This is the final Snippet.
Phoenix Rising – Snippet 30
Upon that nebulous sense of unease becoming absolute certainty of something behind him, Tobimar had struck, instinctively, as quickly as his years of training allowed. He was stunned by the other boy’s speed of reaction. He’s at least as fast as I am. And he read my strike perfectly!
Tobimar was vaguely aware that Poplock was gone from his shoulder, Willowwind had bounced halfway across the huge laboratory behind a table, and Toron was standing back near the entrance, watching like a man trying to decide if he really wanted to try to separate two fighting dogs. But almost all of his concentration was focused on the level gray eyes across from his.
He’s using the twin-blades too! Dual-sword combat was not common, not using matched blades, and usually that gave its practitioners a small advantage. Three more cuts, both blocking perfectly, almost identical strikes parried in nigh-indistinguishable ways, and Tobimar leapt backwards, flipping in midair, gaining distance…and realizing to his astonishment that Xavier had performed the exact same maneuver, at the precise same moment. He landed, swords held in perfect parallel across his body in the guard stance he had been taught…and saw Xavier standing in the identical pose, as though Tobimar looked into a mirror; with a start he realized that there was even an eerie similarity to their appearance, both with long black hair and dark skin and features sharply cut, though differing in detail.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Xavier Ross spoke first. “Who was your sensei?” he demanded.
“What?” It wasn’t the most brilliant of rejoinders, but Tobimar wasn’t sure what that last word, sensei, meant.
The others straightened slightly, seeing that the two had changed from fighting with swords to testing each other with words.
“Your sensei! Your…master, teacher. Who taught you how to fight like that?” Xavier’s stance was tense, and now Tobimar could see lines of exhaustion, circles of even-darker skin under his opposite number’s eyes, and the other boy’s voice was filled with confusion and worry.
Tobimar considered. He’d never been told in so many words not to discuss it…but the old sage/wizard had always been close-mouthed, and he had been surprised over the years to discover that quite a number, even in the court, had never actually met his advisor and teacher, did not know his name, were not even sure of his existence. Still, there were too many mysteries here, and if this would keep Xavier talking… “I was trained by many people, but the one who taught me most of that style, and other things, was Master Khoros.”
To the Skysand Prince’s surprise, that expression of startled revelation didn’t come just from Xavier Ross, but from Toron and Willowwind as well. Xavier also glanced in startlement at the Sauran and Toad, then sheathed his leaf-green blades and sank into a chair, the exhaustion Tobimar had seen emphasized in the heaviness with which the other boy sat. A faint whiff of sweat told him that Xavier probably hadn’t been able to bathe very often in the last few weeks, either.
Tobimar looked over at Toron, who was now regarding both him and Xavier with a look of extreme wariness and understanding; glancing to Willowwind, he saw a similar expression in the huge golden eyes, mingled perhaps with what might even be pity.
“Well, that name seems to strike deep and pull hard,” Poplock said, settling back onto Tobimar’s shoulder. “Any of you want to say more about what’s so surprising about the name of Tobimar’s old teacher?”
Toron did not answer immediately. Instead, he turned to Xavier. “You were trained by Khoros?”
“No. Well, not in that fighting style. I wasn’t sure he knew that…though I guess I should have figured he did.” Xavier shook his head. “But yeah, he taught me some things. Taught all of us something, more time with some of us than others.”
The deep black gaze of the Sauran transferred to Tobimar. “And your mentor and teacher was Khoros?”
Puzzled by the serious inquiry, Tobimar nodded. “That was the name he used. Konstantin Khoros.”
“An extremely tall human?” Willowwind put in. “In light yet elaborate robes of unique design, with a hat that somehow concealed much of his face no matter the angle from which you viewed him?”
“Yes, that was Master Khoros.”
Toron growled something in Ancient Sauran that Tobimar couldn’t quite catch, but seemed to insult the Dragon Gods themselves for putting Toron in some untenable position, and Willowwind sat with an unreadable expression on his broad, brown-warted face.
Xavier gave a tired chuckle. “I see you guys like him almost as much as Aurora does.”
