GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares – Prologue Thru Chapter 10
GODSWAR 1 – The Mask of Ares
By Ryk E. Spoor
My world of Zarathan is something of a potpourri of all fantasy elements, and some SF ones as well, as readers of the Balanced Sword trilogy know. This is intentional. Few of the elements that look familiar are exactly what they appear to be, and even references to real-world people, places, or things are changed to make them work as I want them to in my stories.
This is of course the case with the pseudo-Greek elements of the country of Aegeia. Readers should recognize that in NO WAY is this story intended to reflect any real aspects of Grecian history, culture, or mythology. In-universe, it’s assumed that the Earthly versions of the pantheons seen herein were in some way inspired or derived from those of Aegeia, but this is obviously untrue in real life. Readers who know some more personal details of my history will also recognize another source for Aegeia and some of its features, but those, too, have been changed to fit my world and my story.
The door swung open to reveal a most beloved figure, and Ares was on his feet immediately, sweeping Athena into his arms for a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Sister! Oh, I’m so glad you stopped by!”
As with all the gods of the Aegeian pantheon, what the Lady of Wisdom looked like varied – on the mortal world, with whatever body she was incarnate, and here, with the viewer’s own interpretation of what they sensed. To Ares, she looked like a tall, well-muscled woman, broad of shoulder, high of brow, gray or green of eye, with tumbling, uncontrollable curls of bronze cascading around a strongly defined face, a shade darker and considerably more olive in tone than the hair. Her dark brows rose in aristocratic arches above a very slightly curved nose.
Ares knew that when she looked at him, she saw a man slightly taller than she, with skin more bronze than olive, black hair, and a long face that allowed for exaggerated expressions of joy or sorrow or rage, dressed in a fancy set of robes that mimicked the armor of his deific persona.
“How could I not stop by before I must leave?” she asked, smiling back.
The words jolted him, sent a momentary spurt of denial through him. “What? No, darling, it can’t be that late… can it?”
“I’m afraid so, brother mine. I know you lose track of time, but it really is that time. The Cycle begins anew, and none too soon.”
“Oh, Thunder and Fire, I’ve got so much to do! Deimos… Deimos, there you are, look, get my favorite sister something – Essence of Song, perhaps?” She flashed a smile both to him and to the small, blade-thin, blond youth who had emerged at Ares’ call. “Yes, Essence of Song, I knew it was one of your favorites! By the other pantheons, why didn’t you warn me?”
She accepted the glass of sparkling, singing light from Deimos. “I did, you scatterbrain. Twice in the past decade.”
“Oh.” Vague memory broke through. “Oh, yes, you did. Forgive me, ‘Thena, I’m every bit the scatterbrain. Time to stop that, though, the Cycle calls, I’ve got to get in tune with who I am this time. I’m supposed to be down and incarnate before you, right?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, of course you are. That’s why I had to stop by, I saw your invitation to a party next month and I knew you –“
“The party, oh no, I’ll have to cancel! How embarrassing.” Ares cringed inwardly, thinking of all the apologies he was going to have to write. Battles are so much easier than facing your own faux pas. “So you’re not really leaving just yet?”
“No, not yet.” She smiled again. “I’ll make sure you have the usual head start. We have our conflict to play out, after all.”
“What of Father…?” As always, he felt a momentary spark of hope, quashed again when Athena shook her head.
“It’s been Cycles, Ares,” she said gently. “I don’t know if he’s ever coming back. If he is… well, no one knows where he went, or why. But he’s definitely not here for this Cycle, so we have to play out the script as it lies.”
He sighed. “Well, we have time for a few drinks, and dinner, and conversation. Now that you’ve recalled me to myself a bit, I realize it’s been a decade or three. What have you been up to?”
“You seem cheered, Lord Ares,” Deimos said, helping Phobos – a woman as dark all over as Deimos was pale, and twice as broad – clear up the table and get the dishes put away. “I’d thought the approach of the Cycle might depress your spirits.”
“Oh, it does, on occasion, but my sister never fails to lift them. You’ll come to see that yourself, if you make it a few Cycles.”
“I certainly hope I will!”
His companion echoed that sentiment, looking nervous.
Ares shook his head, grinning, and stood, casting the fancy robes aside as he headed for a huge, gold-inlaid closet at the far side of the room. “I hope so as well, but do not fear; the roles of Deimos and Phobos are strenuous, truly, but even if the cost of the Art is to die on the stage of the world, rest assured that your spirits will be caught with the most gracious gentleness and conveyed directly to Elysium. But the last pair performed for, oh, many Cycles indeed before they were forced to pass to their reward. You’ll meet them, I’m sure – wouldn’t want their advice to be lost, you know.”
“But you do not pass, Lord?”
“Me? Well… not as you might, no,” he admitted, flinging the doors wide and studying the arms and armor displayed, in glittering array, within. Which ones? What is the spirit of this age? Please don’t let it be one in which I’m a crude ravager, those are so boring. Easy to play, but deathly dull, and I despise dull.
“No, not quite as you might,” he repeated. “The outline of the contest – between the God of War and Passion on one side, and the Goddess of War and Wisdom on the other – you both know well already, of course. And in the climax of the Great Work, often I must fall, usually to my sister’s hand, though sometimes to the God-Warriors themselves. But as the High Gods, we are known to be merely felled for the moment, to rise inevitably again. Others, alas, often pass beyond the living world and do not easily return.”
“But… Elysium is real, yes?” Phobos asked, her voice tense and uncertain.
He turned from the closet and crossed the distance in three quick strides, dropping to his knees before her and taking both her hands. “Lady Phobos, I had not realized… you were a traveler, an Adventurer, but not of us, of course, when you found yourself caught up in the … recruitment, shall we say. What were you? A follower of ours, or…?
“Honestly?” She grinned hesitantly. “Chromaias and the Four. Kharianda was my main patron among the gods.”
He gave a nod. “Ahh, of course. One of our strongest allies among the other gods, along with Terian and the King of Dragons. And Lady Kharianda herself, ahh, a fine one for a great warrior to follow. I suppose she must have transferred her blessing to us when you were Chosen.” He concentrated, smiled. “Yes, I can remember it now. The end of a prior Cycle is always a bit blurry when a new one is about to begin, but yes, she did; her favor still follows you.”
He frowned. “But where was I? Oh! Yes, my lady, Elysium is as real as this palace you stand within, as real as the world you left behind and will return to with me. You need not fear death; my arm – the arms of all of us of Aegeia – is about you and shall guide you there, if need be.”
He looked into her eyes, saw that his words had reached her, and nodded, stood again and resumed his contemplation of the costumes. “Remind me, Lady, before we leave; I shall have a word with the Lord of the Underworld and he will show you Elysium – and your predecessors, that you may know that the word ‘reward’ is real and true – as it is for all mortals who are forced to a final performance in the Great Play.” He rubbed his chin. “But for now, you may both retire. I’ll finish that cleaning, no need to trouble yourselves. I’ve work to do, a performance to contemplate.”
“As you wish, Lord Ares.” The two bowed – he could see it from the corner of his eye – and departed, shutting the golden doors behind them.
After another ten minutes, he sighed and turned to the various dishes left. “Somehow, I’m not quite … getting this Cycle’s … oh, vibe,” he murmured to himself. “Should have started meditating on it a year ago. Now I have to catch up. Poor Athena, she has to put up with this every Cycle. I really need to do better. Maybe some kind of automated alarm… I’m sure Hephaestus could put one together. Yes, I’ll talk to him about that on the morrow.”
Naturally he could have cleaned everything up with a gesture – a trivial exercise for even the least of gods, after all – but that wasn’t style. You had to get your hands dirty – had to do the work yourself – or what work was it, really?
And there was a certain pleasure in scrubbing dirt away, leaving something clean and sparkling for another day. He hummed and let his mind wander for a bit.
Really, he looked forward to the beginning of every Cycle. The ageless performance, the Eternal Play that helped affirm the places of the gods for the mortals they served, and in turn reinforced the power that made them gods… it was the very core of Aegeia, and he took great joy in the fact that he could serve in such a crucial role, teaching people the dangers of passion and anger uncontrolled, while reminding them of that same passion within themselves! The other gods of the Pantheon played their parts, certainly (well, alas, not Father, not these many Cycles past), but he and Athena had long since become the centerpieces, the core and crucial contest and conflict that drove the entire play.
There were, of course, the other gods – the hundreds and more that watched over, manipulated, defended, or exploited the other peoples of Zarathan – but while they might have more freedom in some ways, and in the case of a few greater power, they did lack one thing: resistance to the effects of the legendary Chaoswars. The Cycle did resist those effects – not completely, but more than any other power on Zarathan. The Goddess of Wisdom retained much knowledge that the others lost. It was, Ares thought, a fair trade that their Father had arranged, harnessing the powers underlying the Chaoswars to create a faster, controlled Cycle.
And the Cycle did also allow them to learn and adapt to their worshippers, as their needs and beliefs and perceptions of the gods changed. It changed the Great Script, enough to keep the Play fresh over all these repetitions. It even had given them flexibility and presence of … power, one might say… sufficient to project themselves occasionally to Zahralandar, the sister world now cut off almost entirely from magic, and leave at least a hint of the existence of the gods, along with the few other deities who detected the momentary opportunity by fortune or fate.
Yes, now he was starting to anticipate the role!
He did allow himself to cheat the tiniest bit and dried the dishes with a gesture, so he could put them away quickly. He bobbled one, nearly dropped it, caught it just before it hit, and sighed with relief.
These dishes – unlike most to be found throughout Olympia – were in fact real, solid objects, brought from Zarathan’s surface, just like Deimos and Phobos had been. Much of Olympia was the stuff of gods, thoughts and primal energy made real, yet seen through the lens of individual perception. Ares preferred, in his own quarters, to have a lot of mortal, solid artifacts; they were ideal performance props, reminding him of the essence of the world he served, and that served him as the perfect stage.
And that was true of his costumes, of course. He returned to that closet. But this time, almost instantly his eye was drawn to a flamboyant suit of armor. He felt a smile broadening. Oh, my, what fun I will have! Such potential for being a complete and utter scenery-chewer this time!
The undergarments and padding were, of course, kept with every suit, so he could don the armor immediately. With the armor came the weapons; while the ancient tradition equipped him with a simple sword and spears and such, this version of the role gave him an almost ridiculously massive sword, a battleaxe, a jagged-pointed spear, and other over-the-top accoutrements.
He couldn’t help chuckling as he put them on. They would be effective, of course – Hephaestus and the god-power could make a scythe as swift and deadly as a rapier, a stylus strike as viciously as a lance. He wondered if Athena would be as exaggerated in her heroism, or be deliberately more understated, to provide dramatic contrast. It was hard to guess; it was, after all, the mortals’ souls who wrote the ultimate script, but even they couldn’t explain, exactly, why the changes were made. They simply… were.
He heard the door open quietly, turned to see a familiar slender form.
Deimos bowed. “I wanted to make sure you would require no more of us tonight.”
“I thank you, but no, I believe I am content for now. You would be wise to go to your rest – the role has begun to speak to me, and the curtain will be rising soon!”
Deimos smiled back. “I look forward to learning my role.”
“It is well.” He looked down, adjusting his harness just so.
It was only the instincts of a thousand thousand battles that saved him, a flicker of too-fast motion just at the edge of awareness – a motion that should have been sensed, should have been anticipated, by the god-power, but was not.
Still, he was Ares, God of War, and he was armed and armored, and his sword caught the blade scant inches from his chest, whipped around, sent the black blade flying, and nearly took Deimos’ head from his body; the youth bent back, supple as a willow-wand, and Ares’ weapon passed not a hair’s breadth from his nose, shaving stray golden hairs that had failed to fall as fast as their owner.
Ares leapt back, calling his shield with a simple effort of will; an assassin, once committed, had no choice but to press on. “What treachery is this, Deimos?”
“Oh, treachery long planned, Ares,” the slender yellow-haired youth answered, an uncharacteristically savage grin on his face. “Longer than I wanted, honestly,” he went on, and Ares saw the ebony blade fly back to Deimos’ hand. “You’ve spent years doing nothing but your idiotic parties and plays… Demons, but I have been wondering how a useless fop like you could possibly be the God of War.” The smile sharpened. “But it seems you are more than a popinjay, eh?”
Ares reached out his senses … and immediately knew something was terribly, terribly wrong. To all appearances, Deimos was but an ordinary human. But that should not be true; he had been enhanced when selected, and even leaving that aside, no ordinary human could possibly have entered Olympia without much help.
Could he have had help? Are there any here who would truly wish me ill? The thought was terribly upsetting, but with an assassin in his chambers, it was a necessary thought.
But even if he admitted the possibility that one of the others of the Pantheon wanted him dead, the idea that they’d send a mortal, even a very, very skilled mortal, was ludicrous.
Deimos darted in, so fast that human eyes could never have followed him, and Ares backpedaled, barely able to parry the storm of strikes; then his assailant withdrew, and they circled, each seeking a weakness. And he is definitely no human. Yet I sense no power from him. He moves at speeds beyond mortal, strikes with the force of a giant in the frame of a child, yet I sense…
A chill of horror crept down his spine. Few indeed were the beings who could use their power so well, yet hide it so perfectly. He concentrated, sent out a pulse of the godspower in the form of a message, an alarm, precisely and only attuned to his sister.
The alarm – the very power that composed it – vanished in midair.
And now I know my adversary.
He called the power up, keeping it within himself, not allowing it to go beyond the bounds of his body. With the speed of Zeus’ lightning, he streaked back into the armory, pursued by the thing calling itself Deimos. His right hand released his sword, reached out, caught up another blade, as his left arm raised the red-and-gold shield, took a blow from the black knife. The blade carved three inches into the rim of the shield – but that bound it for just the briefest moment.
And in that instant his new sword – glittering, pure silver – struck, cleaving Deimos’ head in twain.
For a moment he stood, staring down at the grisly sections of his assailant’s head, each hanging from part of the neck, then withdrew the sword.
The body staggered back, then, impossibly, flipped away from him, the head re-forming and smiling, the teeth now longer, shining, glistening like crystal. “Oh, very good, Ares, you’re not so bad as I thought!” The voice wavered on the edge of a laugh; it did giggle, and the sound was oh, very not sane.
Ares felt the horror closing in on him. How? I was sure that would kill it! Did I guess wrong? But then what…?
