Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 27

Chapter 27.

Tobimar tensed, and began to bring up the High Center. If things go bad, we will need all my skill. I don’t know exactly what Kyri was doing there, but I could tell she just pushed herself a long ways.

Poplock scuttled up his leg, even as Reflect Jenten spoke. “You imply that I –”

Kyri stepped between the house and the Reflect. “Both of you, pause a moment, before accusations and fear drive you to actions that will end in tragedy. Please – let me see if I can untangle this, for I think the truth is more strange than any of us know.”

As Kyri continued, Poplock relayed his information about the children. Locked up and restrained? What possible reason could this man have for such actions?

The crowd murmured, and there was a dark tone to their words. A faint sound from the cabin, perhaps inaudible to any save Tobimar as his senses extended, told him that the ex-Color had drawn a large blade. The Reflect’s eyes were narrow; but he only left his hand on the hilt of his weapon, and did not draw it, as he studied the three figures before him.

“As you will, Phoenix,” he said finally. “But bring your light to this swiftly, for I have no patience for those who would accuse me of atrocity, and none of us have any for those who harm children.”

“I thank you, Reflect, and I understand,” Kyri said. Her voice was respectful and cautious, the tone of someone walking on eggshells. This isn’t like Evanwyl, where everyone had known her since she was a child, would give her any benefit of the doubt, and she knows it. “First, while I wish to be clear that I do not suspect you, I think you should realize that even in the scant evidence the three of us have heard, there is some just reason to wonder. May I present those points to you, understanding that I mean only to point out the potential for such a perception?”

The Reflect’s eyebrows rose. “Truly? You think you have heard evidence that could be taken against me? Very well, speak.”

Kyri stood taller, and her demeanor was now more of a judge reviewing evidence and measuring the accused. “For the initial disappearance none could give evidence as to exactly when or where it occurred. But of the other four, what can we say? If I believe the testimony I have heard, there is this: the last one to have claimed to have seen Demmi alive was you, Reflect Jenten, who said that you had seen her go into the woods alone; Hamule was said to have disappeared between her home and your home, Reflect; the fourth child, whose name I have not yet been told –”

“Minnu,” Cirnala said, looking thoughtful.

“– Minnu, then, disappeared from within your house; I do not know if there is a connection to you with the last child, Abiti –”

Now a few of the crowd were looking at the Reflect, and Jenten’s own face was less confident and sure. “Yes,” said the woman with the huge axe. “Nimelly – the one who told us that Zogen had taken Abiti – is Jenten’s Head of House.”

Now pale, Jenten glared at Kyri, and Tobimar’s grip tightened on his swords, even as the Skysand prince started to see the entirety of the pattern. “You said you would not accuse me, yet your words seem woven to do precisely that!”

“Hold, sir,” Tobimar raised one hand. “She simply wished to show that it would be easy for someone looking at the pattern to come to the conclusion that you were to blame. But there is more to it – much more to it – than that. Especially in the first few instances, the children were off with others – who specifically denied being there, later. Yes?”

Jenten and the crowd shifted, realizing that Kyri had meant her words and that there was no immediate accusation of their leader. “Yes,” Cirnala said.

“And is it possible that Jenten was with the children during those times? Or is it not the case that Reflect Jenten has far too many responsibilities to be able to be absent from view so often?”

Startlingly, Zogen replied from within his cabin. “That… that is exactly the case. The Reflect would have been often busy, with many people around him, on the days that the children were playing in the woods.”

“Yessss, “Hiriista said, nodding. “And consider; at least three of our victims spoke of meeting someone else, several times. A different ‘someone else’, for each child, over a period of time. Even the other disappearances did not happen instantly, but over a period of time.” He looked sharply at Cirnala. “Tell me, the depthshade that was killed – had it taken any adult creatures – aged, crippled, otherwise easy prey?”

The others blinked at this sudden shift of questioning, but Cirnala simply looked up and away, thinking.

The connection was suddenly clear to Tobimar, and he felt Poplock’s grip on his shoulder tighten. Kyri’s expression became marble-cold.

“No,” Cirnala said finally. “No, Magewright; only young animals.”

“And each separated by at least a week of time.”

“Yes,” the Reflect said, understanding coming into his voice. “Are you saying what I believe you are, Magewright?”

