Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 03
The twin swords flickered at her like darting reflections from a pool of water, and Kyri realized just how very, very good Tobimar Silverun was with those weapons. In moments she deflected two strikes with her own sword, and still felt three, no, four impacts of those blades on her Raiment. And I’ve already increased my speed some.
The raven-black hair was pulled back in a long ponytail that swirled behind Tobimar as he pirouetted away from her retaliatory attack; his brilliant blue eyes measured her, calm yet with a hint of the laughing joy she knew he felt, that she echoed, at this chance to push each other to their limits against a foe worthy of their skill yet not an enemy to be destroyed.
“Heads up!” called another voice.
The third combatant was so small that even with the hint of his voice she didn’t see him; the sphere of swirling vapor hurtling at them, however, was all too obvious. She called the flame of the Phoenix and carved downward, slashing a safe haven through the spell; at her side, Tobimar did the same somehow, weaving a defense from willpower and the unique discipline of the art which the mage Khoros had taught him.
“Attacking us both?” Tobimar shook his head. “In that case, my lady, shall we?”
“Oh, yes, let’s.”
Now she and Tobimar ran stride-for-stride towards the source of that mystical assault, and a part of her remembered how – even when they had first met, before they had even been formally introduced – somehow they had known how to work together.
A tiny brown streak burst from a clump of grass on that side of the training field, and suddenly the mists erupted low and thick, covering the ground to a depth of two feet. That’s not good; we can’t see him coming –
She closed her eyes, letting the Truth of Myrionar guide her, even as she knew Tobimar would be extending his own senses…
From the ground behind them Poplock Duckweed sprang, and he gave a flip in midair that, astonishingly, caused Tobimar Silverun’s sword to pass just under him. Kyri’s sword blocked the little Toad’s path to her, but he wasn’t aiming for the young Justiciar, but at his partner, Tobimar. Now he was on the Prince of Skysand, scuttling with startling surety under the arm, even as it swung, then around to the back –
And Tobimar flipped and came down on his back. Poplock barely got out from underneath in time, but he had Steelthorn out, the slender blade glittering deadly silver –
— and freezing, as he realized that the immense gold-red sheened sword Flamewing was an inch from his brown-warty hide. “Whoops.”
“Do you both yield?” she asked with a grin, and she could see that Tobimar realized the way she was standing, she could simply run them both through.
“Yield,” said the Toad, sheathing Steelthorn.
“Yield,” agreed Tobimar. Once she lifted her blade, he rose. “Shall we try another?”
“Best four out of seven?” she asked with a grin. “No, I think this is more than enough for today. I’m quite winded.”
“I think we all are.” Tobimar nodded to Poplock, who then bounced to each of them, removing the safecharm from their weapons. “That vortex ball – I didn’t expect that one. Where’d you learn that?”
“Sasha Rithair, of course,” the little Toad answered, bouncing to his accustomed location on Tobimar’s shoulder, as they walked back into the Vantage mansion. “She may specialize in summonings – and believe me, I’ve been learning those, too – but she’s got all the magic basics down, and after what we’ve been through, I figured I couldn’t just sit there and dabble in magic. Time to get serious about it.” He gave an exaggerated sigh. “Not that it does much when you guys can just cut the spell apart.”
Kyri laughed, and let the Raiment flow off her and onto a nearby rack. “You did warn us in advance. I don’t think you’ll do that with our enemies. Besides, that doesn’t always work.”
She noticed that Tobimar was sheathing and unsheathing his swords; the motion seemed slightly uneven. “What is it?”
He held up the slightly curved, tri-hilted swords with a rueful grin. She saw that the shining perfection of the metal was marred with dings and one was slightly bent. “I am afraid that even the finest swords in the Skysand armory weren’t really meant for contesting with Justiciars – real or false.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She was, truthfully, somewhat annoyed. Tobimar and she were allies against forces that even she barely understood, and the last thing they needed was one of them working at less than their top form.
“Oh, I kept meaning to get them repaired, but we’ve been doing so much putting Evanwyl back together it just never quite got done. You’re entirely right, though, I should have told you and made sure it was done. My apologies.”
His expression was so solemn that she couldn’t keep the serious look on her own face. “Oh, fine, fine, you’re forgiven. But aren’t your weapons magical? I can’t believe that Skysand has no mages.”
