GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares – Chapter 14
Victoria saw the tension in Urelle’s entire body vanish abruptly – a tension that Victoria had not consciously realized she had seen until it had disappeared. Ah. Of course. “The spell has reached your limits, then?”
“Auntie? How did you know?” Urelle stared at her; the other two looked back from their position a little ahead.
“An educated guess from observation,” she answered with a smile. “I saw you relax. You’d been under tension, then relaxed without anything visible to cause it. Only one explanation for that occurred to me.”
Urelle shook her head, smiling. “You’re too sharp for me, Aunt Victoria. Yes, I just let go the spell.”
“In truth?” Quester made a swift flutter of his wingcases and a dip of his antennae. “I had thought you would have dropped it long since. It has been two and a half weeks.”
“You really just dropped it now? Sword and Spear, that’s impressive.” Ingram stared admiringly at Urelle.
Not at all to Victoria’s surprise, the youngest Vantage’s cheeks darkened and she smiled brilliantly at Ingram. “It’s not that impressive,” she said, “I just hung on as hard as I could because I knew the longer it ran, the better the chance we lost most or all of them.”
“Have you any idea how far our wayward Coin traveled before you released the spell?” Victoria asked.
“Vaguely? A long way. I think … maybe a thousand miles?”
“A thousand…” Ingram and Quester both burst into laughter, the young boy’s human chuckles overlaid with the cheerful buzzing of the Iriistiik. “By the Founder, what our pursuers must think! A thousand miles in less than three weeks? Over fifty miles a day!”
“And if they check now, they must reverse course,” Quester said. “Most of them must be hopelessly far away from us, unless they have magical means of transport.”
“I wouldn’t discount that possibility too far,” Victoria said after a moment. “Perhaps they cannot use such transport regularly, but the distribution of multiple bands at considerable separation, looking for one target, would strongly argue to me that whoever sent them could, at the least, send them to multiple places at once.”
“I … guess,” Urelle said slowly. “But … even so, they almost certainly can’t have any long-range transportation magic, or powerful mounts, for the group as a whole. They wouldn’t have been walking to the estate, not if catching … well, whoever they’re really after was that important.”
“Hmm. That is a good point. Some individuals in some of their groups may have such transport, but it won’t aid them as a group. They do have transport to bring people back to their headquarters, wherever that is – presumably somewhere in Aegeia, based on what they said when debating who would take credit for your capture.”
“Did you take those scrolls?” Ingram asked.
“Certainly,” Victoria said, “but unless we want to attempt a preemptive assault on an adversary of which we know scarcely anything, they won’t be much help to us at this point.”
“No, I guess not.” Ingram looked around, scanning as usual for dangers.
Victoria approved of his continual alertness. The deep green light of the Forest Sea made everything slightly indistinct, but also meant that the undergrowth here was minimal. As long as they could keep a clear sense of direction, they could travel reasonably well … as long as none of the many dangers of Zarathan’s jungles didn’t catch them unawares.
So far, they’d caught the dangers unawares – noticing the subtle fogginess about a certain part of the forest that she recognized as the trap of a wandermind, Ingram catching a forestfisher as it attempted a dropping ambush (and practically breaking the spidery thing in two), Quester surprising them by being able to speak to a small tribe of creatures who seemed to be mostly spines and mouths, convincing them to let the small party pass, Urelle unleashing controlled lightning against a cloakwolf pack and sending the nigh-invisible creatures fleeing. The Forest Sea was living up to its grim reputation, and her memory; every other day brought a new lethal threat into range.
But even Urelle was demonstrating that she was, indeed, a Vantage. She was young, she was new, but she was learning, and Victoria could not deny that having someone with true talent for magic along was a comfort. There really were some threats that needed a mage to deal with them well.
“We should, then, be safe from our pursuers for a while, yes?” asked Quester.
“I would think so,” Urelle said. “While we’ve been heading this way for two weeks, they’ve all been going west. We didn’t run into anyone in the last couple of weeks, so I have to guess that there’s no one left ahead of us. And retracing their steps to catch up with us won’t be easy. We’ve moved … how far?”
“Something over a hundred miles,” Victoria answered.
“So, if we assume our enemies are as fast as we are, they’ve all gone at least a hundred miles in the wrong direction.”
Ingram’s face clouded. “Maybe I should have taken the river route. It’s going to take a long time to get home.”