“That this is a continuation of the same problem? Yes, I think so. Creatures such as the depthshade are like many other such creatures; they wait in ambush and take the unwary, the unprotected, the alone. They do not choose only one sort of creature, it matters not to them. And while sithigorn chicks are often numerous enough in a brood that they are likely to be caught alone, both forest antelope and your usual herd animals keep the young and mothers to the center of a herd. The opportunities to take such young prey are very limited unless… unless you had the ability to convince your prey that you were not a predator.”

“But it was the depthshade!” burst out another man, tall and gaunt. “We set the watches, caught it as the little calf came down to the water.” Then he paused. “Came down to the water… alone. Without its mother, without any others of the herd.”

Exactly. “Then what we are dealing with,” Tobimar said with growing conviction, that feeling of rightness that his Tor training provided emphasizing his words, “is a creature that targets the young, that can trick others into perceiving them as one of their own kind, that requires some level of time and preparation of the victim – at least by preference – and that uses other creatures as its agents. The depthshade was such an agent or, in truth, a victim, as is whoever the thing is using now.”

“But why just the young?” the Reflect asked. “And how is it that this thing was using the depthshade?”

“What happened to the depthshade’s corpse?” Kyri asked, cutting short a desperate poking of Tobimar’s neck by Poplock. I guess she’s asking the question the Toad wanted asked.

“Brought to my home to be prepared for mounting as a trophy for the village,” the Reflect said, “Immediately after the kill.”

“And was there anything unusual about the corpse when it was being prepared?”

The Reflect shrugged, then looked into the crowd. “Nostag, you were preparing it for display.”

The tall, dark, broad-shouldered man nodded emphatically. “Indeed I was, sir, once the immediate prep had been done by your household. There was one oddity. Rear of the skull, remember?”

“Ahh, yes. We thought it had been injured there not long before, explaining why it decided to stay here and try for easy prey.” He looked back to their party. “There were three small holes at the base of the skull, and some a bit lower down on the spine.”

Exactly. “We are dealing with something like an itrichel, as my people call them – I’ve heard them called mindworms and brain-riders, too,” Kyri said, echoing Tobimar’s own realization. “But this one’s worse, with abilities I’ve never heard of. I can’t imagine why –”

Enneisolaten,” Hiriista said bluntly. “The great lake is not named ‘Sounding of Shadows’ for no reason; there is great beauty about its shores, and nearby, but it seems great darkness lurks somewhere in its depths. Abominations sometimes crawl from below, and indeed are they often versions of other monsters made worse. Finding a way to cleanse the shadows from the lake is one of Lady Shae’s great quests.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Kyri said. “Not now, anyway. The important thing is that someone in your household, Reflect, ended up the next host of the itrichel. I don’t think it can be you – it would most likely be one of those involved in the handling of the depthshade immediately after it was captured and killed. But if what I’ve heard of these monsters is right, we know why it went after young animals and children.”

Incubators,” Hiriista said, the last s trailing off in a hiss. “It uses the young’s strength and growing spirit to provide the perfect environment to grow its brood.”

“By the Light,” Cirnala said, and the faces around showed their horror. “That means that the children –”

“You have it!” Zogen shouted, and the door swung open. “They’ve been sick, all of them, but they’ve been getting violent –”

“You have the children and you never told us?!” the Reflect’s hand went to his sword-hilt.

“I didn’t know if I could trust anyone!” Zogen snapped back.

“Come on!” Kyri said, striding towards Zogen. “Enough time for recriminations later! We have to help those children now, before it’s too late!”

Hiriista and Tobimar followed, but Hiriista’s tense walk and muttered words gave Tobimar a cold feeling. “For some, it has been many weeks. If the brain-rider has had so long to grow and be established…”

“I will not let children die,” Kyri’s voice was cold iron. “If they still live now, then I say that Myrionar will forbid them from dying. It would be unjust for us to have solved the riddle and still fail to save them.”

Beneath Zogen Josan’s cabin was a surprisingly large basement, hewn by impressive effort from the rock and earth below and well furnished. The furnishings, however, had been hastily rearranged, and five cages were arranged on the far wall. They were well-made cages, and cushioned, not rudely fashioned or uncomfortable, but Tobimar could see they were strong and secured on the outside by locked steel clips.

Kyri glanced grimly at the children restrained within them, and suddenly went pale. “U…Urelle?”

The far right cage had a young Artan boy in it… but at the same time, Tobimar felt a… pressure that had no physical source, a push inside his head that came up hard against the discipline of High Center, but though there was a momentary blurring, a hint of other features, he saw only the young boy. At the same time, Kyri’s expression showed that she saw someone she recognized. Which was of course impossible.

