And now back to our cover girl...
Kyri stood, indecisive, at the front door. I really should be at the Temple. Still she stood there, unmoving. Something was wrong, and she didn't know what it was.
Rion knew, of course, but he simply wouldn't tell her. He had been strangely… erratic of late. One day he had come home in a grim mood, silent, almost brusque even with Urelle, and retired to his room without a word after dinner. He'd disappeared for three days after that – and she'd heard rumors of the Justiciars' deeds in that time, including a last-second rescue of a family from Doomlocks – and come home seeming ready to burst with happiness and pride, saying only that now he knew he was truly a Justiciar. Then again he came home quiet, contemplative, and over the next few weeks his mood seemed to become darkly resolute.
This puzzled her. With what they had discovered, she had thought they would get answers, that things would get better soon, but his reactions were… different.
Then today… with Aunt Victoria and Urelle off visiting around the country… he had come home, walked quietly through the entire estate for hours. Every time she saw him, he would glance up, seem about to speak, then turn away. Finally, she'd cornered him. "Rion… what is wrong?"
The blue eyes, so like Aunt Victoria's, met hers, then looked away.
"Don't try to tell me nothing's wrong! You know you can't lie to me."
"I wasn't going to say that." His voice was pained, both by the accusation and whatever he was hiding. "But I can't tell you… I don't dare tell you… not right now. I have to be sure. I'm very, very close now, Kyri. I…" He stopped with what appeared to be a physical effort.
"You can trust me, Rion! I know what you're doing. I figured it out, remember. Maybe I can help –"
"Absolutely not!" The vehemence was so extreme that she stepped back. Rion hadn't used a tone of voice like that since… since their parents died. He shook his head, then continued in a slightly more controlled tone, "Kyri… I trust you. I trust my family, believe me. But this is dangerous, and it's my job… as a Justiciar… to take care of this kind of thing. I…" he seemed reluctant, but forced himself to continue, "… I will tell you everything once I've checked out a few more things. But not quite yet. It's…" He shook his head again, then straightened. "Look, I have to go, Kyri. I'll be back tonight, and then…"
"Then you will tell me, Rion. Or I'll start following you, and you know I can do it."
"You wouldn't." He drew a breath, then sighed. "You would. Of course you would. All right. I'd argue, but … All right. I'll tell you. But … you won't want to hear everything I have to say."
Without another word he'd left, and she'd been wandering around indecisively ever since. The Balance was that evening, and she had been chosen as the Sword. Kyri glanced at the elaborate clock which was one of Victoria's favorite treasures and shook off the mood. I'm not going to let Myrionar down; that's not a good way to convince your god to bless your family.
Decision made, she hurried out, taking one of Victoria's riding horses, Talad, to make up the time she'd lost in dithering around the house. I'll owe Talad a rubdown when we get back, too, making him stand around waiting for the whole ceremony.
Myrionar's Temple was bright with light as she entered, just a little more hurriedly than she'd wanted, but she saw with relief that they were just finishing the assembly. The stage was empty, and that gave her enough time to make her way around the back.
"I was getting worried, Kyri," Arbiter Kelsley said, his concerned eyes belying the severe precision of his gray-sprinkled brown hair and square-chiseled features. "You've always been so reliable."
"I'm sorry, Arbiter. Got a little distracted." She took the ceremonial robes, deep blue to either side with pure silver in the center, the gauntlets – also blue on the back, silver on the forearms – and struggled into them as she made her way behind the holy stage.
Just in time. Kyri carefully moved onto the stage, the deep blue of the backdrop identical to the robes; with the side-folds pulled inward and the cowl dropped over her face, she would be effectively invisible to anyone in the congregation – necessary for the Service of the Balance. The effects could, of course, be managed far more easily by magic, or by the power of Myrionar Itself, but the effort and discipline to carry out the ritual without such aids was much more in favor.
She became aware, however, that something still seemed … off. The sense of something larger, of something omnipresent and vigilant, that she associated with Myrionar in these rituals, was… well, not gone, but fainter, weaker, muted, and that worried her terribly. Was it her lateness, her hurried entry?
Kelsley was now giving the service, and she straightened, listening for both the meaning and her cues. The exact words were not important now; the key was to understand the priest's point. This was one of the traditional services, so the basic point would be one of – or, more likely, all three – of the Foundations, but the exact way in which it was expressed might be of importance.
But Arbiter Kelsley seemed to feel it was best to stick to the traditions closely. Justice with Wisdom, Vengeance with Truth, Mercy through Strength, all three of the Foundations and straightforward. Justice and Wisdom unveiled first – the Fandre brothers, two years younger than she was, trying not to giggle as they kept their arms curved to present the appearance of one of the scales; Vengeance and Truth – Gallire and Lehi Monn, girls of the same age, and then it was her turn, Strength of the Sword, lifting up, spreading the robes to let the silver blaze out, using her hands to raise the bar overhead that revealed the silver backing to join the two sides of the Balance to the upraised Sword.
