Phoenix Rising – Snippet 09

Chapter 9.

Kyri set her brush to a slow dry, brushing the long black waves into place as the simple enchantment gradually reduced the heavy dampness from her bath to the lighter flow of cascading black. Victoria says she managed to do this while on adventure, I suppose I should at least do it while I’m at home.

She pulled on a houserobe and continued to brush the hair dry as she walked down the wide stone steps of Vantage Fortress. Kyri paused on the first landing and looked out of the wide, high north window, a habit any of the Eyes would have.

The first thing she could see was Evanwyl, the city, itself. Not, she admitted to herself, really a city from the point of view of the other countries. The Vantage estate was almost due south of Evanwyl, with the Watchland’s castle-fortress directly opposite to the north-northwest on a corresponding ridge of the Evaryll’s valley. The Evaryll, moderately wide but swift-flowing, was the focus of the town, three bridges crossing it at different points.

The buildings below contrasted starkly with the fortresses; they were open, airy, with light, strong doors almost the width of the walls that could be closed against wind and rain but were usually open. She could see the Monn, Jessir, and Tukal farms in the distance, the layered leaf roofs distinctive green-touched gold in the middle of the wide fields – Oh, I think Tukal’s got a crop of gravelseed almost ready to bring in; that gray-blue color’s so distinctive. The town buildings were mostly roofed with split zuna wood but were still mostly open. When the night temperature never got below “cool”, you didn’t need to exclude the air.

Of course, they were still made of the strongest, lightest woods, and there were heavy bars for every door and window, and the reason lay beyond.

The immense spires of the Khalal range loomed in the distance, a wall of mountains that cut across the entire continent, ranging from the comparatively low peaks she could see – Harlock’s Spire at twenty-seven thousand feet, Urudani at twenty-three, a few others – to the incomprehensibly high Mount Scimitar, sixty thousand feet in height, throne of Idinus of Scimitar, God-Emperor of the Empire of the Mountain, a wall of stone and peril unbroken for over three thousand miles.

Unbroken save for one narrow passage, directly in the center of the view from the north window, the reason even the smallest house could lock its doors, the reason every man, woman, or child knew how to swing some sort of weapon from the time they could stand, the reason she, as one of the Watchland’s Eyes, always took a moment to look to the threatening north. Even from here the dark green of that gap looked different, the color shadowed and at the same time somehow more virulent, a green that only faded to normalcy a short distance from the Watchland’s Fortress. The Riven Forest was not a safe place, no, and it was merely a hint of the horrors on the other side of Rivendream Pass.

She shivered slightly, then turned away. Almost impossible to believe that was once called Heavenbridge Way, before the Chaoswar.

She shook off the concern. There hasn’t been much of anything out of there in years, she reminded herself. The Eyes of the Watch – the Vantages, the Hightowers, the Thalindes, and others – had not relaxed their vigilance on the Pass, and with the help of the Watchland, his Arms and their Armsmen, and of course the Justiciars anything that tried to escape was driven back or killed.

At the bottom of the stairs she turned and started for the breakfast room, when she noticed the door to the underfortress open. That’s odd. With just her aunt, her, and Urelle living here full time – Rion now spent most of his time with the Justiciars – there wasn’t any need to make use of the underfortress. Even Victoria’s servants rarely had to go there.

The lightglobes glowed with soft, clear light, showing that someone had gone down deliberately. “Hello?”

“It’s me, sis.”

“Urelle?” She went down the steps quickly, putting the brush in the robe pocket. Cooler air greeted her like slowly wading into a sunlit pool. “What are you doing down here?”

At the bottom of the stairs the underfortress continued back beneath the rest of Vantage Fortress; she knew there was at least one level below this one, but she’d never actually seen it and she seemed to remember Victoria saying they’d locked it off years back. “I’m in here,” came Urelle’s voice, and Kyri could see light from the open door at the far end of the hallway, a hundred and fifty feet down.

Even Kyri’s bare footsteps caused faint echoes to chase themselves down the corridor and back; the polished marble was just chill enough to send a hint of gooseflesh up the backs of Kyri’s legs. She paid little attention to that, because of the sheer surprise at where her little sister was.

“I don’t think you’ve ever been in this room before,” she said as she reached the doorway.

It was a huge room, extending another seventy feet from the doorway, and thirty feet on either side of the doorway Kyri stood in. Lightglobes shone brightly at each corner and one, larger globe illuminated the center of the chamber, which was carven of the native gold-speckled granite and floored with the same light pink marble as the corridors.

