Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 20
She skipped her way along the hallway, then bounded down the three hundred forty-three steps, taking them three or four at a time, to finally burst through the massive double doors that opened easily for her – and only a very few others.
The room on the other side never failed to impress her – and, in the moments she was honest with herself, sent a tingle of apprehension through her as well. Arranged like a gigantic amphitheater with circular levels descending in ranked order, forty-nine levels each with its own corresponding complex symbology intagliated in silver and gold and crystal on the great domed roof above, the room was both immense and hollowly imposing. Even her light footsteps sent sharp echoes chasing themselves around the room, past the polished metal and glass and shimmering gemstone retorts spaced about the levels and the spaces awaiting other chambers, retorts, tubes, or crystals to be inset, in their turn, beneath the T’Terakhorwin, the Great Array.
In the center of the huge room, beneath the core of the Great Array, was a flat space nearly a hundred yards across, with a floor of polished obsidian inset with platinum and krellin runes so closely spaced that there was nearly as much soft-silver shining as deep black glint. Despite the size of that area, not terribly much of the floor was visible, for arranged all about, in concentric seven-sided patterns, were ranks of alchemical and mystical equipment of more complex and diverse designs than she had ever seen anywhere else.
The master and designer of all of this glanced up as she entered. “You interrupt my work.” His white hair cascaded across his shoulders, his pale eyes stared at her from deep-set, shadowed sockets in a narrow, ascetic face that showed lines of concentration but none of smiles. The only other person present made himself unobtrusive, obviously wanting to avoid being involved in any major discussion.
She flashed Tashriel a quick smile then turned to Wieran with a sigh. He hasn’t the faintest trace of courtesy. I shudder every time I have to have him come up and interact with other people, for fear he’ll forget his instructions. “I wouldn’t do so without reason, and I think you’ll find this reason more than adequate.”
She reached up to one of her armor’s shoulderpads and, with some effort, detached a section which had made the one a bit thicker than the other. Beneath the false surface could now be seen a multiplicity of runes and symbols, engraved in a way that strongly mirrored that of the ground below her.
The blue eyes narrowed, and a hint of a smile appeared – a smile which was not, in any way, comforting. “The data gathering is complete?”
“I spent several hours in the company of the target. That should be enough, right?”
“If it is the correct target, yes.” Without request or preamble, long, spidery fingers snatched the former coverplate of her shoulderpad away from her; Wieran crossed with metronome-precise strides to a complicated piece of equipment a short distance away and fitted the thin plate into a holder.
An entire portion of the array above and below suddenly hummed into life, and a blue-white fire burned for a moment above the plate, a fire whose light both excited and pained her. “Yes, yes, yes! That is the key we have sought!” Wieran said, with the most animation she had ever heard in his voice. “Have it brought here immediately!”
The joy she felt at knowing victory was at last within their reach was tempered by the sudden demand. “Master Wieran,” she said carefully, “They are currently in Murnitenzei, and the key is not alone. We must take care not to alert any of the party to anything untoward, and really, we haven’t anything with a foolproof method to transport someone so far.”
Wieran’s mouth tightened, but then he took a breath and relaxed. “Very well, Miri. I suppose I can take the time to finalize preparations for the unlocking in the meantime; it has not been a priority until now.”
The ground beneath them suddenly quivered – a tiny amount, but more than enough for both Miri and Wieran to notice. Miri glanced involuntarily at the wall she knew lay to the West, and thus beneath Enneisolaten, the great lake. “Is … it… secure?”
Wieran’s reply was matter-of-fact, holding none of her uncertainty or – to be perfectly frank with herself – fear of what lay beyond. “The Array holds him, yes. And once the key has arrived, that will no longer be a concern for any of us.”
“You can keep it restrained for that long? When the cycle is turning in their favor?”
A short, humorless laugh. “Your desperate bindings held it for centuries before I came; with the perfection of my designs? Not even the Dragon King himself could break free! But I understand your fear; if break free it does, I will not be the one it comes for first, but rather those who asked its aid and then betrayed it. Now,” Wieran turned away, “leave me, Miri. I have work to do and need none of your distractions.”
“You’re welcome,” she muttered under her breath as she ran back up the stairs. Even his most polite behavior would get him killed in some places.
But that was only a minor annoyance today. The singing, painful brilliance she had seen stayed with her and erased her resentment at Wieran’s arrogance. Once past the wards at the top, she concentrated and in a flash stepped straight to the hallway outside her own chambers.
