GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares – Chapter 11

Chapter 11.

Urelle studied Ingram out of the corner of her eye as they walked. He was silent when not talking, and his feet would glide over the forest floor, hardly displacing a single leaf, lifting up and over or around even the smallest branches without, as far as she could tell, even looking at them. Even walking next to him she had to strain to hear the faintest whisper of sound from his passage; she sounded like a blundering ralangas by comparison. She tried to imitate the motion, but despite the training she’d had from Lythos, it was much harder than it looked.

He noticed, and smiled. “Took me a long time to learn. Longer than my instructors liked.”

“How long?”

“About … um, six months. But that was with a lot of other stuff. If that was the only thing I’d had to learn, I probably would have got it down in two months.” He watched her for a moment. “You’ll probably figure it out in one. You’ve got a touch for it.”

“Really?” The question was accompanied by a particularly loud snap! from a twig beneath her feet. She grinned and raised a wry eyebrow. “I mean, really?”

Ingram’s laugh was light and sunny. “You’ll make more noise before you make less, I’ll promise you. Not that it matters that much as long as we’re talking.”

“I noticed that sometimes when you and Quester were patrolling … you know, when we were coming to Zarathanton … you were so silent that I wouldn’t have known either of you were there without looking, and then sometimes one or the other of you would just move over to meet the other, as though you had said something. But you hadn’t.”

He nodded, slowly. “I guess you would have, at that. Quester … he gave me a great honor, about a year ago, after I ended up getting hurt badly defending him. He accepted me as part of his Nest.”

She glanced back at the tall, angular figure of the Iriistiik. “But his Nest was destroyed, right?” she said in low tones.

“Apparently the Mother told him that so long as he existed, so would the Nest. Anyway, it’s more than a formality. He … well, we can speak now, mind-to-mind, when we want to.”

“Wow.” She thought about that. It was certainly a convenient talent, especially for two Adventurers who might need to stay dead-silent but still communicate … but linking one mind to another must also come with some risks. “You both must trust each other a lot.”

“I would trust Quester if he told me I had to jump off a cliff without a second look,” Ingram said bluntly. “And I’m pretty sure he’d do the same for me.”

“Naturally,” the Iriistiik said. “I can glide.”

Ingram burst out laughing.

“But,” Quester admitted, “I would also trust you if you said to leap into a raging torrent, and I have no particular ability to swim.” He tilted his head.

Ingram’s eyes went distant for a moment, then he shook his head. “We’re companions all now,” he said. “Ask aloud, if you have a question.”

Quester clicked assent. “Then, yes, I have a question. There have been a few times in our association where you have mentioned … a reserve, a backup, a hidden card, so to speak. Yet I saw no such in the moment we were captured, nor afterwards.”

Ingram gave an embarrassed smile. “Well … yeah. I have to know the danger I’m in, be able to focus on it, and it has to be pretty immediate. Plus I don’t know if I can call on … my backup, so to speak … more than once. Maybe I can, but I sure don’t want to if I can avoid it.” He looked around at all of them. “Sorry to sound mysterious, but it’s a secret.”

“I have heard of similar things,” Victoria said. “Bargains made, debts owed by beings of power that can be repaid by a single service. Just do not fall into the most common trap of such weapons of extremity.”

Ingram looked at her curiously. “And that is…”

She smiled. “Telling yourself that there could always be a worse extremity, so that you never dare use it at all.”

Urelle saw a startled expression cross Ingram’s face. Apparently, he’d never thought of it that way. “Auntie’s seen a lot, and she’s got a lot of good advice.”

“She has, indeed.” Ingram paused and turned so that he could bow deeply to Victoria. “Words of wisdom that I will heed … and should have remembered; my people called it the parable of the Always-Worse. Though of course, one doesn’t wish to use such reserves too casually, either.”

“As with all things, young Ingram, it is a matter of balance,” Victoria said.

After a moment, Urelle looked back to the lavender-haired boy. “I think … Ingram, whatever’s going on, it’s clearly tangled up with Aegeia and your Cycle, right?”

“I don’t see any way around that, no. How you outsiders connect to it, I don’t know, but my recall, these people hunting us, it’s pretty clear there’s some kind of connection.”

“Then can’t you tell us something about Aegeia and its Cycle? I don’t really know much about it at all, and from what Auntie has said, I don’t think she knows much more than I do.”

“No,” admitted Victoria. “Aegeia is a strong ally of the State of the Dragon King, and by extension of Evanwyl, but she has always been a fairly private one. So yes, I too, would like to hear what you could tell, Ingram.”

