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Cynus last won the day on October 29 2015

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  1. Cynus

    Chapter 20

    I like your addendum. I think modern Grim would, too, no matter how happily he skips in his cynicism. More on Odiran to come. Eventually.
  2. Cynus

    Chapter 19

    I didn't really know how this book was going to go, when I started. I didn't really know how I was going to do anything past "Shadow Honor" when I started the series. When I originally decided to start working beyond "shadow honor", I went back and analyzed the way Prism, Grim, and Veil in particular spoke about past. The interactions between the three of them formed my starting point for what I ended up doing with "Clouded Purity", just as the events in "Lonely Pride" contributed significantly to where I went with Veil and Neredos in "Tragic Genius". Some things formed earlier than others, and one of those was the relationship between Neredos, The Trial, and Ghayle. I knew what went down, though I didn't entirely know how, and thankfully I found my way there eventually. Wayar was a surprise character. He appeared in a chapter and then just popped up a few times without me knowing why. This finally brought it all together.
  3. Cynus

    Chapter 20

    The council room was more animated than it had been in months. Normally Veil did not mind being the center of attention, but the more this topic dragged on, the more she tired of it. She knew what needed to be done, yet everyone else couldn't stop dragging their feet. "We've been discussing this for weeks, and we must come to a decision, now!" she said, slamming her palm against the table to disrupt the current cycle of the conversation. As all eyes turned toward her, she continued in a slightly calmer tone, resisting the urge to grit her teeth. "We are losing this war, and if we don't do something about the gate, we might as well admit defeat." "As we have said, we appreciate your passion, Veil, but you have not given us concrete evidence that your claim is correct," said Dareth thu'Varish, a Lodani woman who had earned her seat on the Council by organizing a relief force of women and children to help move provisions between the battle fronts. She was one of the few non-warriors in the group, but she commanded respect with all the presence of a veteran general. It was her grandmotherly look that sold it. "All we have to go on is your personal word that something happened while you were interrogating a Vhor." "We should trust her judgment," Neredos said, for the first time in that meeting though he'd been saying the same for many weeks. "We know that she managed to narrow it down to two locations from survivor accounts, and one of those was the Dobraeg." "Still, what you're asking for is the deployment of a large force when our battle lines are already thin. The amount of manpower that getting to the Dobraeg would take is more than we can spare," offered Zaym Taldranba, one of the Northern Gor. He was generally regarded as the most powerful chief among his people, though some contested that. Regardless of his relative level of power, he held influence in this gathering, and it was enough to make Veil want to scream. She couldn't understand how none of these people could see the importance of closing the demon gate. Almost no one, she thought, as Neredos spoke once again. This time, however, he directed his remarks to a specific person. "Do you not have anything to add on the matter, Ghayle? Are you going to remain as tightlipped and unhelpful as usual?" Several gasps of annoyance at Neredos' audacity erupted from amongst the Gor representatives of the Council. Neither Neredos nor Ghayle paid them any heed, as the latter simply inclined her head toward Neredos said, "I will lend my aid to any attempts to reach the gate. My Gor will fight alongside whatever forces are dispatched to handle the issue." "So, you do believe that the gate is there?" Zaym asked. "I believe that Veil is a woman of integrity, who would not say that she had found the gate if she did not believe it to be true. That, I believe, is enough," Ghayle replied. This triggered another wave of murmurs as the council members discussed this point amongst themselves. Veil distracted herself from their mutterings by studying Ghayle. The Gor Queen had remained aloof during the year she had assisted the war effort. She rarely spoke to anyone, and usually offered only cryptic answers to those she did communicate with. Only Neredos and Kixhan ever seemed to have her ear, the former only in secret, where she reportedly taught him the highest level of Gor magic. The latter attended her in most places and was always present with her at the battlefield, where they slew demons by the scores with elemental fury. Veil was never certain she could fully trust Ghayle, and she definitely didn't trust Kixhan. That trust didn't seem to matter, however, as together the pair had killed enough demons to rival Grim's and Prism's numbers. However, hadn't Wayar slain demon kin as well? Could Ghayle be working with the enemy? At any rate, no one seemed capable of dealing with the problem at hand, and Veil wasn't convinced everyone in this room wasn't working for the demons. "There is another way," Grim said over the din, drawing Veil from her ponderings and the others from their private conversations. "What way is that?" Dareth asked. "A surgical strike," Grim replied. "We send our best, a small group that can move undetected. Each member carefully screened before we embark on the quest, to ensure there are no Vhor among us. We take the stealthiest route possible and reached the Dobraeg before the demons even know that we've left here." Prism took up where his lover had left off, "Grim and I can go alone, if no one wants to join us. I can't guarantee we can close the gate without having a proper mage with us, however. There's no telling what we'll find when we arrive." Veil was stunned by this level of support from her brother and Prism. Neither had said much in the previous meetings, though they had missed a large number of them. They spent most of their time on the front lines, whenever they could. Though they were prominent figures in the eyes of many—and Prism was considered the leader of the Order of the Mountain—their position on the Council was mostly honorary. Neither led groups of soldiers or civilians. Despite Prism's title of Grandmaster, he delegated most leadership tasks to other senior monks. They didn't speak in council, and their presence was often ignored, but this time they acquired some attention, most notably, from Neredos. He stood and looked at Grim and Prism with profound respect, inclining his head toward them. "I will go with you," he said firmly. "King Neredos, you can't be serious," Odiran protested. "Unless Ghayle is going personally, and she has yet to volunteer her own services, I'm the best mage we have," Neredos replied. "I don't say this from a point of arrogance, only fact. However, you're certainly skilled enough to go in my stead, Odiran, should you wish to do so." "Neredos has a point, and I think it is better if Ghayle remains. She ensures the loyalty of the Southern Gor, and we need their troops here for protection," Dareth said. "Couldn't Ghayle simply teleport there and finish this once and for all?" Odiran said. "And if so, why hasn't she?" He pointedly avoided looking at Ghayle, addressing the Council as a whole. If Ghayle was offended by Odiran's attempt to defame her, she did not show it, as she said simply, "I'm afraid whatever awaits us there prevents me from reaching it. I wish I could be more helpful." "Then I think the small force is the better plan," Neredos said firmly. Veil was glad to see the resolution in his eyes and latched onto it as he continued, "Grim, Prism, and I will leave tomorrow, with anyone who wants to come with us." Veil resisted the urge to jump for joy. Something was being done! Finally the talking was over, and a decision had been reached! She held her breath, hoping no one would protest Neredos' decision. "I will travel with you," Morga said, speaking for the first time in that meeting. He rose to his feet and indicated another Elrok standing by the door. While not an official member of the Council, Morga's niece Revash was training to become her uncle's shaman, and she had long been allowed to observe the Council's proceedings. "And my niece will accompany us." "As will I," Veil said eagerly. All eyes turned back toward her, some analyzing her regal manner of dress with extreme skepticism. She ignored them and went on, "Finding the gate has been my responsibility since we learned of it, and I cannot ask others to sacrifice, on my word, if I am not willing to do the same." "I will also go," said Chald Drenthorufan, a warrior from the Southern Gor. He looked to Ghayle for confirmation as he added, "to represent your presence, if you will allow me the honor." Ghayle nodded silently, and Chald turned to face Neredos. Neredos let the silence linger for several seconds before addressing the room. "If there are no others, then so be it. We leave at dawn." "Six will be enough," Grim said, in a casually confident tone. "I think we can take a few more, if anyone's willing, but we have to keep this mission secret from everyone save those in this room. The Vhor cannot know of this plan, or we will lose long before we arrive." "Agreed," Neredos replied. "How are we supposed to explain your disappearances?" Odiran asked. "Tell them that Veil and I are working on a vaccine for Quay poison," Neredos said, "and that we've asked not to be disturbed until we find a way to prevent our soldiers from being poisoned." "You want us to give them false hope?" Dareth asked incredulously. "If we can close the gate, there is no need to develop a vaccine, so what does it matter?" Veil added. "And the others?" Dareth asked. "Surprise military inspections," Prism suggested. "That will keep everyone alert, and they'll think we're traveling in secret so they won't know when we're coming." "With any luck, we'll be done before they get suspicious," Veil said. "With a tremendous amount of luck, this war could be over within the year if we're successful." "As worthy a cause as any," Neredos said, "and a hope we've long waited for. This meeting is adjourned. It is time to prepare." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Dawn came quickly to those embarking on the journey, and they gathered at the lift that took them down to the ruins of Kallen. After a very brief planning session, the group established their initial route and set off down the road. It wasn't until they had put Kallen some distance behind them that the reality of their journey finally set in. A heaviness hung over the group like fluid in the lungs. Each step was a breath reminding them how close they were to death. "Well, at least we got two more," Prism mumbled to break the silence, glancing behind him to his companions. He was walking at the front of the group with Grim and Neredos. Veil came next, walking alone. She had been quiet and distant recently, though Prism and Grim still made efforts to visit with her whenever they were around. It was the war weighing on her. It had that effect on everyone. Morga and his niece followed after Veil, involved in their own conversation. Behind Morga came Chald, who was conversing with two other Gor, both from the northern tribes. Aven Taldranba, son of Zaym was one, and Nijal Zantrakal the other. Prism did not know either of them well, as they had only recently joined the Council. Nijal seemed like a strong and capable woman. Reportedly an assassin before the demon war, she had inevitably volunteered for this mission on account of its nature. She lived for surgical strikes and had employed them many times against the demons. "This will be enough. It's best for us to have few members anyway. It'll be much more difficult for them to catch us this way," Grim said. Neredos was nodding as Prism turned back toward them. With the Gor far enough out of earshot, Prism asked, "Neredos, why did you feel the need to challenge Ghayle on everything?" Neredos sighed and didn't answer immediately. When he did, his words were tinged with uncertainty. "I don't trust her, Prism. I can't, not after Wayar." "The Southern Gor have killed more demons than any other group. They've been fighting them since the beginning, and they know them best," Prism countered. "I may not like them, but their knowledge has done quite a bit for us." "But doesn't that feel the least bit convenient to you?" Neredos asked. "He has a point," Grim said, chuckling. "I think you're fooling yourselves," Veil said, walking up to join them. "I've been thinking about this all night. Ghayle may be aloof, and I don't think she's the goddess she claims to be, but I think that the God image of hers is all part of how she leads her people. She must maintain that cool, emotional distance to keep her people's pride alive. That's why her soldiers are so effective. They haven't lost morale." "I think I'd have lost faith in my God if I'd ever believed in one," Neredos said after a moment. "Considering what has happened over the past few years, anyway." To Prism's surprise, Morga's voice then joined them. "The Gor are a very spiritual people, Neredos. It is at the core of their identity, and therefore there are more practitioners of magic found amongst them than anywhere else." "Chief Morga, I respect your point, but spirituality is hardly required for magic. If it were, then how do you explain me and Odiran?" Neredos countered. "Odiran is far more spiritual than you think, Neredos," Morga replied solemnly. "His approach to magic is far different from yours. His magic is rooted in the Lodani Ulchreft, the secret woods magic." "He learned a little from his grandmother and his father, yes. But he works in a traditional style," Neredos replied, shrugging. "What of it?" "You shouldn't underestimate him, Neredos," Grim said. Neredos turned to Grim with surprise and asked, "What do you know of it, Grim?" "That he's a Fedain, or at least a quarter, if my estimates are correct," Grim replied nonchalantly. The level of confidence coming across their bond stunned Prism. Grim had never made this claim to him, though they had spoken of many of Grim's strange theories before. As Prism looked around, he saw his own shock and confusion mirrored in the eyes of all the others near them. Neredos seemed more stunned than anyone else. "Don't worry, Neredos, I'm just as confused as you," Prism said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Grim, on what basis do you make the outlandish statement that Odiran is anything but fully human? Humans and Fedain do not look similar enough to cause problems in telling them apart." Prism risked a glance behind them, wondering if anyone in the other group had noticed or heard their conversation. Morga's niece had gone back to join the Gor, and they seemed involved in a lighthearted dispute of some sort. Whatever it was about, they were oblivious to anything else. As Prism turned back to the others, Grim answered his question, "Except for the small scar on his left hand, he has never been injured. It's so small almost no one ever notices it, though I have seen him questioned on it a couple of times. He always speaks about how he received the scar in his youth while hunting with his father." "Ah yes, hunting! The primary activity of all Fedain youth," Veil said dryly. "I remember the many hunting trips Father took us on. There's nothing like skinning a wild boar you just shot through the heart to celebrate your pacifism." Grim shot her a glare and said, "I'd thank you to hold your skepticism until I've finished." Veil raised her hands in surrender and said, "I apologize. Please continue with this farce." "A Fedain could resist their own body's healing if they wanted to," Grim continued, ignoring Veil. "It requires an extreme level of control and constant effort, as the body will eventually heal itself if left unchecked. This explains the scar." "How?" Prism asked. "Why would anyone go through that level of effort?" "Because Fedain were hunted in Lodan centuries ago," Neredos answered on Grim's behalf. To Prism's surprise, Neredos was nodding thoughtfully, and after a moment he said, "I think I see where you're going with this, Grim." Morga reinforced the statement, adding, "There are stories among the Elroks of Oligan regarding the disappearance of the Lodani Fedain. While some escaped to Ultaka and Incaria, what happened to the rest of them? They must've hidden in the woods to avoid being killed." "And between breeding with humans and only allowing the most human-appearing among them to reproduce, they figured out a way to integrate back into society. If they mated with humans for this purpose, it's likely that they mated with other marginalized groups. I imagine the witches of the Ulchreft would have fit that as well," Grim replied, nodding in satisfaction. "Just so I make sure I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that Odiran is a Fedain because he never gets injured, has a scar that won't heal, and practices Ulchreft?" Veil asked. "And refuses to touch any Fedain," Grim said. "I don't know if you've noticed that, but you and I are the only two council members that he refuses to shake hands with. He goes out of his way to avoid it." "He's Oligani," Neredos said, shrugging. This earned him a glare from both Veil and Grim, and he hastily added, "Whoa, hang on, I don't mean I support the racism, but I understand that it occurs. Fedain aren't well-loved in my home country." "That's also why he'd keep his heritage a secret," Morga said, nodding. "If the Oligani knew he was Fedain, they wouldn't follow him." Veil shook her head and said, "You're crazy, Grim. This is all just speculation." "He's also been poisoned two or three times and survived all of them," Grim said, shrugging. "Now, I admit it's possible that he survived by means of some other magic, however—" "What!?" Neredos said, giving Grim a double take. "Why wasn't I informed?" "Because nothing happened to him, Neredos," Grim said. "Are you certain he was poisoned?" Veil asked skeptically. "Not conclusively, but well enough," Grim replied. "I've been tracking the movements of the Vhor, as you know, and I've been accessing military reports to see if I can discover any patterns in them. While none of the poison attempts seem to have come from the Vhor, it seems that many of Odiran's underlings in the ruins of Kallen have tried to kill him. Poison has been common, and common enough that I'm positive some has slipped through." "I can confirm that those reports exist," Prism said, "as I've seen them too. I realize none of you had much cause to read those specific reports, since the day to day military leadership is out of your hands. Though this is the first time Grim has told me of his theory." "Why didn't you tell anyone this?" Neredos asked, looking between Prism and Grim. "Because it's unnecessary. Odiran survived. I suspect he'd have to be at least a quarter Fedain for his body to naturally keep him safe from poisons without anyone noticing effects. If my theory is correct, he was never in any danger," Grim replied, shrugging. He then met Neredos' eyes and said firmly, "But you are." "Why do you say that?" Neredos asked. Prism felt Grim's confidence grow. Whatever his lover was about to say, it wasn't just a theory. To Grim, his next point was a fact. "Look, Neredos . . ." Grim said slowly, "You do see the way he reacts to you, don't you?" "Yes, he gives me respect and gives credence to my command," Neredos replied. "By working directly under you," Grim said pointedly. "So?" Neredos asked. "And you're the one who killed his father. Or rumor has it, anyway," Grim continued. Neredos nodded in acceptance of the statement and asked, "What is your point?" "You're useful right now, but Odiran has designs for after this war," Grim said. "He's quite possibly the most optimistic survivor of us all. He expects us to win, and he expects to lead once this is done. Over your dead body is preferred." "I can't disagree that he'd prefer me dead, but I think you're exaggerating. He wants to win this war as much as the rest of us do," Neredos replied. "On the contrary, I believe Odiran wants this war over more than the rest of us do," Grim said. "Why are you telling me this now, Grim? If you didn't think it was important before, this seems a strange time to tell me," Neredos said. Grim glanced backward for only a moment before responding, "This is the first time that I've been certain none of Odiran's allies are around us. I also believe you may find the political climate has changed when we return." He paused for breath and then continued. "Odiran sees himself as your natural successor should anything happen to you. While we're away, he will undoubtedly do what he can to secure that position in case you don't return. If we do return, then he'll have set things in motion for your inevitable downfall." Neredos sighed and shook his head, "I'd hoped we had put aside all of this pointless politicking," "You give too much credit to the world if you think we'll ever reach a point where no one will try to take advantage of another in a dire situation," Veil said dryly. Prism nodded, unable to deny Veil's words. "Last I checked, you're just as likely to end up evil, as good, when you suffer pain and tragedy," he said. "While I think the tragedies we've endured have brought a lot of us closer together and have ended some petty conflicts—and some major ones—it would be unrealistic to assume that everyone feels that way." "Even once we beat the demons—and we will beat them—eventually we'll return to our old ways. We might be a bit smarter for it, maybe we'll change how we harm each other, but it'll happen again. There's no stopping it," Grim added. "The deer returns to grazing as soon as you fail the hunt," Morga said, nodding sagely. Neredos scoffed and said, "So why do we bother closing the gate? You are all so cynical." No one had an immediate answer, but Prism found one after only a few moments of searching. "Progression requires failure, and then trying again," he said slowly. "Master Vinhkroludar drilled that into me. We close the gate because the world deserves a chance to start again. And we earn that by getting there and doing what needs to be done." "And what do I do about Odiran?" Neredos asked. "What needs to be done there?" "He may be several steps ahead of you politically, but none of that matters if we don't close the gate," Grim said. "When you come back a hero, he'll have a hard time getting rid of you. Heroic acts have a tendency to make one immortal, though sometimes that immortality is only as a symbol." "I suppose we better get there then," Neredos said. "The sooner we get back, the sooner we can solve the problems at home." "Are you so eager for your immortality, Neredos?" Grim asked, chuckling. "I'm eager to save this world, Grim," Neredos said. "There has been enough death." Grim gave Neredos a strange look, then simply chuckled again. What came across the bond to Prism was nothing but cynical humor. "Progression requires failure," Grim said, then walked ahead of them. He stepped lightly down the road, almost skipping like a boy daydreaming on his way to school. "What did that mean?" Neredos asked, looking to Prism for support. Prism stared after Grim in silent wonder, wondering if he'd ever understand his lover as well as he'd like. "Death," he answered, then rushed after Grim with a smile on his lips. The heaviness was gone from his lungs in his acceptance of the path ahead.
  4. Cynus

