The Spear of Athena
A monstrous impostor has taken the place of the God of War, and plans to destroy Aegeia. Four adventurers set out to thwart him, even though they have been sealed away from their homeland. But they each have secret powers of their own, which the false god does not recognize.
The four adventurers had barely survived the assassination attempts of the false Ares. But now the counterfeit God of War has sealed Ingram’s homeland Aegeia away, stealing the power of Athena’s barrier that even gods cannot penetrate, to complete his plan to destroy the Cycle of the Gods and Aegeia itself. The four of them must find a way past the Seal of Athena – something never done in the history of all the Cycles. And even after passing through the terrible trials that the Seal places before them, they cannot begin to grasp what monstrous things await them in Aegia – and none more monstrous than Raiagamor, the shapeshifting abomination who wears the face, form, and power of Ares, God of War.
Yet Raiagamor does not grasp what he will face either, for the four heroes each have their own secrets unsuspected: for Urelle, the depth of her magic; for Ingram, the power of his past; for Quester, the legacy of his people; and for Victoria, the wisdom of her soul.
“By the Lady’s Wisdom…” breathed Captain Pennon.
Ingram chuckled, with a completely silly feeling of pride as he saw the reactions of his fellow Camp-Bels to their first sight of Fanalam’ T’ ameris’ a’ u’ Zahr-a-Thana T’ikon, Zarathanton, the greatest city in the world.
Less than a mile distant, the pearl-grey, shining-polished walls slanted steeply upward, five hundred unbroken feet of invulnerable stone that had stood untouched for half a million years, since before the days of the Fall. They slanted away to both north and south, encompassing a diamond shape more than two miles on a side, with the great Gate visible in the point of the diamond that bestrode the Great Road. Two hundred fifty feet high, glittering with krellin and gold and jewels, the gates stood open, the twin gates spanning the entire hundred-yard width of the Road and allowing a steady flow of traffic—on foot, riding on sithigorn or horse or runner-lizard, trundling along on wagons—in and out of those mighty gates.
Despite the immense height of the walls, other great buildings could be seen, the highest of all being the spires of T’Teranahm Chendoron, the Dragon’s Palace, stretching two thousand feet and more into the sky. Even from this distance they could hear the murmur of two hundred thousand people’s voices, motions, actions vibrating the atmosphere.
Both of the main approaches to the city have carefully tended growth and designed curves and ridges along the side of the road that obscure any sight during the approach, Quester’s mindvoice noted. Do you think that is deliberate?
Ha! I have no doubt it is. The impact of seeing Zarathanton like that? I know if I were the rulers, I’d want to make sure visitors felt it every time.
“By the Lady’s Wisdom,” Pennon said again. “It seems you might fit all of Aegis itself within a mere corner of it.”
“No doubt,” Victoria Vantage said with her own smile. “In fairness, that is true of almost any other city I have ever seen. You could fit all of the cities and villages of my native Evanwyl in the Southern Quarter and have room to spare.”
“Where is your estate, Lady Vantage?” Pennon asked.
“The easiest way to reach it would be for us to pass through the city to the Eastern Gate, then turn north,” she answered, gesturing. “It lies a few miles north of the City, at the edge of the Forest Sea. I would welcome all of you there, but as we have been gone quite some months now, it would be unfair to suddenly impose on my staff, who have undoubtedly grown accustomed to merely maintaining the house and grounds.”
Ingram found himself nodding. It had been a while. Months to make their way south through the Forest Sea, and all the adventures that had included, and then, once they’d met up with the survivors of Clan Camp-Bel, turning West and reaching Shipton and hiring onto Great Turtle, one of the larger cargo ships, to go as far as the East Twin… months indeed to come full-circle back to Zarathanton.
“Of course,” said Pennon. “We will find rooms here in the city easily enough, I should think.” She paused, watching the streaming of human, Artan, mazakh, Children of Odin, and others in and out of the gates. “And here, if anywhere, we will begin to find answers to our questions.”
I sure hope so, Urelle’s mindvoice said. Because I have no idea where else we’d go.
