Phoenix of the West
That is how he came to us for the first time, and left for the first time, but it is far from the end of his story. Osol not-yet-called-Dragonbane was with him, but what of his other allies? His superlative horse, Fleet-as-Secrets? His enemies, opposing him out of greed and spite and even honor? I cannot tell you all these things tonight, but listen closely, and you will hear of an enemy who would in time become a most trusted friend, and an ally who would become a foe as implacable as the earth itself...
"Osol, where are we going?"
The eastern sky was beginning to gray; the Granite Mantis camp was many miles behind them.
"A place I know. I have been there many times."
Black Grass' hooves clicked against the pebbly sand that had gradually supplanted the scrub grass as they rode.
"If you have been there many times, won't others of your clan know of it, as well? How will we be safe there?"
The cool desert wind blew Osol's hair back into Taban's face as he sat behind her on the saddle, arms wrapped around her midsection.
"A god lives there. He is called Stone Face. Every year, the chiefs make offerings to him so that he does not grow angry with us and make the earth swallow up our horses."
A smallish boulder, no taller than Black Grass' shoulder, emerged from the murky predawn light. Wind spirits had carved and polished it until it looked like a fanciful serpent arching its back out of the desert soil.
"You believe this Stone Face will give us sanctuary? He does not sound like a very friendly god."
More wind-sculpted megaliths rose up from the gloom. They passed one which looked like a great axehead, and another which had the curve of a woman's hips.
"He is not. But he will have no choice; I will demand that he shelter us, and if he refuses, there will be a terrible reckoning. No god can stand before the might that I... we command."
Ahead, the brightening sky backlit the dark bulk of a hill. At the peak of the rise stood a blocky shape, much larger than the standing stones they had ridden through on their way to the hill's base.
"Osol... I am not sure your plan is a wise one. I can feel the power in this place, and I think that any creature who commands such power is not one to be crossed lightly. Perhaps we should continue on our way. We could deal with Stone Face another time, when we have rested and have our wits about us."
Black Grass whinnied softly; even he could feel the magic Taban spoke of. With each of his footfalls, the sandy hill hummed beneath him, a sound not so much heard as felt in one's back teeth.
"My wits will never be with me more than they are in this moment. All the world is spread before me, and no secrets escape my eyes. I can see the Essence here, strung between the boulders like a cat's-cradle. I can hear Stone Face's heart beating in his lair beneath the hill, and I can see the diamond strings he uses to move his puppet mask's eyes and lips. The sun's breath is rising from the east like golden smoke, and the spirits of shadow are scuttling like scorpions under rocks to hide from it."
They were less than a hundred yards from the top of the hill. In the wan light, the shape squatting atop it was revealed to be a huge stone, as tall as ten men, shaped in the likeness of a face. An angular chin jutted beneath full lips; a long, straight nose flowed into a prominent, sloping brow, casting black shadows across deep eye-pits.
"I do not doubt that you see these things, but I urge caution. This is not a god of grass roots and dirt, who can be called up with bread and wine and bullied into sweeping away a horse's tracks. This one's power is real, and we are in his house."
Ten paces before the great stone head, Osol reined the horse in. She swung down from the saddle and began to rummage through the saddlebags.
"I am not a child. My people have worshiped Stone Face since before I was born, and I know all those things you have said. Last night, when the Sun came to me in my dreams and left his fire in my heart, I saw what came before. We were the Princes of the Earth, and the earth itself moved at our command. Mountains trembled when one of the Sun's Chosen rode past, and Stone Face is so much less than a mountain. He will assist us, because he is not brave enough to test the limits of our power, and not foolish enough to make enemies of us."
Taban looked at her for a long time, some remembered pain darkening his eyes, before dismounting to stand beside her. Behind the huge stone idol, the sun finally burst free of the horizon.
"I apologize once again, Prince of the Earth, but I am sure the man you are looking for is not here." The woman's words were properly respectful, her dark blue eyes, like those of every other Delzahn in the tent, appropriately downcast before one of the Dragon-Blooded, but Lyeshe could tell that it was an act. "Aside from a few travelling merchants, you and your men are the first people not of our clan to have visited this camp in months."
"Very well," he said, a well-disguised note of frustration in his voice. "When your chief returns, please give him my thanks for your hospitality, and inform him that if any one of you should see this man," he pushed a sheet of rice paper, bearing the likeness of a sharp-featured man with dark hair and eyes, across the low table to her, "he should send a rider to Chiaroscuro immediately. The man is Anathema, and it is a serious crime against the Realm, and your own Tri-Khan, to offer him safe harbor." The Dynast rose from the cushions. "I will be making camp near here for the day. With your clan's permission, of course."
