Well, let's see what our other friends were up to...
The door to the meeting room crashed open, rebounding from the wall and being caught again by the massive scaled arm that had flung it wide.
Poplock was the first to speak, as Tobimar found himself momentarily speechless at King Toron's fearsome snarl of anger. "Oh. Bad news again."
The casual tone breached the armor of grimness, and the huge Sauran shook his head with a weak, rumbling chuckle. "Yes. What should surprise me about this?" He placed a cubic crystal on the table and waved a hand over it.
The air above the crystal shimmered, thickened as with pearlescent fog, and the fog solidified into the image of an exhausted-looking human with brown hair and eyes, a partially-healed wound across his forehead. "No time for a full report, scaleface. The depth-cursed bastard made his move; I barely made it out of Nya-Sharee-Hilya before the first wave hit, and they've been on my ass ever since. Ditched 'em for long enough to give me a breathing space."
The little visible background showed a shattered, rugged landscape with little growing, and shifting mists drifting across it; the man glanced hurriedly around, eyes narrow, listening for sounds that might – or might not – be approaching him. "It's been… six weeks since the attack. Took me that long to make my way to land, I practically had ta circumnavigate Artania ahead of the invaders.Landed somewhere to the south-southeast, think I'm just south of the Great Abyss. Can't go north if that's the case; the Lone Lord's patrols'd get me sure. Gonna try ta head south, but you know what that might get me." He looked over his shoulder. "Think they might be back on my trail. I'm gonna send this straight to you, hope it gets through; it's my last linkstone, broke the others in the escape." For the first time, the expression shifted from casual grim to painfully serious. "Toron, if you can – this isn't a skirmish like the others. Bal's forces hit all the coast I could see. The Artan need our help, and they need it now." He bent closer, and passed his hand across the field of view, and the air was suddenly empty above the little crystal.
Tobimar looked at Toron. "And that arrived just now. Six weeks."
"The same timing," the King confirmed. "Artania, the homeland the Artan claimed for themselves, struck at the same time as my brother, as the Forest Sea. Communications with the Empire of the Mountain have been cut off. I have yet to hear anything from Aegeia, the White Blade, or," he nodded apologetically to Tobimar, "Skysand, but even if they have thus far been spared I must assume this will not continue."
Poplock swayed in stunned awe. "But Artania's … what, two thousand miles north of the Khalals?"
"This is a vast and organized conspiracy. Which narrows our pool of suspects greatly – the Great Wolves, terrible though they are, are loners and work not with other creatures for any plans other than their own – and many other creatures are involved in this, from the highest to the lowest." He paused, rubbing his crest with an absent-minded air. "… 'suspects'… why does that –"
Abruptly one of the great scaled fists crashed down on the table. "S'lurl khe' mbar! Darkness and death, but I am an idiot!"
"What?" Tobimar asked, but King Toron was already heading for the door, the clawed hand gesturing for him to follow. "What is it, Majesty?"
"Suspects, Tobimar. With the complete chaos that began when the refugees arrived, I first put off, and then forgot completely, something I had been about to discuss with you that very day." The Sauran King was leading the way through passageways heading downward, into the living bedrock beneath Zarathanton.
Tobimar cast his mind back to that terrible day, trying to recall what possible detail of their conversation could be associated with that word. And then he had it. "The five who were in the group before you discovered the murder." He stumbled as the import of Toron's words caught up with him. "They've been down in the holding cells for six weeks?"
"Unforgivable. Reprehensible. Abominable. Even if they were involved in my brother's murder, still would I owe them an apology." The King's strides were so long and quick that Tobimar found he nearly had to run to keep up; Poplock was holding tightly to the young Prince's shoulder. "Oh, they will not have starved or been unduly uncomfortable, that is all taken care of, but in no way should it have been even possible for this to have happened."
"Don't get too hard on yourself, Toron," Poplock said. "What's happened in the last month or two isn't something you would have thought possible either."
"Perhaps… But still, I cannot easily forgive this. I can only hope they will be more lenient than I."
The sealed doors of the Prison of the Dragon opened as Toron approached, and the guards on the other side began the Armed Bow, stopping as they realized the King was in far too great a hurry. "What is it, Majesty?" the one on the left – a Child of Odin with salt-and-pepper hair, a scar on her left hand, and a warstaff slung over her shoulders. "Most of the cells have been already converted to house refugees, as you ordered, except the secure holding area –"
"It is the holding area that concerns me, Telga. I must see the five prisoners in the Star Cell immediately."
"At once, Majesty." Telga glanced at her companion. "You remain on guard." She then followed the King to a nearby vault which opened only when both she and the King placed their hands on the door, and removed from the vault a crystal star, which Tobimar realized must be the key to the "Star Cell".
They made their way through three successive gateways, each deeper, more massive, and more secure than the last, worked through with spells and alchemy to make them proof against any attempt to breach this nearly-impregnable fortress of security. Despite the emptiness and quiet, Tobimar somehow had the feeling of being watched, followed, but glancing around he couldn't see anything. Some kind of monitor, watchspell, bound spirit? Finally, ahead Tobimar could see a large door with a glittering hollow star in its center.
Telga stepped to the door and passed her hand over a patch of blue-green metal to one side. "We are about to open the door. Do not make any sudden moves," she said to apparently empty air. "Stay back from the door until you are told otherwise. The enchantments of warding will automatically fire upon any who do not obey these directions."
She paused, but there was no reply. Shrugging, she said, "You have been warned; I will assume by your silence that you understand."
She handed the Key to Toron, who passed his hand over it and then gave it back; the five-pointed star now had a slight but definite glow. Telga inserted the star into the hollow in the door, and to Tobimar's considerable astonishment, the door literally simply faded away, to the sound of a distant bell-chime.
The "Star Cell" was actually a connected set of rooms – no actual interior doors, but doorways, with sleeping cots, a fixed table and chairs, and reasonable comfort and cheerful design. It was, however, missing something.
Poplock regarded the scene with professional curiosity. "Pardon my saying so, Majesty… but there appears to be a distinct lack of prisoners in your cell."
Hm. That could be inconvenient.
Here we end the snippeting of Phoenix Rising. The eARC is out for those who really can't wait, and the actual book and regular ebook will be out November 6th. Thanks for reading!