“Unless your ‘Urelle’ is an Artan child, she’s not there,” Tobimar said quietly.

Kyri shook her head, then glared at the end cage. “So. The last evidence we needed.”

“That’s new,” Zogen said. “Tirleren was the worst off, but projecting a different seeming? No.”

“If it can do that, it is nearing maturity,” Hiriista said bluntly. “I am afraid the host is … unsalvageable.” His voice was cold, filled with anger and helplessness.

“We are not separate,” Tirleren said. “We are one, now. If I leave him, he will die.” The smile that suddenly appeared was more a rictus, something aping the expression but not quite familiar with how it was done. “Of course I will leave soon anyway.”

“Soon,” agreed a little human girl in the third cage. That must be the second victim, Demmi.

A third child, a Child of Odin, looked vague, puzzled, as though there was some thought or idea that was just coming to them, while the other two were horrified. “No, no, I don’t want to have something in my head!” the little boy – Minnu? – said tremulously.

“Don’t worry,” Kyri said, taking off her helm and putting it down. “I’ll take care of it. It’s going to be all right. Even for you, Tirleren.”

For an instant, Tirleren’s face showed a flash of horror and hope, and then went back to cold watchfulness. “Separate us and he dies. I will not.”

“Whether or not he does die,” Reflect Jenten said, “I assure you, you will die, no matter what tricks you might have to escape. Correct, Zogen?”

The ex-Color straightened. “Correct, Namuhuan,” he said, using the Reflect’s first name in return.

“Hiriista, do you have anything that could help?”

The mazakh swayed his head doubtfully, but pulled out a red vial of liquid, and fished a particular green-glittering amulet from within his assortment of jewelry. “This may suffice for the least-affected. But I very gravely doubt that anything can be done for Demmi and Tirleren, save to… end this.”

Cirnala turned away at those words.

Try,” Kyri said. “Try, and I will do the rest.”

“What can you do, if even the Magewright believes it is impossible?” Cirnala said, his quiet voice filled with hopelessness.

Kyri’s head came up, and Tobimar saw a faint golden glow about her. “All I can do is have faith. But what I have faith in is Myrionar, and I do not believe It will allow such injustice this day.”

Hiriista gazed at her, then sighed and nodded. “I will require each of them to drink a portion of this restorative. To get at least those two to drink will require force.”

Tirleren’s eyes narrowed, and his eyes momentarily showed a yellowish cast, even a faint glow. “Oh, yes, try that.”

“Don’t let him intimidate you,” Kyri said. “The itrichel isn’t yet full grown. If we hadn’t forced the issue, it would not have revealed itself – just used its powers to get Zogen to release it and the other four once it was full-grown.”

Cautiously, Zogen opened Tirleren’s cage.

As the door came fully open, Tirleren’s arms tore free of their bindings and whipped out, sending Zogen tumbling away. Tirleren leapt from the cage, shredding the bindings on his legs, straight for Kyri.

Kyri’s gauntleted hand caught the mindworm-possessed Artan in midair and held him high, with scarcely a sign of effort as he hammered uselessly at Phoenix’ hand and forearm. I’d forgotten how strong she is. That’s the legendary Vantage strength they talk about in Evanwyl – and if he can’t break her arm through the Raiment, he’s got nothing to give him leverage. “Now.”

Tobimar had already increased his own strength and speed, and saw both Zogen and the Reflect stepping up to help. Between the three of them, they were able to use leverage of their own to restrain Tirleren and force his mouth open. Hiriista poured a small portion of liquid from the vial into Tirleren’s mouth and poked the throat in a fashion that forced a reflexive swallow.

Instantly Tirleren went nearly limp, twitching. Hiriista looked grave, but had them repeat the maneuver for Demmi. Hamule, the little Child of Odin, was able to force herself to sit still for the dosing, and while she looked to be in terrible pain didn’t seem in as much distress as the other two; both Minnu and Abiti took their doses easily.

Then Hiriista took up the green-stone amulet. “By Ocean and Forest, let impurity be banished!”

Emerald light blazed from the stone and exploded into the five children. Hiriista held the stone in a deathgrip, scales standing up around his hand from the tension, and drove the power forward.

All five screamed, but those of Demmi and Tirleren were shrieks of tearing agony. Something rose up in that forest-green light, five somethings struggling and scrabbling with multiple pairs of legs to hold on as they were rejected by the bodies they had inhabited, creatures not entirely solid nor entirely immaterial being ripped from the napes of the childrens’ necks. Tirleren’s was the largest, the length of Tobimar’s forearm and giving vent to its own high-pitched keening of pain and fury; Demmi’s was only slightly smaller.

