GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares – Chapter 12

Chapter 12.

“This looks like a good spot to camp,” Ingram said, studying the small, perfectly circular clearing. “Then Urelle can show us what she’s come up with.”

“Wait a moment, young man,” Victoria said, keeping him from entering. Her sharp blue eyes darted about the grassy, flower-strewn meadow with a flat rock outcropping near the center. Ingram could see tension in her pose, her hand held so that she could summon that immense battleaxe in a moment. She muttered something that Ingram thought was a spell. He also thought she sniffed the air.

The tension released suddenly, and she nodded. “Yes, this will be ideal.”

“What were you looking for, if I might inquire?” Quester asked. “I can understand that the circularity of the clearing might be suspicious, but by your scent you were able to allay those suspicions simply by looking.” 

“See these?” She tapped a set of stones. “Ordinary, yes, but the pattern is obvious to those who know what to look for. There’s also a simple spell – I’ll teach it to you – that will reveal the markings of the Wardens of the Forest. See those stones, in that pattern, with those markings? It’s one of the safe havens they’ve made for travelers. They’re spotted through all the forests, even the Forest Sea.”

“You were also smelling for something,” Ingram said.

“Excellent observation,” she said with a smile. “Yes. There are a few creatures that can either mimic the setup – although they can’t actually replicate the spell-markings, so that’s usually sufficient proof. Still, I like to be sure that I’m not stepping into an eyrgines or into the trap of a naluthaka.”

Ingram made a face. “Eyrgines, I’ve heard of them. Giant carnivorous plants?”

“Whose traps look like pretty, circular clearings, yes. That’s what I checked by smell; they have a characteristic, very subtle perfume, it’s a lure for various larger animals. Makes the area seem peaceful and inviting.” She went on. “And the naluthaka you might better know as meadowmaws.”

Both Quester and Urelle flinched at that. “They’re real?” Urelle said, then looked embarrassed as the others looked at her. “Well, I’d only heard about them in Seven Tales of Terian, and you know that some of those are kind of made-up…”

“Perfectly correct,” Victoria said, and ruffled her niece’s hair. “Plenty of those collections of tales are nothing but rubbish. But the good ones often have a lot of truth to say within the rubbish, and I’m afraid that’s one of the nastier truths.”

“How did you make sure that this was not a meadowmaw’s lair?” Quester asked.

She pointed along the edge of the clearing. “The naluthaka creates a huge trapdoor out of a clearing, cementing it together underneath so that it can be lifted in a flash and the meadowmaw be able to grab its prey. Try as they might, though, that cannot be done perfectly, so if you look very carefully around the edges, you will see a faint line showing the seam.”

Ingram nodded. More and more, he was starting to appreciate how fortunate they all were in having Victoria Vantage with them. No matter how good they might be as young Adventurers – and even Urelle looked like she was going to be very, very good – there was no substitute for decades of experience in the job. “You’ve got a lot to teach us.”

“I will do my best, I assure you.” Her smile, quick and bright, added warmth to the response.

A little while later, Urelle gathered them near the campfire on the flat, clean stone. “It’s a matter of energy flows and redirection,” Urelle said, placing the two Coins in front of her.

Ingram studied the Shields. “How do you mean that? Is there energy flowing from us to these things?”

“Sort of. Not exactly.” Urelle frowned, even as she began sketching mystical symbols onto the silver-tinted leather she’d laid on the ground. “How do I put it… Well, have you ever seen a crystal winged harp?”

“Attended a concert by Reiva Freyavalyn, in fact. Beautiful music from a beautiful instrument.”

Reiva? I thought she never left Thologondoreave.”

Ingram grinned, warmed by her surprised and slightly envious look. “She doesn’t.”

Even Victoria looked startled. “You’ve been to Thologondoreave?”

“We have,” Quester affirmed. “The circumstances were … unusual.”

“I would think so,” Victoria said, eyebrow still raised. “It took me six years to convince them to let me visit. But we’re off the trail – Urelle?”