"Of course, Prince of the Earth."
Lyeshe paused for a moment at the tent flap. "You may notice strange lights and sounds coming from my campsite later today. Don't be alarmed if you do."
Osol arranged the two jade horse figurines she had produced from the saddlebag, then stamped her left foot five times on the ground. "Come out, Stone Face! I bring you an offering, and an offer."
There was a long period of silence, broken only by the faint susurrus of breeze on sand. Even without Osol's magic sight, however, Taban could feel heavy, earthen power crystallizing in the air and beneath the ground as the god turned his attention upon them. With a sound like a grinding millstone, the stone head's lips moved.
"It is not the proper season to make offerings." Stone Face's voice was a dry rumble, so deep as to be almost beyond hearing. Shadows shifted within the idol's eyesockets. "The trifles you offer do not please me."
Light flared on Osol's forehead, echoing that which limned the statue. "Nevertheless, you will accept them, and listen to my proposition, spirit of the earth. We are Chosen of the Sun, and if you do not accord us the proper respect, you will risk our displeasure."
Stone Face was silent.
"We require your hospitality," said Osol. "It is said that your dwelling place stretches for many miles underground; I ask that you grant us passage through it. In return, I give you the offerings I have placed before you, and the knowledge that you have been of assistance to the true Princes of the Earth."
Stone Face said nothing.
"Make your decision," demanded Osol. "Either assist me, or be counted among my enemies."
Stone Face did not move, but the earth did. Taban heard Osol's surprised yelp an instant before he felt the sand under his feet lose cohesion, becoming as fluid as water, flowing around his body as he dropped into it. Just before he went under, it abruptly became solid again, leaving him buried up to his neck. Craning his neck to the side, he saw that Osol had suffered a similar fate.
"You have made an unwise choice, Stone Face!" Osol yelled, a ruddy sunset glow building up around her. "I am not an enemy you wish to make!" Her anima flared bright enough to shine dimly through the sand burying her, but whatever power she was exerting was apparently not enough to overcome the earth's grip. Her angry words began to take on a slight tinge of panic. "Years from now, children will come here, and they will see the ruin your home has become! They will ask, 'What came to pass here?' and their mothers will tell them the story of how the arrogant god named Stone Face was struck down by Oso--" Her tirade was abruptly cut off as the sand shifted around her, dropping her down just enough to submerge her mouth.
"You have a poor sense of tact," rumbled Stone Face. "You should thank me for silencing you before any more foolish words could come out of your mouth." His shadow-veiled eyes fell on Taban. "Your companion is much wiser." Osol sank another inch, forcing her to strain to keep her nose aboveground. "Perhaps he can tell me why I should not entomb you as punishment for your effrontery."
Taban's bones creaked under the weight of the sand, but his voice was composed. "Please forgive Osol, Stone Face," he spoke respectfully. "She is young, and drunk on newfound power. I should have tried harder to curb her pride; I am to blame for any offense she has given you, and I apologize for that."
"Much wiser, indeed," said Stone Face. "Your apology is accepted. Now, if you please, I am curious. You are foreign to these lands. Who are you, and what is your business here?"
"I am called Taban."
"Taban is a Delzahn name."
"I confess that I am reluctant to share my true name. There are those who listen for it on the wind, and they have already found me once; I would rather they did not find me again. Taban is a better name than my old one, anyway."
"Very well, Taban. I will not press you to reveal your name, as you do not know my true name, either. What brings you here, in the company of young Osol? A bit of the sun shines in both of you, so I have a strong suspicion, but I dislike guessing."
"We seek sanctuary from the Dragon-Blooded of the Realm, and their Wyld Hunt. I do not think they know where we are yet, but I have had a premonition that they will soon be at our heels."
"The children of the Elemental Dragons are creatures of the earth, like myself. They are more my kin than the Celestial Exalted. What makes you think I will side against them?"
Taban smiled. "Celestial Anathema are not the only beings the Immaculate Order hunts. The Granite Mantis clan, and no doubt others as well, pray to you and give you offerings, which the Order's teachings forbid. I think you are no more eager than we to draw the close attention of the Realm."
The ground trembled as Stone Face chuckled. "Your wits are sharp, Solar, and your courtesy pleases me. However, I have not forgotten your companion's insults. I will assist you, but only with the understanding that, at some time and in some manner of my choosing, she will assist me. What say you to this offer?"
