Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 01
Aran felt cold, cold inside, so cold that he was able to ignore his fear entirely. There is nothing to fear here, not now. For what I want and what It wants, they must be the same now.
Even so, he had to steel himself to knock at the great stone and metal portal which was the Hall of Balance, the innermost area of the Justiciar’s Retreat… and the chosen quarters of their leader. He remembered the last time he had entered there, practically dragged by Shrike…
The voice sent a new bolt of fear through Condor’s heart. I’d expected Thornfalcon. Expected that I’d have to argue with him to reach… It.
But in a way, this was better. He had no idea why Thornfalcon’s patron would be here now, and even less as to why Thornfalcon would not be present, but at least now there would be no impediments to his purpose. He shoved the fear away, replaced it with the cold-burning rage, and entered.
The room was dimly lit, as it nearly always was. Part of him wanted to believe it was because the creature feared light, but he’d watched It in the sunlight far too many times. “You must know by now.”
It raised an entirely human-looking eyebrow over a pure-blue eye. “How bold a beginning; not even a hint of the courtesies. But yes, I know, Condor; Shrike has fallen. A terrible loss for you.” The last words carried an almost sincere note of sympathy, that nearness to human feeling making it even more jarring.
He gritted his teeth. I cannot get into a duel of words with It. It will enrage me if It so pleases, and then humiliate me, and I will still need to ask this of It. “I apologize for my failure in diplomacy; I am empty of thanks or courtesy this day, for he was my father in all but blood.”
“Of course.” There was little irony in the voice now. “And I will tolerate … for the moment … a certain amount of personal clumsiness, Condor. But you did not come here to speak of the dead, I think, but of the living.”
He knows, or guesses. Of course. Aran, the Condor, laughed suddenly. “Yes. Of those living who must soon die. This… this Phoenix,” he spat the name out as though it burned his tongue, “killed Shrike, left his body lying in the woods, didn’t even burn it or bury it, like you’d leave some animal in the woods, no ceremony, nothing.” Even as he said it, he heard his voice rising, and suddenly felt no inclination to restrain himself. “Well, I’ll do the same to him!”
“Or her,” the other responded with maddening equanimity. “And really, why the rage? You know perfectly well that in all likelihood this is the TRUE Justiciar of Myrionar. You’re the traitors and monsters. Didn’t you say something like that… perhaps even here in this room?”
“Do not patronize me, monster! I’m beyond fear of anyone, even you!”
Its eyes narrowed, and the blue was like frozen sea. “Have a care, Condor.”
“I have no care at all, for all that I had left to care for – once you and Shrike had done with me – is gone. I will at the least follow, for once, the true path of my name, for I want vengeance.”
It raised an eyebrow. “As do we all, in our own way. I have hardly barred you – any of you – from hunting down this Phoenix. Indeed, I urge you all to the hunt frequently, and have begun… my own little investigations as well.”
Actual surprise showed in the falsely-human eyes when it found Skyvault at its throat, and Condor continued. “I don’t want you involved at all! Phoenix is mine!”
It stood still, studying him.
“But I’m not stupid. This Phoenix killed Mist Owl, killed… killed my sirza.”
“And Thornfalcon, but hours agone,” the creature said, its voice unaffected by the threat of the blade.
Aran paused in his rage, momentary shock forcing him to re-evaluate the situation. He knew – none better – just what a monster Thornfalcon had been.
But this just reinforced his current point. “So, he killed your favorite, too. Phoenix broke Shrike’s axe, carved up one… no, two other Raiments now. I’m good, but I’m not that good.”
It reached up and gently pushed the blade down with irresistible force. “Interesting. If I choose not to take your soul for daring to draw sword on me, what then is it you want?”
“You know perfectly well. I want power to match Phoenix’s, to OUT match anything that Myrionar can give its last servant. I want to face Phoenix down, myself, and kill him or her and spit on their grave. I want to rip out their guts and let them die slowly and rot on some forgotten hillside the way Phoenix would have let my father rot.” He had to force the words out through tears and a snarl of gritted teeth.
Their leader suddenly burst out in laughter, a sound so warm and human that Aran shuddered despite his rage and determination. No wonder that no one suspects a thing.
“And you think I can give you that power, Condor? Do you realize what Thornfalcon was? That I had already given him much power the rest of you lacked, and still he was finished – and rather handily too, or so it would seem – by this Phoenix?” It was smiling in a way that sent shivers down his spine, and a distant part of him was screaming that he should back down, change his mind, run. But in the front of his mind he saw a beloved face in a death grimace, black-caked blood around a shattered piece of metal, and flies hovering for the feast.