“As would I,” Quester said. That startled Urelle; she’d assumed Quester already knew everything about Ingram and his people. “You have always been kind and generous with everything … except your past. You speak little of it, or of your people. You are clearly still proud to be of your Clan … yet you were also ashamed, as though you knew yourself to be unworthy. That … discussion you recounted to me explained some, but not nearly all.”

Ingram was silent for so long that Urelle started to wonder if he was going to reply at all.

Finally, he sighed. “Yes. Yes, of course, you all deserve to know as much as I can tell you.”

“First, understand that the Camp-Bels themselves are kind of outsiders. They entered into the middle of one of the Cycles some time back, when the Founder’s ship had crashed and the survivors found themselves here. So the history I’ve been taught … well, it’s through the lens of the Camp-Bel’s experiences.”

He reached into his pack, brought out the small, oblong object Urelle had seen him using on occasion during their travels. “This datapad holds a lot of records of … well, lots of things, including copies of some of the notes made by other Camp-Bels through the years, so with that, the public history, and what I’ve seen and heard, I’ve put together a lot of it.

“Way back … quite a few Chaoswars … the Aegei, the gods of Aegeia, had some kind of major discussion that almost culminated in direct conflict. The Highfather and Highmother together noticed something about the way their conflict and its reflection in their worshippers in Aegeia interacted with the powers of the world, and ‘saw both great peril and great promise.’ They studied and conferred, and they saw that when God and Mortal were associated in the same undertakings, in just the right way, it created…”

He hesitated, squinting at the screen. “Created a sort of resonance, a reinforcing power that not only supported the mortals and helped guide and strengthen them, but that within the area dominated by the gods – Wisdom’s Fortress, as we call it today – the powers and memories and wisdom of the gods were also strengthened.”

“In what way?” Victoria asked. “Not the mechanics – I’m sure that’s not something the gods let someone write down – but what was the assistance granted?”

“For the worshippers and those around them? The best way to describe it is that it clarified things. If the gods played out their debates in a way that involved mortals, the mortals’ worship and belief cycled back to help them learn the lessons and return them to the mortals as well. So, lessons of passion and justice, of courage and strategy, of heroism and compassion versus treachery and cruelty, these became ingrained in the population, and the increased focus and belief of the mortals strengthened the gods.”

He looked around at them, then realized they’d stopped moving. “Come on, I know it’s hard for me to discuss this while walking, but we can’t stop yet.” He looked back down at the faintly-glowing device. “For the gods, it’s said that one of the major benefits was that it weakened the effect of the Chaoswars. That’s why the Lady Herself is often consulted by even vastly more powerful gods, because she will know and remember things wiped from the minds of even the ancient and mighty.”

Victoria’s eyebrow rose. “Are you saying that the Lady knows what happened during all the Chaoswars since their Cycles began?”

“Not everything. But she will recall more, and more clearly, than the others. Apparently nothing can fully overcome the effect of a Chaoswar – it is said that even the Wanderer himself is not entirely clear on the events that have passed two Chaoswars ago – but some can mitigate the effects, and that is what the Cycle does for the Aegei.”

“Why Athena and Ares?” Urelle asked. “I admit I don’t know details of your people’s beliefs, but they’re both war gods. Ares is the violent one who likes fighting and bloodshed, and Athena’s the wise strategist, so I see there’s a conflict there, but why not Aphrodite versus Athena or Ares or…” she trailed off, seeing Ingram’s pained expression. “Sorry. Did I say something bad?”

Ingram bit his lip. “Not … bad. Just … uninformed? Ares isn’t like that. Well, he can be – in some Cycles that’s his persona – but really, he’s more about passion. Sure, that can express as hatred and bloodlust, but it can also be courage, the burning desire to protect someone, the fierce determination to achieve a dream. Athena is about wisdom, about consideration, about analysis and strategy and tactics. But that can be destructive too – you can wisely and passionlessly decide that some course of action will work out best in the long run, and thus it’s perfectly okay to, say, kill these five thousand people.”

He put the datapad away. “So … my best guess – and it’s just my guess, along with a few things I heard in Temples along the way – is that because Ares and Athena both touch on war and strife, but have such different approaches, that they made a perfect choice for a Cycle that could be constrained within Wisdom’s Fortress and used to teach reinforcing lessons on balancing passion and calculation, emotion and thought, all that kind of thing.”

“But I’ve heard there’s actual wars fought during your Cycles! I mean, real ones, with armies and people fighting on both sides and dying and all that! Every Cycle! How can the people believe in gods that use them for, what, moral plays?”

