Ryk has decided that this will be the last snippet of this book. Also, the eARC is currently available at http://www.baenebooks.com/p-2666-phoenix-in-shadow-earc.aspx
Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 28
Miri stepped into her guestroom at the Reflect’s mansion and closed the door, leaning against it heavily. I’m shaking! Shaking like a terrified human!
Her current body was human, in a way… but in all the centuries she’d been in such bodies, she’d never had such a reaction. Miri held her arm up in front of her, watched the trembling of the delicate hand, the imprecision of its movements, with stunned fascination; it took twice as long as normal to set the wards and seals of privacy.
In a way, she could understand it. So many shocks, one after another. First, stepping into that cabin and seeing the true power of a god unleashed – through the constant oppressive interference of Moonshade Hollow which impeded even her kind – and the incredible, heart-wrenching beauty of that power and the Phoenix, tearing her own soul and the voluntarily offered souls of the others so she could patch together the shredded, dying spirits of two children, and beyond. Though Phoenix had not realized it, her power had flowed even beyond the two most wounded, touched upon Hamule and bound her wounded spirit just a touch, eased the pain and memories for all five.
Miri found a wondering smile on her face at the thought, then banished that expression with shock and panic.
It didn’t hurt. Why didn’t it hurt?
But that question hadn’t occurred to her right away. She had been uplifted, confident, and helped Phoenix to rise. It was agreed by all three – herself, Phoenix, and Tobimar – that the master itrichel had to be dealt with immediately, and that it had to be in the Reflect’s household.
And they’d been right; Nimelly, his Head of House, had been the host of the creature. Once she realized she was cornered, she had fled, with the three of them in close pursuit. Tobimar had outdistanced them for a few moments and brought the itrichel to bay…
And that was the second terrible shock.
Tobimar had faced the itrichel – Nimelly with a serene face, a transcendent look in his eyes, twin swords held parallel before him, and she knew that pose, that stance, remembered the terrible gray-eyed calm that had advanced through the armies of Kerlamion as though the demons were blades of grass before his vengeful hurricane, in the days after the Fall. That Art is not lost, and does that mean that … He… is returning?
She had stumbled, but somehow – though the terror was nigh-overwhelming – caught herself, regained control, only for yet another shock to overtake her.
For the itrichel had snarled, “How do you resist?” as her blade rang against Tobimar’s.
“Yield and you may learn. Fight and you will die,” Tobimar had said bluntly. “For my companions are here.”
Nimelly then leapt back, with an agility far beyond human, and came on guard, watching all three. She smiled. “But are they companions you can trust?” she had asked… and for a moment the narrowed eyes had flickered yellow-green, looking directly at Miri.
It knows what I am! It could betray everything!
She had launched herself into the air, even before her course of action was clear; by the time she reached the apex of the leap, she had known what she must do. The two companions must believe she was their ally and friend, which meant she must somehow save Nimelly – and absolutely, permanently silence the itrichel before it could reveal the truth.
She unleashed a Shardstorm, impaling Nimelly in multiple yet non-vital points with the glittering blue-ice fragments. The itrichel, realizing it was trapped, had abandoned the body, tried to flee, but in doing so gave Miri a clear opportunity, and the Hammer of Thunder obliterated every trace.
And even then there was no respite from the tension; for what if Nimelly remembered what the itrichel knew? She hadn’t… but there were also other itrichel out there by now, matured from the sithigorn and other young animals. If they knew the truth…
She sat down on the bed, trying to clear the confusion and panic and elation and fury, to get some kind of idea of what she actually felt, to make sense of it all. I cannot have felt joy at the Phoenix’ ritual. I cannot! That would mean…
She drove that thought out with sheer terror and denial. For if that was true, then somehow the thing she had resisted for millennia, that had been trying to eat away at her self for all the time they had been here, was finally overcoming her, now, just when complete victory was in her grasp. It wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. It was the persona she had adopted, that was all. “Miri” would of course be awed and overjoyed, fascinated even, by such a miracle. And miracle it was; not all the magic of Kaizatenzei could have saved those children, but the Phoenix of Myrionar had made it look easy – though as Miri had seen, it was certainly not.
In a sense, that was good; attention was entirely on the emissary of the God of Justice and Vengeance, and for once that meant that people downstairs weren’t all crowded around Miri, so she had been able to get away without drawing attention to herself. And she needed this time alone.
And there were people she needed to talk to. Oh, yes, immediately.
The golden scroll was instantly out of her pack and set up. Miri found herself bouncing her knee in nervousness as she waited for the other person to answer. Stop that! I must not show any such weakness in front of him.
But that was easier said than done. The problem was that she was feeling entirely too many things right now, some good, some bad, and some just confusing, and that made her twitchy and annoyed. Which wasn’t at all a good thing to be in conversation with Him.
Even as she drew a breath and tried to focus on calming herself, on dealing with the mission, the golden scroll darkened and cleared to show the ever-pleasant features of Viedraverion’s current form. “Emirinovas! Always a pleasure.”
