GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares – Chapter 19
Urelle looked at the wide, soft bed with its black-and-green patterned coverlet longingly, but sighed. Can’t go to sleep right now.
She had, with relief, let go of the enchantment on the distant Coin once Auntie had brought it up. She had been pushing herself very hard, and it had been time to release it, but – being entirely honest – she didn’t think it had been too hard. The effort involved had felt … well, like a good workout with Lythos. Pushing herself, stretching her capabilities as a wizard in a good way. There had been the edge of pain forming, but not quite being reached.
Still, releasing it had meant that her magical strength had flowed back, slowly returning to its full power, and with it she’d found a somewhat annoying alertness. Her body was still tired, but her mind wasn’t nearly ready to rest, even though a glance at the stars from her window showed that it must be approaching midnight.
Have to work up the countercharm. Maybe I should work on that for a while.
If this castle had a magical workshop, or even a meditation room, one with the appropriate wards to prevent spiritual intrusion, that would be ideal. Much better than trying to improvise a circle in the wilderness. She threw her cloak on, picked up her pack, and slipped quietly into the hallway, gesturing to ensure the wards around their rooms remained intact. By now she was pretty sure that this wasn’t a trap, but might as well leave them up.
She paused, then hit her forehead as a reminder that she was being stupid. Maybe she didn’t want to wake them up, but she needed to make sure that if someone else woke up, they’d know she hadn’t been kidnapped out of her room or anything. She scribbled a quick note and stuck it to the door with a simple adhesion spell.
The four of them had chosen rooms on the second floor of the right-hand tower; a spiral staircase in the center of the tower led up to each floor, which had a circular hallway connected to the staircase. Each door around the hallway let into a small suite of rooms, each laid out for the use of one person, so they’d each taken one. Hers was between Ingram’s on one side and Victoria’s on the other; the staircase entrance was just a little farther down the hall, across from Quester’s rooms.
Workshops tended to be either very high up, or very far down. This did seem to be a residence tower, however, so Urelle guessed that any such rooms would be below, in the basement; Quester had found a staircase that led downward, but aside from making sure the door to it was closed, they had not bothered with it. Securing their own rooms, getting dinner, and resting had been the priorities – with her dealing with the trace being something for tomorrow.
The stairs downward were broad, flat, and smooth, with patterns etched or engraved into the gray stone that gave shoes a good purchase, ensuring no slipping down the stairwell. Descending, Urelle felt the faintly cooler air she expected underground, and sniffed. There was no noticeable trace of mold or other decay, which encouraged her to think that the basement was also as well-kept as the rest of the castle.
As she approached the bottom, she noticed that there was light coming from below. That made her pause; so far, the one constant they’d noted about the house was that things like the lightglobes were dark until someone needed them on, and she had not yet come close enough to activate them. At least, not based on what she did know so far.
There was no movement below, however, and the welcoming note had given no warnings about avoiding particular locations, so she dismissed her concerns and continued down.
The stair ended in a room that was something of an echo of the entryway above, with two hallways leading out of it on either hand, and a door directly ahead of her.
Hmm. Well, I’m in the far rear of the castle, near or at the center of the long axis. If I was making an enchanting or spiritual circle, I’d put it at the very center – the symmetry couldn’t help but support any working you made, especially if there’s any mystical sources nearby.
That meant, if she was right, that she should go through the door directly across, so she did.
A hallway ahead had another door on each side, and one more ending it. Still following her tenuous logic, Urelle proceeded to the end and opened the door.
Ha! I was right!
A broad, circular room – nearly a hundred feet across – lay in front of her. In the center, a full fifty feet in diameter, was one of the most complex ritual circles she had ever seen or heard of, a circle with multiple geometric figures inscribed within it – a triangle, a square, a five-pointed star, and more. Elaborate, carefully traced symbols followed every line and curve. Studying the ones nearer her, she could see multiple symbologies involved – Ancient Sauran and Artan, runes she thought were connected with the Children of Odin, some that looked more like picture-symbols, and more; at least a couple looked like they were Toadish.
