They had called in outside help...
"I am sorry, Victoria." The huge draconic creature's voice was soft.
Kyri couldn't believe it. "But… nothing?"
"Nothing, little Vantage." Toron's clawed talons slashed the air in his own anger. "I have used all my senses. I have spoken with all of note in this part of Evanwyl, from the Watchland and the Justiciars down to every living servant of the neighboring houses. I have meditated in prayer in the center of the wreckage, tasted the ashes for their consistency and for the rumors of the past contained within them; I have tried to follow trails of scent and malice."
The Sauran paced back and forth erratically as he spoke; he could not stay still, so agitated was he by the failure, and despite the aching disappointment Kyri felt a pang of sympathy for Toron. An old friend calls on you for help, and you cannot give it. "So …" She tried to think of some way to ask that would not be harmful; it was clear Rion was also looking for a diplomatic way to ask the question.
Urelle, however, was not. She glared up at Toron's scaled face. "So you haven't found out anything and we're no closer to finding out who killed mommy and daddy than when you came here? Auntie V—"
The simple name, spoken quietly, stopped Urelle in mid-sentence; Victoria's tone brooked no argument. "You will apologize for that tone to Adjudicator Toron."
Kyri saw Urelle's huge gray eyes, identical to her own and their father's, begin to fill with tears, and felt an answering sting in hers.
"That is not necessary." Toron said gently. He stopped pacing and lowered himself to the ground; even seated with his tail curled around him, his head remained at Urelle's level. "No, Victoria, let it be. You called a mighty Adjudicator, from a far-fabled country, beings said to be able to see through any deception, track down the perpetrators of any crime, selected for their incorruptibility and powers and willingness to work for the good of society, given almost unlimited authority by the Sauran King and, through him, Elbon and the Sixteen themselves." His bitter smile looked like a savage, deadly snarl, given the dozens upon dozens of razor-sharp teeth. "I think she – and her siblings – can be forgiven some anger and bitterness at finding the legend is more than the truth, and the hoped-for answers are beyond his feeble grasp."
"Surely, sir… we must have learned something from this investigation?" Rion asked. The tension in his face had subsided, as had a small part of the knot in Kyri's gut as well. He apologized when he did not have to, for he had promised us nothing; only we had put that promise onto his work, in our own heads and hopes.
"We have, Rion Vantage. But very little of it good, I am afraid. Much of it terribly bad."
"I'd rather know more of the bad than not know it." Kyri said, and saw both Victoria and Urelle nod.
The Sauran smiled again with a touch more humor, and there was a slight corresponding glint in the deep, dark green eyes. "Your family indeed, Victoria."
Toron rose from the floor and gestured for them to follow him outside; he clearly felt cramped in human-scaled dwellings. They emerged from the High Retreat onto Vantage Ridge, which some said was named after the family and others said was the original source of the family name, far back in antiquity that pre-dated at least two Chaoswars. The Ridge was a long, high, steep mass of stone, an isolated foothill of the immense Khalal, or Claw, Mountains looming over everything to the north, which provided an excellent lookout point (in other words, a vantage point) to survey a large part of Evanwyl. Vantage Fortress was built on a flattened area of the Ridge at its extreme southern edge, and the door from which they had left the fortress let out directly onto the top of the granite-and-nightstone crest of the Ridge.
Kyri also knew that this portion of the Crest was often used for councils of war, tactics and so on, because it was open enough to see any who might try to approach, far enough from other ground to make far-seeing problematic, and spelled and re-spelled every few decades to prevent any scrying from range or concealed approach (invisibility, stone-melding, and so on), while still allowing those present a clear view of the entire region. Clearly, Toron wanted to speak in privacy.
"First," Toron gestured to the blackened ruins far below and to the east, "I was able to determine a bit more about exactly what was done that night.
"Victoria, the main wards were not dispelled or unravelled by any ordinary means. They were simply removed. There were no traces at all of the original spells and seals, not in the wood of the doorway, the steel or crystal of the lock, the hinges, or the walls themselves. It felt to my own spells, and even to the Eye of the Dragon, like mundane material, never spelled, never touched by mystic or godly force since its first creation."
"But… I thought that wasn't possible, sir," Rion said after a moment. "Every spell, every mystical conflict, every act of the gods leaves its mark, or so they've always taught us. Thus one can read the truth of history in almost any shard or fragment that has been present at the events you seek."
"There are few – if any – things that are truly impossible, Rion," Toron replied slowly. "Some are very difficult – returning the dead to life, for example, can be done, but even for the gods it is a solemn and difficult task with grave considerations to be made before it is attempted.
