Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 1
Kyri shouted even as she realized that Shae could not possibly react in time, and lunged forward, shoving the taller woman aside. Her gauntleted hands caught the sagging beam, gripped so tightly that the hardwood dented beneath her fingers, and she braced herself, throwing all the Vantage strength into keeping the monstrous mass of stone above from moving so much as one more inch.
By then, Shae had caught herself against the corridor wall. “Phoenix? By the Light!” Immediately the red-haired ruler of Kaizatenzei raised her voice. “Tanvol! Miri! Braces, quickly!”
Kyri felt her arms starting to give. Myrionar, no!
Another presence next to her, and a glow of blue-white power enveloped Tobimar Silverun as he used his newfound strength to reinforce hers, the two of them keeping the roof of the corridor from collapsing until the two Lights of Kaizatenzei–Tanvol with his massive frame, bushy black beard, and booming voice and Miri, tiny, delicate, and golden blond–arrived and levered their braces into place.
“Whew!” Kyri said in an explosive breath, and leaned somewhat shakily against the wall. “That was…”
“…far too close, Phoenix,” Shae said, and looked at her with concern. “Are you all right? Do you need to rest?”
I can’t afford to rest. She didn’t say that–it would trigger an argument from all her friends who would then insist she needed to sit down. “No, I’m all right. Besides, we’re almost there. We can’t stop now!”
She saw Miri bite her lip and gaze down the last few steps of the staircase to the doors of Master Wieran’s great laboratory, which had shut behind them when they had left to confront the Great Dragon Sanamaveridion. It wasn’t hard to guess what was going through her mind–the almost ethereal girl was still coming to terms with the fact that she was no longer a demon but…something else, a something else that still remembered, and felt terrible responsibility for, the evils she’d committed and assisted before awakening to the Light she’d been pretending to serve.
Kyri put her hand gently on Miri’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s save them.”
Miri looked up and swallowed, then smiled and nodded bravely. “Yes, of course.”
“Oh bottommud!” Poplock Duckweed cursed from the door. “Stupid things locked themselves.”
“Do we have to break through?” Shae asked, looking apprehensively at the already-cracked stone above. “I do not look forward to trying anything so forceful here.”
“Ease your mind, Lady Shae,” Hiriista said with a rippling of his crest that conveyed a smile. “I and the Toad will unravel these seals momentarily. Wieran’s major defenses were broken; these should prove little impediment, and then we can leave the doors open to provide their own bracing–just in case.”
True to his word, after a few minutes of muttered consultation and inscribing of various symbols, there was a muffled clack and the doors began to swing open.
The great laboratory looked far different than it had when last Kyri had seen it. Great shards of stone, many with sections of the Great Array still glinting on their surfaces, had plunged down into the ranks of tubes that encircled the forty-nine levels of the laboratory, and smashed much of the fabulously complex machinery and sorcerous designs which had filled the center of the immense room. Sharp smells of chemicals, the sulfur tang of broken stone, the tingling scent of sparks, and underlying stenches of more ominous nature were set off by the eerie and irregular lighting. Some of the lightglobes spaced around the laboratory were still intact, others crushed to dark powder, and other devices and runes flickered with blue or green or purple light. The ordered hum was now disrupted, uneven, but still present.
“Careful!” Poplock admonished in his surprisingly powerful voice. “We know what’s at stake, but Hiriista and I have to check these tubes out first. The fact that you Unity Guards are mostly still moving tells us that old Wieran’s systems weren’t so fragile that a few falling rocks would do them in, but we don’t know what kind of traps he had on them, or how independent they are, or how hard it is to get someone out of one of these things alive.”
Kyri restrained herself with difficulty; she could only imagine how hard it must be for the others, most of whom had friends–or, in the case of the Unity Guard, themselves–somewhere in those shadowed rows of coffinlike tubes.
“He seemed to be able to put people in or take them out very easily,” Shae said in her warm, steady contralto. “I’ve seen him do it.”
“Alas,” Hiriista said, as he and Poplock cautiously approached one of the intricately sculpted tubes, “that means little to nothing. Wieran may have carried a charm that allowed him–and only him–to safely open and close the tubes, or have previously unlocked some safeguards before you observed him, or any of a number of things which would make it far, far more difficult for anyone else.”
Kyri stood a considerable distance away from the two as they worked. There was no point in crowding them; she knew almost nothing about magic, while Hiriista was probably the greatest magewright in the country and Poplock, for all his protests that he was a mere amateur, had an uncanny insight into the workings of mystical devices, especially from the point of view of someone trying to undo any locks or defenses on such devices.
