Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 09
Poplock caught a tenzili on the wing and crunched down. The glowy-stuff the little insects used gave them a particular tang that he liked.
“That’s…kind of eerie, Poplock,” commented Tobimar.
“When you eat those things you end up with a glowing mouth for an hour or so. So I just see this little floating smile and sudden flash of you gulping something else down.”
“I didn’t realize that! Sounds neat!”
Tobimar chuckled. “In a creepy way, yes, I think.” The Skysand Prince finished putting the supper dishes away and then went to sit beside Kyri on the other side of the camp.
The toad noticed Rion looking pensively at them. The one-time Justiciar shrugged and frowned, then turned to look out into the darkness surrounding the camp. “If no one objects,” he said, “I’ll do a scout around camp before we all turn in.”
Kyri and Tobimar glanced around, both with some reluctance. Knowing what was on their minds, Poplock bounced up onto Rion’s shoulder. “I’ll come with you.” The relief on the others’ faces was obvious.
So was the wry smile on Rion’s, even in the near-blackness under the stars above Kaizatenzei. He walked a few moments in silence, moving easily and quietly through the brush. “Not letting me out of your sight yet, are you?”
“Would you, in our position?”
Rion didn’t answer right away; finally he let out an explosive sigh. “No, I suppose not.”
“Part of you was counting on that.”
Poplock gave him a gentle kick to the side of the head. “I saw you looking at them. You’re not comfortable with that, are you? You figured one or the other would insist on coming with you.”
The blond-haired head dropped down in unmistakable embarrassment. “I…look, for me it’s two years ago. My sister hadn’t even noticed anyone aside from Aran and the Watchland, and now suddenly I find she’s…well, serious about this so-called prince I’ve never met before. Of course I’m a little worried.” He raised his head and cocked an eyebrow at the Toad. “And given what I now know about those other two, I think I have a little bit of a reason to be cautious about her judgment there.”
Poplock snorted. “Okay, you might have a point. ‘Cept it’s still not really your business.”
“No,” Rion conceded after a moment. “But after our parents died…I guess I still want to take care of everything. That’s stupid, though; she’s obviously taking care of herself perfectly well. Better than I took care of her or me, for that matter.”
“You got kinda suckered like everyone else. She still thinks you’re the greatest thing living; you don’t know how hard it is for her to let us stay suspicious of you.”
A quiet chuckle. “About as hard as it would be for me, I would guess.” He paused, then smacked his sword against a nearby bush; something hissed but scuttled swiftly away, recognizing Rion was much too dangerous to confront. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure. Don’t guarantee I’ll answer it, but you can ask.”
The one-time Justiciar hesitated again. “No one…no one really told me the results of your analysis, just that you had decided that I really was at least a part of Rion Vantage. Could you please tell me what you found out?”
Poplock considered. He obviously could tell Rion everything. The question was whether he should.
After a moment’s reflection, he decided that there was no real reason not to. It had been a few weeks. If Rion had a deeper game he was playing, it clearly wasn’t time for him to move yet, and nothing that they’d discovered would be a surprise to him.
“You’re not exactly human. I suppose you probably guessed that.”
“My human body was left in Evanwyl. I had hoped that it had been re-created here. No?”
“The samples we took…well, you were saturated with magical energies, no surprise there, and there were components that were human, some that were probably demonic, and…well, there’s no nice way to say this…some that were graverisen.”
Rion looked at him with faint horror. “I’m…graverisen?”
“There’s a part of some type of walking dead there–can’t tell what type, though. Plus demonic power and essence, and human. That all isn’t surprising, though. They probably took part of your original corpse as a pattern, and this Viedra guy used his demon-power to build you a new body.” He hesitated, because the next part was worse.
“What? Come, Toad, don’t stop now.”
