And to someone we have not met, and probably don' t want to...
The room was large and open, of polished marble and obsidian worked with patterns of gold and sapphire and silver, but few decorations outside of these. A bed was set back against one wall, with a locked chest at its foot, a small dresser nearby, all looking rather small against the expanse of the room with its twenty-foot ceiling. A short distance away sat a table, draped in cloth so black that it seemed to drink in the light, leave the area nearby in inexplicable shadow; a single chair was placed at the table, and to the righthand side of the table, a finger's width from the edge, was a deck of cards, the individual plaques larger than a man's hand, the backs marked with parallell sword blades of a peculiar leaf-green color. Two spheres of blue light glowed, suspended in nothing, above the farther corners of the table.
In the center of the table was a scroll, partially unrolled and locked in a mounting that held it still, a scroll two feet high and opened four feet wide that seemed made of purest gold. But the polished auric metal did not reflect that which sat in the chair. Instead, three other beings looked out from the reflection of other rooms than this.
The central of these – a thing of pure blackness, a humanoid shape in a chamber so dark that it should have been invisible, save that the thing also had eyes of a terrible blue flame and its darkness made that which surrounded it appear merely the gloom of dusk – glanced to the left and spoke. "We are most disappointed, Voorith."
The mazolishta bowed, chattering in its own tongue. The apology was long and detailed, and there was no mistaking the fear in the insectoid demon's voice.
"Enough of the apologies. They do not matter to us. How much has been lost?"
It was clear to the one seated at the table that part of the point of the apology had been to divert, or at least delay, that question. It smiled as Voorith replied "… there have been… significant losses, O Consuming Star."
The black thing's eyes flared slightly. "Evasions gain you nothing either. How much?"
"I…" Voorith shuddered, recognizing it had no recourse but the truth. "All was lost, Majesty."
"All?" the figure at the table repeated, its voice startled and amused. He'd realized Voorith must have suffered quite a humiliation, the summoning falling through and all, but to have lost all of the gathered resources and thus not even being prepared…
"Yes, all." Voorith gave vent to a curse. "It was intervention, I feel sure."
As the patron of the mazakh recounted how everything had fallen apart, the figure could not restrain a laugh. Oh, my, yes, this is most amusing.
The black-on-black thing with the blazing eyes did not apparently see the humor. "Restrain your amusement or leave this council. I concur with Voorith's assessment. The Golden-Eyed God arranged this."
Stifling another chuckle, it nodded. "It would seem likely. Though it could simply be poor luck. Still, if the old Toad-god wasn't involved before, we can rest assured he's noticed this undersized menace by now, and he'll be in the game." It looked narrowly at the black face, with an expression just short of reproach. "And if I understand correctly, he is not subject to the little arrangement you managed to convince most of the other Powers to agree to on pain of cataclysm."
The black thing seemed to tower up in fury; the figure raised a single finger in admonishment. "This plan is of my devising, O Kerlamion. It is of course in service to you, as are all things here. But I will not be treated as though I were no more than one of your millions of guards. I shall speak when I wish, and how I wish. And we would be wise to keep to the subject. Better these scrying scrolls are than meeting in person, yet still those with enough power, perception, or fortune might recognize that a hidden council is being held."
The fourth figure, the only one other than the figure at the table clearly of humanoid nature, spoke finally from the lefthand side of the scroll. "Then by all means, let us speak of the subject. How long of a delay does this… incident mean?"
Kerlamion's blazing-fire eyes had not yielded to the calm azure gaze of the seated figure, but he spoke. "Voorith? You have knowledge of what was arranged, what will be needed, and so on. Your honest estimate of time?" Kerlamion's glare finally shifted, and the seated figure once more had to restrain a smile. The emphasis of the word "honest" meant that Voorith would be held responsible for keeping the timeline offered. Of course, if he offered too long a timeline, there was always the possibility that the King of all Demons might simply choose another to do his job… and Voorith would have other more immediate concerns of survival.
After a hesitation, Voorith sank to the floor of its own chamber in a submissive bow. "It… will take at least four years, O Consuming Star of the Uttermost Destruction."
"Four years…" To their surprise, Kerlamion gave vent to a laugh of his own, an eerie and frightening sound indeed, as of the air itself being rent and destroyed. "Satisfactory, yes. Four years it shall be. Voorith, if you succeed in this, by four years from this day, then shall I reward rather than punish you."
Voorith's voice was shaken and puzzled, but there was relieved gratitude in every tone. "Of course, Lord."
Kerlamion leaned back, its throne barely visible. "The lands have their unwitting reprieve. All other plans shall be adjusted. You will attend to that personally." He glanced at the figure in the chair.
"Indeed I shall, o great King."
"Then you may go, and you, Voorith."