“What? Oh, yes. So, you must have seen her sing to the harp, and have it respond, right?”

Ingram remembered the play of gemlight through the Odinsyrnen‘s coal-black hair, and a voice as pure as diamond singing one perfect note after another, and the harp responding with the same notes, even as she danced away from it. “Yes.”

“Well, it’s kind of like that. The harp will only sing back to one note for each specific crystal of the harp, its resonant pitch,” Urelle said. She put one Shield carefully into each of two circles of symbols she’d scribed onto the leather. “And to make it respond, you have to sing out that note, sending those vibrations through the air to touch the crystal.”

Ingram nodded, studying the symbols. He hadn’t really learned much about magical symbology, so he couldn’t tell much about it; it was clear that the two circles were different, and he thought that one of them was signified as the dominant. “So, the Coins are sending out magical vibrations, so to speak?”

“More the opposite. By our existence, we … well, vibrate the essence of the world. We’re a particular part of the world, and our existence speaks to the world, resonates with it. These Coins are mystically designed to sense that vibration, as a magnet seeks the northern and southern reaches of the world when placed in a compass.”

“But –“

“Oh, that’s very simplified. Really, we’re masses of these … vibrations, resonances, essential signatures, whatever you want to call them. Whoever made these Coins had something that was attuned to a particular characteristic that relates to me, or you, or Auntie – whatever it is they’re really seeking – and it is drawn towards it, whenever enough power is placed into it to amplify the reaction.”

Now her hands were weaving about the Coins; for a moment he thought he saw an almost invisible wavering, like heat-shimmers, tracing the same path as the girl’s delicate fingers. “Now, to negate that entirely – to shield us from being traced – that’s going to take time. But I think I can do something right now that should at least buy us that time.”

She gestured for everyone to come closer. “Just like the singing, it is possible to reverse the process, if you can set up the right conditions. What I’m going to do is attune one of these even more to us – whichever of ‘us’ is really involved – and then invert the other’s performance, focused through this connection I’m making.”

Ingram scratched his head. “So, what … the second Coin will be calling to us instead of us calling to it?”

“Better. It will be … oh, shouting, I guess I could say, singing out as loudly as it can, the same vibrations that the other Coins respond to. And as long as we keep the first Coin with us, it’ll keep channeling our … essence vibrations to the second Coin, which then keeps shouting them out.”

“As long as we…” The idea suddenly solidified. “Ohh, Urelle, that’s brilliant!” He found himself laughing at the thought. “But even if we leave the one behind, they’ll figure out the trick as soon as they find that Coin.”

“Could they use that against us?” Victoria asked. “I think it is a brilliant idea, Urelle, no doubt, but if I understand correctly this Coin will be connected to the other by your magic. Presumably a good mage could trace the ‘shouting’ as you put it, very easily. And perhaps strike directly at you through such a connection.”

Urelle frowned, thinking. Ingram found himself just staring at Urelle despite the frown, forced himself to look away. I have no right, nor do I have the time for … anything like that.

“Yes and no, Auntie, in order. Yes, if one of our enemies who is also a magic user of talent, preferably a Shaper like me, got hold of the Coin, they could follow the trace to the Coin we keep with us. No doubt. But they can’t use it against me, not unless they’re either ridiculously powerful so that they can target magic miles and miles away, or were something … oh, like a Great Wolf, that could grab that connection and pull through it. I’m just maintaining the spell, not shoving my whole self into it. And even if something like that happened, I’ll almost certainly feel something happening and I can just drop the spell.” She turned back to the Coins.

“Ingram’s other point still stands,” Victoria said after a moment. “If we just drop the Coin somewhere, it will not be long before it is found.”

Urelle grinned, a smile that said “watch.” “That’s why I’m not stopping there.” Urelle muttered several phrases in what Ingram thought was Artan. “Now, everyone – put one finger on the first Coin. Don’t touch the circle around it!”

