In celebration of the release this week, three more chapters of Phoenix Rising!
Poplock hopped up on the table. "So they got out by themselves?"
Having been around the Sauran King for several weeks now, Tobimar had come to be able to read the draconic expressions; Toron wore a complex look of chagrin, amusement, and consternation. "So it would appear," the King said slowly.
"How is that possible?" Tobimar demanded. "The prisoners are watched, are they not?"
"By sight and sound crystals built into the very walls," agreed Toron. "But recent events made this observation less … assiduous than normal. In particular, it was Fureas who was in charge of the Secure Holding area –"
Tobimar winced. "—and he was of course dead some weeks before, when the assassin had infiltrated. So after the assassination, he left, and then all the other things happened –"
"—and no real replacement was set," Poplock finished. "Still, there must be many things securing those 'secure holding' areas. You must have taken any weapons they had on them –"
"According to the records, they were unarmed. The only weapons they should have had were those kept before the Throne Room door, so that visitors will be armed and not disgrace themselves or the King. They did have strong mystical auras," Toron continued, "but there are powerful suppression spells woven into the walls which would prevent the operation of almost any form of magic – elemental, symbolist, essentialism, even suppress the channel between priests and their gods or the powers of the mind itself. It is said that at least once, a lesser god was held securely in these cells."
"So how did they get out? What did the crystal records show?"
"That is the problem. They don't, exactly." Toron gestured for them to follow. "At least one or two of them possessed powerful magic which could manage to function to some small extent – and which they were able to use to excellent effect, blurring imagery and sound alike. I have brought in a specialist in the magic of the elements and nature who has been working on extracting as much sense from what remains as can be managed, but," he opened the door to another room, "even he has been quite impressed."
"Astounded would be the better word," corrected a voice even deeper than Toron's, and Tobimar stopped, startled. A truly immense Toad squatted before a large polished table, with faceted hexagons of crystal four feet wide on the wall in front of him, showing various angles of view of the Star Cell.
"Willowind Forestfist," Toron said, "please meet Tobimar Silverun and Poplock Duckweed."
Tobimar bowed deeply, recognizing who this was. "The Guardian of Eonae and Shargamor's Chosen. Warden of Nature for the Forest Sea. It is a great honor."
The giant Toad looked embarassed, in the exaggerated hangdog manner that only his people could manage. "Less an honor now that I have failed to foresee and stop such an abominable invasion. But what talent I have gained and what I have been granted are certainly the ones appropriate to this conundrum." He waved a gray-brown webbed hand at the crystals. "When our visitors first entered, all the pictures were clear, as was the sound."
The image that appeared was sharp and bright, showing five young people – younger even than Tobimar – as they entered the room and turned, almost as one, to look at the door as it materialized, sealing them inside.
The first thing that struck Tobimar was the beauty of the five. There were three boys: one taller than everyone else in the room, with golden hair that fell in a smooth wave over one deep violet eye; he was slender and moving with an elegant economy of motion. Both of the other boys were black-haired; in that, the two could have been twins, the hair long and perfectly straight, thick and polished as ebony. One, however, had bright blue-green eyes that seemed almost slanted, almond-shaped, their gaze edged as razors, and a faint almost reddish undertone to the skin; his face was delicate, heart-shaped; his companion's face was dark,almost olive in color, a study in sharp planes, a hawklike face with large, direct-looking eyes of steel-storm gray.
Of the two girls, one was nearly as tall as the first boy, with long tresses of a startling emerald color and eyes as brown as oak; the other was much more diminuitive, the smallest of the five, hair as pale as moonlight, eyes blue as sapphires; her face seemed at turns as hard as marble and as soft as clouds, and Tobimar thought she moved like a soldier – watching, even without seeming to watch, every part of the room. The same, he realized, was true of the golden-haired boy and the dark-skinned one. Most of these people have been trained to fight, and to watch. The other boy didn't – quite – have the same implication of combative skill that the others exuded, but his gaze was if anything more observant, scanning everything almost simultaneously and constantly. The green-haired girl… she moves like a storm on a leash. Not very subtle, but don't get in her way, either.
All five of them showed no blemishes – scars, unsightly wrinkles, unevenness of skin or lack of symmetry. They seemed something that must have been produced by perfection of art, not of nature. This made the fierce expression of the green-haired girl all the more terrible for its distortion of perfection.
"So much for that idea!" she said. "We –"
The green-eyed boy made a cutting gesture with one hand. "Say nothing."
His gray-eyed companion glanced around the room. "I don't think they've got security cameras in this place, Toshi."
"Cameras, no. Something else… you want to bet against it, Xavier?"
The gray eyes widened slightly, and the boy smacked himself on the forehead. "Duh! Magic."
"We can't stay quiet and say nothing the whole time we're here," the blonde girl said reasonably. "And we really need to discuss things."
"Well…" The boy named Toshi seemed to consider, then turned to the golden-haired boy. "What do you see, Gabe?"
"Something's definitely repressing… us," Gabe answered after a moment, clearly avoiding saying anything that might give a listener details. "But…" He closed his eyes, opened them again, turned slowly in place. At one point, it seemed to Tobimar that Gabe looked straight at him.
