Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 13
“You are tense this morning, Lord.”
It raised an eyebrow and smiled. With the false Justiciars no longer free to roam Evanwyl, it no longer cared about the use of words that might reveal its secret guise; the Justiciars could no longer accidentally reveal anything.
What was surprising and amusing was Bolthawk’s observation, and the fact that it was true. “You see clearly, Bolthawk. How did you know?”
The Child of Odin gave a tight grin, even as he whirled his axe around in a quick cut that necessitated an immediate dodge. “Seen it before, truth be told. Usually you’re fluid as water, clean as air. This morning, though… your movements are just a touch jerky, your glances stray wider, as though seeking something.” He barely blocked its return stroke, but continued, “I see it only in mornings, so I think… a dream, yes?”
Perceptive indeed. The true irony is that each and every one of these people… with the exception of Thornfalcon… could have been excellent Justiciars in truth. “Yes.”
“Would you care to speak it? Or is this a different dream each time?”
The creature considered as the two of them had a few more passes at arms during their practice. I have never told this to a mortal before, and indeed only to select few others. Yet… why not? They have much fear of me, yes, but fear is not the best or only way to control. And he shows considerable courage in daring to ask such personal information, as a dream can give hints of weakness.
Finally he decided and disengaged. “No, you guess aright, friend Bolthawk. It is the same dream, always the same dream, that causes me a few hours of… tension, every so often.” It leaned on its sword and looked off into the distance. “The preliminaries may vary, but always the true… nightmare, if you will… begins with the same realization:
“I am being followed.”
It placed so much emphasis on that phrase that Bolthawk raised his own thick eyebrow. “Is that so unusual, then?”
“Oh, indeed. A most novel sensation, actually. No one ever follows me… not unless I want them to, of course… and in the dream, I cannot remember inviting any pursuit.
“So I look about, extending all of my senses – my true senses, you understand – and yet I find… nothing.”
It found to its surprise and amusement that gooseflesh had risen on its arms. This body’s reactions still can go beyond expectations.
Yet the reaction was not, in fact, entirely inappropriate, for the dream itself was emphatic and clear, and it could feel the certainty waiting in that memory: despite the failure of its senses, something was following, out there in the darkness that was darker than any night.
“I quicken my pace; whatever follows me, the proper course is to meet my adversary on more advantageous ground. And it is then that it strikes me: I do not know where I am going! I am unclear as to my goal.” It smiled one of its least-comforting smiles, and was rewarded with Bolthawk swallowing nervously. “You understand, of course, that I always know my goal, and have for… well, much, much longer than you or any of your people have been alive.”
Bolthawk nodded, and it continued, “I carve my way through the forest I now find myself in, a trackless jungle that I travel through with ease yet no clear path or destination. And then I hear… a noise.
“Something is there. Something is coming. Behind me.” It closed its eyes, remembering. “I whirl, looking, gazing with all my intensity. My other senses say there is still nothing, nothing there at all, but then I see something. A flash of eyes.
“But not just any eyes, oh no. Gray eyes, eyes like stormclouds and steel, cold and grim yet transcendently certain, with not a trace of doubt or fear or hesitation, eyes that penetrate all my deceptions, and I know that my pursuer sees me, knows me for what and who I truly am, and yet does not turn back, does not recoil, does not pause, but comes on, ever closer.” It drew a breath, one that actually held the faintest tremor of excitement or even, perhaps, fear. “And I feel a shock through my very soul, for I know – know – the truth. That these are the eyes that could end me.”
It smiled and shrugged. “And then – always – I awaken.”
Bolthawk considered. “So, you’ve never seen the person with those eyes?”
“I have never seen my pursuer’s face,” it admitted candidly. “Never descried the hands or body, never even sensed the nature of the soul that must accompany that body. For all my life – and that has been, you realize, a very long life indeed – whenever the dream or vision comes I see only the eyes, that wide, gray, unwavering gaze.”
The false Justiciar hesitated momentarily, then shrugged. “You know, Kyri Vantage has eyes just as you describe.”