Shades paler than normal, Zogen Josan and the Reflect stepped forward as one, and blades leapt from their scabbards; the floating creatures were sundered instantly in a pair of mirrored strokes.

Hiriista’s light faded. Minnu and Abiti lay crying, Hamule was barely conscious, but the other two were sagging down as though nothing was left.

Kyri caught the two before their heads hit the floor, gazed at them, and put her hands on the two. “Myrionar, hear me. Heal these children, innocent victims of monsters who sought more than their mere deaths.”

The golden, singing light of Myrionar answered her, and Tobimar once more felt the rush of awe that power inspired. He had seen it more than once, but there was something different about it that made even great magics less impressive by comparison. You knew that you saw the power of a god in action.

But in his current state, seeing with the High Center through his trained senses, he saw something else; Kyri’s power poured into the two bodies, and most of it was pouring out again. “Phoenix! Something’s wrong!”

Kyri’s shoulders tightened. “I… see it. These monsters… wove into their souls, not just their bodies. These are soul wounds, their very essences ripped apart. I should have suspected it.”

“Then …”

“Then I have to do something else.”

The auric aura flared higher, filled the entire room with the tingling power of Myrionar, and he could see something else happening; a weave of golden energy, extending from Kyri, twining about the shining but tattered, ripped spirits of the children. By Terian, what’s she doing? How can she be pulling that much power from Myrionar here, when –

No. Oh, by the Light in the Darkness, she’s not getting it from Myrionar…

“Stop, Phoenix!” he shouted, barely keeping himself from using her real name. “Stop! You can’t tear your own soul apart to –”

“I swore I would not let this happen! And it can work, I know it can! I saw the Arbiter –”

He remembered her story – and that the Arbiter was still, a year later, hurt and weakened by the attempt that ultimately had failed.

No. She’s going to kill herself doing this! Maybe they’re not as hurt as her brother was, but one soul can’t possibly bind –

One soul?

He reached out and put both of his hands atop hers, resting on the heads of Tirleren and Demmi. “Let me help, then. Take from me.”

A blink, a hesitation…and then a rush of understanding and gratitude.

Tobimar could not restrain a grunt of agony as the tearing began, ripping delicate strands of his very soul carefully away from the edges, sewing up the ruptured spirits of the children they were saving.

And then there was another presence. “I cannot allow you to take all of the risks for my own people,” the Reflect said.

And another. “We are comrades, are we not? Let a Magewright support you as well!”

And a third, touching hesitantly then clamping down with decision. “And can I do less who was once a Color?” asked the voice of Zogen Josan.

And even Poplock bounced to her shoulder – wordless, of course, so as not to give himself away – but Tobimar knew she would understand the offer as clearly as if it were spoken.

Kyri looked up and her smile lit the room more than her own power.

Myrionar’s power mingled with their own and stripped pieces from all of them – but among so many, six souls to heal two children, Tobimar could tell that the damage was so much less, that Kyri would not die, would not even be crippled from this attempt, that they were supporting her, giving her the strength that she could never have survived tearing from her own soul alone.

Even as he became aware of another commotion behind them, the blazing gold-fire detonated around the six of them, all flowing and channeled by the power of Kyri Victoria Vantage, the Phoenix Justiciar of Myrionar. A towering, shining sword-balance burned in the air, visible above and through the cabin as though the walls were made of clearest crystal. “Myrionar, by the sacrifice of the willing and bindings of pure soul, by the power of mercy and of justice, and by my will and your wisdom seal these wounds, heal these souls and let these children live again!”

The concussion of power scattered them across the floor like pebbles, yet Tobimar felt no more pain, only tired exaltation. He blinked, clearing fiery afterimages from his eyes.

Tirleren and Demmi lay still in the middle of the floor, Kyri collapsed beside them. And then Tirleren slowly raised his head, Demmi as well, and suddenly began to cry – tears of pain and fear, yes, but also clear tears of relief and joy.

From the floor, Kyri opened her eyes and looked at them all, a smile on her face. She looked past him and her exhausted smile widened.

Crowded around the bottom of the stairs, mostly fallen from the same final shock of the ritual that had felled the five involved in it, were half a dozen of the villagers – and, still standing but staring with impossibly wide blue eyes, was Miri, Light of Kaizatenzei.