“Like?” Willowwind said, and took a deep breath, letting it out with a rippling rumble like rocks tumbling underwater. “The one named Khoros is not someone that one likes…or dislikes, precisely. Those who are, or who are close to, the great Powers know of him, and they may hate him, or fear him, or admire him from a great distance. He is said to be many things; warrior, sage, alchemist, symbolist, master of the elements, even a spirit mage of power undreamed of. He has been seen walking down from Mount Scimitar, striding out of the Great Abyss, passing through the Forest Sea without a trace.”
“Most importantly,” Toron said, “He is a manipulator and meddler of the highest order, one who has made the Dragons dance to his tune and tricked gods of light and darkness into doing his will.”
Tobimar’s first reaction was to protest that Khoros wasn’t anything like that; he had absolute faith in his old master. Yet, as he thought back on how he had been taught…how Khoros had left that frighteningly accurate message, how he left so many things unsaid, while saying what forced Tobimar to certain choices…he realized that the description was all too accurate. “But…I think he’s really on our side.”
Poplock had been quiet; now he suddenly sat up. “Hey, this Khoros — his hat, was it like, um, five-sided? And his hair was white?”
Tobimar glanced at him, almost crossing his eyes to focus on the little Toad. “Yes, that’s him. Why?”
“That’s the old mage that pointed me here! I was…a little off course.” He held up his blade. “He also put a blessing on Steelthorn, too. Said if I was going to wander around on my own, I’d better be able to hurt just about anything.”
“Black night and no stars!” Toron cursed. “So this entire sequence of events, even your presence, little Toad, is part of one of his plans. Or more than one.” He paced back and forth for a moment, claws scratching loudly on the stone. “I am very much tempted to have you all leave immediately and say not another word. But then,” he said with a snort, “I would wonder if I was simply doing what he expected me to do. And I can’t afford to throw away more information at this point.” He dropped into the chair available for his use, with the tail-split back. “Where are your companions, Xavier…Ross?”
Xavier shrugged. “Don’t know, exactly. That was part of Toshi’s plan. We couldn’t afford to all get captured again, so everyone was supposed to split up; something Khoros had said had implied something like this would probably happen.” He acknowledged this confirmation of Khoros’ methods with an ironic smile that looked too old for his youthful face. “So I stayed behind because I could go pretty much anywhere and watch anything, and decide if I could risk talking to you people, and the others scattered. I could make guesses about where they’d go,” he admitted, “but I’m not going to.”
“And do you know anything about your purpose here?”
The younger boy grimaced, then yawned. “Ugh. Look, I’m about done in. Can you at least get me something to eat if you’re going to keep questioning me?”
Toron sighed, then managed a toothy smile. “I suppose we can arrange that.”
Poplock bounced to the floor. “I’ll go order something for everyone.” He scuttled out the door.
“To answer your question, not exactly. And he warned us to be very, very careful about telling anyone anything about what we were doing.”
Toron’s eyes narrowed. “Xavier Ross, you have been — somehow — walking unseen inside T’Teranahm Chendoron for nigh on three weeks, and that with the entire castle on high alert, seeking for spies. You have heard, undoubtedly, many counsels meant not for your ears. If you do not know that I am the Sauran King and bound by tradition, my training, and my heart to protect and serve the people of my country, then you have seen nothing in all your time here. You owe me, at the least, an explanation of your presence and your purpose.”
Xavier studied him, then stood and gave an odd, but very formal-looking, bow. “You are right, sir. I’ve been a spy in your house long enough to know what you — and these other people — are like. And I do owe you for that.
“All Khoros told us — once he gave us what was, really, just a sort of bare-bones summary of what we were — was that if we wanted to get home, we had to break some kind of seal between this world and our own, and that there were a lot of forces that wouldn’t want that to happen.”
Toron stared at him in silence for a long time, looking after a few moments more like a statue than a living creature; Poplock came hopping back in and stopped, looking at the frozen tableau in puzzlement before finally climbing back onto Tobimar’s shoulder.
“You need…to break the seal between Zarathan and Zahralandar.” Toron said finally, as though he was trying to make sense of words that had no meaning. Or that had meaning that was so impossible that it was difficult to even grasp enough to speak of the impossibility. “Do you have any idea what you are saying?”
“Not really,” Xavier admitted, “though I guess from what you’re saying it’s not going to be easy.”
