Gameboard of the Gods

Page 76

Mae gave him an incredulous look. “You knew there was a goddess like that and didn’t make the connection?”

“That applies to a hundred gods around the world,” he shot back. “I didn’t know which one it was. Death and battle are pervasive themes in the human experience.” He turned back to a scowling Callista. “She’s tied to other things too.”

“Silver and moonlight?” suggested Mae wryly. “And crows?”

“Yes,” he admitted. “And cows too, weirdly. Some also theorized she was a triple goddess and would’ve possessed other attributes through her different aspects.”

“Not in the beliefs of her recent followers,” said Callista. “They were—are—focused on her darker parts. They prefer power over enlightenment.”

“How do you know so much?” asked Mae suspiciously.

“Because Amarantha is a warrior goddess, and I make it my business to know about rivals.”

“I thought Amarantha was a goddess of magic.”

“She’s both.” Impatient, Callista fixed her dark gaze on Justin. “You have to stop the Morrigan. Her people will kill again.”

“I know they will! What do you think I’m trying to do here?” he asked. “If you know so much, where are they?”

Callista looked sheepish. “I don’t know. On a Celtic grant probably.”

“Very helpful,” he grumbled.

One thing that made plebeians scornful of patricians was that at times it was really hard to define a genetic profile for an ethnic group. Sometimes the genes were telling. Often, castes went by phenotype, which could make things messy when a nationality could have any number of features. The Celtic castes were all over the place on their true ancestral appearances. Some argued for a light-haired, fair-skinned presence while others insisted the Celtic people had migrated from Iberia and had darker looks. The competing Irish castes—the Erinians and Hibernians—were particularly dysfunctional. Half the time, the traits a caste selected for seemed arbitrary. The Welsh caste had split the difference in accepted Celtic traits, and most citizens had pale skin, black hair, and dark blue or brown eyes. There were also two “meta” Celtic castes, which embraced multiple nationalities, much as the Nordics allowed all the Scandinavian regions and Finland.

The bottom line was that there were any number of Celtic grants this cult could be hiding in. Picking up his ego, Justin told it to bring up any servitor records of the Morrigan. It pulled up an investigation and subsequent license denial from twenty-six years ago—which made sense if that was when the genetically engineered castals had stopped being created. Their last location had been a plebeian city, which only complicated things.

“They didn’t stay shut down,” Callista told him. “They disappeared from my people too, but we get enough hints now and then to know they’re still practicing.”

“Yeah, it’s been a little more extensive than ‘hints.’ We can probably assume it’s a light-haired caste, based on the description of the guy who visited the victims.” Inspiration suddenly struck Justin. “Hang on,” he told Callista. He issued a series of commands to the screen.

It divided into two images, one of which was Callista’s face. The other half displayed a map of the land grants in the Great Plains region of the country. Red dots in each grant marked the patrician victims, while green dots displayed the other living eights and nines in their respective castes. Yellow dots outside the borders indicated the plebeian deaths.

“You’ve got a lot more plebeians there than patricians,” Callista observed. “Even counting the living ones.”

“Because we’re only looking at these five grants,” he said. “The Morrigan’s people probably worked on other castes. They just haven’t had any deaths to catch our attention. I bet there’s a perfect patrician for every plebeian there. And statistically, you’d expect some plebeian deaths to occur for nonsacrificial reasons.”

Mae suddenly stood up. “There’s a pattern.”

“There’s always a pattern.”

“No, look.” She pointed. “All the plebeian and patrician deaths make a circle around this grant. Is that the Pan-Celts?”

“Yes,” said Justin, excitement racing through him. “One of the metas. Light haired, just like our guy.”

“A lot of area for a group to hide out,” said Callista with obvious dismay.

Justin shook his head in bitter amusement. “It’d be nice if your interest in stopping them was out of altruism for those poor victims, but something tells me you’re more concerned with getting rid of a threat to your group.”

“She should be,” said Mae unexpectedly. “Because they want to kill her.”

Both Justin and Callista stared. “How do you know that?” he asked.

“Because he asked me to. The, uh, guy who visited the others. He’s come to me a couple of times.”