    Chapter 19

    It was Ghayle who let the memory fade away this time, bringing them back to the dream garden and the circle of stones. Neredos and Prism shared a look of understanding before turning to Ghayle. "Ghayle, knowing what I know now, I have to ask . . . Did you really teleport in?" Prism asked. "From my understanding, you were no longer able to affect the physical world. You showed us Kixhan before, and told us he was the one who performed all the magic you displayed while you were with us." "In that state, I could still teleport by the same means I used before the trial. I was still connected to the world, and still am now—though that connection is fading," Ghayle replied. "That is the exact center of teleportation; that connectivity. You must believe, with pure conviction, that everything you touch is simply an extension of yourself, and that you can therefore transfer your consciousness to any part of you, then simply rearranging all that you are connected to in accordance with your desire. If your instinct is strong enough, the matter will simply work itself out, and the consciousness will shift." Neredos nodded in understanding. "But that requires such purity of thought that it's nearly impossible. Odiran and I spent years crunching the numbers, analyzing what it would take to be able to hold all that data together at once. We've never met a human who could do it, though I have heard of several others have managed to accomplish the feat over the centuries." "While Kixhan did not teleport me, he did use a teleportation spell," Ghayle said, earning an approving nod from Neredos. "Kixhan was more than capable of killing all of you in seconds had you decided to move against him. He was also the one who stopped those splinters before they hit me. I told him what had to be done. He had to make his power seem like mine. Had Kixhan ever wished to rule the world, he could've done so without contest. Had he wished to end the war between Ultaka and Oligan he could have brought the nations to their knees to make peace." Ghayle paused for a moment, ensuring that she had everyone's attention before continuing. "But Kixhan began his descent to such power for selfish reasons; at first, revenge, and in the end, a desire to withdraw from everything. He was empty, save for his devotion to magic itself, and me. He would never have become a savior, nor destroyer, because he would never deem to act upon the world at all—the world was beneath his focus. He did not care about the world, only about me. He obeyed me absolutely, and because of what I taught him, he was able to fulfill his duties to perfection." "So, his vast power is what prevented him from replacing you," Prism surmised. Ghayle nodded. "That is correct. He could've destroyed the demons quite easily, closed the gate himself, but that was never his plan. He would have been quite content had the demons destroyed everything but him. Even if they'd claimed him as well, he would've considered it a natural end and accepted it." "That teleportation spell was not in the grimoire you gave me," Neredos said. "That's because Kixhan developed that on his own, after obtaining the knowledge that I imparted to him," Ghayle replied. "Is that what was in the leather-wrapped bundle?" Veil asked. "Was that the grimoire passing into your hands, Neredos?" "It was," Neredos replied. "And what followed was the beginning of my tutelage under Ghayle. She taught me everything in that book, though I'm still not completely certain why." "The why of it is simple," Ghayle said. "At that time, I was certain that you would be the one to replace me. Everyone had gathered beneath your banner, a banner you wished to do without. You had all the qualities I was searching for, but I misjudged the extent of your genius." "My genius?" Neredos replied skeptically. "What do you mean?" Ghayle sighed as she met Neredos' gaze. "You were always trying to solve problems bigger than yourself, and you always tried to do so before you were ready. You trusted in your genius too much, because it quite often pulled you out of the fire that you started by moving too fast. Unfortunately, when it came time to save the world, you wrapped everything up in a nice little package and believed fervently that your genius would be enough to keep the evils at bay. Hubris, Neredos, was ever your downfall." "I see, Ghayle, that you aren't in the mood to pull any punches," Dogo said. "We have a saying in Incaria, one my father made sure I learned during my youth, and it kept me alive in The Shade. 'Every sure shot ends in tragedy for either hunter or prey'." Telzath nodded sagely. "Indeed, Dogo," he said. "That is not unlike an Elrok saying: wait until the bird is cooking before you count its feathers." "You believed everything would work out because it always had before, and that was the tragedy of your genius, Neredos," Ghayle said. "Just as Kixhan's genius led him to apathy, and Veil's to her machinations." "I never wished to put the world in jeopardy," Neredos said quietly. "I only wanted to protect it." Ghayle placed her hand against Neredos' cheek and said, "You cannot protect the world from change. Change is inevitable, and necessary. If that change is not allowed to happen freely, pressure builds until cracks form, and then change rushes out like a flood. The world is more than capable of surviving without people on it, and indeed that is one potential end to the Trial. That may yet occur, dependent upon the battle in Pentalus that will unfold soon." "You mean we can still lose?" Prism asked. Ghayle sighed and nodded. "Yes, it could happen. Once, this world was united against the demons. The forces facing the demons now are not united at all. There is no telling what that may do." "But Naxthul told Grim he was not allowed to fight. Why was Neredos allowed to end the demon threat but Grim is not?" Prism asked. "For one very simple reason, Prism," Ghayle replied. "They must learn to stand together. Grim would do all the work for them, and that wouldn't be much of a trial at all, now would it?" ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Five more years, and still the demons kept coming. The battle lines were thinning, though the demon forces were not. It seemed everywhere Veil looked, more graves were being dug. Death was the only ending she could foresee; death for everyone, with no hope of survival. The arrival of the Southern Gor troops had marked the end of reinforcements coming from elsewhere. There would be no others. No one to save them, and no one else to take the soldiers' places on the front lines. They were losing ground on all sides, simply because there was no longer anyone to plug the holes. And still Neredos' quest continued. Still that mad human thought there was some chance of victory, if only they could find the gate that Ghayle promised was out in the world somewhere. While Veil had initially felt hope at the thought of ending the demonic reinforcements, it had dissipated over the years of false reports she had sifted through in her effort to find the gate. Veil had managed to narrow the search to two locations. It was either in the Dobraeg, somewhere in the icy mountains bordering the tundra, or it was in the islands south of Lodan. But it didn't matter anymore. Even if she could determine the location of the gate, there weren't enough troops left to close it down. She had taken over the project of finding the gate as soon as she'd returned to the Everbright City and met with the Council. She had needed it then, a project that she could throw her full self behind, but now the days dragged on. For the first time in her life, Veil finally understood her brother's wish to die. He was out fighting now, as he always did. No one was more tireless on the battlefield than Grim. Every single day, he danced through the blood and gore, melting demons with a touch. It was said that he had even recently danced with one of the demonic generals, as the five largest demons were now classified. Those generals had only recently appeared on the battlefield, five more nails in the coffin of army morale. That demonic general managed to escape Grim, but at least, for a moment, they had almost had a major victory. When had the last one been? Veil couldn't remember the last time she had heard good news. Someone knocked on the door of her chambers, and Veil looked up with a start. It was early in the day for her to have visitors, and she dreaded what terrible news this one would bring. Would it be another list of the dead? Would someone tell her that Grim or Prism had fallen? That the Everbright City itself was crashing? "Come in," she called, then attempted to compose herself, straightening her posture as she sat behind her desk. She had slouched far too often of late, rarely finding the strength to hold her head high while she was alone. Only the unconscious discipline of nobility allowed her to do so in public. The door opened and Neredos entered, a surprise considering he spent most of his time at the battle lines these days. He said he could not expect soldiers to fight and die for him if he was not willing to do so himself. She admired that, even though she believed Neredos was more effective as a symbol than a soldier. All those who still had hope, had placed it in him. "Any progress?" Neredos asked as he settled into the chair in front of Veil's desk. He was wearing his cloak, helmet, and gauntlet, each one stained with the ichor of battle. Veil ignored the question. She had nothing new to say. "Did you just come from the lines?" Neredos nodded. "There was an attack on one of our outposts last night. I went with the eagle riders and the mages to rout the demons. I have crews working on repairing the walls now, but if the demons attack before they're done . . . We could lose the outpost entirely." "We've already lost two this month," Veil said, slumping. "Sometimes I wish they would just kill us and be done with it." Neredos stared at her like she'd gone insane. "And I thought I was supposed to be the crazy one. At least that's what people keep calling me. Do you want to talk about it?" "I hadn't meant to say the words out loud, but I suppose now that I have, there's no sense in hiding from them," Veil said, sighing. She met Neredos' eyes, feeling that tears should be in her own but finding them absent. "There is no progress. We have only been driven back." Neredos nodded, then looked away. His face was conflicted, his body rigid. "I have a confession as well. One I have not trusted to anyone until this moment. The madness . . . the one everyone accuses me of . . . it's real. I'm losing my mind, Veil." Veil rose from her feet and moved around the desk. "That simply won't do, Neredos. You are the one symbol left to us. You must let me try to help you." "How?" Neredos asked, his eyes wide with fright. "Unless Ultaka was particularly good at hiding it, I always understood that the brain was the one thing you couldn't heal entirely." Veil shrugged and said, "That doesn't mean that we don't know how to heal a few things, and you're in luck. I spent several years in the singular purpose of studying neurological and mental health, and it's something of a specialty of mine. If there's an answer to be found, I'm your best chance of finding it." "I keep thinking I should mention the matter to Ghayle, but nothing she has taught me pertains to healing, other than the water purification rituals, of course," Neredos replied. "If she has nothing to offer on the subject, why should I believe there's any hope? Gor healing is notoriously limited, after all." "There's nothing to be lost by trying, at this point," Veil said. Neredos stared at her again, but this time he started laughing. "I believe you just answered your own dilemma, Veil." Veil quirked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?" "If you truly believe that we're all going to die, then what's the harm in trying not to?" Neredos asked. "What are we risking other than the death that is already guaranteed? If we find the gate, we might as well take every last man, woman, and child with us in our attempt to close it. We haven't given our all yet, Veil. Until we do, we haven't met that fate you're so certain we're going to reach." Veil shook her head and sighed, closing her eyes as she tried to compose herself. To her own surprise, when she opened them again she was smiling. "One last stroll into nothingness, into the jaws of death itself. See, this is why we need to get you back to good health. You brought hope to me in seconds, hope I haven't felt in years." Neredos chuckled and took Veil's hand. "I truly love you, Veil. Not in the way I loved Alazyn, but more like the way I love our people. All those who fight with us, all those who stand ready despite the certainty of death. Grim, Prism, even Odiran . . . I love all of you now." "Now that truly is mad," Veil said softly. "Will you let me look inside that head of yours?" Neredos removed his helmet and said, "No Fedain has ever looked inside my head. If President Caliphar could see me now, he would never approve the funding for the Everbright City." "Maybe it's good that some people didn't survive the war," Veil said. Grinning, Neredos replied, "that is the one thing we can thank the demons for. At least we're no longer trying to destroy each other." "It's time for healing, and with a little luck, maybe we can have a small victory today," Veil said. She put her hands to Neredos' temples and began to explore the possibilities. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ "I want to know what this is about," Wayar said. "Why have we told everyone that we are going on a tour of the battle fronts when we're really coming here?" He was following Grim and Prism into the central structure of the Everbright City. While the building had originally served as a public meeting place for the Everbright City's citizens, it had been remodeled into the central war office during the last few years. It was the perfect place for the meeting Prism planned to hold with Wayar, as much for its security as anything else. "Don't worry, it will all be clear soon," Prism said. "But what we need to talk to you about can't be spoken of in the open. Like we said, this is a matter of security on the highest level." "It's nothing to be worried about, Wayar," Grim added. "At least, not for anyone but us." Wayar didn't seem convinced, but he flashed his usual false grin and said, "Very well, but you know I don't like all this sneaking around. It's bad luck to keep secrets from the soldiers." "Worse luck to give them this news," Prism replied, forcing a smile. "Trust me, we are protecting morale, not hurting it." They made their way to a small room in the basement of the structure. Inside the room were three chairs set around a small table, each on a separate side. Grim and Prism each took one and indicated the third to Wayar. "Now that we are alone," Wayar said, "will you please tell me what is going on?" "Absolutely," Prism replied, "but first Grim is going to ward the room against eavesdropping." "I wasn't aware you performed magic, Grim," Wayar observed. "Have you been studying with the Gor as well?" Grim shook his head. "Only very little. Bits and pieces here and there. I've had a very specialized education. I've only concerned myself with things that help me do my job." With that, Grim closed his eyes and focused. He uttered a few words, too low to be properly made out by anyone else, then opened his eyes again. "The room has been protected now." "Don't most people have to draw a rune circle of some sort?" Wayar asked. "Oh, the rune circle is already in place," Grim said, meeting Wayar's eyes with a deadly glare. "I simply activated it. It's burned into the underside of your chair." Wayar's fake smile remained frozen on his face for a moment until the reality dawned on him. A look of horror crossed over his face as he shifted focus between Prism and Grim, finally settling on the latter. He tried to move, his whole form straining to get out of the chair, but it didn't move an inch. "What have you done to me?" He asked. "What is the meaning of this?" "We've recently discovered that there is a Vhor in your command, Wayar," Prism said, enjoying the way Wayar squirmed. "You have any guesses as to who?" "You have this all wrong, Prism," Wayar said frantically. "You've seen me hold my hand over the flames. You know I'm not a Vhor." "Yes, always with gloves on. A unique trick, that," Grim said. "It took me a while to piece that fact together. We know that the Vhor don't wear clothing, they simply shift it as part of their form. But you are different from the rest of them, aren't you? You've been infiltrating us for so long, you knew you had to play the part entirely and make sure your wardrobe came in layers. Having to keep one form all the time must be agony to someone like you." At this point, if Wayar were the human he claimed to be, he would've been sweating. Prism nodded in satisfaction that Wayar could not sweat if he wanted to. He simply sat there, struggling to move in a rune circle designed specifically to immobilize demons. Their suspicions had already been confirmed. "What do you intend to do to me?" Wayar asked, sensing his own defeat. "Do you want to interrogate me? Do you think I have answers?" "Yes, to all of the above," Grim said. "Though if you simply tell us what we want to know, we will give you a swift death instead of killing you slowly." "Torture!?" Wayar scoffed, staring at Grim as if he'd lost his mind. "A Fedain is going to torture someone. I don't believe it at all." "Not torture," Prism said. Grim nodded in agreement. "Experiments, Wayar. We are going to do everything we can to break you down and find out what the Vhor are made of. You're the only live Vhor specimen we've ever caught, and we need to know everything we can about you. If you help us, it will be less painful." Wayar looked between Grim and Prism again, then finally sighed. "I do not have the answers you seek. No matter how much you ask, and how you demand it, there is a limit to what I can tell you. I can tell from how you're looking at me that you are already convinced of my identity." "I'm glad you admit it so easily," Prism said. "At least you're self-aware that you're evil. It's a good place to start." Wayar shook his head and chuckled. He smiled then, and for the first time since Prism had met him, the expression seemed sincere. There was no longer a mask to his intentions. "You cannot possibly know what I have endured. You cannot possibly know what you've gotten yourself into." "Then perhaps you should tell us," Grim suggested. "Perhaps you could start by telling us how long you have been Wayar Fashalmanis." "Since the very beginning," Wayar replied almost casually, like a man who had embraced his death already and now all that was left was the walk to the gallows. "So, you've been helping us lose this war the entire time?" Prism asked, his eyes narrowing. He normally had a good handle on his anger, but this time was different. He had fought alongside Wayar for eleven years. Though he had never considered the general a friend, he had considered him a comrade in arms. This secret identity enraged Prism in ways he hadn't felt since his youth. "How many of our friends have we lost due to your manipulations?" Grim asked. "You were the one who ordered Kaeral and his skirmishers to their deaths. You were the one who cost us Cherrim Pass last year, and we've been losing ground ever since. Oh, you fought the battles, but you have been making sure we lose the war." "You will never know the extent of things I've done," Wayar replied. "Mr. Elrhanadan's death was . . . unfortunate." "Unfortunate?" Prism echoed. "You dare call the death of my best friend 'unfortunate' to my face?" Grim put a calming hand on Prism's arm and said, "He's been giving us information so far, Prism. As much as we may feel anger toward him, there is not yet a need for violence." Prism seethed but nodded in acquiescence. They had not seen Kaeral much over the past five years, though they had been on the battlefield the day that he died. As the borders of safety had closed in on them, the distance between the southern and northern battle lines had decreased with them. Grim and Prism now fought wherever the battle was thickest, had recently joined Kaeral in the north. A week into that offensive, Wayar's orders had placed Kaeral behind enemy lines. The demons had swept up his forces and destroyed them before Yatha's cavalry could relieve them. She had returned Kaeral's sword to his son, and, in a rare moment of emotion, had offered condolences to Grim and Prism. Though most of Prism's personal losses had not affected him enough to suspect foul play, Kaeral's death had changed his perspective. Prism had considered Wayar's orders from as many angles as possible and found the logic behind them lacking. He became even more suspicious when he learned that Kaeral had been questioning Wayar's orders for months. That had begun his private investigation into Wayar himself. Neither Prism nor Grim had suspected Wayar of being a Vhor at first, but the evidence continued to mount over successive months. The only person they had shared their suspicions with was Neredos, and he had authorized the construction of this room and called the three of them back to the Everbright City in secret. They had hoped their suspicions would not be confirmed. A few Vhor had been discovered over the years, but no others had been killed. They escaped easily, to infiltrate and manipulate once more. To finally have one within their grasp was a blessing, despite what it would do to morale if anyone learned the truth about Wayar's identity. "Neredos should be here shortly," Prism said. "He said he would check in on us and interrogate you personally if we confirmed your identity. He was informed when we were entering the city, and I suspect he will be here at any moment." "Do you really think Neredos will get any more out of me?" Wayar asked. "We're not nearly as scared of him as you may think. You've killed far more demons than he has, Prism. You and Grimfaeth both. Even I've killed more demons than he has." "Why have the demons invaded?" Grim asked, refusing to let Wayar take control of the conversation. Wayar chuckled softly. "Why do you think I would tell you that? The demons have been here for eleven years and not one of them has bothered to explain. You'd think if we wanted you to know, we would've told you already." "That is not a good enough answer," Grim said. "And if you do not answer that question, I will be compelled to get it out of you by whatever means necessary. Perhaps studying your internal makeup will provide us with that answer. I'm looking forward to seeing inside of a Vhor." Grim rose from his seat and moved to Wayar. As soon as Grim's hand reached inside the boundary of the rune circle, Wayar's form shifted. A tentacle-like appendage ending in a tiny mouth filled with rows of teeth burst forward from his cheek, wrapping around Grim's forearm and latching on while staying within the boundary of the circle. Grim screamed in agony and pulled away, but Wayar held on tight, keeping him in place. Prism was on his feet in a moment, his bond with Grim sending waves of pain to him. By the time he reached them it was over. Grim had used his contact with Wayar to melt away the tentacle through his control over life force. It was Wayar's turn to scream as the black ooze that had once been his appendage splashed to the floor. Grim staggered backward, and Prism caught him, guiding him away from Wayar. As he settled Grim into the corner, the door opened and Neredos walked through. Veil was just behind him. "Veil was with me when the news came in," Neredos said, glaring at Wayar. "What happened?" "He bit Grim," Prism said, then turned his attention back to his lover. Grim hadn't recovered yet, still clutching at the wound on his arm that seemed to refuse to close. Prism could feel the burning working its way through him, fighting against everything the Fedain had. "Grim broke free, but . . ." "So much poison . . ." Grim whispered hoarsely. "So much more than I've ever felt." Veil glanced between the people in the room but turned her full attention on Grim at those words. She dashed over, pushing Prism out of the way as she clutched Grim's arm. She hissed, recoiling for a moment before returning her hand. "He threw everything he had at Grim," she whispered. "Enough to overwhelm any Fedain, though thankfully not any two." Grim's breathing steadied and he collapsed in the corner, his eyes wide as he stared at Wayar with horror. "Thank you, Veil," he said, "I don't think even Khalis brought me that close to death. It was like he was pumping the poison into me." "Well then," Veil said, "I suppose I'll have to be ready for that. Neredos, I'm going to need you to find any Fedain in the complex and have them waiting down the hall. Could you do that for me?" Neredos nodded and stepped out of the room for a moment, then returned with concern in his eyes. "You're not going to try and touch him, are you?" he asked. "Not after what just happened to Grim." "Wrap him up in air. Every part of him but the smallest stretch of skin. I only need a finger for contact," Veil said. "Reducing contact should decrease his ability to affect me." "She'll be fine," Grim offered. "I was careless, and that was what put me in danger. Just because the rabid dog is caged doesn't mean it can't bite you." Veil nodded in agreement, then looked at Neredos again. "I know you fear for my safety, but this must be done. We want information, and perhaps if I can attempt to read his emotions we'll be able to get something." "Is that what you were going to do, Grim?" Prism asked. Grim nodded. He hadn't emotionally recovered from his near-death experience, a fact abundantly clear through the bond. Prism took his hand and held it tightly, squeezing it for comfort and strength before turning to Neredos. "I think you should let her risk it. Veil isn't one for taking risks she doesn't believe she's prepared for." "If it's all the same to you, I'd really rather none of you touch me," Wayar said, drawing four glares his direction. "Since it will teach you nothing, I'd really prefer if you either—" Neredos hesitated no longer and Wayar stopped speaking as waves of solidified air wrapped around him. Wayar's eyes widened in shock, "I will try to keep him as stable and rigid as possible, which will hopefully prevent him from shifting enough to attack you. There is a small bit of exposed flesh at the back of his head. Go there." Veil bowed in thanks to Neredos before crossing gracefully over to Wayar. "Prism," she said firmly, "if I start screaming, I need you to tackle me immediately. Until those Fedain are here, I'll have to rely on my own healing as Grim is now too weak to assist me. The less contact I have, the better it'll be." "Understood," Prism replied. Veil felt along the barrier of solid air surrounding Wayar's head until she found the hole Neredos had left for her. She slid her finger inside, and her face scrunched in concentration. She winced and sucked air through her teeth, growling. "He's a biter, that's for sure, but he can't get much of a grip on me right now. I'm going to see if I can try to disable him." The barrier of air prevented them from hearing Wayar, but his expression passed through a multitude of emotions, from anger and smugness to fear. He seemed to be struggling, eager to get away from Veil's touch, but there was nowhere for him to go. "I'm inside his mind and . . ." Veil stopped, pulling away for a moment and staring at Wayar in confusion. Turning, she faced the wall, then reached back into the barrier resumed contact with Wayar. "Do any of you know which direction I'm facing?" "South by southwest," Neredos replied. "Why?" "He is drawn there," Veil said. "His mind is connected to another mind, far in that direction. I can almost feel the emotions of that other being as well, a consciousness orchestrating all of this." "You mean one Vhor who controls all the others?" Grim asked, "you found their leader?" "I'm going to try and get more from this link," Veil said. "Maybe if I—" She pulled away with a hiss. Inside the barrier, Wayar's body was vibrating. "The link was just severed. That other consciousness knew I was watching. I think he just killed Wayar to prevent me from learning more." Even as she finished speaking, Wayar's body stopped moving entirely, black energy erupting in fissures along his skin. The fissures widened, spreading black goo across every inch of him. Neredos let go of his barrier, and the goo flooded out, escaping the rune circle and splashing all four of them. "I guess that's the end of our only live specimen," Grim said. "Unfortunately," Veil replied, but we did have one victory. "That we know where the leader is?" Prism asked. Veil shook her head. "That is important, but I think what's more important is what that location is. Based on direction, he's in the middle of the mountains of the Dobraeg." She smiled as she wiped at some of the black substance on her dress. "I think it's safe to say that we just found the gate, gentlemen."
  5. Cynus