It still gave him a little tingle of a thrill to hear Urelle’s voice that way, in his head. Quester had initiated the younger Vantage and her aunt into the mindspeech connection of his Nest on their journey back North. Their sometimes harrowing southward journey had bound them together, to the point that Quester had come to see them as possible Nestmates as well; the two women, having seen how Ingram and Quester sharing that bond had not harmed but aided them numerous times, had decided to risk it.
It was a unique bond the four of them now shared—and a very, very convenient one. Well, you still have the Wanderer’s Lens.
I guess. If we really hit a dead-end here, I guess we’ll have to risk it. But I truly do not wish to disappoint him by asking for his help unless there’s no other choice.
Ingram couldn’t disagree with that; calling on the assistance of a legend was something to be used with great discretion and reluctance. Although he also remembered the parable of the Always-Worse, in which the boy’s wish-ring was never used because things could always be worse; sometimes you had to accept that it would be time to use your resources.
But it was definitely not that time yet.
As they approached the gates, Ingram saw one clear reminder that things were not exactly as they had been before they’d left. Well-armed guards stood by the gates, watching carefully the passage of all, large or small. There were also wagons leaving regularly, heading to the West, emblazoned with the lightning bolt-starburst of Elbon Nomicon and the Sauran Kings.
Victoria went to one of the guardsmen as their party reached the Gate. “Pardon me, sir,” she said. “It has been some months since I left the City; what news?”
“Months?” The guard, a slender, long-faced man with skin of deep blue-black and a dour expression, shook his head. “Much news, little of it good. The Black City come to the world? The King of All Hells walking the world? But the beginning.”
“Ah, Artaquas, don’t paint it all with your depressing brush,” said another, equally tall and thin but with a bronze-brown complexion and more smiles than frowns written in the grooves of his face. “After the horrors of the start of the war, things are better, at least for now.”
“Hmph. Here, maybe, Ichiban. Yes. But with the new King having taken our forces West, to meet those of the Hells? There’ll be bad news coming back, I have no doubt.”
“New King?” Victoria blinked. “Yes, I suppose there must be.”
“That many months, eh? Wasn’t much of a choice, of course—the Marshal of Hosts being the King’s relation and knowing his mind so well.”
Victoria giggled, a startling sound for Ingram, who wasn’t used to hearing such a… light sound from the usually serious old Adventurer. “Oh dear. I’m sorry, but… oh dear, poor Toron! He was so often given to remarking how satisfied he was not to be the King. And now it’s his job.” She looked up, gaze sharpening. “So he’s taken the war to the gates of the Black City, has he?”
“Such was the plan. Not sure he’s reached it yet—he was traveling the land route to build his forces, recruit as they went, and give allies, including Idinus himself, a chance to gather. Might be mustering near Hell’s Edge by now, though.” Artaquas nodded gloomily. “How many of them’ll make it through there to actually reach the Black City, I don’t know.”
“Idinus? The Archmage is coming to our aid?” Ingram realized it was his own incredulous voice speaking.
“So the King told us, and no reason to doubt it,” Ichiban said. “Sure, and the State of the Dragon King and the Empire of the Mountain have been at odds before, but neither of them wants the Black Star here, spreading his power and ruin. I even hear rumor the Archmage may send an avatar directly.”
“Wow.” In some ways, the idea that Idinus of Scimitar, God-Emperor of the Mountain, had bestirred himself to act in concert with his adversaries chilled Ingram more than any of the other news. There was no greater threat than one that could bring such forces together.
“Well, we thank you for this news. Who is in charge at the Dragon’s Palace, then, if the King himself has gone to war?”
“Calladan Mystraios,” said Artaquas. “Not a Sauran, but the head of the Academy commands respect enough, at least for now.”
“I should think so. An excellent choice,” Victoria said, nodding. “I will pay my respects later. Again, our thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Good day to you. HOY! You! Watch where you’re going with that wagon!” Artaquas trotted over towards the offending driver.
“So where to now, Ingram?” Captain Pennon asked.
“Quester and I will head to the Guild; we’ve got to get an idea of how to get into Aegeia, and if anyone’s going to have ideas, it’ll be our fellow Adventurers. You and the rest of the Clan should get yourselves some rooms. I’m guessing Victoria and Urelle will head home?”
