep this power up much longer.

“What are you afraid of, Zogen Josan?” she asked finally. “What makes you fear to trust your comrades, your Reflect… and yourself?”

The former Color’s breath caught; the gasp was audible from where they stood. There was a long, long pause. Then, finally, he spoke, in a voice so low she could barely hear it.

“Sometimes I would look in the mirror and not know, exactly, where I had gotten the bruises I saw. And then I would forget them, and not wonder. And other times, I would remember doing something, yet the memory did not always ring true, as though I had seen it, but was as though I had stood outside myself, watching.”

Ice trailed down her spine, for she recalled the Watchland’s own words: “…for many of the last few days I have felt almost outside myself, watching what I have been doing…”. And the Truth of Zogen’s words was undeniable.

“And,” he continued, “and sometimes I have seen my friends, and for a moment … wondered about them. Wondered if they were as they seemed. And as I thought of these things, I was more and more sure that many of my deeds were just shadows of truth, and I have had nightmares of other things. Places of terror I have never seen in waking, things that hide behind faces I trust, but are not what they seem. And I know now that one of them is here.”

The Sight was gone now, but she was sure that he was telling the truth as he knew it. “How do you know, Zogen?”

“I knew there was something wrong, even before Tirleren vanished, so I started watching the children in the woods. Watching, making sure they were safe, I thought… but I didn’t understand, not then. Only after he disappeared did I guess… but I could not be sure, for I found him too late.”

“Found him?” she repeated, even as she felt something small scuttle up her armor.

“Yes. In the wood, near the town. But I still didn’t know…”

“Five children,” Poplock’s voice said softly in her ear. “Tied up downstairs and secured in cages. But something’s funny about a couple of them, I think. Didn’t dare poke around long – there were all kinds of weird crystals and things that might have been wards and such.”

“What didn’t you know? Zogen, why did you take the children?”

“I found out what was trying to take them. All of them were being brought to him.”

She suddenly connected little pieces of Cirnala’s story and with a sinking feeling in her gut knew what Zogen was going to say… and who it was coming just now up behind her, emerging from the forest…

“They were being brought to the Reflect,” Zogen said, and his breath suddenly caught.

Kyri looked back.

Reflect Jenten stood there, the entire mob just behind him.