Taban spared a glance at Osol. Her angry glare told him precisely what she thought of the deal. He turned his eyes back to Stone Face. "We accept. In return for your boon, we shall owe one to you."
No sooner had the words left his mouth than Taban found himself falling again; he barely had time to close his eyes before the sand closed over his head. The plunge lasted only a second before he emerged from the earth, falling briefly through open air before landing with a thump on a rough stone floor. A moment or two later, he heard another thump nearby, accompanied by a muffled exclamation of discomfort.
"Osol, are you all right?" Taban wiped the sand from his face and opened his eyes. The rosy light of Osol's still-bright anima illuminated the tunnel within which Stone Face had deposited them, and glittered from the veins of crystals and raw gemstones lacing its walls.
"Who are you to make promises in my name!" Osol's voice was tight with anger. "I am not your property, nor will I be the vassal of a god who takes the worship of my family and gives nothing in return! Not now that I have the power to stand up to him!" She got her feet under her and stood up, fists clenched at her sides. "I should strike you down here and now for dishonoring me like that!"
Taban sighed. "Osol, the Exaltation is skewing your judgment. You're seeing and feeling all these new things, and it's making you mad, like a horse in the city who has lost her blinders."
"I remember what it was like when I was Chosen. I felt like I could do anything."
"But I suppose you were too wise to let it go to your head?" Osol spat.
"No, actually I did some incredibly stupid things which I was lucky to survive," Taban replied calmly.
"Such as selling your friends -- your family! -- into bondage to an earth spirit?"
Taban ignored the barb. "Maybe I'll tell you the whole story sometime." He held up a hand, forestalling her angry rejoinder. "I understand that you feel wronged, and with good reason. But now is not the time to talk about it. There is other business at hand."
"Quite," spoke a clipped, acerbic voice from somewhere behind him. Taban rose to his feet and turned to face it. A smallish deer stood before him on stumpy legs, its wooly coat shimmering like oil in the dim light. The tips of the silver-bearded creature's three antlers brushed the roof of the tunnel.
"Greetings, spirit," said Taban, bowing politely to the deer. "Has Stone Face sent you to guide us through his domain?"
The spirit snorted derisively. "Save your pretty words for the Master, manling. But yes, since you mention it, I do have the dubious honor of escorting you through the vast and glorious halls of the gemlord whom mortals name Stone Face." It rolled its eyes sardonically as it recited the grandiose description. "However, before we get started..." It pranced over to one of the walls, seized a fist-sized gemstone in its teeth, and worried it loose. Holding the stone in its mouth, it daintily stepped past Taban and thrust its head toward Osol. "Take thish," it said around the rainbow-colored orb. Osol looked at it warily. "Oh, hurry up," grumped the spirit. "It'sh jusht a token to make shure you keep your end of the bargain."
"We'll talk about it later, Osol," said Taban, in response to the accusatory look she shot his way. "Please take the gem."
Osol reached out and plucked the orb from the spirit's mouth. With a look of distaste, she wiped the spittle off on her sleeve, and tucked the gem into her sash. "There. I have accepted Stone Face's token. Does that make you happy?"
"My heart fairly explodes with joy and love for all living things," the deer-creature deadpanned, "but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that you having that stone makes the Master happy. He'll keep on being happy as long as you keep it on your person; if you lose it, he'll take that as a sign you've reneged on your oath to him -- which, although made by proxy," it flicked its tail in Taban's direction, "he still considers quite binding -- and will become most unhappy. Is that clear?" Osol gave a curt nod. "Fantastic! Now, follow me. Try not to bump your heads."
The spirit turned and started off down the tunnel, muttering under its breath. Osol followed it, very pointedly not looking at Taban as she walked past him. Taban sighed, brushed the sand off his shoulders, and fell in behind them.
Oteitani took a pull on his pipe, and exhaled a cloud of tobacco smoke into the cool air. The faint sounds of the camp drifted in from behind him, almost completely drowned out by the soft, pervasive noise of crickets and other creatures who were going about their business now that the sun had set. Nothing big was moving out in the night, which surprised Oteitani not one bit; this part of the South was not known for its large predators, and the Delzahn would have to be idiots to attack a company led by one of the Dragon-Blooded. He took another drag on his pipe, and shifted to a slightly more comfortable position atop the large rock which was serving as his makeshift chair. A golden monkey capered in the back of his head, but he ignored it.
He heard the footsteps coming up behind him some time before the person addressed him. "Oi," she said, "you mind some company?"
Oteitani made a noncommittal noise. The woman padded over and sat down cross-legged beside his rock. Sparing a quick glance, the mercenary recognized her as one of Lyeshe's scout riders: lanky, with short hair and oblique eyes, and skin that was sun-darkened but lacked his own reddish cast.
After a bit, Oteitani cleared his throat. "What do you want?"
The woman grinned, showing white, somewhat crooked teeth. "I'm bored. Since Master Lyeshe decided not to send out scouts, there's not much for me to do. It was either watch him cast spells and hobnob with little gods, which I've seen a dozen times before, or find the mysterious mercenary who's travelling with us. I hear you're some kind of tracker, so I figure there's a good chance you're bored enough to tell me the stories of your exploits. Or at least let enough slip that I can just make the rest up, and impress everyone with how quickly I cracked the brooding loner's shell. Another victory for my womanly wiles, a?"
Oteitani looked at her askance. "One of the reasons I volunteered for watch duty," he said, "was that I didn't feel like mingling with the Realmies."
She flashed the smile again. "Then it works out great. I'm not from the Blessed Isle or Chiaroscuro, like most of the others; I'm Marukani. From the looks of you, you must be Linowan, so we're practically neighbours. I even visited Linowan territory once, back when I was a circuit rider, before I started serving Master Lyeshe. We can reminisce about home."
Oteitani frowned a not particularly convincing frown. "Hm." He puffed on his pipe. "What's your name?"
"They call me Sanan. And you're Ota-Tani, the mighty warrior, whose hand-axe ran red with Haltan blood before the mysterious event which forced him to flee his homeland and take up the life of a travelling mercenary, his unparalleled skill at arms for hire to the highest bidder, his soul still haunted by the memory of that fateful day."
"Oteitani," he corrected her. "Why don't you just make up my story for yourself? You've already got a good start."
"If you were just some dark, handsome man with his hair in a braid who I happened to see on the street, I'd probably do that," said Sanan. "But I'm curious about more than your exotic good looks. I want to know why we made a detour specifically to pick you up."
"I'm the best tracker in the world." Oteitani's tone was matter-of-fact. Behind his eyes, the shining monkey grinned.
"O-ha, is that so? I suppose you have tracked Anathema before?"
"It's not a boast. And yes, I have."
"You've been on a Wyld Hunt before?"
"Of a sort."
"And you came back alive and in one piece, a? That's something to brag about... if you aren't just inventing things to make yourself seem more fierce."
"If you doubt my word, I could tell you the story."
"If it will get you to tell me the story, then I definitely doubt your word. Everyone knows the Linowan are liars."
"Just like the Marukani are known to be thieves?"
Oteitani chuckled, and took a deep draw on his pipe. "All right," he conceded, each word accompanied by a little puff of smoke, "your 'womanly wiles' have swayed me. Listen carefully, though, because I'll only tell this once." He tamped out his pipe and set it aside. "When I was a young man, I was the most honored brave in my tribe. It wasn't just because my mother was the chief, either; no one could beat me at wrestling, racing, spear or hatchet-throwing. Back then, I wasn't the best tracker in the world yet, but I was close. I led many raiding parties into the redwood forests, and the haft of my hatchet had plenty of notches from all the Haltan monkey-people I killed.
"One night, the tree-dwellers attacked my village. The alarm was raised, and they ran off like the cowards all Haltans are, but only one of them got away. I would have gotten her, too, if I hadn't been busy killing her partners.
"When I returned to the village, I found out that the savages had killed my mother, my father, and our shaman before fleeing. I swore an oath that I would get revenge. I'd hunt down the Haltan who got away, and make her pay.
"I spent the next two years tracking that devil-bitch, waiting for her to slip. She always managed to escape my traps at the last minute, and I always seemed to be one step behind her, but I wouldn't give up. I started hearing new stories about her, that she'd gotten some kind of magic powers that let her fight better than a hundred men. It wasn't too long before it came out that she was actually Anathema; I guess she finally just decided to stop hiding her powers. If anything, finding that out made me go after her even harder; I knew the Dragon-Blooded would send a hunt after her soon, and I didn't want the Realm stealing my revenge!
"I redoubled my efforts, and I finally caught up with her. I'd been hunting her so long that I could guess what she was thinking; I had an instinct that she was headed for a certain place, and I set up a trap. Sure enough, she showed up. The fight was a lot tougher than I thought. She must have had some magic power that warned her of the ambush, because she killed three of my men before they could even aim their arrows at her. The rest of us got our shots off, though, and one of them got through and hurt her, badly enough that she fell. We rushed her, but even after surviving a fifty-foot plummet from a tree, she had a lot of fight left in her, and she had some of those Haltan demon animals helping her. While I was fighting her tree-leopard, she managed to kill all but one of my remaining men. I managed to put a hatchet in the leopard's skull and jump her from behind just as she cut down the last one. By this time, she'd used so much power that she couldn't hide her demonic nature anymore; looking at her was like staring at the sun, and part of me was screaming that I should run away, but I managed to hold on. She was faster and more agile than anyone I've ever seen, but fortunately for me, not a whole lot stronger than a normal person. And like I said, no one could beat me at wrestling. Even with her mospid on my back clawing and biting, and her wiggling like an otter to try and get loose, I managed to hold on. I got my hands around her neck and squeezed until she stopped glowing."
Oteitani paused for a long moment before continuing, his eyes distant. "I'd finally done it. I'd killed the Haltan Anathema and avenged my parents' deaths. But even as I felt the life go out of her, I could feel that she'd done something to me, some kind of death curse." In his head, the monkey grinned and hooted. "If I'd gone home, they'd have made me a chief. I was afraid of bringing her curse back with me, though. So I ran off. I made it to Grayfalls, where I drank so much liquor and smoked so much opium that I had to take out loans from House Ragara. I eventually figured out that drinking myself to death was a bad idea, even if I was cursed. So I became a mercenary, just like in your story." He nodded to Sanan. "The rest is pretty much what you'd expect."
"Hey-o, that is an amazing story," said Sanan. "How much of it is true?"
"All the important parts," Oteitani replied. In his mind's eye, a monkey made of gold and sunlight jeered at his lies and omissions. It was the same monkey he had seen in the bonfire of the Haltan assassin's anima, and its expression was the same as when he had looked into the stream, running red with blood from his wounds, and seen it reflected in the water, pointing gleefully at the sunburst mark burning on his forehead.
Lyeshe spoke the words, wrapping them in Essence so they burst like fireworks in the air, leaving purple afterimages floating across his vision. Incandescent power surged up from the ground in a column of green light, laced with blue lightning, as he forced magic through the lines and sigils he'd laid out earlier, reaching out to the being he wished to contact and commanding its presence.
The pillar of light roared up into the sky and vanished, leaving the diagram glowing. The ground at its center bulged and burst, disgorging a wooly, deer-like creature with three horns and a silver beard. It glared at Lyeshe, but the Dynast's will was strong even after a full day of summoning and parlaying with spirits, and it was not too long before the spirit conceded the mental battle and bowed to him.
"What do you wish, oh great Prince of the Earth? I exist only to serve." Being bound had apparently not impacted the elemental's capacity for sarcasm.
"Kri," Lyeshe addressed it, "the spirits of this place have told me that two people were seen entering the domain of your gemlord master, this morning, one of them a stranger from a distant land."
"Gods love to gossip even more than fleshies," grumped the kri. "What of it?"
"I conferred with my own master earlier today," said the Dynast, "and he is certain that the Anathema I seek passed this way. This foreign man who met with your master, did he have a mark on his forehead, in the shape of a golden disc?"
The kri snorted. "No, at least not that I saw." It sniffed and turned its head away, then slyly rolled an eye back at the Dragon-Blooded sorcerer. "The girl with him was glowing, though. Well, she started glowing once the Master sank her in sand up to her jabbering mouth, in any case." It laughed cruelly, a low, whuffling sound. "The mark on her forehead was a half-circle, though, not a full one."
Lyeshe took a second to digest the kri's words. "Do you have any knowledge of where they went after leaving your master's domain?"
"Do I?" the spirit chortled with mean-spirited glee. "I took them there!"
Lyeshe's frost-rimed eyes lit up with a cold light. "By the terms and contracts attendant to this summoning," he said, "I bind you to the following task. You will return here at dawn tomorrow, at which time you will guide me and my men to the same place you took the two people who spoke with your master this morning. You will not inform them, or any allies they may have, of our coming, nor will you make any attempt to lead myself, or those with me, into danger. Once I have safely arrived at our destination, you may go free. If I come to any harm, you are to travel to the Blessed Isle on foot, present yourself at the nearest Immaculate temple you find, relate the entire story of your dealings with me, and submit to whatever punishment they deem fit. Are these instructions clear to you?"
"As crystal, oh mighty and terrible Child of the Elemental Dragons." The kri pawed the ground impatiently. "Am I dismissed yet?"
The Dynast nodded his assent, and the spirit descended into the earth, leaving a patch of freshly-turned soil in its wake. Lyeshe smiled an exhausted but triumphant smile, and began to pack up his summoning equipment.