“Quite so. Obviously, you will stay with us, and in a few days we may be able to offer your Clan brethren rooms as well.”
“Thank you, Victoria.” The kind words did send a twinge through Ingram, because it reminded him of just how very few of Clan Camp-Bel had survived to reach here. Besides himself and the Captain, there were only ten remaining; fifteen had survived the attack that their arrival had interrupted, but four of those had later succumbed to unexpected side effects of the combat—soul-injuries, magically-enhanced infections, and such—and one had been killed on the way to Zarathanton, ambushed by a groundripper.
A lot of the Clan stayed behind, he reminded himself, including Mother and Father. Still, there had been a few hundred, close to half the Clan, on the three ships that had fled, and every effort had been made to make it look like it was in fact all of the Clan on board. Never in the Cycles they had served Athena had the Clan lost so many—and these had been lost in what was at least partly a ploy to distract, not an assault force.
And it was all about me. Hiding me. Preventing people from thinking of me as significant. Keeping even me from taking myself seriously, making me believe I wasn’t good enough to be a Camp-Bel.
He still couldn’t quite grasp that, sometimes. The lengths to which they had gone weren’t, in truth, so surprising—Camp-Bel traditions were nothing if not focused on overachieving in every dimension—but the fact that they’d found it necessary was. Something about the prophecy they’d been given had managed to get them to swallow their pride and confidence and not confront the unknown threat head-on, which was much more the Camp-Bel preference.
What that “something” was, however, none of the Clan survivors here knew.
He was still thinking on all of this when the group separated, the Camp-Bels heading North from the Grand Intersection and the two Vantages hurrying on ahead to the East.
The Adventurer’s Guild Hall hadn’t visibly changed in the years since they’d first entered, and Ingram felt his spirits lift as they passed the threshold. We really are Guild Adventurers, and we’ve got tales to tell, to enter in the annals!
That we do, Quester agreed. It is different from the first time we passed these doors, indeed.
Passing through the front entrance hall and the Hall of Requests, the two of them reached the main Adventurer’s Hall, and immediately saw a familiar figure. Nine feet tall with blue-gray skin, bent over a desk with papers scattered about, the Sorter of Querents was clearly the same being they’d met almost three years ago.
He glanced up as they entered, then froze, a letter sliding unnoticed from the huge hand. Disregarding the Artan Querent before him, the Sorter shot to his feet and practically ran to them. “Quester! By Chromaias and Kharianda, you’re alive!“
Quester felt his antennae flick involuntarily—the equivalent of an astonished blink. “I am,” he agreed, “but from whence this amazement?”
The Sorter was still staring down at him, then glanced back at the Artan. “Excuse me a moment; Guild business, you unnerstand.”
Without waiting for the Querent to answer, the Sorter grasped both Quester and Ingram gently by the shoulders and guided them through a set of doors and down the hall to one of the private meeting rooms. Only when the door was shut did he turn back to face them.
“Well now,” he said. “Well, now. Sorry about that, but… you’ll remember back when you applied, we had a talk about your people’s Nests getting wiped out?”
“Indeed,” Quester said. “You knew of two besides my own.”
“Well, then, here’s the thing: add three more to that.”
“Shargamor’s Water.” Quester whispered the prayer-curse. “And we learned of another on our travels. Seven. I… I do not know if there were more than seven Nests!”
“No more do I,” the Sorter said heavily. “But even that’s not the worst. See, there ain’t many Iriistiik Adventurers—seeing as how most o’ your people are nicely set up in your Nests, you do business outside but ain’t got so much reason to go runnin’ around gettin’ in trouble. Still, there’s always a few, just like there’s always a few Toads willing to get out of the mud and hop to it. We’ve had ten on the rolls here, countin’ you, that were active.” Quester felt his spiracles tightening with dread even before the Sorter finished, “Now? Don’t think there’s four of ’em left.”
Ingram muttered his own curse. “Something’s even hunting down the Adventurers? The singletons, the ones without a Nest or on long missions away?”