She decided that his infuriating cheer needed to be dealt a bit of a blow, and that would also help cheer her up. “You treacherous little nyetakh.”
Instead of looking taken aback, the smile widened. “And as always I can rely on your unswerving politeness! What is it that –”
“The so-called ‘key’ is a Tor master!” she snapped, feeling again the chill and shock that had nearly overcome her.
“What?” The surprise on the face was genuine. A moment later, the smile returned, this one of chagrin. “Ah. Of course, I should have guessed, given his instructor.”
She felt the blood leave her face and dizziness assailed her. Curse this human body! “Are… no, you cannot be saying that He has returned, is instructing –”
“Oh, no, no, not him. I have not seen him, nor sign that he…” Viedraverion paused. “Or perhaps I have. I must think on this. But in your particular case, no. But that is little comfort, I think, because his instructor was Konstantin Khoros.”
“Khoros!” She spat the name out like a curse – which, indeed, it was. “And you did not see fit to warn us?”
The infuriating smile was back. “You asked for me to watch for certain things. I watched for them. I think you would still want your key even with this complication, yes?”
Calm. Calm. It was hard, much harder with the turbulent confused emotions within her, but she forced herself to clarity and some measure of calm. “Yes. Yes, we would. So… enough of that. However, there is the matter of his companion.”
“She is the channel of a god!” Anew she saw the towering golden Sword-Balance, blazing up and through the cabin, rising above the trees, and felt again that strange chill and warmth, the power of a deity manifest in the girl who was sacrificing part of her own soul, as well as those of others, to save two children she had never before met. “A full channel, not some random priest! I have never felt such a thing, not even from the Stars and Sun!”
The blond-haired form leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Well, yes. You have dealt less with the gods and their powers than I, so you do not understand the difference. In the Stars and Sun of Terian, you have a vast power, yes, but they are, in the end analysis, merely containers for power, not the Light in the Darkness himself. That does not of course mean they are safe, as you well know, but they are not themselves the Will of the Deity made manifest.” He gazed into a distance she could not see. “Even if they were – say if Terian had been called forth to activate them – there would be a difference. Terian has immensely many shrines, temples, priests, worshippers – scattered across the entire continent, some even within your own valley. He is many places at once, always.
“Myrionar, however… has only the Phoenix. Oh, there is one priest, but even he looks to her as the example and symbol. You felt the power of a focused, even desperate god providing what it could to its one remaining champion, and that, I have no doubt, was a magnificent sight indeed to one of our perceptions.”
“Oh, it was magnificent!” She caught herself before she went any farther. This part I play is becoming too real. I must remember it is only a seeming, not an actuality… or it might become actuality. “But also dangerous.”
Viedraverion shrugged. “If you make too many mistakes, yes. She is a very formidable young woman. But you have the power, you have the allies, you have the advantages. I trust you will be able to handle her and your key.”
“As long as Khoros isn’t directly intervening.” She didn’t even want to think about that. Emirinovas was powerful, yes, but she knew that going up against a Spirit Mage of Khoros’ age and power would be a foregone conclusion, and not one in her favor.
“No, of that I can be sure. My… sources tell me that he has actually been seen serving as advisor to the new Sauran King as they prepare for the counterassault against our beloved father.”
That was something of a relief. But… “Does Father know?”
“I presume he does. He has his own spies.”
She studied him. “You don’t seem concerned. I thought you had an interest in this Phoenix.”
“I have an interest in how her journey ends – in victory or in failure. I won’t tell you cannot deal with her in any fashion that suits your needs.”
“Indeed?” He nodded. “Well… all right. Also, I did intercept your other visitor, Aran Condor, and sent him the other way around the Necklace. I’m arranging for sightings and rumors of the Phoenix along the way, so he’ll stick to the trail and never wonder about it all the way there.”
“Really? Well done, little sister. I commend you. Exactly as I would have asked.” He looked off to the side. “I must be going; other responsibilities call, and I believe we have… cleared up our misunderstanding?”
“Sufficiently. Farewell, Viedraverion.”
“And you, Emirinovas.”
She put the scroll away, checked the seals and wards again. Not that she expected anyone to try to spy on her – the Phoenix certainly would never even think of such a thing and she doubted Tobimar would either, and none of the others in Jenten’s Mill would dare – but only a fool trusts unreservedly.
Once she was sure that things were still secure, she removed the farcaller from her pouch and placed it on the table. “Lady Shae,” she said.
The image of Kalshae’s human form materialized almost instantly; she was in her own chambers, so there was no need to delay. “Miri. What is it?”
Now she had someone to really vent her tension on. “I would ask rather what is this?” She held up one of the itrichel corpses.
