Phoenix In Shadow – Prologue

Phoenix in Shadow

Second in the Balanced Sword trilogy

By Ryk E. Spoor


     This is… most interesting.

It surveyed the clearing, smoke still drifting from multiple scattered fires which had – mostly – died out by now, dozens of bodies of monstrous, twisted… things lying everywhere, and a huge scar of blackened earth that stretched from an underground opening to fan out all the way to the edge of the clearing; ash, dust, and blood coated everything black, gray, and red-brown, shocking against the vibrant green of the jungle. It appears I have arrived rather late for the party. What a shame.

     It … well, sniffed would have been an appropriate term, but while it did think of the perceptions it gained as scents, they were not; the senses it extended were far beyond those of ordinary creatures, born of its essence and power, and not limited to the physical. A mighty battle indeed, and much more than I would have expected…

In all honesty it had expected that – when the conflict came – one of two things would happen; either Thornfalcon would kill the Phoenix, or the new-minted Justiciar would somehow overcome Thornfalcon. If the latter, well, then his expectations would be fully met. But it had thought this confrontation still a bit in the future, and its arrival here was purely fortuitous – a morning conference with its most useful acolyte to make some further arrangements… which, it seemed, would no longer be necessary. So let us see what really occurred.

As the senses of magic and power, tracery of traces of past conflict, began to impress itself upon the being’s consciousness, it raised one eyebrow. Oh, now, not nearly so simple as I thought. No, not at all.

There certainly was godscent here – it knew the particular tang of Myrionar well. Of necessity, it thought with a smile, for it is rather hard to fool others with a counterfeit unless one truly understands the original. But there were a myriad of other scents. Alchemical concoctions and materials had been used with abandon, and it was impossible – with the god-fire’s interference – to tell if it had all been Thornfalcon’s work, or someone else’s. Other types of magic… and was that another god-scent? It frowned. No, it’s possibly more than one. Or a mixture, magic and god-power. Not familiar directly… but there is a touch of the Mortal God about it that I do not like at all.

While it did not – precisely – fear any of the gods, there were those it was very wise to take extremely seriously. The Greatest Dragons, certainly, Chromaias and the Four… but of them all, perhaps the most to be feared by those – like itself – which walked the darkest paths was Terian, the Nemesis of Evil, Light in the Darkness, the Mortal God, the Infinite. Yet it is not the touch of a priest or a god-warrior. Something else, and that is intriguing indeed.

Finally it found one of the things it was looking for; Thornfalcon’s body, headless and now burned almost beyond recognition. Now, let us see… It frowned. Scarce anything remains. I can barely sense his soul now. It desperately clings to the remains still, which is why I sensed not his defeat before I came… but it is nigh-obliterated.

Reaching out, it drew in what remained, or tried to. But even the effort of pulling in the traces caused them to fade, shatter, just as touching the ashes caused them to collapse into shapelessness, losing whatever they had kept of their shape in life.

It smiled with an edge of apology. I had promised you power, Thornfalcon, and of your people you had shown much promise… and begun to learn true mastery. I am surprised your life has truly ended. This should not have happened.

One – or more, it corrected itself – of the weapons used upon Thornfalcon must have been made in such a fashion as to break even the most unique changes that the being had made to Thornfalcon’s essence, to shatter that particular soul-hungry pattern and make it impotent. Were it otherwise, Thornfalcon would rise again, though it might have taken time. I would do well to remember this myself, for when the time comes.

This did leave another problem, in that it could not simply ask Thornfalcon what had happened, what he had learned in that final and titanic conflict. Must do this the harder way; depending on what the Phoenix learned, and how he, or she, chooses to act, I may be on a rather limited timetable now!

It extended its senses farther, to make sure there were no witnesses. I do not want interruptions now; there are things that would need explanation. Fortunately he had come here early in the morning and Thornfalcon’s little estate was set at a distance from other residences, but there would be gawkers, or more purposeful visitors, soon enough.

I can see that someone took Thornfalcon’s head. Single cut, very clean, large blade. Definitely this “Phoenix” as described.

     But were you fighting him alone, avenging Justiciar of Myrionar? True, you have killed two others, and it smiled to think of what would come of that second killing, one it had sensed only a short time before, but Thornfalcon was undoubtedly much more challenging an opponent, and I did not read your prior battles as ones in which you had no difficulty. No, you had help, I think.

It shifted form to one more comfortable for careful inspection of the perimeter. It was at the edge of the clearing that traces would remain of those who had come in… or left. It took some time, but finally it found what it sought: a faint set of marks and tracks leading away, into the jungle.

