Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 11
Once more the scroll remained silvery, blank, even as the voice spoke from it. “A few weeks only, now.”
“Really? You have made good time. The matrix remains intact?”
“Astonishingly so. I need only focus on my intended path and impression, and it brings forth the words, the posture, the gestures…everything I need.” The voice paused, and in the silence it read something else.
“You sound troubled, my friend.”
“It brings forth…feelings, as well. I cannot fight those any more than the thoughts, without risking discovery. Yet…”
“You are not being…affected by these feelings, are you?”
The hesitation was a far clearer signal than the answer. “I…I am trying not to be. I know the penalty for failure. But…she was…very important to him.”
“Of course she was. But you must not allow this to affect your own emotions. You know how dangerous that would be–and not merely because you might be discovered.” It was just as well that its unseen agent could not see it either, or it might have found the broad, vindicated grin the creature wore to be incongruous, even eerily unsettling, in comparison with the concerned, warning tone of its voice. Perfect. He will hold out for a bit longer, but fall eventually–as I have expected.
“Yes, I know. I will not allow it to affect me. Other than that, everything seems perfectly on schedule. They…” A pause, in which the creature could hear some other distant sounds. “…sorry, I must go.”
The scroll went inert, now a simple metallic object. It leaned back and laughed, then shook its head. Only a few weeks? I will have to prepare soon!
It stood and began to leave, but it had taken no more than two steps when the scroll chimed an emergency alert–something most unusual. It immediately returned to the table and passed its hand over the surface. “I am here.”
The face revealed on the scroll was of Chissith, a sand-demon of moderate power but excellent tactical skills, second or third in command of Yergoth’s forces–forces that were supposedly in the process of crushing Skysand.
Chissith did not look like someone who was busy crushing a country; on the contrary, the congealed, unshifting mess on one side of its normally fluid visage looked like someone else had been doing the crushing. “L-Lord Viedra…help me…”
“What a surprise, Chissith. I hadn’t expected Yergoth to hand this scroll over to anyone else.” It smiled broadly.
“Yergoth…dessstroyed,” Chissith said, voice slow, hissing and moaning like the wind over sand in pain and disbelief. “Mosssst of the forcesss…annihilated…” It glanced away, as though fearing pursuit.
“Dear me. And last I had heard there was just ‘a little unexpected resistance,’ and ‘we are assured of victory shortly.” What terrible powers could have intervened there, Chissith? Did one of the gods violate the Pact?” It couldn’t keep its grin from widening yet more.
“No…gods…jusssst two–” The sand-demon’s remaining eye widened. “Noooooooo–”
There was a momentary flash of movement that to the creature’s eye looked like a river in flood, and the connection abruptly ceased, leaving the scroll as reflectively blank as ever.
Well, well. That was a bit of a surprise. Not entirely, true, but I would have expected something not quite so utterly overwhelming. But…the same sort of thing seems to have happened at Artania. Balgoltha’s forces were abruptly shattered just yesterday and none of the survivors gave a coherent account of what actually happened.
It seems that the plan is–
Without warning, the scroll darkened, to show a figure visible only as the darkest outline within darkness, the eyes blank wells of brilliant blue fire; an eerie, sussurant howl accompanied the vision. “Viedraverion.”
“Ahh, Your Majesty, I had been expecting your call.”
Kerlamion’s rumbling, echoing voice, the sound of an endless fall and the destruction of air, held no trace of levity or amusement; it was filled with tightly leashed rage. “You would do well to moderate your tone, Viedraverion. I have tolerated your behavior due to your successes, but I now see a series of failures, and the armies of the Empire and the Dragon both surround my walls.”
“We knew that turn of events was to happen already, however.” It was still smiling, and the blue-flame eyes narrowed dangerously.
“That turn of events, yes, but your plan also included other events–ones that would also have freed other forces to act to assist against this siege. Instead, I have heard a litany of failures!”
“A litany? How terrible.”