“Seems like it must be, don’t it?” The Sorter shook his head dolefully. “Once I noticed the pattern—got a report of a murdered Nest, then two of our Iriistiik members killed—I sent out alerts, but it’s always guesses and grabs as to whether they’ll get through to everyone. Way you reacted tells me it sure didn’t get to you.”
Quester had been thinking. “We must assume this is a coordinated effort. Yes?”
Ingram’s brow furrowed. “Well… I guess, yeah. I mean, maybe one or two could be accidents or coincidence, but it wouldn’t make sense that there were two or more groups that just suddenly decided to hunt down your people.” His head snapped up. “By Athena… The Xiilistiin.”
“What?” the Sorter snapped. “Xiilistiin? I haven’t heard of any of those monsters active in decades!”
“I wish we hadn’t,” Ingram said. “They’re active and working with someone—we think Ares—inside Aegeia.”
“Kharianda protect us.” The Sorter seated himself with a sigh. “I’ll have to put out another alert to all the Guild Houses. Xiilistiin! Xiilis are bad enough, and gods know we’ve tried to wipe them out, but Xiilistiin…” he shook his head. “Iff’n we weren’t already in all-out war, this’d be a top-alert emergency.”
Ingram frowned, and Quester could smell his friend’s puzzlement. “I’m not arguing—especially after what I’ve seen—but I didn’t realize they were considered that bad.”
“Prob’ly because after they showed up, weren’t a single country or Guild House that wasn’t happy to hunt ’em down. Parasite soul-stealers? Ain’t much worse’n that, believe you me.” The Sorter pursed his lips. “See, stronger their Swarms get, the better they get at their imitations, more they can steal from the people they catch. It’s like an avalanche—starts small, but every little bit speeds the thing up, until next thing you know you’ve buried a whole Chromaias-damned valley under it. An’ if they get a Patron—god or demon, and they really like to cozy up to some of the Mazolishta, Erherveria, and some of the others—they just get worse.”
Ingram bit his lip. “Ugh. Okay, I can definitely see that. But what’s the Xiilis?”
“They’re… well, I guess you’d say the ancestors of the Xiilistiin. Look kinda similar, but not as bright, and they’re not nearly as dangerous. Work in broods from one hatching, and their imitation of their prey is a lot less impressive. Don’t know how they changed to the Xiilistiin, but—”
Quester clicked his mandibles together as an exceedingly unwelcome Mother-memory surfaced. “I do.”
“It was… our fault, in a way,” he said slowly.
“Your fault?” Ingram stared, then, “Oh. You mean the Iriistiik?”
“Yes.” He slowly lowered himself to a sitting position, his abdomen forming the third leg of a stool with his legs locked. “The Xiilis have always been predators of the Iriistiik, one should understand. Their ability to mimic scent and pose and such exploits some of our species’ particular weaknesses, so a Xiilis brood could infiltrate a Nest and parasitize and kill us fairly easily.
“Their broods are small, however—eight to fifteen individuals, in general—so they were a frightening but self-contained problem for the most part, and when discovered they could be driven out or killed. Xiilis are not terribly bright, and the powers and abilities they can mimic are limited and almost never as strong as the original. Thus they nearly always preyed exclusively on workers, rarely on warriors.
“But…” He paused. “Understand, there are many things the Iriistiik do not discuss commonly with those not of the Nests. Some of these things may nonetheless be known; do you know how the Mother of a Nest becomes who she is?”
“Not exactly,” the Sorter said after a pause. “Seems to me I’ve heard it’s somethin’ like bees, right?”
“Very much so, yes. A particular larva is chosen, and raised with a very special… food, you might say, manufactured by the Nest. This Mother’s Meal transforms the eater into a Mother; in an emergency—for example, if the Mother is somehow killed—one of the Thinkers may partake of the Meal and transform, though this is much more stressful and possibly deadly.”
After a moment to gather his thoughts, Quester bobbed his antennae, inhaled, then went on. “One unfortunate Nest was raided by a strong brood of Xiilis, one that had already taken a small pack of cloakwolves.” He saw Ingram wince, sensed his friend’s understanding. “Yes. So they were even more adept at hiding themselves from us than normal. The leader of the brood made it to the central breeding chamber and substituted itself for one of the larvae.”
