GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares – Chapter 17
“Of course I want you to succeed, my son,” said his mother. “But there is only so much I can do for you without making my King and husband doubt that it is your success, and not mine, that he sees.”
He nodded, unwillingly, in acquiescence. Having Mother’s whole-hearted support in his endeavors would make everything vastly easier, of course, but she was right; then there would be – would always be – the question as to whether any of the credit belonged to him, rather than to the Queen and Mother of all. “I understand, Mother.”
“Oh, look not so downcast, Raiaga. Still there will be many things I can do to ease your way – not so much as to make the King misdoubt your power, but sufficient to be of much use. I do want to see you recognized, have him acknowledge you and let you take your place among the true Elders, even though your years are so tender.” She laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently.
It was … strange, to find that comforting, especially as Mother wore a human form, as was her wont and custom in her home. Beautiful, of course, with long dark hair and an unusual paleness of complexion, the only hint of her inhuman nature visible in her eyes, one violet as twilight cloud, one yellow as gold.
But it was Mother, after all – the only one who he trusted. He was her own grand experiment, one that the King had permitted but never approved – which by itself showed her power and influence. None other of the true people would dare such a thing without both permission and approval.
“Would you be able to assist me in the design – if not the performance – of the ritual to seal off Aegeia?”
“That I can certainly do, Raiaga. But does not the power of Ares give you the knowledge and capability? He has done it before, yes?”
He growled deep in his throat. “Apparently not; it was Athena’s doing in all the Cycles I can discern. It would seem that she does it when she is ready to begin the work of taking back the country from her brother.” He smiled grimly. “I, of course, want to do it in order to isolate the country and prevent any possible meddling from outside, at least until my control is complete and absolute. And since Athena is not going to manifest, I can’t even try to trick her into doing it for me.”
“Well, worry not. So long as you have Ares’ power for me to work with, I am sure I can design such a ritual that will serve your needs.” She seated herself and leaned back in the chair, which reclined to exactly the angle she preferred. “But I would caution you, my little darling, to never be so certain where the gods are concerned. There is always a way for one such as Athena to manifest.”
“Hmph.” He looked down, frowned, then shrugged and forced a smile. “Of course you are right, Mother. But the only path to her manifestation now is to reach the main temple and claim her spear – and you know how very restricted is the set of beings who could claim it and survive to become the Goddess Incarnate.”
“Indeed, and you are in all likelihood correct, Raiaga.” She smiled slowly. “But tell me … does anyone else know this? That you have found a way to prevent her incarnation by any but the most improbable means?”
He thought; that smile meant that Mother was planning something, and she would need accurate information. “A very few of my inner circle. Who have their own reasons to keep it quiet, and over whom I have certain … leverage, as you know.”
“Well, then, Raiaga, your mother has some advice for you, if you would hear it.”
He smiled back; it was a different smile, one he could feel, as he could never truly feel a smile towards any other being. “Always, Mother. You are wiser than I, and I am no fool.”
“Best that you are not, my son, or my King will surely end you. Would have already for your ambition, save that you are my special child.” She waved that away. “But attend. You have yourself said that only Athena uses the barrier you contemplate, yes?”
“Then here is my suggestion.”
It was a short enough description – an outline of a plan that both awed him with its simple beauty and made him want to stab himself for not thinking of it himself. With difficulty, he controlled that impulse; Mother did not like to see him so seized by rage, and rightly so. Instead, he focused on the lovely symmetry of the plan. “I am awed and humbled, Mother. I should have thought of that, and yet it is only right that you do so.”
She ruffled his hair. “Oh, Raiaga, you know how to speak well to your mother. Then if you follow this path, I can promise that I will ensure the seal will be enacted as required. This does not endanger anything in your main plan, I trust?”
“Oh, no, no.” As he fit the new idea in, he felt his own smile broaden. “No, far from it, Mother, I believe it will make the entire plan even stronger. You perceived weakness and turned it to strength.”
“Well enough, then.” Her face was suddenly cold. “But this shall be the only such favor I will do you, Raiagamor. As my King and the Father of our people has said, this must be your test, and weakness is the thing he will abide least of all in one who wishes to be seen before him. A few other small services I may provide, but I, too, am limited by his decree, even though I be your mother; and in truth, Raiaga, if you wish to become one of his favored and, in time, supplant him? You must provide your enemies not the slightest vulnerability.”