What fortuitous timing, the figure thought. Kerlamion might believe he did not understand the fortune brought to them in the guise of disaster, but he understood far more than the King of the Black City could easily imagine. Of course, when first the plan was created, even he didn't quite know enough to predict certain events – thus the fortune that as the timing became more clear, something else would happen to bring all of the plan into alignment. Delaying the other strikes for four years would be somewhat difficult – it was hard to maintain readiness for so long – but if it could be done…
It chuckled to itself, and the lights at the edge of the table flickered.
Lighter blade parried greatsword with a chiming impact that diverted the larger weapon but also drove back the smaller with near enough force to disarm. Michael cursed mildly as he backpedaled, his fingers clearly stinging. Kyrie laughed and spun the greatsword around as fast as she could, taking advantage of her brother's momentary discomfiture. "Not slow enough for you, brother?"
"I will grant," he said, a touch breathlessly, eluding her next stroke as he recovered his weapon, "that you're faster with that monster blade than anyone has any right to be." He stood his ground now, diverting one attack, two, three with an economy of motion and effort that she found both admirable and frustrating. "But you'll need more than speed to beat me when my own blade's twice as fast!"
And he unleashed a storm of cuts, low, high, lunges with the point of his longsword, attacks seeming to come from all directions. "How well… have you… been studying?"
The question-and-answer sessions added a certain level of distraction to the training, training they'd been doing in one way or another almost every day for the past four years… four years after they'd lost nearly everything, even themselves. "Well… enough…" she managed to answer; now it was her turn to back up as all her efforts could not move the greatsword's five-foot plus blade nearly as fast as Michael's lighter, shorter weapon. Her armor now had to absorb punishment as she turned and twisted, interposing the armor at an angle that denied Michael an actual cut, watching for an opening – there!
Her swing reversed abruptly, she stepped forward and jabbed with the foot-long pommel as the blade blocked Michael's swing. But her brother was fast, even faster than she'd expected, and he halted, drew back so that the smashing blow barely touched him, and dropped to the ground, sweeping her feet out from under her. She thought she heard a faint grunt of approval from nearby, but there was no time to look in that direction; she was rolling aside, abandoning her sword for hand-to-hand combat. Michael might still have his blade, though, so she kept rolling, blocked instinctively, felt an impact –arm, not blade, he's gone to unarmed too – spun from her rolling position to a kick in that direction, blur of movement, both rolling apart to a stand, as she said, "Ask… away."
Michael grinned, a slight trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth where her kick must have grazed him, and began circling, keeping his hands raised in the position Lythos called Eonwyl Taking Flight. Kyrie glided sideways, using Dragon Claw. She saw the Sho-ka-taida watching them both closely, and for a moment thought she could see a faint smile at the corner of Lythos' mouth.
This impossibility distracted her for the slightest moment, and Michael struck, speaking at the same time. "Why is our god –" she parried the mantis-like strike, and the next, "— spoken of only as 'It'?"
"You're giving her the easy one, Michael!" Urelle shouted from one side.
"Peace, child. We shall see how easy you find them when you're facing swords and fists at the same time." Victoria's tone was only slightly acid.
You have that right, Auntie V. "For justice," she began. The Dragon clawed twice, but the Eonwyl eluded her. "To wear a face, to be of one people or one sex or one of anything would exalt that over the others." She switched combat modes suddenly, leapt completely over Michael; she saw his eyes widen in surprise and his answering strike was just a tiny hair too late. She hit the ground, tumbling forward, still speaking, "And so only the Balanced Sword remains, justice and vengeance as evenhanded as time and death themselves!"
Her hand closed on the hilt of her sword and she rolled and spun, five feet of glittering death now extended towards her brother – and she saw with a shock of mingled pride and disappointment that he had somehow matched her speed and his own sword was back in his hand. They always said I had talent with a sword, but I still can't beat him.
Almost instantly she chided herself, stopping in guard stance. If I accept that I can't beat him, I never will. "My turn! Why is it called the 'Balanced Sword'?" Trick question, of course.
Michael laughed, as did some of the other spectators. From the corner of her eye she thought she could see at least three of the Saints. Then he answered, every word accompanied by an attack, driving her backward with almost effortless savagery. "Because that is simpler than The Balance and the Sword, or Balance on the Sword, and besides, it can be the Sword Balance or many other names!" His last attack arced slightly higher.
Got you! She rode the last impact on her blade, brought it around with two-handed leverage, a spinning cut carving upward –
-- but somehow Michael's blade was faster, behind hers, pushing, speeding it up, turning around, around, twisting --
-- and her greatsword was wrenched from her hand, arcing away in a steel-sparkling curve as her brother's sword finished its arc with its point on her throat.
He looked so apologetic that she suddenly burst out laughing and threw her arms round him. "That was wonderful, Michael!"
