So, after talking with Aunt Victoria...
"Victoria? Victoria Vantage, you hellsword, why didn't you tell me you were in the City?"
The booming voice was intimidating enough, but the fact that its owner – an immense Ancient Sauran – then stepped forward and picked up her usually-dignified aunt and swung her around like a child greeted by her favorite uncle left her standing there with her mouth open.
It was especially shocking because her aunt seemed to enjoy it, even as her heels barely missed an ornamental statuette on one of the high shelves in this anteroom of the Dragon Palace. Victoria Vantage laughed as the Marshal of Hosts tossed her into the air, and did a complete flip, hair nearly grazing the ceiling, landing with only the slightest stumble. Her silvery hair was in disarray from the gentle violence of the greeting, and her eyes shone with affection for the massive scaled being in front of her. "I just did, Bridgebreaker! I hardly had a chance to tell you before now, we only arrived day before yesterday. afternoon."
"Well, well, I suppose that will have to do, then. I can't expect the Vantage V—"
"Don't you dare finish that in front of my niece."
The great creature raised a brow-ridge, eyes twinkling. "Really? Haven't you told them the truth about your rough-and tumble past?" He looked over and seemed to take note of Kyri for the first time. "I ask your pardon, young Vantage; I have not greeted you." He straightened and did a full Armed Bow, huge sword and axe crossed on his back and clearly visible as he turned a full circle on one foot, to end facing her just as he had been when he began. " T'Oroning'Oltharamnon hGHEK R'arshe Ness, Adjudicator and Marshal of the Hosts, greets you in his name and in that of my cousin and lord."
The greeting snapped her out of stunned paralysis and she took a deep breath, bowing, making sure her own sword was visible, performing the spin with at least tolerable smoothness. "Kyrie Victoria Vantage greets you, Adjudicator," she said. I am not going to even attempt his name right now, I'm so nervous I'd choke on it.
He laughed. "And with the formalities past, call me Toron, as once you did – long ago, as you might measure it, though it seems scarce yesterday to me." The dark eyes studied her. "You have grown, little one. Taller than your aunt, and by the Sight of the Dragons I would wager you have at least her strength."
"At least," agreed Victoria. "Toron, it's good of you to see me on such short notice. I know you and the King are always busy –"
"—never so busy," interrupted Toron, "that we would forget a friend and ally such as yourself. But your urgency makes me sad, Victoria. I begin to suspect you have some business in mind, not merely a friendly visit."
"You began to suspect that as soon as I arrived, and you've already made arrangements – or you're far fallen from what I remember."
He rumbled agreement, a huge-fanged smile combining friendliness and danger. "Arrangements, yes – if necessary."
The smile faded from Aunt Victoria's face and she smoothed her hair back, looked about, and took one of the elaborately carved, human-sized chairs, gesturing for Kyri to sit. Toron eased himself into a much larger seat with a split back that accommodated his massive tail. "Oh, I believe you'll find them necessary, old friend. You recall the time I called you up to Evanwyl?"
"I could hardly forget; fifteen hundred miles or more with great swiftness, and then I had to return."
"We now have the answer you could not find; we know who killed my brother, his wife, and – now – my nephew Rion." She gazed at him steadily. "It was the Justiciars."
Kyri saw the news hit the Marshal of Hosts like a blow; his great eyes widened and a grunt escaped him.
She let Victoria sketch the entire situation – how it had happened, how they knew, and what had happened to her afterwards. The Ancient Sauran listened without a word.
When Victoria had fallen silent, Toron turned to Kyri. "And you are now Myrionar's chosen?"
She nodded; even though she knew it was true, she blushed as though telling a lie. I can hardly believe any of this myself; it must sound insane, even coming from Aunt Victoria! What must Toron think?
But Toron was not laughing. "I begin to think I was wiser than I had thought in accepting your request here, and not bringing you to the Throne."
"What?" Victoria said sharply. "You can't mean you don't trust –"
Toron's offended snort clarified his meaning. "Of course I trust him. My cousin and my King has ruled this land for untold thousands of years, and ruled well, under the guidance of the Diamond and the Sixteen. However…" he trailed off, nodded. "Let me begin another way."
He turned back to Kyri. "Young Vantage, you are now the chosen – the only chosen – warrior for a god counted as an ally to Elbon Nomicon, and to his allies Terian, Chromaias, and others. Indeed, with these Myrionar has long had the strongest of alliances, a pact of the gods to aid and support each others' followers in all areas where they do not conflict – and few are the true areas of conflict.
"Thus, I would offer you the support of the Dragon Throne. We shall bring you officially before the King, you shall tell him this terrible tale, and I have no doubt that you will find him willing to give you all support." His smile was fierce. "The T'Teranahm forget not their allies, great or small. Though even conquered Dalthunia lies between, we shall raise a force from the followers of the Dragon God, from the warriors of the Chromaian faith, from those called by the Nomdas of Terian, the Spear and Hammer – oh, I believe many will come to aid Myrionar – and with that force we shall go to Evanwyl, unmask these impostors, and bring that justice you – and Myrionar – deserve to your home."
