GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares – Chapter 16
The word echoed menacingly through Ingram’s mind.
On its own it was a silly word. War was usually chaos. Putting the two together was near enough a redundancy. But as every living being on Zarathan knew, had been taught, had read in books or heard in legends or seen in ancient carvings, there was nothing whatsoever silly about it.
“Chaoswar” was only the translation, anyway, of a phrase in Ancient Sauran that meant something more like “the world plunged into war, that only chaos shall remain.” The world grew, flourished, the shattered countries that had been healed their wounds and became mighty again, great heroes drove back monsters and abominations from the land, and all was well. And then … every few thousand years (how many, no one really knew) … something happened. The world went mad. Petty disagreements became violent arguments. Monsters became more cunning, devising longer-term plans to bypass defenses around the roads and cities. Those who dreamed of vengeance or conquest found it easier to gain followers, to raise armies and gold and the patronage of demons or gods.
The wars escalated, and in the end, the forces released … would somehow resonate throughout the world, so that even as the war and devastation reached a climax, the knowledge of the world faded. Even the gods, even the Great Dragons, could only recall very imperfectly what had gone before. And so the world would slowly emerge from chaos and confusion, and begin to rebuild anew … knowing only that in the end, no matter their achievements, one day the world’s madness would come again…
It was the prayer of every parent and every child that they would not be born into that era.
And now we are.
He wanted to ask if they were sure, but that, too, would be foolish. First, because of course they could not be sure. How much did any of them, even Victoria, know of the world at large, of what passed not just in Evanwyl and the State of the Dragon King and Aegeia, but in distant Elyvias or Artania or the White Blade State or Skysand?
Second, because he did not need to ask. He knew, somehow, that he was right. The next Chaoswar was upon them.
“If that’s what we’re against … if that’s what’s really happening … Auntie, what can we do?” Urelle was as stunned as the rest of them by the thought, by the enormity of the idea that the terrible legend had become reality.
Victoria did not answer; Quester, too, was silent for a moment.
Ingram drew a breath. “We do,” he said, trying to sound confident, courageous, and strong, and not sure he sounded at all like any of them, “exactly what we’re already doing. There’s only one country in all the world that’s ever resisted the Chaoswars, and that’s Aegeia. Whatever’s going on there now … if it disrupts our Cycle, that protection will end. Whatever force is behind the Chaoswars must be always seeking to destroy that resistance.”
“You believe there is a force behind them?” Victoria asked mildly.
“I think there has to be. Could it really be natural that this kind of thing happens, has been happening since the Fall, half a million years ago? I say no. Something is behind this constant return of utter destruction and obliteration of knowledge, and whatever the Aegei might know of it, they did at least set in motion something that opposes it. That’s one of the reasons why the Founder swore her oath to Athena.”
“Perhaps your recall to your clan is also connected,” Quester mused.
“Probably.” He noticed Urelle walking to the fallen corpses of their enemies. “What…”
She had stooped down next to the Rohila. “Got it!”
“Oh, right. Another Coin.”
“Now we have two again.” She rubbed the back of her neck pensively. “I could pull the same trick again. This time I’d think we’ve got to have gotten rid of everyone to the west of us. If I send it off to Elyvias a second time we should really pull people off course.”
“It might not be a bad idea,” Ingram said. Obviously, repeating the same trick too many times would end up failing, but twice? They’d probably think that the misleading enchantment had broken, which it had, and figure they had a lead on the real location. “Actually, it’s a great idea to do it again. Unless someone can somehow see through it and find us directly, it’ll be a help whether they’re fooled or not.”
Quester bobbed his antennae. “Yes. Yes, you are correct. If they believe the directions they receive, they will move away from us. If they do not … then they must mistrust any directions the Coins give, and at best they will be moving more slowly as they check and re-check their directions, or go to trying to locate us by other means entirely.”
“And since they have very little idea of who we really are,” Victoria finished, “any other means of divination will be hard-pressed to give them even a general direction. Yes, Urelle, when we camp –“
“– right now,” Ingram said.
Victoria opened her mouth, paused, then nodded. “Ah. Of course.”
“Of course what, Auntie?”
“Deimos. We do not know where he has gone exactly, but we must presume it was to warn his master. They could be preparing an assault force even as we speak. Deimos was clearly injured, but how badly we do not know; his power may have been the only thing keeping him alive, or he might be back on his feet in a few minutes.”