    Chapter 18

    Really the reason I went with that magic was just a matter of what felt good in the moment while I was writing it.
  6. Cynus

    Chapter 18

    "So, you all really managed to put your disagreements aside and work together, did you?" Dogo asked, pulling away from the others. "Just like that?" "Well, it wasn't really that smooth," Neredos replied, nodding at his own words as if confirming the memory in his mind. "It took some time for us to mesh our armies. Nearly all the people left in Incaria came to join us during the next two years, and two more large groups of refugees from Oligan migrated to us as well. They had to shelter themselves in parts of the countryside that Odiran hadn't been able to reach in his own scouting missions, so it was understandable why he didn't know about them when I met up with him." Prism spoke next, adding, "We also learned of an ambitious group of Lodani that had landed on the southeastern peninsula of Ultaka and fought their way to Cherrim Pass. To make it through, they had allied themselves with some of the Southern Gor tribes that had been cut off by the demons." "An entire Elrok tribe died helping them," Veil said, sighing deeply. "There were tremendous sacrifices made by that group." "Indeed," Ghayle agreed, nodding solemnly. "There were several Chosen picked from amongst them, though all long dead by now. You will meet them in time, as well." "Anyone we know?" Prism asked. Ghayle nodded and said, "Shaman Evarsh, the last Elrok of the Clan of the Mongoose. She awaits in another dream. The Gor scout, Pharid Chalrankodi, and his bear, Kond is near Evarsh, and sometimes they speak. The Three Sisters of Xalt are here as well, though you only ever met Palkra. There are several more who died along the way, but their feats earned them a place here." "I remember stories of Evarsh. She is well respected in the oral traditions. There are not many who persist after their clan has disappeared, especially not one as advanced in age as she became," Telzath said reverently. "She was an impressive woman," Veil said. "She taught me some things about healing that I didn't know, especially about healing emotions. Her techniques were less magical than practical, however. I don't think I ever would've overcome Tellen's death, if not for her." "She is still an impressive woman," Neredos corrected Veil. "Ghayle just told us that Evarsh is still here, after all." "Many more are not," Veil said. She glanced at Ghayle for a moment, her eyes hard. Then her features softened, and she breathed slowly through her nose. "I wish I had the answers as to why they are not, but I suppose as always, Ghayle only tells us what she wishes." "I'm sorry for your loss," Dogo said. Every other pair of eyes turned toward him with surprise. "Dogo," Prism said, a slight smile creeping onto his face, "that was almost sincere." "It is sincere, Prism," Dogo replied, a bit gruffly. He turned back to Veil, showing no emotion on his face except a tint of conflict in his eyes. "Veil, I see you a bit more clearly now. While I still do not respect your decisions, I can understand why you made them." Veil was stunned, but after a moment, she accepted Dogo's words with a single inclination of her head. "Thank you, Dogo." "So, you said all this happened over the next two years. The war lasted for sixteen, correct?" Dogo asked. "Roughly sixteen and a half, give or take eight centuries," Prism said, chuckling as he glanced at Ghayle. "And still the demons kept coming," Telzath said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Remarkable how you managed to survive, considering how endless their armies were." "Yes, and the Vhor kept up their games," Neredos said. "They were gathering us, trying to get us all to be in one spot. The Gor from the northern tribes made their way south shortly after the second group from Oligan. It wasn't long after that when every living Elrok made their way to Ultaka, all suspiciously with no demons ahead but demonic armies behind them. The Vhor wanted us together, but we didn't know why." "We're still not even sure whose faces they wore during that time. Grim would know best, considering the lengths he went to start tracking them towards the end of the war," Prism added. "I could give you a detailed account of where each one of them was at all times, but not yet," Ghayle interjected. "We have other things to worry about, and the individual movements of each Vhor is a small matter compared to the larger picture." "Do you have something in mind to show us?" Prism asked. Ghayle smiled warmly and gathered them close again. "We have much more to see." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Prism's fingers were lost somewhere in Grim's hair, stroking his lover's scalp. They had just finished bathing, a rare thing for either of them in the last few years. It was as much a matter of lack of opportunity, as lack of plumbing, though their rare visits to the Everbright City afforded them both. Prism was grateful for that, as there was nothing he loved more than Grim's scent when he was freshly scrubbed. But there was much on his mind, and though part of him wanted to flip Grim over and ravage his body, remembrances of the battlefield fought to kill the mood. "Six years, Grim," Prism said quietly, the words coming unbidden to his lips, "We've been fighting this war for six years." "Five and a half at best for you and me, Prism," Grim sighed, leaning into Prism's hand and moaning softly. "And the war itself has gone on for six and a half." Prism chuckled. As strange as it seemed to most people, he loved it when Grim corrected him on the simple details. It made him feel like they were a married couple, even though they'd never pursued any form of legal union. He doubted they ever would, especially if this war never ended. Deciding not to dwell on the hopelessness of the war, Prism took the conversation in a completely different direction. "Fine, but that doesn't change anything. Six years and still no one has seen under Yatha's helmet. At least no one we can find who's alive." "She exposes her hand to the flame like everyone else in the war council. She is clearly not one of the Vhor," Grim replied with a chuckle. It was becoming an old argument at this point. Neither of them really suspected Yatha of being a demon, though her peculiar attachment to her helmet was quite legendary. "Yes, but she could still be working for them. Why else would she always be so cold and distant?" Prism asked. "Maybe because she's a Fedain who doesn't like being shunned?" Grim replied, laughing. Even now, approaching seven years since they first bonded as familiars, Prism loved the way Grim's laughter echoed with his love across the bond. "That theory is just as unfounded as mine," Prism replied, then kissed the top of Grim's head. "Why would she be killing people? You know that she has murdered more than just demons, and without a bit of apparent regret." "So have I," Grim said plainly. Some of his positivity faded, and Prism reviewed his own words, immediately realizing where he'd gone wrong. How had he managed to muck things up so badly? He needed to be more careful. He moved on, knowing his next point would be better received. "But she's from Lodan. I thought all Fedain were purged from Lodan four hundred years ago." "Well, maybe she's only part Fedain?" Grim replied, then pulled away. Prism watched him as frustration bled into the bond. "I don't know, Prism, but she takes wounds all the time that no one, other than a Fedain, could walk away from." "You know something, don't you?" Prism asked. "About her, I mean." Grim sighed and nodded. "I know that she hates me, and that it's in a manner that only other Fedain ever do." "But if she's a Fedain who doesn't care about killing, why does she judge you?" Prism asked, hoping that revisiting the earlier point would not trigger another negative reaction. "I don't know, but maybe—" Grim began, but was cut off by a sharp knock at the door. "Who is it?" He asked. A deep voice spoke through the heavy oak door. "Grandmaster Prism, Lord Grimfaeth, I'm sorry to disturb you at this hour, but your presence has been requested at the Council." "Understood. Thank you for relaying the message," Prism called back. Retreating footsteps in the hall signaled the messenger's departure, and Prism turned to Grim with a bewildered stare. "What do you think that's about? It's the middle of the night!" "Who knows anymore? Ever since we arrived here, they haven't left us alone," Grim replied, sighing deeply. He started looking around, as if trying to find where he had left his clothing. They'd returned from the baths in nothing but towels, as Neredos' palace had its own private facilities just down the hall from their quarters. It seemed silly to dress for traveling such a short distance. Prism nodded. "I am glad that Veil and Neredos have managed to reach an arrangement regarding leadership, though. As good as Veil is with bureaucratic governance, Neredos is a better war commander than she ever was." "Me too," Grim replied. "After the fall of Khadrun, it's a good thing that Neredos was able to step in with his military forces and bring order to our crumbled morale." Grim's face was scrunched in thought as he rose from the bed and continued to look around the room in confusion. Since he was naked, and Prism preferred him that way, Prism saw no reason to help Grim look for his clothing. Instead, he simply lounged back in the bed and let lust fuel him. The bed was comfortable, soft, and warm, and he didn't want to leave. He started stroking himself as he continued the conversation. "To be fair, you and I had plenty to do with that. The southern lines had never had us working our magic before." "You put too much glory on battle, Prism. I'm beginning to think that you like it too much," Grim said absently. "Considering how you're feeling right now." "I'd rather be battling you, here, in these sheets," Prism said pointedly. "I would, too, but we've been summoned by the Council," Grim said, not catching the hint. "They can wait," Prism said, driving all his intention across the bond to Grim. "Yes . . ." Grim moaned, feeling Prism's lust enter him. His body responded immediately, springing to attention as he turned to Prism and saw what was going on at last. Nodding hungrily, Grim dove back into bed, sliding over Prism and kissing him forcefully on the lips. "I suppose they can wait, but you better fuck me hard and fast so it doesn't take too long." "That," Prism said eagerly, "can be arranged." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Neredos resisted the urge to drum his fingers against the table before him. He'd sent the summons to Grim and Prism nearly a half hour ago, and for some reason they had yet to arrive. Every other member of the Council currently residing in the Everbright City was present, including Morga who had rushed up the elevator from Kallen at the summons. He had only arrived a few minutes earlier, but now they were waiting unnecessarily. He normally did not mind waiting, but the circumstances of this current meeting had put him on edge. At the end of the table sat a shirtless Gor who had introduced himself as Kixhan. He'd arrived at Kallen less than two hours ago, and after undergoing tests to determine if he was a Vhor and agreeing to come alone, he had been escorted to the Everbright City. Neredos was certain that, even without weapons or being a demon, this man was dangerous. Nearly every inch of Kixhan's visible flesh bore arcane tattoos. Neredos recognized few of them, but he would've bet his life that each one was magical in some way. Kixhan had said very little, saying he preferred to wait until every available member of the Council was present. Odiran and the two Lodani representatives had not been keen on this demand, although Morga and the two representatives from the Northern Gor tribes seemed to think it completely appropriate, and were waiting patiently. Neredos didn't know which way to act, not in this case, anyway. The only other person who seemed to be neutral was the representative from Incaria, a half-Gor woman named Temys. Thankfully, before the waiting dragged on too much longer, the door opened and Grim and Prism walked through. Neredos rose to his feet and the other council members followed suit as he bowed to his two friends in greeting. "I see you two finally decided to arrive," Neredos said, trying to keep the stiffness out of his voice. "Neredos, what's going on?" Prism asked. "That's King Neredos, you—" Odiran began, but Neredos cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Odiran, Grim and Prism are not required to address me as 'King' any more than you are," Neredos said sharply. "Why were we summoned?" Grim asked. Only then did he take stock of the room, and his eyes widened as he saw Kixhan. Prism also noticed the Gor then, and he mirrored Grim's astonishment. "Grim, Prism," Neredos began, gesturing with his open hand toward Kixhan, "I'd like to introduce you to Kixhan, of the Southern Gor. Their people just arrived. All of them." Prism and Grim both moved to their respective seats, two of the six open ones, bringing the present council members to a total of nine. As Prism sat down, he addressed the room, "The Southern Gor have been fighting at their own fronts. They've allied with us on several strikes, but for the most part they've fought on their own and seemed to prefer it that way." "What has brought you here, Kixhan?" Grim asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously as he turned to Kixhan. "Brothers, could you please show some respect to Kixhan?" Neredos asked. "He has come a long way." "In our experience, few Southern Gor are concerned about respecting us. The only one I know who treated me like I wasn't inferior was exiled for deciding his path differed from that of his tribe," Prism said. "And even when they shared the battlefield in the south, the Southern Gor continued to treat Master Vinhkroludar with contempt, or so I have been told." "That's how you see us, is it? Contemptible and disrespectful?" Kixhan replied, a hint of a smile on his face. He turned away from Prism and looked directly at Neredos. "Well, that's no matter to me. I'm not the one determining my people's path. I am only her representative." "Her?" Neredos asked. "Ghayle," Kixhan replied. Morga and the Northern Gor gasped collectively, and even Temys seemed shaken by the name. Neredos remained unaffected as Kixhan continued. "She has returned to us, and I am simply her speaker. I represent her in all legal forms, as I act only in accordance with her will." "So, you're like a prophet then?" Odiran asked. The tone of the question implied that it came with barely concealed sarcasm, a sentiment that Neredos agreed with completely. "No," Kixhan replied, shaking his head. "I only speak for her in such matters when she herself cannot be present." "So, others have seen this . . . Ghayle?" Neredos asked. "She is coming here now. You will see her soon," Kixhan said. "Is she among your people then?" Grim asked. Neredos watched the Fedain for a moment, considering his sudden pique of interest. Grim had an odd collection of esoteric knowledge in his head, and Neredos wondered how much Grim knew about Ghayle. Was she a legend from his past as well? "No. She is far to the south. In the Dobraeg," Kixhan said. "By 'soon' you must mean a month, at least, unless she has the means of traveling by air," Neredos replied skeptically. Kixhan's slight smile became a full grin. "No. She will travel here before I have finished speaking these words." Spots of blue light appeared in the air; four at first—one central. With three dots orbiting—then the outer three became six, three above and three down, rotating as they separated from the central dot. As soon as the bottom three reached the floor, the top three stopped ascending. All six lower and upper dots spiraled outward then, remaining in synchronous orbit with each other and increasing in speed until they became circuitous rings of light below and above the central light. Tendrils of blue light arced from the rings toward the center, and soon became a swirling vortex as the light from the top met the light from the bottom. The spinning rapidly increased until the vortex became a solid shaft of light large enough to easily encapsulate a man. The lights faded all at the same time, disappearing into the same nothingness they had emerged from. As Neredos' eyes adjusted to the sudden light differential, he became distinctly aware of a bare-breasted woman standing before him. While she had the shape of a Gor, her skin was darker than that of any Gor he had ever seen, and fissures of white light spiderwebbed across her skin. "Teleportation! Impossible!" Neredos heard himself say. "Apparently not," Odiran said, thoughtfully. "I wonder what could accomplish that trick?" There were murmurs from around the room as the others became aware of the Gor woman's arrival. All of them quieted at once as the woman spoke, like a moment of pure quiet before the avalanche of her presence descended upon them. "Hello, Neredos," she said, "I am Ghayle, Queen of the Gor." The room was so quiet that Neredos could hear his own pulse. It was racing, just as fast as that avalanche he had felt before. He wanted to deny the impossible feat he had just seen, to believe it was all an illusion concocted by Kixhan to fool them into accepting the validity of his claims. He latched onto that sliver of doubt and turned it into his lifeline back to sanity. "My wife has told me about you," Neredos said at last. "You don't believe I am who I am?" Ghayle asked, cocking her head to the side. "I have heard of false gods all my life. Sometimes those myths have some basis in reality, but rarely is their omnipotence confirmed in the archaeological record," Neredos said, his resolve to resist this farce growing with every word. Ghayle smiled. It was an expression that felt like Spring while her eyes spoke of Winter. "So, you believe me to be a false God, then?" She asked. Neredos moved away from the table. He wanted to react immediately if this strange entity did anything to attack the Council and couldn't do that as easily with the table between them. "I believe it is far more likely than to believe you are in control of this world. My wife filled me with tales of your splendor. If you are truly so powerful, why have you not defeated the demons?" He asked. Ghayle's gaze followed him like a hawk tracking a mouse. "It is true that my power is not absolute, Neredos. I am not the supreme being, nor am I certain that such a being exists. But I am here to help, now that all the peoples of the world have gathered together against our common threat." "I do not yet believe that you are even real. Why would I trust you at my table?" Neredos asked. "I know you, Neredos. I know you better than you could possibly understand at this time. Let me show you. Behold, the most important thing in your life," Ghayle said and raised her hand. An apparition appeared standing next to Ghayle. One Neredos immediately recognized. It was as she had appeared when they first met, her cloaked and hooded form hiding from the frost in the warm library. He remembered laughing as he flirted with her, and the warmth he felt as she flirted back. "Alazyn!" Neredos gasped, his knees suddenly weak. He reached out to steady himself against the back of one of the nearby chairs. It was Odiran's, and for once in the young man's life, he did not appear to be in control. Odiran was just as awestruck as the others by Ghayle's presence. "I know of your love for her, and every moment you spent thinking about her, both before and after she died. You have built this world for her, but you fight for it for everyone else. Please, allow me to lend my knowledge to your cause," Ghayle said, and though she addressed Neredos directly, her words seemed to touch everyone in the room as if they were personal. "And what role does Kixhan have in this?" Neredos asked. "He is only my voice when I cannot be there. Nothing more, nothing less. He does not command my people, I do," Ghayle said. Neredos shook his head, ignoring the image of Alazyn. She was dead and would remain dead. He would not tolerate her image being used against him. He clutched his denial with a white-hot grip and brought all of his will to bear, forming the runes he would need in his mind. Without looking, he scratched them into the back of Odiran's chair with his fingernail. It didn't matter if they were accurate, or if he'd even scratched the surface at all, as long as he was certain the runes were there. He needed to believe it. They were there; they had to be. "I think this illusion has gone on long enough," he growled. Odiran's chair exploded as Neredos brought his will to bear over it. Keeping his focus, he willed every single shard to take a direct path toward Ghayle. Odiran fell to the floor without a scrap of wood in him as the splinters launched toward their target. As each one neared her, it slowed and fell to the ground as if it had just fallen from a tree. Soon a pile of splinters lay at Ghayle's feet, and she casually strode over them to approach Neredos. "You believe you can destroy me so easily?" She asked. "How . . ." Neredos said, staring at the pile splinters in disbelief. "I have never seen someone break a spell like that." "I am Ghayle, Queen of the Gor," Ghayle said in answer. "I do not come here to be worshiped, nor to be accepted as an absolute power. I do have abilities beyond your understanding, but I do not wish to lead. One of you must do so, not I. I am here to assist, if you will take my assistance." She paused and glanced around the room, adding, "Unless someone else would like to test me?" Neredos stared at her, dumbfounded. After a moment, he spared a glance at the others. Each of them remained motionless, but were nodding at her words. She had come, displayed her power, and left everyone on the Council knowing they stood no chance against her should they make her their enemy. If any of them wanted to protest, they saw little point to do so now. Neredos had already failed, what chance did the rest of them have? "Very well," Neredos said, defeated. "Then we welcome you, Queen Ghayle." Ghayle inclined her head in acceptance of Neredos' words. "A very wise decision, King Neredos. I regret that the Lady Veil could not join us. It is unfortunate that she has traveled so far away at this time." Neredos breathed deeply, collecting himself before returning to his seat. Instead of sitting, however, he slid the chair to Odiran and remained standing. Still refusing to let go of all of his power, Neredos declined to offer a seat to Ghayle. "What aid can you offer us?" He asked stiffly. Ghayle turned back to Kixhan and said, "Kixhan, please give Neredos my gift, and then excuse us. Your task has been completed for today, and I shall rendezvous with you when this is over." Kixhan nodded dutifully and retrieved the satchel that had been sitting next to his chair. Opening it, he withdrew a leather-wrapped bundle and stood, bringing it over to Neredos and setting it before him. He moved back to his chair where he was joined by Ghayle. She sat down as he said something to her in a whisper too quiet for anyone else to make out. Then he withdrew, leaving the room entirely. "Please do not open that here, King Neredos. You and I will discuss the contents of that package when we are alone," Ghayle said. "You can't expect us to leave him alone with someone as powerful as you," Odiran said testily. Despite their earlier awe, the others in the room nodded in agreement with Odiran's statement. Neredos placed his hand on the package and had the distinct impression that what lay beneath its leather wrappings was powerful indeed. "On the contrary, my friends, I believe that is your only option," he said, contemplating the strange turn of events. "Fighting Ghayle is pointless. We should be fighting the demons, not each other." "Can you help us fight the Vhor?" The question seemed to catch everyone off guard, Ghayle included, as it came not from Neredos or Odiran, but from Grim. Grim was watching Ghayle closely, his eyes as sharp as ever. Once again, Neredos had underestimated the Fedain man, as Grim did not seem awestruck at all. Not anymore, at any rate. "In what manner, Grimfaeth?" Ghayle asked. "To find them. To track them, and to dispose of them," Grim replied smoothly. "Grim has become a bit obsessed with them, lately. Ever since we found out there were more than just the one who attacked him near the beginning of the war," Prism offered as explanation. He seemed just as casual as Grim, another factor that Neredos found perplexing. "Yes," Grim said, confirming Prism's words. "It seems they have infiltrated us from many angles. I believe they are a particular thorn in our side." Ghayle nodded, pursing her lips thoughtfully. "Perhaps. I can delve into my resources and see if there is some magic that can help us. Unfortunately, as I'm sure you are well aware, Grimfaeth, demons are not made of quite the same stuff we are. They are beings of life force only, manifested into matter to interact with our world. They cannot perform magic as we do because they are magic in entirety. Their forms are the only thing they can affect with their energy, as they have no connection with the world itself. It is possible that their magic may not be traceable by the magic of the world." "Do you know why the demons invaded this world?" Prism asked as Grim considered Ghayle's point. "I do, Prism," Ghayle replied, bowing her head to Prism. "Then why?" Prism asked. "Because someone opened the gate to let them in," Ghayle replied. "I'm afraid I have no other knowledge to share on the subject." "Gate?" Several people said at once—too many for Neredos to track. The Council was accepting Ghayle completely, now that the initial shock was over. "Indeed," Ghayle confirmed. "If there is a gate, then maybe we can close it?" Morga suggested. "I'm sure it required a spell of some sort, so perhaps if we break the spell, or perform another one . . ." Odiran said thoughtfully. Prism reentered the conversation. "I think we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before we can close any gate, we're going to have to find it." This opened a new series of murmurs as the council members began discussing things amongst themselves, excited by the prospect of finding an advantage in this war. Neredos had to admit, that though he was not fond of the circumstances of the meeting, they had received only good news that day. Ghayle then delivered some more. "In the meantime, my forces are at your disposal, King Neredos. They will follow your orders and those of your generals in times of war, though they will return to their homes in the South as soon as the demons have been beaten." "That is rather generous of you, not to mention optimistic," Neredos said. "I am not a war leader, nor am I a fool," Ghayle replied. "Though a few faces are missing whom I would rather see here, I believe that those of you in this room are amongst the greatest minds facing the demon threat. I put my faith in the combined efforts of all those willing to face the demons together, but for that there must needs be one voice of reason above them all. I believe you are capable, Neredos. Will you rise to the occasion?" The room quieted to hear Neredos' answer. Looking around the room, he saw the eyes of everyone, even Odiran, offering him their full support in this matter. Turning toward Ghayle, Neredos met her gaze and said, "I will." "Then for as long as a demon walks this world, I give you the charge of saving it. You, and all others here, and all those who lead among your combined peoples," Ghayle said, meeting the eyes of everyone in the room in turn. "How will we know when the last demon has fallen?" Grim asked. Ghayle smiled at him, again Spring on her lips but this time her eyes were blossoming as well. She also believed that this meeting had been productive. "I believe that fate will reveal that to us. Signs announced their coming. Surely signs will announce their departure. I believe the first sign is this: we have gathered, and we will fight as one."
  7. Cynus