Kyrie was dumbstruck, with a rising sense of wonder and joy, and she saw her Aunt's gratified expression, the look of someone who sees her hopes fully justified. "Sir… Toron… I don't… Don’t know what to say."
The rumbling chuckle was like thunder in the distance. "Say only yes, and we shall speak to the King himself, yes, within moments, and it shall be done."
We could avenge everyone! We could restore Evanwyl! She looked into the Ancient Sauran's eyes, and she knew he meant every word. She still could hardly grasp it. All she needed to do was agree, and an army – an army of the Dragon King and his allies! – would march, perhaps even with her at its head alongside the Marshal of Hosts, and even the dark forces holding Dalthunia would surely stand aside and let them pass, and even the false Justiciars would not withstand such a force – nor would any doubt the word of the emissary of the Dragon King along with her own. She would be a leader of a force out of legend, the Army of the Dragon which had stood as a force for peace and justice since before her people had even set foot upon the world of Zarathan.
"So you believe us?" she said, still unable to believe the offer, even though she knew it was – had to be – in full earnest.
"I do," Toron said emphatically. "As Marshal of the Hosts and an Adjudicator, I have much in the way of truthsensing. And in this I have also the blessing of Arlavala of the Sixteen, Elbon's General. I see that you believe what you say, and I know your Aunt well enough to have trusted my life to her a dozen times and more. Yes, I believe you, and will – in the name of your god, and mine, and for the sake of my most-loved friend Victoria Vantage – set the very Armies of the Dragon against your enemies."
Say YES! She opened her mouth to speak, tears of joy trembling at the brink of being shed…
And she found she could not speak.
Why? He's offering everything we could possibly want! He's on our side! I don't – I won't – believe that there's anything wrong with his offer!
And still she could not speak, and the joy receded, turned to a wave of pitiful tragedy and still she could not speak. She could see the expressions of the others darken, her Aunt staring at her with utter confusion.
But it was not confusion, but grim understanding, on Toron's face. "And so now we see why it was wise that I not bring you first to the Throne; for my cousin would – no doubt! – have immediately ordered the mobilization of the Armies for this, for the sake of honor and justice that we all understand, and once begun such an action could not be reasonably recalled. Yet you cannot speak to give me the simple permission to help you."
"I don't know why!" she finally burst out, trying to restrain tears that were now of frustration and anger. "It's the perfect solution! It could even bring the Balanced Sword back to your own country! You… you might even give a chance to cleanse Rivendream Pass! I want to accept your offer…"
"But you cannot. And that tells me a great deal, Kyri Vantage, a great deal indeed, for unlike you I have had to deal with the gods many times." He took her hand with startling gentleness between his two massive clawed hands. "I expected this, as you see. So I ask that you breathe deep, think of the calm of morning and the quiet of night, the eternal light of Sun and stars, and be seated again, and we shall speak of what is, and what can be."
She nodded, unable to speak, but took a breath. Then two, and recalled to herself her training and discipline, and by the third breath she felt calm, if not joy, returning. "My… apologies –"
"No need," Toron said, a momentary smile of blades flashing. "I can easily imagine what it must feel like to see the solution before you, and then know you must reject it."
"But it's insane," Victoria said in an outraged tone. "Why in the name of Itself would Myrionar refuse –"
"Because It knows many things we do not," Toron said bluntly. "You recounted Myrionar's conversation with Kyri, and it was as clear as the Dragon King's diamonds that there is vastly more going on than we understand, a game of gods and strategems layered a hundred deep – something even the Dragon Gods do not know for sure, or they would clarify this to me. Myrionar told her the path would be difficult – and this would seem easy. It told her she must have faith in Myrionar – and this is more faith in the might of the Dragon State and our loyalty to a cause."
Kyri nodded. The words made sense to the part of her that had been unable to speak. But still… "I can't imagine the Balanced Sword would not trust your loyalty or strength, or reject you, sir!"
He seemed to attempt a laugh, managed only another smile. "This is not a rejection. I think…" he looked suddenly more serious. "I think… it is a warning. Something even more terrible will happen if we take this course of action. I could imagine many scenarios, but the short of it is simply this: your god Myrionar has told us, in no words but strong actions, that you must do this alone, or at least without forces such as I offer."
"Yes," she heard herself say, and knew from that feeling within her that it was true. "Yes, Toron. I may not be always alone, but I have to be the… spearhead of any force. I can't walk in with an army."
"Then," he said, settling back in his chair, "what can I do for you?"
"We were hoping," Victoria said, having finally accepted that the wonderful offer was not to be, "that you might be able to give us directions. Specifically, directions to the Spiritsmith."