His knees wobbled, and without warning it was nearly impossible to stand, as though…
“…as though your very strength were being drained? Precisely, Ares!” There was now just a line, a faint scar, down the center of Deimos’ head. “Oh, you did think fast, bravo for your performance!” A slow series of claps, with the mouth broadening, teeth growing longer. “You were even … almost … right.”
The transformation accelerated, and the figure loomed up above Ares. He fought desperately to move, to escape, but now he was on his knees. It bent down, immense, sparkling fangs inches from the throat of the god, and breathed out three more words, the breath hot and hungry.
“But only almost.”
“Our mission ended some days ago, Ingram.”
Ingram Camp-Bel kept himself from jumping in startlement only because he was used to Quester managing to surprise him. The seven-foot-tall Iriistiik was incredibly quiet despite size and his insectoid, chitinous armor. “We agreed to stay and help.”
After almost two years together, Ingram could read Quester’s expressions – which combined posture, gestures of antennae, and particular scents – almost as well as he could human, and what he smelled now was a tolerant amusement. “You wanted to stay and help, and I did not gainsay you. But the Vantages are well moved into their new home, and aside from that first night, there has been nothing of note.”
“Urelle and Kyri lost their parents, and then their brother,” Ingram said, with an inward twinge at the thought of his own family. “No one knows who or what did it, and if it, or they, are after the family – they could be just a week or two behind.”
“I note you don’t mention Lady Victoria.”
Ingram snorted. “That old woman can protect herself.”
The antennae waved and the cutting jaws click-clacked. “I can make no argument there. And they have already begun hiring a household. Do they truly need us anymore? Adventurers,” a wave of the shining-black hand with its three clawed fingers, “are usually expected to Adventure. Unless you contemplate a change of profession to house guard?”
“Not sure I want to stay in one place all the time… but the beds and food are better, you have to admit that.”
“I can’t believe you did this!” a girl’s voice shouted from across the hall. There was a window-rattling thud of a door slamming, and Ingram turned to see Urelle Vantage practically running up the stairs, tears in her huge gray eyes, ebony-shining hair streaming behind her. She skidded slightly as she hit the top, but caught herself and stormed into her own room, slamming that door as well.
Ingram found himself halfway up the stairs, mouth open, before he realized that, firstly, he had no idea what to say since he didn’t know what was going on, and second, it wasn’t his business, and third, he was supposed to be standing watch, and he couldn’t do that looking at a closed door.
“What was that about?” he murmured as he returned to his post before the front window. He ignored the tilt of head and scent of mingled snowberry and cinnamon that was Quester’s equivalent of a knowing grin.
“Obviously Lady Victoria has done something to meet with her disapproval,” Quester said. “Not, naturally, that it is any of our concern.”
“More that I’ve failed to do something,” came the precise, if weary, voice of Victoria Vantage. The elegant, slender figure of their employer stood outlined in the door of her own room, from which Urelle had fled. “You may have noticed that Kyri did not come home this evening.”
“I did, in fact, but I presumed she had business in town,” Ingram said. “Not true?”
“Now that most of the day has passed, I can tell you that she will not be returning, at least not in the foreseeable future.”
“What? You all just got here! Where’s she gone off to?”
The tall woman regarded the two of them for a moment, black-and-silver hair adding a severity to her penetrating blue gaze – a gaze which lingered on the Guild patches on both their shoulders.
“She has just become Guilded, as are you,” she said finally. “And felt there was some pressing business to attend –“
“Lady’s Spear, she’s gone back to Evanwyl for vengeance,” Ingram heard himself say, and knew even as he said it that it had to be true.
One narrow eyebrow quirked upward. “Well, you do have the instincts for this job, I will allow. Not quite as simple as all that, young Ingram, but as a general idea, it will do. Kyri has found herself… Called, if you follow me.”
Ingram nodded. “Like the God-Warriors back home,” he said, remembering a particular face he had not seen in a long time and missed, badly.
“And young Urelle resents having been left out,” Quester said.
“I am afraid…” Victoria shook her head with a rueful smile. “I am afraid she is far too much a Vantage to accept that she should simply stay back where she is safe.”
“I’d think you’d be glad,” Ingram ventured. “Being angry and wanting to do something… lot better than she was when we started.”
He remembered his first sight of Urelle Vantage – a tiny figure in the carriage, face unnaturally pale beneath brown skin, gray eyes as dead as winter sunlight glinting on ice, staring blankly into the distance. Just recovered from her parents being killed, started to come out of her shell, then her brother’s slaughtered a few hundred yards from home.
Victoria’s gaze dropped, then she nodded. “Oh, far better, yes.”
A belated shock hit Ingram. “Wait. Kyri just became Guilded? She didn’t have a patch yesterday! That’s … that’s faster than we got it, and we took the expedited route!”
Victoria chuckled quietly. “Yes, it is a bit sudden. Come, let us sit down.”
“I’m on guard –“
“I am quite sure we shall be safe enough in the side room, young Camp-Bel.”
Well, she was the boss. Quester was already following her, so Ingram shrugged and went after them.
Victoria gestured at the standing teapot, which began steaming instantly. “A convenient trick one learns on the road,” she said in answer to Ingram’s blink of surprise. “Allow me to pour.”
She served each of them in turn, then sat in the high-backed chair usually reserved for her use. “As I said, Kyri was Called. As Adventurers yourselves, and ones who have helped protect Kyri and myself as well as little Urelle, I feel it is no more than you have earned to know that her Call came from Myrionar Itself, after she discovered who was truly responsible for the murders of her parents and her brother.” She gazed at them, that eyebrow arched again.
Ingram glanced at Quester, who suddenly stiffened. In his head, he heard the faint voice of his friend through the link they had forged over the last year or two: Ah. It is all too clear now. You understand, do you not, Ingram?
He thought; obviously both Victoria and Quester thought he had enough information to see the obvious. They didn’t know who’d done it before we came. Then Kyri … well, she got so upset she just ran off into the Forest Sea, which was a crazy thing to do. She was lucky she came back alive. Whatever she found out made her so upset that she couldn’t even think.
Kyri being Chosen did explain that moment he’d seen her the other day, where it looked like her hair was blue and gold, with a flash of silver-white over her forehead. She must have colored it black again afterward. Blue, silver, gold – Myrionar’s colors. Victoria says it was Myrionar who chose Kyri, but that makes no sense; the representatives of Myrionar are …
“Ares’ Balls,” he breathed. “The Justiciars?”
“It does seem insane, doesn’t it?” Victoria said. “The Justiciars are the chosen of a god. How could they betray the very ideals of the god they serve? But the evidence is far too strong to deny. And Myrionar confirmed Kyri’s deductions Itself.”
Quester dipped his antennae in a nod, moderated by a scent of vinegar and pine. “That she has a driving mission, that is understood; and, too, that it would be unwise for her younger sister to follow her without a god’s support. But still the mystery of her becoming Guilded in less than one day remains.”
“Good fortune is the answer – she chose well in her relatives and their acquaintances. One of them happens to be the Marshal of Hosts for the King, who is also an old Adventuring friend of mine. With him as a direct sponsor, she could get her patch in a matter of an hour or two.”
Ingram almost dropped his teacup. “You know the Marshal of Hosts?”
“I do – as do you, I think.”
“I’ve never been to the Palace,” Ingram objected.
“Neither have I,” Quester said. “The only Sauran either of us has ever met – as far as I am aware – is one named Toron, who administered the practical portion of our examination. I was given to understand he was retired from Adventuring, but still a visitor to the Guild.”
“And right you were. But old Bridgebreaker, as we used to call him, just didn’t bring up his other job. That’s very much his way. He was meeting you as a fellow Guild member, not as an official of the Crown. But when I mentioned your name, and especially that you were travelling with an Iriistiik, he remembered you well.”
Ingram stared. “He… Oh, Cycles! He mentioned that the adventure they used to test us… that when he’d gone through the real original of that adventure, his friend Victoria had been furious at him for missing her brother’s wedding…”
“And yes, I was! Oh, my, that takes me back.” She sipped at her tea, a faraway smile momentarily touching her face, eyes shining in memory; Ingram thought it made her look decades younger.
She blinked the reminiscence away. “In any event, now you understand what has happened, and why Urelle is so upset. I cannot, in honesty, blame her. In her position I’d be furious with me as well. But…”
“…but she’s the last of your family,” Ingram said. He felt an ache in his chest, the longing he always had to keep at bay, for a family that could never quite be his. “Camp-Bels understand that. Kyri’s taking a dangerous road. I hope she knows what she’s doing.”
“When the gods direct us, we have to assume they know what they’re doing,” Victoria said dryly. “If this had been solely her idea, I assure you I would never have let her leave. But Myrionar Itself made her Its true Justiciar and laid Its command upon her – a command she accepted.” She sighed. “I would not take it amiss if both of you were to say a prayer or two for her.”
“I will remember her to the Lady,” Ingram promised. He looked at Quester.
“And I, as well, shall make sure Shargamor hears my prayers for her.” The insectoid gave a smooth bow and ripple of antennae.
“I thank you both, then.” She stood. “It is getting a bit late – Urelle should have been asleep before now, but she always waited to say good night to Kyri, and thus… this.” She glanced up the stairs, in the direction of Urelle’s closed door. “Keep an eye out, if you would? I would not put it entirely past my youngest niece to pack up and attempt to head out on the road herself.”
And that would be really, really bad. Oh, the Great Road itself was reasonably safe, but even it had its dangerous stretches, and several hundred miles before Evanwyl it grew more and more damaged until there was no Great Road at all. Even a pretty capable young wizard like Urelle would be in real danger at that point – as their recent journey from Evanwyl had proven.
“You can count on us, ma’am,” he said emphatically. “We’ll make sure she doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Thank you, Ingram.” She crossed the front hall, heading towards her room.
Ingram looked at Quester. “You know what that means.”
A buzz-sigh from his friend. “One of us must keep an eye on the windows upstairs.”
“Hope she hasn’t left yet.”
“I will go. If I am not back, take it that I am certain she has not yet left precipitously, and thus I am watching.”
“Got it. Assuming she hasn’t already taken off, I’ll come relieve you in … about four hours.” That’d be long enough to get a decent nap in.
“Understood.” Quester bowed and disappeared out the front door.
Ingram sighed and headed to his own room. Best get rest while I can!
Urelle drifted down through the air, the airwing enchantment fading away. Still, that’s brought me almost half a mile from the house. Should be enough.
She was still furious, though a part of her – an increasingly annoying part of her – was starting to sound like Auntie Victoria and telling her that this was a really bad idea. Still… “They could have trusted me!” she muttered, as her toes touched down on the leafy floor of the Forest Sea.
“Like your aunt could trust you to stay in your room?”
At the voice from behind her, Urelle gasped and spun, fingers already grasping the fabric of reality before the fact that she knew that voice penetrated. She lowered her hand and banished the threatening glow, staring at Ingram Camp-Bel. The little lavender-haired youth was leaning on his anai-k’ota casually, as though …
…as though he’d been waiting for her.
Belated realization of his words struck, and she felt a hot blush on her cheeks. “That’s not –” She bit back the words. “I didn’t say I was staying in my room,” she said after a moment.
Ingram nodded. “No, I didn’t hear you do so. But given that you aren’t allowed outside the estate defenses after full dark, the expectation that you’d stay was reasonable.”
“Not your business!” She turned and stalked away, farther into the forest.
She didn’t hear his footsteps, but a sigh behind her made it clear he was following.
“And how did you find me this fast? You can’t fly!”
“That’s true. But I’ve had to deal with flying things more than once. I saw you leave the window –“
“I was cloaked!“
“To normal sight, yes.” He tapped the peculiar goggles on his face. “Not to what the Founder called ‘infra-red.’ There, you still glow like a beacon.”
That was a pointed reminder of the fact that magic was only as useful as your understanding of the rest of the world. The Camp-Bel’s “Founder” had left the clan a lot of interesting technological devices. “Ugh. Still, I was flying.”
“Yes, and that was certainly the right tactical choice. Quester can jump and glide, but not fly, and without warning he would never have been able to reach your altitude and catch you.” He was walking next to her now, and even as he talked, his gaze swept across the entirety of the forest, watching. “Still, you relied on being able to evade sight and physical pursuit too much. You traveled in a straight line, telling me where you were going; since we have traveled together for quite a while, I had a good idea of your current achievements as a wielder of magic, so I guessed how far out your airwing would run out, and sprinted there at top speed.”
That told her a lot about just how fast Ingram was. He sure doesn’t shame the Camp-Bel name.
Of course, she knew that from their journey here. At first she hadn’t been able to pay much attention, but she did remember the first time she’d seen him. He’d looked in the carriage, where she was sitting – immobile, unable to think of anything except horror – and stepped in, waiting until she finally found the will to turn her gaze to him.
Then he’d said: “I am Ingram Camp-Bel, Zarathanton Guilded. Lady Urelle Vantage, my companion Quester and I will protect you on your journey. I promise and pledge to keep you safe.”
And to her utter astonishment, he had. As she had allowed herself to emerge, slowly, from the second great loss of her life, she remembered flashes: Ingram and Quester battling a massive figure of stone, a thing born of corrupted elemental power; Ingram dueling one of the half-human, half-demon guards at the border of fallen Dalthunia, a tiny, lavender-haired waif before the nine-foot soldier, but a waif who evaded every blow as though made of smoke and dreams, and then struck with the force of a smith’s hammer, staggering the soldier; the anai-k’ota coming apart into multiple chain-linked sections and whirling, singing and humming a song of death as the young Adventurer cut his way through a swarm of elikzia ants. Even Aunt Victoria had murmured her appreciation of his skill once. “That young man will go far,” she had said, “if he doesn’t get himself killed first.”
And he’s here to protect me again. From the Forest Sea.
It penetrated, then – that she was in the Forest Sea, the jungle that enveloped much of the central portion of the continent, a wilderness from which even trained Adventurers often did not emerge.
That part of her that sounded like Auntie was definitely louder. And the angry part… was a lot more like the worried part.
She looked over at Ingram, and now she could see the tension in him, his body ready to launch like an arrow from a bow. “Where’s Quester?”
“He had to stay back. We’re guarding the house too, after all.”
By Myrionar, I probably am an idiot. “I can’t believe you outran my airwing.”
