GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares – Chapter 20
“The Wanderer.” Victoria’s voice was level, with just a hint of the doubt she felt.
At that, she couldn’t deny that she felt a certain frisson of awe at the figure before her. A bit shorter than she had expected, perhaps, but in other particulars, he matched the myths well enough. And from the way the man stood, the faint traces of power she could sense, her long experience told her that he was a very formidable being, indeed.
“Isn’t it amazing, Auntie?” Urelle said, her gray eyes sparkling in the lights of the dining room, where they had all met – and where the purported Wanderer had caused a feast to appear from nowhere. “He says he’ll teach me how to break the enchantment on the Coins, and maybe other things, too!”
Ingram was silent, staring at the legend-come-to-life in front of him. Quester, too, was silent, though if Victoria understood his body language correctly, he was not quite as shocked, or trusting, as his friend. Well, at least two of us are not taking everything at face value.
“If true, yes,” Quester buzzed, confirming her guess.
“If … true? What do you mean?”
“He means,” Victoria said, not taking her eyes from the brilliant blue ones across from her, “that it is all very well and good to claim to be one of the greatest Adventurers, but it’s something else to be certain. And someone who would dare pretend to that role would be undoubtedly powerful and dangerous in the extreme.”
The Wanderer – if that was truly who he was – grinned widely. “Aunt you might be, but I hear a mother’s caution,” he said. “And I’m glad at least a couple of you don’t take my word for who I am.” He looked at both Urelle and Ingram. “Your aunt and your friend Quester are very wise not to trust. Urelle has, perhaps, a bit more reason to, because she caught me unawares – unless I played a part even better than one might expect. But understand, Urelle,” he looked directly at the young girl, “I could have played out that scene exactly as you saw, down to breaking my own nose if necessary. Trust … but verify.”
“In that case, can you prove your identity, sir?” Victoria asked. “I cannot deny that I’d be extremely gratified to have the Wanderer to assist us in any way, but I do need some confirmation of who you are.”
The Wanderer looked thoughtful. “Prove is always hard. But perhaps. Certainly, I can first give evidence that we are, at least, of the same profession.” He pulled the cloak back from his shoulder, to reveal an Adventurer’s symbol.
Victoria squinted at it as she stepped forward. The background – a high cliff with a blue and green waterfall flanking one of red – was not immediately familiar, but it responded with the same white flash and chime as any other Adventurer’s patch at the touch of her verification wand.
She nodded. “Well, that relieves me to a small degree. Still, yours is an extraordinary claim.”
“Which requires extraordinary evidence. I can certainly prove my power to you, but while that might be entertaining, it’s hardly evidence of my identity. Hmm.” He stood, thinking, for a moment, and then he raised a brow again. “Now, there’s a thought. One moment.”
He turned away from them. Victoria sensed a faint touch of magic, and perhaps another power, and realized that he was now surrounded by a sheath of silence; the sounds of the room were deadened when they passed near him.
A few moments later, the young-looking man turned back, expression serious. “Have you still faith in Myrionar, Victoria Vantage?”
She thought for a moment. “Yes. Yes, I do. I still pray to It for guidance, and I know It swore a mighty oath, indeed, to Kyri, one that no god would make lightly.”
“Then pray to Myrionar, and ask if It can verify who I am.”
She raised her own eyebrow in turn. “Indeed? Kyri was the only one, save perhaps Arbiter Kelsley, whom I have known who has spoken with the Balanced Sword. You believe that I will be answered?”
“I am certain you will be answered – and that you will know it is the true voice of Myrionar.”
“I see.” She thought for a moment. “I will, if you pardon me, go outside of your castle for this.”
“As you wish.”
She walked out, through the front doors, then well outside of the walls, into the ruins; this was not merely a moment for privacy, but one in which she should be some distance from the center of power of the one she was questioning.