Gabe stopped, looked at Toshi, nodded.
"Right. Look, Nike, you're right that we need to talk, but not until I figure out how to deal with this. We need to be able to talk in privacy, and obviously our jailers don't want that. And they've got something that's shutting us way down. So I have to think. Nobody else," he caught the eye of the green-haired girl, whose mouth tightened, and he also seemed to flicker another glance at Xavier, "do anything."
Willowwind waved his hand again and the image dissolved to shadows. "So they did sit there very quietly not moving for quite a while – about two hours – while this Toshi wandered around the room, looking at things and thinking. In itself, that is rather extraordinary; five young humans staying so quiet for so long. We hear some occasional shuffling noises, see a couple of them get up and get drinks from the basin, and a few noises that we can't identify, but for the most part nothing of significance until about three hours later. And then this happens."
The crystal lit up again, with the five young people changed in their positions but otherwise pretty much as they'd been before. Toshi sat down on a chair, turned towards the others, and said something.
Tobimar blinked. "What was that?"
Willowwind chuckled, gestured, and caused the scene to repeat.
Poplock bounced forward. "Again."
After the third repetition, the little Toad and Tobimar looked at each other in equal confusion. "You know, it sounds like it makes sense, somehow. Yet when I think about trying to understand it, I get nothing."
"It's one of the most drought-damned brilliant and subtle tricks I've ever seen," the Guardian of Eonae said with real admiration in his voice. "The boy's using elemental magic – in a suppression pentagram, no less! – to effectively cloak their speech with some absolutely inspired… well, I guess you would have to call it sound encoding. He's overlaying the sound waves with another sound he's generating that ends up leaving it sounding like you're hearing conversation, but reducing the actual sounds to nonsense words. And he's changing the pattern fairly frequently, so I can't easily compensate for it without knowing what's being said – and of course if I knew that, I wouldn't need to compensate."
"What about the lips?" Poplock asked. "The human types can be pretty easily read that way."
A deep Toad-chuckle. "Indeed. Watch."
They saw Toshi sit down and say his now-nonsense phrase. Xavier replied. After a few moments, Tobimar shook his head. "The lips are… off. Blurred and distorted."
"How can he do that?" demanded Poplock. "That's not sound!"
"No, indeed. But if I assume he's an elementalist whose domain is air, that's a different thing entirely. The air itself is the source of both problems; he's distorting the perceived lip movements in the same way heat waves produce a mirage."
"Well, do we at least see how they leave?"
"Alas, no. When that day comes, the whole room fills up with impenetrable mist for a few minutes, and it's empty afterwards."
Toron walked up to the crystal, as though to get a better look at Toshi. "Can you get anything from the recordings?"
"I believe so. He is clever, resourceful, and he is vastly more powerful than anyone his age should be. But a sledgehammer – even a very skillfully wielded one – remains a sledgehammer, and after a hundred and fifty years I'm a bit better than our little sledgehammer. BUT…" the Toad conceded, "it will take me some time longer to get whatever sense I can from this."
"I don't think these people are part of the plot," Tobimar said finally. "They didn't talk like they had just assassinated someone, or even seen it done."
"I am inclined to agree," Toron said, "but they were present and may have vital clues to the actual assassin, without even knowing it. And to escape from the Star Cell—!" He gave a rippling shrug of incredulity. "They are an unknown quantity; the way they spoke is alien, as though magic were something almost unknown to them; but if that were the case, how could they wield so much of it?"
Willowwind sat up higher. "You have hit upon it, Majesty. Not elementalists; Elementals. They do not wield magic, they are magic, their spirits are bound to one of the essential elements. This explains both why they sensed as powerful mages and yet the suppression pentacle did not fully succeed; the cells are designed to keep all prisoners healthy, and thus cannot suppress a being of essential magic below a certain threshold. To do more would injure or kill without judgment or justice, anathema to your people and any of the State of the Dragon God." He bobbed a nod. "Yes, yes! And thus the five, for Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Spirit."
"But those are nothing like ordinary elementals which are either summoned manifestations, representations of the symbols of their elements, or avatars of gods or demons of those powers," Toron pointed out. "Which means they are almost certainly creations of tremendously powerful magic – creations made for some purpose. A purpose we do not know and without information cannot guess." He gestured to the others. "Willowwind, I will leave you to this. Get us some answers."
He looked at Tobimar. "I owe you some answers as well, Prince of Skysand; answers which may aid you in your quest, and ones you should have had from my brother. But indulge me a few days more; I would know first what I can of this unknown force, and whether they are friend or foe, before I speak to you of things which may send you far from this city, because," he gave an apologetic bow, "in this time of crisis, I have come to rely on you, an outsider drawn within. We were fortunate in your presence, and your absence will be noticed."
Tobimar could not restrain a slight laugh. "I'm sorry, Majesty, I'm not laughing at you. I just … well, don't worry, Majesty; I can hardly deny you a few more days, when you ask with such extravagant praise."
"I thank you, Tobimar. We shall know in those few days, I promise. Whatever Willowwind can do, will be done by then, and then we shall know… and so shall you."
Knowing would be good.
This is the beginning of the section the beta-readers and I called "CSI: Zarathanton".