Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 24
The misshapen creature – a deformed, monstrous hopclaw, he thought – shrank back as the moaning blade cut through the air. But Condor leapt completely over it, cutting off its escape. One clawed arm flew off, trailing blood. The other. The creature was screaming in terror and pain now, but Condor merely grinned and continued. Try to ambush me? Learn what you pay in pain!
Finally it was over – too soon, Condor thought. This unending trek through Rivendream seemed like a nightmare, no rest, nothing safe, even the insects more vicious than anything he’d ever encountered. So he’d become harder in return. Take your amusement as you can. It’s for sure nothing else will amuse me here!
It dawned on him that the forest rising up before him was warmer, with more scent of wet and growth. A spurt of triumph went through him. “I made it!” he heard himself say. “I’m in Moonshade Hollow!”
The words, however, reminded him that no one had ever returned from this trip. And he was following someone who undoubtedly had gone deeper into the Hollow.
He had only a vague idea of what Phoenix looked like – basically a description of the Raiment the Phoenix wore. But it didn’t matter. A shivery, hot hatred and joy rose in him at the thought of what he would do to the unsuspecting Justiciar when he caught up. His hand caressed the hilt of the Demonshard and he thought he heard a second laugh echoing his own.
Was that a tree reaching towards him? Even as the laugh trailed off he drew the Demonshard and swung in a single motion; the black blade carved through reaching branch and yard-thick trunk as though they were barely there at all, and he stepped aside as the twitching, roaring forest giant crashed to the ground. “Any others wish a taste of my blade?” he demanded. The rustling was one of fear, of things that would flee if they could. He smiled. “I thought not.”
The power of the Demonshard never ceased to amaze him. The sword supported him when he grew weary, gave him strength in battle, even guided his actions. Now he knew that he could defeat the Phoenix, even if they had been able to kill Thornfalcon. Why, once he’d mastered this blade… perhaps Thornfalcon’s old patron could be removed as well…
He made his way through the forest, and the news seemed to have traveled before him; creatures slunk from his path, the trees themselves leaned away.
The problem was finding Phoenix. Being even a few days behind the rogue Justiciar and any allies Phoenix might have meant that any trail they left was effectively gone, erased by weather and growth and other creatures. But there had to be more here than just jungle; if he could just find someone, or something, to talk to…
Suddenly, in the slowly-falling gloom of night, something huge loomed up before him. He paused, squinting, then as his eyes adjusted realized that it was a wall – an immense barrier, smooth and hard, stretching as far as he could see to right and left.
“Well, now, that is certainly promising!” he said to himself. Anyone who could build a wall like that would know a lot about the region… and, just maybe, would have seen someone else passing by…
The problem was going to be getting in. There was probably a gate somewhere along the wall, but no telling how far away – or what guards might be there. He didn’t want to necessarily announce his presence; if Phoenix had made contact, well, there was a good chance that he or she had also made a good impression. Might even, possibly, have told people about the Justiciars.
Better to get in secretly, scout things out first. Try not to kill anyone he didn’t have to; that could be inconvenient.
The wall was small by some standards, he supposed, but fifty feet of greenish stone was more than enough of a barrier to daunt most people or monsters.
But most people were not Justiciars – real or false, both had vast power. And as Condor…
He felt a great… weight, a pressure that impeded his ability to draw on the power of his station. He gripped Demonshard and power flowed through it, into him, and he felt himself rising into the air. This place actually fights against the power our patron gives us. What is Moonshade Hollow, and how is this possible?
Still, he was rising into the air now, rising to the top of the wall. Not too high. Just above, dart over and drop down. Be as hard to spot and track as possible.
Level with the wall, he gathered himself, glanced to both sides to make sure there was no sign of an observer atop the wall, and then concentrated. Full speed ahead –
The impact with empty air was a shattering, tearing thing, something clawing at him with disorienting, vertiginous might that nearly sent him weaving away. Confused, unable to understand what was happening, he simply drove forward, trying to overpower this intangible, inescapable barrier of whirling, dizzying nausea and battering, insubstantial resistance.
With a sensation like tearing through a bramble hedge and a whirlpool simultaneously, he hurtled through, out of control, spiraling towards the ground; he was vaguely aware of smoke streaming from him, of agony burning through his entire body and soul. The ground rose and smashed into him like a bludgeon and he rolled over and over, trying clumsily to absorb the force of the fall and, mostly, failing.
He lay still for long moments, feeling the pain of burning and bruises and cracked or broken limbs. For a few breaths it felt to him as though he had come down in some vile swamp, a place filled with such foulness that it nearly choked him. He cried out and struggled vaguely, as though he could somehow push the air away from him.
Then something snapped within him, and abruptly – despite the very real pain of his fall – he felt himself more clearheaded than he’d been in… was it weeks?
The air about him was not foul; no, it was fresh, fresher than any he’d breathed in memory. Just the taste of the air in his lungs, the feel of the soft, warm breeze lifted his spirits, made the pain recede. He reached into his pack, found a healing draught, drank it down. As his injuries receded into memory, he took stock of his situation. On the ground, surrounded by ruined greenery, that’s not a surprise. Stars visible overhead. No sign of hostiles… and none of the feeling of menace I had in Rivendream Pass or that forest outside the wall.
Condor stood slowly. Night birds sang softly, and the trees nearby did not move; they were stately and massive, radiating a feeling of stability and safety. It was a change as sharp as though he had stepped through a door from winter into summer, and he couldn’t imagine how this was possible.
