Fall of Saints is the first volume in a projected trilogy titled "The Balanced Sword" (the other volumes tentatively titled Demon, Dragon, Hero, Toad and Promise of the Dying God). It takes place in the same universe, and roughly at the same time, as Digital Knight, but on the World of Magic, Zarathan (which is mentioned once in DK, by Eonae when she's speaking to Verne in his flashback sequence in "Viewed in a Harsh Light".) I posted one section of this novel, the one featuring the first appearance of Toad adventurer Poplock Duckweed, last year. That one will be included in my posting this year, but will be in context.
THE BALANCED SWORD
Book 1: Fall of Saints
By Ryk E. Spoor
Warm light spilled from the windows of the estate, windows that were set in solid stone, warded with spell and steel; comfort with protection. He gripped the hilt of his sword and swallowed; his mouth was dry, as thought filled with sand. "I… I don't want to do this," he whispered.
His companion's grip on his arm was unsettling… a combination of a reassuring squeeze and a warning, angry twist. "Ye're too late fer that, boy," the rough voice answered, barely audible from beneath the other's helmet, covered now with black cloth to prevent any glint of light from reflecting back to possible watching eyes. "Done other things as we been ordered, you have, not so bad, but enough 'tis so you either knew what might be needed, or you been foolin' yerself. Whichever 'tis, you'd best get over it."
"They're not bad people, sirza." The word meant friend, brother, father, though not related by blood; it was a word he used only to this man, the man he'd most admired and trusted and followed. "Why –"
"Dragons and curses, kid, you know that doesn't matter!" His mentor's voice nearly rose above a whisper. "We don't know the why, ain't got need to know, and askin' could get you what they're about to get."
He'd never more wanted to just shed the armor he wore than he did now, but his sirza was right; it was too late unless he wanted to go back to the temple and tell what waited there that…
Shuddering, he shook his head and turned his face back to the castle. No, far, far too late. "We'll never get in anyway. Doors are shut, the locking wards will –"
"Been assured that's no problem. Just be needin' to break the doors in ourselves. Guards mostly gone." His companion made three quick hand signals; the others fanned out. "They'll be the real problem, boy. Neither soft, both adventurers in their time. But alone, quiet in their upper chamber, guessin' they're takin' advantage with the kids all elsewhere this night." A gentler squeeze to the arm. "Better this way, eh, sirza? Better than what he would do, if we were daft enough to refuse."
That much was true. Their targets thought they were protected, blessed, but he knew how much of that was a lie… and what awaited those who stood against them. Yes, much better to die at my sword, no matter how horrifying they find it, than… than that.
He took a deep, shaking breath, nodded, and then drew himself up.
"Good lad," he heard faintly. The two of them strode to the doorway now, coordinating their steps, concentrating the power they were given, speeding up, strides becoming a jog, a sprint, shoulders lowering…
The twin doors, each ten feet high and five wide, shuddered at the impact; he felt the cloth covering tear, but the time for stealth was over and it was no longer a concern. He was right, the door-wards are down; all that force would've meant nothing otherwise, and likely alarm chimes and lights would now be everywhere – or something worse.
They drew back, focused, the power flickering about them in tarnished bronze light before they struck again.
This time the doors flew open, the eight-inch thick beam that had secured them snapped in two, deep gouges in the rimewood panels where their shoulderguards had bitten halfway through the wood.
Two house guards ran forward, but surprise at what greeted them hampered their response – and outnumbered more than three to one they had no chance, anyway. He and the others moved forward now, swiftly. Thank all the gods that the children are gone. He spared one more glance towards his companion. He planned the assault; I'm sure he waited for just that to happen.
The others fanned out through the house. Sounds of screams, breaking furniture, curses began to echo throughout the mansion as the two of them bounded up the stairs and smashed into the master bedroom doorway.
A blaze of blue-white thunderbolts limned them and he screamed, thrown back in a momentarily uncontrollable convulsion. Those wards are still up!
"Blast them! Threw up a new ward 'soon's they heard the noise! Go, boy, got to get the door down before –"
"I know!" He gathered himself up and they swung hard, sword and axe slamming into spell-reinforced wood and metal. The hastily-spelled ward could not overcome that assault, and though the hilt of his sword tingled he felt the spell break.
Then the doors were yanked open from the inside, two figures facing them; the grim fury on their faces, though, gave way to disbelief and shock.
As one, the two invaders lunged forward.
Kyrie smiled at her little sister Urelle as she ran, zig-zag fashion, back and forth across the path, trying to keep ahead of their older brother Michael. At 16, Michael was already nearly as tall as their father's six and a half feet, though much more slender. This gave him longer legs and more speed, but the eight-year-old Urelle was much more nimble.
