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GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares – Chapter 18

Chapter 18.

“Ingram,” Victoria said, “How are certain are you that we are still on the proper course?”

“About a hundred per cent,” Ingram said. “Why?” Quester caught a hint of amusement from his friend.

“Because I haven’t noticed you stopping to take bearings much, if at all, in our travels. And there are so many ways to get lost in the Forest Sea. I’ve been through this general area before, and to make sure we were on the straight course meant one of us had to ascend to the canopy and check sun and any other landmarks … rather frequently.”

“Another advantage of the Camp-Bel legacy.” Ingram displayed a peculiar object, oblong, with most of its front surface taken up by what seemed to be a window; however, what was currently visible through this window was some sort of self-illuminated diagram with arrows and some other symbols on it. There were colored studs on the front beneath this window, and faint lines on the sides showed that there might be hidden small compartments or holes there. Quester had seen the device before, but even now he didn’t understand details of its operation.

“And this is…?”

Quester saw Urelle gesture, then blink, shaking her head. “There’s no magic on that thing. Some on you, but none on it.”

“No, of course not. This is technology. It’s way beyond what most of us think of as technology, but the Founder and her crew didn’t know anything about magic when they crashed here. In fact, according to the stories they didn’t believe magic existed until their new hosts made it pretty hard to maintain their disbelief.” Ingram glanced down at his viewer, then put it back in the pouch at his side, continuing to lead them onward.

Quester could see Urelle trying to grasp the idea of people who literally did not believe in magic at all. He remembered how hard that concept had been for him to understand. But there were other things to discuss. “You say you have been through this part of the Forest Sea before, Lady Victoria?” Quester asked.

“Years ago, of course. But yes.”

“Anything you could tell us about that might be of importance here?”

“Hm.” She was quiet for a few moments as they continued to walk. “I am not sure, to be honest. The Forest Sea changes, as you must know. Except in places where some species or group has managed to heavily entrench themselves, the dominant creatures may change from year to year. The land itself may be changed by conflicts between powerful beings; I have seen a valley that was later a flat plain, and, of course, we all know how the Fallenstone Hills came to be.”

Quester nodded in human fashion. One of the few tales to survive all the Chaoswars was that one – the story of the Fall of the Saurans, centered around the Great Dragon Syrcal, whose nascent envy of his more powerful and spectacular brethren had been fanned to virulent evil by agents of Kerlamion Blackstar, until Syrcal had performed a ritual of the King of Hell’s design that made the Dragon vastly more powerful … and, it seemed, utterly corrupt, and under the direction of Kerlamion. In his battle against Elbon Nomicon, Syrcal had been thrown down and the impact of his fall had created the Fallenstone Hills.

“Still…” Victoria said, “If that viewer of Ingram’s is as accurate as he says, I would expect to come across a small lake soon. There’s a few rivers that flow down from Wisdom’s Fortress and never make it to the larger river – they come out somewhere along the coast between Shipton and Aegeia. One flows through this area and into a lake, which has an outlet for the river to leave to the south.

If all that hasn’t changed, there will be an old … fortress, small castle, something of that nature, on the near shore to us. It’s the only reasonably intact structure in a set of ruins; there used to be a town of some sort there, and one that lasted for some time; you don’t get such massive stone buildings in a new town.”

“Intact? Would it be defensible? Suitable to stay a few nights in?” He asked the question quietly, so as not to be heard by Ingram or Urelle, who were walking together and discussing the viewer and technology in general.

Victoria glanced in their direction and arched an eyebrow at him. “Assuming nothing has happened to it in the interim, yes, it would be quite serviceable for a stay of a few days,” she replied in the same low tones. “Might I ask why?”

He verified what he had sensed earlier, testing the air with his antennae as the breeze blew it towards him from the others. “Urelle is near the end of her strength. I believe she has been driving herself to keep the diversion spell going as long as possible, and I can scent the stress and exhaustion in her – even though it is not, I admit, visible.”

Victoria’s eyes rolled heavenward and she sketched the symbol of the Balance before her. “Stubborn as all my relatives,” she said, her gaze softening as it lingered on Urelle. “It has been noticeably longer than the first time. If I am correct, that also means she is far less capable of wielding her magic at this point?”

“That is what she said, and the enervation I can sense would certainly imply that this is true.”

“Should I simply tell her to let it go now?”

Quester passed more air over his antennae, then gave a deliberate shrug. “She is not in severe danger as of now, and if she can make it to the ruins, it would not hurt to have the diversion continue as long as possible. It is, of course, up to you; she is your responsibility, after all.”

The tall woman studied her niece for several minutes, then nodded. “If we sight the castle before the end of the day, well enough. Otherwise I’ll tell her to let go whether she wants to or not.”

The occasional rays of sun were slanting very low when Quester, currently in the lead, broke through into a clearer area, to see a broad sheet of blue-green water stretching off into the distance – perhaps two or three miles across, and likely several times that long. On the near shore were ruins, as Victoria had described them – a collection of stone structures, large and small, in various states of collapse, vines and other overgrowth slowly taking them over. He could trace the town’s outline in his mind, see where there had been docks, hints of roads, piles of rubble that had been warehouses, and so on. This had been a prosperous settlement once, and not small, perhaps as many as ten thousand people living and working in this now-ruined city.

