GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares – Chapter 15
She rose from below the cliff in a glow like sunbeams on water, bronze curls tumbling across her shoulders, skin of olive-touched gold, a body as strong and tall as Urelle remembered her sister Kyri’s, and cradled in her arms was Ingram, staring at the newcomer with such awe and joy and love that Urelle felt something constrict in her chest.
Then the girl laughed, and the sound itself was joy, a clarion cry of courage and triumph that dispelled thoughts of fear and defeat. “Never fear, Ingram,” she said, and her voice was somehow bells and trumpets. “Always shall I be there, if I am needed.”
This… This is his reserve, his backup, his final secret card, Urelle finally realized. Her senses tingled with the power near her, magical strength mixed with a touch of something else she had never felt before.
The newcomer placed Ingram down in the brush near the cliff’s edge and rose. Now Urelle could see that the girl wore armor somehow akin to Deimos’, but where his was red and black and bronze, hers was gold and green and silver, shining and bright and bold in the same way Deimos’ was in some manner deadly, threatening, dark. Over her shoulder was a quiver of javelins or throwing spears.
She strode forward, still smiling, and Deimos had gone pale with rage or fear or utter disbelief beneath his dark skin. “Berenike?!” he said in a strangled voice. “Impossible.”
“Sword of Ares,” Berenike said, “by oath and by bond, Ingram Camp-Bel and those he calls allies and friends are under my protection. You raise your hand at your peril, for the Lady’s Spear stands ready to strike you.”
“Ridiculous!” he snapped. “I know not what kind of trick this is, but I know it must be a trick!” He gestured to his people, who had regrouped. “Take her!“
The entire group focused on Berenike – except, Urelle noticed, Deimos himself. He’s slowly backing up … is he planning to retreat?
Berenike’s laugh echoed through the clearing again. “Storm of Spears!” she shouted, and hurled one of her javelins.
The dark-metal spear transformed in the moment it left her hand, became a shard of pure golden light that shattered into a hundred hundred bolts of luminous force. They hammered into and then broke the spell-wall before the mazakh, impaled the bilarel in a dozen places each, pursued the Child of Odin and sent him careening into a tree, blew away a cloak of shadow around the Rohila woman, who arched in shock and agony and fell limply to the ground, struck the remainder with such force that they somersaulted backwards, weapons flying from their hands, bodies falling like stringless puppets.
Berenike shifted her stance the slightest bit and Deimos raised his arms, seeing that there was no escape.
It did him no good at all.
Without so much as a pause, Berenike was there, in front of Deimos, and her fist blazed like the sun come to earth as it smashed through the Sword of Ares’ guard and came up, a meteor of light, to catch him on the point of his narrow chin. Brilliant energy flashed, a shockwave of energy that lanced around and through the God-Warrior, making his body convulse; Deimos arced upward, reaching sixty feet before plummeting back to earth like a stone.
Urelle thought that must have ended it, but to her utter amazement, Deimos was not dead. He rolled painfully to a sitting position as the Spear of Athena strode towards him. Deimos’ face was white, streaked with red blood below the mouth and nose. His hand dove into a pouch at his side and dragged out a piece of paper. Even as Berenike drew back her hand, he gasped a single word —
— and disappeared, leaving but a few drops of blood behind.
Berenike stopped, frowning. “Lady’s Spear, that’s unfortunate. He’ll have run back to Ares, no doubt.” She shrugged. “Nothing to do about it now, though.”
She turned to face them and smiled. “And you are Ingram’s friends. It is good to meet you all at last.” She gave a strange salute – bringing her two fists in to her chest so they met at an angle at the center, then rotating both so for a moment both her fists were vertical at her sides – and bowed. “I am Berenike, the Spear of Athena.”
Quester gave his own bow. “I am called Quester,” he said.
“Hold, now; my friend should be introducing you.” She leapt lightly through the air and landed at Ingram’s side. The boy had been simply staring, Urelle realized, unable to do anything other than gawk while the newcomer took care of the opposition in two moments.
“Now, Ingram, introduce me to your friends properly,” she said.
Ingram blinked, and shook himself. Urelle also noticed that the aura seemed to envelop Ingram as well as Berenike, both of them seeming touched by the magic, or greater than magic, that had appeared along with the Spear of Athena.