At the same time, it made him feel…
Suddenly a recent memory flashed through his mind: the cowering hopclaw, being carved apart… a laugh…
Aran, the Condor, found himself on hands and knees, the sharp, repellent stench of vomit rising from the ground before him. What in the name of the Balance…? What was I doing? What was I thinking?
The strain of travelling through the monstrous Rivendream Pass had been great, but he’d walked through Hell – and then through the gates of the actual Black City itself. He hadn’t turned into someone who would torture helpless creatures then, so…
He reached up, and realized the scabbard over his shoulder was empty. Of course. I had the Demonshard in my hand when I came over, and then I crashed.
It took only a few moments to find the great black sword, point-down in the ground about twenty yards off. Nearby, the grasses were black, and the night-noises went silent. He could feel the malevolence radiating from the ebon-glowing blade, and understood.
“You were changing me,” he murmured angrily, and reached out, yanking the Demonshard from the ground.
Instantly a cold, hostile presence entered his mind – as, he now realized, it had been doing all along, for all the time he’d held it. But here, in this place of incredible purity, he could sense it clearly for the first time.
No, he said to the Demonshard.
It raged at him, then pleaded and bribed, reminding him of its strength, its powers, everything it could do for him.
“You will give me your powers. On my terms.”
Now it cast aside any pretense, and Aran found he could not release the sword’s hilt as dark, malevolent power trickled into him, oozing into his mind, seeking to surround and crush his will and make him back into the monster it had designed – that Kerlamion, he now realized, had designed him to be.
The fury at being used was a cleansing fire, and he drove back the Demonshard’s insidious attack. “I am not your tool. I am not a pawn in anyone’s game anymore! This is my vengeance, this is my mission, and you are here to serve me!”
The Demonshard did not, exactly, speak, but he could understand its outrage and contempt. “No, I’m not going to destroy my homeland, or anyone else’s. I’m after the Phoenix, and that’s all I’m after. When I go back to the Justiciars, I’ll do it as myself, and if I decide I want to clean that house up, you’ll help me do that, too!”
The Demonshard bent all its will against Aran’s, and it was like bearing up the weight of an entire world, crushing down on Aran Condor as though there was no possibility of resistance.
But he remembered Shrike, the hidden gentle smile now gone to dust; he remembered his own anger and hatred of himself when he dared not act; he remembered the devastated face of Kyri Vantage and his own regrets that he had never spoken to her as he wished, and grabbed regret and anger and beauty and pulled it into himself, made himself greater and stronger with the oath to never yield, never give in, never compromise again.
“I gave up everything,” he growled through gritted teeth. “I let them lead me on until I was a mockery of what I knew should be. So be it. But I was still myself, and I am still myself, and I will remain myself, no matter if you or your own dread maker and master were to try to undo me.”
Slowly, one finger rose, loosening its grip on the hilt of the Demonshard.
“You are a weapon. You are my weapon and you will serve me, Demonshard! I am no one’s tool!”
Two fingers, and the weight of the great blade made it tremble, near release. Desperate, the fragment of the sword of the King of All Hells exerted its full strength, trying to take control of Aran’s body directly.
But that, too, would not work; Condor met that attempt with contemptuous anger and venom at being tricked, lashed it with his driving will until, without warning, his hand opened and the Demonshard fell back to the ground.
He glared down at the weapon, his mind now entirely free. “I am the master here. Acknowledge me!”
The Demonshard shimmered and the distant howl of obliterated air filled the space all about. But the anger of the sword faded before Condor’s unwavering fury. “I need a weapon. But a weapon that thinks to wield me I do not need. Choose swiftly, or I shall leave you here and take my chances alone.”
Slowly the Demonshard went quiet. Then it rose up and presented its hilt to him in silence. This time when he grasped the sword, he felt no hostility; only a grudging respect and concession.
“Good,” he said. “Remember this well, Demonshard. For this is your last chance. If ever I suspect you are attempting to play me again, I shall dispose of you forever. There will be no more chances. Am I understood?”
The sensation was now more cowed and cautious.
He sheathed the great bastard blade and looked around. The question now was … where to go?
After a moment’s thought he shrugged. Without any other indication, why not just head straight away from the wall? The wall had to surround something, so heading towards the center should bring him towards at least some part of whatever the wall protected.
Even though the jungle here was little less dense than outside the wall, or on the other side of the mountains, it felt far different. Making his way through this wild tangle somehow did not drain him as it normally would; he felt as though he were taking a walk in a stunningly huge garden. The very idea of “danger” seemed distant indeed, and he wondered what kind of a place this was.
After almost an hour of walking, he saw the undergrowth thickening, but with signs of opening up beyond – the usual pattern near a clearing of some sort. Shoving his way through the dense border, Condor popped out of the jungle and found himself at the edge of a broad roadway, of carefully maintained stone, that ran roughly East-West, if he read the stars right.
Even as he made that judgment, he became aware that there was movement approaching him.
The moonlight made colors hard to make out, but he could see clearly that it was a small woman, a girl really, almost skipping along the road. Her hair was fair, probably golden blonde, and she wore peculiar-looking armor of crystal with other garments of a light and translucent material. She suddenly halted, staring, and then… well, bounced was the only description for it, she bounced forward, smiling broadly.
“Well met,” she called out, and gave a strange, sweeping salute that caused the bow in her hair to bob. “Light Miri of the Unity greets you!”