She took a breath, steadying herself. This was one of the more demanding parts of the ritual, since you were supposed to stay still throughout the remaining several minutes – sometimes up to a quarter hour – of the service.
But now there was a commotion, shouting outside, running feet, and Kyri felt a terrible foreboding, even as the doors burst open. "Arbiter! Arbiter Kelsley, come quickly!"
She recognized with a shock that the voice was that of the Watchland. Even as she did so, she saw the blue gaze of his eyes across the room, somehow recognizing her, and something in that gaze sent a chill through her, even as the Watchland whirled, drawing his sword, calling for more aid from any who could come, and she heard the three-note clanging of the Watchland's Cry, the warning that Evanwyl was under attack.
Even as she recognized that alarm, an alarm she had never heard rung for real in her entire life, she heard other cries. Those are screams of pain – and I hear fighting!
She saw others backing away, the children in the ritual taking cover, looking for shelter, but to do that never occurred to her. Instead she looked desperately around. A weapon! I don't have armor, but I need something to fight with –
And it was so obvious, really, the great sword which was a part of the Balanced Sword at the altar. She leapt up and wrenched it free, whispering a prayer for forgiveness as she did so. Well, I wasn't blasted to ash, so I guess Myrionar thinks I'm doing the right thing. The greatsword was solid and well-balanced, which was a relief; she'd been afraid that it was merely a show-blade, but apparently the main Temple of the Balance Sword had felt real weapons were in order.
She sprinted out the door, following the sound. The Watchland was vaguely visible ahead, and suddenly he stopped his run, his sword was up and something – several somethings – were slashing at him. Closer now, and the things were twisted creatures, something like caterpillars grown monstrously huge, but with a humanoid torso, massive arms gripping clubs or maces. The heads were worse, with flowing hair and high foreheads and calm blue eyes… and the mouth of a lamprey below. From Rivendream Pass. They must be.
She saw the Watchland's blade dancing back and forth even as she approached, and one of the things fell.
She was stumbling to a halt,frozen now, realizing that this was no sparring match, no fantasy of heroism, no practice, no dream. This was real. Those monstrous… things were attacking her friends, her neighbors, and she was going to have to face them with weapon and speed – and die, if she wasn't good enough.
She tried to make herself move forward, but the fear dragged at her. Did Rion have to face this? Or was he already prepared, able to face it as soon as he knew the fight was real?
With a tremendous effort she forced discipline upon her trembling limbs, made her gut steady, repeated the calm and focus of the Way of the Eight Winds to herself: Speed of East, Guidance of Spring, Light of South, Circle of Summer, Wisdom of West, Flow of Fall, Hardness of North, Cleansing of Winter . Her heart still hammered, she still felt sweat under the ceremonial robe even in the cool of evening… but she could move, and the sword of Myrionar's temple was in her hands. More screams from ahead – I have to hope Jeridan can handle these creatures!
She ran past the Watchland, who saw her and gave a quick nod, as if to say yes, I'm all right, keep going!
She passed near one of the things and felt a crawling on her flesh – both from the wrongness of its presence and the realization that she would have to fight such a thing and kill it. She still wasn't sure…
But then she realized where the screams were coming from. It was the Monn farm, and she felt a surge of horror, remembering little Gallire and Lehi, the twins who had been Vengeance and Truth in the ritual just a few moments before.
Two children, hiding in fear in the Temple.
Two children away from their homes, while their parents screamed.
Fury surged up in her, fury and memory of her own loss. No! I won't let them be orphaned! I won't let that happen to anyone!
The anger sped her feet, and she hurdled a three and a half foot post fence. The night was dim, only a sliver of a moon showing, but she could see the nightmare shapes ahead, one already grasping a man's shadowy form, bending the head down…
A desperate leap and she slammed into the creature, impaling it completely through with the sword of Myrionar. It shrieked and gurgled, as blue-white light shone from the wound. She felt a surge of momentary nausea and revulsion as the semi-human torso and arms twitched and shuddered, forced it down. Turning, she ripped the sword clear, seeing two more of the monsters rippling towards her on shuffling pseudofeet, even as she saw Phenre Monn staggering into the farmhouse, helped by his wife Ballu. They'll be safe there for now. If I can –
And then she heard another cry of pain and horror, but this cry she recognized, the sound piercing her to the heart, sending a wave of cold through her body.
"Rion, hold on!" she shouted, and with a pirouette spun past the caterpillar-centaur monstrosities, decapitating one and flowing past the other's grasping hands. They're slower than me… but if they try to chase, I'm at least leading them away…
But her main focus was on the beloved voice somewhere in the thin forest ahead past the edge of the farm, now cursing, and a clash of steel that showed her brother was fighting something in earnest.
She wasted no more breath on calling, just ran, ran with the horrors of the years before shouting at her heels, a terrible forboding making the run seem slow, mired in oil and tar, as in a nightmare.
Ahead there was a flash of silver light… and the light seemed to vanish, even as she heard a choked, bubbling cry.