“No… No, I never was.” Urelle looked nervous, a little afraid. “But … it’s been long enough. I’m still a Vantage, aren’t I?”

At the proud yet uncertain question, Kyri felt a sting of tears, bent and hugged her little sister. “You are most definitely a Vantage,” she said.

The room was cluttered around most of its perimeter with an assortment of what looked like the most worthless junk imaginable; pieces of half-burned timbers, twisted, blackened metal, crates with objects so melted or burned you could barely discern their original shape as cups or knives or shelves. There were stones covered with soot and broken by heat; a piece of what looked like clay with half a bootprint in it; a scorched length of wood with savage cuts through it, clearly one half of a similar piece that lay next to it, the middle splintered and broken.

In the center of the room, two doors of metal and wood, untouched by fire, a broken bar across their center. And on one wall were two shelves, and beneath the shelves, a small altar to Myrionar: the Balanced Sword, a sword held upright as the point of balance between a pair of scales. On the lower shelf, seven ornate jars; above them, two simple marble containers carven with the Vantage symbol of a tree and a hill.

Even after all these years, even being moved down here, it all still smells like smoke and iron.

“You are a Vantage,” she repeated. “And this… is our heritage. What’s left of it.”

Urelle shivered, looking at the one wall. “That’s… Mother and Father. And Garrick… and Toll. I remember Camberi…

“They’ve all gone to the Balance, yes.”

Urelle bit her lip, then gazed at the mass of wreckage. “And… well, I can understand why we’re keeping that,” she pointed to a crate with half-melted but still glittering gold cups, “but… why all the rest?”

“Because,” Kyri said, and her voice was suddenly hard, “we still don’t know who, or why, and we are not destroying the evidence we have. Maybe we’ve missed something. We couldn’t preserve the whole house, but we all searched for anything that might tell us something about what happened.”

“I…” Urelle looked down. She didn’t speak for a moment, then looked back up. “Kyri, can I tell you something?”

“Of course you can.”

“I guess…” she hesitated, then like a swimmer nerving herself to dive into icy water, took a breath and plunged ahead, “… I guess I didn’t want to think about it. And I was awfully young. Anyway, I can’t remember really anything from the weeks afterward. I …” her voice trembled, “… I remember we were so happy, me, you, and Rion, walking home, and then seeing the fire and you screaming. And… nothing really after that, until, oh, I don’t know, it must have been a long time, because I was in Auntie’s coach and I looked out the window and saw that the house was all gone and the black, dead spot in the grass and I started crying.” Urelle’s face crumpled and she sounded like she was going to cry again.

Kyri knelt down and hugged her little sister. Myrionar’s Justice, I’d never realized she’d forgotten everything.

“Is it true,” Urelle said, voice wavering but obviously trying to move on, “that was had an Adjudicator here?”

“What? Sword and Balance, Urelle, you can’t have forgotten meeting him!”

But her sister’s gaze showed that, somehow, she had.

Kyri shook her head. “I… yes, we did. An old adventuring companion of Auntie’s, she called him ‘Bridgebreaker’. You really don’t remember?”

“No, really, I don’t. ‘Bridgebreaker’?” Urelle giggled. “Why would she call anyone that?”

“Because a small bridge literally did break under him, when they were running for their lives. Get her to tell you the story, it’s both very funny and very scary at the same time. His real name is… let me see if I can get it right… T’Oroning’Oltharamnon hGHEK,” the last sound sort of an inhaled choke or cough, “R’arshe Ness.”

Urelle’s expression of disbelief set her laughing. “I know, a ludicrous name, isn’t it? He let us use the very shortened form of ‘Toron’, though.”

But Urelle’s next words showed she had kept up on her studies, because she recognized the meaning of a name like that. “Oh my gods, Kyri, he was a Sauran?”

“More than that, an Ancient Sauran, Master of the Marshaled Hosts and brother to the Sauran King.”

Urelle looked mortified. “And he was a companion to Auntie when she was young? And I met him and forgot?”

“I’m sorry, Urelle. But you were… very unwell. And very upset.” She laughed again. “Not so unwell you refused to shout at him about his failure, though. He took it well, even apologized.”

Embarrassment and thoughtfulness chased each other across Urelle’s face. “You know… I think I vaguely remember that, now. Being very mad and shouting at something that looked as tall as the Fortress.”

“That was exactly it.”

“And the Justiciars and the Adjudicator Sauran, they couldn’t find anything?”