“If you can’t, then you are finished too, because the Phoenix will find this place – and you – eventually, even if they don’t catch you outside when you’re fooling the rest of the world! You’ve openly mocked the Balanced Sword enough – are you going to back down? Tell me that Myrionar is, after all, more powerful than us, and we’re all doomed?”
For a moment it regarded him, still with that gentle smile that seemed to imply terror beyond imagining. “No… no, I would not say that. Myrionar’s power is vastly diminished, for in these centuries at my work it has been eroded, slowly, surely, but nigh-completely. This is a final desperation move, the only one left to a deity in Myrionar’s position. But just as a cornered animal, even wounded, can be surprisingly dangerous, so it is with a near-ended god. All they have left will be devoted to this final Champion. I have many things to devote my own attention to, for – as you learned some time ago – this is but one small part of the grand design. I have such power, perhaps, but I cannot give it to you – especially since, alas, I have seen you are less than dedicated to our ideals, unlike Thornfalcon.”
Condor wanted to lash out again at the urbanely-smiling mask in front of him, but he knew that would end any hope of revenge by ending his life. “So you’re saying there’s nothing you can do?”
“I am afraid…” it stopped, tilted its head, and the smile suddenly widened. “Perhaps. Perhaps there is. Not something that I can do, no, but…”
“What… what do you mean?”
The figure turned slowly and considered the polished mirror-scroll set on the desk at the center of the room, and Condor felt as though his guts were going to freeze. It looked back at him with that same smile. “Normally I would not call… but it is true that this Phoenix could be a significant hindrance to our cause, given time. HE has the power you seek, do not doubt it.”
“But…” He shuddered, but shook his head. “He has the power, but how could he give it to me?”
“We can but ask.” Before Aran could object, the human-seeming figure passed a hand over the mirror. “Great Kerlamion, your servant begs your attention.”
The shining surface blackened, became a room of darkness with something darker than any darkness seated upon a throne, the only light from eyes of screaming blue-white. “Viedraverion.” The eyes shifted. “Why is this one before us again?”
“A … small problem has emerged in Evanwyl, oh Blackstar.”
The eyes narrowed. “You begin with circumlocutions we expect from others such as Balgoltha. Do not follow that path, for we have no patience for it, even for one with such a record as your own.”
Viedraverion – if that is its real name – shrugged and smiled. “You are of course right, King of Demons. As I had expected, the Balanced Sword is forced to make its final move, and has produced a true Champion. Now, while I believe I can maintain all as we desire it, this is certainly a crisis of minor but perhaps significant import.”
The barely-visible head of blackness nodded. “Go on.”
“I have many other duties you wish me to attend to, of course. There are so many … details involved across the world.” He gestured to Condor, who flinched as the alien, deadly gaze turned back to him. “The champion, called Phoenix, has slain three of my false Justiciars. One of them was, in essence, the father of Condor.” It smiled more broadly. “We can, of course, appreciate the strong bond between father and son.”
The laugh from Kerlamion Blackstar was the sound of the very rending of air, and the smile a blue-white void of pain, and Condor very nearly did run then. “In our own way, yes, we can.” It leaned forward, and though the mirror-scroll did not change at all, Condor felt as though something immense was looming over him. “And so from us you seek the power to avenge yourself, to counter the final throw of a failing god? Answer us!”
Condor swallowed. “Y… yes, mighty Kerlamion.” I am already damned, my soul must already be his as a false Justiciar. “Something that will give me the strength to face the Phoenix, to shatter his or her power, their new-forged Raiment, break their sword and… and tear their soul apart.” If my sirza will find no rest in the afterlife, no more will Phoenix, no salvation by Myrionar or by its allies in death.
“And this is the one who thought to abandon us, that was drawn by the Light?” Kerlamion spoke to its servant.
“Even so. By a noble and courageous girl, even.” It smiled.
Kerlamion chuckled again. “Then we are pleased, and we see that, though you tremble, Condor, you stand firm. Viedraverion sees that the time is nigh, and he is right. Come, then, to us, and we shall give to you the power you desire.” The mirror went blank.
Elation warred with terror and confusion. “I… thank you, mighty King…” But there is no way to Kerlamion’s Throne that the living and human can travel!
“Fear not, Aran,” their leader said, with a smile even more chilling, and answered the unspoken words with a darker mystery. “You shall walk there on your own living feet, and stand alive before the Throne of All Hells itself.”