    Chapter 17

    I was also trying to show why Veil might've been resistant to the idea of mothering Maxthane to any degree. Over the centuries, this emotional wound of hers festered in certain ways.
  8. Cynus

    Chapter 16

    Sibling relationships are hard, especially when there is a lot of bitterness between the siblings over past misdeeds. We've got a few chapters left to see how their association develops. I had the scene in mind for Prism and Zaalf for the entire book, and it took a lot longer to get here than I expected, heh.
  9. Cynus

    Chapter 15

    This is a part I've been eager to reach in this story for a long time. Odiran thulu'Khant is the fourth person mentioned in the entire series (the first three, in order, are Salidar, Fasha, and Neredos), and now I get to explore his connection to Neredos! I hope you enjoy it.
  10. Cynus

    Chapter 17

    The ride to the ruins of Kallen was long and tiresome, especially considering the level of distrust between the travelers. For the past couple of days Grim and Veil kept their distance from each other entirely to avoid fighting. Prism was growing tired of playing peacekeeper for the two of them, but at least there was now silence when they made camp. By the end, there had been several more additions to their group. Wayar had chosen several representatives from among his commanders to accompany him, saying they would bolster the strength of the honor guard for Veil. Among those were two Elroks—including Morga, who had recently been named Chief of Lions—three Gor from the Southern tribes, and a Fedain scientist who had recently become attached to Wayar. Prism and Grim kept mainly to themselves, though they occasionally conversed with Morga about the battle lines at the northern and western coasts. For the past year, Prism and Grim had lent their talents mainly to the east, with a special focus on the southeastern pass leading to the peninsula. The fighting there was reduced to the bottleneck of the pass, and required a smaller, elite force to defend it. Prism and Grim were right at home there, but it meant that they rarely saw any of the other friends they'd made during the war. It had been well over a year since Prism had seen Kaeral, and that made Morga an even more refreshing sight. It seemed Kaeral hadn't taken well to command, and still spent most of his time on the front lines. His son was well, and was kept far away from the fighting. Prism knew as well as anyone that there could easily come a day when Kaeral's son would be orphaned, and that made the news of Kaeral's continued survival all the sweeter. Prism and Grim both avoided Wayar's Fedain scientist as much as possible. She didn't like Grim at all, and hated Prism even more for being involved with a Fedain. Sylvaire was a traditionalist, and still believed the Fedain were superior to Humans, despite the way she clung to Wayar as if he was her savior. In fact, in a way he was, as he had personally rescued her from execution from a mob of angry Humans claiming she was a witch. The Gor kept mainly to themselves. They insisted on being part of this company, as soon as they'd heard of it. Prism hadn't even bothered to learn their proper names, an activity he generally took great pride in. It simply wasn't worth the effort, considering everything else weighing on his mind. Despite the nanites and Grim's healing, Prism was still sore from his tattoos. He wasn't convinced that the enchantment had been pure enough to prevent the metal fragments from tearing apart his system on a constant basis, though it was just as likely that the hard riding had torn open the wounds again and again. It seemed they barely ever took any rest. But then the day came that they crested the hills just east of Kallen and saw the magnificent sight of the Everbright City in the sky before them. It was unlike anything Prism had ever seen. While none of the structures in the city towered as high over the floating platform as the great buildings of Kobinaru once had over the seashore, by hovering in the sky, they were far more imposing. Beneath the city were the ruins of Kallen. Some of the structures of this once magnificent city had rivaled those of Kobinaru, but nearly all of these buildings were burned-out husks now. Kallen had been an ancient city compared to most in Ultaka, and most of its streets were still paved with the old cobblestones favored in centuries past. The streets had recently been cleared of rubble and teemed with life. Thousands upon thousands of people crowded the city, and many more manned barricades that had been erected on the outskirts of the ruins. Prism and the others had ridden up to within a half-mile of that barricade, keeping to the last remnants of hills for some shelter in case the current inhabitants of Kallen viewed them as enemies. It was morning, and the sun rising behind the Everbright City projected its long shadows across the group. In that ominous shade, they could feel the eyes of the watchmen manning the barricades. "Should we go up there, or just wait here?" Wayar asked Veil, riding to the front of the line and placing his horse next to hers. "I don't know . . ." Veil said, shaking her head slightly. It was clear to Prism that the gesture wasn't intended to be observed, but Veil was too lost in thought to control her body language. "We could send a message, perhaps through some sort of magical means?" "What if one of us just rides up there? They wouldn't attack a lone rider, would they?" Morga offered. "This discussion is a waste of time," Grim said, then booted his horse into action. He galloped down the hill toward the city, not bothering to look behind him. "Grim!" Prism shouted. "Blood!" "Watch your tone. Some of us still have our religion," said Sylvaire, riding up next to Wayar. She glared at Prism. It was one of the most aggressive stares he had ever seen from a Fedain. "You keep your religion. My lover is riding off into danger without me, and I'll say what I want," Prism growled. Wayar quickly interjected, riding forward just enough to put his body physically between Sylvaire and Prism. "Sylv, Prism's not one to make into your enemy. He has killed more demons than anyone other than Grimfaeth, you know." "Wayar, I can fight my own battles, thank you," Prism said. "Yes, I know," Wayar said pleasantly, smiling at Prism, in that nonchalant way that never touched his eyes. "That was the point, my friend." "We're not friends, Wayar. We're soldiers in the same army, nothing more," Prism said icily. He glanced toward the city, seeing that Grim had crossed nearly half the distance already. As much as he didn't like making rash decisions, Grim had been correct. Discussion was pointless without current information, and if Grim needed help, he would need it sooner rather than later. "Now, if you'll excuse me . . ." Prism kicked his horse into a gallop as he followed his lover. "Prism!" Veil shouted, but Prism ignored her. He did not ride all the way to the city. He stopped halfway, watching from this closer vantage point as Grim rode directly up to the barricades. The conversation was brief, but none of the soldiers made any aggressive moves against Grim, and soon the Fedain came riding back toward Prism. Grim seemed pleased that Prism had ridden after him, a wave of positive emotion filling the bond between them as soon as he turned around. As Grim approached, Prism returned the huge grin on his lover's face. "What did they say?" Prism asked as Grim reined in. "They said that Neredos will see us, and we're allowed to bring everyone inside, as long as we turn over our weapons and accept a full escort," Grim reported. "That was easy," Prism said, glancing toward the Everbright City with surprise. Grim shrugged. "They didn't seem like enemies. Neredos was working on an alliance with Ultaka just before the revolution, so I saw little reason to tiptoe around the issue." "Yes, but did you have to ride out without any protection at all?" Prism asked sourly. "Even if they attacked me, do you really think they'd be able to kill me?" Grim asked, chuckling. "I've been dancing with demons for two years now, and these are just normal soldiers. Not even well-trained ones, by the looks of them." He glanced back at the barricades, where several of the soldiers almost seemed to be asleep at their posts. Prism sighed and said, "I suppose I can't deny that the risk was minimal, but I'm still not happy about it." "Then you should've ridden out to protect me," Grim replied, grinning. "Oh wait, you did." Prism blinked at the sudden wave of erotic emotion coming through their bond. "When I get you in bed tonight, you're going to be punished for that one . . ." he growled. "I sure hope so," Grim replied, snickering. "Now, how about you and I return to the others. I'm sure they're waiting to find out what we're talking about." "Maybe we should leave out the part about our sex lives?" Prism suggested. "And miss the chance to watch Sylv blush?" Grim replied. Laughing, they turned their horses toward the hills and rode back to the group. They wisely concealed their smiles as they drew near, noting the disdainful looks on the faces of the others. "Could you to not be so hasty next time?" Veil asked as Prism and Grim drew rein. "Was that a request or an order, Veil?" Grim replied sharply. Veil sighed and replied, "A request. Now, would you mind telling us what they said?" Grim quickly relayed all the details he'd received from the Oligani soldiers. He added a few more that he'd left out with Prism, such as implying that Neredos had expected them and left these instructions in anticipation of their arrival. Of course, considering the resourcefulness Neredos and his group had shown so far, this was hardly a surprise to anyone in the Ultakan group. They accepted this news with little more than thoughtful frowns, with Sylvaire frowning most of all. Wayar was not far behind, however, as he said, "I suppose it's as good as we could expect. I don't know that I'm comfortable leaving behind all of our weapons, though." "We still have Grim, Prism, and myself," Veil said. "We're hardly defenseless. And we'll leave most of the troops out here in case we're in need of a rescue." "And I thought you were a better judge of martial prowess, Wayar," Morga said. "If you don't think an Elrok can hold his own in battle, why do you always put us on the front lines?" "Fair enough point, I suppose," Wayar conceded, and his trademark emotionless grin returned. "Very well, if we're all in agreement, then I suppose we can enter at any time." "Let's get this over with," Grim said, turning his horse back toward the city. "The sooner we see Neredos, the sooner we can get back to this war." With that, he galloped toward the city once more. This time, Prism didn't hesitate to follow. The others would come when they were ready, but Grim and Prism always led the way these days. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ "The representatives from Ultaka have arrived, as you expected." Neredos looked up to see Odiran standing before him. How the young man had managed to enter without making a sound, Neredos didn't know, but he hoped he'd find out soon. He was sick of finding people in places he shouldn't. That was happening far too often for his tastes. "They are a few days later than I expected, actually," Neredos replied. "I was certain meeting with us would be their immediate concern." Odiran appeared bored by Neredos' musings. He waved them aside and said, "Yes, but they are here, nonetheless. According to our forward scouts, Lady Veil herself has come." Neredos rose to his feet on creaking limbs that hadn't creaked like that before. "Ah . . ." he said, hoping the expression of enlightenment would cover his groan of pain. "Then that explains the delay. I expected to see a diplomat come in her stead. As the leader of Ultakan resistance against the demons, it makes sense that it would take longer to assemble her honor guard, and to put matters of state on hold." "They are crossing the edge of Kallen now, Neredos," Odiran said. "Regardless of the factors bringing them to us, we must deal with them in our immediacy." Neredos nodded. He appreciated this orderly aspect of Odiran's, though he still betrayed his youth by using such phrases as 'in our immediacy' instead of realizing that most adults simply said 'now'. Odiran had a desire to appear older than he was, and he took every opportunity to fulfill that desire. Sometimes this showed in positive ways, fortunately. Odiran did not dwell on the past, as he considered it childish to do so. The present was the only thing that mattered to him. "Did the soldiers relay the instructions?" Neredos asked. "Yes, they're bringing Veil inside now," Odiran replied as if it was already obvious. "Then I suppose you and I had best get down to the city, don't you think, Odiran?" Neredos said, rising to his feet and clapping Odiran on the arm. Odiran stiffened immediately. After feeling Odiran's reaction, Neredos extended the gesture, resting his hand gently on Odiran's shoulder. "Indeed," Odiran replied stiffly, then started to turn but paused until Neredos released his grip. Together they made their way to the edge of the Everbright City. At several points along that edge, temporary pully systems had been built to create elevators to the ruins below. It had been a simple feat for Neredos' engineers, especially with the labor force they currently had available. Now it was easy for people to travel to and from the city or to transport supplies. Neredos and Odiran had a dedicated elevator waiting for them. They'd had one on standby for nearly two weeks, ever since Neredos first declared that the Ultakans—though not Veil—would be arriving soon. He'd allowed room for error, knowing that his own prediction could be off, though not by much. He had only been off by a few days, but there were factors he'd not expected. But Veil herself had come. What a surprise! Neredos had wondered for nearly two years about the mysterious noblewoman who had managed to gain control of Ultaka. She had to be a formidable woman indeed, and Neredos would have to be at the top of his game to obtain the result he wanted from this encounter. What he hoped for was a shared vision with Veil about how they would win this war. Neredos didn't plan on asking for much in return but would settle for nothing less than allowing his residents to stay in Ultaka, if they desired. But that thought only increased his anxiety. They'd planned ceremony and pomp, as if these were normal times with normal rules of diplomacy. Neredos didn't have any real desire to impress Veil; he only wanted her cooperation. But still Neredos walked straight for the one building still standing in Kallen that had an intact roof. There were several holes in the walls, however. Odiran had ordered that these walls be repaired as soon as possible once Neredos was certain an Ultakan representative would be coming. They had been patched together with rubble and mortar, and now the building was whole again. It would have to suffice for their grand hall. Though there were many such places available in the Everbright City, until Neredos and Odiran were certain that Veil and her company could be trusted, they would not be allowed entrance to the city above. No, Kallen would have to do. But did they really need all the ceremony? The thought continued to weigh on Neredos' mind as they entered the building and assumed their spots in the throne room. That was what Odiran had called it anyway. It was the second-largest room in the building, and once cleared of rubble the beams holding the ceiling had been decorated with two banners. One bore a sunburst of golden yellow on red. It was supposed to signify the Everbright City and Neredos himself, or so Odiran said. The other was a black banner with white trim. Odiran had mentioned that he preferred simplicity, and there was little reason to adorn his with any symbol at all. As soon as they were both seated—Neredos in his red-cushioned and dark wood armchair and Odiran in his ornately carved wooden chair beside it—Neredos leaned over to Odiran and asked, "Don't you think the titles we selected are a bit too pompous?" Odiran stared at Neredos like he was an idiot. "We discussed this, Neredos. At length. If we want to make sure that Ultaka respects us, we can't come here as refugees. We are a colony, here to ally ourselves to the native power." "Still, I'm not fond of the title," Neredos grumbled. "You'll grow into it, I'm sure," Odiran replied. "Those who reside within your city already look to you as their one and only leader. You've already done so much for them, so who else would lead them?" "I notice you keep using the word 'them'. I trust that means that you don't afford me the same respect?" Neredos asked. Odiran offered Neredos a rare genuine smile. "Would you believe me if I told such a lie?" Neredos chuckled and replied, "Definitely not." "Titles can be inspiring," Odiran said, turning to face forward again. "I was never particularly inspired by them," Neredos replied. "Well, you're not one of the simple ones, are you?" Odiran stated, more than asked. "You've always tended toward complex things. But trust me, in times of crisis, the people need a leader. And it's a lot easier to respect a leader if he has a proper title." Neredos snorted and said, "But titles don't solve anything." "Inspiration alone can be a solution," Odiran countered. Neredos chewed on that thought for a moment, wondering at the truth of it. On the one hand, he had seen many intelligent people give their lives for patriotism, which was something he could not understand for himself. Why people would die for a nation was beyond him. But they must have been inspired to do so. Perhaps that was why people liked reading about heroes of war or watching newscasts of politicians' speeches. They felt inspired to action, or inspired to perpetuate the actions of others, anyway. Foolish thoughts, as far as Neredos was concerned. In his mind, the individual had to decide for themselves which way they wanted to act. They had to decide what king of world they wanted to create. That was the only way forward. But if the people didn't want to choose their actions, perhaps it was better if those actions were chosen for them. Perhaps. He glanced at Odiran and found the young man sitting confidently and facing the door. Calm and collected, as always. Odiran was always three steps ahead of everyone else. Did that make him better or worse for deciding the fate of others? The door at the far side of the room opened. An older woman, to whom Neredos had assigned the office of herald, walked through it and immediately bowed once inside. After straightening, she proclaimed, "To the Shining King Neredos of the Everbright City and Underking Odiran thulu'Khant of Oligan, I present the Lady Veillynn of Ultaka, and her entourage. Lord Grimfaeth of Ultaka, Grandmaster Prism of the Order of the Mountain, General Wayar Fashalmanis of Ultaka, Chief Morga of the Lion Clan, and Edrar Valihkrabin of the Southern Gor." The second-most beautiful woman Neredos had ever seen walked through the door. Veil's skin glittered like diamonds beneath her white-blonde hair. Even though she was dressed in riding clothes, they had been kept as clean as the road would allow. In her case, the road had apparently bent to her will and thrown little dust at her at all. She had eyes as sharp as daggers, but they were sheathed. Neredos was left without any doubt as to how quickly she could draw them, however. Both men following immediately behind her were just as impressive in their own ways. A human wrapped in cloth and leather, obscuring his form where his stance did not. This must be Prism, the Grandmaster of the Order of the Mountain. A formidable man, certainly, but he walked as if the ceremony mattered little to him at all. He was here to defend the mission, not to deal with Neredos. As Neredos turned his attention to Grimfaeth, he felt his first moment of indecision. He didn't know what to make of the man who was so clearly Veil's brother. He had all the same features, the same beauty and resonance, but he was somehow . . . different. Detached almost. Neredos decided Grim would bear watching, to determine if he was a threat or not. The Elrok was a man of quiet dignity. Circumstance had led Neredos to study various aspects of Elrok culture since the war began. The engraved tattoos on Morga's body indicated that he was not only Chief of Lions but had been a Sub-Fletcher before. That marked Morga to be a powerful warrior indeed, and likely more than capable of killing most everyone in this room. Neither of the others gained Neredos' attention. The Gor Chief was an old veteran, for certain, but lacking his weapons he would be easy enough to handle. The other Human, General Wayar, gave Neredos pause for only a moment. Just long enough for Neredos to figure out that the reason he didn't like the man was that he smiled as often as Odiran didn't. Too much. "Thank you for receiving us so warmly, King Neredos," Veil said, presenting herself to Neredos directly and bowing slightly. "I was pleased to find you so open to diplomacy. Thank you for offering to feed the rest of my soldiers." Neredos stood and stepped forward, with Odiran following smoothly behind. Stopping after walking forward several feet, Neredos said, "You are welcome to our halls, though sparse they may be in this age. We've prepared a small feast to welcome you. It is a humble affair, given the state of the world, but it will hopefully be enough to sate you after your long journey." "Diplomacy would suit me better than food," Veil replied, looking up to meet Neredos' gaze. She'd drawn the blades in her eyes just enough to show their steel, then sheathed them again. "But in the interest of getting to know one another, we will accept your gracious offer." "Then, if you'll please join me in the next room," Neredos said, gesturing to a door. It led to the largest room, where a long table had been set for the occasion. The cooks and servants had been on standby during the past two weeks as well, ready to throw a feast together at a moment's notice. Guards stepped forward to form an escort for the party. With Veil taking the lead again, they left for the dining hall. "Accept . . ." Odiran muttered so only Neredos could hear. "Who does she think she is?" "A visiting dignitary, with a title," Neredos said, "and a far more legitimate one than ours. She knows it, too, and that is where your ploy backfires, Odiran. We're dealing with an actual noblewoman, not some peasant who would be King like we are." "I don't trust her, Neredos," Odiran said. "I do. I see more reason to trust her than anyone I've seen in a long time. She knows who she is, she knows who we are, and she doesn't care. She's here to talk, and that's exactly what I want to do," Neredos replied. They followed the group after everyone else had been directed to their seats. As Neredos and Odiran entered, each of their visitors were standing before their chairs. Only after Neredos and Odiran took their seats at the head of the table did the others take theirs. Before the meal was served, a lit candle was passed around the table, each person directed to place their hand over the flame to prove they were not one of the Vhor. Only Wayar originally declined, saying that he'd been afraid of fire ever since he was a boy. After Neredos and Odiran insisted, however, he stuck his gloved hand over the flame and held it there for several seconds. This was enough to satisfy Neredos, although Odiran still seemed unconvinced. Neredos wanted to scream at the absurdity of it all, but instead he began talking about the soup course. It was the proper thing to do. Eventually, conversation started to move away from benign platitudes and small talk. It was shortly into this period that Veil asked, "So, tell me, Neredos, how was your voyage across the ocean?" "It went surprisingly well, albeit slow," Neredos said. "I'm sure it is a matter of our numbers. Our numbers protected us from demons and made us take much longer to arrive. We barely made it here in time for the planting season, but at least we managed to make use of some of the land." "We have only recently been able to return some attention to farming ourselves, and we ask that for the time being you do not interfere with our farmers. We are open to trade negotiations, however, should you need anything," Veil replied. "How generous," Odiran muttered. This time he did not make an effort to conceal his words, and Veil glanced at him with surprise. "Underking Odiran is skeptical about your willingness to ally yourselves with us," Neredos explained, resisting the urge to glare at his associate. He was sick of this farce, and it was time to shatter it as he had every other illusion in his life. Meeting Veil's eyes, he continued. "I have never borne the misfortune of being labeled a diplomat, and I don't intend to play this by traditional political maneuverings. We have come to your land because we believe we are stronger together, and I don't wish to waste our time talking about such foolish things as trade agreements. Of course, we're willing to make trade agreements if necessary, but more importantly, are you willing to work with us to defeat the demons?" "Yes," Veil replied immediately, and her face showed her complete relief. "And I appreciate you speaking your mind. I am so tired of politics, and I do not mind saying so in this company. We have all fought long and hard over these years, and that's what has earned us this right to be in the room together. But every single citizen still living has earned that right as well. This is not about politics anymore, is it? No, it's about survival. For all of us." Neredos chuckled softly and replied, "Well said, Lady Veil. I think we can all agree then to push our doubts aside and figure out how to win this war." "I couldn't agree more," Grim and Morga said at once. They looked at each other in surprise, forgetting everyone else around them. Neredos put them out of his mind, his attention on Veil. "For the first time in three years, I actually have hope that this war might be winnable," Veil said. "And I cannot thank you enough for giving me that gift, King Neredos." That relaxed the tension in the room like ice melting away in Spring. They moved through the courses of the meal, everyone engaging in conversation, having moved past the rigid small talk from before. All was going well until a commotion sounded from the other room. "Odiran, did you ask for refreshments?" Neredos asked. Odiran shook his head, staring toward the door with equal confusion. "I did not." One of the eagle riders entered the room, bowing immediately to Neredos and Odiran before relaying her message. "My Kings, I come bearing unfortunate news. Khadrun is under siege. It was attacked shortly after the Lady Veil's party left the city." Veil rose to her feet, addressing the woman directly. "By the Blood, what happened?" "It seems the demons broke through the lines on the southwest; a huge wave of them," the eagle rider applied. "The scout reported that they are sweeping over the walls with a frenzy unlike anything we've yet seen." "We'll martial our forces immediately. We will go to their defense," Neredos said. Turning to the eagle rider, he said, "Relay my orders to the Everbright City, and get as many soldiers on their way south as soon as possible." "It's nearly a week's hard ride away," Wayar said, shaking his head. "The city is already doomed. We will have to stop the demons elsewhere. Hopefully we can rendezvous with whatever survivors may have escaped." "We're faster than horsemen, General. We will send eagles first, and the rest of us will travel on foot. We'll adjust our battle plan as we go," Neredos said, walking toward the edge of the room. "Do you think it's wise for you to leave the city at this time, Neredos?" Odiran asked. "People are in trouble, Odiran," Neredos said. "The war is all that matters right now. I leave our people in your capable hands, but for now I go to battle." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ New scouting reports halted the advance of Neredos' forces, and they returned to the Kallen the same day they left it. Khadrun was taken, and razed to the ground like so many other cities had been. But Ultakan forces had managed to regroup to the northeast, led by Yatha and her cavalry. They were holding steady now, having defeated the tremendous force that had come against the city. Little of the news was good. Many had died in the attack, including most of Veil's bureaucratic leadership. Despite what that meant for the war, there was one other death which affected Veil even more. She didn't bother looking up from her room in the Everbright City when the door opened. She knew it was Grim, just from his presence. He might've changed over the past few years, but enough of him remained that he still brought the same feeling to a room when he entered it. "Tellen is dead," Veil said softly. She was up against the wall, staring at the floor, numb and uncertain about what to do next. "I heard," Grim said, approaching her. He stopped several feet in front of her. Veil did not look up. "I'm sorry," Grim went on, "Khadrun is just a smoking ruin now, but he died defending it. I'm sorry I called him 'just a bureaucrat'. He was clearly an honorable man." "He was more than that," Veil whispered. "I know that too." "Why are you here, Grim?" Veil asked, still staring at the floor. Grim settled next to her and handed her a bottle. It was a label she recognized well. "This was father's favorite wine," Grim said. "I thought you might like to share a bottle. Since Kallen was destroyed by rebels, not by demons, apparently they're still scrounging stuff up from storage rooms buried in rubble. Seems there's still some of the old Ultaka left." Veil stared at the bottle without taking it. "I've lost so many people, Grim." "Consider one no longer lost," Grim replied, uncorking the bottle and taking a sip. She finally looked up at him, finding his eyes unreadable in her current state. "Does that mean you forgive me? Is this a matter of pity?" Grim gestured with a bottle, and after Veil took it, he said, "No. But it is a matter of you understanding loss. You want to know why I killed someone. I did it for the love of my life. What would you do to bring Tellen back?" "Anything. Anything at all," Veil said, taking a sip of the wine. It was a good vintage, and she followed it with a much heartier gulp. "There is one thing a Fedain is completely incapable of doing. We can't bring anyone back from the dead, not if they've been dead too long, anyway," Grim replied, taking the wine back and drinking from the bottle before handing it to Veil again. "When I killed that man back at the Temple, I was presented with a choice. I chose to save the life of the man I loved, because I knew I couldn't bring him back if I failed to save him." Veil nodded slightly. "I understand, Grim. I only wish . . ." Her stomach was tied in knots with her emotions. Hands shaking, she lifted the bottle to her lips again, taking a long drink from it. "What?" Grim asked. "I only wish I'd been ready to be a mother," Veil replied. Overcome by the emptiness she felt inside of her soul, heart, and womb, she collapsed against Grim's shoulder, wetting it with tears. He wrapped his arm around her, and both cried until their hearts were as empty as the bottle they finished between them.
  11. Cynus

