"No, Milady." Thornfalcon's face seemed even longer and sadder than usual beneath the silver-beaked helm. The poet and would-be swashbuckler of the Saints of Myrionar, Thornfalcon's lugubrious exterior usually masked a playful romantic, ready with a compliment for a lady or a quip to set a room laughing.
But there was no laughter there now. He looked defeated, mirroring the slumped shoulders of the other Saints present. "We have prayed, we have called upon the vision of Justice. Nothing."
Kyrie looked from one to the other, the shining heroic figures of her childhood – of almost every child in Evanwyl – fighting the crushing disappointment in her heart. "Nothing?"
Silver Eagle shook his head, throwing the blue and silver cape back as the light wind made it wrap around him, and looked up at the ruins of the mansion. There was no more smoke now, more than a week after the fire, but everything still smelled of burning and death. She saw Eagle's beard quiver as he clenched his teeth before answering. "Not a trace. The wards were removed, that much is clear, by some force before the assault began. But that force left no trace, and the fire destroyed any chance of determining exactly who and what did the killing."
"And Myrionar is silent?"
"The Balanced Sword does not speak." The pearlescent armor of Mist Owl, the only Artan (or,as some called them, Elven) Saint, reflected the gray of the sky in sad, muted rainbow hues. "This tells us that whatever force acted here has powerful support, for in the name of Justice and Vengeance It will always speak and guide us upon the proper course… unless Myrionar Itself cannot see."
Shrike and Condor came down from the wreckage, the short, rock-solid older man seeming even shorter and even the tall, long-limbed form of Condor shrunken in defeat. "As we thought. Swords, axes… no weapons of unusual signature. The fire was alchemically started – no ordinary material could have caused such a swift and complete blaze. But that tells us little; anyone could have purchased infused oil or even pure fire essence."
"But they would have needed a considerable amount to do this." Victoria Vantage pointed out.
"Agreed," Thornfalcon said, "And do not think that we are giving up. We shall search for any large purchases. We will question any and all who may have seen anything. We will trace every connection, all those who may have held a grudge against the Vantage family, who might have feared they knew something or would act in some way against them…" His long fingered hand clenched tightly on the hilt of his ornate rapier, and Kyrie felt a pang of sympathy; the Saints were the protectors of Evanwyl, their heroes for generations, each who was fortunate enough to take up one of the seven sacred armors given blessings of strength, senses, protection, and healing to seek out and right injustices. To fail here, with such an outrage perpetrated on one of the oldest and most loved families… "… we will never rest until we find them, Kyrie. We, the Saints, promise you that."
"Aye." Shrike's usually gruff voice was soft. "That we do, lass." He glanced over at Michael, who had said nothing.
She'd thought her brother too lost in thought to notice, but he looked up. "I will find them myself, if you do not." She was relieved; he was clearly as disappointed as she was, but kept himself from letting any accusation of failure reach his voice.
"I have no doubt you will. But seek them not alone; whoever or whatever they were, mazakh or old enemies returned or even some devilment from Moonshade Hollow beyond Rivendream Pass, they were clever, careful, wise in their evil and very prepared indeed. Your father and mother may have been softer than in their youth, but no ordinary creatures could have caught them so off guard." Silver Eagle laid his gauntleted hand firmly on Michael's shoulder. "Make sure you have strong and worthy companions on that quest, Michael Vantage." He gestured to the others. "We have done what little we could here. We must confer and meditate, and then act. As Thornfalcon has said, there is much to do, but we must do it wisely and well, not hastily for the sake of our anger. Both justice and vengeance come in time."
The Saints bowed to the family with the sign of the Balanced Sword and left, the heaviness of their tread showing how deeply their failure affected them.
Aunt Victoria watched them go and did not speak until they had vanished down the road. "I wish I had not expected that."
"Is Myrionar so weak a god?" Michael's voice was bitter. "Have we followed something so impotent that it cannot even protect us in the name of justice and vengeance?"
Kyrie was speechless for a moment; she'd never heard such words, even thought to hear such words, from her brother.
"Perhaps when you can answer the questions the Saints cannot, you will be in a position to make that judgement, Michael Kyril Vantage, but I'll thank you not to insult the gods in my presence until you reach that point!"
Michael winced, but stood, glaring down at his aunt. "I'm sorry it bothers you, Aunt Victoria, but what is the point of following one of the gods if they cannot even act in their own aspect?"
"Sometimes," a massively deep, resonant voice said from behind them, "sometimes, young Vantage, they wait for those through whom they will act."
Not forty feet from them stood an immense figure, eight feet high, scaled with green-black armor, massive shoulders supporting a crested head with deep-set black eyes. A pattern of multicolored gems was inlaid into the scales on each shoulder; a warstaff was slung over the creature's back, held by a leather harness from which multiple small pouches and containers also hung, with a split pack on either side of the back. Plates of silvery protective armor covered a long tail, ending in edged flanges which turned the tail into a deadly weapon indeed.