It laughed. “Oh, not quite, my friend. Or, to be fair… not quite yet. I have met many, many with gray eyes before, but never those eyes. Sometimes the wrong shade; other times the wrong gaze, too gentle, too uncontrolled… never quite the same. Phoenix Kyri’s eyes are too heated in their vengeance, too passionate. These eyes are those of one who has contemplated my destruction not for mere months, but for uncounted years, and who knows precisely my nature, and yet feels neither fear nor uncertainty; he, or she, or it, knows that they will make an end of me. This does not describe her. Yet.” It smiled. “But on the positive side, Bolthawk, the dream – which I believe fully, mind you – gives me much comfort. For I then need fear neither demon nor dragon nor god, but only that unknown pursuer. On the day I see those eyes in life, on that day – and no other – I will discover if I can ever die.”
It raised its blade again, seeing the understanding on Bolthawk’s face. Yes, my friend, this confidence also reminds you that any plans you and yours have for turning against me are futile. “Shall we continue?”
A few minutes later, it smiled inwardly. It sensed Condor’s approach long before he reached the clearing in which the Justiciar’s Retreat lay, but allowed him to come nearer without giving any sign of awareness, continuing its sword practice against Bolthawk’s axe. It was therefore Bolthawk’s sudden glance of startlement that apparently alerted it to the new arrival.
“Condor! What a triumph, you have returned from Hell.” The creature allowed his voice just that edge of derision that he knew would be most galling.”
But Aran’s expression was… changed; there was a confidence and a narrow-eyed appraisal, so extremely different from that which he had worn prior to departure, that it found itself studying him with a more attentive eye.
“Returned from Hell twice, yes – as you must have known.”
Bolthawk stared from one to the other, then said to it: “So the rumors… they’re true?”
“Ask your brother in arms, Bolthawk,” it said. “For he has been there, it seems.”
“Rumors?” Condor laughed, but the sound was cold, cold. “What rumors? Do they say that the sky darkened and the land called Hell shuddered at a horror to make that very land seem a refuge of sanity and safety? Do they say that Kerlamion Blackstar has found a way to violate the very boundaries of life and death and the gods? Do they say that the Black City rests here, its gates opening onto Zarathan itself? Then what they say is true, Bolthawk, for I crossed into the center of the land of Hell, and thence walked straight through the Gates of the Black City.”
Bolthawk blanched at these words, spoken both with a casual venom that was too matter-of-fact to be doubted… and too cold and mocking for Condor.
But it merely cocked its head slightly. “And did you find what you sought?”
So swiftly that mortal eye could never have followed it, Condor’s sword sprang from its sheath and was there, in his hand, the point barely a hairsbreadth from the creature’s throat.
But not Condor’s sword, in fact. The blade pointed at it was dark as night, shimmering faintly with blue-white and accompanied by a dim moaning as of air falling to its doom. “Ah. I see.”
“I think you do, yes.”
It looked into Aran’s green eyes, but it let its smile return. “A mighty blade indeed. But are you going to waste your time and energy killing me, or will you seek your vengeance?”
For a moment, it thought that Aran, the Condor Justiciar, might actually do it – kill the true source of his pain, the corruption of Myrionar’s chosen, the one who had pulled all the strings and brought him to this point. But to truly do that, Condor would have to admit, fully, that both he and his foster father had no right to complain against any act by the defenders of Evanwyl or, indeed, the rest of Zarathan.
The black blade returned to its sheath in an instant. “Not yet. You still have answers I want, and information.” Unspoken was also the fact that the creature before Condor was also the source of his false Justiciar power, power he would still need in his mission.
It gestured, and Bolthawk bowed and left immediately; it could sense the other Justiciar’s fear and relief at not being involved in this. “I know what information you seek. The Phoenix has departed Evanwyl. I did, in fact, lose Phoenix’ track for a short time, but by good fortune only a day or so ago I found that Phoenix’ party had taken the path I had expected, given what they found at Thornfalcon’s mansion.”
As a native of Evanwyl, Aran could not repress a shudder as he realized what it was saying. “You mean… Rivendream Pass?”