“Oh, they found some things. Enough to scare everyone concerned. But not anything that told us what we really needed to know.” She walked over, picked up a twisted black metal shape that broke even as she lifted it. “Oops. Well, this was part of the dining-room door. Had fire enchantments on it, you know, but it was burned anyway. That told us whoever did this used fire essence, not just ordinary torches and oil or even a simple magic spell.” She dropped the piece back into the box. “And for the frightening… there’s the front door.” She pointed to the twin doors in the center of the room. “The wards and seals were removed. Not broken, not dispelled, but removed as though they had never been. Toron said the doors felt as though they had never been enchanted.”

“But… I thought that wasn’t possible, sis,” Urelle said after a moment. “Every spell, every mystical conflict, every act of the gods leaves its mark, or so my teachers always say. According to them, someone like an Adjudicator can read the truth of history in almost any shard or fragment that has been present at the events you seek.”

“Toron,” she said, remembering, “pointed out that almost nothing was actually impossible, just very, very hard. But he didn’t know exactly how this was done, but it was something very powerful and dangerous; the Chaoswars do that to everyone, even the gods, but to target something like this… well, that was what worried us. And that’s what we learned from Toron and the Justiciars and anyone else. Things like that. We learned how most of it was done, but nothing that really told us anything that we could use. But maybe… maybe one day something here will tell us something.”

She turned away, took Urelle’s hand. “Come on. It’s way past breakfast time, I’m not dressed for down here, and if you don’t even remember everything, I think Auntie Victoria should be talking to you, not me.”

The strain of having just admitted to a secret she must have been keeping for a long time, and of the discussion itself, was enough to make Urelle less argumentative than she might have been; it didn’t take more than another few minutes to get her upstairs.

But Kyri found she couldn’t forget that storeroom – or the heart-wrenching discovery that her little sister had blotted out the events of half a year from her mind. She saw Lythos’ narrow gaze, the Artan weaponsmaster’s disapproval clear in the deep violet eyes, as she made a novice’s mistakes.

Balance and Blade! Enough of this!

She focused, drawing on that inner turmoil, channeling it instead of letting it churn queasily in her gut. We are beings of passions, she reminded herself, quoting Lythos’ own words. But we must rule those passions, must never be ruled by them. When anger threatens to overwhelm you, turn it aside into strength, guide it, just as you guide the strike of your enemy and make his power work against him, turn his might into your own ally. When fear seeks to paralyze you, take its tightening grip and harden your body against danger, strengthen your own grip on your weapons and skill. When worry circles your mind like carrion-birds, circle with it, turn its aimless curves into the smooth arcs of combat. She traded blows with Lythos, felt the impact of a cut, but brushed the feeling of inadequacy and failure away, sent it spinning into the center of her mind with the other concerns. Take them all, dark and light, storm and calm, hope and fear, hate and love, fury and peace, bring them to your hands, armor your self with their power, realize that they are you and that only you control them, find that peace and certainty within you, and there you find the key of paradox.

And then – in that single instant – she felt it, felt the paradox of the Calm Storm, the Ninth Wind, just for the most infinitesimal moment, as Lythos had told her she could, and time seemed to halt. She could see the Artan‘s silvery blade in its perfect and inimitable path, gliding past her feeble defense, straight for her heart. She saw his silver hair streaming sideways, wind and his own motion making it spray out like a splash of argent foam from a stone; a leaf, falling from the quilli tree above the training field, seemed frozen in midair, locked in place as though the very atmosphere were crystal.

And in that endless instant, she had all the time of the universe to understand, to see, to decide, even as the strength of that perfect moment welled up within her, rising inexorably to furious motion.

She saw, and acted. She turned her head, swung her body just so, and the blade passed harmlessly over her shoulder, so near the whisper of its passage through the air was like silken thunder. But she was still moving, her path of action laid out before her as though she had planned it ages before and practiced it a thousand times. Her own blade was deflected, yes, but along with her body she dragged her arm, pushing around, the pommel now leading her hand in a strike.

Lythos’ eyes widened – the first time she had ever seen an expression of surprise from the centuries-old master – and he tried to duck, but he seemed astonishingly slow; the pommel of her greatsword actually struck the slender Artan and Lythos stumbled, chose to fall and roll.

She followed up, letting the fear and anger and pain flow, but flow as she channeled, as she directed. Lythos came up, a shield now raised, and she focused the power of her spirit into her hands as he had taught her, dropping her sword, seeing his eyebrow rise like a wing of a startled bird, and smashing her hands against the shield with an impact that sent the weaponsmaster staggering back.

Now the expression shifted, and there was the tiniest of smiles on the ancient, yet unaged, Artan face, as he came to meet her. For a moment she stood toe-to-toe with a being who had been fighting since before the days her grandparents were born, and she did not give in.