Still, Michael was also in training for holy warrior, maybe even for the Saints if a vacancy opened, and he had all the speed of the Vantage family. His hand lashed out and caught Urelle's collar, lifted her laughing and shrieking into the air. "All right, that's enough, Urelle, you're getting far too excited, little lady. Mother and Father aren't going to want you running around like a wild elemental; it's wayyy past our bedtime."
Urelle giggled. "But—"
It was a lovely night in Evanwyl; no clouds blocked out the stars, and through one of the slight openings in the trees Kyrie glimpsed the Balanced Sword, the constellation's eighteen stars bright against the glow of the lesser stars nearby, and the lower two stars of the Five.
"How was practice?" she asked Michael as he joined her, Urelle tucked, still giggling, under his left arm.
"Pretty good. Lythos said that I was almost adequate today!"
"Isn't that how he usually describes Mother and Father?"
He couldn't restrain a proud grin. "Yep. How about you?"
She would have preferred to talk more about his training; swords and duels were much more fun than religious study, and the calm, unperturbable Elven Sho-ka-taida (Master of Combat) rarely paid anyone a compliment above 'not entirely incompetent'. "Almost adequate probably describes it. They've put off the unit on Myrionar's involvement in the greatest recent sagas until next month, and I was so looking forward to that."
"Especially the Wanderer and the Seedling Heroes, I know." Michael grinned. He knew she read all the adventure stories she could find and had driven the local storytellers to distraction years ago.
"Right," she agreed. "So about the only thing that's interesting is the fact that for some reason the following of Myrionar has contracted over the last several hundred years."
Michael's brow wrinkled. "Really? I thought the Balanced Sword was always pretty much an Evanwyl thing. Our patron deity, like the Dragon King and the Sixteen for the State of Elbon and Idinus is for the Empire of the Mountain."
"Oh, no!" she said, glad to have something she knew about the Faith that Michael didn't. "There were major temples in Hell's Edge, Elbon's Watch, even in Zarathanton and all the way to Tor Port in the Empire. About five thousand years ago, the teachers say the Way of the Balanced Sword was big. Maybe not as many followed Myrionar as Terian, Chromaias, or the Great Dragon –"
"—Or the Archmage, since he rules his own country –"
"Of course, but that's kind of cheating, isn't it? I mean, even if you're the most powerful wizard ever, and maybe you're close to or even actually a god, being right there and ruling the country is kind of wrong. The gods generally stick to letting their priests and so on do the work."
Michael chuckled. "Well, Kyrie, you're welcome to go to the Mountain someday and tell him that."
"Maybe I will. Father and mother –"
"—Don't want all of us out adventuring like them."
"Now there is another thing that doesn't make sense. If they spent their lives –"
Urelle, still under Michael's arm, interrupted. "Hey, what's that?"
Kyrie and Michael followed the smaller girl's extended arm. A red-orange light was dimly visible ahead.
Kyrie squinted, pushing her black hair (identical to her sister's, the opposite of her brother's blonde) out of her eyes. "Flickers. Looks like a fire."
"Haven't been any storms." Michael muttered. "And it looks too big to be a campfire at this distance. Besides, why would anyone build a campfire when it's right near –" he broke off and exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Kyrie. The two of them took off running. "What? What's wrong?" Urelle demanded.
Michael halted to shift his little sister to his back; Kyrie ran on ahead, pelting down the familiar path.
She burst out onto the lawn into terrible bright orange light and screamed.
The Vantage estate was in flames.
Michael dropped Urelle on the grass and started to sprint forward, but Kyrie grabbed his arm, was dragged forward. "No, Michael, no! If the fire wards didn't stop it, there's no chance!"
He dragged to a halt unwillingly, staring. "Mother! FATHER!" he screamed. Then, remembering, he scrabbled through his belt pouch, found the small signal wand and gestured skyward. A brilliant blue ball of light streaked up into the air and burst, hanging above them like a cerulean sun.
Kyrie found the Balanced Sword and prayed. Please, Myrionar. Please let Father and Mother be safe.
But she knew, as the flames rose higher, that her prayer was too little, too late.
Kyrie stared numbly down at the remains of the front door; with cruel irony, the fire-charm on the door had remained intact, so the huge portals were unscorched, smeared only with water and soot from the rest of the mansion but otherwise marred only by the deep crescent-shaped gouges where they had, impossibly, been broken open. The deep scars in the wood showed a faint silvery sheen in the rays of the lowering sun.