Once more, Urelle hesitated. Whoever had placed that circle there had meant it for mighty works indeed, powers that, if channeled wrongly, could probably split the castle above like a tine root by an axe.
On the other hand, she couldn’t have imagined a better place to do her practice and finish her research. Stepping farther into the room, she saw there were bookshelves on the walls, a dozen of them, filled to overflowing with books ranging from slim pamphlets to immense tomes so thick and heavy she wasn’t sure an ordinary person could lift them. Other sets of shelves held powders and crystals and samples of other materials. Massive, solid worktables were spaced at intervals, some covered with intricate alchemical apparatus, others with more esoteric materials that she wasn’t sure she recognized.
For a moment she considered the possibility that she had imagined this place. That either she had just gone to sleep and was dreaming in a far too realistic fashion about the work she should be doing now, or that the castle itself was one of those mystical locations – usually turning out to be diabolical traps – where what you thought of needing would be provided.
But no, she was sure she hadn’t gone to sleep yet. She couldn’t entirely rule out the second possibility, of course, but … it just didn’t feel like that. The symbology of the circles seemed universally positive – even the darker symbols were placed so that they were negated, cleansing them from any works within.
Looking more closely, she saw that the circle shimmered with magic of a sort she associated with … well, housekeeping. Dusting, moving vases and such aside, preserving food, things like that. A simple, utilitarian magic she hadn’t expected. Now why would…
Oh, that would be clever. She studied the different geometric forms, and realized that their elements could be moved so as to make any or all of them active or inactive – with a gesture. I was right. Whoever did this made it so that they could have any of a dozen or more magical matrices available without having to draw and redraw them. The additional enchantments prevented silver from tarnishing, materials used to anoint portions of the array from spoiling, and so on. A lot of foresight went into this. Or maybe just a lot of experience and cursing at the way they should have done something.
With full understanding of the array – or, being more honest with herself, with enough understanding of its basic workings – Urelle took a breath and walked to the center of the geometric figures. A few gestures realigned it to be a pure warding circle, ideal for walling out any extraneous influences, shielding her from even the most malevolent interference, as she studied the Coin to see if she could tease out the last clue to breaking its enchantment.
The frustrating part was that she was so close. She could see the way the magic twined about the Coin, how it vibrated in sympathy with her presence, and those vibrations were, in turn, echoed by its sibling Coins. The magic swirled around it like a symmetrical, beautiful knot. But there was something else involved, because she couldn’t, to continue the metaphor, quite get her fingers to grasp the threads and tug any of the strands free. It looked like it should be straightforward to unravel, but none of her tentative approaches had shown any promise.
But within the pristine and protected perfection of this circle, just maybe she could grasp what she was missing.
She let her awareness reach out and inward, once more outlining the spell in moving, geometric lines, a rosette of energy in motion about the unmoving, yellow-cold core of the Coin. It was the same as it had been before…
In this environment – perfectly still, quiet, with even the ambient magic of the world silenced – she could see something else.
It was almost invisible – a phantom shimmer, almost like a glaze of polish upon the strands of enchantment. It took all her concentration to see it, but she was sure it was there. And it was clear, now, that this was the true barrier between her and dispelling the enchantment. It was as though the knot she envisioned had been spread with glue, permeating every turn and curve of the magical string and fixing it together immovably.
The question was … what was this? It wasn’t any magic she’d seen before…
Abruptly, her concentration was shattered as she saw movement across from her; the door was opening.
At first, she thought it was one of her companions – Ingram, perhaps, for the figure looked fairly short. But as it emerged into the light of the workroom, she could see that it was someone in a dark travel cloak, hood drawn up so the face was hooded in shadow, leaning on a knob-headed cane. She thought, by the slow and cautious way it moved, that it was an older man; white or gray hair trailed from beneath the hood.