"What –" Michael stepped back, hand going to his sword.
Victoria laughed. "Do not even think of drawing that sword, Michael." She ran forward, looking almost young for a moment. "I can't believe it! Old Bridgebreaker!"
The reptilian face was more expressive than Kyrie would have expected, and it showed an odd mix of fondness and wincing embarrassment at Victoria's familiar address. "Not that old nickname, unless you want me to call you the V—"
"Oh, I think not!" Victoria hastily cut him off. "Children, this is … let me get the pronunciation correct if I can… T'Oroning'Oltharamnon hGHEK," the last sound sort of an inhaled choke or cough, "R'arshe Ness, first brother to the Sauran King of Zarathanton and the State."
Kyrie stared open-mouthed, then tried frantically to remember the proper courtesy; true nobility was almost never seen in Evanwyl, the Watchland notwithstanding, and the Ancient Saurans, children of the Great Dragons, were unique even among nobility. That's right, the armed bow… She made sure her own sword was visible, then did a deep bow, extending one leg behind her for balance and to imitate the presence of a tail, then pivoted slowly around so that she faced away from him, bowed slowly to the air, and finally turned to face the huge creature again. She could see Michael had also performed the same gesture.
As they halted, the Sauran gave a chuckle like a kettle filled with rolling stones. "Drilled some courtesies into them, have you, Victoria?" He bowed deeply, keeping his eyes fixed on them, and then spun about to repeat the bow, the bladed tail indicating that even from behind he was not helpless.
"I do what I can, Toron."
"And still using that abominably, not to mention insultingly, shortened version of my name." The Sauran's voice, fortunately, held amusement rather than annoyance.
"It did us well enough back then. I'll admit I didn't expect him to send you."
"It was not just for your sake – though my kingly brother has not at all forgotten your services. He wished me to look into some other disquieting events in the outer regions. From here I may return via Hell's Edge, and on the way here I was able to gain some personal sight of what Dalthunia has become."
"So… sir…" Michael said, "You are a Justiciar?"
"Justiciar, Master of the Marshaled Hosts when the time calls for it, Warrior of the Sixteen and the Dragon God. That I am."
Master of the… that makes him not just the King's brother, but the warmaster and head of security for the greatest country in the world. How in the world does Aunt Victoria know him?
"Well, then, we'd best not waste your time. You know why I've called for a Justiciar."
Toron bowed solemnly. "My sympathies and those of the King to you all." He looked around. "And here is the scene of the assault. I shall begin immediately."
"Can I watch?" The words were out of Kyrie's mouth before she realized how inane they must sound.
Apparently they didn't sound quite that bad to the Ancient Sauran Justiciar, because he chuckled again. "There may be little to see, despite the reputations of Justiciars. And for me to commune with the Powers fully, I need as much quiet as possible."
"Come then, children." Michael looked reluctant, but followed.
Kyrie glanced back before they entered the carriage; the huge draconic figure stood, staff out and planted in the ground before it. Somehow, though he did not move, he looked like a creature preparing for a mighty battle.
Then may you defeat lies and win the truth, Justiciar. Because we need to know.
"The least of her sons presents his compliments to the ageless and wise Lord of Waters, and asks if she would hear him at this time." The black-haired youth knelt before the woman whose white hair had a very few strands of similar midnight still visible.
There was a gentle laugh. "May the Spring of the Court flow ever for you, my son. The Lord of Waters is pleased that her son would seek out such an aged and infirm woman whose final years are doubtless close upon her, and would hear what wisdom of youth he may have to bring before her." Another laugh. "Close that door and have done with that prattle of tradition, Tobimar. By the Water and the Sand, what brings on such formality?"
Tobimar swallowed but managed a smile as he closed the door. This would be difficult, but his mother seemed in a good humor. "It's … something I need to talk about, Mother."
Talima Silverun had not been the ruler of all Skysand for forty years without being able to hear what was unsaid. "And this something is not merely of mother and son, but of Lord and one of her heirs." She shook her head, an uncertain but affectionate smile playing about the corners of her mouth. "You are scarce fifteen, Tobimar. What is there of such grave import that you could have involved yourself in? Have you thrown salt into the Court Fountain?"
Tobimar winced; as well ask if he'd dropped his pants and relieved himself on Terian's altar. "Of course not, mother!"
"Then have you killed one of the Warders in practice? No? Sold the Seven Sacred Scrolls? No? Well, now, we're swiftly running out of possibilities, my son. What could –"
She broke off, staring, as he held up the card that had been hidden within the long sleeves of the silver-trimmed black robe. Slowly, unwillingly, she reached out and took the thick, ancient plaque, unable to take her gaze from the image. Then she closed her eyes and bowed her head.
