Phoenix Ascendant – Chapter 22
“This is going to look so stupid, Poplock,” Tobimar said, settling his swords back into place. “We–”
“I’ll take all the blame if it looks stupid. I know that it seemed like we pretty much settled it just now, but there’s still that chance left, and can we afford it if you’re wrong? We can take a little embarrassment, even getting Kyri mad at us, but…”
“Fine, fine. You’re right. You generally have been. I just hope we’re all wasting our time on this one and that you’re going to have to do the apologies.”
The brown Toad bobbed his body. “Oh, believe me, I’d much rather end up doing abject apologies.”
It had been about fifteen minutes; they’d agreed that was the right amount. Of course, if they were misjudging…
“They’re not in the dining room anymore.”
“That much is obvious, now that we’re looking into the dining room.” Poplock nodded towards the front door. “If he went back towards the town…”
“Right. She’d go with him, of course.”
“Meaning they’re alone.”
Tobimar strode to the front door and opened it. Another warm night, some ragged, drifting clouds obscuring stars in patches of pure black edged with faint silver, but mostly clear. With a moment to adjust, he could see fairly well. But the pathway down towards the village seemed empty. “You see anything?”
Poplock wobbled side to side, his equivalent of a headshake. “Nothing. So they didn’t go this way–I’m sure they’d still be in sight. Around the side?”
“We can do a full circuit. If they’re not out here…then they probably went upstairs, and that’s okay.”
The toad grunted. “Yeah, if I’m right nothing’s going to happen indoors. Too close. Too much chance of someone stumbling on you.”
“All this because of her reactions?”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t notice.” They started a careful circle around Vantage Fortress.
Tobimar sighed. “Yes,” he admitted, speaking in a whisper. “Subtle at first, and perfectly reasonable I guess, but…she’s just a little too loyal, too accepting, too defensive of Rion.”
“Right,” Poplock said, matching his quiet tones. “Now, like you say, it could be natural–she practically idolized her brother, from everything I’ve heard–but I dunno; the woman who got tricked once by Thornfalcon, then got faced like the rest of us with the truth about Miri and Shae…I don’t see her taking him at face value or losing her caution–or her control–that easily.”
“Thus your plan to give him an obvious chance to move, now that our five guests are gone, and before we have a chance to get new suspicions.”
“Exactly. If he’s got anything planned, now’s the time to do it, when our suspicions should be at their lowest and our forces weakened.”
Tobimar was silent. He liked Rion. He didn’t like trying to set a trap for him, when he was about nine-tenths sure that Rion was being as straight with them as he could. But Poplock’s caution had saved them all more than once; he wasn’t going to disregard it.
He almost missed it; the movement was small, in shadow, barely visible, the motion of velvet across ebony. But he belatedly caught it out of the corner of his eye and turned, focusing on that spot.
For one incredibly confusing moment, he thought he was seeing a lover’s embrace, Rion and Kyri together in a pose too close and intimate for even brother and sister. Then he saw how limply Kyri was standing, and betrayed fury flared up in him. Without even thinking of it, his vya-shadu were in his hands and he was sprinting like lightning across the grass. “RION!”
The taller figure’s head snapped up, and fury now became certainty, for the eerie yellow glow of those eyes was like nothing human. But instead of just dropping Kyri and fleeing, the figure lowered her gently to the ground, coming on guard just barely before Tobimar’s swords blazed a silver-green path through the air.
Rion, or whatever it was, parried both blades almost casually, then simply flicked a glance sideways. Tobimar only just managed to dodge as a tree branch three inches thick hurtled at him. The longsword tried to bite through Tobimar’s armor, and even as he parried that, two rocks the size of his fist hammered into his side, sending him staggering. A spray of gravel and sand flew up from the ground behind the false Rion, and Poplock went tumbling away, spitting out dirt and wiping his eyes.
In that instant, Tobimar was startled to see that the impostor chose to run. He had a perfect opening; I’m sure he could have run me through there.
Instead of taking the opportunity to finish him and Poplock off, Rion sprinted away, heading towards the road, at a speed that astounded Tobimar. Even in High Center with full strength and speed enhancement I’m going to have a hell of a time catching him!
But in that moment, five figures simply materialized in front of Rion. “You are going nowhere, jerk,” Xavier said.
“Out of my way!” A fountain of stones and gravel roared towards them–
–and stopped dead in midair. Aurora lowered her hand, and the rocks dropped straight to the ground. “Oh, not that easy.” Her voice was low and furious; not waiting for her comrades, Aurora lunged forward, leaping up and slamming an axe-kick down.
Rion barely evaded it, but the concussion blew him off his feet and staggered Tobimar, who hadn’t yet caught up; a crater ten feet wide and three deep surrounded Aurora, radiating from her foot. Great Light, she’s strong.
The false Rion did not look intimidated, though; strangely, he looked sad. “Then I must fight.”
The figure blurred into motion, so fast that Tobimar actually lost track of him. Aurora was suddenly toppling, wincing, and Xavier tumbling backward, one of his swords actually flying from his grasp. Gabriel had barely managed to get his own huge blade up in time, and the false Rion was again visible, driving Gabriel Dante back with sheer strength. He disappeared again, speed incarnate, as Nike and Toshi took aim, and Toshi was abruptly defending against strikes that came from every direction.
Concentrate. The power of Terian lies within me now. Call it up. Channel it with the meditation of High Center.
He could see his power within, now, a spark of blue-white energy that surged into a flame as he touched it.