"Adequate… I might even say, well done, Michael Vantage." Lythos' thin golden eyebrow was raised in appreciation, and there really was a small smile playing about the corners of his mouth. "Your father and mother would have been proud." He turned to Kyrie. "And you did not do poorly either, Kyrie Vantage."
"Not badly!" Thornfalcon's voice carried a note of rebuke. "She presses her brother hard, though he has four years of training more, and all the strength and speed of the Vantage legend. Truly your reputation as a hard master carries not the full impact of the reality."
Lythos bowed to the deceptively slender Saint. "It is well for the actuality to exceed the legend, do you not agree? Yet you do speak truly." He turned to Kyrie. "Well done, Kyrie." As she felt herself beginning to smile, he quickly added, "But do not become overly accustomed to such praise. You still have much to learn. As does your brother."
"I have no doubt of it, Sho-ka-taida," Michael said, sheathing his blade finally. "As I have yet to manage a touch on you."
"A master of arms indeed," Mist Owl agreed quietly. "Yet such mastery is only a part of what we seek. We see many of those other things in you as well, Michael Vantage. After this performance, we are now agreed. You know that Gareth Lamell, the Silver Eagle, went to the Sword some weeks agone. Now we must fill that place, and we would like you to be one of the three candidates, if you would accept."
Kyrie felt a leap of joy which she quickly tried to suppress; after all, he's just being invited to try; they're not promising anything! But at the same time this was what Michael had been hoping and praying for – that Myrionar would accept his service and thus provide all of them with a direct voice and agency for their own justice and vengeance.
Michael's voice reflected this, with a slight unsteadiness that belied the tears he refused to let show… at least for now. "Accept? Sir… Blessed Justice, sir, there is no honor greater! When?"
"In one week's time, Michael Vantage."
"Best be prepared, lad!" Shrike gave Michael a massive backslap that nearly knocked him from his feet. "A contest of arms, a contest of faith, and a contest of wits, you know! And we're not picking dullards and weaklings, rest assured of that, so the other two will be no easy pickings!"
"Michael will beat them both!" Kyrie felt her cheeks flame as she realized that not only had she said it, but so had Urelle, in exactly the same tone of voice.
Even Lythos could not quite restrain a smile, and the others burst into laughter. "Well, naturally, this is only as must be," Thornfalcon said, still chuckling, "with such lovely ladies cheering for him." He winked at Urelle and pressed Kyrie's hand briefly – not quite long enough to be questionable, but definitely more than a perfunctory gesture. "Still, he should be at his best in the trials, for Myrionar will judge as well, and it has happened – though very rarely – that the trials were all passed and the Balanced Sword still saw fit to award the Raiment of the Saints to none that day."
It doesn't matter, Kyrie thought. I know Michael will succeed. I believe in Myrionar, and It can see that we deserve both Justice and Vengeance. And we can all see that Michael has recovered; back then, he would have sought only vengeance. But staying here, training… sometimes angry, sometimes crying when he thought no one else could see… with Aunt Victoria watching and ready… somehow it's brought him back. He's the big brother we remember. He's healed, he's stronger even than Father was, and he's going to be the Silver Eagle.
She wasn't sure what her own path would be; the new Vantage estate might be built soon, but she didn't see herself just settling down there. Maybe, once my training's finished at the Temple… Maybe I will be an Adventurer. I think… I think Mother would have liked that, no matter how much she and daddy and even Auntie V would have tried to argue me out of it.
She did toy with the idea of being a Saint herself. But for that to happen another Saint would have to die – and all the ones left were pretty young. And while there was nothing exactly in the rules about it, none of the Saints since… well, a very long time ago had been women. Nothing forbade it, but she somehow was fairly sure that there would be some unspoken resistance to the idea. There were plenty of other groups that didn't have that problem.
And plenty of time to worry about that later. She grabbed Michael's arm. "Come on, brother. We have a big party to throw for you tonight, and you need to get cleaned up!"
"A party? Didn't you hear what Thornfalcon just said?"
"You can go train for the rest of the week, but tonight you're going to celebrate!"
Michael looked helplessly at Victoria, and saw her nodding sagely. "Indeed, Michael. And I'll help prepare the guest list."
His face fell as he realized he was well and truly trapped. Not only a party, but a social party, one where everyone who was anyone in Evanwyl would be found. Kyrie looked forward to it. Not that she was a general party fancier – in Evanwyl it always seemed to her to be a sort of decadent routine focused on meaningless if pretty entertainments when her parents' deaths and Rivendream Pass showed how fragile the safety of such entertainments could be – but there were some people she liked seeing, and they'd be sure to be at the party.
Michael grinned suddenly and shrugged. "Since you're determined to do this, I'll at least take away your fun and enjoy myself tonight!"
Victoria Vantage drew herself up and gave Michael her most withering glare. "Enjoy yourself? We shall see about that, Michael Vantage!"
Indeed we shall!