“Oh, we have some magicians, of various types, certainly. But … Kyri, you have to understand that fighting things that play on your level just isn’t the same as most battles. I’ve fought quite a few things – mazakh, graverisen, a few demons, once one of the least Wormspawn, a few other things – especially when we were travelling with Xavier – but you and Thornfalcon?” He shook his head ruefully. “My Lady, that is a whole different kind of thing. There were points in that battle where I knew if I had been too close, at the wrong angle, the power that you were both deflecting would be enough to kill me. Training with you… I think both Poplock and I have been learning just how very far we have to go.”
Startled, she looked at the two Adventurers. Tobimar was completely serious, and the Toad bobbed an assenting nod.
“Well,” she began, not quite knowing what to say. “Well… all right, I suppose there must be truth in that. If there wasn’t something special about a Justiciar, we wouldn’t need them. But really, training with the two of you makes me feel the same way. And sometimes I think that Xavier would have been worse.”
“Oh, no doubt,” said Poplock with a chuckle. His tongue snapped out to grab a flying insect before he continued. “He had some very nasty tricks.”
He glanced at the two of them as they hesitated at the base of the stairwell. “Oh, that’s right. Clean up or go to eat? Here, I’ll help with that.”
Kyri saw the Toad make a few gestures and a sparkling, cool mist enveloped her and Tobimar, evaporating to leave her feeling as though she’d just had a nice long shower. “Now that is impressive, Poplock.”
“Sure more useful in most situations than calling the thunder down,” Poplock agreed with a bounce, and held on as she and Tobimar headed for the dining hall. “So like I said, Xavier had some real nasty tricks. But power-wise? We were totally in the mud compared to you two, Kyri. You and Thornfalcon were way, way out of our normal playing level. Look at what you did at the end there, calling on Myrionar and wiping out… well, I don’t know how many, but it was a lot of monsters in one big flare. I’d bet Thornfalcon could do stuff like that too, if he had prepped.”
Kyri couldn’t argue; whatever power had been backing Thornfalcon – whatever it was that lay behind the false Justiciars – had been able to fake the Justiciars well enough that no one could tell. She had to assume anything she could do, they could equal. She seated herself at the table and nodded to Vanstell to have the food brought out. “You’re right. But I’d have been dead, dead, dead if you hadn’t come along. I really can’t see you as being that far below me.”
The exiled Prince of Skysand grinned, and snagged a crispwing as the platter was set down. “I didn’t say we didn’t have some kind of edge. But my poor swords, they didn’t have the edge.”
“Or rather, they don’t have much of an edge now,” Poplock corrected, earning a poke from his friend.
“I really think you need to get them fixed soon, Tobimar,” she said slowly, as she served herself from the other platters. “Evanwyl’s pretty stable now, and I know time’s slipping away.”
Tobimar paused in eating, and nodded seriously. “I know. I wasn’t going to push you – this is your country –”
“But maybe you should have. It doesn’t do any good to help Evanwyl if the threat that’s going to destroy it is still out there.”
“No one’s seen the other Justiciars, have they?”
She shook her head. “Not since they fled from the Temple before Arbiter Kelsley’s wrath, no. But that just means they’ve been taking this time to figure out their next step, while we’ve been clearing up everything… without ruining everything.” The two didn’t ask what she meant; they knew, and she was incredibly lucky the two had been able to stay and help her.
The problem of course was that the Justiciars being utterly corrupt – and in the case of Thornfalcon, vastly worse than merely corrupt – was a shattering blow to the faith that held up Evanwyl. The faith of Myrionar, the Balanced Sword, god of Justice and Vengeance, was represented most clearly by two groups: the priests – Arbiters and Seekers and such – and by the Justiciars, the living symbols of the faith. The fact that the entire order had become corrupt, had committed murders for years and never been caught, had even been able to mislead and trick Arbiter Kelsley undermined all the faith Evanwyl had relied on since before the last Chaoswar, at least.
So Kyri had had no choice but to stay, to shore up the damaged faith. It wasn’t just a matter of keeping Evanwyl together and strong, though that would have been more than enough for her, but it was also a matter of the mission Myrionar had laid upon her. She had to be, as the god had said, the living representative of the Balanced Sword, and surely that included keeping the few remaining worshippers – the people of Evanwyl – strong in their faith.
“You still can’t find the Justiciar’s Retreat?”
She shook her head and sighed. “I’d hoped that I could find it now, because I’m a real Justiciar. But whatever corrupted the Justiciars obviously dealt with that; I get no sense of location even when I head to the West, which I know is the right general direction. Rion told me that all he had to do was think about going to the Retreat and he suddenly knew exactly where he was going. Only one of the other false Justiciars can find their way to the Retreat now.”