But she began to think, try to look beyond the moment – and she saw Urelle’s face, and suddenly an iron-hard hand whacked into her head.

She went to her knees, trying to defend. To her surprise, the expected attacks did not materialize. She looked up to see Lythos standing with arms folded, studying her.

“You are one of the most maddening students I have ever had, Kyri Vantage,” he said, finally. “For a moment – just a moment – you achieved the Ninth Wind. I saw it. I could see it in your eyes, watch its flow in your movements, that for just a moment you touched the eternity within the soul.” He shook his head. “Something, I will tell you, that not your brother, nor your father, nor your mother ever achieved, and indeed precious few in all my years have I ever seen achieve it, even for such a brief moment.”

She was amazed and felt a flood of warmth rushing through her, an elation she had never expected, at a compliment so extravagant from the man whose usual comments of praise were drawn from words such as ‘adequate’ and ‘not terribly bad’.

“And then you suddenly lose that focus and forget the other Eight in the bargain!” Lythos tossed his hair back and traced the curve of his ears in the same habitual gesture she remembered from her youngest years. “You could be one of the finest warriors I have ever trained, but you need something to focus you. You have to learn control, and constancy, and not rely on this excellent but most unreliable instinct to carry you through a combat.”

“I know, Sho-ka-taida,” she said contritely. That rather adequately snuffed out any overconfidence I might have gotten from his compliments. “But…”

The Artan master of weapons sighed. “Yes, I noticed. Something weighs upon your mind. Perhaps it is just as well that you tend to whatever distracts you; practice without focus can do as much harm as it could possibly do good, even if on occasion it produces admittedly spectacular results. I will not often be this lenient. You will have double practice tomorrow, and I will require meditation in at least four of the Eight Winds.”

“Yes, Sho-ka-taida.” She bowed and left, feeling his curious stare boring into her back until the door closed.

After paying respects at the shrine, she wandered slowly around the room, touching smoke-damaged wood and overheated metal remnants, pausing as something struck a chord of memory or to puzzle out the identity of some object that had been burned almost beyond recognition. A small object caught her eye and she found her hand reaching out, picking it up. She smiled fondly down at the little scorched box of toy figures – a golden phoenix, a dignified looking bronze griffin, a lightning-blue thunderbird, a sparkling dragon. They were my favorite toys when I was little, playing with Rion… We’d pretend they were adventurers, I always took the phoenix and Rion the dragon and we’d share the others.

She put the box down gently and looked around the room again. What am I looking for? she wondered. It wasn’t as though these items hadn’t been examined. The Justiciars had all combed through the wreckage. Rion had helped others sort through the pieces. Toron, an Adjudicator of the State of the Dragon King had searched every piece, and none of them had found anything. The gods had been terrifyingly silent, even Myrionar, with its usual power to see through falsehoods and name truth, even Elbon of the Diamonds and the other dragon gods of the Sixteen had not spoken the answers to its child and servant Toron. What am I expecting to find down here?

She found herself standing, as she always did when she came here, before the two doors in the center. She remembered how she’d done the same thing when it happened, stood staring for some unmeasured time at these two doors, the only things left untouched in the midst of devastation, portals that should have barred the entry of any hostile force but that had somehow allowed them to break through, without the faintest alarm being given.

But having stared at them for so long, she also was annoyed by what she saw. The inside of the doors haven’t a clue to offer.

She understood why they lay that way – the bar which had held them together would make them rock unevenly if they were laid over it – but she preferred to look at the part where the house had actually tried to keep out the killers.

She bent over and lifted. Balance, they’re heavy.

With a grunt, she hefted the first door – eight inches thick of wood bound with enchanted steel – and tipped it over. The other one followed a few moments later, crashing onto its back with an echo like doom. She stood still for a moment, catching her breath. They talk about the Vantage strength, but that’s still hard to do.

The two doors shone in the lightglobes, smeared in places with soot and ash and dirt, but mostly still clean and smooth, marred only by the deep crescent-shaped gouges where whoever – or whatever – had killed her parents had battered down the door. She moved slightly to the left, and the light reflected back from the gouges, one set nearly a foot lower than the others. They looked faintly silvery, just as she remembered.

“Who’s down there?” came a familiar voice. “And what in the name of the Hells are you doing?”

“It’s me, Rion,” she answered.

“Kyri?” Footsteps, and her brother entered, the glittering armor of Silver Eagle still on him, beaked helm under his arm. “What brought you in here?”

She chuckled slightly. We repeat each other. “Urelle came down here earlier today, then I couldn’t get this place out of my head.”