Ingram carefully complied; the Shield was large enough – barely – for all four of them to get a finger (including a shining-chitin talon) on the golden surface. Urelle made another complicated gesture, then nodded. “Now, everyone lift your fingers … good.”

She focused her attention on the second Coin and whispered several more phrases of magical import. “Now, something, anything small, from as far away as you can think of. Anyone?”

There was a pause, then Victoria reached into her pouch and brought out a small golden figurine. “This came from Elyvias; perhaps I’ve traveled farther, but I doubt it.”

Perfect.” A white smile flashed in the dim firelight. “Far, far to the east.” She took the figurine and stood it atop the Coin, completed another ritual, and then gave it back to Victoria. Then she picked up the two Coins and tucked the first one into a small pouch at her waist, and threw the second one high into the air.

It arced up, glinting white-gold in a slanting beam of moonlight, and – just as it reached the apex of its arc – was suddenly snatched up by something perhaps the size of Ingram’s arm that flew by on batlike wings. Whatever it was circled higher, and then flew off away from the remaining glow of sunset.

“It’s now connected with Elyvias – wherever that figurine came from,” Urelle said. “It has to make its way there, and it will. Animals will catch it and carry it for a while, it will be dropped on hillsides that face west and roll down them, be spotted by someone who is traveling west, whatever, and…”

Double brilliant, by the Lady!” Ingram was amazed. “What you’re saying is that our … vibrations will now be sent to that Coin … and the other Coins will follow it.”

She grinned back. “Exactly.”

Victoria was looking as proud as any woman could be of her child, something that sent a slight pang through Ingram’s heart. He repressed that reaction; his own problems weren’t hers.

“A most elegant solution,” Quester said. “But surely an enchantment – even one Shaped – of that nature cannot last forever.”

“No,” she admitted. “I have to sustain it. As Aunt Victoria said, it’s connected to me directly, my strength goes through the first Coin to the second. For now, it’s very small, but the drain will increase with distance; at some point I’ll have to drop the enchantment before all of my magical resources are bound up in it. But that should be several days, at least.”

“If we keep pressing on while they’re going in the wrong direction for several days, that will give us a lot of breathing room,” Ingram said, feeling some of the weight of worry lifting. “Obviously you can’t do that trick again, since we’ll be left with only the one Coin. Will this give us enough time for you to figure out the way to suppress the magic entirely?”

Urelle frowned, staring down at the glittering Shield. “I … hope so. It’s the best chance we’ve got, anyway.”

Victoria nodded. “As you say, it is indeed the best chance. And I think your instincts are now vindicated; even had our two friends, somehow, dealt with the prior two groups of assailants, I see no way in which they could have thrown off the tracks of the others.”

“Neither do I,” Ingram agreed. While he felt less tense now, the urgency of his mission still nagged. “I wish we could set out now.” At Victoria’s raised eyebrow, he raised his hands as though to ward off a blow; she smiled thinly. “I know we can’t,” he said, “but I want to.”

“What do you think we’re going to find?” Urelle asked. “I mean … that message has been chasing you for a couple of years, right?”

“I don’t know. That’s the problem; my imagination can throw up all kinds of horrible possibilities.”

“Well … what was Aegeia like before you left?” Victoria asked. “One must presume that whatever has passed since must have roots in what already was. Yes?”

“I suppose. Especially since they did, as you mentioned, send the recall no more than six months after I departed.” Ingram busied himself setting up the cookpot and the fire while he thought back on things he hadn’t allowed himself to remember for years. It was … surprisingly hard to do.

“Well … Ares had emerged, oh, maybe twenty years before I was born. The city-states have been drifting apart for decades, maybe the last century and a half, so it seemed about the right time. He manifested incarnate in General Aloysius, who’d broken an attack from Velos through pretty much nothing but his own force of personality and passion. Once Ares was fully manifest, of course, he ascended to the High Throne that he and Athena share through the Cycles.”