Speed blazed through him, and he accelerated forward. His adversary was fast, but now Tobimar could follow his moves, track his strategy. Even as his shield smash sent Toshi’s bow spinning aside, Rion stiffened and whirled, just in time to catch Tobimar’s swords, one with his own weapon, one with his shield, and Tobimar saw him wince as the blue-white aura touched him; a wisp of white smoke rose from the unshielded hand.
His adversary sprang into the air, impossibly high, twenty-five, thirty feet, running through the sky now, heading for the shelter and cover of the trees.
Without warning, the earth heaved skyward, stone and soil forming a barrier that was three hundred feet tall in an instant. Rion was unable to completely halt, smacked into the solid obstacle, and then was dashing down as bolts of fire, accompanied by sharp, ear-shattering reports, chased barely inches behind him; out of the corner of his eye, Tobimar could see these came from Nike, who was holding a weapon that must be one of the “rifles” that Xavier had told him about once; but the rifle was spitting what looked like solidified flame, cutting holes in the rocky bulwark as though it were a hay-bale.
Tobimar wasn’t sure whether it was wise for him to reenter the combat. He definitely didn’t want to get in the way of either Nike or Toshi, who was now firing arrows at an impossible rate, arrows that shone like the stars and hit like bludgeons. These five know what they are doing. They’re coordinating as well as we do!
“Don’t kill him!” Kyri’s shout echoed across the battlefield. “Keep him alive!”
Rion threw a vial into the air that detonated and sent uncountable metal spikes spearing down. “Easier said than done,” Poplock retorted. “He’s not worried about us!”
At first Tobimar was inclined to agree, but…High Center. Find the danger, the menace. What is the shape of the battle, the outline of possibility and peril?
The vision finally began to flow for real, Tobimar now at one with himself, and he could see, not just what was now but in a sense what might be a few split seconds later, link that with action, and move.
And as Rion sent Nike sprawling–yet with a blow that stunned, not the easier strike that could have killed–Tobimar was already there, twin swords passing his opponent’s defenses, coming to rest on his throat. “Stop.”
For just an instant he thought that Rion wouldn’t stop–that he’d fight on, let himself be killed, a near-perfect way to maintain his silence. The impostor’s eyes flickered to the one direction he might escape in, saw Xavier there, and his shoulders slumped. He let his weapon fall and dropped to his knees. “Then finish me.”
“No,” Kyri said, anger, confusion, and obvious shock warring for dominance on her sharp features. Blood smeared her face and Tobimar couldn’t tell if it was hers or Rion’s. “No. You knew so much. You spent so much time with us. You were so much him. You’ll tell us the truth.”
Even through the blood, Tobimar saw the teeth flash in a tired, uncertain grin. “A good question. I won’t torture you. A part of me wants to. Maybe I should. But…”
“No,” said Toshi, studying the false Rion with an analytical gaze that if anything was sharper even than Poplock’s own. “No, he could have killed several of us. Instead I don’t think any of us are even seriously injured.”
Poplock bounced over and looked up. “Why not show your real face? It’s not like there’s any point in continuing the lie.”
The impostor gazed down, and then he gave a low, tragic sigh. “Yes. The matrix is shredded beyond recovery now. I’ve failed completely.”
With a shimmer, Rion Vantage faded away, replaced by a more slender youth. Long white hair, with perhaps a faint touch of lavender, cascaded down straight and true. The new features were definitely more delicate and defined, almost as pretty as those of Toshi, but in the straightness of the hair and something about the shape of the face there was something that echoed Xavier far more closely.
The eyes were the only inhuman feature, glowing yellow, dark-irised. But the glow was fading, less a lambent threat and now a faint flicker.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Tashriel,” he answered.
“Tashriel? Why is that…Oh!” Kyri nodded, even as Tobimar remembered where he had heard that name before too. “You were Wieran’s assistant. Miri mentioned you, but we never met you.”
“So what in the world got you stuck into a bottle pretending to be Rion? That doesn’t seem anything like what that crazy old man would be doing,” Poplock said.
Tashriel hesitated, then shrugged. “You’re not going to kill me?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Kyri said; her voice was not steady, and Tobimar stepped to her side, put a hand on her shoulder; she reached over and gripped his fingers tightly. “Personally I would like to cut you apart for what you’ve done–this false hope you’ve given me and taken away. But…you must know something about our enemy. If you can tell us something…” Her sword slid back into its sheath. “We’ll decide…I’ll decide…afterward.” She wiped her face, looking even shakier, and sat down on a nearby stone.
Tashriel looked around at the whole group, and suddenly gave a low, rueful laugh. “It was all a trap. A trick.”
“Hey, we’d always planned on us coming back after apparently leaving,” Xavier said. “Or, to be honest, Toshi always planned on that, he’s the brains in this outfit. Stood to reason that if their enemies were going to do something, they’d do it when Kyri, Tobimar, and Poplock were basically on their own. Poplock just orchestrated the timing. He figured you’d move as soon as a couple hours had gone by, because most people would be expecting you to wait a little longer, maybe a day or two.”
Kyri shook her head. “And…And you had guessed he had some influence over me. I can feel it fading away now.”
“Not much influence,” Tashriel said. “Just…increasing your own reactions, mostly. Exaggerating them.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t have any choice. But…I’ll tell you everything I can about everything I know…what I did with Wieran…what my mission was…and especially what I know about your enemy…about Viedraverion.”