“Easy!” repeated Willowwind with a humorless laugh. “The seal has been there half a million years, or so it is said, ever since the Blackstar placed it there during the Cataclysm.” The Toad used the more formal (and less offensive) term for the most ancient and devastating of the Chaoswars.
“This ‘Blackstar’ is a demon or something?”
Tobimar blinked at that. It was hard to imagine someone could be unaware of something so pervasively terrible and feared as the King of all Hells.
Toron shook his head slowly in disbelief. “A god of demons. The god of demons, ruler of the Hells, one of the most powerful beings of this or any world, one of the few before which even Elbon Nomicon would not care to stand. The thought that five children could even hope to stand against his lieutenants is laughable; to be able to break the barrier he forged from uncountable sacrifices and treacheries five thousand centuries ago? I would laugh. Yet…Konstantin Khoros is never to be laughed at. Somehow he believes it is possible that either you shall be able to destroy the seal, or that in some wise your attempt to do so shall enable another to succeed at that task.”
“You mean,” Xavier said, “we might just be…well, a distraction to let someone else get the job done?”
“Something of that nature, yes,” agreed Willowwind reluctantly. Tobimar kept himself from objecting; while he found it hard to imagine Khoros being that coldly calculating, he couldn’t say for certain that it wasn’t true.
The gray-eyed boy shrugged. “Well…maybe. But he promised me that I’d have a chance to finish…something I started back on Earth, something that brought me here, and I don’t think he makes promises he doesn’t think he can keep.”
Toron frowned, mulling that statement over; two servants came in with a large two-level float-tray filled with food for everyone, then left at a gesture from the King. “I admit that I have always heard that he keeps his promises,” Toron conceded. “If he did indeed make a statement that straightforward to you, then he intends that you, at least, would be able to survive whatever this task requires of you.” He reached out and took a three-foot section of meatroll, began chewing thoughtfully. “If you split up, how are you supposed to rejoin?”
“Well, Khoros said that we’d each have…dunno what you’d call it, a sort of individual journey or adventure where we’d find…how’d he put it…” Xavier thought a moment and then continued, with a fair imitation of the measured cadence and timbre of Khoros’ voice, “I think it was ‘answers to the tasks before you, the powers within you, and the doubts that surround you.'” He grinned and shrugged. “From my point of view, I think I need to find out where this seal would be. I mean, it’s got to be focused somewhere, and if I know where the target is, then that’s at least a start.” He took some food for himself.
Tobimar realized he was hungry as well, it being past lunchtime, and grabbed an assortment of food from the floating trays. For a few moments all of the people present ate in silence.
Then Toron nodded ponderously. “I have decided. I do not wish to become further entangled in Khoros’ machinations, but I also am not so much a fool as to believe I can escape without playing my part. So I, T’Oroning’Oltharamnon hGHEK R’arshe Ness, will give all three of you direction, as best I can, while trying to guess what it is that Khoros wished revealed and what he intended to conceal.” He looked over to Tobimar, who straightened. “Young Skysand, you were awaiting direction even before this day, and indeed I should have given you that, and my hopes and directives, before now. Perhaps even this event is not fortuitous, but another subtle evidence of Khoros’ work, forcing me to allow you to continue rather than keeping you here as a trustworthy and little-known ally.”
“Don’t apologize, Majesty.” Tobimar said. “I wanted to help.”
“And you have. And you still shall, I feel certain.” He looked back to Xavier Ross. “Son of Zahralandar, you may stay and rest here for a few days, for I can see it has cost you much to maintain that incomprehensible invisibility of yours. But then you have a great journey ahead of you, for I can think of only two beings who would both have the knowledge of where the key weakness of the greatest magical barrier ever wrought might be, and who — unlike most of the gods — are not sealed away from this world and sworn not to interfere. One is the Wanderer, the Unbound and Unborn, wizard, sage, trickster of a thousand faces…if he still exists. But if he does not, only one choice remains: the Archmage, the greatest of magic-wielders to ever live upon this world, the God-Emperor of the Empire of the Mountain, Idinus of Scimitar.”
“Terian’s Light, Majesty!” Tobimar heard himself say, before he could stop.