“Oh, I’m not likin’ what I’m thinkin’ here.”
“Yes. The Nest was preparing to begin a new Nest, and of course the first step was to make a new Mother. And so the brood-mother of the Xiilis was fed Mother’s Meal.”
“Athena’s Mercy. And so was born the first Xiilistiin.”
“Yes. So well-placed was she that she was able to maintain her deception and get four more of her brood changed before the Nest’s Mother sensed something wrong.” He felt his wingcases tighten and buzz in distress. “Too late.”
“They wiped out that Nest.”
Quester nodded. “And there made the first Swarm-Heart.”
Ingram frowned. “And all Xiilistiin are descended from that one brood?”
“In a manner of speaking, but not all directly. You see, with the transformation they became, in some ways, related to us, or at least powerful mockeries of us. Their Brood-Queens and attendants make something very similar to Mother’s Meal, and they can use it to bring in Xiilis and transform selected members. So they are not inbred nor easily vulnerable.”
“Well, the Guild thanks ya for the information,” the Sorter said after a moment. “More we know about ’em, the better we can deal with ’em.” He gave a wry smile. “But ya didn’t come here ta just give me a history lesson. What brings ya back to the Guild? Need a place to stay? Lookin’ to buy hard-to-get merchandise? Or maybe just gonna pay yer dues?”
Ingram laughed. “Yeah, they are about due, right?” He reached into his pouch, rooted about, and then pulled out the crystal sword they’d taken off one of Ares’ servants a few months ago. “Here, that ought to cover us for a while.”
The Sorter raised his brows. “An’ of course you haveta make it the harder way. You know there’s a ten percent assessment and conversion fee this way.”
Quester dipped his antennae. “We are aware. But I believe you will find it is more than sufficient. According to our own wizard, it is a quite powerful weapon, fourth-circle with additional enhancements.”
“Fourth, eh? I’ll have our people check it out, but I’m sure you’re right. Sure, that’ll keep you paid-up for a while. So what d’you need?”
“Research and advice,” Ingram said, “on how to do the impossible.”
A booming laugh came from the bilarel. “Well, then you’ve definitely come to the right place, Adventurers!”
“I can only afford you a few moments,” said Calladan Mystraios. “Even for you, Victoria.”
“I quite understand,” she said. “But I believe my friends’ questions should be brief. But first, how have you been doing?”
“Well enough until I found myself drafted into being King-in-Proxy,” he said with a half-chuckle, half-sigh. “The Academy’s been doing quite well, or was when I left. A nice new crop of students, about half sponsored in.” His sharp black eyes looked distant for a moment, obviously thinking about the Academy, where his true heart lay.
He hasn’t aged, a part of her noted. Calladan still looked every inch the wise wizard—well over six feet tall, trim, sleek black hair with a sprinkling of gray, white at the temples, penetrating gaze, a pointed black beard with a streak of white through the center, elaborate black robes covered with mystical symbols, and the intricately carved ebonwood staff that glinted with both gold decoration and steel reinforcement. He’d looked exactly the same… was it forty-five years ago? How time does pass… as he had when she’d first seen him during her brief time at the Academy.
At the same time, he looked… smaller, perhaps a hair less certain, as he sat in the Dragon King’s Throne, made for beings far larger and grander than mere humans. The dramatic series of crystal platforms that culminated in the dais that supported the throne made the throne room feel cavernously hollow without the size and aura of power of an Ancient Sauran seated upon that throne.
“And you?” he went on. “I’d heard the Vantage V—” he cut off at her glance. “Er, I’d heard you retired to be one of the Eyes back at Evanwyl.”
“If only it had stayed that way. You and I know what is happening to the world. It did not leave Evanwyl untouched. But it would take a long time to go into all that.”
“Yes, I suppose it would. Perhaps I will have time later; I would very much like to hear it.” He turned to look at the other three. “Now, I cannot possibly be wrong in that this young lady is a Vantage, no?”
