Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 11
Kyri shook herself, breaking out of a reverie of remembrance, seeing again the darkness of Rivendream Pass, the serpent’s corpse, the burned bush. The memories of how they had come here seeming to have streamed by her in a moment, and she shivered anew at the oppressive wrongness that now weighed upon her. “We were warned,” she repeated. “Warned that even Myrionar’s powers would be weakened here.”
“True… but the Wanderer had said that was inside Moonshade Hollow. Instead, we’re barely halfway through Rivendream, and it’s already affecting you.” Tobimar looked at where the charred corpse lay. “And these things… ”
“Almost familiar, aren’t they?” Poplock commented.
“Yes…” The three stood, contemplating the remains for a moment, and then Tobimar snapped his fingers. “I have it. The things we fought in the clearing, after Thornfalcon died.”
“Very similar in feel,” agreed Kyri. The same feeling of wrongness and ancient evil pervaded most of the things in this pass. “But yet…”
“Yeah. Yet,” agreed the Toad. “These things are disgusting monsters, but all the one’s we’ve seen have been, well, normal twisted disgusting creatures, if you know what I mean?”
Kyri blinked. “Umm… I’m not quite sure I do, actually.”
“Well, a lot of the things that attacked us in the clearing weren’t… well, they weren’t one thing, if you know what I mean.”
That made sense. “You’re right. There were those nameless monsters like men crossed with centaurs and something worse, the bilarel with a crab’s arms, and so on.”
“And there were a lot of them,” Tobimar said. “If that was a gateway, there had to be just an immense herd of the things waiting to come through.”
“Bad news twice over,” observed Poplock. “First, means someone has a heck of a lot of monsters – and probably made the things, too, somehow. I’ve heard of life stitching of various types, but … that’s hard magic. Not just dark, though the way those things were made it’s definitely dark, but really, really difficult. Playing with life – changing it – that’s one of the harder parts of magic. Second, means whoever it is can keep these things from fighting each other, or they’d have ripped each other to shreds as soon as they came through.”
“By the Light, you’re correct. I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes sense. And it’s ugly.”
“This whole thing is ugly.” Kyri couldn’t keep from shivering, and not just from the air which was cooler than she was used to. “Tobimar, if the maps we have are even close to correct, Moonshade Hollow is hundreds of miles across in all directions. Can we even survive in that place, with what we’ve seen so far?”
“Do you have faith in Myrionar?” he asked her quietly.
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation.
“Then believe in him and the Wanderer. They said we COULD get through this, and while the Wanderer said he wasn’t going to be able to help us, I’ll bet he’d have at least given us a decent hint if he thought we’d underequipped. Somehow there’s a way through this.”
Kyri nodded and smiled at him. He knows how to support me, support my faith, even when it isn’t his. That meant a lot to her… especially now. “You’re right. I must have faith, and I will have faith. Somehow we will find a way through even the Hollow.” She glanced back at the charred area. “Honestly… we’ve been sort of lucky, I think.”
“You’ve got a strange idea of luck!” Poplock muttered.
“No, really. Most of the things we’ve run into have been, well, obviously dangerous, actively hostile. I think that thing was a voromos originally, or its ancestors were.”
“Voromos… Yes, I think you’re right. The poison spitting fits, and the three ridges on the head look close.”
Tobimar nodded. “It was bigger, more hostile, and its venom was actively controlling things it touched instead of just making them docile and eventually killing them, but yes. So…?
“Ohhhh, I think I get her point. These things, they’re all up-front killers. How’d you like to deal with Rivendream’s version of a forestfisher or a, what’s the name, itrichel?”
Tobimar shuddered, and so did Kyri. “A mindworm? No thank you. Nor the other. You’re right. Let’s hope we stay that lucky, at least.”
Kyri shivered again. Forestfishers, or jilyesh, were giant spidery creatures that would use their webs to drop poison onto sleeping victims; itrichels were worse – intelligent parasites that used guile and stealth to acquire new hosts. Both were, fortunately extremely rare. But they were, indeed, excellent examples of what she meant. “Yes, let’s hope so,” she agreed.
They continued along the deceptively green and bright valley; a few flat blocks, here and there, were the only reminder that a great thoroughfare had run from one side to the other of Rivendream Pass, once Heavenbridge Way. Kyri watched ahead of them carefully; she knew that Tobimar was checking the sides, and the little Toad was watching their rear. But the discovery that the Wanderer’s warning had been true weighed on her. “Poplock, are you feeling the same resistance to your magic that I was feeling with Myrionar’s power?”
“Hm. Haven’t tried yet; summoning crystals use mostly power you stored up before, you know. And they’re sorta aided by the use of the crystal medium. Not as much as gemcallers, though. Let’s see…” He mumbled some words, sketched a symbol in the air; shimmering light twined in mist, touched with fire, descended over both her and Tobimar, cleansing them of the mess from the last battle. “Whooof! Yes, that was tough. Normally that’d be really easy to do, but that felt more like it was a spell twice, maybe three times that complex.” The brown toad rubbed his broad chin thoughtfully, looking back behind them. “No, that’s not quite it. It didn’t feel more complicated, but like I was having to … drag the magic out of the world, instead of it just flowing. Like walking up a flowing stream, how the very nature of it fights you. Right?”