“Airwing’s not that fast compared to other flight tricks, and you were fighting a headwind,” he said, sounding at once proud and embarrassed. He glanced at her. “Can we go back now?”
Urelle let the rest of her anger fade. But there was still something else left: necessity. She had to ask a question and discover if there was an answer. “Not yet. But… could you come with me?”
His tension eased the slightest bit. “If you have to keep going? You can’t get rid of me.”
Urelle let a tiny giggle escape – it might have been the first laugh of any kind she’d had since Rion had died. “Okay. Somewhere ahead there’s a clearing. Kyri found it. I don’t know exactly how far, but she ran to it when she was upset.”
“You want to find the same clearing, in the dark? Your sister’s a big woman; if she was running half-berserk she could’ve gone a long way that night.”
“I know.” She sighed, then grasped reality gently, muttered the words that focused her will, and a faint glow emanated from her, illumining the space around them without making them blind to the rest of the shadowy dark beyond. “Easier to see now. And you can see in the dark already. I think we can find it. I have to find it.”
Ingram shook his head. “Kyri being called doesn’t mean you will be. And location wouldn’t mean anything to a god, would it?”
“It means something. Otherwise why would gods focus on temples? There’s some that only manifest in their temples.”
He shrugged. “We can try. I’ll give us two hours to find this clearing. Don’t know how we’ll be sure it’s the right one.”
“If I find it I’ll know. Not,” she added as he gave her another look, “because I assume Myrionar will answer. Because Kyri broke her Balance necklace when she was there. She didn’t throw it away, but there’s going to be a piece – a link or two – of the chain still there.”
She saw his mouth quirk upward. “Ah. And you’re familiar with her necklace, so you can use that connection to sense the remnants. Okay, I’ll accept that. Still, two hours. No more.”
Urelle gave him a brief bow, acknowledging both his limit and his tolerance.
They spoke little afterward; they’d already made more than enough noise. No need to attract any more attention, at least until they reached their destination.
It wasn’t long before she started following in Ingram’s footsteps; the boy was experienced in moving through the jungle without leaving traces, and he knew the general direction better than she did. I’ve spent … a lot of time studying, not so much in my other training. She wasn’t incompetent – Lythos wouldn’t have tolerated it – but she knew, just from watching Ingram duck below a branch smoothly, never touching it with even a single strand of his lavender hair, that there was a world of difference between learning a thing, and doing the thing in the real world.
Still, he turned to her at one point and gave her a quick smile. You’re doing well, that smile said, and maybe something like it’s all okay, too.
She smiled back, trying to convey two kinds of thank you in one expression. He’s easy to smile at, she thought, and wondered at the thought.
There were scuttlings and strange, hollow, echoing calls in the distance, and whispers of other sounds in the dark. Once something snarled, a ripping, ringing sound, and began a charge, but she unloosed a quick, sharp barrage of pure force in its direction and it turned and fled; some time later, Ingram pulled her back and gestured, showing her the nearly-invisible, ghostly thread dangling from far above. “Forestfisher,” he mouthed, and she shuddered, seeing the wet glitter of the toxic line and imagining the huge, long-legged spider-thing waiting above. They gave it a wide berth.
At last, the undergrowth thickened, as it often did at the edges of the forest where light could penetrate, and they broke through into a wide, starlight-silvered clearing. “This had better be it,” Ingram murmured. “It’s been an hour and a half.”
She nodded, then closed her eyes. She brought the vision of Kyri’s Balanced Sword pendant clearly into her mind, then envisioned each of its links, glittering silver in her mind’s eye. Then she reached out into the clearing, calling Reality to echo Vision.
Three glittering sparks answered her; she ran forward, knelt, and caught one up before the eldritch light faded. “There,” she said, showing it to Ingram.
“That… okay, that’s impressive. I’d have thought it would take longer. You just ran right up and picked something the size of a grass-grain off the ground. You were right, we found the right place. And we probably shouldn’t have, so … good luck.”
She nodded, feeling her heart beating faster – she wanted to say with anticipation, but now that she was being honest with herself, with fear and maybe guilt, too.
I’m here now, it’s a little late to be thinking maybe I shouldn’t have come at all.
She looked around, trying to decide where…
And there it was; a depression, a crushed place in the thick leaves and grasses covering the clearing, with the indentations of two knees so clearly visible she could imagine her sister, sobbing in rage and sorrow and heartbreak.
Urelle swallowed, then, standing with one foot where each knee had been, raised her eyes and saw the Balanced Sword, the stars representing the Sword and Balance twinkling brightly and immutably down. She reached inside her shirt and brought out her own Balanced Sword and raised it to its stellar mirror above.
“Myrionar, I lost no less than my sister!” she shouted, and her voice echoed across the clearing, making Ingram jump. “My mother, my father, my brother, my faith in the Justiciars who betrayed us! Now you send my sister away alone? What justice for me, for Aunt Victoria who has cared for us, protected us? If Kyri is the first of the new Justiciars, then let me be the second! She is a warrior, I am a wizard! There will be magics ranged against her, and someone has to protect her!”
She raised the symbol higher. “You asked her to have faith, be true to You – I will do the same! Just…” and suddenly she found no more anger, no more fine words, only worry and truth: “…just… let me protect my sister.” Not be the one who has to be protected. “Let me do something to help.”
The clearing was silent, save only for the distant movements of the forest creatures. She stood there, pendant held aloft, for long minutes, waiting. She focused on the stars, begging, pleading, demanding that there be an answer.
But no answer came. The warm wind blew gently but impersonally through her hair, the stars glittered, as distant as ever. No spectral voice spoke, no thoughts came unbidden, no signs.
She let her arm drop at last and sagged to the ground, feeling tears start from her eyes and desperately tried to suppress them. But she couldn’t; now she knew. Kyri would walk her road alone, and have to face the Justiciars by herself. Face whatever had made their corruption possible by herself.
Leaving her alone.
A gentle hand touched her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Urelle.”
She reached up and gripped Ingram’s fingers. “It’s… not your fault.”
“No,” he said. “But it still hurts to see you sad.”
She sniffled. “Auntie didn’t want me to do this.”
“She was probably afraid this would happen,” Ingram said. Then he chuckled.
“What’s funny?” she demanded, a dim spark of combined anger and curiosity breaking through her worry and grief.
“She was probably also afraid that this wouldn’t happen. That Myrionar would accept you.”
“But that’s…” she started to say stupid, but stopped.
“Yeah,” he said. “Worried you’d be hurt by not being accepted … and even more worried how badly you’d be hurt if you went down the same path.”
She glanced up, saw conflict on his face, but when his eyes met hers, his resolve firmed. “Look. You and Kyri, you’re the last family your aunt has in the world. You’re not alone. You still have her. If you go…” He shrugged. “Sometimes you do have to go,” he said after a moment. “But don’t ever forget how precious it is to have a family that loves you like she does.”
She heard something behind that – an echo of pain and regret that told her Ingram had either never had that, or had somehow lost it. Stop pitying yourself, Urelle, she told herself firmly.
She stood up and glanced once more towards the Balanced Sword.
For an instant – just one instant – the stars glittered warmer, a red-orange like a perfect fire in a fireplace, and she felt a phantom caress on her face, a touch of lips on her forehead.
The message needed no words. She knew she was not Chosen – not for this, anyway. But she knew Myrionar had heard her. And that she was still loved.
She blinked back new tears and turned to the south. “Let’s go home.”
“I will be meditating in my chambers,” Ares said to Phobos. “Please, no interruptions unless it is a matter of life and death.”
Or it will surely become one, he thought as Phobos bowed deeply to him.
Ares – or, now that he was in private, he who had taken Ares for himself – barred the door, both with physical bolts and a touch of godspower. Even the new Deimos and Phobos knew very little about what he did when he was “meditating.” They were, of course, aware that he was in no way the true Ares, but they neither knew nor, in truth, wanted to know exactly what he was or what his goals were.
Demons, after all, needed few explanations to assist in corruption and destruction.
But he … ahh, he had far more important goals than the mere breaking of the Aegeian Cycles, than the ultimate death of the Lady of Wisdom, Athena, and the rest of her little pantheon. This was, truth be told, more a… proof of concept, a demonstration. If it succeeded – and success was now very, very near, a scant year or three at the outside – everything he had hoped for would be his.
With great difficulty he fought down the smile of hunger and joy, the anticipation. Do not be the child who turns to run with the ball before it has been caught! Failure here would be disastrous. Yes, success seemed perilously near, but he had staked everything on this project.
He would be very wise to remember that when speaking with the one who held judgment in his hands.
Emotions held in check now, face calm and composed, he sat at the great desk and took up the scroll from its hidden compartment – the golden scroll that opened to a mirror-finish and slotted so neatly into the space before him. “I am here,” he said to his reflection.
A moment only, and the reflection rippled, darkened, became a window into a very different room, a dimly-lit space from which another face – open, cheerful, blond of hair and blue of eye – smiled at him.
“Ahhh,” said the other. “Punctual as always, Raiagamor.”
“I strive to please my… forebear.”
“Take a care,” said the other, still smiling. “My acceptance of our kinship is still undecided – as you must well know.”
“With all respect, Majesty, there is no denying you are my forebear in some manner. All that I seek is to prove my worthiness to stand with the Elders, for all that I number so many fewer years.”
The smile curled, acknowledging, perhaps, a small point. “True, and an ambitious claim it is.”
“Yet you have already found… some inspiration, some intriguing new thoughts, in my own invention of the moment, have you not, Majesty?”
A laugh both warm and chilling. “True, true! My current plan draws quite some inspiration from yours. But of that we have spoken enough. You were granted my aid thrice, once for each of the pleas your mother spoke on your behalf. You were pleased, I take it, with the first?”
“Your reading of the Cards was… most useful, yes, Majesty,” Raiagamor-Ares said, bowing his head. “I was, I believe, able to address the… weakness it described, and also use that approach to solidify my hold in other ways.”
“Excellent. I am always pleased when my services are appreciated. So you have called upon me a second time; what service do you require of me?”
“If Your Majesty would be so kind, I would query the Cards another time.”
“Indeed? A bold course you chart, child. The Cards always speak true, yes… but when queried in succession they seek, more and more, to mislead the querent.” The smile glittered with amused malice. “They were, after all, meant to serve a rather different hand than mine.”
“I would hope that their memory might fade in ten years, enough that I might chance another question or three.”
“They may, they may well. And you are, after all, on a schedule that does not allow you the luxury of waiting a century between moves.”
His King produced – from whence, Raiagamor could not say – a deck of ancient cards, made for one with large hands indeed, four inches across and seven or so long; the ivory sides of the deck were just slightly touched with yellow, but otherwise the Cards were pristine. Their backs showed an intricate pattern in deep blue and gold, a pattern that made Raiagamor uncomfortable to view; he noticed that even his King did not gaze long at it. “Then ask. Up to three, you understand, as you have spoken, and as no more than three would be safe even for me.”
“Understood.” He waited until the King had placed the cards before him in the proper way. “Then I would ask … other than the opponents I already know, are there others I must deal with if I am to triumph?”
“An excellent question.” The deceptively-human hands reached out, shuffled the cards without effort, cut them, shuffled again, and then dealt out a querent’s diamond – four cards surrounding a central one.
The faces of the Cards, as always, were obscured to him; either the Cards refused to allow any but their user to view them clearly or – far more likely – his Majesty had no intention of allowing him to learn anything more of this most potent tool.
“And … a most interesting answer. There is another obstacle,” he touched the central card, “as clearly indicated by the Barred Door. Between you and your goal,” he flipped over the card above the central card, “is a courageous woman, as indicated by the Sword-Maiden. One who is touched by true Power of one sort or another, as shown by,” another card turned, to the right hand, “the Phoenix In Flight. Most interesting.”
His hand moved down, flicked over the third card around the perimeter. “A woman of great knowledge, or perhaps talent and skill, as shown by the Scroll and Pen.” He flipped the last card. “And what is this? How very intriguing. Your opponent is also one who knows not her own power, as represented by the Blind Monk.”
That was a surprising array of indicators… but one should always be cautious about alternatives. “Do all of these cards refer to the same person?”
The King smiled. “Yes; that requires no other reading.”
A courageous woman; that was obvious. No one seeking to oppose him in any guise would be anything else. But the Sword-Maiden also indicated one not merely courageous but themselves a warrior at heart. Still unremarkable, taken by itself. But touched by true Power, now, that was more rare. Added to that, great knowledge or skill and, at the same time one who did not know their own power…
Perhaps someone young, then, who has learned much in study or training, but not yet achieved full awareness of themselves… or perhaps had that knowledge withheld from them…
No. It could not…
He forced that thought to die unfinished. Believing something could not be, simply because you thought it shouldn’t be? That was the way to ruin. But oh, if it was true, oh, the blood that would run…
“My second question, then, my King: this individual… is she the same girl-child that was indicated by the earlier readings?”
That was a simple question, and a single card was turned. “The Rising Sun says yes.”
He let out a hiss and felt his form waver from that of Ares, knew his eyes glowed inhumanly for a moment. “It seems there are those who will need severe reprimands in the ranks,” he murmured, smiling at the thought while feeling his anger blazing.
But control, control! He must restrain himself. The prize he sought, the right to call the King by a very different title, that would come not merely from success but from control in all things. The King valued little more highly than perfect control.
“…but that is an internal matter,” he finished, once more Ares in perfection. “All I need ask, then, is where is she? How might I find her, that she be removed?”
“But of course, the natural question.” The King once more shuffled the Cards and went to turn one over… then hesitated. “Curious. The Cards refuse.”
“They will not answer the question?” Raiagamor was stunned. He knew the peril of the Cards, but he had never heard, even in rumor, that they had failed to answer.
“Hmmm. No. No, they will answer… Oh, I see.” He extended his hand towards Raiagamor, and his hand emerged from the scroll, holding the Cards before the false Ares’ startled eyes. “The answer lies within the Card you select, it appears.”
At this range, the power of the Cards smote his senses with threat and promise so intense it was both drug and warning of danger. Now I know why even the King is wary of them. He reached out cautiously, using his own senses to try and grasp the currents of fate that wove about the Cards.
Without volition, his hand dipped down, plucked a card from the bottom third of the deck, and placed it face-up before him.
He recoiled for a moment, for gazing directly into his were the gray-green eyes of Athena – a sight he had no intention of allowing to come to pass in life. He relaxed the slightest fraction as the card shifted and the eyes, too, shifted, no longer directly focused on him. “Athena?”