He remembered what he’d been taught and what he’d seen, and waves of loss, fear, pride, hope, and disappointment crashed together and made him hesitate. To cover his discomfiture, he dug in his pack for ingredients to roast in the pot. “At first, he had his hands full fixing things at home. End of a Cycle, things just tend to fall apart. You couldn’t have all of Aegeia breaking apart if people didn’t start forgetting their direction, I guess. So there was all sorts of corruption in the Ekprospos, the enforcement of laws had become pretty lax, terrible crimes were common, all of that. It made him furious to see all the injustice in Aegis, and so he set about changing that.”

“Is this … normal?”

He scratched his head. “Normal? Well … it’s not unusual. Like I said before, Ares isn’t a villain, at least not most of the time, and even when he is, he’ll try to hide it.”

“When you say law enforcement was lax and crimes were common…?”

“Corruption at the top, remember? So sure, if you robbed one of the Archons, something would get done, but not so much for the common person. There was a whole series of murders when I was a baby that…” he shook his head. “Never mind. That was an aberration anyway – not from corruption or anything.

“Anyway, that was the first thing he did. Took him several years before he was satisfied, since he had to get people to change their minds – the gods can’t just come in and force people to obey. That doesn’t really fix anything.

“Then he declared that we needed to also strengthen ourselves against the forces without and within. That also was pretty popular, especially since he’d fixed a lot of what was wrong with the city by then, and people still remembered Velos’ attack – as well as one assault from an arm of the Maelwyrd Pirates, something we hadn’t seen in, like, a century or two.”

Quester buzzed and gave a scent that Ingram knew as derision and cynicism, something like oiled dirt with alcohol. “And then this extra strength made him consider bringing his enlightened … passionate rule to the other cities?”

“Yeah, you’ve already got the idea. A couple of them had already tried pushing their way in, of course, and they were also feuding amongst themselves, so again, it wasn’t as bad an idea as it might sound.”

Victoria fixed him with a narrow glare that made him want to crawl away and hide; Urelle’s incredulous stare didn’t help, and the shift in Quester’s scent drove it home.

“Young man,” Victoria said after a moment, “Conquest is always a bad idea.”

“Well…” he swallowed. “Um. Yes, I guess. Yes. But what I meant…” he hesitated.

The cold stares thawed slightly. “I understand what you meant, Ingram. That it seemed … less bad an idea than it would if you just started conquering peaceful, harmless neighbors.”

“Yeah.” He thought a moment and cringed both inwardly and outwardly. “Wow, um, now that I think about it, I really said that pretty badly.”

“I suspect you said it as your people thought it,” Quester said gently. “After all, your god-ruler Ares could justify it. And he is a god of war.”

Urelle scrunched her face up, then smiled. “You know, given what we already know about Aegeia … maybe Ingram’s wording’s closer to right.”

“Pardon me?” Victoria looked both startled and shocked.

Ingram noticed that unlike himself, Urelle did not wilt beneath her aunt’s gaze. “Think about it, Auntie, Quester; both their ruling gods are gods of war. They have a Cycle based on this conflict between them. In that context, war’s pretty much inevitable, so even if the thought of war not being a bad idea sounds … well, insane to us, it’s maybe not so crazy for them.”

“Hmph.” Victoria tilted her head, as though studying something she couldn’t quite make out. After a moment, a trace of a smile appeared on her face. “You may be right. It seems a terrible way to run a country, but if Ingram’s description is correct, it at least works, and has done so for a very long time.” She nodded to Ingram, who finally let himself relax a bit. “My apologies, Ingram.”

“No need to apologize.” He gave a grin-and-shrug. “You’re not the only ones who don’t really get how Aegeia works.” He thought back. “Now what was I … oh, right. So basically when I left, the country was completing full-on preparations for war. Almost everyone fit to fight was volunteering, except the Clan.”

“Why wouldn’t the Camp-Bels volunteer?” Urelle asked. “You’re citizens, right?”