“Myrionar’s Sword, you’re right!” Urelle’s gray eyes flashed. “Everyone, sit down, I’ll start the preparations.”
Despite knowing the need to hurry, Ingram saw Urelle stop herself, close her eyes, and focus before beginning the preparations. She knows that we can even less afford a mistake in this magical working. He knew his own instructors would have been pleased by her presence of mind under pressure, though of course they still would have done their best to increase that pressure. It was the Camp-Bel way.
The young mage worked through the ritual more swiftly this time, having successfully done it once before, and having no need to explain the process. In a few minutes, she tossed one Coin into the air and it was snatched away by a large raven and borne aloft, sailing away to the west.
“We will take a quick look at the possessions of our fallen foes, but I do not want to linger long,” Victoria said.
“Hold on.” Urelle raised her hand. “Let me check over the area. They were defeated very suddenly, and you said she broke even magical protections, so I can probably tell if there’s anything powerfully magical hidden on any of them.”
“A good idea. Do not leave powerful magic for either our enemies to recover, or others to find if it turns out to be dangerous,” Quester agreed. “As long as we can be sure none of it is easily traceable.”
“I think we can prevent that, yes.”
It did not take long with Urelle pointing out the right areas to search. Among other things, they recovered a beautiful crystalline sword that seemed to have been carven from a single gigantic sapphire and then chased with gold and silver runes, a collection of elixirs or potions, one of the transport or recall scrolls, a powerfully enchanted necklace of red and violet metals, and several other magical ornaments that would have otherwise passed unnoticed.
“I’ll look over these later. For now, I’ll just put a concealment enchantment over them – sort of practice for what I’ll be doing on the last Coin in a couple weeks – and we’ll stuff them in Ingram’s neverfull pack.”
“Good enough,” Victoria said. “But let’s get moving, please. I am becoming increasingly nervous. I would like many miles between ourselves and this location.”
“Right. But have we figured out how to cross this gorge?”
“For now, let us just head west along the edge. Perhaps an opportunity will present itself,” Quester said, antennae testing the air. “I scent the presence of water some distance off; if there is a stream entering the canyon, it may have cut its own, smaller, access into the chasm.”
“Okay,” Ingram said, as they began walking, “but why not just go down first? We were pretty sure we could make it to the bottom, it was just the climb back up on the other side.”
“I suspect none of us would like to be boxed in by canyon walls if our pursuers locate us,” Victoria answered. “But we can always begin the descent once we have an answer to the climbing problem. Perhaps, after we camp, we will find that one of our newly-acquired trinkets has the capability we require.”
They walked in silence for a while, Ingram trying not to dwell on the world shaking implications of the situation. One thing at a time, he told himself. You can’t stop a Chaoswar by yourself, but maybe you can help save Aegeia, as is a Camp-Bel’s duty.
But after a while, the silence became oppressive. He looked over to Urelle, who happened to glance at him at the same moment.
For some reason, that glance … touched him. Meeting Urelle’s stormcloud-and-steel eyes sent a frisson through him that wasn’t exactly excitement … but wasn’t exactly not excitement, either. He didn’t know what to make of it, except that he liked it.
However, it was also weird and made him cast about for something to say. “Um … Urelle, you know, I was wondering … I wasn’t so surprised on our first journey to see your sister do some spectacular things – I mean, she’s huge, for one thing. But you picked up that Child of Odin who probably outweighed you two-to-one and threw him like a sack of feed. How? Did you boost your strength or something?”
She opened her mouth, looking puzzled, then suddenly laughed. “Oh! You know, it’s something everyone sort of took for granted back home, I forgot you never lived in Evanwyl.”
“The Vantage strength,” Victoria said with her own smile. “Those in the close family line have that strength. I have it, their mother had it, all three of the children have or had it. Why? No one knows for certain. Some say it’s a blessing from some deed done centuries ago, others a touch of blood from something powerful in the line. But it’s there, and as you saw, to this day it’s nothing to laugh at.”
“Indeed,” hummed Quester. “I have seen strong grown men who would never have been able to do what Urelle did. That also explains how you can move your axe with such ease.”
Victoria nodded. “We all have our talents, of course. Urelle’s the first real mage in the family for quite a while. Oh, I know a few tricks, but nothing like her. You’ve got that mind-trick you can do with Ingram, plus of course your jumping and gliding.”