“Um … sorry. Berenike, please allow me to make known to you Quester of the Iriistiik, Adventurer and partner to me in our Adventures; Lady Victoria Vantage of Evanwyl, herself of the Guild and a warrior of great deeds; and Lady Urelle Vantage, a mage who is young, but of impressive power already. They were our charges once, but they have followed me on my quest to be my protection, as well. My friends, this is Berenike of Aegis, my oldest and dearest friend in the world and, as you have just seen,” his eyes shone up at Berenike again, “the living Spear of Athena.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Victoria said. “And we are all certainly grateful for your intervention; I admit, I did not like our chances against Deimos.”
Berenike grimaced. “Him and that group? No. It was fortunate that he was not prepared for me, and that his power is less…” she grinned, “…direct than mine. Oh, against most foes he’s still beyond merely formidable, but Deimos was always more about breaking his opponents’ wills and weakening their resolve than direct action – ‘dread,’ you know – while my job is, well, to hit the Lady’s enemies as hard as I can until they stop.”
Her head came up for a moment, and Urelle saw a tension on the olive-gold brow, a narrowing of the eyes as though she saw and heard something no one else could. “I would stay, but I cannot leave my duties for long, even for my oath-bound friend.” She kissed Ingram on the forehead. “Until we meet again!”
She leapt into the air, smiling at Ingram as she rose up, seeming to fall away upward, until she turned away and disappeared in the same flash of gold light that had heralded her arrival. The sense of magic lingered about Ingram for a moment before also fading away.
“Well!” Victoria said after a moment. “That was … fortunate, if abrupt. Ingram, if you don’t very much mind, I think we need to understand just who Berenike is, and how it is that she’s coming to your aid.”
Ingram turned his face back to them, and to Urelle’s surprise, there were tears running down his face, even though he was smiling. But he wiped them away quickly. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I suppose you do. I just … I mean, I knew she’d come, but it had been so long…”
He trailed off, then snorted and smacked himself a couple of times. “Sorry, I need to focus. I was acting … embarrassingly silly there, wasn’t I?”
“Yes, you were,” Urelle said. It came out sharper than she’d intended, and she wondered why.
“She’s … overwhelming,” Victoria said after a moment. “It’s not, perhaps, so surprising. Is that what she was like when you were young?”
Ingram laughed, sounding more natural. “Well, sort of. Not really. That … aura around her, that’s from being a God-Warrior. You must have felt Deimos’ aura? That … pressure, that dread of what could happen, of what will happen if you face him? Same kind of thing, but of course you were feeling what an enemy would get there, and what a friend gets from Berenike.”
“Logical,” Quester said. “So, his allies did not feel dread at all?”
“No. I haven’t fought alongside Deimos myself, of course,” Urelle saw a shadow of his shame at being kept out of action, “but from what I’ve heard, it’s more the opposite – an absolute confidence that they carry terror with them, and their enemies will flee or be crushed. Berenike’s not as, well, dark as that, but it’s the same thing; if you’re on the other side, you’ll be seeing this bright, undefeatable warrior and know that you’re facing something totally beyond you.”
Victoria had been examining their fallen enemies; Urelle noticed that she looked a shade paler than normal. “What is it, Auntie?”
Victoria rose from next to one of the bilarel. “They are all dead. I had expected one or two survivors. A terrible blow she struck – and leaving not a trace of her weapon save the wounds.” She looked down, shaking her head, at the bloody rents covering the gigantic body.
“You killed eight people in one quick motion,” Ingram pointed out. “Okay, this is a few more, but still, not that much more frightening.”
Victoria’s lips curled in a wry smile. “Young man, you are superficially correct. I suspect, however, that you know perfectly well that there is a large difference here.”
“Maybe he does,” Urelle said, “but I’m not clear on it. You did do pretty much the same thing when you rescued us.”
Her aunt chuckled. “I suppose it must have looked that way, yes. But first of all, to do that I had prepared myself ahead of time. By the time I announced my presence, I had already focused myself into the Eight Winds and I continued to prepare until I had to make my move.
“Then, please note, afterward I was exhausted. I could barely have raised my axe to block for a few moments following that passage at arms. Berenike immediately delivered another blow that was utterly out of my ability to perform, and did not seem at all winded by her efforts.”