That described the feeling she’d gotten very well. “I think you’ve got it. Perhaps also like trying to draw a breath underwater through a long tube.” She glanced to Tobimar before returning her gaze forward. “Your abilities are unhindered?”
“They seem to be so far. This fits with what we were told.”
At least one of us will be at full strength. She knew that even with this handicap, her sheer power would probably exceed that of Tobimar – weakened or not, Myrionar was still a god, and she was Myrionar’s last, final hope, to which all power might be directed in extremity. And she still had the Vantage strength; nothing could take that from her unless it were something like poison. And anyone else trying to use magic in here will be handicapped as well.
The real problem, she thought, still remained food and drink. Purifying what they found here to be safe wasn’t easy, and now it would be even harder. Moonshade Hollow was supposed to be worse than Rivendream Pass – the source from which this stuff at the edges came from.
She honestly wasn’t sure she wanted to know what could be worse.
Then she saw what was ahead. “Oh, Myrionar’s Balance.”
Here, near or perhaps just past the crest of the pass, halfway to their destination, the mountains had lost part of their great battle with the elements, and unleashed their fury on the valley below. The pass was filled with jumbled, sharp-edged rock and earth to a depth of seventy to a hundred feet – a recent, massive landslide, probably no more than a few weeks, maybe less; in the relative stillness of the area, she could still hear muffled but definite sounds of shifting, settling rock.
It was clear there was no going around the slide; they had no choice except to go over it or through it. Briefly she thought of the unstoppable power she had unleashed in the final strike against the army of abominations on Thornfalcon’s estate, but shook her head; that had been a truly justified action, one of vengeance finally attained. Using that level of power just to clear the road – even if she could reach that level of power here – would not be looked upon kindly.
“Sand and grit,” muttered Tobimar. “That’s going to be an absolute gem of a climb, let me tell you. We’ll be lucky to get over it with only one of us crippled.”
“Might not be so bad for me,” Poplock said, eyeing the massive tumbled wall of fractured stone. “It’s settled enough that a little Toad of my weight probably won’t bother it. But you guys… that’s not going to be a fun climb.”
What had she just been thinking? Go over it.
“I’ve got an idea,” she said. “I haven’t tried this before, but I think it should work.”
“What? Remember the power –”
“I know. It’s probably going to be pretty hard to do here, if I can. But if I can it’ll save us time, and potentially injury. Honestly,” she looked again at the unstable mass, “I can see too many ways this wall of shifting rock could kill us outright.” She looked up and took a deep breath. “So let’s see if I can fly us over.”
Tobimar looked at her and his eyes suddenly showed a child’s wonder. “Fly? You can fly?” He looked suddenly embarrassed. “I mean, I’d heard the stories, but Thornfalcon didn’t fly, so I wasn’t sure…”
“I think I can. It’s one of the powers of most if not all of the Justiciars; Thornfalcon knew I was right there with him, so he probably didn’t think it was worth the risk to become an aerial target.” She felt her own heart starting to beat in anticipation, not just in tension for success or failure, or in fear of what might be waiting. Flying. Wasn’t this one of the greatest dreams? And by his expression, one that Tobimar shared. “Let me try, anyway.”
She closed her eyes and concentrated. “Myrionar, God of Justice and Vengeance, hear me. Give me the Wings of the Phoenix, wings strong and true enough to carry me and my friends over this barrier, carry us into the sky and to the lands beyond the wall before us.”
A shiver of anticipation washed down her back, and then suddenly it was more than anticipation; between her shoulder blades a warmth, a tingling fire that energized her, even as she felt the effort of drawing the power through, and threw her own will into dragging the energy through the interference of Rivendream Pass. And as the power slowly yielded, the sensation became warmer, spread, and she saw a golden glow beginning to illumine the world through her eyelids. She let her eyes open slowly, but still did not look behind her, only focusing on her need, seeing only what was before her, cast into brilliant relief and sharp shadow.
Tobimar was staring in awe, and even Poplock turned to take his time to stare.
With a final effort she felt the blessing complete, and looked.
Gold-flaming wings stretched glittering, shimmering pinions fifteen feet on either side of her, and she could feel… she knew… how to use them. She laughed, even as she felt a little trembling in her knees from the effort she’d just expended. “It worked.”
“It would certainly appear so,” Tobimar said, still staring. “Can you carry me? Poplock, obviously, will not be a problem.”
“I’m sure I can. But let me just test the wings first…”
With a spring she leapt from the ground and found herself arrowing upward, wings both beating and simply lifting with a marvelous lightness that made flight simplicity itself. She glanced down, seeing that behind her she left a trail of auric light that only slowly faded.
