Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 20
“You lost him? You?” Tobimar couldn’t keep the incredulity from his voice. There was a part of him that felt almost betrayed, and he finally identified it as the same feeling he’d had the first time he realized his mother couldn’t fix everything. Poplock had always been the one who got things done when other people couldn’t.
The diminuitive Toad couldn’t meet his gaze. “Yeah. I lost him.”
“He’d taken a walk into town–stealthily, but that’s no surprise, since we’d all agreed he wasn’t supposed to be seen. Drought! I was sure he didn’t know I was following! But he turned down that same alley across from the Balanced Meal, and when I got there and looked down it, he was gone.”
Tobimar glanced around to make sure his door was closed. “Have any idea how he did it?”
Poplock sighed, then finally faced Tobimar and wrinkled his face. “It was only a few seconds; even if he’d been running I should have seen him going the other way. Hm. Well, he could have gone up, to one roof or the other.”
Tobimar frowned, thinking. “You’re assuming he was limited to ordinary speed. If I use my Tor meditation, or Kyri used her Justiciar power…”
“You’re right.” Poplock smacked his own head with a small hand. “If he’s actually not who he appears to be, he’s probably got a lot of power he hasn’t shown us yet. Stupid.”
Tobimar pushed open the window. “Come on. We have to see if we can locate him.”
“Tell Xavier or Kyri?”
“We haven’t got anything to prove our suspicions, yet,” Tobimar said, and jumped lightly to the ground ten feet below. Poplock followed, landing with a thud on Tobimar’s shoulder. “Oof! You’re heavier than you look. Anyway, without proof we’d be getting into an argument that wouldn’t go anywhere.”
At least we don’t have to be subtle, Tobimar thought. Everyone knows we’re back. Poplock was silent on his shoulder, and the walk to Evanwyl proper was ten minutes of quiet worry.
It wasn’t just Rion, either. Searching the temple’s records–which hadn’t been fast or easy–had turned up just enough to confirm that Justiciar’s Retreat was located to the west, several hours’ travel at least, and a vague description of the Retreat itself. But nothing about the defenses or the diversion wards.
Kyri and the others hadn’t had any better luck with the Watchland; if the location of the Retreat was somewhere in his mind, it was buried deep. Toshi was of the opinion that only the right conditions would trigger the memory, and of course they had no idea of what those conditions would be.
And they were running out of time. The research, interrogation, and experimentation had used up two weeks. The five natives of Earth would be leaving soon. Neither Tobimar nor Kyri could argue that their friends’ mission was less urgently vital than their own, not when said mission would be a direct assault on one of the most ancient achievements of the King of All Hells. No, the five would have to leave, and soon.
The familiar sign of the Balanced Meal was visible ahead. “Okay, where do you want to start?” asked Poplock.
He nodded towards the nearer building across from the inn. “Up top. We’ll get a good vantage point of a lot of the city that way.”
“Okay. But what if he’s running off to the Retreat?”
“Then we’ve totally lost him. But I’m pretty sure he hasn’t.”
Poplock’s grip tightened as Tobimar–after a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching–sprinted up the side of the small warehouse. “Not saying you’re wrong, but why?”
The roof was flat and solid, one of the few stone structures in a town made mostly of wood. It was a perfect observing platform, and Tobimar began a swift circle of the perimeter, looking out over Evanwyl in its somewhat disordered tangle of roads and houses and buildings, shading out into farms in the distance.
“He hasn’t been caught yet,” he said, answering the Toad’s question. “The Retreat’s hours away; he’d never get back in reasonable time. So if he’s headed for the Retreat, he’s throwing away all his work in staying with us, for what? A report that we’re still in the area but haven’t found anything? I can’t see that being enough to justify the loss.”
“Can’t argue that, I guess.” Poplock gazed out, large eyes seeming wider in the darkness. Tobimar knew that the Toad’s natural sight was better in the dark than a human’s, but he had his own trick; after so much practice in the last few months, it was just a matter of closing his eyes and focusing for a moment to bring up the High Center.
There was a clarity to the world now; it was dark, but at the same time it was as bright as day to the senses that High Center gave him. The shadows beneath trees were luminous with possibility, with the vectors of what was and what could be, and even what had been.
Almost instantly he saw something he had not before: a tall shape, kneeling in an alleyway over another figure, with a sense of danger lingering above it. Even if it’s not Rion, that’s something we’d better look at. “There!”
Poplock squinted. “Got it. Yeah, let’s move.”
With High Center already up, he could channel the strength and speed of his soul, leaping from the roof to the ground in a single motion and hitting the street at a sprint, ignoring the mist of rain and fog.
“Rion!” he said as they came up.
The figure, that he could now definitely recognize, jumped at his name, but as he turned Tobimar saw to his surprise an expression of relief, not guilt or anger. “Tobimar? Thank the Balance. Help me, would you?”
He was kneeling over an unconscious young woman.
Good actor? Or what? “What happened?”
Rion stared out into the darkness. “I was just looking around the town–hiding, as we agreed, since we’re not announcing that I exist yet. And then just as I was heading up the cross-alley towards Mizuni’s, I heard a sound like a faint scream or gasp. I got up there,” he pointed back, to the very roof that Tobimar had just been on, “and I saw Helina struggling with…something. Dark and shadowy. Couldn’t make it out exactly. But I figured that my secret wasn’t worth risking her life, so I charged toward them. The thing…” He suddenly shuddered. “It looked sort of human, but the eyes…yellow, hungry, and the hair was pale white. Dark clung to it, like it was covered with shadow, but it looked almost white under the shadow.