Kalshae blinked in startlement. “Where did you –”
“Jenten’s Mill. An infestation that came up out of the lake – how very surprising,” she let sarcasm fill the last words for a second or two before continuing, ” and then when the townsfolk stopped depredations on their young livestock the thing took over one of the townsfolk and started abducting children!”
“Well, that’s unfortunate, but –”
“Unfortunate? You fool, Kalshae! You and Wieran play with all these clever little inventions but you never see the way the game has to be played, and you have too little respect for the danger! They sent for help and found our key and his party – and naturally they came right away.”
Finally Kalshae was giving her undivided attention to Miri, and Miri began to feel – slightly – better. “Now it was bad enough that it was hurting the town; as long as we’re running a kingdom we need stability, not fear and uncertainty. But far worse was the fact that it was one of yours.”
“How do you –”
“How do I know? How do I know?” She leaned forward, glaring so fiercely that Kalshae actually stepped back a pace. “Because the Father-damned thing almost gave me away! The only thing that kept the whole situation from going straight to the Light was that the master itrichel got fancy and instead of just telling them what I was, hinted and looked at me in a way I couldn’t possibly mistake; I could tell it expected I would betray them at that point. I finished it instead.
“Fortunately,” she continued, overriding Kalshae’s attempt to speak, “they thought that it was simply planning on mind-controlling us – it couldn’t affect Tobimar – and that was why we wouldn’t be able to be trusted. And while they had wanted to capture it and question it about its other nest, they understood my need to act.”
“I see.” Kalshae gazed at her, then finally – unwillingly – bowed. “I… am sorry. It was thoughtless and incompetent of us to allow such a thing free, and I will make no such mistakes again.”
“See that you don’t. You may have more raw power than I do, Kalshae – although not as much as you think – but never forget that I planned this entire thing. You will not ruin it for me.”
“Understood, Miri. Understood.” Kalshae waited to see if Miri accepted her contrition, then, “Now… how many people were killed? The master-itrichel’s host, of course, but how many others?”
“None, actually. I was careful with the Shardstorm.”
“Wait, now. There is no way that you can cure a child ridden by an itrichel for longer than –”
“Oh, yes there is. If you happen to be the chosen representative of a god. Phoenix’ story is one hundred percent true; she was able to pull enough power from her god to heal all five children, including two with nearly full grown mindworms.”
Even as she said that, Miri regarded herself with confusion and disbelief. Tell Kalshae about the soul-tearing! About how Phoenix had to use her own soul and those of others to heal the children! That’s vital information! It tells us that Phoenix – and perhaps Tobimar and Hiriista! – will be weakened for some time! It also tells us about how far they will go to save others!
But somehow she found herself silent, adding no more details, and her face held so controlled that not a hint of additional information was shown on her face. Even as she let that moment pass, she felt that strangeness within her growing, as though the decision had strengthened it. With frozen panic she shoved that very awareness from her mind and focused on the woman before her.
“By the Throne! That’s … frightening,” Kalshae said slowly. “Especially doing it here, where even we cannot pull in more than a fraction of the power that is normally ours. But there is no suspicion of us?”
“None. Especially after our successful hunt. Though there are more itrichel out there to hunt, since not all the missing livestock from the first attacks have been found.”
“Still, if they have not conferred with the master itrichel, they will know nothing.”
“Let us hope so. But I will have to stay here and complete the hunt for all of the things to make sure. Do you understand how much time this will make me waste? If just one person hears the wrong thing and I’m not there to kill them or wipe their minds –”
“Yes, yes, I do understand. My apologies, again.” She tilted her head. “Wait a moment. You said that the master itrichel could not affect Tobimar Silverun. Why?”
Miri couldn’t restrain a nasty grin. “Because he is a Tor master.”
The reaction was everything she could have hoped for. Kalshae shrank back in horror, her foot ran against some object fallen to the floor, and she stumbled. “Impossible! They were eradicated from –”
“I saw him. Just as I remember seeing the Eternal King himself from the walls. I cannot mistake those moves, those stances. And Viedraverion tells me that our key was trained by Khoros.”
Kalshae vented an obscenity that momentarily darkened the crystal. “Are we against Khoros? If so, we must simply abandon this plan entirely.”
“I would not be so hasty… but no. Viedra says that the old mage is advising the Sauran King and will probably be on the front lines.”
“Bad for Father, good for us. All right. Will the key be continuing on tomorrow?”
“I think so. Perhaps the day after; the townspeople are very grateful. I will then catch up with them once the hunting of the other itrichel is finished.”
“I think you should stick with them as much as possible… just to make sure they don’t see or learn anything … dangerous.”
“I’ll do so as much as possible,” Miri said with a smile. Smile? Suddenly I feel so much… lighter! What in the world could be causing that?
“All right. I’ll go deal with Wieran over this… unauthorized release.”
“Better you than me. Good luck.”
“Thanks. I’ll need it.”
Miri put the crystal away and stood. It’s getting towards dinner time; Phoenix will be wondering where I am!
She set out from her room, a bounce in her step again.