Lady Shae was herself a magewright of no small skill, but Kyri watched her eyes first narrow, then widen, and then saw the ruler of Kaizatenzei rise quietly and move away, shaking her head. “I am older than everyone in this room put together,” she said with a rueful smile. “Except for Miri, of course. And I have studied magical works, off and on, for centuries. But those two…” She shook her head again in disbelief. “You say he’s only twelve?”
“That’s our guess,” Tobimar said. “Of course, for the Toads it’s not the same; by the time he was a year and a half old he was close to the size he is now, and already talking at the level of an eight-year-old. Toads grow up fast. But even so…yes, he’s something unique, isn’t he?”
“My body and spirit remember how unique very well, yes,” she assented wryly, referring to the way in which Poplock had defeated and nearly killed her with her own magic, before Shae had followed Miri and changed her mind about which side she was on.
“Does that mean that he’s not going to live as long as a human?” Miri asked, worry in her voice.
“On average, Toads don’t live as long as we do, no,” Tobimar said quietly. “On the other hand, if someone really wants to live longer, there are ways, and I’m sure Poplock will find one.”
Kyri chuckled. “Yes, I think he will.”
Tanvol and his usual companion, the Light Anora (who was taller than Miri but even more pale-skinned and with hair so blond it was nearly white), came to stand near them. “I’ve told the others to spend their time putting up more bracing all along the stairs,” Tanvol said. “Give them something useful to do while we’re waiting.”
Kyri grunted. “You know, I think I’ll do that too. I have no idea how long this will take.”
Tobimar nodded and followed as she started out of the room, and the others came after them. No one really wants to just wait without being able to do anything.
There was a lot of bracing to do. Most of the three-hundred-forty-three step staircase had cracks running across the ceiling, showing where the combat against the miles-long Sanamaveridion had transmitted its shock and violence down, hundreds of feet into the living rock. Miri could summon temporary bracing columns of stone, but more permanent timbers of wood, or supports of metal, had to be put in place to ensure that the path would remain clear.
On the positive side, after a good night’s rest there were a total of eighty of the Unity Guard still present and active, and eighty of those borderline-superhuman warriors could do a lot of work. Orders were bellowed, relays of materials and workers and water were organized, and strong, regular ranks of bracing and beams began to spread up the stairs like frost across a windowpane, a smooth and inexorable blooming of perfect symmetry. Kyri let them direct the work; these people knew each other and trusted each other, and she was the outsider–respected and perhaps more, but still not one of them, and not able to respond as they could to a hint or a gesture.
But finally she heard Hiriista’s steamkettle whistle.
Poplock spoke up from the mazakh’s shoulder. “Good news. There were some boobytraps, but Hiriista and I think we’ve got ’em all. The good news there is that they were universal traps–once we broke them, they’re off all the tubes, and each tube is self-sufficient. I don’t think there’s anything else on them; let’s face it, Wieran had plenty of other security and he didn’t have any reason to expect anyone would ever get the chance to try to take away his human batteries.”
“I have to wonder,” Tanvol rumbled, “just what will happen to, well, this me when that me,” he gestured vaguely to the dimness in the laboratory, “well, wakes up.”
“Not sure, honestly,” said Poplock. “But that question isn’t something to answer right now. The tubes have to be opened carefully and we don’t know what shape the people inside will be in. From what we know of Zogen Josan, he was in perfectly good shape, but they knew he was retiring a couple months ahead of time, so they could have spent that time preparing his body for release. We’re going to have to take all the tubes out of here as fast as we can; there’s no way to brace that ceiling, it’s a dome a thousand or more feet across and hundreds high–it’s a water-clear miracle it didn’t all collapse right away. But–”
There was a clatter and hiss as fragments of rock spattered from the floor a short distance off.
“–but, as I was saying, that could happen any time now.”
“Enough with the bracing, lads!” Tanvol thundered. “Everyone, we’re moving the tubes containing our people–and us–out of here! In relays, everyone, we can fit three across the main entrance, so I want teams of three. The strongest here–Lady Shae, Phoenix, and Miri, with of course Tobimar Silverun’s assistance–will remove the tubes as fast as they can, while we run a rotating relay to carry them to the Valatar Throne.”
That’s…twenty-seven teams, plus the three of us. She heard a faint groaning of the stone overhead, and rock dust sifted down. I hope that will be enough.
“It has to be enough,” Tobimar said, and she realized she’d spoken aloud.
“It will be enough,” Miri said. She reached down and detached one of the tubes–taller than she was, weighing over a hundred and fifty pounds without the man inside–and heaved it up, carrying it easily to the first three-man team. “We will make it enough.”