Quester could see that the encroachment of the jungle was weakened greatly the nearer one got to the center of the town; presumably this was due to the slowly-fading vermin wards around the settlement and its buildings.

Dominating the shoreline was the castle or fortress – a massive stone edifice perhaps a hundred feet in height at the peaks of the two towers at each end of the structure, and at least thirty or forty feet high along even the lowest portions of the structure. From what Quester could see in the setting sunlight, it was constructed mostly of a lighter-colored stone – granite was his guess – and, at least from this distance, appeared to be entirely intact, unlike any of the surrounding buildings.

However, what made Quester pause and study the entire area more intently was that the jungle stopped at a distance of perhaps a hundred yards from the castle; even the ruins near the castle were clear of overgrowth. He glanced over at Victoria, seeing her mouth tightened and eyes narrowed. “It was not so clean when last you saw it?”

“No. It appears someone has claimed the fortress for themselves. Or did in recent years, at any rate.”

“Balance, Auntie,” Urelle said, coming up to the two of them. “I didn’t expect the castle you mentioned to be in such good repair.”

“That is precisely what we are discussing,” Victoria answered. “It was not so pristine twenty years ago.”

“Well, this wasn’t done in a day or three,” Ingram said, “unless whoever’s in there is really powerful. Probably – almost certainly – not our pursuers. They wouldn’t really have much reason to settle down and clean out an old fortress.”

“I cannot argue there,” Victoria said, still studying the distant towers.

“Let us continue,” Quester said. “If the residents are not hostile, we will have a more comfortable resting place tonight, even if all they offer is a floor.”

“And if they are hostile?” Ingram asked.

Victoria shrugged. “It is unlikely they will be so hostile as to engage us in combat, Ingram. They may well wish few visitors, of course – choosing to set up one’s household so far from any others is something of a statement of intent – but in my experience, even such people won’t begrudge a few Adventurers a space to sleep, if no more. The few that do…” her scent was suddenly sharp and deadly, “…well, they’re often ones that Adventurers are needed for.”

“Onward it is,” Ingram said with a grin.

A broken stone road, encountered after half a mile of hiking, made their progress swifter, and before the last rays of sun had left the upper third of the towers, the four of them were standing before the main doors of the castle. Quester – and, he was sure, the others – had noted the additional signs of occupancy; within the ten-foot wall surrounding the building, there were no weeds, the paving-stones were unbroken and in place, and there were small gardens spaced around the perimeter – at least as far as they could see, and presumably all around the castle. The gates had been half-open, but the faint tingle across his body told Quester that there were active and well-maintained vermin wards.

The doors were mostly of a wood Quester had never seen, of startling hues ranging from deep red to yellow; the effect was of a curtain of flame within a grate, the metal binding the door providing the grate portion. Only one thing marred the artistic impression; a white or cream rectangle about five feet from the landing before the doors.

“Well, that’s interesting. A note on the doors,” Ingram said.

Quester stepped up and read:

Travelers are welcome within, as long as you can pass the wards at the threshold. Please leave all as you found it. Take what you need, as long as you leave something of equal value in its place.

“A courteous mystery, I must say,” Victoria mused after a moment. “No signature, no indication of their own identity, but a clear statement of hospitality that expects equal consideration. I have no dispute with these conditions.”

“Nor do I,” Ingram said. “Quester? Urelle?”

“They seem perfectly reasonable,” Urelle said.

“I agree,” Quester said. “As long as the wards mentioned are not against Iriistiik.”

Victoria chuckled. “I doubt we are dealing with so precise a protection.”

Ingram shrugged. “It could just be a trap, of course. Lure us in and get us comfortable. Then bang!

“Certainly, it could. I doubt it in this case, for various reasons, but we will keep an eye out. And choose adjoining rooms and ward them ourselves.”

She touched the doors, and before she could even push, they began to swing inwards. Lightglobes glowed to life, illuminating a wide hallway paneled in a gold-colored wood, with deep blue carpeting.

The four of them stepped across the threshold; Quester noted another tingle – similar but in no way identical to that he had felt at the vermin wards – and saw the others blink or twitch. It appeared, however, that whatever the wards protected against didn’t include Iriiistiik, lavender-haired boys, or women named Vantage.

“My word,” Victoria murmured, looking around at the spotlessly clean sweep of the two staircases curving to the second floor, and the subtle but noteworthy accents of gold and silver around the room. “Hardly the drafty and gloomy castles of your favorite tales, eh, Urelle?”

Urelle smiled. “I don’t think I’ll complain. As I’ve started to find out, the Wanderer’s words are very true: ‘adventures get a lot less fun the more nights you spend away from a really decent bed.'”

Ingram laughed loudly, the sound echoing up the stairs. “Wisdom I can’t argue! But it looks like decent beds might really be in our future tonight!”