In the partial shelter of one half-collapsed building, surrounded by vines and fallen stones and the scent of ancient earth, Victoria closed her eyes. Myrionar, I call upon your Balance, on the Mercy, Justice, and Vengeance that are yours, to cut through any falsehoods, to gift me with the truth, and tell me for certain who this man is, he who claims to be a legend.
For an instant, there was nothing. And then she felt the power that always surrounded the Altar of the Balanced Sword, but ten, no, a hundred times stronger, the distilled essence of every service she had attended, the absolute knowledge of a presence that watched over her and defended her, and there came a voice:
I hear your call, Victoria Vantage, and in this moment you do indeed require and deserve an answer. The one you have met is the Wanderer, he who came from Beyond all other things. Trust in his advice and counsel, for the short while it is offered; few indeed are those given this chance.
The impact of that soundless voice was tremendous; it echoed silently through her head, with absolute conviction and undeniable surety, and she knew, beyond any possibility of doubt, that it spoke truth.
But even more than that vast and overwhelming presence, it was the voice itself that struck her speechless, left her pale and stunned, grasping for a way to make sense of what she had just heard.
For she knew that voice. She had last heard it when her oldest niece had bade her farewell on a quest that might end in her death.
Slowly she raised her eyes, and found she was staring directly into the Wanderer’s; the wizard had appeared before her in that moment. And she saw the same knowledge reflected in his gaze. “What … what does this mean?” she demanded in a hushed voice.
“You must guess what it means,” he said quietly. “Here, you are so far from her quest, from the destiny she follows, and your own path set so that you shall not meet for years yet, that it makes no difference. You cannot affect what is to come; in a sense, it has already happened, even though it is still well in your future.”
Victoria took a breath, controlled the chaos in her mind, brought her suddenly-panicked breathing and heart to heel. “You imply magics more potent than I have ever heard of – at least, outside of ancient tales.”
“We play in the realms of the gods – as do you, now.” The Wanderer’s voice was calmly certain. “You’re getting ready to butt heads with Ares. This will be one of the ancient tales, a thousand years from now. You haven’t really grasped that, not in your heart, have you? This isn’t just magic, it’s magic of the foundation of reality, the power of the gods, and we’re playing a game against powers that could squash even me like a bug if I make a mistake.”
He looked up at the sky past the broken walls. “And greater forces are at work than those of just Ares. Everything connects. Kyri and those who will join her are one part; you and Urelle and Ingram and Quester are on a different quest, yet one that is part of the greater war; so are five people from my own world; and there are others.” His tone grew pensive. “The stories like to make their characters the focus of the world, but if you really read them all, you know that there are many adventures happening, all at once, and it takes a constant supply of heroes to keep the world protected.”
A flash of insight. “And it is not magic that binds you, that brought on the terror my niece saw in you, is it? It’s knowledge. Someone, somehow, has come from the future and told you what is to come … in a manner that prevents you from avoiding that same future.”
His smile was cold, stiff, mirthless. “You’re sharp as a razor, Lady Vantage. Exactly. Oh, I can avoid it. I am, after all, the Wanderer, and the very existence of the knowledge gives me a loophole. But at the same time, I can’t avoid it because the only way for me to do so will … well, cause an even worse disaster. All I can do is try to make sure that the consequences are as small as possible. Set up plans that will minimize the disaster, provide for some way out later.”
He took a breath and she could hear it shake. He was doing the same thing she had, bringing himself under control. “And one of those things that has to be done is to give you four the best possible chance to survive your own destiny.”
“Are you saying we cannot turn aside, either?”
He shrugged. “Cannot is a pretty absolute word. I’d say more will not. Can you imagine getting Ingram to set aside his current goal? Quester abandoning his friend? You and Urelle leaving him to his fate alone?”
She shook her head. “No. I do not see that happening.”
“Then it’s as near cannot as it gets, and still leaves everyone free will.”
“If you know the future,” she said after a moment, “then you know whether we will succeed or not, yes?”
A shake of the head. “Not only are there some powers that cloud the direction of the future, but my personal foreknowledge ends well before your quest’s conclusion. I know that you have a chance, and that it is not merely the enemy manipulating events.”