The angle of the sun struck a faint chord in the back of her mind, and she realized with a sort of apathetic surprise that she hadn't ever slept; despite everyone urging her to move away, to rest, she'd refused to move as the fire raged and the others fought with water and spells and prayer to stop it, force it back, prevent it from spreading. And when the flames had given up the battle and retreated to sullen smoke, she'd refused again, wandering around the grounds, seeing the rear areas where something might have been saved (but not her parents, not the guards like Garrick, Vistle, Camberi, Simmini, or Toll, the Master of House, or Tish, no…), shrugging off the well-meaning comfort of the neighbors, the offer of shelter from Arbiter Kelsley of the Temple, even the gentle words of sympathy from the Watchland, Jeridan Relion himself, to come back always to these familiar, forlorn panels lying flat amidst the ruins.
Urelle had been taken off by Kelsley, who'd used a simple blessing to calm her; Kyrie hoped her little sister had managed to get some sleep. She knew Michael hadn't; he wouldn't let her help (and had made it clear that if she tried to bull her way in, he'd have the other men drag her off by main force), but he was trying desperately to clear the debris from where they thought their parents' chambers had been.
A hand touched her shoulder from behind and she pulled away. "Go away."
"Kyrie Victoria Vantage, you will need to have far more years and vastly more authority before you can ever tell me to just 'go away'," a strong contralto voice replied tartly.
Kyrie spun around, staring at the very tall, elegant, perfectly-attired woman whose severe, regular features she knew were somewhat mirrored in her own. "Aunt… Auntie Victoria?"
The deep blue eyes met hers and suddenly she flung herself into her great-aunt's enfolding embrace, crying, trying to talk but finding herself unable to do anything but sob.
"Oh, child… What a terrible thing," Victoria Vantage murmured. Her mother's oldest living relative had always been their favorite, her stern and forbidding exterior hiding a woman who had followed the adventurer's path and later that of society and politics, and who had endless stories to tell (as well as a willingness to spoil the children she thought of as her own grandchildren, as she had never had any children of her own). Her own gaze fell upon the doors. "Ah. So it is true then. No accident at all."
Kyrie wanted to answer properly, sounding grown up, but when she opened her mouth she couldn't say anything coherent. She settled for nodding her head emphatically.
"Broke in the door… no sign of magical destruction. Something undid the security seals, and without raising any alarms. That's… very interesting." The contralto voice was grim now.
With a great effort Kyrie got herself under control and pulled away. "That's… hard to do, isn't it?"
The older woman shrugged slightly and gestured, muttering a few indistinguishable words; pearl-white light radiated from her fingers, and she bent down, traced the outline of the doors with the light. "Depends on the seals, of course. For these, yes, I would say very hard, Kyrie. Your father and mother were no fools; they paid well to secure their home as well as could be managed here. I know I would not care to have tried it even when I was a much younger woman; one mistake and those seals would disable or even kill, and certainly alert everyone in the household and the nearest Patrol."
"But there was no alert at all!" she protested, almost beginning to cry again. "We didn't hear anything, and –"
"I know, Kyrie. And that's most disturbing." Aunt Victoria moved forward, surveying the wreckage narrowly, eyes picking up on details; light flickered around her a few more times, perhaps showing her things invisible to Kyrie. "Yes… The wards were completely removed. I find not a trace of them, even though there should be something."
A deep-throated cry yanked them both around, a shout of fury and loss from someone too young to accept the second and far too young to restrain the first. "Monsters! Cowardly, Balance-damned treacherous…" Michael was half-running, half-falling through the still-smoking ruins, whatever fireshielding he'd had for the excavation clearly now running out, but paying no attention to the heat, his sword already drawn. "I'll kill them all!"
Aunt Victoria looked for a moment as though her heart was going to break, but took a deep breath and suddenly looked as sarcastically forbidding as she had that time one of the Watchland's Eyes had suggested she cut down on the time she spent training. "An admirable plan, Michael Kervan Vantage. Such detail and attention to execution. I trust you have some idea as to who 'they' are and, by the way you are running with such decision, knowledge of where 'they' may be found?"
Michael rounded on her furiously, sword out, but just stood there wordlessly staring for several moments. Finally he let the sword drop. "I… But I can't do nothing!"
"And no one expects you to. But there is nothing that you can do right now, Michael. Your father was always a level-headed man and I would hope you inherited some of that, it was always your mother who would swing first and ask later."
"But if there's nothing we can do –"
"I," Victoria said severely,"said absolutely nothing about we." Her silvery hair with the blue scarves reminded Kyrie forcibly of the blue-and-silver Balance that was the symbol of Myrionar. "I can do something, and I have already done so; what I have seen here has confirmed that I have taken the correct action."