“Still, I had my sword out and took a cut at it. It was dead silent, didn’t even hiss or anything, but it fought back and I don’t know how long I was dueling it. Finally…I drove it off, and it disappeared into the darkness. Helina had collapsed. I don’t know why, though, and she won’t wake up, and I couldn’t figure out what to do.”
Poplock was scuttling around the area that Rion had indicated the duel took place; Tobimar knew what he was looking for. But in the meantime…”All right, Rion, we’ll take care of it from here. You go back to the estate–and I mean straight back.”
Rion paused, then his gaze dropped. “Of course. You’re wise not to trust me. I just hope…hope we can find a way to get rid of that doubt. Somehow.” He got up, sheathed his sword (which had been on the ground near him) and headed up the deserted streets towards the Vantage estate.
Tobimar waited until Rion was well out of sight. “Well?”
The little Toad made a wrinkled face. “Mostly his own bootprints all over…but they do look like a fighting pattern. Like he was fighting something that wasn’t leaving prints. Right there,” he pointed to the wall, “there’s a cut that’s pretty much certainly from his sword, like he cut at something and it ducked. What about her?”
“She’s…cold. Not dead, though. Unconscious. Don’t know why.”
Poplock hopped back to the girl Rion had called Helina. “She’s not much older than you.”
“I don’t think she’s as old as me. Maybe younger than Kyri.” He looked at her hair, which was as black as the night but otherwise similar to Kyri’s. Not surprising. I would guess that if you go back generations enough, everyone’s related to everyone in this small a country. “I think I’d better get her to the Temple. You go after Rion and make sure he’s headed back.”
As Tobimar picked her up, though, the girl stirred, and suddenly pushed away with a weak scream. It was all Tobimar could do to keep her from dropping straight to the pavement. “Get away! Get a…”
Helina’s eyes focused, and widened. “…oh! Oh, Lord Silverun!”
Tobimar found himself being almost strangled by a desperate embrace, and could feel Helina shaking. “Ugh! Um, it’s all right, Helina. I’m going to take you to the Temple.”
She nodded, but only fractionally released her grip.
“What happened? Do you remember?”
For a few moments she was silent, still gripping him tightly, then slowly, slowly, she released him. “I…I was walking home from the Balanced Meal,” she said, and swallowed. That gave Tobimar time to place why she looked somewhat familiar; she was one of the servers at the inn, he’d seen her several times before.
“And…?” he asked quietly.
“And…” she drew a long, shuddering breath, “and…suddenly someone stepped out in front of me, at the end of this alley. I thought it was maybe Mizuni out for a walk, but then I saw the eyes.” She swallowed again, and almost collapsed. Tobimar could tell she was still terribly weak–far weaker than a mere fright would explain. He helped her put an arm over his shoulder and started walking with her to the Temple of Myrionar. “Yellow, glowing eyes. I wanted to run as soon as I saw them, but my legs wouldn’t move!”
So far this fits with Rion’s story. Part of him was disappointed, another part cautiously optimistic. “Anything else?”
“Oh, Balance, yes. There were…shadows crawling over it, darkness stuck to it like cobwebs when you push through them, and it came closer and I…” she bit her lip. “I…found myself almost relaxing, like it was all right, all the fear fading to the back, and it reached out and everything went all hazy.” She frowned. “The last thing I remember is a shout, a distant shout, and falling.”
“I’ll go look and see if I can find this thing,” he said. “But here we are at the Temple. Seeker Reed!” he said, seeing the young priest-trainee. “Take Helina in; she’s been attacked by something which seems to have drained her in some way. She’s terribly weak.”
“Myrionar’s Justice! Here, Helina, sit down.” Reed drew out one of the benches. “I will call the Arbiter immediately.”
“Good. I’ll be looking for whatever did this.”
He returned to the alley, but pretty soon came to the conclusion Poplock had. Rion’s bootprints were scuffed all over the end of the alley in a way that could indicate a combat, but there wasn’t any trace of another combatant except a few marks that showed sword blows gone astray, presumably aimed at this enemy.
That sort of argued against Rion’s story, but not entirely. There were quite a few monsters, ranging from hungry spirits to vampires to things from beyond other veils, including demons, that could fight you without leaving obvious traces.
There was a scuffling in the alley behind him. He glanced back, saw Poplock bouncing towards him. “Well?”
“He went straight back to the estate,” Poplock confirmed, reaching his accustomed position on Tobimar’s shoulder. “Didn’t even go slow, went as fast as he could manage and still stay hidden.”
Tobimar kicked pensively at the dirt. “Her story fit his.”
“Hmph. That’s interesting. Though depending on what Rion really is, convincing someone to believe a particular story isn’t hard to do.” The Toad shifted his weight. “The real problem I have with his story is timing. Took too long, from the time I came back to get you to the time we found him. I can’t believe the fight he described took fifteen, twenty minutes. Can’t believe it took half that. Most fights are measured in seconds.”
“I know what you mean,” Tobimar agreed, as he started retracing their steps to the Vantage estate. “And that would mean he spent an awfully long time, relatively speaking, in that alley with Helina. He could’ve picked her up and carried her somewhere.”
Poplock grimaced. “Of course, he could argue he was frozen with indecision–carrying her anywhere would reveal his presence, especially if she woke up, and since we haven’t decided whether he is the real Rion, we’ve been pretty emphatic about him hiding it. Heck, this wandering around at night is pushing it, no matter how good he is at hiding and how well he knows the land.”
“I guess. But I don’t know that I’d swallow that argument. If we don’t, though…what was the point? What did he do to Helina, and why?”
“You took her to the Temple, right? Maybe old Kelsley will have answers for us.”
Tobimar nodded. “We’ll have to check in tomorrow. But we’d better get answers soon. Won’t be long before Xavier and his friends have to leave…and then it’ll be you, me, Kyri…and Rion.”