"It is true that almost all efforts and events leave their marks upon the world – this is just as true for non-magical events as it is for magical ones in many ways. But just as a man may brush away his tracks in the snow, so too are there ways to reduce the traces of any magical events." Toron toyed idly with the hilt of his sword, running clawed fingers over the huge polished handle. "There is of course the obvious example of the Chaoswars, which confuse and wipe away traces and memories of what went before even in the minds of the gods themselves. That said, in truth it is difficult in the extreme to eliminate all traces so completely, difficult enough that in common parlance one might well say it was impossible.
"This in itself tells us much. What did this was backed by something of vast power – godly, demonic, or a magician of immense skill and experience."
Kyri glanced involuntarily northward, to the shadowed notch in the otherwise impenetrable rampart of the Claw Mountains. Toron followed her gaze and nodded. "That would seem a likely possibility," he said. "Even Elbon Nomicon," he touched the lightning-bolt sunburst crest inlaid in diamond on his breastplate reverently, "was never able to say what the source of those forces were."
Rivendream Pass. It was a name that meant little elsewhere in Zarathan, but for Evanwyl it was the name you scared little children with… and older children too, just in a different way. Once it had been the Heavenbridge Way, joining Evanwyl and Terathamion, the home of the Lords of the Sky, as partners and allies at the only pass through the continent-spanning mountain range.
But during the last Chaoswar, something had happened; some said that something the Lords of the Sky had done had in fact triggered the last Chaoswar, perhaps by probing too deeply into the ancient and perilous regions fringing the Abyss that lay to the north. But however it was, in what had seemed a single night the power of the Lords – who had been messengers and scouts, flying troops and speedy transport for all of Zarathan – was broken and their beautiful and diverse lands turned into a place of horror, with the Heavenbridge Way becoming a dark pathway for the monstrosities within to escape, and gaining its new name of Rivendream Pass in the bargain. Evanwyl, once a center of trade with Terathamion and protected by its association with the Lords from being conquered or even threatened by other countries, was suddenly alone, protected now mostly by the fact that there was little left to fight for with the Lords gone and the Pass leading nowhere that any sane being would go.
"But that is not the only possibility," Toron emphasized."While your family has helped seal Rivendream for many centuries, equally have you – especially your parents, of late – opposed many others of power, who might well have had connections. Like your aunt, they were adventurers of note. It would be unwise to assume the source of the attack."
"What else have you learned?" Rion said after a moment of thought.
"Two individuals broke down the door; the marks were of differing heights. It is hard to tell for certain the sizes, as they could have lowered themselves, or leapt just before impact, but one was quite tall, the other quite short, both of them of generally humanlike outline. Probably wearing armor, unless they were armored inherently – some sorts of demons have such natural armor. There were several other individuals present; the bodies we could uncover showed that the attack must have spread through the house more rapidly than a mere two beings could have managed without – for instance – some of the guards, or your parents, moving much farther than they appeared to."
Urelle winced and blinked at the mention of their parents and Kyri patted her shoulder. It will be a long time before we can think of that without being upset.
"Other than that, no one saw or recalls anything. Which bothers me."
Victoria nodded. "Because in all likelihood they would have had to study the targets and location carefully to do this so well, and someone would have noticed something in that time."
Kyri suddenly understood her point. "So either they could wipe just the right memories from people's minds –"
"—or," Rion finished, looking pale, "there was nothing for people to notice, because the one doing the scouting for them… was someone from Evanwyl."
Toron grunted assent. "I would say this is very probable no matter what your ultimate adversary is."
"But… but that's horrible!" Urelle burst out. "Someone we know?"
"More accurately, someone we think we know," Victoria said bluntly.
Toron bowed. "Victoria, the more I think of this, the less I like it. Might I suggest you move? This level of effort is not expended just on two adventurers. There is something much deeper going on here, something vastly worse, and it is not something these children –"
"I am staying here." Rion's voice was iron, and Kyri realized she had said the exact same words at the exact same time, in a startling chorus. He went on, "My father wouldn't have abandoned Evanwyl, my mother wouldn't have abandoned Evanwyl, and we're not going to either."
Victoria smiled. "They are my family, as you said."
The immense Sauran sighed. "As I expected. But once I leave, you may be on your own. I may be able to help you if you come to Zarathanton, but I cannot stay here. I am here purely as a friend; I have no legal authority in Evanwyl."
"I know that, sir," Rion said. "But we're staying. Maybe I'll have –"
"If you even think of sending me and Urelle away, Rion, I will kick you somewhere that you really do not want me to kick," Kyri said quickly. "Whatever you do… we're here to do, too."
"Then," Rion said, looking down across the fields, forests, and mountains with a determined look on his face, "we'd better get started."