The huge head tilted, the wide-set eyes regarded them, and the mouth suddenly curved up in that fang-edged smile again. "Of course. The Raiment of a Justiciar, forged for the last living Justiciar, Kyri Vantage. And none other could forge such armor, unless it were the Wanderer or the Archmage – and the tradition would be lost, and neither of those is easily reached, either." His gaze suddenly snapped back to Victoria. "Pardon me for a momentary diversion – but what of your other niece? Does she know –"
"—the truth?" Victoria shook her head. "Not yet. Oh, I shall tell her – and soon. She is a Vantage, she has the right to know, and she is a wise girl who knows enough to stay silent on these matters. But I have not yet told her, and I will not until after Kyri is well gone."
Kyri nodded. "She'd follow me otherwise."
"Most assuredly – as you would, if it were Rion setting out alone on such a journey."
"That was my concern," Toron said gravely, "and I am glad you have already anticipated this possibility." He rose from his chair and strode over to an ornately carven silver-and-blackwood cabinet. "Now, as to your question…"
The cabinet folded open, became a map of Zarathan – or, at least, of the huge continent on or near which was every country or place Kyri had ever heard of. Toron smiled again at her surprise. "Did you think I had chosen this room idly? One of several meeting places within T'Teranahm Chendoron, the Dragon's Palace, meant for strategy and consideration of deep policy. A map is just one of the tools oft-used for such things."
Kyri nodded, moved to join him, as did Victoria.
The cabinet-map swiveled down and moved outward, became a flat table-like surface. Toron touched a point in the center, towards the lower half, and a glittering white star of light shone out. "Here we stand, in Fanalam' T' ameris' a' u' Zahr-a-Thana T'ikon, Zarathanton. North, beyond the Forest Sea, the Ice Peaks, and at their center and apex, the Crystal Mountain." A line of blue traced its way almost due North to the mountain that some said was the seat of Terian himself.
"On this map, then, we look to the West, and slightly North from the Crystal Mountain, for the Spiritsmith works on the border of beauty and destruction, where he might look to the Crystal Mountain with eyes that see past the horizon, and turn precisely around," the line streaked across and stopped at a range of mountans, at a point between two rivers, and Kyri felt a shock of disbelief, even as Toron continued, "and look to the center of Kuri'shenkildis. "
Victoria shook her head. "Why in the name of the Dragon Gods would he build a forge on Hell's Edge?"
"You – or rather, Kyri – might ask him, when once you have reached him," Toron answered wryly. "There are many reasons one might choose such a place, not the least being the desire to observe that corrupted place that you call, so inaccurately, Hell, and think on what once was."
Kyri did know that the name 'Hell' merely reflected the chaotically deadly conditions within, that produced aberrant monstrosities, and was not in any way connected to the netherplanes called the Hells, but she didn't know there was a past to Hell, or Kuri'shenkildis as Toron called it. "What once was?"
Toron nodded slowly, staring at the ring of mountains surrounding abomination. "Once it was one of the fairest parts of this world. And we were not blameless in what happened." He shook himself. "But that is not a tale for now. Many reasons the Spiritsmith might have; there are undoubtedly ores and gemstones to be found in those mountains which are rare or unheard of elsewhere. Or perhaps – even most likely – he simply prefers his privacy. Nonetheless, here he makes his home and his forge."
Victoria squinted at the map. "Can you narrow it down a bit? That dot of yours, if I read this scale aright, must cover at least fifty miles of the mountains."
Kyri's heart sank a bit as she saw Toron shake his head. "I am afraid I know it only in this general sense, Victoria," he said. "Once, true, I visited him… but that was very long ago, before the last Chaoswar, and the details are gone from my mind."
She shook off the momentary doubt. "It doesn't matter, Auntie," she said confidently. "Myrionar said to have faith in It, and what Adjudicator Toron's told us is incredibly useful. I could have searched all the continent from the Empire of the Mountain to Thologondoreave and the White Blade and never have come close in a hundred years of looking. That's a big area, I know – I patrolled parts of Evanwyl, remember, so I know how very large a mile is in the wild – but still, it's not impossible. And if there's anyone there at all, they'll have to know something."
Aunt Victoria looked, for just a moment, like a mother worrying about her children, and Kyri felt a surge of affection. She'd really rather be doing this herself and keep me out of it… but she knows she can't.
Victoria's head came up and once more she was the sharp-eyed adventurer. "True enough, and there's almost nowhere on the world where there is not someone. I would not, however, recommend you follow the route old Bridgebreaker just traced."
Toron snorted. "I wouldn't recommend it either; I was merely following the directions I recalled."
Kyri just shook her head and laughed.
"Is that so amusing?" inquired Toron.
"Oh, no it wasn't that," she answered, and pointed. "It's that the only reasonable route… is the one I just arrived by, and it's a long, long trip." Close to three thousand miles by the Great Road, I think, fifteen hundred in a straight line.
"Then," said Aunt Victoria, in her most practical tone, "You'd better get started."
Yes, she had.