The King had risen and was peering through the scroll. “Is that what you see? Of course, it would make sense.”
“What do you see, then, my King?”
“I see the Card of the Flying Arrows. In this context, it means your target is in motion, traveling or about to travel far. There is no one location that can be given.”
Now that he concentrated, he could sense … a connection. The concept of Athena resonated with his questions. Naturally; the Cycle demanded Athena’s God-Warriors, and eventually the Incarnate Goddess herself. And between that thought, that concept, and the unknown girl or woman was some connection – a nascent God-Warrior? The Incarnate Form herself? Or even a priest, questing for either or both?
The Cards always answered truly – though they would seek to deceive, as the King warned. So this Card would tell him how to find…
He smiled. “Majesty, is it permitted that I cast a spell using this Card?”
“I believe that is, in fact, part of the Cards’ answer to you, so yes; in this case you may.”
He took forth a handful of coins – full golden Shields of Aegeia – and placed them on the mystical plaque. Then he called up both magic and godspower and gazed upon the Card, saw the connection, the resonance between the Card and the Concepts and the World itself. He caught up that resonance, that connection between the concept and the subject, and impressed it on the coins, pouring magic and the power of Ares into that connection until each and every Coin vibrated with the precise same resonance, sang with the same connection to some distant, unseen person.
With a swift gesture, he completed the enchantment, tying off the threads of magic and destiny so that the Coins themselves were linked to the target – to the woman who stood between him and the completion of his great work.
The King’s fingers plucked the Card from beneath the Coins. “Well, that was entertaining. I hope you will find these answers… profitable. Feel free to call upon me – once more.”
The scroll went blank, but there was no need for pleasantries between them. He knew that unless he succeeded, his forebear would not acknowledge him. But this – this was enough.
Traveling and never in one place, was she? Well, these Coins would guide his forces. They would close upon her and capture her, no matter where she was. Perhaps they should kill her upon … but no. They had failed to kill her before. He would not trust others to do the deed at a distance. Capture her, bring her somewhere he could see, and then have her killed.
In honesty, he would have preferred to do it himself, but he could not spare the time. Ares’ presence was necessary now. The plan was in motion.
He gestured to the door, which opened. “Deimos,” he called. “Phobos. Come. I have a task for you…”
Quester leapt, evading the streak of bladed energy that burned waist-high through the air. But even as he did, Urelle’s hand reached, formed a claw, and the very air stretched, as though she had grasped its substance like a rippling sheet and pulled.
A blast of air caught him in mid-jump, tore at his wings and body, tipped him over. He did not land with his usual grace, but tumbled like a human who had tripped over an unexpected branch; the impact caused air to whistle out of him in a high-pitched shriek.
Ingram had been closing on the girl from the other side, but his feet abruptly slipped out from under him; he scrabbled incredulously at the ground, but though it appeared to still be the grass and stone they had been sparring on, Quester saw Ingram’s fingers fail to gain purchase. The girl simply stepped aside to let him pass, on his way to a full-speed collision with a boulder ahead of him.
But neither Ingram nor Quester were out of the match; and as Quester rolled to his feet, Ingram’s arm snapped out, and the anai-k’ota broke apart, one of its crescent blades on a chain that whipped around Urelle’s leg, jerking her from her feet and turning her into an anchor that slowed Ingram’s headlong flight and pulled him from the unnaturally-slick surface.
Quester closed with the girl, even as the chain fell from her leg with startling ease. She gave a yelp of surprise and dove aside.
Almost he fell for the trick; but instead of smelling her scent growing more distant, he felt it getting closer than it should. Illusion!
He kicked out, and felt his leg connect with something that went “Oooof!” Urelle’s duplicate disappeared, leaving the real girl sprawled on the ground, curling up around her stomach.
“Urelle! Are you all right?” Ingram said, dropping his weapon and running to her side. “Quester, you have to be careful!“
“I’m … all right. Just… got the wind knocked out of me,” Urelle gasped, her face a shade paler than its normal dark-wood tint, leaning against Ingram for a moment. She swallowed and forced herself to stand, though she looked more than a bit wobbly. “Don’t blame Quester. Happens in sparring, right?” She managed a smile.
“Indeed, Urelle,” Quester replied. “And Ingram?”
The lavender-haired boy saw a phantom knife protruding from his gut. He flushed darkly under his olive tan. “Oh.”
“An excellent lesson,” Victoria Vantage said from her seat on the overlook. “Urelle had not yielded, and you allowed your sentiment, and her apparent helplessness, to place you in the perfect position, young Camp-Bel. I think your trainers might be a trifle disappointed.”
They’d give me a sound drubbing and assign me a week of drills, that’s what they’d do, came Ingram’s chagrined voice in his head.
In fairness, my friend, we are all friends here, and this is sparring, not life and death. But by the Nest and Wave and Forest, she plays her games to win!
A flash of Ingram’s white smile. She does that.
“Still, you all did well. Not that I doubted your skills – you’ve proven them well enough on our way. But you sometimes see new things in practice.”
Quester bowed, first to Victoria and then to Urelle. “And surely I have seen new things. You are a more formidable magician than we had suspected, Urelle. Versatile, indeed.”
“I find the speed more impressive,” Ingram said. “You pulled off a lot of spells in the middle of combat, in instants. You must have done a lot of work to optimize them, and a lot more practice to make them something you could do while people come charging at you.”
Still rubbing her gut and moving a bit gingerly, Urelle smiled warmly at Ingram. “Well, yes, I was reading a lot of the, you know, classics –“
“– The Seedling Heroes, Singer of Names, Armor of Chaos, that kind of thing, right?” Quester had heard of one of those titles, and thought he knew a few similar titles, but he had never read any. Perhaps I should.
“Right! And if there’s anything that just jumps out at you in those tales is that even the best wizard ends up with things right in her face eventually, so you’ve just got to be able to cast your spells fast and perfect, even when someone sticks a dagger in you.”
“That is most certainly true,” Victoria said. The tall woman looked down, then suddenly gave a grin and leapt from the overlook – a balcony at least ten feet off the ground – to land perfectly before them. “As the spellslingers I knew often learned the hard way.”
“So, did you come down to join us?” Ingram asked.
“I am very tempted, young man. But I’m hardly dressed or equipped for the occasion.” Her scent was definitely amused.
“I’ll bet you have at least two weapons on you, and your dress there has at least a second-circle enchantment to protect it – and you,” Ingram said.
Her eyebrows climbed high. “Indeed? And what odds would you give on that?”
“One weapon’s in that… bracelet you wear,” he said, pointing to a broad, elaborately-worked vinework of silver or platinum, set with green gems. “I don’t know exactly what kind of weapon or how it’s in something that small, but I’d bet… bet my anai-k’ota that it’s there. And you’ve got a knife hidden under your skirts, strapped to the inside of your calf. Even odds you’ve got at least one more on you, too, maybe small of your back or in one of the little pouches at your waist.
“As far as the dress, it sheds dirt far too well, and the way you jumped showed you hadn’t any worry about it getting damaged. Given that I know you pay attention to the condition of your clothes, even when on the road, that tells me they’re magicked up in some way, and it’s protective. Given that you’re a former Adventurer and you aren’t poor, you could afford…” his eyes narrowed, “…afford the best, and wow, that’s Artan treesilk, so I’ll up that guess, it’s at least third-circle because anything less would be an insult to treesilk, which is stronger than steel to begin with.”
Urelle was looking back and forth between them; Quester could sense her surprise … and that of Victoria Vantage, as well.
“You win full points,” she said at last. “You are quite correct in every particular. I admit to being impressed. How?”
“Camp-Bel training. We are bodyguards and general protectors; being able to judge someone’s potential as a threat, including telling how well armed and protected they are? That’s absolutely central to our training. If you can judge your opponent well enough, you can defeat them. That’s what…” Quester smelled a familiar half-melancholy, half-fond scent, “…what my best teacher told me.”
“I would not go quite that far,” Victoria said with a wry smile. “There were several times I judged my opponent very carefully and my conclusion was that I was about to have my head and all my other extremities handed to me if I did not find a means to retreat with expediency. But your training certainly shows itself.”
Ingram bowed, obviously pleased. That partly makes up for my sparring stupidity.
Only if you apply both lessons in the field, my friend.
A silent, rueful laugh of acknowledgement was the reply.
“Well,” Victoria said, “I think we should have a –“
She broke off as a lightly-armored figure rounded the bend in the path leading to the new Vantage estate.
The figure was running, not merely at sprinting speed but at a pace that told of magical enhancement. Brown hair streamed out from beneath a protective helm, and despite his speed it was evident that he was also alert to all around him. More worrisome to Quester was the fact that the man’s armor was emblazoned with the stylized lightning bolt starburst that was the symbol of the Sauran King.
One of the King’s Guard, Ingram thought at the same time. With courier enchantments, I think.
The man did not slacken his pace until he reached Victoria, at which point he came to an instant halt and saluted. “Lady Victoria Vantage, correct?” he asked.
The older woman returned the salute with a bow. “I am.”
“The Marshal of Hosts sends his most urgent and earnest plea that you will attend him immediately at T’Teranahm Chendoron.”
Victoria’s left eyebrow rose. “Toron wants me there immediately? What is the urgency?”
The man hesitated, glancing around at the others, eyes lingering with momentary surprise on Quester.
“I will be keeping no secrets from these unless I must, sir,” Victoria went on, noting his gaze. “This is my niece and ward, Urelle Vantage, and these are my current aides and bodyguards, Zarathanton Guilded through examination by Toron himself.”
He took a breath. “Understand, then, all of you, that what I am about to say has not been announced and will not be until it must be.” He hesitated a moment, and Quester could scent a stunned dread, one made stronger by having to verbalize it. “The… The Sauran King is dead.”
For a moment no one moved. No one spoke. Even Quester’s mind seemed to have … frozen, unable to grasp the import of those words.
“Dead?” whispered Victoria.
The word seemed meaningless in context. The Sauran King of the State of the Dragon God had ruled since time out of mind – so long that even the incredibly long-lived Artan had none among them old enough to remember a time when he had not reigned, so long that at least two Chaoswars had passed since he had first ascended the throne, so long that his name was nearly forgotten, as there was no need of it; he was the King, had always been King, would always be King.
Quester managed, finally, to speak. “How?”
The messenger shook his head. “Still being investigated, sir. But… I think we can all understand that it was no natural event.”
“An assassination, then,” Ingram said, his face gray; that, Quester knew, was no surprise given the mission of the Camp-Bels; assassination of a ruler was the nightmare they all lived to prevent.
“It would seem so, sir. Lady Vantage?”
She gave a short, sharp nod. “Yes, of course, I will come directly. I presume the full wards have been activated, and thus why mortal runners are being sent?”
“Then please continue on your business; I will ride to the Palace straightaway.”
The messenger gave another salute, and then turned, speeding off back down the road.
“Athena’s Shield protect us.” Ingram’s voice was barely audible. “Who would dare? Who could?”
“May Elbon and the Sixteen grant that we can find out,” Victoria said, moving towards the small stables.
Urelle, too, was pale beneath the dark-wood complexion. “What’s happening to the world? Mother, Father, and Rion murdered by the Justiciars, the Sauran King assassinated…”
“I do not know, child,” Victoria said, throwing open the door and entering. She caressed the beak of the golden-plumed sithigorn inside, then led the swift riding-bird out. “But I will do my best to find out. I expect I won’t be back until tomorrow morning. Close the gate behind me and lock it.”
She vaulted smoothly onto the sithigorn’s back and clucked a signal; instantly the bird bent forward and sprinted away, leaving a small trail of dust with its speed. In moments, bird and rider had disappeared.
Quester swung the gate shut and fastened it, feeling the wards rise about the estate, and turned back. His antennae tested the air nervously, but for what, he did not know. He could not imagine what else there was to fear.
But somehow, he thought, the worst was yet to come.
The night felt … tense, was the best way Ingram could put it. Here, several miles from Zarathanton itself, there was little light other than that of the stars and what spilled out from the windows of the sprawling mansion. And with nearly everyone asleep, there were few lights within. Even as he glanced back at the house, he saw another window go dark. Embrae, the Master of House, he thought. The taciturn woman had been hired only a week and a half ago, but already had organized the household admirably. Partly by doing twelve-hour days. Good thing she’s finally going to sleep tonight.
But even with everyone asleep, the tension remained. The sounds of the Forest Sea were muted; the grass-singers still chirped and sang within the walls, but not as loudly, not as numerously, as just a night or three ago.
Ingram unslung the anai-k’ota. The feel of the cool metal in his hands was comforting. Still, nothing should intrude upon us here. The wards are not nearly powerful enough to stop intrusion, but they are very good for warning us, and that is generally enough. As he was on patrol, the wards were attuned to him.
He passed by the vegetable garden, absently scanning it for signs of disturbance – there were none, although it did look as though something was eating the burnroot leaves. Better let Victoria and Isherr, the gardener, know. The rows of vegetables were dim lines of rustling gray separated by strips of pooled blackness, except where the vestitia, or sparkleaf, lifted crinkled leaves that glittered with blue and gold pinpoints, making their rows a mass of harvestable constellations.
He passed into one of the small groves of trees on the estate. Whoever had owned it before Victoria purchased it had obviously valued shade and privacy, as the trees bordered all of the thirty-seven acres and were clumped here and there throughout the grounds, interspersed with bits of garden, meadow, and a small wetlands surrounding the spring that gave birth to a small, fast stream that coursed through the property to the south-southwest.
They really need more people if they want a secure watch. And stronger wards, something to keep things out rather than just let you know when they’ve already come in.
A chill and flash of light appeared before him. The wards! Something’s at the gate!
He sprinted in that direction, listening, watching. But the locking wards remained intact, and there was – so far – no sign of any intrusion. A bell rang, signaling that someone requested admittance.
Who could there be at this time of night? Lady Victoria? If so, why would she ring instead of just letting herself in? She has the key-wands.
The gates came into view; Ingram gestured with his own key-wand and the lights outside of the gate brightened, showing a lone figure standing before the reinforced steel-and-ebonwood portals.