    Chapter 14

    The road to hell is paved in good intentions, might be how the Church of Blood looks at it as well, when condemning Veil. I think it's safe to say that all paths we take in life are winding, no matter how straight we think they are.
  12. Cynus

    Chapter 16

    "So, are we to assume that this journey with Odiran is what ended up bringing you all together?" Telzath asked, looking around at the others. "Pentalus was built in one of the ruins of Ultaka, no?" "That is correct, Telzath," Neredos said. "We cleared out the burned and melted rubble of Kallen. The name survived rather well, considering the years. The Plains of Kalle were named such around seven hundred years ago." "The circumstances of our first meeting are quite interesting as well," Prism added. "The war was actually going well at that point, in comparison to how it had gone in the time before." "Then perhaps we should show them, don't you think?" Ghayle suggested. "Were you present there as well, Ghayle?" Dogo asked. Ghayle shook her head. "Not yet, but soon. My work remained in the south, bringing knowledge back to my people as they also worked to fight off the demons. Kixhan was quickly building my reputation among the Gor, just as these heroes had their reputations forged among the Humans and Fedain." "When did everyone get together, then?" Telzath asked. "There are legends, but even with Elrok memory there are errors in our oral tradition." "I will take you there soon," Ghayle replied. "For now, however, I will take you to the moments before, when the world began to notice The Trial itself." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Neredos had never seen the ocean so silent. Ahead of them stretched nothing but open water, as it had for nearly a week. The Everbright city could move no faster than the slowest ship in Odiran's fleet, or risk spreading the defenses too thin to guard the entire group. But he had not expected to encounter so little along the way. No demons stood to challenge them, though a harrying force occasionally followed them and attacked their flanks. It was as if they were reminding Neredos and his company that the way ahead was clear, but to move backward would be folly. He'd had many strange thoughts of late, ever since waking up from being attacked by one of the Vhor. He wasn't sure if it was the demonic poison Odiran had claimed to have purged from him—or if Odiran himself had done something through the healing ritual—but something was happening to Neredos' mind. He was losing it, piece by piece. The demons had shown some sense of rationality, but they still seemed to be a destructive force without primary purpose other than the annihilation of civilization. The Vhor had added a new angle to that, one that showed cunning and manipulation of events. It was enough to make Neredos want to jump at every shadow, and to distrust everyone around him. There was one exception to that, though Neredos hated that exception. Odiran faithfully proved he was not a Vhor before every meeting, and insisted that everyone else do the same. Despite knowing that Odiran was not a demon, Neredos rarely felt at ease when the other man was in the room. He understood the underlying hatred in Odiran's eyes; Neredos had killed his father, or at least caused his death. That was enough to send chills down his spine every time he looked at the younger man. That was another possible explanation for the mental degradation Neredos was noticing within himself; guilt. Shame. The pressures of leadership were beginning to take their toll on him, especially now that he felt he could no longer trust those he had trusted before. It hadn't helped that there were still at least two Vhor on the loose. No one had been able to track what had become of Chief Valdrek, or the one who had impersonated him. And Odiran still claimed there was one loose among his people. Either one could be waiting at any moment to spring a trap, assassinate someone important, or simply overhear key conversations. Worse, like the other demons, there could be many more than just two. All the possibilities were driving Neredos mad. He wanted to scream in frustration, and lash out at others, but he knew that would only serve to fuel whatever discord the Vhor strove to weave into his ranks. No, he would have to silently observe, waiting for them to play their hand. Watching the ocean, knowing the storm would soon hit. "Where are they?" Neredos turned at the unexpected question and was surprised to see Odiran joining him at the city's edge. Odiran made regular trips by eagle between the ships below and the flying city, making sure to maintain coordination between the two allied factions. "Excuse me? Where are who?" Neredos asked, not sure if he'd heard Odiran correctly. "The demons," Odiran replied, gesturing to the open water ahead of them. "Why are they letting us move unhindered?" "You noticed that too?" Neredos asked. Odiran snorted. It was among the few displays of emotion that he would often express. One of the small, subtle differences between Odiran and his father. Odiran could display emotion, during those rare moments that he remembered he was a young man. "It's hard to miss," he said, giving Neredos an impatient look. "I agree. I'm glad I'm not the only one to notice, however," Neredos replied, nodding. "It makes me wonder why the demons came in the first place, and what their motivations are." "My grandmother always said, 'If you seek learning, serve truth'. It sounds a little awkward in the modern tongue, but . . . she always explained it as, 'if you want to understand something, you have to accept what is already in front of you'. The demons have a plan for us, that much is certain," Odiran said. "And where do the Vhor fit in?" Neredos asked. Odiran considered the question for only a moment before answering. "The puppet masters, surely." "But can we be certain of that? How do we know they don't serve a greater purpose than their own?" Neredos asked. Odiran scrunched up his face in confusion and gave Neredos a sidelong glance. "What's your basis for that?" He asked. "Everything we've seen so far has indicated that they are manipulating us, driving us into position." "When I killed that first Vhor, just before you arrived, the other one . . ." Neredos paused to gather his thoughts, remembering the day he'd nearly died. "He told me about the Vhor and tried to keep his cover. If he was acting independently . . ." Neredos shrugged helplessly. "I think he would've tried to kill me first, to avenge his companion, without trying to maintain his disguise. I saw the desire for vengeance in his eyes. It takes a very strong reason to suppress that level of anger." "Can you be certain a demon can even feel desires for vengeance?" Odiran asked. His tone sounded academic, rather than doubtful. He didn't disbelieve Neredos' claim, only wanted to explore all the options before drawing his own conclusion. Neredos could respect a man like that, even if Odiran wanted to kill him. "When you kill an Aika, its bonded mate seeks out vengeance on the battlefield. This has been observed countless times now," Neredos replied. "I'm certain." "What do you think are their motivations then?" Odiran asked. "If vengeance is not their first choice . . ." Neredos nodded and continued his thought. "I think that they wanted me alive. For whatever reason. I think they want all of us in this group alive, for whatever reason. That's why there are no demons ahead, only behind." "Unless we're heading directly into a trap," Odiran countered. "Precisely." "Do you think we should turn around? Deviate from our plan?" Odiran asked. "No. I think we'll gain more insight by 'serving truth', as your grandmother put it. We already know they're watching us and have changed their plans because of us more than once. We won't gain any more insight, other than another confirmation, by deviating from this course. But if we hold true, we will find what awaits us," Neredos replied. And he was surprised to see a genuine smile on Odiran's face when the young man replied, "Then full speed ahead. Commit to truth, and let's find out what awaits us." "Agreed," Neredos said. "To the eye of the unseen storm, and shadows beyond the light." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Veil steadied herself against the desk and rose to her feet, taking a moment to catch her breath. She felt faint, dizzy even, and was nearly certain she would fall over if she didn't take her time. There had never been a more important meeting in her life than the one before her now. She glanced at Tellen, who stood beside her, ready to offer aid if she requested it. She'd wanted him here, not so much for his prestige and importance as would suit her typical guests, but on account of love. She needed his emotional support, because this encounter would be difficult. Composing herself, she walked around the desk to face the doorway, trying to imagine she was in her father's study. About halfway around, her step faltered as she realized imagining her father's study made it worse. There was too much emotional weight to that distant memory and that place ruined by time. Enough emotion to drown her a hundred times over if she allowed herself to feel it. Why had she even wanted to go there? No, that was easy for her to understand, she realized a moment later. It was because this moment was about family, and that had instinctively pulled her back to her last memories of family. It wouldn't do to stay there, however. She had to move forward. She nodded to the man standing by the door, her personal clerk who had relayed her visitor's arrival. With a curt bow, the clerk opened the door and stepped into the hallway. "Lord Grimfaeth?" He said. "The Lady Veil will see you now." Veil heard an unintelligible curse, and then Grim walked toward the door, fixing the clerk with an icy stare. "She would use that name. So, it's about title and rank, is it?" "I'm sorry?" The clerk asked, blinking. "No matter. Forget I said anything at all," Grim said. The clerk bowed and gestured toward the open doorway. "If you'll please step inside." Grim walked inside and bowed deeply, his body stiff and movements methodical in obvious disdain. As he straightened, he turned his glare on Veil. "Duchess Veillynn, daughter of Selfaeth and rightful heir to the throne of Ultaka, how may I be of service to you today?" He asked with badly concealed bitterness. "Grim, don't be like that," Veil said gently. "Ah, so now you give me that tone of affection? You announce me publicly as 'lord' but think you can address me familiarly in private?" Grim asked, though his eyes soon flicked over to Tellen, looking him up and down before returning his gaze to Veil. "Well, almost private." Tellen opened his mouth to respond, and Veil immediately raised her hand to stall him. Before he could say anything at all, Veil ordered, "Tellen, please excuse us." "Are you certain, Veil?" Tellen asked with surprise. "Quite. I'm safe with my brother, I assure you," Veil replied firmly. Tellen stared skeptically at Grim and said without any attempt to conceal his words, "Isn't your brother a murderer?" To Veil's surprise, Grim did not stiffen at the label Tellen applied to him. Whatever had happened in the years since they had seen each other, he had changed. But despite that, Veil knew she could trust him as well as she always could. "Tellen, please," she insisted. Tellen held her gaze for a moment, then turned and walked toward the door. He paused briefly just after passing Grim, looking over his shoulder for a moment to study Veil's brother. His face clouding over, he shook his head slightly before exiting the room. As soon as the door was closed after him, Veil straightened her skirt and faced Grim directly. "Now, will you please calm down so I can apologize?" She asked. "What?" Grim asked, eyes widening. "I want to apologize," Veil said, clearing her throat awkwardly. It had been a long time since she felt this unsettled by anything at all, and even maintaining eye contact with Grim was a struggle. "You disowned me, publicly decreed I was no longer a Fedain, and then turned your back on me," Grim said, barely containing a snarl. Veil opened her arms in a welcoming gesture. "Yes, and now I'm here, arms extended, trying to make it up to you. Why do you think I used your title publicly? I was trying to establish your legitimacy, not create more distance between us." Grim's face remained as serious as ever as he replied, "Why now? What changed?" Veil nodded. She'd expected this, him needing an explanation. Grim always thought far too deeply about things for his own good, and she knew he wouldn't accept her on words alone. She had to be vulnerable. She had to offer him truth, or all he would see from this point forward would be lies. "I've done harm, Grim," she said slowly. "I used Fedain healing to cause harm. If I can justify doing so, then . . . I suppose you have your reasons, and I can respect that. I haven't killed anyone, but . . . I think I understand what it's like to feel that sometimes pain is necessary." "You're talking about the Quay disease," Grim replied flatly. "I am," Veil said. "I was the one who figured it out, who cracked the code." "I see," Grim replied. "So . . . I've invited you here to ask your forgiveness . . ." Veil hesitated, waving her hands frantically to stall Grim's reaction. "No, I just ask that you hear my apology, I suppose. I know things will never be the way they once were between us, but I'm hoping that in time we can repair some of the damage." Grim bit his lip thoughtfully, and for the first time since entering the room, he seemed uncertain. It seemed ages before he responded. "Possibly, Veil, though I wouldn't hold out hope for much." "I was wrong, Grim," Veil said softly. It was becoming easier to meet his gaze, to communicate her intent. The more she opened her feelings, the more she was willing to admit, the more receptive he became. "I was wrong about you, about disowning you . . . I was wrong about a lot of things. There's so much I wish I could change about how things happened between us over these past few years." "Is that so?" Grim asked. Veil could tell from his eyes that he didn't believe her. She had wounded him deeply. Deep enough that the injury was far from being healed. At one point she had wanted to cure his depression, but instead she had only scarred his soul further. How had she traveled so far from her intended road? She regained some of her composure, hoping to try another approach. "I know Father wouldn't want us to fight," she said softly. "He'd want us to work together in this crisis." "We are working together. You're keeping the people organized, I'm killing the demons. I have Prism with me, and you have your . . ." Grim glanced to the spot where Tellen had stood moments before, then back to Veil's eyes as he finished with disgust, "bureaucrats." Veil wanted to challenge Grim on his choice of word for describing Tellen, but in her current open-minded state, she also knew the truth of it. Tellen was a better bureaucrat than he'd ever be a general. While he had been a great bodyguard to Veil, he was much better suited to the small scale than he was to commanding the entire campaign. The war had been going well, overall, for the past few months, but that had only made Tellen's inadequacies more apparent. Nearly all the recent errors that had led to great losses of life lay at Tellen's feet. At least the bulk of his sub commanders knew what they were doing, and could work around his orders when necessary. But she was not here to talk about the state of the war, though she knew it was important to Grim and used it as her next talking point. She stepped closer, close enough to smell the sweat and dirt of the road on him. He had come straight here, without taking any time at all to freshen up. Even as her nose turned slightly, she admired that about her brother. Wanting to reach out to him, she instead kept her hands firmly at her side as she said, "We could be fighting this battle alongside each other, you know. Imagine if you were here, backing me up with all the legends you've already made for yourself. Prism too." Grim scoffed incredulously, his eyes meeting hers with bewilderment. After a moment, he chuckled, then trampled over all Veil's attempts to keep them talking about her apology. "They call him the Dark Monk now. It's the way he seems to teleport from shadow to shadow, and demons and men alike never see him coming." Veil sighed, realizing Grim was now done playing by her rules. "Where is Prism now? I invited him as well. Surely the invitation was properly addressed?" "Yes . . ." Grim said neutrally. He hesitated for a moment, then continued, "He has an appointment with a friend of ours. Something that should help him turn the tide of this conflict." "You could take me to him if he won't come to me," Veil suggested. "There's something important I must go over with both of you. Regardless of whether you are willing to hear my apology, I'm afraid this request is vital and not negotiable." Grim bowed low, almost as mockingly as he had when he'd entered the room, but just a touch less. That slight variation was enough to give Veil some hope, and Grim's tone as he answered was lighter as well. "As you wish. Your bodyguard will not be welcome, however," Grim said with a sneer. "Then we'll sneak out," Veil replied, forcing a smile. "For old time's sake." A smile briefly flickered onto Grim's face and then disappeared completely. "You were never very good at that," he said softly. Veil grinned, encouraged by the slight changes. "I've learned a thing or two in the last few years. Let me show you how I get out of here at night when I want to walk the streets." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Prism gripped the sides of the table until his knuckles turned white, growling at the needles piercing his skin. They just kept coming, and aside from a brief resting phase, had been since the morning of the day before. It was a necessary evil, as far as Prism was concerned, but he was ready for the entire tattooing process to be over. "Zaalf, you had best figure out some way to finish it this session, or I swear I'm going to kill you. I'm sick of laying naked on your table," he growled, glancing over his naked back at the Gor standing over him. Zaalf was middle-aged for a Gor. Kaeral called him uncle, but so did most every other Gor—and the few Humans and Fedain—who knew him. He was known to be an angry drunk but was even angrier sober. Alcohol was in short supply now that the world lay in shambles. The drugs Zaalf had used to supplement his alcoholism were rarer still. Still, Zaalf tended to have a fondness for Prism and Grim, still remembering the first time they met, when the pair had decided to get matching Familiar tattoos. As such, Zaalf's usual anger wasn't very strong as he replied, "That's not the monk I know. You're much too angry." Prism growled testily, "Get on with it Zaalf. I'm sick of being here." "Come on, I'm not that hard to look at, am I?" Zaalf asked with mock sweetness. "You spent all this time naked with me, I must be doing something right to keep you here." "Finish. Your. Work," Prism said forcefully. Zaalf cackled like the madman he was and set the needles to Prism's skin again. When Prism had first requested this tattoo, Zaalf had stared at him like he was crazy. It was a dangerous request, and one that most people would not be able to survive. But Prism was not most people, and the nanites coursing through his veins could repair his systems almost as fast as a Fedain could. The tattoos themselves consisted of thin, silvery lines that crisscrossed over most of Prism's exposed flesh. Those lines were full of small metal fragments comprised primarily of several pounds of steel dust. The magic in the tattoo would prevent Prism's body from suffering the effects of having so much metal in his bloodstream, but that magic would not be activated until the tattoo and the enchantment ritual were complete. Since Prism wanted his tattoos to interconnect, he couldn't afford to do it in stages, each with its own enchantment, to give his body time to heal. Instead, he trusted in his nanites to keep him alive while Zaalf worked around the clock to finish the job. Once the tattoos were complete, they would allow Prism to add significant momentum to each of his attacks. Though his training and experience both allowed him to hit harder than the average man, demon hide was often thick and durable, and anything Prism could do to break through it was worth the risk. According to Zaalf's promises, the tattoos would allow Prism to gather the extra metal in his blood all to one location, and make each punch and kick land like a hammer blow. Zaalf had finished with ninety-percent of the tattoo, but that only meant there were several hours to go. Prism had spent more time naked in the last two days than he had at any other time since the war began, including his year with Grim in the Dorram. To make matters worse, Zaalf kept his makeshift tattoo parlor in a large tent susceptible to frigid Spring drafts. The Gor loved the cold. Prism missed the heat of the Dorram. A cold wind whipped into the tent as if in answer to Prism's thoughts. He shivered, and that made the needle go in sharper than usual. Even through Prism's own pain, he felt Grim wince in the distance. "Oh for the Blood's sake! Why are you coming here, Grim?" Prism said, glaring at the tent wall and feeling Grim approach. Grim was supposed to be meeting with Veil, and the city where Veil had established her headquarters was nearly four hours away by foot. It was the perfect amount of distance. "Should I pause? I know you didn't want him to feel the procedure," Zaalf said. "No, he knew he should stay away. If he came here, it's his own damn fault. Finish," Prism said, then lay back down sullenly. "As you wish," Zaalf said, then returned his needles to the back of Prism's right thigh. Another half hour passed before Grim arrived at the tent, walking straight there and wincing every time Zaalf poked Prism's flesh. The reverberation of the pain was enough to make Prism want to scream. Both he and Grim had adjusted to feeling each other's injuries during battle, but this was a constant, nagging pain, and entirely different. As soon as Grim walked through the door, Prism didn't bother to look up, he simply kept his face turned to the side as Zaalf continued working. "Grim! What are you doing here?" Prism asked. "Veil wanted to see you," Grim said neutrally. "She did, did she? What the hell for?" Prism asked, looking up as he felt Grim's frustration through the bond. Then he noticed Veil standing next to Grim, staring at Prism's naked body. "You'll have to excuse me," Prism said with a slight snarl. "I'm in the middle of something, as I'm sure Grim's winces have told you by now." "What are you doing?" Veil asked, her eyes studying Prism's body like it was a work of art. "I'm getting a tattoo. What does it look like?" Prism said, glancing at Grim for explanation of Veil's presence. Grim simply shrugged and shook his head helplessly. "A particularly dangerous tattoo. Why are there so many people distracting me?" Zaalf said, putting down his needles to look at Grim and Veil. Prism sighed when he felt Grim's relief. The needles were getting to the Fedain. "We can take a few minutes," Prism said. "A few, and no more." "As you wish," Zaalf said, but then his tone turned frosty as he moved his supplies out of the way. "Finish, he tells me," he grumbled. "Then he stops the first chance he gets. What is wrong with this generation?" Shaking his head in disgust, Zaalf moved past Veil and Grim without another word and left the tent. "Who is that?" Veil asked. "Zaalf," Grim replied. "You don't need any other name. If I gave it to you, he'd probably want to make sure he interrogated you before you left." "He's an important man these days. Ever since Tala died, Zaalf's been running most of the crews from Lobrak, under Wayar and Yatha, of course," Prism explained as he rose off the table and reached for a nearby blanket to wrap around his body. He was conscious of Veil's eyes on him and made a point of keeping his back to her until the blanket was secure. "By contrast, Wayar trusts Grim and I to get the job done, so we just make our own way on the battlefield. A path everyone else stays out of." "And for good reason," Grim said. "When others try to follow us, they die. It's as simple as that. Though Zaalf's group does good work. They're all tattooed in ways we haven't seen in Ultaka in centuries. They have magic and know how to use it." "Zaalf's been calling his personal crew 'the Inkblades', recently, and he's training his daughter and her new Human lover how to run everything in case Zaalf dies," Prism added. "The man even has two grandkids now, though one of them is the human's offspring only." "You'd probably like Zaalf's son in law, Veil. He's big and strapping like that man of yours," Grim said, sneering at Veil. "He's from Godani, which, as I recall, was your favorite province for swimming because of the men." "What do you mean 'that man of mine'?" Veil snapped. "And you don't know what you're talking about." "The big fellow. He seems familiar, but I can't place him," Grim said. "Oh, that's right . . . he's our general. Is that because he's sleeping with you?" "That is not for you to worry about, Grim," Veil said with barely concealed rage. Her cheeks reddened, her eyes as sharp as daggers. Prism could discern Grim's emotions well enough to know that his lover didn't mistake the color in Veil's cheeks as Grim said, "Well, I may not really be your brother anymore, but I can still make you blush." Worried that the conversation could soon descend into a brawl—and despite how interesting a sight it would be to see two Fedain in a fistfight—Prism hastened to ask, "Is either of you going to tell me what you're doing here?" Veil spared one more glare for Grim before turning to Prism. "I came to invite you personally to a meeting." "A meeting?" Prism asked, raising an eyebrow. "Didn't you already invite us to something? An invitation I declined, I might add. And Grim only went to see you out of masochistic curiosity." Veil sighed heavily and plucked at her skirt. After a moment she regained her composure and spoke with more dignity than Prism would've expected, considering her company. "I'm sure you've heard that Neredos arrived with a substantial force to the North. Roughly twenty miles southwest of Kobinaru, he has set camp and entrenched his position. Likely against demons, of course, but there's a possibility he will not be welcoming to us, either." Prism and Grim shared a look before the latter replied, "So, you want us to go with you?" "Yes. If we bring the greatest heroes of our armies together, we are surely strong enough to protect each other while giving respect to a potential ally, and hopefully putting him at ease to prevent him becoming an enemy," Veil replied. "Pulling us off the front lines," Grim said, "doesn't seem like the best course of action to me." "In case you haven't noticed, the front lines are everywhere these days," Veil said icily. "I understand that there's plenty of bad blood between you two, but could you not waste time right now?" Prism interjected. "Besides, you know as well as anyone, Grim, that the front lines have been quieter in the last month than they have at any other point in the war." "That's a valid enough point," Grim conceded with a sigh. Prism nodded and returned his attention to Veil. "So, who else will be coming to this meeting?" "Wayar will be coming as well, to represent the military directly. Prism, I hope that, in the wake of Grandmaster Jovun's death, your succession as leader of the Order of the Mountain has been approved?" Veil asked. "Only regarding leadership in the war," Prism clarified. "In all other matters, Grandmaster Shal presides over the Order. This is the only time there have been two Grandmasters in over three centuries, but I bear the title in name only." "It should be Master Vinh in all regards," Veil said, then covered her mouth as she looked at Prism in apology. Prism chuckled and said, "I don't disagree. But he had to go and get himself killed, the bastard." "How can you smile about his death?" Veil asked incredulously. Prism thought about his former mentor and tasted apple. It was sweet, if underripe, and he suppressed the urge to chuckle again. He settled for a wide grin and replied, "If you can't answer that question, you must not have known him as well as you think." "Will it just be the four of us then?" Grim asked, satisfied that someone else bore the brunt of Veil's glare for a moment. "That is my preference, although I may take a small honor guard at my general's request," Veil said, sighing. "Still using Humans to protect yourself, huh?" Grim chided. "I do when a Human insists on it," Veil replied sharply. "Are you two done?" Zaalf's voice said from outside the tent. "Can I get back to work?" "I think they are, or at least they can take it outside," Prism said, and Zaalf took that opportunity to push back through Veil and Grim, ignoring them both as Prism continued. "Either way, yes. Finish this thing so I can finally get back on the battlefield. After I attend a meeting." "We leave tomorrow. Will he be able to ride with us?" Veil asked, looking skeptically at Prism. "Yes. Without a doubt. Prism has faced as many demons as anyone, Zaalf is just worse than they are," Grim replied, then winced as Prism climbed back on the table and Zaalf immediately stuck a needle in his thigh. "A ride will be a cinch compared to this."
  13. Cynus

    Chapter 1

    I've written songs, but they may never see the light of day. It's up to the musician I wrote them for, and he's not satisfied with any of them, so...
  14. Cynus