“My niece and a most accomplished young mage, Urelle,” Victoria said proudly. “Had things gone a bit differently, she might have been in your Academy this year or the next.”
“And proud to have her, I am sure. An honor to meet you, young Urelle.”
Urelle took his extended hand and shook it, looking not a little overawed at meeting the Director of the Adventurer’s Academy. “I’m very honored, sir.”
He studied her other two companions. “Hmmm. A unique pair you are—for just by the way you stand I see you are partners. Adventurers as well—Guilded here in the city.” His eyes narrowed. “That weapon… I have seen its like only once before, a long time ago. Aegeian?”
Ingram grinned. “Well done, sir! Ingram Camp-Bel of Aegeia, at your service!”
“And a Camp-Bel! This becomes a most interesting visit.” He looked to Quester. “And a Gray Warrior. My condolences for your losses, Iriistiik.” He pronounced the name with the buzzing trill that few humans could manage.
“How did you know, sir?”
“Put in the position of ruler, I’ve made it my business to know what is happening in the world, insofar as one man can. The deliberate extermination of species is a clear signature of the powers behind this. The Artan are the most obvious, but the losses over the last few years by the Iriistiik make it near-certain that this, too, is part of their work.”
“Then… thank you for your sympathy, sir. I am called Quester.”
“An honor to meet you, Quester.” He bowed to allow his forehead to be touched by Quester’s antennae.
Quester straightened. “As we are on the subject… one of our questions was whether you know of any surviving Nests?”
Calladan’s lips tightened, and Victoria could see the leashed anger—not towards those present—in the tension of his stance. “I wish I did, Quester. I have not had a thorough search of the records done, of course, but the overview I have had mentions no other Nests than those we know have been destroyed.”
Oh, Quester. She saw the antennae drop, the angular body sway a moment, and felt him cut them all off, for the moment, from his mind and thoughts, privacy in his grief. No Nests mean no Mothers. If we cannot find another Nest… then the few surviving wanderers like Quester will be the last of their kind.
After a moment, Ingram cleared his throat. “Um. Well, we have another question. Are you aware of the, well, Seal that Athena often puts around Aegeia at points in the Cycle?”
“I am. And I have heard that it has been done for this Cycle, just recently.”
“Okay, that makes it easier. We think that this time it wasn’t Athena, but Ares. And somehow not right for the Cycle.”
Calladan’s entire attention was suddenly focused on Ingram. “You mean that Ares is not, for lack of a better term, sticking properly to the script?”
“I… yes, I guess that would be a good way to put it.”
Victoria remembered something said by the dying Xiilistiin at the battle where they had rescued the Camp-Bels from being wiped out. “There are even a few implications that Ares may not actually be Ares, at least not as the Aegeians have known him.”
Calladan closed his eyes. “That would be… extraordinarily bad. But go on. That was not your question.”
“We need to know—I mean, we need to find a way to get through the Seal and into Aegeia. The Guild said you were the best person to ask, at least anywhere near here.”
“I am touched by the Guild’s faith in me. Insofar as I know, no one has ever breached the Seal. The Aegei may work within it, and may be able to speak outside of it, but even they cannot bring anything through the Seal.”
He frowned. “A pretty problem indeed, and unfortunately I don’t have much time to devote to it. Yet the Guild must know that.”
Urelle’s brow had been furrowed in thought. Now it suddenly cleared. “Sir? It might be silly or obvious but…”
“Go on, Urelle. Sometimes silly and obvious is still very relevant, and I have found that often what seems silly or obvious to one is quite opaque to another.”
“Well,” Urelle said, “I was working with… another really powerful wizard, and he helped me figure out how to break a powerful tracking charm on us. The trick was that even the best spell has… well, a tiny flaw, like a stitch that completes a piece of cloth and could be used to unravel it.”
Calladan raised both eyebrows. “Neither silly nor always obvious. This is a truth that is often forgotten, because most spells do not require that level of analysis. They can be broken by superior force, or cleverly negating a part of their matrix directly rather than using the extremely complex and time-consuming process of analyzing the spell to find its… keystone, so to speak.”