“Perhaps,” Victoria said. “But second-guesses are a waste of time, and you know it. You had what seemed sufficient reasons to avoid that path. We can hardly change it now.” She pushed forward, following Ingram and Quester through thickening undergrowth. A clearing ahead, most likely.
“Although that does give me a worrisome thought,” Quester said.
“What’s that?” asked Ingram, then immediately shouted “Yow!” and fell backwards.
“What… Oh dear,” Victoria said.
There was a clearing ahead … in the sense that the land itself was cleared away too. Ingram had fallen back and now was standing up scant feet from the edge of a precipice. Moving cautiously up, Victoria could see that the drop was over a hundred feet down, possibly twice that. A winding river below – probably an unmapped tributary of the World River that flowed from Heart of Water – had carved out a channel through the earth and stone that cut almost due west, across their path.
“Well, now, this is a pretty obstacle, isn’t it?” she muttered under her breath.
“Easy enough for Quester and Urelle, I’d guess,” Ingram said. “Looks like we’ve got climbing to do, though.”
“I could probably float you to the bottom,” Urelle said, “but I’m not sure about getting you to the top on the other side.” She looked apologetic. “So many different spells to learn, and, well, I was focusing on ones I could use on my own…”
“Founder’s Grace, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for,” Ingram said with a laugh. “Plenty for us all to learn yet. It’s not like even Lady Victoria knows how to do everything, right?”
“Quite right, Ingram,” she said. “While we prepare ourselves, Quester, you said you had a worrisome thought?”
“Yes. It occurs to me that since our enemies did not, in fact, know where we were, they must have scattered themselves widely, and an obvious set of locations would be along the most-traveled routes such as the river. Yes?”
“Certainly.” The implication struck her. “Oh, Balance. We’re not much over a hundred miles west of the River.” And if they were following something moving west…
Ingram shrugged. “It’s possible, of course, but even then, they’d have to have been in just the right spot or they’ll still be miles out of position to catch us.” He glanced down at the cliff. “Still, maybe we should see if Urelle can give us a quicker way down.”
“Perhaps we can be of assistance,” said a calm, chill voice.
The group emerging into sight from the northwest was diverse – two armored bilarel, gray-skinned giants eight to nine feet high and heroically muscled; a cloaked figure she was fairly sure was a mazakh from the green-glinting scales on its hands; a pair of fluttering blade-faeries; a pale, delicate, pointed-eared woman with white-gold hair who almost had to be one of the Rohila; one Child of Odin whose black hide-wrapped hands indicated a master of the Way of the Hammerfist; and four humans. Despite all the differences, though, there was a similarity – and a familiarity – about the cut and symbolism of their armor and other accoutrements.
The one who had spoken was human, whipcord-thin and barely topping five and a half feet, with a narrow face and a shock of straw-colored hair. Despite his size, Victoria tensed; there was an air of utter lethality about him, perhaps partly because of the nearly colorless eyes that made his black pupils seem pits in the center of whiteness. He wore brief, stylized armor of red, black, and bronze – a cuirass, a helm that was more a crown than protection, gauntlets and engraved, ornate vambraces, and armored boots with greaves, leaving considerable areas apparently unprotected. At his side, not yet drawn, was a broad-bladed shortsword.
Ingram stepped forward and bowed; though his movements seemed relaxed, Victoria could see he was deathly pale. “Lord Deimos,” he said.
The pale, deadly eyes flicked to Ingram’s face, and the brows rose the breadth of a hair. “Is it… Why, yes, it is, the young Camp-Bel.” He did not bow, but inclined his head; Victoria did not like the way his lips curved in the hint of a smile.
Still, the movement was one of acknowledgement, if not complete respect, and the threat in the eyes was a fraction lessened. “I had heard you had departed on an … extended mission.” The colorless gaze flicked from Ingram to Victoria and Urelle; Quester, Victoria thought, was at least partially concealed by the brush behind them. One eyebrow rose again, and she saw a shadow of suspicion on his face.
He gestured to those behind him. The Rohila came to his side, and Victoria saw, with a sense of inevitable dread, the glitter of a Coin in her hand; the woman whispered something to Deimos. His eyes narrowed and his teeth were bared in a smile that held no trace of warmth. “How … interesting. You … or, I should say, one of those with you…” his gaze settled on Urelle, “…are the one we seek.”