    Chapter 15

    "That was the same disease that killed me, wasn't it?" Dogo asked, pulling away from the group, disrupting the shared vision. "And which I healed in your son," Veil replied, her tone neutral, though her eyes dared Dogo to make something of her words. Dogo held her gaze for several moments, his eyes hard, and his expression just as stony as Veil's. "I suppose you did, but—" "If you're about to start another argument, please spare the rest of us!" Neredos interrupted, rolling his eyes. He looked at Prism and added, "Can't we simply agree to get along for now? I thought we'd moved past this." Dogo scoffed twice before Neredos finished speaking. "From the man who waged war against The Shade and was content to malign its citizens on account of an ancient rebellion?" he asked incredulously. "I thought we were reaching an understanding, Dogo," Prism said. "I thought you were trying to wrap your head around all this." Dogo shook his head, sighing deeply as he stared at the ground. When he looked up, some measure of calm had returned to him, but his glare remained nearly as fierce as before. "I'm not fond of being judged for my intolerant behavior by the likes of Neredos. His policies have always been divisive in nature." "You don't know your history half as well as you think," Veil said. "Is that so?" Dogo asked. "It is," Prism confirmed. "Why waste words when we can simply show him?" Ghayle asked, reaching out to indicate once more that the others should join her in viewing another memory. "I admit there was some divisiveness in the beginning as well as the end, Dogo," Neredo said, then laid his hand across Ghayle's. "But, Ghayle is right. Perhaps it's better to show you." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ The Gor and Human citizens of the Everbright City had formed an uneasy alliance. They had worked together to forge a functioning and beautiful city, complete with many wonders and feats of engineering, leaving Neredos impressed at the combined ingenuity of magic and science. He'd always believed them to be the perfect marriage of concepts, and knew Alazyn would have been proud of what their joint invention had become. It had been nearly two years now since the demon invasion commenced, and yet Neredos and his people thrived. They were protected from several of the demon breeds outright, and between the ranged weapons at the city's disposal and the eagle riders, aerial threats were easily dealt with. The city could also offer support to any who chose to live around the city rather than inside of it, easily deploying troops at a moment's notice. And it seemed people were flocking to the Everbright City from all around the world. Most of its Human citizens had come from Oligan or Lodan, though it was beginning to attract people from Ultaka as well. Word of a haven had spread throughout the world, but unfortunately that word created a problem on its own. There were too many people to take care of, and the problem was only going to get worse. While initially the Gor had been resistant to sharing resources with the Humans who had come to their lands, as Neredos continued to work with them, they had become far more hospitable. Now the tides were shifting again as more and more refugees poured into the area. There were simply too many mouths to feed, and there was not enough to feed them. Neredos had considered several options, but none of them were particularly appealing. He didn't want to leave the safety of the Gor forests but, without going in search of a place with greater resources, his people would starve within the next few months. It was this subject which had brought him, and all the other powerful figures in the area ,to the table this morning. Once again they'd weigh the odds of success on each front. "We have to return to Oligan!" Dreok said, pounding his fist against the table. "It's the only option that makes sense. We know the terrain, and we know what we'd be up against if our people resist us. There's nothing else to be done." Neredos held his tongue but regarded the man curiously. Dreok had become more and more agitated of late, as if the demon conflict and command of the military personnel were wearing him down. It was almost as if he'd become a completely different person ever since returning from a scouting mission a few months earlier, alone. Neredos assumed the failure of that mission had been the trigger of Dreok's degradation more than anything else, and he'd simply wasted away as a result. "With all due respect, Dreok, you don't know what you'll be facing," said Shavel Drinfaghentil, the Gor chief who now served as the representative of the combined tribes in the area. He was tall for a Gor, nearly half a foot taller than Neredos, a feat which was rare even amongst Humans, much less the slightly shorter Gor. He was broad in the shoulder as well, almost as if somewhere down his bloodline he had a bit of Elrok blood. "Not only have the demons nearly completely overrun Oligan, your military may still want your blood. We've seen your skyships come against us, and they are powerful indeed. How many demons do they rip apart before they fall?" "It's been a month since anyone has seen a skyship," grumbled Chief Valdrek, the representative of the Elrok Clan of the Sandsnake. He and his people were one of the oddities of the Everbright City, making it clear to Neredos that they were only planning on staying as long as the demons kept coming. They would not keep residence in a Human city for any other reason, despite Neredos' warm hospitality. The Sandsnake Clan were one of three Elrok tribes to have come north, and all three had echoed the same sentiment. "That doesn't mean they don't have them," Shavel countered. "By going into Oligan, we could risk attack from Human and demon alike. Humans aren't much more trustworthy than an Ibrix or an Aika." Those names still sounded foreign to Neredos, even though the Gor had explained them to him in detail. They were the names of ancient gods, ones whom the Gor, Humans, Fedain, and Elroks had worshipped in ages past. While apparently most had forgotten the names of those gods, the Gor had retained them in their oral traditions and chose to use them to refer to the demons. Neredos did not know why, but the names had caught on amongst his soldiers, and that was good enough for him. If it helped them communicate about the threat, then it didn't matter what names they used. "We can always go to Ultaka," said the Fedain representative, a young woman named Zalifrae. She was the youngest in the room, several years Neredos' junior, but she had a fierceness to her eyes behind her usual smiling demeanor. There were not many people from Ultaka in the Everbright City yet, and fewer Fedain still, but they had elected Zalifrae as their leader. Neredos was certain she was either some minor noblewoman or at least had managed to convince those who'd elected her that she was. "I'm not saying we can expect them to be receptive, but rumor has it that you were working on an alliance with Ultaka before the demons arrived. That must count for something, doesn't it?" "Or we can make the even longer trek to either Lodan or Incaria, and pick up whatever supplies and survivors we can along the way," Valdrek said. "We have a duty to see this through together. All peoples, from all lands." This was a curious suggestion considering its source, Neredos thought. Though when he saw Dreok nodding in agreement, he wondered if it wasn't the wisest course after all. Elrok wisdom was legendary, especially in matters of survival. Despite this, Neredos couldn't help but wonder what they would do with those survivors they gathered along the way. If they met people but did not find resources, their problems would only grow. The representatives gathered around the table began to argue, and Neredos put them out of his mind as he thought about the problem. There were no easy solutions, and every second they spent arguing about it only shortened the amount of time they had left to deal with the problem. No, the decision simply had to be made, and if they couldn't agree in council, someone would have to make it for them. "We go first to Oligan," Neredos heard himself say. The room quieted as many pairs of eyes turned toward him. He met them each in turn before responding. "It is closest, and as Dreok pointed out, we do already have a home terrain advantage. We will leave half our force here, to protect the Gor lands, and take the rest with us along with the Everbright City." "Do you think it's wise to move the fortress?" Shavel asked. Neredos nodded. "We need food and other supplies, and the best chance we have of transporting those resources is to use the city. We can take the labor force necessary to transport the goods, and still have room for plenty in the cargo holds." "But are you sure the forces you leave behind will be adequate to defend us here," Shavel asked, revealing his true concern. "The city offers us protection, and our citizens would do much better with it here." "Don't you listen, Gor?" Valdrek asked with a growl. "We have to be able to transport supplies. Otherwise we can't feed anyone." Shavel glared at the Elrok. "We fed our people just fine until you all came here seeking refuge. If you leave us, then what good is the alliance to us? We fed you and gave you shelter in our lands in exchange for protection, Neredos," Shavel said, returning his gaze to Neredos. "If you do not stay to protect us, we have no use for working with you." Neredos suppressed the urge to sigh. He had expected some resistance from the Gor as soon as he made his decision, but this was a firmer stance than he'd expected Shavel to take. "We will return, Shavel. And, as I stated, we will leave forces behind to protect you and your people." "If you wish, I can personally guarantee that every Ultakan can stay behind to help, noble Gor," Zalifrae said, smiling warmly at Shavel. "I have no wish to send any of us into Oligan, no matter how good the prospects are of finding supplies. While Neredos himself may face rejection by his own people, there hasn't been a Fedain willing to set foot in Oligan, for a century at least." Shavel considered her for a moment, then returned his gaze to Neredos. "In the interest of peace in these troubled times, I will let you leave here without incident, Neredos. However, I cannot spare any Gor warriors to accompany you on your foolish quest. They are needed here, to protect our people." Neredos nodded, conceding the point. He knew he had little chance of arguing otherwise, despite the help the Gor could bring to the mission. He would have to function with fewer eagle riders, and fewer warriors competent in hand-to-hand combat, but he could make do with Elrok support. Dreok's men would do their duty as well. He was certain he could also convince the Lodani and Incarians among them to join on the mission. Neither group was particularly fond of living amongst the Gor. However, there was one point where he could not completely give in to Shavel's demands. "I must ask that you give those who have worked with me on the city the choice of joining me. They are competent mages, and they know the systems of the city. If I were to fall, they could help Dreok bring the city to safety." Shavel's face clouded over at this request, but after a moment he sighed and replied, "It is done as you request. I cannot deny that you have been useful during your time here, and, as I must grudgingly admit about our Elrok companion, there is wisdom in maintaining alliances in this troubled time. You may have those Gor who wish to stay with you, and we will not compel them by any means to remain with us." "Then it's settled," Neredos said, nodding in appreciation as he rose to his feet. "We leave for Oligan in three days, as soon as we can properly evacuate those who wish to stay here. Three days to prepare your forces for what lies ahead." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Neredos held true to his word. By the three-day mark after the meeting, he brought the engines of the Everbright City roaring to life and departed the Gor lands. His eyes were set westward and southward, to the heart of his homeland, and whatever dangers it contained. He found it strange that they only encountered demons once before reaching Oligan's border. It was a brief battle, resulting in the death of only a hundred men and women, and twice the number of demons. Once they crossed into Oligan, however, the death toll began to climb. It seemed every few hours they encountered another group of demons bent on their destruction. While only having to worry about three demon breeds that could fly, they encountered enough of these that Neredos' forces began to wilt from weariness and loss of morale. By the time they'd reached the ruins of Thalom, the number of dead had barely reached two hundred, but by the time they reached the capital, Neredos had lost several thousand of his troops. Unfortunately, that was not the worst of the setbacks he faced. With each passing day, his own mood grew grimmer at the devastation they passed, and that despair was reflected in his troops tenfold. As nearly all his soldiers were Oligan natives, the absolute destruction of their homeland weighed heavily on their minds. As they'd passed over Thalom, they could still see the stone walls of the university, though the rest of the buildings had been burned away entirely. In the cities farther to the south, there was nothing but ash. Even where great buildings of stone and steel had once stood, they had collapsed to nothing but rubble, with no stretch of frame remaining erect. Neredos began to wonder if they would find any survivors at all, much less supplies, in the wake of all the ruin. To his surprise, however, Dreok and Valdrek both seemed to maintain high spirits. Sometimes Neredos would glance their way and find them smiling, laughing to each other as if they shared some hidden joke no one else would understand. It was beginning to grow disconcerting. Neredos wondered if Dreok's wife had noticed any difference in the man's behavior and considered going to her to ask. She was pregnant with Dreok's second child, the first having been born shortly after the start of the war, and Neredos didn't want to bother her. Yet despite this, as Neredos' suspicion grew, the urge to find out the truth about Dreok led him to the door of their chambers, several times. Instead, Neredos always walked away without knocking. It was better for him not to press an issue he knew nothing about, as long as Dreok wasn't causing any direct damage. Still, Neredos worried. Worried and watched, knowing something was coming, which would shake his faith in the world even further. He glanced at Dreok as they stood at the edge of the city, waiting for a report from one of the eagle riders who had flown ahead to scout their advance. Most of this mission relied on patience more than anything else, it seemed. Patience and no results. "What do you advise if the scout reports no sign of survivors or food, Dreok?" Neredos asked. Dreok turned to Neredos with a grin, his eyes touched with a hint of madness. "What else is there to say, Neredos? We move onward, of course. Onward until we find what we're looking for. I still believe our best chance is in Oligan, especially if we can find the grain stores in the South." "As if we have any reason to believe that they didn't burn those too," Neredos replied dryly. "We have encountered nothing but ruin." "Not true, Neredos," Dreok replied, shaking his head. "We've passed over forest and grassland, both unspoiled. Clearly the demons only have interest in destroying us and our civilization, not the wildlands." Neredos considered that point for a moment, wondering why he had not thought of it himself. It was true that while cities had burned, it didn't seem that the forest had it all. Perhaps there was some method to Dreok's madness after all. "What do you think it means?" Valdrek's low voice from behind Neredos joined the conversation. "Well, for one thing, it means that if we can find some grazing wild cattle, we might be able to feed ourselves for a while. We spent all this time looking for your civilized food sources and ignoring the possibility of wilder ones." Dreok chuckled at that, though Neredos did not see where the humor came in. "Neredos, you're being far too negative. We're finally free from those blasted Gor lands, and we've come home. Oligan is ours for the taking, and we could set up anywhere, plant farms beneath the city, grow our own food. How can you not see the potential in this wide-open land?" Neredos stared at Dreok with open-mouthed astonishment. "How can you not see the devastation? Not three days ago, you were in a far fouler mood than me. Yet here you stand, flying over a place where millions upon millions of our countrymen have died, and all you see is potential!?" "I believe our fortune is about to turn, my friend," Dreok said, putting a hand on Neredos' shoulder. Neredos shook it off immediately, stepping back. Dreok's grin didn't falter in the slightest. "What's