“So would it apply to the Seal?”
Calladan stroked his beard in contemplation. “I do not see why it would not. It is true that the Seal could be put in place by pure, unadulterated godspower, which can follow quite different rules… but that would be an incredibly inefficient and power-hungry method. Quick, dirty, and wasteful. Athena does not work that way, and I do not expect Ares would if he could avoid it. So much easier to build a matrix, a structure for the godspower to reinforce—a spell cast and strengthened by the power of the gods, rather than a pure shield of that energy and will. And in that case… yes, there would, and must, be such a keystone.”
Urelle’s face lit up… and then immediately fell.
“What’s wrong, Urelle?” Victoria asked, puzzled.
“Auntie, knowing that was really helpful working on the Coins, because I could see the whole spell. I could look for the—well, I thought of it as a flaw, but keystone works just as well, maybe better—the keystone in context of the entire work.”
“Ah.” One didn’t have to be a wizard to understand the problem. “But you cannot see the entirety of a spell that covers a perimeter of perhaps over two thousand miles. Yes.”
“Very true,” Calladan said. “If one were possessed of the eyes of the gods, one might do so, but we are far more limited. Still… we may be able to narrow the likely locations down.”
“You mean,” Ingram said, perking up slightly, “there are limits on where it could be placed?”
“There are always limits, young Ingram,” Calladan said, and Victoria smiled just a touch as she heard the professorial tone entering the deep voice. “A spell is designed to perform a particular function, and its design is predicated on that function, and on external constraints that must be adhered to in making the spell able to perform the desired function in the real world.
“For example, in the ideal case, if one considers a spherical perimeter to be secured, the keystone may be placed at any point upon the sphere, as no point on a sphere is in any way more or less significant than any other.”
“But that’s not true in the real world,” Urelle said, also starting to sound more animated, and Victoria saw even Quester’s antennae rising up again. “Right? For example, the Seal is not a sphere.”
“Right you are, Urelle. It is not a sphere, but a somewhat irregular quadrangle in general outline, with extensions both above and below ground to prevent intrusion from the obvious third dimension.” Calladan was up out of the throne now, sketching an outline of Aegeia in the air and causing a faint, glowing aura to extend up and down from the shimmering perimeter. “Naturally there are also elements to prevent intrusion by dimensional shift, teleportation, shadestriding, and so on, but these aren’t relevant to our particular question.
“In addition, this god-spell has been cast many times over the ages; it has a fixed matrix, determined dozens of Cycles and two or more Chaoswars ago. That means that its keystone today will be—will have to be—in the same place it has been in every prior cycle. Now, Ingram, tell me one place where our hypothetical keystone won’t be.”
Ingram jumped at being addressed and looked momentarily panicked, a student being called upon who has no idea what to say. “Um, er… well, not here, along the coastline. That’s where almost everyone trying to get into the country is going to be, it’d be stupid to put the potential vulnerability there.”
“Very good, and correct. We can dismiss this entire area of the perimeter.” That section of the perimeter went red.
“Could it not be in the sky, or even better, below the ground?” Quester asked. “Those would be by far the least accessible areas and thus would seem to be the obvious places to put the keystone.”
Urelle opened her mouth, then closed it, frowning.
“The answer is no, it could not be in either of these places, sensible though it would be to put it there. Urelle, you had a thought. Can you tell us why the keystone cannot be in either location?”
Victoria smothered a giggle. Calladan was now fully in his teaching mode, down to asking the pupil to explain rather than doing it himself. He really does belong in the Academy. Gods grant this war is short.
“I don’t…” Urelle stopped herself, then traced the outline. “It’s irregular, not a sphere or something. That means the perimeter is the anchor for the above and below ground extensions. They can’t be keystone areas because all the, oh… stitching, supports, anchors, whatever, have to be along the perimeter. All the structure comes together there. The keystone has to be somewhere along the perimeter!”
Calladan smiled and nodded. “Excellent!” The transparent above and below-ground extensions shaded to red as well. “Already we have eliminated well over ninety percent of the possible locations. That does still leave us with three-quarters of the perimeter as candidates, however.”