Two sets of feet.. no, three… left here. And, it would appear, at very much the same time. Yes, my little Phoenix, you have acquired friends… and here, I have your scent.

It laughed aloud suddenly, a sound that was more tearing metal and shattering bone than human amusement. Kyri Victoria Vantage! A perfect symmetry, and oh, it makes so very much sense of all things. Yes, an excellent choice, Myrionar, a well-played choice of your final piece in our game.

The creature could now understand the exact way in which the prior Justiciars had died; they had been undone by their own sentiments, slowed or confused by the child they had known all their lives confronting them with their crimes. Mist Owl would have allowed his death as a sort of futile penance, while Shrike… It smiled. Shrike would have become emotional and desperate for another reason.

However, Thornfalcon… The figure shook its head. Thornfalcon would not have been so affected. He did have other interests which might have led him astray, but that of pure sentiment, no. She would have needed help, indeed.

It considered the scents of the companions. Both young men, yes. Of a similar age, it would seem. The first… there is a general familiarity about it, but the individual is unknown. But it has been a long time since I scented this particular… could it be?

It moved along the trail, finding that the three were traveling in a nearly straight line, and very purposefully… Towards the capital, I think. Yes. Interesting. That may make things difficult… but I must learn more before I act.

It retraced its steps, looking for additional clues that it might have missed. Why is there a hint of the Mortal God on this one? There was no immediate answer, though the faint scent taunted him maddeningly. Never mind. Let us examine the third.

The third young man… Now that is most interesting. There is a scent with him of… plastics. Electronics. By my Power, this boy must be from the other world!

Something about that bothered him. After a moment, he recalled what that was. Zarathanton… the five young people who had been, as they might have said, “framed” for the assassination of the Sauran King… his agent had been emphatic that they claimed to come from Earth. It would be ludicrous to suppose that another such traveller could have come so soon, so this must be one of those five – one who has either escaped the inescapable, or been released.

There was also some other energy, a sense, that sent a tingle of warning and anticipation throught the creature. Traces of something ancient, ancient indeed. Yet I cannot quite make it out.

But that was not all. There was another trace of presence, another spirit-scent… And this, too, something hinting of the familiar. It allowed itself another good-natured internal complaint about the limitations it was currently saddled with. Necessary for the way things must be done, yes, but there are times I am tempted…

Too many feet – humanoid and otherwise – had trampled these grounds in that combat, especially in that endgame against a tide of unnatural monstrosities. And that was very well-done, Thornfalcon. I have a suspicion as to the source of these things, but for you to have found it, been able to make the appropriate bargains… it truly is a shame you are dead. It quickened its pace, criss-crossing the entire clearing, walking, sensing, sniffing…

A very faint scent caught at its senses now, and it glanced around and down, found itself looking at a tiny thing that glittered on the ground. Changing shape back to human, it reached down and gingerly picked up the little metal shaft. Pointed. Notched at the other end. It sniffed carefully. Alchemical bolt. But how tiny. Now what could…

For a moment it was no longer smiling. Now that is too far for coincidence; first the child of Zaralandar finds his way here and is working with the last Justiciar, and now this? From the center of the Great Forest to here? With the Phoenix and whoever these others are? Voorith had no visible connections here, so what would have led this one hence?

Its eyes narrowed and it looked around, suspicious. And if that is the case, other aspects of the plan may be in more danger than it appears. It sniffed again at the ground, and now, with its senses fully alerted, it caught the faintest hint, a chime and a flicker in the background.

That it recognized instantly, and it grinned savagely, realizing that all of their plans were in more jeopardy than it had imagined… and it was glad of it, in truth. My oldest mortal enemy… is it truly you again, Khoros? Have you dared to try your hand once more? I must discover if it is so!

It was even more glad, now, that its true goals were still buried layers deep, hidden behind the dozen other plots in which it was involved. Kerlamion, o King, your plans proceeed apace… yet they may be doomed to failure.

As might be true of the other three branches of the conspiracy. It nodded. I must find a way to have this possible connection discovered, brought to their attention. It would not do to make it easy on our adversaries, yet the King of Demons and our other … allies do not have any need to know how I have learned these things.

It glanced up at the sky. Time to leave; I have learned what I could here.

More importantly, it guessed what the Phoenix was about to do, and if it was right, there was little to be done to stop her now. However, if it moved very swiftly, it should be able to arrive at Justiciar’s Retreat just ahead of someone else who must be even now approaching.. That should be very entertaining… and useful, if his performance is as expected.

It strode into the jungle, chuckling, shape becoming something swift and terrible, arrowing towards the once-holy sanctum.