She was stunned when Ingram began laughing. “Hey! It’s not funny! Fighting wars as object lessons, killing people –“

He held up a hand. “Please, hold on.” He stopped laughing and his face became serious. “You know, of course, that death is not the end. Right?”

“Well … that’s what we believe,” Urelle said after a hesitation. “Myrionar has Its world beyond this one, where those who are Its true followers will live again, to be reborn here or to live forever in the realm of the god Itself. But … well, I don’t know anyone who’s been there and back.”

“I have seen a few,” Victoria said unexpectedly. “Those who had fallen and were given the chance to return to this world, to complete that which they had left behind. Yes, this life is not the only one.”

“Then understand that those who fall – or even those merely injured – in the Godswar are honored beyond all others,” Ingram said earnestly. “They are the teachers of the lessons of the gods, and the students as well, who give their pain and lives for the sake of all. Their souls are gathered – each to the realm of the god they serve – and rewarded greatly for such selfless service, even if they themselves did not understand it at the time. They will see their families and friends again – perhaps returned to this world when the Cycle has completed, or perhaps when their families and friends have themselves passed on to be re-united with their loved ones.”

Urelle looked at his face, and the violet eyes that shone with a startling faith. “You really believe that.”

“I do,” he said, without hesitation. Then he did hesitate before speaking again. “I wanted to be a God-Warrior myself. I really wanted to. It was my childhood dream, the daydream I had every day. I trained as a Camp-Bel … but I also tried to train as though I’d be a God-Warrior, as though I might one day be good enough to be a vessel of the power of the Lady.” He flushed with obvious embarrassment. “I knew it wasn’t possible, of course, but I dreamed about it anyway.”

“Why wasn’t it possible?” Quester asked. “God-Warriors are trained mortals, are they not?”

“Well … yes, of course they are.” He rolled his eyes. “But the Lady‘s God-Warriors, the Spear and the Shield, they’re, well, women. Not men. And I knew … I grew up with … one of the ones destined to be hers. Even when we were little children, we knew Berenike would have to be the Spear of Athena.”

His face shone as he pronounced his childhood friend’s name. Urelle felt a twinge at the sight, but couldn’t quite identify it. “What about the other gods? Do they have God-Warriors? Do they get involved?”

“Oh, all of them have their own representatives and God-Warriors, yes – Hephaestus’ Hammer and Anvil, Aphrodite’s Mirror, Ares’ Sword and Chariot, all of them. They take sides during each Cycle. Usually it’s the same ones on each side, but that can change depending on the, um … roles that Ares and Athena play.”

“So, you could have trained to be a God-Warrior for another god?”

“I could … but Athena’s the Camp-Bel’s patron, though we’ve worked well for people on all sides.” He was quiet for a moment. “But this isn’t about my childhood. Basically, what you need to know is that the country goes through this upheaval every several centuries, generally after all the cities of the gods have broken away from Aegis, Athena’s city, and become independent. This leads to various conflicts that end up drawing Ares out, sometimes to try to resolve them, sometimes to take advantage of them to lead to conquest, whatever. Ultimately, Athena opposes him, there’s lots of dramatic conflict, and Ares is defeated – often by Athena herself, but sometimes by the God-Warriors taking him on. A few times, Ares has surrendered, and in at least one Cycle Athena was the villain of the piece and Ares defeated her and ruled Aegis and the rest of Aegeia until the next Cycle.”

Urelle shook her head. “It seems … a pretty crazy way to run a country to me, but if your people are okay with it, I guess I can’t argue.”

They walked in silence for a while.

“We’re taking one of the more difficult routes,” Victoria pointed out at last. “I understand your orders told you to avoid the more traveled, but it will take us considerable time to get there if we must walk through the wilderness.”

“Can’t be helped,” Ingram said. “If we take any of the easier routes, not only will it be easier for our hunters to find us, but we’ll also be more likely to put other people in danger. Imagine being on one of the ships going down the Great River and then having one or more of these groups ambushing us. I can’t risk things like that.”

He looked over at Urelle. “I’m hoping you really can do something about those Coins.”

She looked down at the two glittering golden Shields in her hand. “So do I.”

The complexities of Aegeia washed over her with the worry about these people coming perhaps from all directions, seeking them. She imagined Ingram’s scenario, a battle on a ship as it drifted down the river, or what might happen if they traveled with a caravan down one of the Great Roads. But with those images, inspiration suddenly struck her. “You know what? I think I can.” As the idea grew, became more detailed, she found herself laughing. “I’m sure I can! When we camp, I’ll show you!”