And now we see a point of view we haven't since the very beginning...
The jungle below was thick and green, breathing with life in the brilliant sunshine. As he watched, a flock of brilliant birds burst from the canopy, pursued for a short distance by a bat-winged shape, a merinam or least dragon, before it grew bored and settled down onto the top of a tree like a giant crimson flower.
It's not working.
Usually Aran came here to … well, recover, to let beauty and quiet soak into his soul and alleviate the pain that still sometimes came to him when they were called upon to do something for their patron which was… well… evil.
And usually it worked. He'd long since realized that the power of Myrionar had faded, that the Justiciars were one of the few forces of order left in Evanwyl and that keeping that force alive – even through deception – was better than just allowing things to fall apart. He'd managed to erase the roiling in his gut after that terrible night years ago when they'd taken the Vantage estate. A few days here had always managed to bring some peace back to his soul, every time he'd needed it.
Until now. Aran sighed, still gazing at the sea of emerald and flowers that extended from the Khalals all the way to the rampart of Hell's Rim; he sat on a low ridge of the Kalal foothills, and for that reason did not look too far to his left, because if he did, Rivendream Pass would intrude upon the perfect view.
He remembered Kyri's face, shattered and devastated, streaked with tears when they first saw her after… after it happened. Then helping her load the coach… and of course she was leaving. It makes perfect sense. Why wouldn't she leave?
And he remembered the lies they'd told her. Not all lies. I… I really wish we hadn't killed him. He was a true Justiciar. Maybe… maybe if I'd said something to him…
"Still up here, lad?"
He jumped slightly, then tried to pretend he'd just been stretching. "Shrike? How long have you been there, sirza?"
The older man pulled off his silver-gray helm with the short, hooked beak and dropped to the ground next to him, puffing. "Just… got up the Balance-damned hill." Despite the virtues of the Justiciar armor, Shrike's bald head was trickling sweat, which he mopped up with a cloth from his belt. "Never fails that I'll find you here when you've got that look about you."
"Usually makes me feel better. The quiet… the beauty of the world."
Shrike's sharp brown eyes studied him from above a nose that rather resembled the front of his helm. "But not this time, eh?"
As if I could hide it from him. Aran sighed and shook his head. "No. No, not this time."
"Did you think it'd ever work, boy? You and I, we helped finish her parents."
He gritted his teeth and turned away. "That was… before. I didn't know her. Didn't know the family." Didn't have any real reason to reach out beyond the Justiciars.
Shrike snorted. "You think that'd've leveled any balance for her, Condor? If she knew –"
"There was never any need for her to know. She'd … healed. Her family had healed. I'd… I'd almost managed to forget –"
"Forget?" Shrike's voice cut through his protests with icy fury – fury with no small trace of fear. "You can't afford to forget a Balance-damned thing, Condor. You've got too blasted many ideals as it is –"
"—Ideals you taught me!" He was suddenly shouting, with tears stinging his eyes, pain and anger directed at the man who'd raised him, part of him wanting to blame Shrike for everything.
Shrike met his furious gaze… and then his eyes dropped and he sighed, and drew his knees up to rest his chin on the shining metal of his armor. "Aye. That I did. Taught you the Justiciar's creed, made sure you went to temple… But by the Fallen Balance, Aran, what choice did I have?" He rolled to his feet and stamped a few paces away. "Even now y'r nothing much of a liar, not good at hidin' anything without death hanging over you. Back then…" his face softened for an instant and a smile flickered over the weatherbeaten face, a smile that reminded Aran of long-past times, "… back then, you hadn't a trace o' deceit in you, boy. Eyes as bright as new leaves and a heart about as green and untested, too. You couldn't've kept the secrets if you'd known about them then. You know you couldn't."
"I…" They'd had this discussion before, though never so intensely – except for the first time, when he'd nearly left in fury, stopping only when his foster father and best friend had literally thrown himself in his path, crying, begging him to stop, for the sake of both their lives. "I know. No, I couldn't."
"So I raised you… right. Maybe I shouldn't have. Maybe I should've given you to the Temple. But… you were…" Shrike stopped, seemed as though he was about to give up, but then set his jaw and plowed on. "You were the last moral decision I got to make for myself, I guess. Last one before I accepted that everything had to follow a plan, be a choice that fit the plan… or else. Mist Owl warned me there'd be trouble, and there was. If I'd known just how bad trouble could get, maybe I wouldn't have made that decision… but then I'm glad I didn't know then." He reached out and patted Aran's shoulder awkwardly.
Aran seized Shrike's hand. "Sirza, let's just get out of here. Go somewhere else. To… to Zarathanton, even."
For a moment he thought his head had come off his shoulders. He looked up, dazed, from the ground, to see Shrike glaring down at him, face white as the dead under his dark tan, Condor's own blood smearing the gauntlet on his clenched fist. "Do not say that. Do not even think it, boy. You fear him, you do, but you don't fear him enough, by all the gods and demons you don't. You don't know what he's become. You know what happened to Silver Eagle, but you haven't felt what happened to him, and that makes all the difference."
He's actually shaking with fear, Aran realized with a creeping sense of horror. He knew how formidable his foster father was, and – with no false modesty – knew that he was probably even more dangerous. Is it really that hopeless? We cannot even flee?
Shrike's jaw tightened, and he reached down and pulled Condor roughly to his feet. "My mind's made up. It's far past time, and I can see that damned girl's got your mind turned around to the point you'll go do something stupid if someone doesn't set your head straight."
Still groggy from the backhanded blow that had laid him down moments ago, Aran shook his head. "What… what are you going to do?"
"What should've been done years ago." Shrike's gaze was unyielding, and his hand hovered near his axe. "You need a talk with our leader. A private talk… like his master had with me, once.
"Like he had with me, after I'd adopted you."
Though Shrike said nothing else, Aran felt a slow and rising dread as they passed into the shadows beneath the trees.
Beauty was gone, and he was gripped with a sudden conviction that, even if he were to turn around and run, there would be no beauty left to see.