“It is the obvious and, even, inevitable path. They know that they cannot yet find the Retreat; they know that Thornfalcon had some sort of connection to the other side of the Pass; they know, too, that Evanwyl’s fortunes were tied to that which once lay beyond the Pass, and Myrionar is no doubt guiding them.”
“When did they enter the Pass?”
“Two, three weeks ago, I believe.”
Condor cursed. “Then they are far ahead of me. Reaching the Pass from here will take most of a week as it is.”
It smiled, and was pleased to see that Condor still found that expression disquieting. As well you should, little Justiciar. As well you should. “That, at least, I can assist you with.”
Condor’s eyebrows rose visibly. “How?”
“Within this realm, I have gained… considerable power – as one might suspect. Go, replenish your supplies from our reserves, and meet me in my chambers and I will be prepared.”
It did not, in fact, take much preparation, but it was best for Condor and the others to have mistaken ideas about its powers, its nature, its goals, and effectively everything else. So Condor entered to find an elaborate mystical circle laid out in the center of the huge dark room. “You can teleport me to them?”
“Not to them, no. I have hardly had any direct contact with Phoenix or any companions the true Justiciar of Myrionar may have – that would be … unwise, at the least. But I can cut your travel time, by sending you directly to Rivendream Pass.” This would also have the absolutely vital effect of keeping Aran Condor from discovering the actual nature and identity of the Phoenix Justiciar of Myrionar. It had to get Condor well away not merely from Evanwyl, but from his fellow false Justiciars, since they knew the truth and would certainly tell him as soon as the topic came up.
Aran would learn the truth, of course… but that had to happen only at the precisely correct moment.
Aran stepped carefully into the circle, making sure to neither rub out or smear any of the symbols; experienced as he was around things mystical, he was not going to take chances on such a ritual being disrupted. “I’m ready.”
“Then I wish you… good hunting, Condor.”
There was a flash of light, and Condor was gone – on his way to a rendezvous he desperately wanted… and would undoubtedly regret, once it occurred.
If he was even Condor any more, by the time he found his quarry. A gift from the King of All Hells was not, exactly, a safe thing to receive. Especially not for a young man who thought he still wanted to be a hero.
It laughed and gestured, cleansing the floor of the ritual circle. There were other amusing things to attend to. It wasn’t quite time to talk with the King again; it was still deciding how, exactly, the next sequence of events must be played. The grandiose overarching plan was, of course, going to start coming apart; while Aegeia still seemed well enough in hand, there were a few points that indicated things might start turning around soon – even though the agent it had in place claimed all was proceeding as planned.
But that would still be some time yet. The real key decision was when, precisely, it would have to admit failure and be cast on its own by Kerlamion as the King of All Hells sought to finish by sheer brute power what could not be completed by manipulation. Too early, and it might lose support that would be useful for its own endgame. Too late, and Kerlamion might realize that he was the one being played and throw all plans off. While it thought that even Kerlamion could be dealt with, having the King of All Hells as a direct and immediate threat while trying to complete its own plans would be a serious problem to properly executing the last stages of the plan.
Oh, it knew the King would eventually discover the truth. It looked forward to that moment, properly staged; the right denouement of the play was the key to its enjoyment, after all. But it was a challenge to make sure all the cast played their parts when most of them didn’t know they were part of the performance, and when the few that did, such as Khoros, would do their best to ruin the final act.
Unfortunately, there were so many elements to be balanced here – and elsewhere, and “elsewhere” required just as much attention as its plans did here; that was, naturally, one reason that it was often unavailable for the Justiciars and other allies – sometimes it simply wasn’t there.
After another quick check with all its agents – especially Kalshae and Emirinovas, who should be having new visitors soon — the creature felt that it would have to make another trip and hope that everything continued on course. It could not neglect the other game, already in progress, on a far more distant playing field.
But time enough for that game when said time came; the last skirmish had been surprisingly painful, if instructive, and thus well worth continuing. For now, however, it had plenty of things to do here. It sat down and placed the golden scroll in its holder, and smiled.
So very many things to do here.