“I know, Tobimar Silverun. Yet if he and his companions are to have any chance, they must have powers and capabilities beyond easy imagining, and perhaps they can seek the Wanderer’s Fortress and pierce its veil of confusion and enchantment, or even, like Khoros himself, be able to reach the highest mountaintop and stand face to face with the Archmage himself.”
“Okay, go find some guy who might not be there, and then climb a mountain and talk to the wise man at the top. Works for me.” Xavier grinned at Tobimar’s half-stunned, half-scandalized expression. “Relax, people, I know it won’t be that easy, but if these are the best wizards in this whacko world, then the King’s probably right; they’re the only ones who’ll be able to tell us where to go. And with what my sensei taught me…” he was suddenly deadly serious and terribly proud, “well, if I can’t get right up to their faces, through anything they’ve got in the way, then there isn’t any one of us that’s got a chance in hell. I could walk around your castle for weeks without anyone knowing I was here. You,” he nodded towards Tobimar, “were the only one who even sometimes seemed to get an idea I was around…and who trained you?”
Tobimar laughed, and bowed. “You’re right. So,” he turned to King Toron, “where would you send me?”
“I thought upon the story of your people long and well, in the past few weeks; it was a sad story, but a distant one, and less filled with pain than the reality we must face each day.” Toron went to the main viewmirror table and gestured; instead of showing the Star Cell, a great map of Zarathan materialized on the centermost crystal.
“Here, of course, is Mount Scimitar, your second destination, Xavier Ross, the heart of the Empire. Far to the south and west are we, here, in Fanalam’ T’ ameris’ a’ u’ Zahr-a-Thana T’ikon, Zarathanton. Many are the lands, large and small, which have had their being on this great continent and those islands nearby. Yet as I thought upon all of them, one stood out in my mind as perhaps holding your answers — one that has recently had other reasons to be called to my attention.” He pointed to the opposite end of the Khalal mountains, to a tiny country outlined in pale green, so far to the west of Mount Scimitar that it lay outside of the reach of the Empire, so far to the north that even conquered Dalthunia lay hundreds of miles below it, beyond the Kerla — the Black River. “Evanwyl, once wealthy and famed for its position before the only pass through the Khalal Mountains; now the lone and weakened guard sealing off that pass, for their ally beyond that pass became enemy in the past Chaoswar.”
That would fit! Tobimar studied the little country closely; the image suddenly swelled and he could see more detail, rivers and hills and towns and fortresses. “What else? Is there anything else important about Evanwyl?”
Toron seemed to be weighing exactly what to say. “Evanwyl is perhaps the last place where the god Myrionar, whose attributes are Justice and Vengeance, has a stronghold, and from which its Justiciars have –”
“Yes!” he shouted suddenly. “That’s it! The oldest stories often began, ‘Long ago, when justice and vengeance lay just beyond the mountains…’ I always wondered why they started that way!” He felt a burst of joy that washed like cool water from his heart through his veins. “Thank you, Majesty!”
“It is only what I owe you — a small part indeed of what you are owed. But I will add one other final point. You see, here would be your first destination, Xavier Ross, for it is said that the Wanderer’s Fortress lies within the Broken Hills, near their very center.”
Xavier looked, as did Tobimar, and the two suddenly glanced at each other and grinned. “Not so far apart, are they?” Xavier said.
“No, not much at all.”
Xavier yawned, showing his exhaustion, but looked back at him seriously. “If you’d be willing to wait a couple days…I’d really appreciate it if we could take part of this trip together. I still haven’t seen much of this place, and having someone around who knows the ropes…”
“Consider it done. I’d be glad of the additional company. It is a long, long trip.”
“Great! Then, I think…” he yawned again. “Yeah. I need to get some rest now.”
Toron’s chuckle echoed around the room. “Follow me, Xavier Ross; I shall see to your having a room where you need not spend the night invisible.” The two left, Xavier’s feet obviously dragging slightly.
Tobimar picked up Poplock and held the little Toad up before him. “So, Poplock — you want to go on a long trip north?”
The Toad bounced on his hand. “I suppose I’d better.” He chewed on one of the large spiky beetles that seemed to be a favorite, then gave an exaggerated expression of resignation “Someone has to keep you two out of trouble.”