Kyri watched them lugging the massive tube and frowned, even as she hauled the next tube out of its socket and walked heavily over to the next team. Twenty-seven teams. Three hundred forty-three steps, then down a good stretch of corridor, then up the fifty or sixty steps to the Valatar Throneroom…that’s a ten-minute operation even if they don’t start to get exhausted right away. Twenty-minute round trip. We have to get one a minute or so. She looked around the room. Even leaving aside the ones that had been crushed by falling debris, there were hundreds of the tubes. How long could they keep up the relay?
She saw by Tobimar’s grim face that he’d been doing the same internal calculation; Poplock was also silent on his shoulder as the Prince of Skysand used the power of Terian to carry the next tube over.
“There’s no way we can keep this up, and ordinary citizens won’t be of much help; carry something weighing hundreds of pounds up hundreds of steps? No, that just won’t work,” she muttered to herself. “But we have to do this.” She pulled up the next tube, not looking at the deathlike face barely visible within. “I can do this three, four, five times, but even I’m going to get tired.” She handed that tube over, then sighed as she passed Tobimar. “If only we could make them lighter, somehow.”
“That would be…” Tobimar trailed off, and then exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Poplock on his shoulder; just as the idea dawned on her, the little Toad drew in a huge breath.
“Tanvol!” shouted Poplock. “Phoenix just got a great idea! Send a couple teams up to pry off as much of that floaty-rock as they can from the broken bridges, and bring it down with some nets! We can use that to float these tubes up!”
Tanvol froze for a moment, and then his thunderous laugh threatened to bring the roof down. “By the LIGHT, that we will!”
The next half-hour was agonizing work, as they kept hauling out the massive tubes and dragging or carrying them to the teams that would somehow lug them to the surface. But then a crowd of the citizens of Kaizatenzei flooded into the laboratory, carrying nets filled with the mysteriously buoyant stone and metal that supported the flying bridges that had spanned the city. It took many of them to hold each set of stones down, but hooking them onto a tube made the tube easy for even an ordinary man to guide and carry up the stairs.
The hours blurred together; the work might not have been quite as backbreaking, but it was painstaking, tedious–and dangerous. A massive boulder dropped from the ceiling three hours into the operation, crushing eight more tubes beneath its mass, and causing one Hue to drop instantly to the ground; the human body that had supported Hue Surura Saval was dead, and without that body and spirit there was nothing left to move the artificial shell. For a moment all the Unity Guard stood silent, shocked; then Miri snapped “Move! That’s what will happen to all of you if we don’t get your tubes out of here–and we don’t know which ones are yours!”
More hours passed, tubes pulled from sockets, rubble cleared from paths, chains and rune-ropes untwined to allow more tubes to be removed, a quick drink of water, a bite of food, then back to the work. It was harder because Wieran had not simply filled all of the spots starting from a given location; the individuals were spaced according to a complex pattern that made it difficult to be sure you had found all the tubes in an area, and forced you to go much farther, on average, to reach the next tube.
Finally, Kyri realized that they actually were nearing the end. “We’ve…almost reached…the far side of the room,” she said, sliding the current tube into a floating sling.
“Yes,” Miri said, exhaustion in her voice. “Let’s get the next one.”
The “next one” was a tube isolated from the others, near the central area where Wieran had done his most complex work. She was about to grab it when Hiriista hissed a warning.
“That one…is different.”
“Yeah, and different could be bad,” Poplock said. “Different makes me suspicious. Let’s take a look at this one.”
“You know anything about this?” Kyri asked Miri and Shae.
Miri shook her head; Shae tilted hers, then nodded slowly. “That one…is relatively recent. I remember it showed up there, a year or two ago. It surprised me; I knew we hadn’t had any new…recruits in that time. When I asked about it, Wieran said it was a special delivery from his patron; that was as much as he’d say.”
“Well, that one was locked and trapped. Good catch, Hiriista. I don’t think Kyri really wanted a bath in acid.”
She shuddered. “No, thank you.” Kyri moved cautiously up to the presumably harmless tube, which was also slightly larger than the others–perhaps built to be moved more easily? It had been shipped here, if what Wieran had said was the truth.
Kyri leaned forward, squinting at the clouded glass in front. What’s inside this one?
She realized there was one way that might show her; she picked up the tube and tilted it towards her.
The shadowy shape within swayed and moved a few inches forward, revealing the outlines of the face for just an instant.
Kyri staggered back, dropping the tube which was barely caught by Lady Shae. She couldn’t speak, she couldn’t think. It’s impossible! Impossible!
But then the face became visible once more, as Shae lifted the tube back up, and Kyri lunged forward, without thinking, screaming out the name: