And now for one of the crucial turning points of the story...
"Oh… my," Kyri finally managed.
Aunt Victoria smiled, looking in the same direction. "I've seen it many times… and never quite gotten used to it." She smiled more widely as even Urelle leaned forward, eyes shining. "Behold the oldest city in the world, built before the Fall itself, in the language of its builders Fanalam' T' ameris' a' u' Zahr-a-Thana T'ikon, Zarathanton, home and throne of the Ancient Saurans and the Great Dragons themselves."
The walls that surrounded the first among cities were shining, polished wonders of pearl-gray, uncounted thousands of years old yet as unscarred as though they had been new-polished that very day, two miles or more on each side and five hundred feet high, fortifications spaced regularly along their length, impenetrable above and below. The gates of Zarathanton, open at all times save in war, were more than half the height of the walls, some of the largest portals ever forged, sparkling with gold and krellin and a dozen other metals, jewels, and the pearl-gray of unbreakable stone. Within, buildings could be seen, even higher, to the Castle of the T'Teranahm thrusting spires two thousand feet and more into the sky. Crystal and silver, stone and magic fused into testaments of power that had endured throughout every Chaoswar since the beginning, raised by the power of Elbon Nomicon and his Sixteen, and the thought sent chills of awe down Kyri's spine. Memories were faded, knowledge lost, but these walls, this city, had stood since before Myrionar had first spoken Its words of Justice, before Terian had learned the secrets of power, before Idinus of Scimitar had taken up his abode atop the tallest mountain in the world, since even before her people had ever set foot on Zarathan itself.
"Are… are we living there, Auntie?" Urelle asked finally, and the anticipation in her voice made Kyri's heart fill with hope. In the weeks of their – sometimes hazardous – travel, Urelle had slowly begun to recover. Once more, from the ashes.
And, maybe, so have I. She fingered the phoenix figurine that she'd taken with her on impulse, and looked to the sky, almost expecting to see the fiery actuality somewhere above. Which is silly – they're rarer than dragons. But the symbolism of that which dies and somehow comes to live again, was so very strong for her. She still blamed herself, sometimes, for Rion's death – probably always would. But at the same time she knew he wouldn't have blamed her, would have been furious at her for blaming herself… and the weeks of sometimes dangerous travel had helped ease the wound.
The worst part is keeping the secret. But I promised, and a Vantage keeps her promises.
Victoria was answering Urelle's question. "Not within the City, no, but I've obtained an estate a few miles to the North, at the border of the Forest Sea. We'll be near enough, Urelle." Victoria hugged Urelle. "Near enough for you to see the wonders, and come to know them."
Kyri stared at the crowds as they approached. More and more people – more people just on the Great Road than she'd seen in all Evanwyl, and of so many species. Children of Odin walking within almost touching distance of the Artan on one side and mazakh on the other, an Iriistik talking with a human who seemed comfortable speaking the buzz-click speech.
We're not the only gawkers, she noted with some comfort. Scattered through the crowd were others who stood and stared in awe and wonder and consternation – a wing-shouldered Valkyrnen there, a great shellikaki all feelers and armored jointed legs and waving, startled eyes from within a huge carven shell, and a bit farther away, on the other side of the road, five young people standing together, all stunned and amazed. They caught Kyri's eye because of their beauty; all five of them startling in their good looks, three boys, two girls, seeming only a year or three older than Urelle's fourteen. One in particular stood out to Kyri, for with his raven-black hair and dusky complexion he looked not unlike Urelle herself.
"We turn North at the next intersection," Ingram said, glancing at Victoria, who nodded to verify his statement. The lavender-haired boy moved forward, weaving his way through the nearby crowd effortlessly, levering others aside with subtle motions of his body and staff-blade weapon.
Kyri shook her head. We were indeed lucky. She had seen that weapon, the anai-k'ota, in use three times, striking as a staff, breaking apart into a series of bladed linked sections, slashing and striking and cutting in a ballet of death and destruction that seemed utterly at odds with the quiet, slender boy who, in his spare moments, spent his time reading from ancient books and sometimes peering at a strange glowing square which he hid away before anyone could get a look at it. Not even five feet tall, Ingram Camp-Bel had proven to be fully as formidable as the gray-armored, twin-sword wielding Iriistik warrior who called himself Ele-Kim-ze, which he said meant, roughly, Quester.
Quester was behind them, observing and guarding. Both of their escorts had recognized their skills and thus were willing to rely on their charges to defend themselves for the few moments necessary, if something came from an unwarded direction.
Urelle continued to stare at the City as they headed North, until it vanished behind a hill. An hour or so later, the longcoach pulled up in front of a green and gray mansion, set like a quiet jewel against the background of the Forest Sea.
"And here we are!" Victoria said, leaping down from the roof seat.
Kyri laughed. "Aunt Victoria, you know, you've seemed to be getting younger the longer we've been travelling!"
"Have I?" The older woman glanced up at the mansion, smiling faintly. "I suppose I have. I was a Guild Adventurer myself, and this has taken me back. I'd rather not have had to do it," she said more quietly, with a glance at Urelle, who seemed more interested in watching Ingram unhitching the team, "but as I had to, it's helped wake me back up."
"I think it's helped us all."
"I think you're right, child. I think you're right." Victoria glanced sharply at Urelle as she started towards the mansion. "Stay on the grounds behind the ward-fence, Urelle – and you too, Kyri."
Urelle nodded emphatically. "I understand, Auntie." Kyri stared at the towering mass of jungle, wafting strange, unknown scents into the humid warmth of evening, and nodded also. The Forest Sea.
Farther than this, only Adventurers, armies, and the mad or suicidal ventured… or those who were native to the wild. Anywhere on Zarathan, hideous dangers awaited those who left the shelter of their homes, the near and clear circles of the fields and the few fortified areas about the cities, or the broad and enchanted swathes of land about the Great Roads. Though maps claimed huge territories as the Empire of the Mountain or the State of Elbon Nomicon or even Dalthunia and vastly smaller Evanwyl, in truth they were all archipelagos of tiny islands of safety, connected by slender roads that were only mostly safe, surrounded always by wilderness, a hundred species of intelligent beings savage and otherwise, mystical creatures and mobile plants, undead remnants of ancient cities, legacies of ages past and conspiracies of the present, wandering remnants of forgotten gods, or servants of gods so new their names were only beginning to be spoken.
Finally she looked back down towards Aunt Victoria. "Do we have any staff?"
"Not yet, Kyri. Need to set up, get some word around."
Kyri looked over at Quester and Ingram. "I know you're just bodyguards, but…"
Ingram managed a small smile, which lit up his face, making him look even younger. "I suppose for another week's pay…" he glanced to Quester, who dipped his antennae, "we could keep guard here for a week or so." He reached over and with surprising strength hefted one of Urelle's boxes. "And help you move in."
Even with Quester and Ingram helping, of course, it took a long time. Finally, Kyri was left dragging the last piece – the first stonesculpt crate, of course – by herself while Aunt Victoria began to get dinner ready and Urelle, Ingram, and Quester started arranging the rooms to be livable.
What in the name of the Sixteen was I thinking, bringing these things with me? I swear, they've gotten heavier! She'd gotten about a quarter of the way up the staircase when she had to put it down and take a rest. Maybe these should be hung up downstairs.
She snorted at herself. Upstairs was going to be her own room and Urelle's and she was not going to leave Mother's hangings downstairs. Besides, half of them were already up there.
She sighed and turned back to the crate, leaning on it slightly, slanting rays of sun coming from a side window. She could see the deep impressions left in the wood where Condor and Shrike had finally pushed it all the way to the back. A faint silvery sheen seemed to cover the wood.
Her heart seemed to stop.
Crescent-shaped gouges. Silvery sheen in the slanting sun. One set nearly a foot higher than the others.
"No." She heard herself whisper, backing away from the crate that now loomed before her like a sign of doom. "No, oh, no…"
But those were feeble, impotent words against the implacable understanding that was now surfacing, a hideous truth that a part of her must have already guessed.
Not one man striking the doors twice, high and then low. No.
Two men, one very tall, one short, striking those doors at the same time.
The understanding – and the realization that those same two men had made these marks, glowing with bitter cold cheer from the wood – made her stomach twist.
We should have known. Perhaps we did know, and just didn't want to believe. But it's so obvious. How could one corrupt Justiciar hide his true nature within the entire brotherhood? How could he cloak his lies from those who could see truth?
"No. No. No, Myrionar, NO!"
But the memories were merciless, especially the last words of Rion, looking at her with grim certainty: "… you won't want to hear everything I have to say…", and that final look of utter horror.
How much more simple, how much more sensible, to believe that it was the whole brotherhood that was responsible?
The brotherhood I sent Rion to question!
I SENT him there!
She tumbled backwards down the stairs, scrambled to her feet, sent one more horrified glance at the crate squatting on the tenth stair, indentations glowing like soulless grins in the final rays of sunlight, and turned away, stumbling, tears streaming from her eyes, unable to do anything but run, run, any direction, and repeating the single word no.
Inside she knew the answer was yes, but she could not bear to hear that voice, and so she ran. Brush and vines tore at her, but she ran on, heedless of anything save the terrible need to escape the heart-rending realization of betrayal more monstrous than anything she had ever imagined. She remembered green eyes gazing into hers, a hand warm on her own, and screamed, half in denial, half in rage, her voice echoing through the jungle and dying away like shattered hopes.
I sent Rion to them. I sent him to ask questions, to let them know someone suspected the truth!
Rion died because of me!
A part of her, a very distant part, tried to turn her back, knowing she was fleeing into the Forest Sea, but it was impotent before the seething fury and self-hatred boiling ever higher inside of Kyri. Something lunged at her, bladed legs and venomed fangs and a screech of hunger, but that was its one and final error, for without even truly being aware of it, Kyri caught the striking forelimbs, broke them, shattered the carapace, left the thing dying, and ran on, crying now, tears that seemed torn from the core of her soul.
Full dark had fallen and she burst through into a clearing. Shadows of movement were in the clearing, but fled, sensing that the newcomer was heedless, reckless, perhaps mad in truth, and thus a thousand times more dangerous than any more cautious foe. Stars glittered overhead, sparkled in the clear sky, and as Kyri paused she saw the twinkling stars of the Sword and Balance.
The sight was a shock of ice-water, bringing her to her knees. Then she surged to her feet, balling her fists, and screaming at the sky.
"Why, Myrionar? Why? We believed in you, we called your name, we trusted in Justice and Vengeance and your Wisdom and Mercy! My parents raised us to believe!" She reached inside her shirt, tore off the golden symbol so hard the chain left bleeding welts on her neck, but she didn't care. She shook the tiny sword-balance at its celestial mirror. "Even after they died we followed you, Rion gave his life for you, and you did nothing! Your own Justiciars! Your own Justiciars betrayed us, mouthed lies and deceit in my own house, set foot in your temples and you give us not a hint?"
The tears streamed down her face so that she could no longer see the stars, and her furious tirade was full of pain and sorrow as well as smoke-black anger. "How could you? Where is the Vengeance or Justice that could explain this?" She hurled the symbol away from her and fell to her knees again, crying, no longer able to scream, just to speak in pain-wracked sobs. "The Arbiter tore his soul to save Rion in your name! Kelsley almost died, and Rion did, and all for nothing! How could you? How could you abandon us all?" She raised her face and glared once more at the distant stars. "ANSWER ME!"
Her final cry echoed through the trees and died away to nothing. Silence surrounded her, a silence deeper than any forest should hold, and a chill went down her spine. Not a bird, a single animal, even the buzz and hum of insects was absent, and in the profound quiet the only sound she heard was her own ragged breathing and, under that, the pounding of her broken heart.
"I have not abandoned you."
With the words came the presence, the feeling of something vast and wise that had always been a part of the Temple; only this time it was a hundred times stronger, and the voice itself, though quiet, thundered through her bones, echoed in the ground, a voice that seemed both as unfamiliar as a stranger on the street, yet so familiar that she felt she had always known it.
"I have not abandoned you, Kyri Vantage, and I grieve for all you have suffered. Your faith has been true and even the gods cannot condemn one who is given such cause to doubt."
Kyri, open-mouthed, wanted to scream her accusations anew… but just as she could feel the Presence, so, too, could she feel Myrionar's pain, a sorrow that felt as deep as her own and older, ancient, as though the god had lived with such pain for all of Its existence. "Then… then why, Myrionar?" she said finally, a question instead of a demand or accusation. "Why, and how?"
"Many are the gods, Kyri Vantage. Powers there are greater than mine, and others subtle and cautious who spent ages finding solutions to dark puzzles of their own. I cannot say – precisely – how my Justiciars could be subverted within my own gaze. What I know would be too dangerous for you now, and there is still much hidden from me.
"But not for such useless riddles and half-answers have I spoken to you. You call on me in the name of my last true Justiciar, for the sake of my wounded priest, for the love of your family and for the loss of your innocence, and if any Justice remains in the world, I can do nothing but answer you."
The stars blazed brighter, and suddenly a golden Sword of heavenly flame burned in the sky, a golden Sword holding aloft a silver Balance of cold-fire beauty, casting aside the night and bringing argent-auric daylight to the clearing in which she stood.
"Kyri Victoria Vantage, hear now the words of Myrionar, God of Justice and Vengeance. If you will have faith in me, I shall in you place all of my faith. Your path will be long, and hard, and filled with pain. But this I promise, this I swear, on the very power of the gods, that if you will remain true through all, if you will be for me the living symbol of Myrionar, then to you I shall in the end deliver all the Justice and Vengeance you desire – knowledge of your enemies, and the will to confront them, and the power to drive them to ruin as great as the pain they have caused."
"Have faith in you?" The words were ludicrous. Moments ago she was cursing Myrionar. "How… how can I? How, when I have seen nothing of your Justice, Myrionar?"
The familiar, alien voice was both stern and rueful, recognizing her plight yet yielding nothing. "Only you can answer that, Kyri. That is, and has always been, the test of true faith. Can you believe, without proof? More, can you believe still, in the moments when all seems to shout at you that what you believe is a lie?"
She shook her head slowly. Believe… have faith in Myrionar. How?
The treachery of the Justiciars pressed in upon her, and she shuddered. They had been one of the greatest symbols of her belief, and now she knew they had been false, every one of them a lie.
No. Not every one.
For a moment, she almost felt she could hear Rion's voice, and her eyes stung again with tears. Rion had had faith, and Myrionar had given him the power. He had been seeking justice when he died.
Can I let my brother have died in vain?
And she remembered Arbiter Kelsley. An act of faith and devotion so extreme that he nearly died.
"… be for me the living symbol of Myrionar…"
And what was Myrionar? What was the truth? She remembered the many discussions in her classes, time spent arguing with Rion beneath the starwood tree in the back yard, Kelsley's sermons, even – though spoken by false lips – speeches of the Justiciars.
"There is a reason Justice is always spoken first," she remembered Kelsley saying. "Because Justice is always to be foremost. Vengeance comes only after Justice has been done, after wisdom has found the truth and after careful judgment has guided us to the Just and Right solution, and, if warranted, tempered with Mercy. Only then is the cold and implacable power of Vengeance to be unleashed."
If Myrionar spoke truth… then something inconceivably terrible had happened, arranged and guided by some force so mighty and subtle that a gods' own servants had been subverted in a manner so constrained by power and necessity that even the god dared not alert others as to what was happening.
And was it not one of the most basic of the tenets of Justice that it was easy to give justice to the strong and secure, and thus far more important for the weak, the betrayed, the helpless?
And suddenly Kyri understood, and she laughed – a painful laugh, filled with the ghosts of tears shed and other tears to come, but a laugh. God though It was, Myrionar was the helpless one. Evanwyl, the stronghold of its faith, was held somehow by the enemy – perhaps the power that lay beyond Rivendream Pass, perhaps something else – and in Its own name it now came to her…
… Because she was the one who would truly understand both what It asked, and why.
It was that which released the terrible knot in her heart. The pain was not gone, but the bile-acid corrosive fury against Myrionar, the foundation of her childhood, faded away. The god asked her to help make all these things right, asked her here, in the shadow of the First City, far from the corrupting power that had destroyed her family, and she realized that whatever game Myrionar was playing, it was a deadly serious one, one whose price could be the life of a god… or more than one.
She rose slowly to her feet, gazing at the burning symbol. "You swear that if I hold true, that in the end I will have justice and vengeance?"
"By all the Powers that are or have ever been or will ever be, I swear this to you."
"Then…" she took a deep breath, "… then I will swear to you that I will keep faith in you, Myrionar. My brother died in your name, died because I sent him into that danger, and I believe in Rion… so I believe in you. I have to believe in you."
The Balanced Sword flared so brightly that it seemed to light the entirety of the sky. "Then you, Kyri Vantage, shall be my one, true, and only Justiciar, the founder of the new Justiciars. Your course will be long and painful, sometimes darker even than the moment in which first I spoke to you; but believe, and hold, and be true to Justice, and there is a way out for you. Follow your instincts but temper them with thought; Justice, Wisdom, and Mercy before Vengeance."
The Balanced Sword descended, its light drowning out all other sights. "My touch is upon you, and you shall see it reflected in the morning's light. Find your course, and know my blessing is with you… and my thanks."
The Sword and Balance rose then, ascending to the heavens, fading… and then there were only the stars shining softly down.
But inside, Kyri felt… somehow at peace, at least for this moment. She knew Rion would be happy, he would approve… and so would the Arbiter.
Two people, against all the ocean of pain and guilt and betrayal.
But they were two people who mattered.