Inside, she quickly set up the mirror-scroll and invoked its power. For several minutes the gold-shining surface remained blank, showing only her own face; but then, without warning, it darkened, and a cheerful, blond-haired man – or rather, something that had the outward appearance of a man – looked out; his boyish grin widened farther as he saw his caller. “Why, Miri! What a pleasure, as usual. How are you?”
“Well enough, Viedra. I have called to thank you; the key we sought has indeed arrived. Master Wieran verified that this morning.”
“You doubted me? I’m almost wounded, Emirinovas.”
“Say rather I was not going to celebrate until I was sure,” she responded with a smile of her own. “But now it is certain. In a month or two, once he has arrived, the entire work will be completed.”
“A month? Oh, I imagine the old man is a bit put out by that.”
“He’ll have to accept it. We need to understand both the key and his companion; we don’t want unexpected events undermining the final seal and release.”
He nodded. “Oh, certainly not. His companion… yes, she is quite interesting. Please keep me informed – especially as to her ultimate fate. I’ve been following her myself for a project of my own.”
Miri raised an eyebrow. “You did not say she was important to any of your projects! I thought we had full operative authority here!” Her jaw tightened. If he puts restrictions on how we can deal with them –!
Instead, Viedra laughed. “Oh, but of course you do. Take whatever approach you require, just tell me of the outcome, yes?”
Mollified, she nodded. “As you wish. Do you have any use for Wieran afterwards?”
“After?” The smile was not quite human, the teeth suddenly a hair too sharp, too shiny. “Oh, I think by then Master Wieran will have outlived his usefulness. Don’t you agree?”
She giggled, a sound a listener would have found distressingly incongruous with her thoughts. “Oh, I think both Kalshae and I would agree on that.” She smiled in anticipation. “The real question will be whether I get to kill him… or she does.”
Viedra’s laugh was as human as his appearance usually was, big and cheerful and warm. She appreciated that incongruity herself. “Well, then, I wish you all the success possible, and that sounds like a wonderful thing to look forward to. I thank you for confirming things with me. Now, I must be going –” he broke off. “Oh, dear. Yes, there is one more thing.”
There always is. “What?”
“There’s another young man following that delightful Phoenix. It’s very important to me that he not catch up to her. Can you make sure of that?”
“Do you want him killed?”
Viedra shook his head. “Oh, no, no! I want him to keep following her, just not reaching her, until you are all done, that is. Preferably not even have much contact with those who have seen her. Can you arrange that for me?”
She was relieved; this would be both simple and amusing. “Oh, I think so. I’ll lay a false trail for him in the opposite direction around the lake from the one they select and periodically check on him. Good enough?”
“That will be splendid, Miri. Oh, yes – Phoenix doesn’t know she’s being followed, and she shouldn’t be allowed to know.”
“Excellent. Then I will leave you to it – our Father has tasks for me today.”
Miri waved and the scroll went blank. Glancing at the timecrystal, she bounced up and headed to the Valatar Throne.
Lady Shae saw her come in and waved absently. Miri, seeing she was busy hearing the grievances of the people and making decisions, went to one side of the Throne and waited patiently. Even small details like this were crucial to the overall plan.
Finally the last of the morning’s petitioners left and the doors shut behind. “Kerlamion’s breath,” Kalshae muttered venomously, “I grow so weary of this charade at times. Such petty issues they have. Hardly even a decent bout of hate or killing rage or spite.”
Miri laughed. “Oh, if you take the border areas you can get a lot of that!”
Shae looked at her askance. “You have the option to patrol; that’s rather limited for me.”
“The price you pay as the Lady of Light.”
“Ugh. I feel so contaminated.” Kalshae shuddered and for a moment her form wavered, becoming less human, darker.
“Oh, I don’t mind; I can switch back and forth between the self I’m being for the game and who I am; it’s become almost its own reality.”
Kalshae looked at her sharply. “Be careful, Emirinovas! Dalurshinsu and Yurugin said similar things before …”
“I know perfectly well what they said. I also haven’t been playing around with the Stars and Sun directly like they were.”
“Still, you should come down and sit next to our prisoner more often. His darkness is a welcome antidote to that agonizing light.”
“I’ll try. But unlike you, I have a lot of places I have to travel to. You can always go downstairs in between duties.”
“Just watch yourself. I’m not sure how either of us could handle all this by ourselves.”
Miri nodded, but smiled confidently. “Oh, I will. But really, it’s only another few months.” The smile sharpened. “I’ve directed this plan for thousands of years; what could possibly break me now?”