wrong, Neredos?" Neredos' eyes narrowed. He accessed a hundred different runes through his helmet that he could draw with his gauntlet at a moment's notice to defend himself from whoever stood before him. "You keep using my name is if you're afraid you'll forget it, Dreok. Tell me, why is that?" At last there was a falter in Dreok's expression, the grin disappearing for a flash before it returned, though now Neredos could see the truth in Dreok's eyes. They were practically lifeless, devoid of all emotion. "I have stood by you through everything, Neredos. I was there for you when your wife died. I rebelled against Oligan for you. How could you question my loyalty now?" "Show me the first rune I ever taught you," Neredos said. "Show me, and I will believe your identity." Dreok's gaze flickered briefly to Valdrek, but the Elrok did not move at all. Whatever support Dreok had hoped to gain from the chief, it would not be forthcoming. Instead, Dreok simply chuckled and said, "it's a simple rune for heat transference, as I recall. If you have a bit of paper so that I can draw it, perhaps I—" "Simply draw it in the air with your finger," Neredos suggested. "Or perhaps if you don't remember it, I can draw it for you, and then you can use it." Dreok's grin was gone entirely now, replaced with a pensive frown. "I'm not sure I currently have the mental purity to—" Before he finished the sentence, Neredos drew three quick runes in the air using his gauntlet, then focused into them with the full might of his will. Strands of solid air reached out and wrapped around Dreok's form, binding his arms and legs and then tethering him to the ground. "I'm warning you, Dreok," Neredos said, "do not test my patience further. There is something the matter with you, and I aim to find out what it is. You have not been the same in months. Tell me why." "Perhaps it would be better if we interrogated him elsewhere," Valdrek suggested. "This hardly seems like the proper location for such business." Neredos didn't spare a glance for Valdrek. "No, I'm doing this now," he said, taking a step toward Dreok. He quickly drew a rune in the air in solidified light. "This the rune for heat transference. This is the rune I taught you first. Do you recognize it?" "Yes, of course, Neredos," Dreok replied, nodding emphatically. Neredos' heart sank. He let the rune dissipate, shaking his head. "I invented this rune myself a year after I began teaching you magic. You've lied to me, and about something Dreok would absolutely know. Who are you? What is going on?" Dreok blinked once, then shifted in a flash of motion. His arms and legs drew into his body as his body elongated, becoming an amorphous ooze. This new form easily evaded the bindings Neredos had made in the air, and the being who once seemed to be Dreok quickly moved toward the edge of the city, regaining its form. "Dreok! Stand down!" Chief Valdrek said, drawing his bow and nocking an arrow. The shapeshifting being did not slow at all, and Valdrek let fly, a thick arrow hitting dead center in the middle of its back. The arrow slowed as if passing through a wall of water, but otherwise seem to have no effect at all on Dreok. "My arrow passed straight through!" "He won't get away so easily," Neredos said, sprinting after Dreok as he summoned several runes to mind. The heat transference rune was still fresh, and he drew this first, pulling on as much energy as he could from the surrounding air and what he could spare within his own body. Then he directed that heat with a rune to control the air, whipping that heat into a flamelike energy. Wielding that energy like a whip, Neredos lashed out at the retreating shape shifter. The heat struck the shapeshifter and swirled around it, wrapping it in the lapping flames. The shapeshifter screamed as the fire consumed it. "Neredos, no!" Valdrek shouted, true concern evident in his voice. But whatever his protest, it was far too late for Neredos to stop now. The being's entire body was nothing but ash in seconds from the intense heat. "What was that? I've heard tales of some shapeshifter in the halls of The Order of the Mountain in Ultaka near the beginning of the war, but that . . ." Neredos shuddered as he thought of the way the being's body had shifted. "What was it?" He hadn't been expecting an answer from Valdrek, and was surprised when the Elrok said quietly, "I believe the Gor have named them the Vhor." "Unknown. Or perhaps 'unknowable'?" Neredos asked, testing the word on his tongue. He saw the almost distraught expression on the Elrok's face, and quickly reviewed his memories of what had just happened. "You knew the fire would kill him," Neredos accused. Valdrek seemed startled to be spoken to, and he blinked twice before responding. "Yes. My clan encountered one in the early days of the war." "You killed it?" Neredos asked. "Of course," Valdrek replied after only a brief hesitation. "They are demons, are they not?" Then he smiled weakly. It was a familiar smile, one that Dreok had worn only a minute earlier. Neredos took a step toward the Elrok, already reaching back toward the rune he'd summoned to channel heat. He closed the distance between them, ready to act a moment's notice. "You must understand my suspicion, Valdrek. You've been working closely with Dreok these past few days." Valdrek dropped his grin, his hand clutching at the bow as if unsure if he should draw against Neredos. "Yes, of course. I simply viewed his lightened spirits regarding our mission to be refreshing among all this Human fatalism." "You'll understand if I want to test you, don't you?" Neredos asked, then raised his hand, channeling heat into a small flame that rested above his palm. "Test me, Neredos?" Valdrek asked, his eyes flickering down to the flame in Neredos' hand. Neredos moved forward, channeling the flame as he had a moment earlier with Dreok. A tentacle-like appendage sprouted from Valdrek's side, weaving past Neredos' gathering flame to wrap around his neck. The tentacle put tremendous pressure on Neredo's windpipe and throat, and he was thrown forcefully backward. He landed hard against the platform, the breath knocked from him. Before he could summon what little strength he had left, the tentacle rose above him, the appendage now thick and ridged with spikes like a mace. That mace descending toward his face was the last thing Neredos saw before the world faded to black. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ "Neredos?" a familiar yet unrecognized voice said. "Neredos, are you okay?" Neredos opened his eyes into a dark room. Everything was blurry, and his head spun with pain. He reached up to where he remembered being struck. The spot was tender, but dry except for sweat. When he looked at his hand, he was surprised to find it unbloodied. "Where am I?" Neredos asked. "You're in your council chamber. It was closer than your rooms," the voice explained. It was a female voice. Quallys? Dreok's second? As she continued speaking, her identity was confirmed. "You're lucky it was just a weak blow to the head. Enough to knock you unconscious but not kill you." "Chief Valdrek?" Neredos asked, closing his eyes in an attempt to clear the fogginess and pain. "The scout returned just as the Chief attacked you," Quallys said. "Then Valdrek shifted form and dove off the edge of the city, or so the scout reported. We're holding him for questioning until we hear your side of the story." "Thank you for the healing. Do I have you to thank for that?" Neredos asked. "The head wound, I mean." "Actually, no. That would be me," said another voice. This one was deeper, most likely masculine, and had a certain tonal quality that reminded him of someone, though he wasn't sure who. "Who are you?" Neredos asked, opening his eyes and looking toward the source of the second voice. His vision was still slightly blurry, but he could make out some of the face's features. Despite this, he couldn't quite determine the speaker's identity. "Wait . . . I know your face. You're very familiar to me." "My name is Odiran thulu'Khant, the third," the speaker said, stepping closer. Neredos' vision focused even more, and he could see the resemblance to his former associate. "You knew my father," Odiran continued. "Served with him until his death, or so I'm told." "You're so young," Neredos observed. By his best guess, the boy wasn't yet twenty, though Odiran II had also appeared young considering how old his namesake must be. "Just nineteen, sir," Odiran replied with a nod. "But despite my age, I lead a group of survivors who took refuge in the Tabrax sea caves. There are nearly one hundred thousand of us. It originally started with my youth militia group. Our adult officers died early in the war and I received command two and a half years ago." "And how did you come to be here?" Neredos asked, struggling to a sitting position. He realized then than he was laying atop the council table, propped up, with his own folded cloak as a pillow. "The scout brought him to see us," Quallys said, glaring at Odiran. "I also witnessed the Elrok's attack, but it seems they don't trust me, either," Odiran replied with a shrug. Neredos nodded and immediately regretted the gesture. He then waved to Quallys and said, "It's true that the Chief attacked me. Both reports are correct." "Then we'll see to the scout's release at once," Quallys said, then gestured toward the door, indicating that Odiran should follow her out of the room. "Might I have an audience with you alone, Neredos?" Odiran asked. Neredos nodded and turned to Quallys. "It's all right. You can leave us." "Are you certain?" Quallys asked, casting a wary eye over Odiran. "Yes," Neredos replied. "I'm sure." In truth he doubted the sincerity of his claim. Odiran was, after all, the son of a man whose death Neredos felt responsible for. But by that same token, Neredos couldn't help but feel that he owed Odiran an audience on account of his father, and that outweighed any need Neredos felt for security. "Thank you for trusting me," Odiran said, walking to the other side of the room where a candle was burning low. The city had access to electricity through its reactors, but Neredos preferred that they not rely on it. There were reasons to keep the city's capabilities known to only a few, and especially away from someone who had just claimed to lead one hundred thousand people. They could take the city for their own without too much difficulty against the ten thousand Neredos had with him. He would have to thank Quallys later for following protocol with Odiran. "I should warn you that there may be more of those shapeshifters hiding in your camp," Odiran continued, picking up the candle and holding it so Neredos could see. "I know there's one in mine, though I cannot discern their identity. To prove I am not the one . . ." he held his hand directly over the flame, long enough that it would burn anyone, then removed it. "A wise precaution. Bring the candle here and I'll do the same," Neredos said, waving Odiran forward. "There's no need," Odiran said, setting the candle down. "You bleed just fine, and that's just as good a test as fire. You should also know that I saved your life. Those shapeshifters produce a poison so virulent it can kill a man in minutes if left unchecked. That Elrok didn't just crack your skull, he made sure you'd die." "How did you cure me then?" Neredos asked, eyes widening. There was mention of a mysterious poison that seemed to seep through demon-touched communities. Was this it? "A bit of Lodani magic," Odiran replied. "My father raised me to pursue the family craft, and he even taught me a little of what you taught him about Gor magic. As I recall, there's not much Gor healing out there that's strong enough to handle anything too serious, but Lodani know more about herbs than most, and how to increase their potency through magic. You're lucky I carry my herb pouch with me everywhere. It hasn't done anything for those winged serpents though. That illness is beyond my abilities." "You're very well-spoken for a man your age," Neredos said. "I take after my father, and I know of your accomplishments as well, so I wonder why you're surprised," Odiran replied with a wry chuckle. "My father always spoke highly of you, and I idolized you when I was younger." His smile faded as his eyes tightened. "Of course, that changed after you abandoned your people." "I abandoned a war we were fighting unnecessarily," Neredos corrected. "It hardly matters now, doesn't it?" Odiran said after a moment, shrugging. "But I do have one more question for you, if you don't mind me asking." Neredos nodded. "Very well." "How did my father die? I know he died the day you tried to assassinate President Caliphar. They found his broken body on the street," Odiran said, meeting Neredos' gaze. His eyes were hard, but his face was otherwise emotionless as he asked, "I need to know, did you kill him?" Neredos suppressed a shiver under that unnerving gaze. "You're as cold as your father," he said after a moment. "Did you kill him?" Odiran pressed. Neredos considered Odiran for a moment before answering and then made his decision based on the look in Odiran's eyes. "I caused his death. He died trying to capture me, but his death was an accident. He fell from the roof while I was escaping," he explained. "I do hold myself responsible, however. He would not have died had he not been chasing me, after all." Odiran stood motionless for a moment, neither his eyes nor his expression betraying a hint of his true feelings. But then he began to nod, almost imperceptibly at first, followed by a couple firm ones. Odiran spoke, his voice as cold as his outward calm. "A lesser man would've lied to me. It's good to know you're the man of integrity you've always claimed to be." Neredos blinked in surprise, then accepted Odiran's words with a humble bow of his head. "You are an unexpected find, Odiran," he said at last. Odiran shook his head and put his hand up to stall Neredos. "Do not misunderstand me, Neredos. I will not forgive you for my father's death, nor your betrayal of our country, but I will work with you. I have enough stores of food to last a year, scavenged from every corner of the country. We've harvested every field left wild, and every storeroom between the southland and the north." "So, there's nothing to be had here?" Neredos asked, disappointed. His vision started to blur again as a headache threatened to overwhelm him. "We can give you shelter and feed you," Odiran said, smiling politely. "This war is on all our heads. Until it's over, we're all on the same side. But there is something you should know." "What's that?" "We have a fleet of ships hidden in those caves. Some of the old military craft, and hundreds of fishing vessels. The old wooden ones, that the Lodani still swear by." Odiran paused, looking for confirmation in Neredos' eyes. "Why are you telling me this?" Neredos asked. "My people—who include all that's left of the Lodani as far as I can tell—plan to move across the ocean to Ultaka," Odiran explained. "They say there's a stronger resistance there, and we think we'll be better off with numbers, provided we can find a way to protect our food sources, anyway." "I have to say I'm impressed," Neredos said. "You've done quite well for such a young man." Odiran chuckled at that, and Neredos was pleased to hear a bit of warmth in it. "Don't be. I may be the leader, but it's because I have twelve other community leaders who all help me, all much older than me and much more experienced. Don't think of me as just a figurehead," he hastened to add, "I'm capable, but we work together. That's what will win this war in the end." "When do you plan on leaving?" Neredos asked, rising fully up from the council table. His head swayed a bit, but he managed to maintain his balance without falling back down. "We were going to wait for the end of the storm season. That's two months away," Odiran said. Neredos nodded, thought over the details for a moment, then asked, "Would you like aerial support?" "I was hoping you'd offer," Odiran replied, grinning. He wasn't as cold as his father after all, Neredos realized as he studied the man's smile. It was natural on his face, even if it did make him seem five years younger. Perhaps that was why Odiran had adopted his father's reserved manner? To make him seem older in the eyes of his people? Maybe there was hope for this boy. Enough hope that Neredos decided it was worth it to test his luck and he said, "I need to send some of that food back North to the Gor lands." "That can be arranged," Odiran replied. "Especially if you can spare the soldiers to guard it in transit. "We have ourselves an arrangement," Neredos said, extending his hand to Odiran. The younger man clasped his arm and shook twice, firmly. "I look forward to working with you, Neredos." As they released each other, Neredos met Odiran's eyes again, and a shiver traveled down his spine. No, this boy was beyond hope. He was just as damaged as his father, just better at hiding it. Neredos would have to keep a wary eye indeed.
  15. Cynus