“Ingram,” buzzed Quester, “did you not tell me that the Rohila have strongholds all along this part of Wisdom’s Fortress?” His claw traced the western side of the mountain range.
“Yes. And I think on the other side, too. They live all through the mountain range.” Ingram shook his head. “They’re… not comfortable neighbors, but there’s a basic agreement that as long as we don’t intrude on their space, they will keep their activities within the mountains or outside of Aegeia.”
“Then we can exclude most of the mountain range,” Calladan said, “which suddenly makes our task far easier. There is no possibility that either Athena or Ares will have placed the singular weakness of their spell directly within or adjacent to the domain of those who are not allies. There will have been no few painful and drawn-out negotiations made, in fact, to address where, exactly, the Seal goes within Wisdom’s Fortress, or it could cut through Rohila settlements.”
“Yes,” Victoria said, remembering their own experiences. “It would appear to me that the agreement actually leaves the Rohila inside the perimeter—that for the most part, it traces the exterior edge of the mountains. Based on where we encountered the barrier ourselves, anyway.”
“Hmmm, a most interesting decision that must have been. But I suppose it is inevitable; the Rohila’s warrens extend laterally as well as vertically, so that there might be some significant settlements underneath areas of Aegeia that are within the perimeter of the mountains. The only way to not provoke them and still enclose the entirety of Aegeia would be to enclose the mountains as well.”
“But if we eliminate the whole perimeter, there’s nothing left!” Urelle said. “We’ve determined that they can’t put it above or below, they certainly wouldn’t put it along the open coastline, and now you’ve eliminated the entire mountain range!”
“Not quite, young Urelle,” Calladan said. “Ingram?”
Ingram’s mouth had dropped slowly open. “By Athena… of course.”
“What’s ‘of course’?”
“As Calladan said, there is no way they would put the weakness near one who isn’t an ally, and the Rohila aren’t anyone’s allies. But we do have one ally on that perimeter, one that guards the only reasonable pass through Wisdom’s Fortress.” His finger touched the center of the northern wall of mountains. “Freehold Keep.”
Calladan smiled broadly. “And we have reduced your search to a manageable area, I believe.”
“Thank you so much, Calladan,” Victoria said, and seeing that he was still smiling, embraced him. “I had hoped you might have some wisdom to give us, but I admit, this is far better than I’d expected!”
He returned the hug. “Now, now, Victoria, I will hardly accept all of the credit. I guided the thoughts, but with but a few clues you and your friends were able to see your way clear.” He glanced over and down. “Something still troubles you, young Camp-Bel?”
“Nothing to do with the location, sir. Just… the practicalities.”
“How do you mean?” Quester asked.
Ingram shook his head. “One good reason to believe the keystone is somewhere there, or around there, maybe just behind it, is that The Salandaras—the one who’s given responsibility for the Freehold—is sworn to hold the pass against any and all who seek to enter once the Seal has been placed. By the Seal’s appearance, it’s assumed Athena herself has ordered that none enter or leave, and so the Freehold will become an impassable bastion against it.”
Calladan gave a shrug. “That is a challenge, but unfortunately even as King-Regent I have no say over the Salandaras; none truly have, save themselves and their unpredictable god. It would seem to me that you have little choice but to attempt passage. Perhaps the uniqueness of your circumstances will move them to make an exception,” he smiled wryly, “if you can truly get them to grasp it.”
“Yeah,” Ingram said gloomily. “That’s going to be hard enough. But even if I do, one thing they do real well is keep their word.”
“A usually admirable trait, but one that may be troublesome in this case. Still… I have given you what aid I can, I think, and there are many other people I must see today.”
“Yes, of course you do. Thank you very much, sir. At least we have an idea of a destination, which is by Wisdom a lot more than we had coming in!”
“Truly,” Quester said. “Thank you, Calladan.”
“Thank you very much, sir,” Urelle said. “You gave me more to think about, too.”
He grinned broadly. “The finest reward of a teacher—seeing his students thinking!”
They laughed, and Victoria even smelled a touch of humor in Quester’s scent. He is strong and will recover.
But my, my, what a challenge we have before us.