Victoria shook her head. “I do not think that even one of the Justiciars of Myrionar could have done anything like what she did. And finally, not only were there more of them, I would judge that group to have been far more formidable than the eight we first encountered. They had no bilarel with them, and if they had casters, they were not prepared for such an assault. If you watched closely, Berenike’s attack destroyed – rather casually – at least two sets of magical defenses and still slew the ones behind those defenses.”
Thinking about those points, Urelle felt a leaden chill in her gut. If Auntie was right – and she almost always was – that group had been totally out of their league, even leaving aside Deimos himself.
And this Berenike had killed them all with one attack.
“Auntie … I think we might be out of our depth in this,” she said slowly.
“That’s why I didn’t want you following,” Ingram said. He didn’t sound angry or annoyed; more concerned, and, behind that concern, afraid. “I have to go. I can’t choose anything else, not and be … well, who I want to be, who I’ve claimed to be, all my life.”
“If they’re after you like this –“
“They might be after you!” he shot back. “It doesn’t make sense, but for some reason it really does look like they’re chasing you … or maybe Quester.” He shrugged and grinned weakly. “or even you, Lady Victoria. But if you stayed in Zarathanton … you have friends at the Palace. They could…”
He trailed off at Victoria’s expression. It had suddenly become dark, grim, mingled with one that Urelle had rarely seen on her aunt’s face: chagrin.
“Young man,” she said after a moment of silence. “The Sauran King himself has been assassinated, in his own castle. There is nowhere in all the world that I would have thought more safe from assault than T’Teranahm Chendoron, and yet the most ancient and powerful sovereign on Zarathan – save only the Archmage himself – was slain in his own throne room. Clearly, if someone seeks your, or our, ruin, there are ways to accomplish this, especially if your location be known.”
Ingram nodded unwillingly.
Victoria took a breath, then continued slowly; her brow was furrowed now with concentration. “But there is more. Understand that I must now break a confidence. In my conference with Toron and his aides, it was clear already that such an act could not occur in isolation, and that in order to prevent panic and fear, we were to keep all news that seemed connected with such a plan to ourselves and to only discuss it with those in the Palace.” She shook her head. “But it matters little now; surely the results of these events have already become frighteningly clear in Zarathanton, if nowhere else.
“I told you shortly after I rescued you that Lythos had taken a message to Kyri. But that … avoided telling you the details. When Lythos came to me at our home, he brought with him terrible news: the Artan of the Forest Sea have been wiped out nearly to a one, and the remainder have fled. The Suntree has fallen.”
Urelle stared in disbelief at her aunt. “No … no, Auntie, that’s impossible, the Suntree’s stood for Chaoswars of time, it’s…”
Victoria hugged her gently. “Lythos had come from the fighting, Urelle. He saw the Tree falling with his own eyes. He would have fought to the death, except he wanted to seek us out, make sure that we, at least, were alive. I gave him another task, sent him with a message to Kyri, so that she would know what was happening here.” A tiny laugh. “It was not, perhaps, the most coherent of messages, but it will suffice … but more importantly, it gave Lythos something to do rather than meditate on the losses of his people.”
She looked back at Ingram. “But again, something terrible is also happening in your home country. We are being hunted – which one of us is truly the target may not even, at this point, be relevant. The important point is this: I do not believe all of these things are unrelated.”
Urelle found herself nodding; her own gut, tense as it was, agreed. “Yes. Assassination in one country, invasion in the one just to the north, and something terrible happening in one of our allies to the south, and … Auntie, our own troubles. The corruption of the Justiciars, our own God-Warriors in their own way.”
Quester gave a buzz-growl and a sharp scent of lightning and musk. “And perhaps even the slaying of the Nests and Mothers. Ours was at the foot of the Ice Peaks, the northern point of the Forest Sea; another of which the Sorter told us was nigh to Aegeia, perhaps within its northern borders, and the third between the Gyrefell and the Nightsky River.”
“Ares’ Balls,” Ingram murmured. “That’s not all that far from Evanwyl or from Dalthunia, which fell, itself, not all that long ago. I think you’re right, Victoria. By the Lady, I’m sure you’re right. There’s a connection.”
Without warning his eyes widened and he gave a half-heard gasp, turning towards Victoria – and Urelle saw the same horrified expression on her aunt’s face. An instant later, the hideous realization broke through to her as well.
“Oh, Myrionar’s Balance, Auntie,” she said at last, seeing Quester’s antennae drooping in shock, “that’s it, isn’t it? It’s started.
“This is the beginning of the next Chaoswar.”