For a moment – the slightest of moments – she thought she saw… something standing there, something darker than the darkest shadows, with sparks of venomous yellow where there should be eyes, and a monstrous, phantom smile like moonlight through ice. But even as the terror of that vision jabbed like ice through her chest, it was gone – if it had ever been – and she heard and sensed, rather than saw, someone or something else running away, running at a pace that made her own sprint seem slow and lazy.
But she didn't care about that, because on the ground ahead was something else, something silver with black smeared across it. No, no, no, not again, please, not again…
She could not see, and surely there were still things following her, not far behind, and still with prayers in her heart she spoke the words they had all been taught and the flare-light went up,blazed out, turning what had been black to red, bright, horrible blood-red, and she knew her prayers were in vain, for her brother lay there, the Armor of Eagle rent asunder, blood pooled about him, and the last traces of life were fleeing. She dropped to her knees, taking his hand, saw his eyes flicker open for a moment to catch her gaze with wide-eyed horror, trying to speak – but the terrible wounds gasped with his movement and she knew he was getting no air.
"ARBITER!" she screamed, and leapt to her feet, hearing scuttling movement coming up fast. "No, no you will not take him, no!" she heard herself saying, voice trembling, tears starting from her eyes, blurring her vision; but she didn't really need to see the misshapen thing, just swing, block, swing again, and it gave a screaming hiss and tried to back away – but she gave it no chance. More coming, she thought with fresh horror, hearing more movement from three sides.
She refused to give up. Her brother was not going to die undefended and alone, not now, not ever. A club whipped out, grazing her unarmored shoulder, and even that slight contact felt like it broke her arm. She gritted her teeth, refused the pain, focused past the terror and the fear and ducked under the next attack; her blade slid in blue-shining perfection through the lamprey-fanged mouth.
But there were more – not two, three, four, half a dozen, more, and she realized that there was no chance for her or Rion now. They were more cautious, not stupid, perhaps even intelligent, and they recognized how dangerous she was. They were maneuvering, ringing her in, and then…
One suddenly fell, convulsing as its head flew from its body, even as the one next to it shrieked, a slender blade flickering through its body from one side to the other, and Lythos continued, jumping over the falling body, blocking two strikes in a single motion and impaling the next creature, a flowing dance of death that showed her just how very little she had yet learned, and why Lythos was called Sho-ka-taida, Master Of Weapons.
That was a far and distant thought, though, for now she looked down and her brother's gaze was beginning to glaze, horror still in those eyes and desperation and in his wheezing futile attempts to breathe she heard him trying to form words.
"Let me through!"
It was the voice she had most wanted to hear in that moment, and she moved aside, praying that the Arbiter was in time, taking Rion's hand in hers. "He's here, Rion, the Arbiter's here," she said. "It's okay…"
But Rion's gaze did not shift, even as the Arbiter placed hands upon his wounds and one of the Seekers came to assist; she saw Rion's eyes widen, as though to try to tell her something from the sheer intensity of that look… and then roll and fall shut, the hand spasming and then going limp.
"He's fading!" the Arbiter snapped. He gripped the symbol of the Balance tighter and she felt, suddenly, that presence, strong and certain, and blue light radiated from the priest's other hand, forcing wounds to close, knitting them with power channeled from a god directly into the mortal body of Rion Vantage.
But Kelsley's face was pale, and vaguely, at the edge of her shock and denial she realized there were more shouts of consternation now… other victims… She should rise, she should go to them.
Rion's hand twitched, and for a moment she felt a spark of hope. But that was dashed as she heard Kelsley gasp. "I… I cannot hold him." Seeker Reed – one of the students of the Temple – caught his shoulder. "I will help you, Arbiter… By the Balance, what is this?"
They were gazing at things Kyri could not see, and their faces showed utter horror. "Arbiter, what can we do?" Reed gasped.
"I… I do not know. I have never…" Kelsley swallowed, then leaned forward. "Soul injury. It is spoken of in the texts, but so rare…"
"What is wrong?" Kyri demanded.
Even as Kelsley answered, he was busy, focusing more power, pale agony clear now on his face. "His soul itself is injured, cuts across his very essence in parallel with his bodily injuries. Those injuries… were mortal. If I cannot bind… his soul back together… it does not matter if his body is completely whole."
Sweat trickled down his cheeks and Kyri was suddenly aware that the pain he showed was much more real and immediate than the pain of failure. "What are you…"
"Arbiter! Stop!" Reed shouted.
"Reed… I cannot let him…" The Arbiter's voice was weak, but iron-hard in determination, and suddenly Kyri understood. Only pieces of another soul… could bind together a soul so injured. Kelsley is ripping his own spirit into pieces, into bandages of his own essence… to save my brother?
"Arbiter… others are injured. And he…"
Kyri looked up at Reed, wanting to rage at him, but seeing only tormented sympathy that struck her silent.
Kelsley's hand dropped to his side and he crumpled – almost, Kyri realized with another dull shock, dead himself.
And in that moment she knew.
Rion… Silver Eagle… Her brother… was gone.
Well, everyone knew that was coming. Everyone READING, that is.