“You, for instance.”
“Heh. Certainly me. I’ve been meddling since I arrived on Zarathan, and it’s my job description by now. Though there’s others playing what they call the Great Game a lot better than me. I’m just the wild card that sometimes messes up the board, to use a really mixed metaphor that still kinda fits.”
She turned and began walking back to the castle. “And is that what you’re doing here? Messing up the board?”
“Pretty much,” he agreed cheerfully; then he grew solemn again. “Which is why I have to ask you to leave Urelle with me while you go on.”
“What?” She stopped and put her hands on her hips. “And why should I do that?”
“Because she needs instruction, and you will have precious little chance to get her any once you leave here. At the same time, you will have no chance to convince Ingram to stay here for a week or three.”
She had to agree there. Ingram had admitted that even waiting to write her a note had technically violated his oaths, and while he had made obvious efforts to appear patient, his single driving focus was to get back to his home and find out what had caused his Clan to send for him, and assassins to be sent after either him, or his companions. “I admit that is true. But he and Quester could continue on their own.”
“And you would stay here, accomplishing … what?” the Wanderer said, striding onward. “I suppose you could practice your own arts, but aside from that?”
“We are pursued by the forces of a god, as you yourself pointed out,” Victoria said, nettled. “I should leave my niece alone? What if they’re seeking her rather than myself, or Quester, or Ingram?”
“Then they would have to get to her through me.” The voice had shifted; it held none of the lightness, the strangely playful tone that seemed omnipresent even when he was being serious. This was a voice of iron. “And in one of my own strongholds? Even the God-Warriors would be well-advised not to try it. I assure you, there are very, very few places in the entire world where Urelle will be safer. You have my word on that.”
Knowing that he was who he claimed, Victoria found herself accepting his promise. It was certainly true that he had survived literal ages, against an array of enemies who were also legends. “You could come with us, instead. Train Urelle in the evenings. We would undoubtedly all be safer then, would we not?”
“There is a world of difference from an hour or two in the evenings, and entire days spent in hard tutelage, as you must know very well. I have little enough time to teach her, and you will be facing God-Warriors, assassins, others who wield magic, or ki, or even psionic power. The most talented and focused of would-be heroes still can’t learn everything in a day, even if the tales might compress three months of learning into a few paragraphs.” He smiled that odd smile again. “The Power of Montage still takes time.”
“I have no real idea of what that means.”
“Don’t worry, hardly anyone does. I have to amuse myself sometimes, even if no one else gets the joke. But you get the point, yes?”
They passed through the gate as she thought. Reluctantly, she found herself agreeing with the Wanderer. Urelle was clearly very talented, but she was reaching the limits of her own self-instruction and the limited resources she had brought from Evanwyl. If they were to continue at all, Urelle needed to understand how to expand her gifts.
Victoria recalled all too well how many, many long, bone-weary, brutal hours of practice and sparring and exercise it had taken to bring her to mastery of the Way of the Eight Winds. And, more to the point, how there had been times that nothing less than a living teacher, with new advice and new resources, had been needed to help her move on when she had taught herself all she could. Magic could hardly be any less demanding, even if likely somewhat less bruising, to study.
And if Quester and Ingram continued on, she admitted, they would need all the help they could get if Deimos, or any of their other enemies, caught up. Yes, perhaps Berenike would show up to save the day again … but perhaps not, especially if Ingram were struck down swiftly enough that he could not activate whatever bond lay between them.
Still, there were other issues. “And what about when you have finished this instruction, then? How would she find us? She’s hardly ready to wander the Forest Sea on her own!”
“Can’t argue that,” the Wanderer conceded. “I’ll trek around alone, but even I rather prefer having people to help watch my back in places like that. But trust me, I can find you when we’re done, and if you can’t come get her, I’ll bring her to you. That much I can do.”
Victoria sighed. “Very well, then. I will leave it up to Urelle.”
She entered side-by-side with a legend.