“Oh, sure, very proud of it, too. But the Founder gave her loyalty first to Athena, and through her direction, to protecting the rulers of the city-states. Eventually that became sort of a general-purpose rule that we protect the legitimate rulers of a country. In the Cycle, we’ve become … well, sort of the insurance that assassination will rarely be used as a method of war. Not never – some Cycles are pretty brutal – but if you have to go through a Camp-Bel bodyguard or three to get to a ruler, you’ll probably think two or three times before you do.

“So anyway, that means we’ve already all got jobs to do, and volunteering as soldiers isn’t one of them.” He tried to keep his voice light.

“What’s wrong?” Urelle asked.

Spear and Shield, what’s wrong with me? I can’t hide anything these days! “Nothing.”

“You can choose to say nothing,” Victoria said, and her voice was gentle, “but I think none of us will believe that it was nothing.” Her gaze sharpened. “And some of it goes back to that series of murders you mentioned.”

He cursed inwardly again, but it was against pain, not anger. “I … all right.” He drew in a breath.

“I … well, I knew I wasn’t a real Camp-Bel all along, understand. That … moment that made me run away was more … well, a trigger, not a total surprise or anything. I was adopted when I was a baby because…” He paused, then forced himself to go on.

“That series of murders was the beginning. A little after the time I was born, they started. Someone or something was murdering children – most of them infants, though there were some victims as old as two or three. There were a few adult victims, but they were pretty clearly collateral damage – they got in the way of the killer, saw something they shouldn’t.

“The first wave of murders, though, was in the lower city, and so there wasn’t much investigation at first. That’s part of what I meant about corruption, how far Aegeia can fall toward the end, or beginning, of a Cycle: it didn’t affect the people at the top, so there wasn’t much effort devoted to it.”

Urelle’s entire posture and gaze showed both disbelief and sympathy, and he realized that there was a certain frightening parallel between that set of events and the murder of Urelle’s own family. “So … what about the Camp-Bels?” Urelle asked after a moment. “Couldn’t they do something?”

“Remember what I said about how they’re sort of separate? We can’t just go randomly poking our noses into the business of Aegeia, we have to follow the commands of the rulers – or sometimes of Athena or her emissaries, if they send their own clear instructions. Anyway, that didn’t happen until the killer struck one of the higher houses. Then it became a priority.”

“Soul-reading? Resurrection magics? Were they able to find out…” Victoria trailed off as Ingram shook his head.

“Whatever it was was either destroying or at least badly damaging the souls of the murdered. That made the top suspects a zarbalath, a Great Wolf,or maybe one of the parasitic thansaelasavi, because even the cursory investigations indicated that the killer wasn’t always the same size, or maybe even shape. So it was either a shapeshifter itself, or it was able to steal other people’s shapes, maybe make them forget what happened while under control.”

“Or had magic to change its shape,” Urelle pointed out. “If a mage like me, or worse, a spirit-mage wanted to do those kinds of things, they could do it.”

Ingram shuddered, looking at Urelle and suddenly envisioning the delicate-seeming Vantage girl with a cold, deadly smile. “Yeah, I suppose so.” He looked down for a moment, stirred the pot in front of him. “So, the investigation finally started, but there didn’t seem to be any pattern in it other than that young children were being targeted. At least, not until the Camp-Bels got involved. We have some really powerful … thinking machines, I guess you can call them, left from Rhyme and Reason, and some of the Captain’s Crew are trained to use them.”

“I could hear the capitals in that. What’s the Captain’s Crew?” Urelle asked.

“Oh, they’re … the inner circle, is the best way to put it. They’re handpicked by the Captain to take the traditional roles of the Crew of Rhyme and Reason, and they get access to the secret manuals and such to learn those roles, and how to operate all the remaining tech – much better than any of the rest of us. Which makes sense, there’s not that much of it and a lot of it is pretty delicate.” He frowned, rewound the conversation in his head.

