Tobimar was leaving...
Tobimar stood at the rail of the Lucramalalla and stared at Skysand, the great capital city named as was the entirety of the gem-scattered mountains and golden sands of the country itself. The rising sun struck the seven Lesser Towers and made them seem forged of gold, while the central Great Tower, which was in fact gilded, blazed as though poured from a furnace of auric fire. Sparks of other color shimmered in that light, the light of his departure, glittering hints of ruby, argent, sapphire, emerald, other colors more exotic and rare from the mystical gems that were set as both decoration and defense in the towers and walls of Skysand.
Wind whipped strands of long black hair that had somehow escaped the band he'd used to tie it back with, and the combination gave him an excuse for the tears that trickled from his eyes. It wasn't that he needed an excuse, exactly; it was just that a part of him was glad he was leaving, as he'd said to his mother, and crying didn't quite make sense to that part of him.
But the other part was afraid he would never see his mother Talima, his brothers… Vanilar, Terimur, Donalan… his sisters Karili, Mindala, Sundrilin… or Skysand itself ever again. He had never imagined that he'd miss the endless gray-gold sands, broken by outcrops of black stone, occasional oases… but he would. Skysand was his home.
And yet… it isn't.
That internal voice had spoken to him before. It wasn't so much a different voice as a different part of himself, something deeper, something that had no clear reason or history behind its existence. Or a history that led me to this.
Now the sun had risen higher, and the black polished obsidian of the Seven Lesser drank in the light and returned only small, brilliant highlights around the Lord of Waters' Great Tower. He looked at the highest point of the Tower, pretending for a moment that his eyes were sharp as a Dragon's and he could see his mother standing there, watching from the Spire of Legacy, the solemn, empty room at the very top of the Great Tower.
Finally he sighed and turned away, wiping away the traces of the tears. He made his way towards the cabins across the wide silver-gold zhenwood decks; above, the Captain's deep voice sent T'oltha's commands echoing to Lucramallala's crew. I think T'oltha probably means "Captain" in Ancient Sauran, because I think that was the name of the other Sauran Captain I met when I was a kid, and it wasn't the same one. The huge draconic creatures' names tended to be long and descriptive, difficult to remember and sometimes even harder to pronounce.
The wide stairway down to the cabin level was darker than outside, but still lit by lightstones; Tobimar shook his head in bemusement. Skysand made good use of many forms of magic, but this vessel – five hundred feet long, two hundred or more wide, and with only enough mast and sail for emergencies – was a wonder in itself. "Built only two centuries after the last Chaoswar," T'oltha had claimed. Tobimar wasn't sure he believed that – it would make the Lucramalla something like twelve thousand years old – but then again, it was known that the Saurans themselves lived for thousands of years. It was possible that T'oltha was simply speaking of something she'd witnessed.
He reached his cabin and entered. It was reasonably large, but spare in its furnishings; a bunk, a writing desk made fast to the floor, a simple locker which – despite being not overly large – still had ample room for the few possessions he carried.
Tobimar sat down and took a deep breath. Now.
From the inside pocket of his robe he took the Mynoli leaf, inscribed with the peculiar rune-like symbol that Khoros used as a signature, and unfolded it.
Clear white light poured from the leaf, dazzling Tobimar and causing him to nearly upset his chair. He blinked as a figure rose out of the light. "M… Master Khoros?"
"Tobimar." The immensely tall form of the wandering enchanter nearly touched the seven-foot ceiling of the cabin; the strange wide, five-sided, peaked hat that Khoros wore obscured, as always, the details of his face; and his staff with the complex gold-crystalline head chimed softly. "Do not make the mistake of believing I am here. As with many things, what you see is less important than what you believe.
"As you are receiving this message, there are two possibilities. The first, and least likely, is that you have ascended to the Lordship of Skysand; you are, then, the Lord of Waters. If that is the case, I shall be before you soon, as you shall be in grave need of my advice.
"Far more probable, however, is that you have now left Skysand on the quest that only a Silverun may complete, at the sight of the card of your patron." The half-hidden mouth gave a smile that Tobimar found extremely disquieting. "It was evident to me that if any in your generation was to be chosen, it would be you." As always, Khoros offered no explanation; he spoke in pronouncements, riddles, and questions. "You have the best chance of any of your people to succeed where all the others have failed, Tobimar Silverun. And it is terribly important that you do, not merely for the sake of your exiled and lost people, but for the entirety of the world." Tobimar felt a slow, creeping dread as the white-haired mage paused and pointed the chiming staff at him. "Remember my lessons of history, Tobimar."
What the… he's not even here and he's expecting me to answer him? Tobimar searched desperately through the hundreds of hours of instruction Konstantin Khoros had given him, in history, meditation, the power of the mind, the theory of magic, the interaction of the powers… "You taught a lot of lessons, Master Khoros."
For a moment he was convinced that – despite the earlier warning – Khoros was, indeed, present, because at his response the old wizard shook his head as dolefully as ever he had in life. "You need to be quicker, Tobimar. A lesson does no good if it is filed away somewhere in your head only to be drawn out by being told to you again." He sighed. "Never mind. I am as much at fault; I tell only that which I dare, and it is never enough.