The shadowy figure leaned forward, and the unseen lips drew back in a snarl that showed the same deadly glow within the mouth. “Have a care, Viedraverion! Neither your record nor your blood makes you immune to my wrath, and I near the end of my patience! This very moment I felt the fall of Yergoth of the Endless Desert; a short time agone, Balgotha fell and his spirit has not been seen in my halls; no word has come from the Academy, and I have heard stirrings from far Aegeia that things are not all as they should be. Explain yourself, or you shall suffer my anger first!”
As good a time as any; the King will be most busy from now until at least a few weeks hence…and it seems that a few weeks is all I will need. “Explain myself? Very well, Kerlamion. The explanation, really, is quite simple. I gave you a plan that stood a reasonable chance of success on its own, and allowed you to follow it, as your success–or failure–did not matter at all to me, but keeping you occupied with something did matter. Now, however, I have no more need to waste time with your puerile dreams of conquest, which are–as I expected–coming apart at a rather startling rate.”
Kerlamion leaned back slowly, glowing eyes narrowing. “You are not insane. Yet these actions would seem to shout of insanity. You say the plan had a reasonable chance of success, yet it is failing almost simultaneously across all of Zarathan. Why would you do this? To weaken me? Are you entertaining a mad belief that you could usurp my throne?”
It laughed long and loud. “Oh, Lord Kerlamion, I have not the faintest interest in your throne. I said the plan had a good chance of success on its own. But many other factors are involved besides that one plan–most particularly, perhaps, Konstantin Khoros. I think you can lay the blame for the debacle of Skysand and Artania at his door, and perhaps that of Aegeia as well, though I would be unsurprised to discover that the Lady of Wisdom had a hand in it as well; that is, after all, her territory. But I have other, more pressing matters to attend to, matters in which your Hells mean really nothing at all.”
Kerlamion suddenly stood, glowering down at his own scroll. “You…who are you?”
“And now you begin to understand, Kerlamion. A bit slow to realize, but then, I have had some practice in fooling others.”
“What have you done with my first son?” The King of All Hells clenched his fists, and the air howled in blue agony.
“I? Found him nigh-dead already, defeated in his mission, humiliated by his own plans, and took what remained for my own purposes. But that was long, long ago, mighty Kerlamion, long before it was reported to you that his task-in-exile was complete.”
It allowed itself to smile broadly as Kerlamion sagged back into his throne. “You have been playing my own son for four hundred thousand years?”
“I have. And you have only suspected now because I have allowed you to.”
The massive black form bent forward, and the mouth was a blazing slit with jagged fire for fangs. “I will destroy you, whatever your true form. I will seek you out with all the power of the Hells, and there will be no place in all the myriad worlds, in all the universes beyond the Veil, where you can hide.” Kerlamion’s voice rose to an echoing thunder. “I will call forth the hosts of the Black City to search for you, yea, for a thousand times a thousand years if I must, even if I give up all I have gained and more! I will discover your name and erase you and it from–”
“Oh, but you know my name, little one,” it said, and dropped the human guise, grinning now with a mouth of blades and eyes of its own inhuman flame.
Kerlamion’s eyes widened and he staggered back. “Lightslayer.”
A light laugh. “How charming; the second time I’ve been reminded of that lovely old nickname. But yes, you know me now, Kerlamion. Now do you think you can threaten me?”
The huge dark head shook slowly from side to side.
“Excellent. Then I will not have to listen to your bluster anymore.” It began to rise.
“Wait!” Kerlamion’s voice shook with restrained rage. “You planned for my failure. Why?”
“Oh, no, Demon-King. Even now, it may be that you will find victory. My plans were sound, so far as they went, and while it is true I did not intend to stay the course, so to speak, you have managed to accomplish what has not been done in ages: bring the Black City here to Zarathan, and this time without the other gods to intervene. You have the best chance to achieve your conquest that you have ever had.”
“Why did you do all of this? What do you seek?”
It raised an admonishing finger. “Oh, now, where would be the fun in telling you? Some questions should remain unanswered. I’m sure you’ll learn when the time comes. Fare thee well, o King of All Hells; I doubt we shall speak again, at least in this age.”
It passed its hand over the surface, erasing the visage of the furious and shaken Kerlamion, and threw back its head for a thundering, inhuman laugh that shook most of the Retreat.
And so the endgame is begun.