As Ingram came nearer, he could see that the man before the gates was broad and more compact than human – one of the Odinsyrnen. He was wearing a leather traveling coat, a wide-brimmed leather hat, and armored leather pants. Obviously cool-spelled, or even an Odinsyrnen would be uncomfortable. He noted a patch on the shoulder – similar to his own, but this one’s background was of high gates surrounded by mountains. The only visible weapons were a pair of broad-bladed knives, one on each hip, but Ingram suspected this man had quite a few others.
“Ah. Someone’s awake, then,” the newcomer said, deep voice tired but cheerful. “Thought I might have to camp out until morning just to get an answer.” He covered one eye and bowed. “Hengel, Guilded out of Hell’s Edge, courier.”
“If you’ll turn and let me verify, Guildsman?” Ingram stretched the rod he had been given when he first gained his own patch. It glowed and chimed with white light and the great gates on the patch shimmered. “Thank you.”
“Welcome. Sometimes wonder what the point is – never seen a fake Adventurer’s Patch myself. Let me in, then?”
“A moment.” The key-wand again, and the gates opened enough to admit the courier, who stepped through and let the portals shut behind him. “I’ve seen a fake. Or, rather, I saw a genuine Patch that had been stolen and was being used by someone else. Wand screamed fear and death and the Patch burst into flame.” Ingram felt a grim smile curling his lips. “Oh, they work, believe me.”
“Learn a new thing every day, don’t I?” Hengel said. “Anyway, hope I’m not just heading back out on the next leg of this Loki-cursed quest, but probably am.”
“Aye, the Guild’s been trying to run this delivery for years, last I heard.” He reached into a pouch – one clearly larger within than without – and extracted a note, which he squinted at in the gate-light. “I’m looking for an Ingram Camp-Bel, Clan Camp-Bel of Aegeia, Zarathanton Guilded.”
Ingram blinked in surprise. “Well, you’re not just heading back out. I’m Ingram Camp-Bel.”
“You? Heimdall’s Eyes, I was expecting some ancient warrior, not some slip of a boy barely sword-high. I’ll need to check your identity, of course.”
“Of course.” The other waved his own rod past Ingram’s patch, verifying his Guild status, and then dug into the pouch again and extracted a flat, transparent crystal rectangle. Ingram felt his eyes widen; he hadn’t seen one of those since…
“I’m told if you’re the right guy, touching this little plate’ll prove it.”
Feeling as though the world were becoming distant, unreal, Ingram reached out and pressed his thumb onto the shining surface.
Instantly it glowed, gave a mellow tone, and the color shifted to pure green. “Well, give me stilts and call me a giant. You are the guy.” It looked like Hengel was having trouble believing it as well. “Then I can finally put this as a completed mission.”
He reached into his backpack and pulled out a small, simple metallic box, barely larger than Ingram’s hand, with a symbol Ingram had known since he was a child inlaid on the top. Hengel placed the box in Ingram’s hands – hands that were shaking – and bowed. “I’m not to see what you do with the thing, whether you open it or throw it away, so I’ll bid you good-night, Ingram Camp-Bel.”
“I… I thank you, Hengel. Should I… I mean, is there a cost…”
“To a fellow Guildsman? Nay, think no more of it.”
Still, Ingram pressed two Scales into Hengel’s hand. “For your trouble, and my thanks for the delivery. May… may the road be smooth and your way safe.”
When the gate was once more closed and Ingram was alone, he moved away and sat down on one of the square stone blocks that lined the walkway, staring at the box. From the top surface, the symbol shone: stylized curves that represented a ship, a starship, in flight, against an ebony backdrop sprinkled with silver-shining stars, bracketed on each side by an open book. The symbol of Rhyme and Reason, the ship of the Founder.
Sent from Aegeia. Sent from the Clan. From the Clan to me.
Ingram couldn’t believe it. He’d left. He’d had to leave, after what had happened, what he’d heard, what he’d learned. He said it’s been years. Do I open it? If “years” was true, they must have sent it out within… weeks, months at the most, of the time he’d left. It had been chasing him from adventure to adventure. He and Quester had just never stopped long enough. Whatever reason they’d sent it, it couldn’t be… relevant any longer.
Couldn’t it? asked the colder, more analytical side of himself. I know what this is. I know what it almost has to be. I left without permission. I stole from the Clan, no matter what excuses I’ve given myself, what justifications I’ve made myself accept.
His heart pounded faster and he felt sweat on his palms, making the metal box slick as it sat there in his trembling hands. Within would be an official note, written by Mother and Father… if not by the Captain directly. It would express the Clan’s grave displeasure, and order him to return without delay for a trial, a court-martial, there to be stripped of Clan and kin.
It was a summons he could not refuse, nor one he could delay. Once read… he would be honor-bound to return by the swiftest means possible to Aegeia, to present himself to the Clan for judgment.
I could refuse to open it. If I never see it, if I never read it, I haven’t been given the command. I can stay here, with Quester, with Urelle.
The thought itself was shocking. But it was seductive, and in its way true. I don’t know that’s what’s in here, I’m just guessing. I don’t have to see it. If I don’t see it, I’m not ignoring a command…
He swallowed hard, then looked to his own shoulder. The Adventurer’s Patch glimmered there. Will I be so much a coward? How can I wear that symbol, take pride in being Guilded of Zarathanton, if I won’t and can’t face my own sins?
He couldn’t. That was the hardest truth, the simplest, yet most painful answer. If he wanted to retain any semblance of honor or pride, he couldn’t ignore this message, one that had pursued him through the years and thousands of miles. Perhaps… perhaps even the dishonor of losing the Clan might not drive Quester away. They had traveled long and far together.
But he would not deserve Quester’s regard – or that of other people he cared for – if he didn’t face his own responsibilities.
With that thought – and before he could have any second thoughts – Ingram grasped the box firmly, thumbs touching the sides, and said “Ingram Camp-Bel, inducted on the third day of the seventh month of the tenth year of Cycle Three Hundred and Fourteen.”
The box hummed and the top sprang back.
Shock and disbelief enveloped Ingram, numbing him with incomprehending horror, blotting out anything except the thing that lay atop the folded paper within. Shining in polished gold and silver alloy, the figure of a bird of prey ascending, wings spread and raised above the narrow beaked head, a symbol of courage and spirit … and in this place, in this way, of something terrible and impossible.
Ingram! Ingram, what is it?
The voice within his head broke through his stunned disbelief. He heard a whirring of wings, saw Quester sailing through the air, weapons drawn. What happens? How are we assailed?
“I… it’s nothing, Quester. We’re safe,” he said numbly.
“Nothing?” The buzzing voice shook with his friend’s confused emotions. “My friend, never have I scented such shock and fear from you, not even when we faced the Darkness That Devours. What is that before you, that you cannot take your eyes from?”
“I…” He slammed the lid closed, although that could not in any way remove from him the memory of what he had seen, rose, and began walking. “A message. A message I cannot believe.”
Quester studied him as they walked, great faceted eyes sparkling in the faint light from the stars. “Tell me. Tell me so I might understand, nest-brother.”
He felt a sting in his eyes at that term, because he knew what that meant to Quester. “I… I did not… didn’t leave my clan happily,” he said finally.
The antennae dipped, there was a touch of lemon shading to cinnamon. “So I had guessed, from things said and unsaid. You were … exiled? Cast out?”
“Not… quite.” Might have been easier. “I left on my own. Took things that … well, if I’d been sent on a mission by the Clan I would have perhaps been allowed to take them, but…”
“Ah.” The insectoid face was hard to read, but the spike of tar and iron in his scent showed shock and disappointment. I talked about the Clan, but I had already dishonored myself to the Clan. No wonder he is disappointed.
They were near the house now, and Quester was a shadow against the darkness. Finally he spoke. “Why?”
Ingram ran one hand through his hair, feeling the old anger and betrayal and sadness, tears trying to force their way out. Finally, he sank down, leaning his back against the stone. “I was angry. So furious with them all, and especially M… Mother and Father.”
“Why?” Quester asked again.
Ingram gave a snort of laughter, laughter without humor or lightness. “Because I heard a truth I wasn’t supposed to hear. A truth I’d always suspected I’d hear if I listened.”
Trying to tell Quester took him back, so that he could see it, could hear it all again. Barely recovered from that terrible day, his body finally whole, walking down the stairs quietly, carefully, so as to disturb no one, so he could go outside alone … and hearing his parents, their voices low but tense, with anger and fear, coming from the study, the door almost-but-not-quite closed.
“…a complete disaster,” his father had said. Ingram could see his dark face in his mind’s eye, stern, worried.
“I know. Ingram should never have been there,” his mother said, and he could imagine her too, tense with worry, brown eyes watching her husband and partner, hair the color of dark-polished wood curling out of control from a tight ponytail.
“He was barred from there. Forbidden! And she should have…” His father sighed. “But what else could we expect, Ianthe? Ingram was raised a Camp-Bel. He… he tries to be one of us.”
“He is one of us, Rastus!” his mother retorted. “Ever since –“
“He cannotever be truly one of us, Ianthe,” his father said, coldly. “You… we… see him that way, but we know the truth, we saw the truth –“
“Don’t,” Ianthe said, even as Ingram began backing slowly away, a dull horror filling him at the knowledge that even his parents didn’t truly see him as a Camp-Bel, no matter how much he had tried. “Don’t… I know. I know I should not think of him as our child…”
Her voice faded as he turned and ran, as quietly and swiftly as he could, tears streaming silently down his face.
Ingram became aware that he had trailed off, that the night had been silent save for the grass-singers and the wind for long moments.
Then Quester’s clawed hand came to rest gently on his shoulder, and he looked up to see the great-eyed head bent low. Ingram felt the feather-light touch of the two antennae, and for a moment could sense the aching sympathy of his friend. “Oh, nest-brother. What a terrible thing to learn, to hear, and a terrible way to learn it.”
“I should have stayed, should have confronted them,” Ingram said, unable to keep his self-directed anger and disgust from his voice. “Instead I ran, got into the A&A – Armory and Archives – and took what I told myself was my rightful inheritance, my severance pay, whatever.” He looked down. “I’m a coward and a thief, that’s the truth, Quester.”
His friend was quiet for a moment. “You are not a coward, Ingram Camp-Bel. Whatever you might have been in the past, you have never shown cowardice in my presence, in all the time we have been together. Nor have you stolen, or done any other thing that would dishonor our bond, or the Guild that is our family and home.”
Ingram could no longer keep tears from spilling out. He let them come instead, crying quietly for the pain of the past and the faith of a friend he wasn’t sure he deserved.
But when that was over, he felt… clearer. Ingram drew a long, shaky breath and looked up.
Quester nodded. “So what is the message, then? That you return to be tried?”
He tried to laugh. “Ha. No, that was actually what I thought it would be. Instead…” He opened the box, showed the glittering winged symbol. “…instead I’ve been sent the Captain’s Insignia.”
“I sense much significance within your mind, but I do not understand, myself.”
“It can mean … a lot of things, depending on when and how it’s presented. There are only four Insignias. One’s worn by the Captain of the Clan at all times. The other three are … tokens of command, I guess. The Captain can hand them to people to allow them to speak with their authority, or can send them to someone as a command that cannot be disobeyed.”
He looked down, afraid to touch the Insignia. “By sending this to me…” He felt the tears threaten to return “By sending this to me, they’ve already said you are a Camp-Bel to me, so loudly, so emphatically, that even I can’t miss it. But they’ve also said answer this call, and I’m terrified what could possibly require them to call back a runaway who didn’t even … didn’t even measure up,” he finished miserably.
“I find that hard to believe.”
Ingram shook his head. “You never saw the real Camp-Bels. That’s why a part of me always knew what I would hear, if I listened … don’t they say that none who listen at doors will like what they hear? In any case…”
He picked up the Insignia, feeling a faint tingle as it sensed a new hand touching it … and accepted him. I really am the one this is for. By Athena and her missing Father…
Filled with trepidation, he picked up the paper beneath it. It was a small, folded note, sealed with his father’s symbol. He broke the seal and read:
Return at once. Avoid well-traveled routes; danger is extreme; enemies may be seeking you. There are things you must know, that must not be written nor spoken outside of the Clan. This order remains in force no matter how long this message takes to reach you.
Be swift and be safe.
Lady and the Founder protect you.
Rastus, Clan Camp-Bel
Ingram stared at this brief note, trying to grasp all the implications. Danger is extreme. Rastus would not use a word like “extreme” lightly. Things you must know. What things? About his not being Camp-Bel? He knew about that – he had been adopted into the Clan because they felt responsible for what had happened to the rest of his family. What else? What terrible secret that could not even be hinted at in such a secure message?
“‘This order remains in force no matter how long this message takes to reach you,'” he murmured, still disbelieving.
Quester nodded, antennae emphasizing the motion. “An order of grave import. What will you do?”
“Do?” He took a breath, then slapped his face with his hands twice, briskly. The shock and quick snap of pain cleared the confusion. “There’s only one thing I can do, Quester: go. As fast as I can by the less-traveled route, through wilderness if I have to.”
“So we will leave tomorrow –“
“No, I have to leave now.” He thought he heard a faint noise at that statement, but looking around, he saw no indication of anyone else; the house remained dark and quiet, and nothing else moved except the plants in the breeze.
“This…” he gestured to the box, “this is an imperative. By strict interpretation, if I was given this command in the middle of … of pulling a family from a flooded river, I would be expected to drop the rope and start on my journey.” At Quester’s abrupt head-tilt, he added, “Not that I would!”
“I would not think so. But I can feel the urgency. You cannot bring yourself to wait until the morrow, when Lady Vantage returns?”
Ingram shook his head, tension building within him. “No. No, I wish I could, but I can’t. It’s been two years reaching me. I know, one might say ‘but then, what difference could a day make?’, but I say, what if I return one day late? I have to go. I’ll … I’ll leave my own note. I don’t know what she’ll think of me for it, but you can tell her.”
“Tell her? How could I do that, when we are already on our way?”
“Quester, this is my problem, maybe my trial! I can’t ask –“
“You are my nest-brother,” Quester said, with a strange combination of patience and annoyance. “What threatens you, threatens me. What duty calls to you, I must also answer that call. Unless you would repudiate that bond, then I, too, go with you.”
He stared at Quester. “But … I ran away, Quester. I stole from my own Clan. I –“
“– you are considered still part of your Clan. Whatever you may have done or heard, they have sent you what is – by your own words – the highest symbol of your Nest, your Clan Camp-Bel. Would they send that to one who was only to be disgraced and punished?”