The man did not glance in her direction, and it struck her that the dark stone, her being seated and slight figure, covered with her own dark cloak, must make her hard to see. And with the circle still complete, he would not be getting a hint of her presence in any other fashion.
He turned and moved towards one of the worktables with weary deliberation. He stopped, facing the table, his back to her. That back was tense; just his pose showed that he was in great pain or great inner turmoil.
Then she had to bite back a gasp, for the figure expanded without warning, rising up until the man must have been six feet or a bit taller, straighter; she was somehow certain that the man must be younger now. The cane, too, expanded, widening and drastically lengthening, becoming an elaborate staff of dark wood bound with silvery-shining metal, a faintly-glowing crystal crowning the staff.
And then the taller figure sagged down onto a bench before the worktable, and she heard a gasp of … pain? Perhaps, but she thought it was also fear. She heard a single quiet, desperately controlled sob of someone who was terrified, but still sought to keep hold of their rationality. It was the sound of a man who rarely cried for any reason, who found himself unable to stop himself from crying, and the sound was heart-rending. The last time she’d heard that was when she’d heard her brother Rion crying alone, in the quiet of night … a few weeks before he was murdered. She had hesitated, chosen not to intrude on his pain.
She couldn’t ignore that kind of pain now.
“What’s wrong?” she said, standing slowly. “What are you afraid of?”
The man jerked upright and half turned, catching one foot on the bench, and fell sprawling onto the floor, the great staff skittering away across the smooth stone until it nearly reached the edge of the ritual circle.
She gestured and opened the circle, running to the man’s side. “Oh, Balance, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you that bad! Are you all right?”
“Ow! I broke my nose!” The man’s voice was thick, both with unshed tears and the damage done to his nose – and she saw with a wince of guilt and sympathy that there was, indeed, blood streaming from the man’s nose.
“I’m so sorry! I’ve got a healing draught somewhere, hold on –“
The man was getting to his feet and she heard, surprisingly, a pained chuckle, though still with more than a hint of tears, a chuckle that turned into a full, deep laugh that echoed around the room. “HA HA ha ha… ohh, god, that hurts, but it is funny, jeez, that must have looked ridiculous, the way I fell…”
He chuckled again, and gestured; and the staff flew back to him; he caught it gracefully, whirled it around once, and planted it on the ground next to him, the metal-spiked end striking a flash of sparks from the stone. He waved away the bottle she had finally extracted from her pack. “No, don’t worry, it’s already fixing itself – see?”
She stared. Indeed, the man’s nose was straightening, blood no longer flowing, incipient swelling going down.
The sight was somewhat unsettling, so she shifted her gaze and surveyed the staff as the healing continued. It was of a thick, straight piece of dark-brown wood, with silver and gold symbols inlaid in between reinforcing strips of a metal that gleamed with a silky, silver texture different from anything she’d ever seen. At the top of each section were two symbols; one appeared to be an elemental or power symbol, while the one below each of these was a strange set of lines and curves; the three elemental symbols she could see were some sort of starburst – a brilliant, silver-white dot with almost flower-petal wavering rays radiating from it – a stylized wave, and a red-gold flame.
A faintly-glowing crystal, clear as water, topped the staff, bound into place by the same metal bands that reinforced the wood, while the heel was a point, a long spike of the same silky-silvery metal. Something about this … it’s almost familiar. As though I know it. Somehow, she knew that the other two faces of the staff – those she could not see – bore a thundercloud and a mountain, topped by a pair of scales. A chill went down her body, even though she couldn’t quite understand why.
In a few moments there was no sign the man’s nose had ever been injured, and he muttered a swift cleaning spell that made the blood instantly vanish from his face and clothes.
“Well!” The man seated himself again on the bench, this time facing Urelle, the hood of the cloak once more shadowing his face. “My apologies for intruding; I guess you must have been using my circles, there?”
“I was, yes, but no need to apologize. This is your workshop, then? You are our host?”