“Okay, but you’ll really hate this one. He still needed a living human body as a base, something to take that fragment of your soul–something like making a new flickerflower bush by grafting a branch from it onto a simjin root. So–”
“Oh, great Balance.” Rion’s face, always much lighter than his sister’s, looked almost white in the starlight, and he stopped walking. “I…I’m wearing someone’s reshaped body?”
“And,” Poplock said, “one whose soul was used to rebuild yours. At least, that’s our guess. Wieran, or Viedraverion, or both were involved, and they’re like way out of my league and even out of Hiriista’s. What we found…could mean something completely different. But that’s our best theory.”
Rion did not move for several minutes. Finally he gave such a shudder that it nearly pitched Poplock off the tall man’s shoulder. “Myrionar’s Mercy. Someone was erased just to make an imitation of myself. For what purpose?”
Poplock gave a bounce-shrug. “No idea, really. We kinda hope that they just weren’t done with you, so you’re pretty much who you appear to be–”
“–but maybe I’m not at all, and I’m going to turn on you at some point. I may not even know I will.”
The Toad stared up at the sparkling sky, the edge of the Balance just visible above the trees. “No, maybe you won’t. Wieran sure managed to do that well enough with the Unity Guard, and if we’re right you were a special project for his biggest patron.”
Rion nodded, and began walking again–but more slowly. Poplock could feel the heaviness in the stride. “Poplock…just so you know…if that turns out to be the case, I want you to know ahead of time–I don’t care what happens to me. Just keep me from hurting Kyri. However you have to. Okay?”
“Trust me, if you try to hurt either her or Tobimar, I’ll stick Steelthorn through your ankle and then cut your throat as you hit the ground. Just so we’re clear on that.”
“That’s comforting to know.” The attempt at humor was weak but sounded genuine.
“But,” Poplock said.
“But I do think there’s something of the real Rion Vantage in there. And if that’s true?” He looked straight into Rion’s startled eyes. “Then I’ve seen your sister in action, and if there’s one thing I know about her, it’s that there is nothing that she’ll let stop her from doing the right thing. So if you’re the brother she thinks is so incredible, then you should be able to fight any control anyone puts in your head. Don’t ask me to keep you from hurting Kyri. Do it yourself.”
Rion looked away, then looked back with an almost sheepish grin. “I…I guess you’re right. What kind of a Justiciar would I be if I let someone else turn me against my friends?”
“Not much of one, that’s for sure.”
They moved on for a few moments before Rion spoke again. “Thank you, Poplock.”
“Just speaking the truth as I see it. But you’re welcome.”
“But,” Rion said, pausing as he reached a small clearing that gave a view to the East and the faint red glow of Ajaska, the westernmost of the three volcanic vents ringing Sha Alatenzei, “if I’m really something other than what I seem…aren’t you taking an awful risk just having me with you? Without anyone else?”
Poplock knew Rion wasn’t just referring to the current situation–the little Toad alone with Rion–but to the small four-person party itself. “A risk? Sure. An awful risk? No.”
Rion raised an eyebrow at him. “How do you figure that? If I am a time-destruction spell or something, I could be–”
“–worse than what we’ve faced?” Poplock swayed side to side in his equivalent of a headshake. “If you think I haven’t already planned out how to take you out right now, you’re making a really big mistake. As for all three of us–we killed Thornfalcon. Me and Tobimar beat the hell out of Lady Shae. We survived an Elderwyrm. Tobimar will cut you from a hundred feet away and Kyri will level the whole forest to get you, if you backstab us. Maybe you could kill us…but I know which side of that bet I am taking.”
Rion threw back his head and laughed long and loud, the sound disappearing into the trees. “Well said, Poplock Duckweed. Well said. Then I say that if I am who I think I am…I am very, very glad my sister has gained such friends.”
“And if you are…I’m really glad you’re here, because she’s missed you. A lot.”
His face softened. “I know.” The little campfire was now visible again ahead of them; the two figures sitting near it were so close that they seemed to be one.
Rion smiled. “But not so much she closed her eyes. Good enough.”