He found himself shivering, and for a moment he didn’t know why. “N… no. No, they would just send me the recall, and tell me why.”
“Then – no matter your own view of your actions – they still hold you in esteem, or at least in enough honor that no lesser call would suffice. Perhaps it is for some terrible purpose … but not, I think, one so petty and tragic.”
“No. You’re right.” Now he understood the shivering. It was fear. Not fear for himself, but fear of the unknown, fear of what horrific secret might have impelled the Captain to call the renegade child home with such desperate emphasis.
“You’re right,” he said again, and it seemed the night shivered for him. “Let’s go, then.”
But as he turned to enter the Vantage mansion for the last time, he felt the fear recede; because no matter what, he would not face it alone.
Urelle watched from her darkened window as the two passed out of the gate, her heart beating twice, three times its normal speed. Ingram and Quester are leaving!
She’d heard a lot of their discussion; enough to make her eyes sting at what had happened to Ingram, why he’d run away, and to be worried very much about what danger he was heading into. Quester was obviously worried too.
But they’ll need my help!
That, another part of her mind told her, is one of the most arrogant things you’ve ever thought.
But it wasn’t, not entirely. Ingram was dangerous – there wasn’t any doubt about that – and with Quester, he was four times better. Yet neither of them was a wizard. If they were being followed by unknown enemies, they’d need someone who understood magic.
Oh, really? They were Adventurers, Guilded, before they met up with you. Two years or so, I think they said? If they really needed a mage with them, wouldn’t they have already found one? One with actual experience in the Adventuring game?
Yet the rest of her felt – even more strongly – that Ingram needed her. Needed her badly.
Which, she had to admit, really didn’t make sense. She was used to him, yes, and he was fun to have around, he’d been more than just fun when she was … was finding her way out of shock and darkness. He’d been an anchor, sometimes more so than her sister Kyri or Aunt Victoria, just because he was like her – small, studious, even if he was also more than capable of fighting, preferring to think rather than fight if he could.
She would miss him. Miss him terribly. But that was no reason to go following him. Her sensible side was right.
So why did she feel so clearly that it was wrong? Just because she didn’t want him to go? Was she that pathetic, that she had to cling to everyone?
Even as she thought that, she knew it was, at least, part of the truth. She did want to hold on to the people around her. “I have reason to,” she whispered to herself. Her parents. Rion. Kyri, on a deadly mission of justice and vengeance. And now Quester and Ingram.
Was that all? No. Even examining herself in the most coldly unflattering light didn’t provide explanation for it all. Somehow a part of her was convinced she had to follow them.
Myrionar? Is it you? Are you telling me this is the reason I couldn’t follow Kyri? Because I was supposed to follow him?
She stared out the window, craning her neck to see the portion of the Balanced Sword that could be seen above the roof. The stars remained their normal color. If it was Myrionar, It was not going to give her a sledgehammer of a sign.
If I don’t have a good reason, they’ll chase me right back here anyway. And then it will be my fault that Ingram’s delayed on his travel. It was possible that, given the urgency Ingram had mentioned, he might not turn around – that he’d feel he had to continue on – but she couldn’t bet on that. More likely, if that were the case, he’d order Quester to take her back and catch up with him later.
She sat there, debating with herself, for … well, she didn’t know how long, staring out into the grounds towards the gate through which the tiny boy and towering insectoid had disappeared.
What finally roused her was motion, an almost-ignored motion of black against near-blackness. She focused on that location, then averted her eyes slightly; she knew that the edges of her vision were more sensitive to movement.
Something was there, near the gate. But there was – at least as of now – no reaction from the wards.
She sketched a pair of circles before her eyes and stretched her hand and mind outward. Her little adventure with Ingram had taught her one thing, at least – not to rely on ordinary sight alone.
As reality realigned itself to her will, the grounds sprang into sharp relief, as bright as an overcast day to her newly-enhanced vision.
Four figures, gathered in front of the gate. She brought out a spyglass and focused on them.
The four were dressed very similarly – in dark, tough travel clothing that showed ridges of armor underneath. Two wore tight-fitting helms that had wide visors protected by thin bars – good field of vision without sacrificing much defense – while the others were bareheaded. She couldn’t quite make out the small insignia on their arms, but she could see that they were all armed – at least one with a rune-carved staff.
Amplifying light went pretty well. How about sound?
Improvising a spell was a lot harder than casting one you’d practiced, but in this case she had the advantage of knowing – as Lythos and Sasha Rithair had emphasized – exactly what she wanted to change about reality, and how it might be accomplished. A wide, bowl-shaped surface, just so, focusing sound from its entire radius onto her ears…
There was a momentary swelling and chattering of sound – insects, scuttling little animals in the brush – and then she managed to envision the collecting surface pointed directly at the gate, while still keeping the sound funneled to her.
“…only residence anywhere near this area,” one was saying.
“Check again,” another said, the voice deeper. “This gate is warded; it’s a fair-sized estate. We don’t want to buy trouble we can’t afford.”
A sigh. “Very well.” The one with the staff slung it over his back, reached into a pouch and pulled out something that glittered in the amplified light. He mumbled some words that Urelle couldn’t quite make out, but she knew a spell when she heard one. The object glittered and moved for a few moments.
“Ares’ Sword,” the magician cursed. “Not there. The target’s in motion … that direction, looks like, though it keeps wobbling, which it shouldn’t. Maybe some kind of protective ward’s confusing it.”
“They weren’t moving in that direction before. Something…” Another curse. “That courier. The Odinsyrnen we passed a bit ago.”
“Some kind of message?”
“I would think so. Don’t know what it could be to get someone to start out in the middle of the damned night, but moving, they are.”
“But they had to start from here, right?” the deep voice said. “No reasonable alternative. Go much past here and we’re in the Forest Sea. So they can’t be far. If we move now, we might catch them!”
Urelle let the spells drop. She’d heard enough. Four people looking for someone who had been here? Swearing by Ares?
Pursuit was closer than Ingram or Quester dreamed.
Now she had a reason.
Then she turned and was packing as fast as she could. The small so-called ‘neverfull’ backpack would have to do. It wouldn’t hold everything maybe, but enough. Magical equipment and notes, reagents, materials ranging from powdered crystals to hairs from an Eonwyl and a tiny piece of the tooth of a Nahm, one of the lesser Dragons, a vial of forestfisher venom, dozens of others. Clothing. The training tent she’d gotten three years ago and used once.
She ran downstairs as quietly as she could, yanked open the healer’s cabinet. Can’t take it all – wouldn’t it be terrible if I did and someone got hurt? Still, she could take several of the bottles and enchanted pads. Those also went into the bag, which was starting to hit its limits. Food. Maybe we can get some along the way, but can’t bet on it. The pantry and coldbox yielded enough for several days. Bet Aunt Victoria has some marching rations somewhere, but I don’t know where.
Then back upstairs. A part of her was still telling her this was very unwise, but this time she had an actual argument other than pure pique and selfishness.She stripped off her day clothes, yanked open the armoire, pulled down the spelled armorcloth outfit Auntie had gotten her just last year and got it on – it’s a little tight, I think I’ve grown a bit, have to do some minor resizing later – hooked the access pouches to the belt, along with the crystal dagger that Daddy had carried when he was on Adventure.
Finally, her combat gloves and the quickstaff; the latter she secured inside her sleeve in the form of a small cylinder.
I’ve got everything I can get on short notice.
One last thing to do – add her own note. She dashed it off and was going to place it atop Ingram’s, then reconsidered; Auntie would want the context first. She slid hers underneath Ingram’s, then went back a final time to her room.
She took a deep breath and forced away all her self-doubts. If there’s ever a good reason, it’s to save someone else.
She stepped off the window ledge and soared up into the starlit night.
How much longer do you wish to continue tonight? Quester asked.
Ingram shrugged. I was thinking of pushing through until tomorrow night, then rest. It gets us a good push forward and back onto a normal schedule. Unless you don’t feel up to it?
I was designed to continue for days, if necessary. If you think you can handle it, little human, by all means, let us keep going until night again falls.
Someday we’ll find out which one of us would actually fall first, but this won’t be the day.
There was genuine humor in that mental message, and that made Quester feel much better. Ingram was recovering from the shock and starting to sound like his old self.
Oh, there was no doubt a lot more to come – even when they’d been traveling, it had been clear that Ingram had a lot of secrets in his past, and Quester felt that there were questions he needed to ask soon – but his friend was no longer near a breaking point.
He flicked his antennae in amused disbelief. He would never have believed that it would hurt him so much to see a human in such pain … but then, until he met Ingram, the thought of considering one a nestmate had never occurred to him. Now that he thought on it, such things had been known before; the memory of the Mother before him showed him some other human faces in the tale of the Nests.
He barely repressed an annoyed buzz. A thousand pieces of trivia are mine at a thought, yet understanding my purpose? Mother, why? Is it that I am so hopeless that I cannot understand what is completely obvious, or is there a reason that even I cannot yet know?
At least the two of them could keep a good pace; his vision at night was vastly better than the human norm, and Ingram’s goggles gave him more than adequate sight for this. Beneath the canopy of the Forest Sea, it was nearly dark as within a cave.
The growth became thicker abruptly. “Ha,” muttered Ingram, “We’re at the clear-cut.”
A moment later they had burst out into the cleared area along the Great Road. Up to ten miles wide, it provided both safety and land for cultivation by those willing to live outside the protection of city walls. Farmers, hunters, and others who needed to make their living from the land often banded together to make safe retreats, small villages and fortresses, and they were also some of the best customers of the wandering Adventurer.
To the east, perhaps a mile off, was the dark bulk of just such a local fortress. To the west, beyond the horizon, the glow in the sky showed where Zarathanton itself sat, the greatest city in the world, so huge that its very lights could guide people to it from fifty miles away, perhaps more than two hundred thousand people in one walled city about the Palace of the Dragon King.
A city that now has no Dragon King within the palace itself. A sobering thought.
They’d come out before a pasture surrounded by high fences; it didn’t take long, however, to find a door in the fence and pass through.
“Sithigorns,” Ingram said; the figures of the large riding-birds were visible in the blue semidarkness beneath the bright stars. A few of them lifted their heads and gave querying burbles. Ingram grinned. “Cute things.”
“So long as they do not see us as threats, perhaps. I do not want to be on the receiving end of their beaks or claws.”
“No, that wouldn’t be fun. But don’t worry; these are obviously well cared for and happy. If we don’t go right up to them, there won’t be a problem.”
“We could purchase a pair.”
“I’m tempted, but we aren’t really equipped or provisioned for mounts, and we might end up going through terrain that isn’t friendly to them. Best to stay on foot.”
“We will make good time across here,” Quester said, spreading his antennae and tasting the air. “We could head to Zarathanton or perhaps directly to East Twin and take a ship south; that would bring us to your home as swiftly as might be.”
Ingram shook his head emphatically. “No. You heard the message. I can’t use any of the established routes, land or sea. Near as I can tell, they want me to get there without anyone even being sure I’m close to home. Why, I don’t know, but it’s pretty clear to me.”
“So, what route do we take?”
“If nothing changes?” Ingram was silent for a few moments; his scent was that of someone thinking very hard. “As much dead south as we can manage, I think. That’ll take us through the south reaches of the Forest Sea – hopefully no one will even think about us taking that route – and we’ll come out on the coast east of Shipton. Then we can just follow the coast, skirting the west edge of Wisdom’s Fortress and that’ll take us straight to Aegis.” His voice shifted on the last word, wistful and sad and eager at the same time.
“That is the capital of Aegeia, yes?”
Ingram gave a grimace. “Well … yes. For most purposes. Aegeia isn’t … isn’t always one country, exactly. Aegis and the surroundings are the main state, the gateway to get anywhere else, but the interior’s got five other major cities, each claiming their section of the country – Lyra, Velos, Demati, Talaria, and Amoni Agapis. They’ve each got their own patron among the gods, and during the Cycle, they take sides until the Cycle’s resolved. Then it’s all one country until the next Cycle, under Athena’s rule.”
Quester considered that as they continued. “It seems … rather chaotic.”
“I guess. From the outside it must. I was raised with it, so it seemed perfectly sensible to me when I was a kid.” He sniffed. “Hey, what are you laughing about?”
“You are only, what, fifteen, perhaps? A child still, I would think, yet you speak like an elder. ‘When I was a kid,’ yes?”
“Oh, be quiet.” Quester could see Ingram’s grin even through the darkness. “That is kind of funny, though. You’re right.”
They hastened their footsteps, and in about an hour reached the smooth, hundred-yard-wide Great Road, its surface unblemished. What sort of enchantments or materials had been used in its making, Quester could not imagine; the Great Roads had endured since before the beginning of the Chaoswars, from the age of legend, half a million years before.
Crossing the Great Road was a matter of moments, and now they were in more ordered growth of trees, a tree farm providing lumber for cities and villages alike, with wide pathways through it that turned in graceful curves, to allow easy transport of logs when each section of trees were cut. Quester felt his antennae quiver; there were many magics active here to keep the trees growing swiftly and true, to exclude pests, and so on.
Which was likely why he did not sense something approaching until the air above him rippled. Ingram!
The young Adventurer rolled to one side and drew his weapon in one motion, even as the new figure dropped to the path before them.
Ingram froze. “URELLE?”
The scent from the girl was unmistakable – as were her exhaustion and triumph. “Found you!” she gasped, steadying herself against one of the tree-trunks. “You people move fast.”
“You… You’ve been maintaining an airwing all this time?” Ingram was astonished, and Quester felt the same; maintaining a spell uninterrupted for hours was a very impressive feat of will and focus.
Astonishment gave way to a different emotion. “What in the name of Athena Herself are you doing here? Your aunt will kill me!”
“And me as well,” Quester said. “Ingram, you may have to go on for a while alone. I will have to conduct Lady Urelle back to –“
“I am not going back yet!” She managed to straighten. “You’re in danger – both of you. I came to warn you – and help if I can.”
“But you…” The tang of frustration was overwhelming, but it faded as Ingram got control of himself. “What do you mean, danger?”
“Four people, I think all human. They have something that gives them a good idea of your direction, and they’re marching to catch you right now. I heard one of them swear by Ares…” she hesitated, a smell of guilt mingled with determination, “…and since I heard a lot of your conversation, I have a good idea what that means.”
“You heard … ugh!” Ingram ran his hand through his lavender hair. “All right. Four of them, you said?”