The height, without anything below her, was a bit dizzying, but she focused on direction, on motion, on understanding how to move in the air. It was something like swimming, something like running, something like swinging by a rope, but at the same time nothing like any of them, a glorious speeding through the air that was as natural as breathing and as wondrous as dawn.
She alighted in front of Tobimar, and wondered if her eyes were shining like his, and suddenly laughed. We’re still young. I can laugh for joy if I want, and here, in this place? It’s needed.
Tobimar echoed her laugh, his voice joining hers and sending echoes of pure wonder chasing through Rivendream Pass. “You’re amazing, Kyri!”
“Me? It’s Myrionar, not me.”
“Myrionar may have the power, but this is you,” he said firmly. “So… can you lift us?”
“I’m sure I can. That felt no harder than walking or running, and I could carry you easily enough for quite a distance.” She held out her arms. “Let’s try it.”
She was surprised to see his already-dark skin flush darker, but Tobimar stepped forward and let her pick him up. “Hold on – I don’t know how my balance will be affected when I do this,” she said.
“Hold… on? Um… Oh, of course.”
His right arm slid easily behind her neck. She found her heart beating faster. What am I…
Oh, by Myrionar, I’m not…
But as she felt his other arm come up to clasp his hands together, forming a strong, solid loop around her neck, pulling his head in to rest against her shoulder, she realized that she must be blushing too. Oh, I think I am. Of course I am. How stupid of me not to have noticed before.
“R… ready?” she asked.
He looked up at her, and their gazes met.
It was at least several seconds before he blinked, and shook his head. “Oh, yes, I’m ready. Sure.” He muttered something that she couldn’t quite catch.
“Oh, for Blackwart’s SAKE, what’s WRONG with you two?” burst out Poplock, who bounced on her head and then dropped back down to Tobimar’s chest. “Kiss already!”
Kyri dropped Tobimar in startled mortification; fortunately his reflexes kept that from being total disaster. Poplock, of course, landed perfectly. “Don’t tell me neither of you noticed it. I have watched the two of you since you met. No, don’t you even start arguing, Tobimar, I know your people have all sorts of formal stuff there but this isn’t the time or place. I’m not going to have you hopping around the bushes avoiding it for the next few months! Now get up and go kiss her. Unless you want to tell me you don’t want to do that?”
“Tell you I… no, of course I… Shiderich! You… toad!”
Kyri just stared at Poplock, unsure as to whether she wanted to laugh, cry, or … or what she wanted to do. “I… but I didn’t know if…”
“Stop the stuttering!” The little Toad’s voice was startlingly loud and yet completely in control. “By the Helpers, I have no idea how your people manage to breed as fast as you do. Kyri, you tell me if I’m wrong when I say you find Tobimar exactly your type?”
“Well… No. I mean, yes.” She could feel enough heat on her cheeks that she was certain water would vaporize on them, like on a hot griddle. “Balance! I mean, you are not wrong!” She found herself feeling almost defiant as she stared at Tobimar, who had picked himself off the ground; his hair had come unbound from its usual restraint and fell in an ebony waterfall around his face.
“And Tobimar, you’ve been staring at her practically constantly ever since you met her – whenever you didn’t think she’d notice. But I had to notice. So?”
She couldn’t believe this… and yet, she could. This was… exactly how Poplock handled everything, so directly that no one ever saw it coming. “You’re ordering us to…?”
“To understand that both of you feel the same way, yes,” Poplock said, and there was a twinkle in the golden eyes. “So you don’t have any doubts about what you feel.”
Tobimar looked at her. “I wish I’d had to courage to do this myself… but I didn’t want to intrude on your mission with my feelings.”
Kyri giggled suddenly. “I didn’t want to intrude on your mission!”
The dark-skinned young man took a hesitant step forward, but his brilliant blue eyes were locked on hers… and she saw no hesitation there. “So…?”
“So I think we’d better do as the Toad tells us,” she said, and before she could change her mind, stepped forward and bent down.
It wasn’t maybe the best kiss – in technique – because, well, she wasn’t sure how you did this. But his arms did go around her neck, twining in her hair, and hers did the same to his, and even if they didn’t know exactly what they were doing… that didn’t matter nearly so much as the fact that they were doing it.
Finally they separated, and she looked down into blue eyes that were a thousand times brighter than she’d remembered, and wondered how they could shine like that.
“Terian, you have beautiful eyes,” he said. “The way they shine…”
I suppose we look the same to each other, she thought, and realized then just what that meant he was seeing in her, and paused for a moment in wonder. I… never thought of this before. Not really. There was Aran, for a short time, and Jeridan’s occasional hints… but those chances never became anything. But this…
“Kyri,” Tobimar said softly, breaking into her thoughts, “I’d like – I think we’d both like – to continue this… but we’ve got things to do, and this isn’t the safest place. So… if you could…?”
She laughed suddenly, and felt a fierce joy. No more uncertainty. Just the surety that he’s with me, and I’m with him. She reached out to him again, even as the little Toad bounced back up to Tobimar’s shoulder. “Hold on, then!”
Together, they blazed a trail of light into the sky.