The Mask of Ares

A monstrous impostor has taken the place of the God of War, and begins to orchestrate an ending to Aegeia itself. Four adventurers set out to thwart him—but assassins are soon on their trail. The false Ares knows they are coming.

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When Ingram and Quester had seen their clients, Lady Victoria Vantage and her young niece Urelle Vantage, safely to their new home, they had thought their work finished, the time come to find new Adventures – despite the not-well-hidden interest between Ingram and Urelle.

Then Ingram receives an impossible message: he, a fugitive and exile from Clan Camp-Bel, is desperately needed by the Clan in distant Aegeia, a thousand miles and more away, for a mission so secret it cannot be included in the recall. And the very night he and Quester set out, Urelle discovers there are assassins already on their trail and rushes to warn them – and following her, Victoria, a retired Adventurer forced once more into the field.

But more is at stake than they can realize, for the ancient Cycle of Aegeia – the living morality play between the Reason of Athena and the Passion of Ares – is in peril of destruction; a monstrous impostor has taken the place of the God of War, and begins to orchestrate an ending to Aegeia itself.

And the false Ares knows that one of the four travelers is the only thing standing between him and the downfall of the gods…

“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.”

“Truth.”

“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…”