Ingram swallowed so hard that Victoria could hear it. But he reached back and touched the anai-k’ota‘s shaft. “You may not touch her,” he said. His voice shook, but he continued, “She is under my protection, as a Camp-Bel and as a Guild Adventurer.”
Whatever this man is, he is something formidable indeed; Ingram is not easily frightened. Still… “Assuredly you may not,” she said, and Twin-Edged Fate materialized in her hand.
Their opponents also drew weapons, but Deimos held up a hand. “There need be no bloodshed,” he said. “We seek only one. And we shall not slay her. You could even accompany her, if you wished.”
“For what purpose do you seek her?” Quester asked, stepping into full view.
There was a shift in Deimos’ expression; it was too quick and distant to be certain, but Victoria thought he was very displeased to see the Iriistiik warrior. “That has not been revealed to me,” he said after a moment. “But it is Lord Ares who commands it.”
“Lord Ares does not command the Clan,” Ingram said, and his voice was clearer – though the dread was still there. “Only our missions, our Founder, and, in the end, the Lady of Wisdom. You are none of these, Sword of Ares.”
Sword of Ares? Victoria felt a spurt of fear that was purely her own. By the Balance, this is a God-Warrior!
This was a situation more dire than she had imagined. The previous hunting parties had not been harmless, but if even a tenth of the legends surrounding the God-Warriors were true, they were adversaries far more formidable than even the Justiciars of Myrionar … and Victoria would not have cared to test herself against any of them, either.
And if half the things said of them were true … they were directly empowered by their patron god, and far beyond the weapons of mere mortal Adventurers.
“I cannot gainsay you there, little Camp-Bel,” Deimos said after a moment. “Yet I do not forbid you to journey with us. You may guard her all the way to the Throne of War itself, if you wish.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Urelle said bluntly. “We’ve already met two groups of you Balance-wreckers.”
“I am afraid you are quite wrong,” Deimos said. “You will accompany us, young woman. It’s only a question of how.” He dropped his hand.
But Urelle acted even as his people moved. Lightning bloomed, a forest of crackling, roaring blue-white, knocking the blade-faeries from the air and scattering the others. Even Deimos flinched, the way a man might from an unexpected light.
Ingram moved in the moment the bolts faded. His first steps were unsteady, the shakiness of a man in terror forcing himself to move, but in three feet they firmed, the little Adventurer committing himself fully to the charge, towards the God-Warrior himself.
Victoria had the same idea, and in an instant she was matching Ingram stride for stride. Deimos is their leader. He is the strongest of them. Take him down and we may have a chance against the rest. Fail to do so…
But Deimos, startled or not, had seen them coming, and his shield came up, caught both the anai-k’ota and her great Axe on it with such contemptuous strength that she felt she had sought to cleave a granite cliff in half. He shoved forward, and Victoria tumbled away. Myrionar’s Mercy, he threw me back like a child!
Ingram had been flung even farther, and rolled to his feet between the Rohila and one of the human warriors. One of the huge bilarel was engaging Quester, and the Child of Odin had just reached Urelle. His arms lashed out to catch her.
Even as Victoria turned to face Deimos again, the Child of Odin’s eyes widened as the delicate-seeming hands closed about his arms and clamped down. Little Urelle yanked the massive Child of Odin off the ground and then threw him into the next two attackers.
This time both of Deimos’ eyebrows rose. “That … was unexpected.”
The distraction had given Victoria a chance to focus, to recall to herself the discipline of the Eight Winds. “Shall we try again?” she asked, raising the immense Axe and channeling some of her self into it.
Deimos smiled, and an aura of blood-red rose about him. “By all means, my Lady.”
“Not by herself, she won’t!” Ingram said. His two other assailants were down already, and he tore his way across the ground towards Deimos.
Too late, Victoria saw the scaled arm of the mazakh rising, opened her mouth to call a warning, but light was already starting from the clawed hand —
In the last splintered second, Ingram sensed it – saw movement from the corner of his eye, noticed the direction and intensity of Victoria’s gaze, or simply felt it with the gut instinct of a trained Adventurer – and whirled, interposing his weapon between himself and the mazakh.
But it was no single beam or bolt; a column of luminous power roared from the mazakh and hammered Ingram back ten feet, twenty, thirty —
And Ingram Camp-Bel tumbled over the edge of the cliff, a look of horror on his face as he disappeared from view.
From the distant sky there came a flash of auric light.