“There has got to be some other way,” Poplock said emphatically, voice slightly muffled as he snagged a large green darter out of the air and stuffed it into his mouth. “There’s other gods, and magicians, and so on.”
Kyri nodded. “Oh, I have no doubt there is some other way. I just don’t know what it is. Neither does Arbiter Kelsley, or your new teacher Sasha.”
She saw Tobimar reached for another crispwing, to find that they were all gone. His expression as he looked down and realized he had eaten them all caused her to grin; she gestured to Sanhon, one of the three servers this evening, who whisked the old plate away and replaced it with another. “There you go, Master Tobimar.”
He had tried to convince them not to call him “Master”, but that had failed miserably, as she could have told him if he’d asked. So there was only a slight twitch before he replied, “Thank you, Sanhon. I don’t suppose…”
“You want more crispwings? Don’t you have them –”
“In Skysand? Almost never. They had to be imported from the Empire of the Mountain, at best, and maybe from somewhere in the State of the Dragon King. I think I got them three times before in my life, and these are just wonderful.”
The older woman – well, older than me, but not anything like old – smiled. “In that case I’m sure I can get Dankhron to fry up some more, if you can wait.”
“Thank you so much; I’d be glad to wait. I can always eat something else.” She watched as he surveyed the generous assortment of fruits, vegetables, and cheeses in the center of the table. Grabbing a handful of arlavas – greenish berries with a frosty sheen – he sat back and looked over to Kyri. “Well, all right, let’s leave that problem aside for now,” he said with a quick smile that emphasized the clean symmetry of his face. “Do you think you could leave Evanwyl now? Are things all right?”
Kyri considered. The Temple of the Balance was fully repaired, and – more importantly – people were attending regularly again, and she felt their faith, especially when she was there, part of the ceremony with Arbiter Kelsley. Their doubts had slowly faded over the last month or so; she knew this was because pretty much everyone in Evanwyl, from the Watchland to farmers and butchers and the other Eyes and Arms knew her, and they listened to her when she explained to them her faith, her mission, and the need for not just her, but everyone, to believe in Myrionar. “It has already fulfilled much of It’s promise to me,” she would say, “and I now know that It will somehow fulfill the rest of it, so long as I stay true. And I know It will bless us all if we can all find it in our hearts to keep our faith in the Balanced Sword.”
“I think… yes, I think they are,” she said finally. “Oh, I’m always going to be nervous that leaving will trigger some catastrophe, but waiting forever will be worse. There’s only…”
Somehow he caught on, perhaps from seeing her glance around the room. “Oh, that’s right. Your aunt isn’t here and so there won’t be anyone guarding the family home.”
“Is that silly of me? I mean, it’s not like the house will fall apart, Vanstell will –”
“It’s not silly at all,” Poplock said emphatically from somewhere near the cheese wheels. She saw him pop up from behind one, chewing on a berry. “The Vantages are a symbol to your people. Even if you aren’t here, this place is going to be a symbol, and someone might decide that burning that symbol down, like they did your parent’s house, would be a great statement of how weak you and your god are. Someone being the false Justiciars, or their boss.” He made a comical face. “Well, okay, hard to BURN this place down since it’s mostly stone, but you get the idea.”
She wished she could argue that, but she couldn’t. Vantage Fortress was a symbol, hundreds, maybe thousands of years old, and if their enemies wrecked it after she left…
She toyed with the seasoned steak in front of her. “You’re right, of course. But I can’t stay here forever. Your mission and mine… time’s not standing still, and we know what’s happening elsewhere. But I need someone who will be able to keep Vantage Fortress… alive, I guess, even if they’re not a Vantage. Vanstell –”
Vanstell shook his head and smiled. “My Lady, I am – with no false modesty – an excellent Master of House, and I have been proud to serve you and your family in that capacity for the last twenty-two years. But I am, regrettably, not a person with the dynamic and powerful presence you would need.”
Kyri smiled fondly at him. “I was about to say something of the sort, because I know what you like to do, and if you wanted to be that kind of person, we’d already know it. But then… who? Or do I leave anyway?”
“You may have to,” Tobimar said with obvious reluctance. “Believe me, I understand your concern – in your position I’d share it – but as you said, the world isn’t waiting for us.”
“Perhaps I might offer a solution,” said an impossibly familiar voice from the doorway.
Almost without realizing it, Kyri found herself standing, staring in simultaneous disbelief and joy.
Tall, angular, straight of figure, impassive of expression, Lythos, her invincible, imperturbable Master of Arms, stood framed in the doorway.
And then the Sho-Ka-Taida collapsed to his knees.