“It is, and I am.” The smile had faded from his face, and she could see more than a shadow of the pain and fear she had heard before.
She bit her lip, then repeated her earlier questions. “So, sir, what is wrong? What are you afraid of?”
The momentary smile was wry. “Tenacious, you are,” he murmured, in a voice higher and rougher, which then returned to its prior baritone. “Why do you ask?”
“Because … because I don’t like seeing someone in pain. No matter who they are.” And because of what happened the last time I ignored it.
“A good answer, I think,” he conceded. “I don’t like it, either.” He sighed. “What is wrong? I find myself in a trap with neither sides nor doors, so it cannot be evaded nor escaped. And I’ve evaded a lot of traps of all kinds before, so that’s what scares me. I know I’m not avoiding this one.”
“A … trap?”
He smiled, a flash of white from within the hood that vanished almost the instant it appeared. “Call it … destiny. Something’s going to happen to me … sometime soon. I don’t know the details yet, but when it happens, it’s going to be very bad, and I have to…” his voice shook for a moment, then firmed, “…I have to prepare. Have to make sure some of my legacy isn’t lost, that contingencies are set up, my own backup plans in motion. But I never thought … about this particular issue so much before. And not knowing exactly when … I know I have to do some of it very fast, just in case.”
There was something about the way he spoke that teased at her, touching that same chilled-spine feeling that the tall, glittering staff had called forth. It wasn’t … quite the way anyone else she knew talked. Yet, somehow, parts of it were familiar…
But his problem wasn’t familiar. It was frightening. The thought of knowing something terrible was going to happen to you, and being unable to know exactly when… “Is there anything I could do to help? I know you don’t know me, but you are our host…”
He glanced from her to the circle and back. “Well, now. You’re a mage of some sort, so … perhaps. What is your specialty?”
“I do a little of several things, sir. But mostly, I’m a Shaper.”
“A Shaper! Really? That’s not common. Few people really have the focus and determination to be a good Shaper, to grab the very fabric of reality and bend it to their will, rather than being a summoner, or channeler, or whatever.”
She flashed him her own smile. “I like the idea of fully controlling the magic, of understanding how it works. Of being able to make reality change under my direction, I guess, though by Myrionar that sounds awfully arrogant of me, doesn’t it?”
Another small chuckle. “Perhaps … but that’s not uncommon for those of us who are Shapers, and I’m more Shaper than anything else.” He studied her closely, half-seen eyes narrowing within the cloak. “Something about you is familiar, child. What is your name?”
She felt the word child was going a bit far, but then chided herself for the thought; if this man was the builder of that circle, he was likely far, far older than he looked. “Urelle Vantage of Evanwyl, sir.”
“Urelle Vantage,” the man repeated, in the tones of someone presented the solution to a mystery. “Sister to Kyri Vantage, I presume?”
“What? You know who I am … who she is?” The chill was back again, stronger than ever. “Who … who are you?”
For answer, he slowly rose and threw back the hood, cast back the cloak.
Hair the color of sunlight crowned a young man’s face, a face that was not dark, paler than almost anyone she had ever heard of, save only perhaps the Watchland himself, who also had that nearly unheard-of hair. Dark brows set off eyes that were brilliantly blue, a rare and spectacular color, as well – nearly as rare as Ingram’s lavender. With the cloak cast back, she could see beneath a tailored travel-robe of black and silver … and beneath it, faint, squarish shapes of an armor she had only seen on one other person – her friend Ingram, who said it had come from the Founder’s own world.
Her gaze flicked to the Staff again, and now she knew why gooseflesh had sprung out across her arms, her whole body. “The Wanderer,” she breathed.
He inclined his head.
Urelle had thought she was ready for anything … but she’d daydreamed about meeting the legends in her books, and now a daydream stood before her, a daydream in pain she had never imagined during her own fantasies. “You’ve met Kyri? How is she?”