“Four. Two armored and equipped as warriors, one clearly a mage of some kind, the other I’m not sure; could be another mage or a channeler, or could just be someone who prefers speed and evasion to just wading in and taking a shot.”
Quester tilted his head, then bowed in appreciation. “Perhaps we did not invite you, Lady Urelle, but your information is most timely. How close are they?”
“I think they’re about three miles back right now, but they’re hustling. They’ll catch you about the point you reach the Forest Sea again, if nothing changes.” She was following now, as Ingram had started walking again.
“Do they know about Quester?”
“I don’t know. They weren’t detailing their knowledge. I was lucky to hear as much as I did.”
“True. Well, even if they do, they won’t know about you. And three to four with a hidden weapon is a strong position for us. I think we should hustle ourselves, just enough so we have time to set up an ambush.” He looked up at Quester.
After a few moments of thought, Quester nodded. “I see no better alternative. If they have some way of following you, we will have to deal with them sooner or later – most likely sooner.”
“I could do something about that,” Urelle said, “but not without a little time to work.”
“Okay. We’ll worry about getting you back to Victoria later. For now, let’s move.”
About an hour later they had reached the edge of the Forest Sea. “Here, Ingram. I believe this will be ideal.”
The boy looked around and grinned; Urelle echoed him.
The terrain here dipped into a natural path, with banks above a small stream that led nearly due south. It was an excellent way to pass through this part of the Forest Sea heading in that direction. “You’re right. This will work perfectly. We can take them from the ridge tops there,” he gestured. “Let’s walk down here about a hundred yards, then we’ll get to the top and double back. Urelle, can you do that slippery-ground trick again?”
She nodded. “I definitely can.”
“Then cast it right there, see? If you can make it cover enough area –”
She was nodding enthusiastically. “Then they’ll slide into that shallow dip and it will be very hard for them to get out, at least for a few minutes. Yes!”
“Excellent thinking, Ingram. Then we can be in a position to fire from either side. If they will not yield, they will be in a very disadvantageous position. We may be able to capture them and get information rather than killing.”
“I’d much rather do that, yes. The more information we can get…”
“Then let’s do it,” Urelle said.
Setting up did not take long. If they’re following our track, or even just a sense of our direction, they should come right down here, Ingram thought.
I agree. This is by far our best chance.
The wind gently rustled the leaves, blowing from the north-northwest. There is a good chance I will scent them as they approach.
Good. Let Urelle know as soon as they’re getting close. A flicker of concern. And we make sure to protect her first if things get bad, right?
Of course. She is still our responsibility, I suppose, as Victoria Vantage has hardly had time yet to read our note and accept our resignation.
Fifteen minutes passed quietly. Then the faintest scent touched his antennae. Humans approaching. More than one, though it will take time to sort out the scents and be sure it is, in fact, four. He nudged Urelle and whispered, “they are approaching. Prepare your spell.”
Urelle nodded, and raised her hands, fingers poised.
As four figures came into view, making their way with deliberate speed down the little valley, Quester tensed himself for action. Nearly there.
A vibration through the air, and abruptly he smelled something else, close —
Multiple canisters fell from the air around them and shattered, discharging a blue vapor that billowed high and wide. He tasted something sharp, and his senses wavered, focus of eyes and mind blurring. He whirled, staggering, trying to bring his weapons to bear, but he could barely see anything.
Vague shapes moved towards him; Ingram stumbled upright somehow, anai-k’ota at the ready, but another wave of bluish vapor enveloped them; his friend fell where he stood, and despite all the desperate urgings of fear and loss, Quester slumped to the ground, his armored head striking the soft soil at an angle; and even though his eyes were always open, he saw no more.
Myrionar’s Balance I am tired. Victoria sighed, shaking her head, as she let Chirrup trot towards home. The bird made soft noises in anticipation of arriving at its paddock, where there would be fresh greens and comfortable hay to lie in.
Victoria was looking forward to getting home too, but she doubted she’d be sleeping easily. It was, if anything, worse than she had imagined. It was, of course, bad enough – incomprehensibly bad – that the King had been killed. But the way in which he had been killed? Nightmarish. Slain on his own throne, apparently by something able to approach him without rousing the slightest suspicion, or able to move at utterly terrifying speeds, or able to teleport into one of the most heavily warded chambers in the entirety of Zarathan.
Old Bridgebreaker had the investigation underway, of course. The five very peculiar children who had been the last known to have seen him alive had gone, and naturally they were prime suspects. Victoria’s heart said that they were not involved in this, but even if she was right, they might know something vital to the investigation. It did seem that poor Toron might have had a bit of luck in the two Adventurers who’d been present at the discovery, though she wouldn’t get a chance to interview them to make sure until tomorrow; they’d been seen to quarters and were undoubtedly asleep before she arrived.
The gate slowly came into view. She sighed again. The worst of the situation was the chaos that would result once the news got out. Such a thing hadn’t happened … well, ever. At least, not since the Fall, and no one really knew details of that time.
It was the work of about half an hour to get in, close the gate, see that Chirrup was properly rubbed down and fed, so the dawn was starting to lighten the darkness in the east. Weighted Balance, and I need to be back at the Castle at some kind of reasonable hour.
She almost missed it in her hurry to find her bed and get a few hours’ rest; a pale rectangle against the dark wood of the hall table. But old instincts registered the anomaly and she halted, backed up. Two sheets of paper, one atop the other.
The first was from Ingram:
I am called away by an imperative summons of my Clan, one which brooks no hesitation – which technically includes even taking the time to write this note. I am, however, an Adventurer and one who had accepted employment from you; this requires you know why Quester and I are departing.
It has been an honor and a pleasure to serve you and your household, and I wish we had been able to stay longer. I will always remember this time fondly, and hope you will also remember us well.
Ingram Camp-Bel, Clan Camp-Bel
Well, now, that was mysterious enough. Clan business that found him this far from his home, and so urgent he couldn’t wait a few hours? She shook her head. Good luck to you, young Ingram, Quester.
The note from Urelle was even shorter:
Ingram and Quester are in much more immediate danger than they know. I have to go warn them and help them. No time for more explanation. I’m sorry.
Victoria sat down hard, staring at that brief missive. Gods above, what was the child thinking? She’d gone off in the middle of the night for this?
But no, that was foolish. If she took what Urelle said at face value, the girl had discovered some objective evidence that the two were in danger, and – quite naturally, for a Vantage – decided that the only thing to do was to go immediately.
Had she been thinking that rationally? Easily enough determined.
A swift survey of the house, and especially Urelle’s rooms, showed that she did seem to be acting rationally. She had clearly packed quickly but carefully, and it appeared that she’d taken everything a reasonable Adventurer under time pressure would. She smiled a bit at that; it was good to see the girl was keeping her head.
Or at least was in that sense. Would she have gone so quickly for any random person? Perhaps, but Victoria was hardly blind to the way in which the two younger people had been becoming closer. It was possible they didn’t even notice it themselves.
In any event, it was a pretty situation, no matter how she looked at it. There wasn’t the slightest chance that Urelle would leave the two voluntarily, assuming she caught up with them. Ingram … he would be driven to press onward. Possibly he would send Quester back with Urelle, although that would be quite a job in itself, making Urelle leave if she didn’t want to; she did have the Vantage strength herself, after all, and her not-inconsiderable magical talent.
But that was all secondary, circling around the point without addressing it, and Victoria frowned at herself. Am I that old, that I dance about a subject instinctively? Or am I so afraid for her that I don’t want to think of it?
The latter, she decided. Urelle thought there was a great and immediate danger, and the girl was neither stupid nor unobservant, so Victoria thought she could take that as a given truth. And that meant that – in all likelihood – her little niece was going into a trap meant to capture, or kill, a Camp-Bel and anyone who might be with him.
Urelle is in terrible danger.
The thought, finally expressed, constricted her chest. The loss of their parents had been terrible; Rion’s death, horrific. Letting Kyri go on her god-ordained mission, heart-rending.
Losing little Urelle?
“Absolutely not!” she snapped. “There’s no help for it; I have to catch up with all three of them.”
There was no time to lose, no chance to rest. Well, for that, at least, I have recourse. Opening the chest that held all her old Adventurer’s gear, she began unpacking it efficiently, pausing to extract a bottle from her healing kit and set it aside. The alchemical draught was expensive, difficult to make, and dangerous to use more than once or twice a month … but used occasionally, it would substitute completely for a good night’s rest. Best to take it just before she set out; no telling how long she’d be on the road.
Her battle coat settled across her shoulders familiarly – perhaps a touch looser than it had been twenty, thirty years before. Haven’t kept myself at my peak, have I? Scarcely needed to, of course. The bracelet Ingram had noted stayed, of course – she hadn’t been separated from it and the weapon it concealed since she’d first won it in a lethal contest. From the chest she drew and put on other items, rings and jewelry, a simple coronet of platinum across her brow, armored boots, Enkanir’s Gloves, all of them more than mere decoration; and as their mystic powers flowed back into her, Victoria felt herself standing even straighter, the world sharpening into greater focus, becoming lighter and stronger and faster.
She smiled. I had forgotten this. She glanced down at the Guild patch on her right arm; an instant of compressed reminiscence, where she seemed to re-live a thousand adventures, passed through her mind. She shook off nostalgia, dove back into the chest. A bow, a pair of red-metal throwing knives, and her neverfull pack – still filled with everything she’d need to travel. She kept it that way … just in case.
It seemed that such prudence was about to pay off.
With the pack on her back and all the rest of her equipment in place, she headed back downstairs. Need to leave my own note for the staff. And somehow get my apology sent to Toron. He’ll be disappointed, but he’ll understand. But by the Balance, how was she to make sure Kyri knew? The girl might be gone for a year or three, or be back in weeks. She couldn’t imagine how Kyri might react if she came back to find her aunt and little sister gone without warning.
There was a chime in her ear. Someone was at the gate.
Urelle and the others? Perhaps she convinced them to come and at least tell me, get what help I can provide. It seemed unlikely, given the wording of Ingram’s note, but possible. Or perhaps the immediate danger was taken care of, and Quester had brought her home somehow?
She hastened to the gate.
There was but one figure at the gate, and it was too tall for either Urelle or the young Camp-Bel, and far too human for Quester. As she got closer, the figure became clearer. No, not human … Artan.
“Lythos?” she said in astonishment, staring at the Vantage’s Sho-Ka-Taida, Master of Arms. “I thought you went to rejoin your people?”
Then she saw how he stood – exhausted, his impeccably-polished armor dented and scratched, a new and raw scar on his face – and new horror began even before he spoke:
“My people … are no more.”
Ingram blinked his way slowly back to consciousness into a blurred world filled with a vaguely underwater green. The dim green light, he finally realized, was from sunlight filtering through the innumerable leaves of the Forest Sea.
Having made that determination, and finding his mind starting to gain some coherence, he blinked again and forced himself to focus.
He was sitting up, bound to and against something. From the feel – without raising his head – it felt like two somethings. Backs. Quester’s and Urelle’s, almost certainly. Moving only his eyes, he looked to one side and then the other. Yes, on the left his wrist was bound to Urelle’s, and on the right to Quester’s armored primary hand; out of the corner of his eye he saw other rope, which indicated that their captors had also efficiently bound Quester’s second-hands.
They were also gagged, which didn’t surprise him. Some mages, and others, could evoke power just by speaking. He thought there might also be power inhibiting cords wound through the ropes, but it was hard to tell. Either way, getting out of this was not going to be easy.
There were voices around him, and now he could finally make them out.
“…been tracking them this whole time!” A tenor voice, controlled but angry.
“You and all the others, yes. But you didn’t catch them, did you?” That voice was deeper, a touch smug. “That was our group, and a good thing, too; they were laying for you, remember.”
Both had familiar accents. From Aegeia, definitely. Urelle was right. But this sounds like there were at least two groups hunting for me?
He raised his head.
Eight people sat or stood in a rough circle a short distance off. They all fit the descriptions Urelle had given them. All part of the same general force? He didn’t recognize the specifics of their outfits, but that didn’t mean much; a private guard or secret operations group wouldn’t publicize their dress code and insignia. Three of them were unhelmed, though likely not without head protection, but they all had the same dark clothing with hints of some form of armor underneath and, with one exception, all of them were clearly armed. One trained in bare-handed fighting, perhaps, maybe even a God-Warrior candidate, or possibly just has a concealed weapon.
There didn’t seem to be any others, at least not to Ingram’s quick glance around. That didn’t, unfortunately, mean that they were unwatched.
“Hey, the boy’s awake.”
“Forget him,” the deeper voice said, showing that it was the bare-headed, unarmed one talking for his group. “He’s not the target.”
What? I’m not? That makes no sense!
“The Coins are not absolutely clear on that,” the tenor – this one holding a rune-covered staff, obviously the leader of the group Urelle had seen. “They’re wavering.”
The unarmed man, whose head was shaved so it shone, grimaced. “Eliane?”
One of the armored figures drew out a glittering golden coin – a full Shield, in fact, over an inch and a quarter across – with a golden thread attached to it. The woman let it drop to hang from the thread, and gestured over it, muttering an invocation too low to hear.
The Coin immediately swung away from the vertical, pointing in the direction of the bound captives. But it was not steady; it swung erratically across a noticeable arc, and occasionally even twirled around to point away from them by almost ninety degrees, although most of the time it stayed somewhere in the arc bounded by the three captives.
“Hmph. What’s wrong with the Athena-cursed thing? It was behaving perfectly fine up until now.” The bald one ran his hand over his head in a distracted gesture.
“Ours started having trouble earlier – around the time we approached that outlying estate I mentioned before,” said the one with the staff. “It concerns me.”
Ingram tried, despite the gag, to say “Who are you people and what do you want from us?” It of course came out as incomprehensible murmuring, but it did get some attention.
“Sorry, boy, but since we don’t know your abilities, you stay that way,” the woman named Eliane said, putting away the Coin.
The one with the staff sighed. “Look, arguing gets us nowhere. We both followed the Coins here, and even if they’ve decided to get confused now, that can’t be argued. The girl’s the one we want. The longer we wait, the more chance the other groups find us. Let’s all just agree we both found her, and we can all get the reward.”
“I don’t like it,” the bald man said, now rubbing his chin and glaring at the three captives. “Word is that the Ainax Stratei brought these straight from the hands of Ares himself. Something is messing with them, Takis.”