With relief, Kyrie saw the last of the unreasoning fury fade from Michael's face. He slowly sheathed his sword, then wiped his face with his sleeve; the effect was not perhaps what he would have wanted, because tears mixed with soot smeared blackly over much of his face. "So what…"
"… have I done? As soon as I heard, I went to Sasha Rithair."
"The Summoner?" Kyrie was puzzled.
"Do you know another Rithair in this land? Of course the Summoner. Charming girl, if a bit young for this sort of thing. Still, she's quite good with spirits of air, lightning, that sort of thing, and that was exactly what we needed. She was quite happy to accept some coin and a particularly flawless piece of crystal I've had lying about in exchange for calling up an aerial spirit with the power and strength to make a fast journey to Zarathanton with a letter." Aunt Victoria sighed and shook her head. "They say calling pools and crystals were reliable ways, but that's no option now."
"Not since Dalthunia was taken," Michael agreed absently. Dalthunia had been their buffer and ally to the south, a fairly large country carved out of the hinterlands of the Empire of the Mountain by heroics and political maneuverings over three thousand years ago, but a couple of centuries before Kyrie had been born some mysterious force had invaded in a lightning-fast attack that broke Dalthunia's defenses, scattered her armies and nobility, and turned Dalthunia into a country that permitted few if any visitors, restricted travel, and about which no one really knew much of anything. Even communications across their territories were severely restricted. Some rumors said that it was simply the Archmage taking back what had been his, but that seemed unlikely as – apparently – the forces of the Empire were no more welcome to travel there than those of the State of Elbon or Evanwyl itself. "So what was your message?"
"Your father and mother were good followers of Myrionar and famous adventurers. The second means that they made as many enemies as they made friends, though a lot of those enemies have made their final journey," Victoria said, clearly intending to answer in her own way. Despite her resolve to stay, Kyrie found that both she and Michael were now walking with their aunt towards her waiting carriage. "The first means that anyone who tried an attack like this must have taken steps to hide themselves from the direct investigation of the Arbiters, perhaps even from the Saints themselves. Not an easy task."
No, Kyrie thought. Not when Myrionar, as a God of Justice and Vengeance, grants many powers to see through lies to the Truth. Hiding from that is very difficult. "But if they have…"
"… then still they may not have done enough." Aunt Victoria opened the door of the carriage and gestured them inside. Michael cast one more pained look backwards; his shoulders suddenly slumped, and he climbed in slowly. Kyrie followed, the realization of her own exhaustion starting to come to her.
"It so happens," Victoria continued as she seated herself and the carriage began to move, "that some years ago when I was not all that much older than you, I was… well, time for that story later. Let's just say that the King owes me a little favor and –"
"The King? You mean the Sauran King?"
"Will you do me the courtesy of not interrupting all the time, child? And what other King would I be referring to? The old lizard has an excellent memory and I'm sure he'll be willing to do me a service or two. In this case," and now a genuine, but very cold smile – the smile of an Adventurer who was readying a trap for an adversary – grew on Victoria's face, "I've asked him to send one of the Lords Justiciar. Not that I doubt our people here, but I know …" her voice seemed to stumble, "…knew your parents very well indeed, and someone who would do this so quickly and thoroughly had to have thought all aspects of the attack through."
Michael looked impressed despite his exhaustion. "But not this, eh?"
Victoria bit her lip, looking dour for a moment. "I would hope not. The power and skill to mislead Myrionar is not inconsiderable, but to hide it from one of those blessed by the Dragon God and the Sixteen, or – as is the case with some of the Justiciars – Terian Nomicon, or Chromaias and the Four? Perhaps not impossible… but I have heard of nothing that I would believe could do it, save of course for another god willing to take the risk."
Kyrie nodded, her eyelids heavy. "So we'll know soon…"
"I would hope so. But even an aerial spirit will take a few days to travel two thousand miles, and then the Justiciar must find its way here, so be not overly impatient."
With a jolt, Kyrie realized that if there had been further conversation she had missed it; the carriage had jolted to a halt in front of Victoria Vantage's fortress, the second-most formidable construction (aside from the guardwall across Rivendream Pass) in all of Evanwyl. Only the Watchland's castle surpassed Vantage Fortress, and according to family legend the foundations of the five-sided fortress were laid by five great wizards using all five Great Elements – which if true might make it even harder to destroy than the Watchland's own.
Michael looked barely awake too as he climbed heavily out of the carriage and followed their aunt inside. "So… all we can do is wait?"
"For now, you – and your sister – need to get something to eat and then rest." Victoria put an arm around each of them and hugged. "What we can do… we will do later.
"The dead do not need our haste, remember that, child. They need our justice."
I like Aunt Victoria.