Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 10
The crumbling path stretched up, up, between slopes dotted with trees that were touched with a stronger, somehow virulent green, and then vanished into shadow cast by the mountains about.
“Rivendream Pass,” the Wanderer said quietly. “This is as far as my magic can take us, as close to your mystery as I can go without travelling with you.”
“So, will you?” Poplock asked. “Because that would be really useful, even if you’re only half of what they say you are.”
He felt Tobimar jerk slightly under him at the casual question and could see Kyri shoot an outraged glance at him from beneath her helm. The two still held the Wanderer in some awe, and Poplock was being rather informal.
The Wanderer merely chuckled. “Sorry, Poplock. I can’t go much farther; I’ve got other places that need me, and as I said, I can’t tell you what’s going on. Going with you, with what I know, that would be potentially worse.”
He raised the rune-covered staff and pointed. “The only good thing about Rivendream is that it’s not a tricky maze. It’s the one decent, halfway level path through the Khalal range, and if you stick with the reasonably easy pathways, you will most certainly emerge in Moonshade Hollow. No getting lost, as can happen crossing through mountains in other places.”
He turned back to the group and looked at them. Looks more serious than usual. “I can’t even give you much more advice, let alone direct aid. Kyri… just remember, this is part of the mission you follow for Myrionar. While this is also Tobimar’s quest, much of what is to come is yours as well, part of your own journey, and a terribly important one.
“Tobimar, I can only tell you this: you are, indeed, the true descendant of the Lords of the Sky, of their rulers. That much have your people remembered and kept true and pure. You were chosen by the turn of a card that represents Terian himself; I cannot watch over you… but he may.”
Finally he looked at Poplock. “I don’t underestimate you, Poplock, but be careful.” He reached inside his clothing and took out a strange ivory colored cylinder with strange writing on it below an outline of a sailing ship; the cylinder – a container of some sort – rattled. He unscrewed the top and poured many somethings that glittered into his hand, selected one, and poured the rest back, putting the container away. “Take this.”
Poplock reached out and took the sparkling object. Ooh, it’s a crystal. Shiny, natural facets… not quite so sparkly as diamond, though. Water-clear, though with a few black inclusions – not perfect. Six-sided, double termination… “Quartz crystal? No offense, but I’ve got –”
“– none like that one, my amphibious friend. That crystal I mined, with my own hands, and have carried with me ever since first I came to this world.”
Poplock almost dropped the sparkling stone. “You… this is from Zaralandar – what you and Xavier call Earth?”
“It is indeed. One such as yourself might do many things with that. Save it. Think on it. Use it when you are certain. But it carries with it some of the essence of my world – some of my essence, in fact, for as I said I dug it from the stone by hand, broke the stone from the earth and split it with hand-forged steel wedges and a sledgehammer. My sweat – and maybe a little blood – was shed getting that very nice crystal out of its stone. It’s a part of me. That by itself makes it unique.”
The little Toad bowed as deeply as his anatomy permitted. “I’ll be very careful with it. And I’ll think real hard on what I can use it for.”
“Good.” He bowed to all of them, a dramatic gesture with a flare of his cloak. “I hope we shall meet again… when you return.”
He took three strides… and vanished.
Poplock shook his head. “Makes it look so easy. Well, let’s get moving, right?”
“Right,” Kyri agreed, and Tobimar nodded, hitching his pack up and making sure it was settled properly. “No point in waiting.”
For a while as they moved farther up and into Rivendream pass, Poplock studied the crystal. There was something strange about it, an aura that interacted strangely with his attempts to divine something about it. Finally, though, he put it away carefully into his pack. Figuring that thing out will take more than an hour riding on someone’s shoulder. Quartz has its own virtues, but a crystal from the Wanderer? That’s gonna be something special.
Rivendream Pass continued up – a relatively steep incline at first, but one that abated after a mile or so. The air was somewhat cooler here, and Poplock noticed something. “Look at those trees.”
“What?” Tobimar paused and looked. “You’re right. Different, not what we’re used to at all. I think, from something I read in Skysand’s library, that this one’s an oak.”
“It is,” agreed Kyri. “Lythos taught me to identify the higher-slopes trees. That’s a maple, over there, and the dark-barked one over by that rock is santki.” She frowned. “But all of them look…”
“Wrong. Yeah, I noticed,” Poplock agreed darkly. “Branches growing at funny angles. Leaves not quite right. Trunks not really straight.”
Tobimar stiffened. “And listen.”
Poplock sat up and listened – and looked, no point in not looking.
At first he didn’t get what Tobimar was pointing out. There were the faint sounds of movement that you hear in any forest – little creatures, occasionally a larger one…
… but they were somehow not right, as well. Poplock couldn’t clear the mud off it, so to speak, but he could just tell that nothing in this place was quite the way it should be. Reflexively he let his tongue snap out and snag a passing fly, and suddenly he found himself gagging, spitting the mangled insect back out. “Ack! Uggh! That was vile.”
“You couldn’t eat an insect?” Tobimar studied him with growing concern. “I’ve never seen anything you wouldn’t eat.”
“You haven’t seen enough, then. But that was in a special class all by itself.”
“Don’t think so… not exactly, anyway. But… lemme catch another. Without eating it, this time.”
He managed to snag another fly, but transferred it to his front paws instead of his mouth. Kyri came over to watch. “Umm… Not the fat, sleek shape I expect. Narrower. Faster, maybe. But more importantly…” he mumbled a few words, took a look at the thing. In his eyes, the insect dimmed, a pattern of dark lines rippling around it. “Dark, dark magic influencing it. Don’t know how eating it would affect me. Not going to try it to find out.”
Kyri’s face went grim. “That means we don’t dare eat anything we catch here. Or we have to find some way to purify it that we can afford to use.”
Tobimar nodded slowly. “A good thing we did pack a lot of provisions.”
“Even so…” Poplock frowned. “There’s a lot of Moonshade Hollow on the other side, isn’t there?”
“You’re right.” Concern deepened on both the humans’ faces. “If we take too long, we could easily run out.”
“Depending on how long it takes to get through the pass, it could be not long after we get there,” agreed Poplock.
Tobimar nodded again. “Well… we can think about possible solutions as we continue. We’ve got a few more hours until nighttime, I’d like to move on.”
“Yes. We’ve got to get going,” agreed Kyri.
But she slid Flamewing from its sheath, and Tobimar drew his new, shining blades as well. Poplock didn’t draw Steelthorn, but he did make sure it, his clockwork crossbow, and a few other things were close to hand.
This isn’t going to be fun at all.