“Pretty sure the girl’s a mage of some kind,” Takis said. “Maybe she was working on getting a protective spell going?”
“Let’s just take all three,” Eliane suggested.
There was a pause. “All right, you know, that’s not a bad idea. There’s something familiar about that boy, anyway. I can’t place it, but I know I’ve seen him somewhere, so maybe he’s important too.”
“And the bug?”
“They said the target was a woman. Do you know how to tell what sex an Iriistiik is? ‘Cause I sure don’t. We’ll take it, too.”
“How do we work this, Panos?” Takis asked the bald-headed one. “The retrieval scrolls were meant to send back a prisoner and two guards.”
Panos sighed. “Look, in the interests of getting us all out of here with a piece of the credit, I’ll let you choose. We’ve got two scrolls, yours and mine. One of us takes the girl, sending two of theirs along, and the other gets the other two prisoners, but only sends one with them.”
“And we both instruct both sides to support the fact that we were both in on the capture?”
“Agreed.” Panos turned to the rest. “You all hear that? As far as anyone back home’s concerned, all of us were in on the catch, we’re all in on the reward. Got it?”
The others nodded, with a chorus of “yes.”
Panos and Takis gripped hands. “Agreed,” said Takis. “And for that, you get to take the girl, we’ll take the other two.”
“Done.” Panos began to turn.
“You will release those children immediately!”
The high, clear, cold voice cut across the clearing like an arctic knife, freezing all eight of their captors for an instant.
Striding out of the shadows of the forest came a tall figure, clad in a long battle-coat of black and silver, hair matching the coat, eyes cold as the voice. Victoria Vantage locked gazes with the others as she came. She had no weapons visible, but her very movement was a warning of peril, every step unwavering, confident and icily furious.
“What the … this is none of your business, woman!” Takis said, and at his gesture the others were unsheathing their weapons.
“First, I am Zarathanton Guilded, young man, and that makes any instance where people are taken captive and their captors argue how to divide their spoils my business.” The Adventurer’s Patch gleamed high on one shoulder. “And second, that is my niece you have there, and that makes it utterly and inarguably my business.” She had approached to within seventy feet of the group.
“Stop where you are,” Panos said, matching her chill voice with his own stone-solid tones. “Or you’re going to regret it, whoever you are.”
While they spoke, Ingram noticed Eliane was silent, studying Victoria with a narrowing, worried gaze.
“On the contrary,” Victoria Vantage said, and without so much as a movement, a gargantuan double-bitted axe, six feet from helve to head, was in her right hand, her left coming down to get a grip, “you will release my child and her friends now, or I assure you: not one of you will leave this place alive.”
“Enough! Take her!” snapped Panos and Takis at once.
Seven of them started forward; Eliane gasped and suddenly shouted, “Ares’ Balls! That’s the Vantage V –“
The warning was far too late.
Victoria Vantage streaked forward to meet her assailants, and a single shout in Artan echoed with supernatural power through the clearing: “Sharee-Ka-Hazi!“
A ripping storm of silver-glinting light tore through the clearing, the titanic axe a blur that caught and shattered weapons, cleaved through armored torsos and exposed heads, a spinning, zig-zagging streak of death that ended with Victoria on the far side of the clearing.
All eight of their captors collapsed to the ground, blood fountaining everywhere.
Victoria sagged, her axe’s handle her only support for several minutes as she slowly regained control of her breathing. “Honestly, I’m far too old for this.”
Quester’s perceptions were, he knew, faster than any ordinary human’s. Even so, he had not truly been able to follow Lady Vantage’s lethal sprint across the clearing; it had been but a confusion of swings and impacts and spraying blood, with the woman herself following a deadly geometry that took her past each of the eight assailants in the time it took to draw a breath.
Their rescuer straightened after a moment, lifted her axe, and approached. “Hold still, all of you.”
The axe came down and severed the bonds holding the three of them together; in an instant, the weapon vanished, and Lady Vantage took out a dagger and began cutting them free.
Urelle immediately flung her arms around her aunt, silently trembling for long moments as Victoria stroked her hair. “A little different from one’s fancies, isn’t it?” she said quietly.
Urelle’s scent was filled with a mixture of fear, relief, excitement, and confusion. She pulled back enough to look up. “We … were ambushed,” she said. “This wasn’t one group, it was two.” She shook her head. “And … no and yes. I mean, it was different, terrifying. But … I’m not sorry I came.” Her face fell. “Just sorry we had to be rescued.”
The tang of confusion became stronger. “But Auntie, how did you find us?”
“That group that was following you,” Victoria answered, “was interested in fast pursuit, not in hiding their passage. I may be a bit out of practice, but theirs wasn’t a terribly hard track to read.” She looked at the other two. “Ingram? Quester? Are you both all right?”
“I … think so, Lady Vantage,” Ingram said. “Headache from whatever they used to render us unconscious, but it’s not like we haven’t gone through that before.” He grinned at Quester. “At least we weren’t hanging up in shackles this time.”
Quester buzzed his own amusement. “Yes, this was at the least a somewhat more comfortable imprisonment.”
“I couldn’t overhear most of their conversation,” Victoria said, “but it sounded like they were going to take all of you. I had thought, young man, they were after you alone.”
The sharp tang of guilt and confusion rose from his friend. “That’s what I thought, too. They were Aegeian, too. Same accent I grew up with, no mistaking it. But their instructions apparently said they were after a female, not a male, target.”
“So I heard. Tell me the whole story, then.”
“Very well,” Quester said. “I can also repeat their debate essentially verbatim. But be warned, we cannot linger long. One part of their discussion made it clear that there are other groups searching for … well, whatever or whoever their target is.”
“Yeah, they mentioned ‘all the others,’ which implies … well, not just one or two, anyway,” Ingram said.
Urelle had straightened herself, then walked resolutely over towards the bodies. Quester saw Victoria start an abortive gesture; the scent of worry, sadness, and pride overlay her movements.
Not to his surprise, Urelle had the smell of someone fighting very hard to keep her body from embarrassing her. But then, slowly, that odor faded, to be replaced by a calmer, meditative smell like the Great Road after a brief thunderstorm. Flickers of light danced around the girl’s fingers, and two golden Coins floated up from the bodies. “I need these,” she said.
“Their tracking Coins? What for?” Ingram asked.
“If I can get any kind of feel for the kind of enchantment on them, I can probably figure out how to negate it. Won’t be quick, though, so you’re right, we have to get moving.”
“No point in leaving anything for our pursuers,” Victoria said. “Everyone, search two of these bodies and take whatever seems valuable, dangerous, or interesting. We may learn more about them and their goals from whatever we find. Then we move.”
“‘We?'” repeated Urelle cautiously. “Aunt Victoria, I … well, I thought you…”
“…would be dragging you back home?” She gave a sad smile as she bent over the body of the unarmed warrior. “An Adventurer learns to have a sense of … well, the direction of fate, I suppose one could call it. I could certainly make you come back with me, but tell me, Urelle: do you feel that you have finished your work here?”
The black-haired girl looked up, her stormcloud-gray eyes surprised and, after a moment, worried. She paused, there amidst the carnage, and Quester could sense that calmness rise, peace and clean thought overriding the smell of blood and death.
She shook her head. “I still feel I need to be here. Not just because I want to help. I can’t explain it, but –”
“No need, child. We – the Vantages – were Eyes of the Watchland in Evanwyl for a reason, and that sense is part of it. Not all of us have it … but enough. So yes. We. Unless you have an objection?” She looked sharply at Quester and Ingram.
“After you saved us from humiliation and likely worse, how could I object? Save to say I do not want to be the cause of more difficulty to you and yours,” Ingram said.
“Auntie! You were working with Toron, and what about Kyri –“
“Taken care of. I’ll explain later. Let us finish this most unpleasant task and begin moving before we talk more.”
Urelle shuddered. “Shouldn’t we … well, do something first? A prayer? We don’t want revenants or –“
Victoria struck her forehead in chagrin. “What’s wrong with me?”
“If you might allow me, Lady Vantage,” Quester said, “These eight were taking someone you clearly think of as your own daughter. That might explain it.”
Quester caught the cinnamon-and-pepper of shocked surprise, followed almost immediately by amusement and tenderness. “Why … yes, of course.” She smiled down at Urelle, shaking her head in chagrin. “And now I distinctly remember myself saying they would release ‘my child.'”
“Auntie!” Urelle gave her a huge hug.
Smiling, Ingram said, “Well, that aside, she was right. I’ll say a quick prayer for them to Ares and Athena; they’re caught in the Cycle as much as the rest of us, so it’s my job to pay them their respects.”
Ingram went to each body, sketching symbols in the air and murmuring prayers in a language Quester did not know. If he had wanted to intrude, of course, he could have lifted the meaning from the boy’s mind, given that they were linked, but that would be intolerably rude; their link allowed them to speak at will, but Ingram – like most without the Nest’s gift – did not like uninvited contact. Quester could make out the symbols of the Shield and Spear, of Sword and Chariot, as would be expected.
Quester did, for a moment, sense … a distant presence or presences, as though a faraway mind had focused for a moment on this place, these people. He noticed, also, Urelle looking oddly at Ingram, and for an instant he thought he saw a faint glow about the boy’s fingers. If so, it was but the briefest of moments, gone in the instant he thought it was perceived.
When Ingram finished, there was an undefinable difference in the clearing – a sense of quiet rather than disturbance. “There. Now the bodies are … just that. Their spirits have gone on,” Ingram said, with the odd assurance that sometimes made him seem much older than he was. “If we were home, there would still be a burial or a pyre, but here … we do what we must, and leave.”
It did not take long to strip the corpses of anything of interest – weapons, jewelry, any papers, other accoutrements. Even Ingram seemed reluctant to strip the bodies, but Victoria made sure it was done. “While I’m not going so far as to search the more uncomfortable areas,” she said calmly, “you would be amazed as to what can be hidden beneath clothing.”
“Which way should we go?” Victoria asked, once everyone was finished. “This is, after all, your adventure to start with, Ingram.”
“We were headed south. This other group must have come from there. I figure that means there’s at least a fair chance none of the others are due south, or they’d have run into each other. So, let’s keep going south.”
“Agreed. Lead the way, I’ll follow,” Victoria said. “I know some tricks for obliterating tracks. If we can keep that up for even a few hundred yards, it will make us that much harder to follow, especially once Urelle gets a chance to negate that spell.” She gestured. “And you, Quester, stay near me and give me the whole story.”
By the time he had finished telling everything there was to tell, Victoria had finished her efforts and was walking alongside him, her scent intense with thought.
“You were right, Ingram. It is a pretty mystery, though, as to why they would not be after you, but instead after, apparently, Urelle.”
“Or myself,” Quester said.
“You?” Ingram said, startled.
“Our captors were quite wise in that; while for various reasons it is appropriate for most purposes that I am referred to as male, in physical construction I am in fact female, as are most of the Iriiistiik. The ratio is somewhere around five hundred to one, although only the Mother produces children, usually with the assistance of one or more Brood-Kings.”
“More than two years with you, and this is something I don’t know?”
Quester gave the bob and scent that he knew his friend would interpret as a smile. “For me, it was not important or relevant, and the Queen Mother had told me that I was to think of myself as male for most purposes.” He paused, feeling surprise. “Which is something I of course did not previously question – you do not question the Mother – but now I wonder if there was more reason behind it than I know.”
“All right,” Ingram said after a moment. “That … complicates matters. After my recall message, it was natural to assume the pursuers were after me; the message tells me I will be in danger. But if not … maybe I got lucky. Maybe the real targets were the people with me, and what my people wanted was for me to be able to find the targets.” He looked at Urelle and Quester. “You. One or, I suppose just possibly, both of you.”
“Why in the world would someone in Aegia want to capture me?” Urelle demanded, and Victoria’s expression echoed the surprise. “I’ve spent my life in Evanwyl, until we came here, and I’ve never done anything to draw attention to myself.” She looked at Quester. “You and Ingram, at least, have been out there Adventuring. Stands to reason you must have gotten in someone’s way.”
“Indeed,” Quester said, thinking carefully about their past adventures. “And I can certainly think of a number of people and even organizations that might remember us with great hostility. However … none, that I can think of, have any connection with Aegeia, and none that would not have placed Ingram at least as high on their priorities.”
“Perhaps we are looking too closely into the past,” Victoria said. “If I recall some of our conversations, yours is not the only nest of the Iriistiik recently destroyed.”
He froze, then glanced down at Ingram. “The Sorter, at the Guild.”
“Yeah.” Ingram bit his lip thoughtfully. “Three, at least. Yours and two that the Sorter knew of. And I don’t think there’s that many Iriiistiik Nests, are there?”
“I do not know the number, but it would not be overly large, no,” Quester answered, feeling an unpleasant, shivery sensation, as though he had entered a brood-chamber to find the eggs all dead and rotting. “Do you think this is related?”
“Maybe not … but given the circumstances, I have to at least think about it. Someone or something who wants your people dead, and might work with Ares or one of his subordinates?” Ingram frowned, then shook his head violently. “But no! That makes no sense! The Cycle’s focused on Aegeia. The war isn’t to be taken to the outside world; it’s purely limited to the lands within Wisdom’s Fortress. If there was a Nest inside the mountain range, well, maybe it would become of importance, but outside?”
Quester had been thinking back over the entire story, and now another fact finally crystallized. “I think we are still missing crucial facts,” he said slowly. “You recall the dialogue of our captors, about the behavior of their tracing-Coins?”
“Yes. What’ve you thought of?” Ingram asked.
“Apparently they were reliable until very recently. The first group said it became unreliable on the road to the estate; the second, apparently, hadn’t noticed anything until they were asked to check after our capture. At that point it was erratic, pointing mostly towards us, but occasionally swinging ninety degrees, generally northward. That is … most suggestive, taken altogether.”
He saw the others frowning, smelled thought and confusion. “Do you not see? The only thing that changed so recently is that Lady Vantage left the estate, leaving us behind. So –“
“By the Balance, yes, of course,” Victoria breathed. “I would have been behind the first group, even as they approached the estate. And when you were held here –“
“– you were approaching from the north!” Urelle finished. “Auntie… Auntie, I think it’s us.”
“It would seem so,” Ingram said, and the small face was graven in lines of worry that made it look years older. “The real question then is … why?“
And for that, Quester had no answers.