“So anyway, no one outside of the Captain’s Crew knew the actual details, but they somehow got the thinking machines to analyze all the information on the killer, his victims, and so on, and it suddenly told them what the pattern was, and where the killer would strike next, a house with twin babies, a boy and a girl. The Camp-Bels went to stake out the house, set up a perimeter … and found out a few seconds too late that the killer was already inside.”

Despite nerving himself up for this story, he found he couldn’t continue.

“I believe I see,” Quester said. “One of the twins was killed. The other survived. And that was you.”

He nodded, took a breath, forced himself to go on. “My twin sister was killed, and I would’ve been dead a split second later if … if my … if the people who raised me hadn’t stopped my natural father from tearing me apart.”

“Your father was the killer?”

“It was a zarbalath, one of the parasitic demons who lives on fear, pain, and the souls of the weak and young. It had been possessing people, passed from one to the other. And by then it was very strong. The house was destroyed, my natural mother was already dead, and my natural father died in the battle.”

He managed a sour smile. “From the Camp-Bel point of view, it was hardly a victory at all. We’d had all the information, but had failed to secure the home properly. Now they had an orphaned child with no close relatives, one orphaned due to their errors. The fact that I would’ve been dead without their intervention was the only bright spot in it. So, they took me in, made me one of them, as the only apology they could give to the dead.”

“Oh,” Urelle said. “And that’s why you’ve said you aren’t a ‘real’ Camp-Bel.”

“Right. I am not descended of those who first took the oath to the Lady, I’m not of the Starblooded – I mean, maybe there’s some in me, maybe not, but no way to be sure. The point is that I couldn’t match up to my brothers and sisters who were really part of the Clan. Berenike did her best to help me, but I knew I’d never measure up. So, I figured I could join the new army; I was better than their regular recruits, that was for sure.

“Father forbade it, and made me promise I wouldn’t go behind his back. Got the Captain herself to come down and take my oath on it. I couldn’t believe it!”

He felt the incredulous anger rising again. “I mean, sure, if they had some real use for me it’d have made sense, but they didn’t! Even when every single person from my cohort got an assignment, they had nothing for me!” His voice was louder, sharper, almost shouting, even though he was trying to keep control. “They wouldn’t even let me bodyguard some minor noble in Amoni Agapis, and no one even thought there’d be combat in that city.”

Urelle’s huge gray eyes looked at him, filled with sympathy, and he couldn’t meet that gaze, not now, not with anger, pique, and shame filling him, so he looked down. “So, I was almost the only person left in the Clanhold my age. Except Berenike, but she had to spend most of her time training for her ascension. She’d stop by when she could, though, until…” He stopped. “Eh. That’s enough.”

Victoria was looking at him with an appraising glance. “That is upsetting. And, I will say, suggestive.”

“Suggestive?” Of all the words she might have said, that wasn’t one he’d have expected.

“Oh, most suggestive. Of what I am not sure, but I do, indeed, find it difficult to believe that they would prevent you from serving in any capacity. Unless your Clan is particularly arbitrary and unreasonable?”

“Not … particularly, I wouldn’t think,” he said after a moment’s thought. “But –“

“No ‘but,’ I think. I have never met another Camp-Bel in person, so I cannot speak to how great the disparity between you and they might be. However, I cannot believe that one of your talents would not have been used for some purpose. The fact that they did not … suggests that they had some very strong reason for keeping you where you were.”

“But why?” The question burst from him with a startling flare of desperate, tragic need. “WHY?

Victoria spread her hands. “That … as of yet … I cannot say.”

“But,” Quester said, “we may well be on our way to find out. Perhaps that ‘why’ was exactly the reason your recall message has been following you for two years.”

Ingram froze. The thought of … an explanation, a reason, of finding out from his mother and father that it wasn’t just that he was a failure and embarrassment, just something kept from obligation and guilt … it filled him with a longing so intense that for an instant he could not breathe.

But he swallowed that longing, denied the desire. What he wanted didn’t matter. What mattered was the truth.

So, all he said was “Perhaps.”