He bowed his head. “Yet you believe I may succeed?”
“Oh, my strange and wonderful child, you may, if you control the nature you gained from your true father, if you master yourself as you master others. If you do not … you will die.”
“I can only die in one way, Mother, and,” he gestured, “I have guarded well against that.”
“Two ways, Raiaga. Be not so arrogant. Yes, you are harder by far to destroy than any of my other children, but do not doubt for a moment that the King, or any of his Elders, could rend your soul asunder – and so he shall, if you fail.”
A distant, echoed noise reached his ears. A chime? No, a banging … as on a door…
Fang and Claw, this had best be important! It was a matter of great preparation and effort to arrange these meetings with his mother, meetings that aided him in maintaining his focus and control, and once canceled it would be some time before another meeting could be had.
But the banging renewed, with the sense of a distant voice calling. No choice, then. “Mother, my apologies – I must go now.”
As she nodded her understanding, he waved his hand over the crystal set in the bracelet on his left wrist, and without so much as an instant’s hesitation his mother’s castle vanished, replaced by his bedchamber – and the door, which rattled in its frame as someone hammered on it again. “Lord Ares! Lord Ares!“
“I come! Stop that racket, Phobos!”
He yanked open the door – then froze.
Phobos stood there, uniform spattered with blood, supporting the figure of Deimos, who seemed unable to stand on his own.
“What happened?” he asked, gesturing for Phobos to bring Deimos in.
“I do not know. He arrived in the recall chamber and collapsed. I could barely sense his mind calling to my own.”
“That is … distressing indeed,” he murmured. “Who else knows of this?”
“No one, Lord,” Phobos said after a thoughtful pause. “There were none in the chamber when he arrived, and I brought him here straightaway. No witnesses as far as I know.”
“Clean up any traces. I want no one to get a hint of this.” He bent his perceptions towards Deimos – and cursed with shock.
“My Lord … what is wrong?”
“What was he fighting?” The words were forced out from between teeth gritted tight in rage … or even, just possibly, fear.
The wounds on Deimos’ body were terrible, yes; they would have killed any ordinary being outright. But one such as Deimos should not have been struck down by them.
To Ares-Raiagamor’s vision, Deimos’ soul had the look of a curtain slashed to ribbons by a berserk hand. No, it was more something rotted or pierced by innumerable tiny holes – the shape was retained, but there was barely anything actually holding it together.
Phobos’ eyes widened as he, too, gained a sense of what had happened to his brother-warrior.
In that moment, Deimos’ eyes opened. For an instant they stared, blankly furious and fearful of something beyond the room in which they stood, but then they focused, and with a groan of pain he reached out and grasped Ares’ arm. “Fading,” he whispered.
“I know,” Ares said quietly, as he still studied the wounds on body and soul. It’s as though he was struck by a storm of missiles that pierced his essence as well as his body. “Phobos, fetch a new body for Deimos. We must transfer as much as may survive, as fast as possible.”
“Wait!” Deimos gasped. “Phobos … there is a survivor.”
The other God-Warrior’s face went so pale it looked greenish for a moment, and something tense and alien moved within it. “You are certain?”
“Did this ‘survivor’ do this to you?” Ares asked. “And survivor of what?”
“No,” Deimos said, raising his eyes to meet that of his Lord, and they were already clouding towards death. “It … was … Berenike,” he forced out, and then his hand unclenched; Deimos slid to the floor, life nearly gone.
Raiagamor felt as though someone had rammed a silver dagger into his heart; his hand actually came up to touch the armor encasing his chest, verifying that the pain was merely shock. “Berenike?” he repeated, even as Phobos stared at him with pale, gaping features mirroring his own disbelief. “But … that’s impossible.”
He knew it was impossible. Berenike had died over two years ago. He’d arranged that death, the final removal – or so he’d thought – of a threat he’d believed dealt with a decade ago. He’d been to the funeral. He’d seen the body – smelled it, known that scent and known she was dead and gone.
And even if she were alive, how… “How,” he said, speaking urgently to the dying man, “how could she have done this to you?”
With a final effort, Deimos answered, and though all his remaining strength was in those words, still Ares had to bend near indeed to hear:
“She is already … the Spear of Athena.”