Quester made a dismissive gesture. “Merely facets of being Iriistiik, nothing more.”
“We could dismiss the strength – or indeed most other talents – in similar ways, young one.”
Quester’s antennae tilted, and Ingram smelled a waft of woodsmoke and pineweed; his friend was thinking on that.
“Can I ask you something, Ingram?” Urelle asked hesitantly.
“Why ‘Ingram?’ Your name doesn’t sound anything like the names of other people we’ve heard of from Aegeia, at least so far.”
The question triggered a wash of emotions, a roiling mess not easily sorted out. There was a moment of fond memory, a surge of guilt and anger, a touch of excitement and pride, more. “Well … no. It’s one of the Clan Names.” He paused, trying to isolate and understand his reactions. I really am proud of my name. It’s just the context of the Clan … despite the recall, I’m not over what happened. I still don’t understand it.
But he hadn’t really explained. “Camp-Bel the Founder did not come from Zarathan at all. She came from up there, somewhere in the stars; some people say she came from the sister world, Zahralandar itself. Anyway, the Clan preserved a whole set of names from the Founder – most of them taken from her crew, we think, but some of them from important people in Camp-Bel’s history or stories. Ingram is one of those; reading the remaining tales, he was something like a magician and a hero-thief, though the Camp-Bel claimed there was no magic on her homeworld.”
“Oh. That makes sense. The names, I mean. I can’t imagine a world with no magic.”
“Neither can I.” He tried to smile.
Apparently, that attempt was a failure, because Urelle looked at him with concern. “What’s wrong, Ingram? I didn’t mean to pry, I mean, if those were secrets…”
“No, no, it’s not really secret. Clan tradition, but not like some of the real secrets of the Clan.” He swallowed. “I … honestly? I don’t know what’s wrong, really. It just … upset me, somehow.” He frowned. “I guess it’s because I used to be proud of the name, and then as I got older, I got to be ashamed of it because I wasn’t living up to it. I wasn’t even good enough to be a real Camp-Bel, let alone one of the best of them.”
“Young man,” Victoria said with quiet conviction, “I admit to knowing little about the Camp-Bels personally – I have only met one other – but I assure you, there is no clan of warriors or defenders of any stripe who would find you less than an ornament to its name. I do not know why or how they convinced you so completely of your inferiority, but I am absolutely certain that it was utter rot. And the fact that they recalled you as they did shows that they know it.”
Ingram felt a shock of tingling cold in his gut, a burst of fear and hope and confusion. No, that’s not true! I was never that good! They wouldn’t even have had any reason to lie to me that way, to trick me … even if I could imagine how they could have done it…
But on the other hand, he was equally unable to imagine that Victoria Vantage was either so poor in judgment, or so willing to mislead him, that what she said could be dismissed.
Could it be true? Could I have been … good enough? Better than good enough?
But if I was … then why? Why convince me I wasn’t? Why…
He reached into his neverfull pouch and withdrew the box, opened it, touched the Insignia. He was barely aware he was walking; everything was concentrated on that golden symbol.
If you wish to know why, came Quester’s thought-voice, then think of what it accomplished for them to do it. What was the effect, the result that would have been different had they treated you as you must have deserved? Ingram heard the buzzing of Quester’s voice, realized that his friend had also spoken aloud, so that their other friends could understand.
“That’s … a really good point.” Ingram took a breath, put the Insignia away, and concentrated. All right. Take it that Lady Victoria is correct. Even as a theory the idea that he wasn’t a disappointment, that he was fully worthy of his name, felt almost blasphemous, as though he were dismissing the Clan’s fitness to judge him. But if it were true? If he was at least as fit as any of his relatives within the Clan…
Slowly, understanding came. “…I was not seen,” he breathed. “I stayed within the Clan grounds almost all the time. I had to sneak out if I wanted to go elsewhere, unless I was traveling with Mother or Father or others of the Clan. I wasn’t sent on patrols, or given apprentice assignments – guard duty in safer locations, escort duty with veterans, that kind of thing. I just stayed in, studied, trained, played only with people on the grounds.”
“Indeed,” Victoria said. “An interesting train of thought, is it not?”
“Very interesting,” Ingram said. His gut was churning now, a mix of hope and fear and anger, and he increased his strides.
When I get home … I will demand these answers!