Tobimar knew what she saw: Terian, the Mortal God, Lord of Stars as the Dragons called him, Infinity as some of his followers preferred; a human figure with a face shadowed in glory, in black with a flowing cape clasped with a golden sidewise-eight shaped sigil. The deity their family had followed since before Skysand had existed, and – some claimed – whose power ran within their veins, Terian was said to be one of the greatest of all the gods, and according to legend was a man who had discovered the very key to the power of Creation itself.
But in the reading of the Mirror, Terian's card did not mean a blessing. Not for those of the Silverun family.
"There is no mistake?" she said finally. It was the voice, not of the lord of Skysand, but of his mother, whose other six children were grown, all now helping to keep Skysand a place of safety and beauty amid the all-encompassing sand.
"Nomdas Ferril did the reading himself." There could be no mistake when the Nomdas of Terian performed the reading.
His mother closed her eyes again. When she opened them again, they were hard and clear, a deep blue that mirrored his own and that only they shared, of all their family. "The Lord of Waters then must speak plainly to her youngest son."
It's as bad as I feared. Yet… I feel so much more alive. Will mother understand?
"The least of sons awaits the words of his most honored and wise parent, the Lord of Waters, as he would a drink in the very heart of the desert."
A tiny flicker of humor answered his extravagance, and then the Lord of Waters spoke. "The Lord of Waters earnestly inquires of her youngest and most beloved child as to whether he understands in fullness the meaning and import of this seemingly unimportant card, plucked from a deck at seeming random by the fingers of a priest?"
"Oh, Lord of Waters, your youngest son believes that he does, as much as any child can understand such things, for is it not written in our legends that when the face of Glory is revealed to one who stands between the innocence of childhood and the duties of a Lord, then the command of Terian is laid upon that one that he seek for that which was lost until it is found? And," he continued before his mother could begin the next question, for he didn't think he could bear to keep drawing this out, "is it not also written that ever since we fled from the Darkness that pursued us in the years of betrayal and loss, none of the Silverun may seek that which was lost except that they must leave Skysand and not return until their seeking is over, for in the act of seeking shall they draw the eye and will of the Darkness upon them, and upon all Skysand if they remain?"
"The Lord of Waters hears her youngest child and … and sees…" she broke off, took a breath, and composed herself. "And sees that he does well understand that the command of Terian lies upon him, and that he must leave his home, his city, and his people, not to return until twenty-four years have passed, or until – beyond all hope – that which was lost lies within his grasp and the Darkness is confronted by the Light.
"By our ancient laws, our child must know he has but a single day from the moment the card was drawn. More, he must know that he may taken nothing but what he may carry upon him, and that without the aid of any magics or powers not his own."
She glanced to the door, assuring herself it was still closed, and then came as close as he had ever seen to crying; she buried her face in her hands and sat still for long moments before she dropped her hands and looked up. "Where will you go, Tobimar? My son, what will you do?"
Suddenly he laughed and grabbed her hands, knelt in front of her. "Mother, mother, please don't cry. Don't worry. I know you're afraid – I'm afraid, some – but … I never wanted to be a Lesser Lord of a city, or even the Lord of Waters myself."
The eyes looking back at him were suspiciously bright, as though tears hovered there waiting to be shed. But her lips slowly turned upward. "The youngest son becoming his grandfather's image… not to be, then?"
"More of my father and – perhaps – my mother in me."
She laughed, still with a hint of tears. "Perhaps indeed. Was it so obvious that this robe chafes at times?"
"To your children, I think so, Mother."
"Then what will you do, Tobimar?" She studied him. "You are a marvelous quick study with a sword."
"And I've learned from Master Khoros."
She looked … grim for a moment. "Yes. He said you had much power of the spirit, to use the spirit to see that which might be invisible, to touch that which lay beyond your hands. And he gave me something when he left…"
"What? What is it, Mother?" The question was not just for what the mage might have left behind, but what bothered her so much.
"… I wonder now… if he knew, somehow, even though not all the priests could have seen what was to come. For he said that it was for you 'when the time came.' And what other time could he have meant…?" She rose and crossed to the miniature vault set in her chambers, touched the door, which opened. Inside were many things that he strained to see, but when she turned back all she held was a sealed piece of parchment… no, it was a leaf, as Master Khoros had often written upon, a leaf from the Mynoli plants that grew near oases, tough, flexible even when dry.
"Take it… but do not open it until you have left. He said also that 'wisdom comes only to those who seek it, never to those who demand it. Listen to what is said by your heart.'."
That was Khoros, all right. He took the leaf-parchment and tucked it away inside his own robes. "So… I'll do what I can, Mother. I'm a swordsman and a Skysand; I'll help people as I can. And I'll find what was lost. One day I will be able to tell you who we were, and show us where to go."
She suddenly embraced him. "I will pray to Terian that you do, Tobimar. I will pray every day, so that my son will one day stand before me… as my sister never did again."
And we meet the second of our main characters...