“I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her yet,” the Wanderer answered. “But I will. I expect our paths to cross fairly soon. I do know about her, and your family – my sympathies and condolences on that, by the way. And yes, I know about the Justiciars.”
“If you know, then why haven’t you done anything?” she snapped, then clapped her hands over her mouth. Did I say that to the Wanderer?
A wan, sad smile crossed the young face – a face she now knew was old, old, older than any human she had ever met. “Because I dare not. The events happening in Evanwyl are much darker than you know, and even I can’t tamper with them.”
“But wait, Wanderer – it was always said you were immune to destiny, that you couldn’t be held by the bonds of such things. I know that’s in all the tales. How can you –“
“It’s not nearly so simple, Urelle.” The Wanderer seated himself heavily, with an air of exhaustion; with a gesture, he caused another chair to slide over before her. “To explain would take quite a while. I would rather ask you what you seek to do here.”
She wanted to pursue the first question; how could he not interfere, how was it that the Wanderer, one of the legendary heroes, could know of the evil of the Justiciars and do nothing?
But his tone was firm, and she remembered that one of the greatest mistakes of Adventurers was failing to take advantage of what they were offered, because they were too busy focusing on something else. The Wanderer was asking what she was doing; he was clearly interested, if for no other reason than to distract himself from his own distress. What sort of an idiot would she be to not find out what he might say about her problem?
She pulled out the Coin. “This Coin resonates with … well, I think it’s me and my Aunt Victoria, but maybe also Quester or Ingram. Anyway, there’s a lot of these Coins being carried by people from Aegeia who are hunting us. Sent by Ares. We don’t know exactly why, but it’s not for any friendly reason, that’s for sure.”
“Have you analyzed the enchantment?”
“I’ve tried. First I sort of diverted it – used a resonance between two of the Coins to make them track the other Coin instead?” She detailed the procedure she’d used, and the Wanderer (the WANDERER!) nodded and smiled.
“A clever stopgap trick to give you time, yes. Nicely done. Costs you to maintain, though.”
“Right. I just let it go the second time this evening, so they’ll be starting to get back on the right path now. I have to break this enchantment. I thought I’d gotten it figured out, but it just wouldn’t budge. But in your circle I finally saw … well, something.” She described the impossibly subtle, transparent magical effect to the Wanderer.
He extended his hand, and she placed the Coin in it. He gripped what she now knew was the legendary Staff of Stars and concentrated; light flared from the crystal atop the Staff, light pure and white and yet, somehow, touched with every color of the rainbow. The light concentrated on the Coin and sparkled for a moment, before fading away.
“I see what you mean,” the Wanderer said after a moment. “But that’s … a subtle thing indeed.” His gaze was speculative, analytical. “You can see that using the standard analysis and detection enchantments?”
“Only in your circle, sir.”
One eyebrow rose. “Fascinating.”
“Is there something unusual about that enchantment, sir?”
“Quite. I would venture to say that the vast majority of magicians of any stripe would be hard-put to detect it, even with the aid of my circle and far more powerful analysis spells. Still, given your … family connections…” his voice suddenly had the air of someone gifted with a revelation. “Yes, given that, it makes sense that you could see it.”
“Can you break it, sir? The enchantment, I mean? Make it so that Ares’ people can’t follow us anymore?”
“Could I? I daresay so. While I may not quite be the most badass mage on this planet – there’s at least five or six others I know of who outclass me – I’m pretty darn good.” He grinned at her, and this time the fear she’d seen had grown more distant. “But I think it’d be much better if you broke it.”
“But I don’t know how, sir!”
He waved that off. “Of course you don’t, now. But you will know how, once I’ve finished showing you how.”
“You … you’d teach me how, sir?”
“Yes, I think I will. If your most formidable Aunt Victoria doesn’t object, that is.”
“You would be astonished the number of people who might object to their children having anything to do with me.” He smiled down at her. “But I would very much like to teach you what I can, in the time I have left. Because,” he said, his voice suddenly soft and pensive, “I think that’s one of the things I have to do.”