Justin couldn’t formulate any words right away. “What? And you only just now thought to mention it?”

“Don’t take that tone,” she snapped. “I didn’t make the connection, any more than you did with a goddess who apparently fits all the criteria we’ve got! I thought he was trying to extort me for the Swedish mafia.”

“What’s going on?” asked Callista, angry at being left out.

“Oh, I must have forgotten to mention that the uncontrollable force that follows Mae is the Morrigan.” Seeing Callista’s mouth drop in shock, Justin quickly preempted any protests. “Don’t question or make accusations. We’re dealing with it.” He turned to Mae. “He seriously asked you to kill her?”

Mae nodded. “Wasn’t specific on the means. No mention of a silver dagger.”

A troubling thought occurred to Justin. “Did he threaten you?” Even when he’d first suspected Mae might have a connection, he’d never considered she might be in real danger. After all, she wasn’t like the others. She was unstoppable…right?

“What he said isn’t important,” Mae said.

“It is if your life’s on the line!”

“It’s not. No shadow creature’s coming after me. Worry about these other patricians.”

“And worry about the fact that they’re eliminating their rivals too.” Callista’s face darkened with outrage. “Now do you see that they need to be stopped? For me, for her, for the others! They need to be disbanded and destroyed!”

Justin was growing frustrated, still shaken by the idea of something happening to Mae. “Yes, yes, I know! But we can’t do anything until we find them.”

She fixed him with a cold look. “Then I suggest you start looking. And you…” She turned to Mae. “You start taking this seriously if you don’t want to be next. I told you before. If you want to be free, you need to break them. You could save yourself and the others. I…might be able to help you.”

“I don’t need your help,” said Mae.

“Yeah, you’re doing great on your own,” said Callista dryly. “Fix this. Immediately.” She disconnected.

Mae glared at the screen. “I really don’t like her.”

“Yeah, well, she helped us out with the name. We know a lot about the group now. We know a lot about you, whether you like it or not.” He raked a hand through his hair with a sigh. The Exerzol was crashing down on him. “Everything except where they are. I wish you’d told me about that guy.”

“So you could nobly throw yourself in front of me?” A glint in those eyes told him the ramifications of his earlier refusal weren’t going away any time soon. “It was my business, not yours. And I certainly never could’ve guessed the bigger picture. I thought he was blackmailing me about my niece.” She gave him a brief rundown of her encounters with Emil. It left Justin reeling.

“Well, at least it’s still—” His ego rang again. “Fuck, doesn’t anyone sleep?” It was still synched to the screen, which identified the caller as Leo. At least he had the excuse of an earlier time zone.

Leo appeared when Justin answered, not looking tired in the least. In fact, there was a light in his face that Justin knew well: the light of a breakthrough.

“I’ve got it,” he said. “I know how your video could’ve been faked.”

It was a blow to Justin’s finely tuned theories. He’d grown comfortable with the idea of the shadowy assassin being some supernatural manifestation. If the video was proven to be a fake, then that meant the murderers had resorted to practical means, which still didn’t rule out the Morrigan’s involvement. It just meant they were using smoke and mirrors to scare others.

Still, Justin was anxious enough to find out the results that he changed their travel plans to go straight to Portland from the Nordic grant. He considered bringing Tessa but ended up sending her home on the original flight. She’d already been involved in too much.

When he and Mae stepped into Leo’s house, they found a makeshift movie studio. Cameras and equipment Justin couldn’t identify had been arranged around the living room, and a transparent plastic screen sat near one of the walls. He stared around in amazement.

“What’s all this?”

“Your answer,” said Leo excitedly. His worse half came strolling in, looking as unpleasant as usual.

“Saw a news story about a shooting on the Nordic land grant,” Dominic remarked casually. “They say a prætorian was involved.”

“Must have been a lucky break for them,” Mae replied evenly. “Having one on hand.”

Meanwhile, Leo could barely contain himself. “Let’s do this.” He put on a skintight black suit and hood, similar to what scuba divers wore, except shinier. He flipped on some of the equipment and shifted the clear screen so that it was between him and them. And then, just like that, his form became translucent and smoky and shot across the living room. He took off his head covering and grinned, looking at all of them expectantly.

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