"I mentioned that over the past several centuries, the number of gods seen intervening in direct and spectacular fashion had decreased. I have spent many of those years trying to determine if this was a pattern that indicated a change in need – if, in fact, the gods simply were not being called upon to act as much as in years past – or a change in behavior, or merely what might be termed an artifact of chance.
"It has however become clear to me that this was in fact no coincidence, nor was it a matter of decreased need. Indeed, in some cases the lack of intervention where it would have before been expected has led to terrible disasters." Khoros' deep, sonorous voice was grim. "And now I understand why.
"Twelve thousand years ago, the last of the Chaoswars was fought – a world-enveloping series of conflicts which seemed to erupt almost at once, triggering mystical cataclysms of tremendous force and lingering effect. It is of course known that there have been many such wars in the history of Zarathan; what is not known, however, is how they come to happen, and how often." The sorcerer's image leaned closer. "But I know. Every twelve thousand years, more or less."
"Terian's Light… but that means…"
"Exactly so. The next Chaoswar is nearly upon us, and I believe it is much, much closer than merely sometime in the next few centuries. I believe it is within the next few years."
"But what have the –"
"And now you ask what the gods' behavior has to do with this."
If this is truly a message recorded months ago, his ability to be annoyingly correct is even more impressive than I thought.
"I have… sources close to the gods, when I dare use them, and in this case I felt it necessary. They confirmed what I feared. There is … a pact, now, between virtually all of the gods, an agreement that they shall not intervene directly in events on Zarathan, save only for those who have an undeniable and inescapable physical presence on this world. How exactly this pact was arranged… I have yet to determine, for even I dare not tread too far into their realm unless I am willing to confront them. Something which," he smiled wryly, "I would prefer not to do at this time. But its existence convinces me that I am right about my timing. Even though the power unleashed in a Chaoswar can, and does, affect even the gods, without them to assist the results could be even worse. Even the gods of evil, in general, are not in favor of the complete and total disruption of a Chaoswar, and the few that are… would normally be kept under control by the others."
Khoros rotated his hat absently in the ritual manner Tobimar had seen so many times, with the five points of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit following in turn. "You must find that which was lost, Tobimar. It is not that it is your destiny – although you may choose to make it so, for destiny is choice, not choicelessness. It is that the powers of destruction gain strength in such times, and those things which failed to utterly destroy your people in their flight will once more walk the world. Your people have kept traditions, yet forgotten the truths. You were deprived of your homes, your power, your freedom, and your allies – and they, of you, so that all are now but feeble shadows of what they once were, and where you once ruled is now darkness. That must not be allowed to happen again – for it shall."
"You know where –"
"You must find these things on your own." Once more it seemed as though Khoros knew already what would be said, long months after he had left. "I can only tell you this: that you must learn what you once were before you can decide what you will become; that you must pursue lies to discover truth; and that the only route to your triumph is to serve both justice and vengeance, for both are your people's due. All else is but your choice – to trust or not, to lead or follow, to have faith or lose all. But when all else fails, you may find strength in childhood prayer, for there were, indeed, the true words of Terian himself, as given to your forefathers in the first days of their strength."
That old prayer? Tobimar felt vaguely embarrassed… and yet he remembered the words as though he had never stopped saying them, and they still carried the echoes of his childhood faith as he found himself repeating them with Khoros:
"Seven Stars and a Single Sun
Hold the Starlight that I do Own;
These Eight combine and form the One
Form the Sign by which I'm known.
The Good in heart can Light wield;
The Length of Space shall be thy shield.
"Two Chaoswars past, your people rose to the heights. In the last, they were felled; in this, Tobimar, they shall either reattain all that was lost and more… or they shall cease to be." The ancient mage bowed deeply. "My hopes and blessings go with you. May the Five and the Seven and the One be ever with you."
And he was gone, the leaf dispersing like the last of the crystalline light that had surrounded him, the echoing chime of his staff fading into the sounds of the surrounding ocean.
"I am sorry, Victoria." The huge draconic creature's voice was soft.
Kyrie 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 Saints 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 Kyrie 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 Michael 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 Justiciar Toron."
Kyrie 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 Justiciar, 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?" Michael asked. The tension in his face had subsided, as had a small part of the knot in Kyrie'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, Michael 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." Kyrie 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.
Kyrie 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," Michael 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, Michael," 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."
Kyrie 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?" Michael 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 men 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 Kyrie 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."
Kyrie suddenly understood her point. "So either they could wipe just the right memories from people's minds –"
"—or," Michael 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." Michael's voice was iron, and Kyrie 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," Michael said. "But we're staying. Maybe I'll have –"
"If you even think of sending me and Urelle away, Michael, I will kick you somewhere that you really do not want me to kick," Kyrie said quickly. "Whatever you do… we're here to do, too."
"Then," Michael said, looking down across the fields, forests, and mountains with a determined look on his face, "we'd better get started."
And the plot begins, slowly, to move forward...