He nodded, blond hair slightly matted from the helm but still shining in the light. For some reason Rion had gotten all their father’s traits – the light hair, the lighter skin, the blue eyes – while she and Urelle were both very dark, black of hair and with eyes of stormcloud gray which came from their mother’s side of the family. “Yeah, I sometimes get that too.” He sighed. “Not that I ever find anything,” he said, shrugging the shoulders of his armor, “but it doesn’t hurt.”

“I suppose,” she said, still looking at the doors. Something was still nagging at her. She reached down and traced the grooves. “Did you realize that Urelle didn’t remember any of what happened for… well, I’m not sure, maybe weeks afterward?”

Nothing?” Rion stared at her. “No, I hadn’t.” He stared off, pensively. “But it does make some sense of a few exchanges I had with her off and on.”

Something about this feeling… reminds me of the party for some reason…

Suddenly she was staring at her brother, and he stepped forward, concern writ large. “What? What is it, Kyri? You look like you’re about to collapse!”

Terian, Chromaias, and Myrionar, it

can’t be.

But even as she thought the denial, she realized that if it was true, it made sense – it explained why nothing could be said, why Myrionar could not reveal the truth, why no suspects could be found. “Rion,” she said, and she shuddered herself as she heard the terrible, dead tone in her voice, “Help me lift this door, would you?”

One more glance at her face convinced him to ask no questions, just helped her to raise the righthand door up on its end. “All right, Kyri. Now what –”

She held the door balanced, grabbed hold of his shoulder-guard, pulled. Slightly off-balance, Rion stumbled against the door.

And the shoulder-guard slid perfectly into one of the upper crescent-shaped marks. The marks that shone with a gentle silvery color just the shade of the guards themselves, of the shine-polish used on silver armor. She pushed him down, as though crouching for a second heavy blow, and there, too, his armor fit into the marks… as though it had made them.

She saw Rion look and go parchment-white. “Balance and Demons…”

Silver Eagle.

“It… could be.” The words sounded torn from her brother’s heart, and even in the middle of the cold fury inside her she felt her heart aching for him. “It… it makes sense. If he did this… then to preserve the name, preserve the trust, in the Justiciars, if he did this then they wouldn’t dare mention it, they’d have to deal with it themselves, behind doors at Justice’s Retreat, and wait, wait long enough so he thought he’d gotten away with it, wait so that people wouldn’t connect it with their deaths…”

And they’d have killed all his allies, too

, Kyri thought numbly. Ripped the truth of who helped him, why, and where they were from him with the very power of Myrionar, and then hunted them all down for vengeance and justice.

He was so hurt – she was so hurt – by the thought, the idea that the Justiciars, the living warriors and symbols of Myrionar, the god her family had followed for generations untold, the Justiciars could possibly have had one so corrupt in their number, that she almost wanted to forget this hideous discovery.

But that would not be justice.

“Is… is there any way to find out?”

Rion was silent for a moment, several moments. Then he looked up, and to her astonishment he smiled. It was a hard, cold, dangerous smile, but it was a smile, and it lifted her up, wiped away despair and horror with hope of vengeance. “I am Silver Eagle now,” he said. “I am a Justiciar. This is the kind of secret they won’t easily tell a newcomer… but the kind they will have to tell me sooner or later, just in case. It’s been more than three years. They have to be getting to trust me now. I will have to be very careful… but yes. Of course there’s a way. Even if only a few of them knew, I’ll be able to get them to react. Ask the right questions.”

“But won’t they –”

He shook his head. “Kyri, they’re still the Justiciars. I’ve seen them use the powers – healing, speed, strength, truthsaying, others for each of us. The power comes from Myrionar. Perhaps they felt greater justice comes of keeping belief in the Justiciars strong. But for our family, at least, we must have the truth. If he did it, we must know. And we must know why. I think … if I’m careful, if I make sure they understand how much I believe in Myrionar even with this horrid possibility… I think they’ll understand and tell us the truth.”

She felt a tiny bit better, a sense of hope emerging from shock. If we could know the truth… know they had found the truth, dealt with the traitor, and simply protected us from that knowledge for the sake of Myrionar and the Justiciars… I think I could accept that. Yes, I could.

She took her brother’s hand. “Then if it’s true, you have redeemed the armor. Symmetry and balance.”

He looked startled, then smiled. “Of course. Don’t you see?”

And she did. How else could they apologize, how could they give justice with such a secret? By allowing the dishonored family to purify that which was defiled. “Rion… it’s horrible, yet… yet I feel that we might finally be able to put things to rest.”

He smiled broadly. “So do I.”