    Chapter 14

    "That must've been quite terrifying, seeing a demon for the first time," Dogo said as the vision faded. He regarded Prism curiously. "Though I must give you credit for running toward the problem instead of away from it. You fight with tremendous integrity, and I respect that." "Considering the sacrifices you made on behalf of The Shade in facing that Quay, it's a respect I return to you," Prism replied, bowing humbly. "I think it's that willingness to do what needs to be done that makes us Chosen. Or so I've gathered from Ghayle, anyway." Dogo's eyes flickered toward Veil. "What needs to be done, even if it's completely wrong, it seems." Prism frowned, searching Dogo's gaze. After a moment, he nodded thoughtfully and turned toward Veil. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Veil, but you once dealt with the Quay on quite a personal level, didn't you?" Veil nodded. "Yes, that demon breed in particular affected a lot of my decisions in the early part of the war." "That's what I thought," Prism said. He returned his gaze to Dogo and said, "I wasn't there, but I heard the stories from more than just her. Grim and I ended up doing a lot of our fighting in the north during the early part of the war. But Veil kept order in the south, and did a hell of a job doing it. Perhaps it would be best to show you, however." "I think that is a great plan, First," Ghayle said smoothly, touching Prism shoulder gently before reaching her hand forward for everyone to touch. "The Trial was held on many layers, the war on many fronts. In time you will see nearly all of them, in some form or another, but this event was indeed a turning point." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Over one billion people had died since Veil's father's death, but it was that one death in particular which troubled her most right now. How she wished he was here to offer her wisdom in this war she was losing. He surely would have done a better job than she, no matter how much support she had behind her. It had been three months since the loss of the southeastern peninsula, where hundreds of millions of people had lived. The revolution days before the demons invaded to the southwest had claimed its own millions, but the demons were far worse. They left no traces of civilization in their wake, and even when her forces managed to beat them back, sickness and injury claimed many of the survivors. And she didn't know what the losses were like in Oligan, Lodan, Incaria, or among the Gor and Elrok tribes throughout the world. One in two Ultakan citizens were dead. How would they ever survive against the endless horde coming from whatever hell spawned these demons? Strange news had come out of the east of late, however. Veil still had not yet grown accustomed to hearing her brother's name again. It seemed Grim and Prism had joined up with her armies led by General Wayar and Grandmaster Jovun. They had been key players in the battle of Cherrim Pass, keeping the demon forces arrayed on the southeastern peninsula from invading farther inland. Both were spoken of with reverence, becoming legends in their own right. It was said that fighting side-by-side, Grim and Prism had killed more demons than any hundred men combined, though Veil was certain these numbers must be exaggerated. No one could be that effective, no matter what dark forces they drew upon. She hated herself for hating Grim. It was irrational, especially if he was doing as well as it seemed. But killing demons was still killing, and if Veil let go of that moral standpoint, she would cease to be Fedain. If she ceased to be Fedain, she would lose her right to rule, and the people needed her. Tellen Farr had helped her maintain her moral purity throughout this difficult year and a half. He was the greatest thing to ever happen to Veil, and though she had to keep her relationship with him mostly secret, she was glad to share her bed with him. He brought her comfort through all the stressful nights, and gave her many opportunities to release all her physical tension in more productive ways than violence. It was he who led the armies, with very little help from Veil. She oversaw the maintenance of society, keeping order and making sure resources were allocated properly. Veil had the final say in all military matters, though she never exercised it. Tellen knew far more about fighting wars than Veil ever would, and if he ever needed more insight, The Order of the Mountain was more than happy to advise him. Veil had kept Master Vinh close at hand as well. When the Order offered her an advisor, he had been her obvious choice. He already knew Veil well, and also understood her and her tenuous relationship with those around her. He was one of few she could trust to watch her back, though he spent most of his time at the front lines instead of with her. They'd set up headquarters in Khadrun, a small town nearly a hundred miles north of Xarin. The capital had fallen to the demons several months earlier, though there had not been much left of it by that point anyway. In the wake of the cataclysmic events precipitating the demonic arrival, much of the city had burned, taking a large portion of the revolutionary forces with it. Khadrun was an old city, built in the days of horses and swords, and it had preserved its old wall that had once kept out bandits and raiders. The demons had only made it to the city twice, and in both of those cases, those walls had held. Of course, since several of the demon breeds could fly, the walls did not help is much as Veil wished they did. And there was another problem still, one which walls did nothing to help at all. Disease had come to Khadrun, a disease as vicious as anything Veil had ever seen. She knew its source, but that seemed to matter very little in curing it. She was not the only Fedain working on the problem, of course, but the others were just as baffled as she. The Quay demons, the brightly colored feathered serpents which tore men apart with their claws and teeth, carried a dangerous toxin in their blood. During the last demon siege of Khadrun, a Quay corpse had polluted their water supply. Veil's people were dying, and she could do nothing about it. But still she moved among the sick, offering comfort where she could, and moving on when she could not. More people died every day, and even some of the Fedain were starting to show signs of weariness. Veil wasn't certain if it was a sign of the sickness, but she feared it may be. If even her people could be infected by the Quay, was there any hope at all? She stopped by the bed of one of those suffering, taking his hand in hers. He coughed several times, dark spittle covering his lips. He was on the brink of death, and still he clung to her, still he fought. Could she really give up so easily when this man did not? "He'll be dead within the hour," said a voice behind her. Veil turned toward the sound but maintained her grip on the dying man's hand. An old Fedain doctor stood behind her, cleaning his hands on a towel. He hadn't shaved in weeks, a scraggly beard giving him a grandfatherly appearance. "I wish I knew what I could do to help him, other than give him the bed. Still can't make any sense of this disease. It's like the body turns against itself, as surely as any revolution. Some of those who still have faith in the Blood wonder if it's a sign of our own sin." Veil finally released the dying man's hand and faced the doctor fully. "If sin is what this is about, then the whole world has sinned. I'm willing to believe that is true, but not yet. I'm not willing to condemn us all until the last one of us falls." The doctor nodded appreciatively. "Yes, I suppose it is as you say. There is still good in this world, still something to live for until we no longer draw breath. Thank you, Lady Veil, for lightening my spirits a bit this day." Veil smiled, inclining her head slightly as she stepped past the doctor, briefly touching him as she left. She could do no more for the sick here, no matter how much she wished she could. She wanted to believe her own words, though in her heart she did not. The world had certainly sinned to bring this calamity down on them. There was no hope, only denial until they all succumbed to the evils in the world. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ "You seem troubled, Veil," Tellen said, kissing the back of her neck before wrapping his arms around her. They were lying in her bed after a brief session of lovemaking, though Veil's heart had not been in it. "More than usual, if you'll forgive the observation." Veil suppressed the urge to turn toward him. As much as she thought she had to gain from facing him, she didn't want him to see the indecision in her eyes. Doubt had nearly completely overridden her, and she could not bear to infect her general, her greatest champion in these troubled times. There were other warriors of course, greater than Tellen. He was a competent commander, but it was good that he rarely led the troops on the front lines himself. Many of the soldiers who'd chosen to follow Veil in the early days were better commanders still, and Tellen left a great deal of the individual decisions up to them. It was one of the reasons he stayed behind to guard Veil so often. Tellen led the soldiers garrisoned at Khadrun as well, though he left the day to day minutiae to his second. The rest of his time was spent following Veil and making sure no threats were made on her person. Unfortunately, despite the need for unity in these troubled times, those threats came far too often. "It's nothing," Veil said softly, hoping Tellen wouldn't hear the lie. It wasn't nothing at all, it was, in fact, everything. "I've just spent too much time among the sick recently. Seems nearly everyone in the city has come down with it. Everyone but you and the Fedain, anyway." "I'm sure they'll figure out a cure," Tellen said, kissing her just behind her ear. She shuddered, wanting to recoil from his touch with the dread that filled her now, and hoped he would interpret it as a tremor of pleasure. She didn't want him to think that his touch was unwelcome, even though he would gladly leave her alone if she was honest. She just couldn't risk that he wouldn't come back when she wanted his touch again. "Yes, but when?" Veil asked, staring ahead of her in the dark. There was nothing but a blank wall before her, but still she traced the hanging shadows across it, attempting to find focus. "Since it seems you're not affected, maybe if I can find some way to recreate the vaccine . . ." Tellen sighed and released her, rolling onto his back. Had she been too obvious? No, Veil realized, Tellen simply needed to think, and he did that best when he wasn't cuddling up against her. "You know that's a dead end," he said without a trace of judgment. "If some of your colleagues had survived, maybe. But you already said you don't know enough about the science behind it to do it yourself, and everyone else here would have to start from scratch. Their attention is better spent elsewhere." "We have another option," Veil said after a moment. "What's that?" "You," Veil said, finally turning toward him. "We could make transfusions from your blood. At least those with your blood-type would be able to benefit." Tellen answered immediately, "I'm willing if you'd like me to." "But that also means revealing your secret. No one knows that you have the nanites," Veil replied. "That's part of the reason why you're able to attract the support of the soldiers. They all know that you take injury and keep fighting, even injuries that would kill almost anyone." "That's true." Tellen nodded thoughtfully, then shrugged as if it didn't matter. "But I'm willing to reveal my advantage if you think it would help." "I'll consider it. I'm not sure that the effect on morale would be worth it, especially since there is only a limited amount of blood to go around without compromising you," Veil replied, shaking her head. "No, the more I think about it, the more it won't work. If we give a transfusion to one, others will be clamoring for it. How could we explore something that will only help a few people?" "But wouldn't the first people you give the transfusions to be able to eventually give it to someone else?" Tellen asked. Veil nodded, but eventually conceded the point with a nod. "As I said, I'll consider it, but I'm still not convinced it won't backfire. The first people we gave it to would have to be trusted, and even then we would have to continue to . . ." She trailed off as the potential problems slowly began to consume her. There were just too many variables, and she couldn't trust anyone else. How could he be so casual about this? "Speaking of creating a link between blood . . ." Tellen said, reaching out and touching Veil's naked stomach. "Have you . . . have you gotten tested?" Veil hoped Tellen couldn't feel her body tense up. She knew exactly what he meant, and even though she wanted to play dumb, there was no use to it. "I'm not pregnant," she said slowly. "I know you want us to have a child, but . . . still nothing. Perhaps something is wrong with my reproductive systems." "I didn't even know Fedain could have health problems," Tellen said, sighing. Veil wanted to scream. She was frustrated at the disappointment in his voice, knowing she was the cause even though he was unaware. She'd already been pregnant five times, had felt it from the moment of conception as all Fedain women did, and had terminated each one as soon as they began. She couldn't explain this to Tellen, not ever. He wanted to create a family with her, but she could not fathom why. How could he wish to bring a child into this apocalyptic time? How could anyone? And so she fed him a lie like she always did. It was a new one, the one she had hinted at before. She continued to build the web of her deceit, thickening the walls brick by brick, until inevitably not even she would be able to see the truth. "We can if we're born with the defects. Our bodies are only capable of restoring our organs to the pattern of our own DNA. We cannot escape our genetics any better than anyone else can." She must have missed something in her tone, because Tellen's reply bore a hint of suspicion. "You do want a child, don't you?" "Yes, of course. For you . . ." Veil trailed off, leaning in to kiss his cheek before she continued, hoping the gesture would help put him at ease. "I would do anything for you." "But do you want a child?" Tellen pressed, turning toward her again. Yes, there was suspicion in that gaze, though it was backed by sincerity and love. It was almost enough to make Veil want to tell him the truth. Almost. "Children are a blessing, Tellen," Veil replied cryptically. Though she didn't believe the logic behind it, she offered an answer she hoped would put his fears to rest. "New life in a destroyed world. It will be rough for a child, but if we don't have children then who will raise up to keep fighting?" "In the wake of destruction, new growth takes hold. Sometimes that's the only thing that makes the ground fertile," Tellen said, smiling. He looked like he was about to say more, but Veil put a hand on his arm, stalling him. "Wait . . ." Veil said, Tellen's words sprouting in her mind and bearing the fruit of thought, "destruction to create new growth . . . Tellen, you're a genius!" "How so?" Tellen asked with surprise. "Nothing, just . . . oh! You've given me hope again!" Veil said excitedly, rolling out of the bed and reaching for her clothing. It may have been the middle of the night, but she had places to go, and ideas to put to work. Tellen started after her, reaching for his own clothing. "Where are you going?" "Get ready," Veil said, grinning with madness. "We need to get to the sick hall right away. Right away!" ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Veil rushed into the sick hall with Tellen in tow, dodging past the concerned doctors and nurses working the night shift. She looked for the Fedain with the mustache but saw him nowhere and realized his shift must've already ended. She had hoped to be able to test her idea with him as a witness. He had been just as hopeless as she, after all. But there was one familiar face, the same soldier whose hand she had held before. Against all odds, the soldier had fought hard against the sickness destroying his body and managed to hold on a little while longer than his prognosis had originally indicated. He was conscious even, if slightly delirious. As a procession slowly gathered around Veil, she took the dying soldier's hand and gently tried to secure his attention. "Can you hear me?" She asked. "So much death," the soldier wheezed. "So much death for our sins." "Hush now about that," Veil said softly. "There is no sin here, only mercy. I've come to help you." The soldier continued in his delirium. "We should've never stormed the Council, never overthrown the King." Veil paused at this. She had extended amnesty to those who had rebelled against the Ultakan government. She'd met numerous soldiers who would've killed her before the war on account of her heritage, but they all flocked to her banner now. She had forgiven them, for the demons were a far greater threat. But this man was different. He spoke about storming the Council, and that could only mean one thing. He had been there during the National Assembly, when her father had been killed on the national newscasts. Perhaps he'd even been the one to pull the trigger on him. Was this truly the man she wanted to heal? She hesitated as the man coughed, dark blood oozing from his lips. Perhaps she couldn't even heal him anyway. She didn't know if this would work, and it was better to try on someone who was this close to death. She had other options, but she had come here first. This was a man who needed her, regardless of the violence he had committed. Perhaps he did have sin, but Veil was a Fedain, and it was her duty to heal all those who required healing. "I need you to try and focus," Veil said. "I have to ask you a question, and I need to know your answer before I can go through with it." The man gasped, clutching at Veil's arm. She searched his emotions as well as she could through the contact, but mostly she only felt desperation and regrets from him. Both were common among the dying, and left Veil little indication as to whether the man perceived her at all. Still, she had to ask anyway. It was only proper, especially considering her plan. "I'm about to try to heal this illness, but in doing so I'm going to have to cause you pain and harm. I am not certain it will work, and I am not certain you will recover even if it does. This is the first time I have made this attempt, and I'm nearly certain it is the only time anyone has made this attempt. Do you want me to try and heal you?" The man gripped her tighter, gasping and then coughing again. There was no noticeable shift in his emotions, only the intensity of his symptoms. Veil tried again. "I'm going to need your permission," Veil said insistently. "I will not do harm to another without their permission. If you would like me to heal you, you will have to let me know somehow." The man started to speak, but it devolved into coughed before any recognizable words came out. His grip loosened, his eyes rolling backward. Veil took hold of his collar and shook him gently. "Something, anything! Tap my arm with your finger for yes!" Veil said firmly. And with those words, the man tightened his grip just enough be able to deliver a firm tap with his index finger. Then he released her, collapsing onto his cot as his body began to seize. Veil wasted no time in placing both hands against his skin and delving into him. She could feel all the places where the demonic disease had ripped apart the man's body. There were nearly no parts left that were healthy, and she wasn't sure that the strategy would work with this much damage to repair. Still she had to try. Beginning with the most vital systems, Veil found the line between healthy and unhealthy tissue and stopped. In order to do what she was planning, she had to break a Fedain taboo. The same one she had vilified and disowned Grim for breaking. While she had no intention of killing the man, he could still die as a result of her actions even though the disease had precipitated those actions. But she would also be using her healing to harm someone. Harming to heal. Perhaps that's what was happening with the world. Maybe some cosmic force and decided that the world needed to be cleansed of its tumors for new life to grow. Maybe the demons were a message, and in that case, perhaps the way through was to follow suit. She hesitated only a second longer, and then destroyed the infected tissue in the man's heart. The man began convulsing under her touch. Somewhere nearby, she heard one of the doctors cry out and attempt to intervene. Veil was vaguely aware of Tellen intercepting the doctors, keeping them back. Vague awareness was all she could offer, for Veil put all other things from her mind as she continued her experiment with surgical focus. Even as she destroyed the infected tissue, she built up good tissue from the remaining healthy portions of his heart to replace it. She gave the cells as little guidance as she could as she urged them to multiply in the patterns necessary to rebuild the heart, fueling them with her own life force. Bit by bit, Veil worked her way through the entire circulatory system, rebuilding every blood vessel on her way. Then she pulled away, staring down at the man. He was breathing a little easier, but his body was covered in sweat, and she still wasn't sure she could keep him alive. She'd have to do something about his lungs before she left him alone, or he'd stop breathing long before she could fix any of his other systems. "What do you think you're doing!?" someone shouted from behind Veil. Veil turned at the words to see a Fedain rushing toward her. Not a doctor this time, but a woman Veil knew as Kovrane. A Priest of the Blood, one of the few who still wore their robes despite the reputation the Church of the Blood now had among the populace of Ultaka. "I'm healing this man," Veil said simply. "And, if you'd please stay out of it, perhaps he might even live." "I was giving comfort to the poor souls in the other room when I heard the doctor shouting," Kovrane said, her face darkening. Eyes like narrow slits, she turned her sharp features on the dying man and said, "You must be aggravating his pain somehow." One of the doctors, a young Fedain man named Garamsyl, stepped between Veil and the priest. "Lady Veil was attempting a new method for treating the disease, as I understand from what she was asking the patient. A method which causes harm in order to heal, given the insistence of her requests for permission from the patient before beginning." "Blasphemy!" Kovrane shouted. "As if such a terrible thing could be justified for any reason! And you allowed her to do this?" "I did not know what she was doing until just before it began, Kovrane," Garamsyl replied dryly. "And once it had begun, it could've caused far more damage to have stopped it until it was completed. When someone is delving that deeply into healing, it is best to let them finish, even if they're doing it wrong." "Not wrong," Veil heard herself say, then placed her hand against her patient's arm again. "Not wrong if it works." "If it works," Garamsyl repeated, "I'm willing to at least hear what you have to say on the matter, as I think the rest of our staff will as well. We have grown tired of this disease we can do nothing about through conventional methods, and I think we'd all like some idea of a breakthrough, regardless of the moral implications of your actions." "This is madness!" Kovrane shouted. The doctor shook his head, and the gesture was mirrored by the rest of the medical staff. "No, the only madness is to not use whatever resources we have available to save our people, Human and Fedain alike. We as doctors have an obligation to help our patients. All Fedain share that distinction, as decreed by your own religion. If we cannot look past tradition to hold that greater oath, then we deserve to be destroyed." "We do deserve to be destroyed," Kovrane said. "We have sinned, and that is why the demons have come." "Then perhaps the best way to escape our sin is to try and take a different path than the one's we've followed before," Veil said, rising to her feet and turning to face Kovrane. "Did not our ways and methods lead us here? To the rebellion? To the war with Oligan? To the halls of sick and dying that we can do nothing to save? We must change with the world, or the world will swallow us. The sin is our stagnation and desire to maintain the status quo. For centuries the humans of Ultaka have worshipped us, putting us on a pedestal for our willingness to use our gifts to heal them. They turned against us when we sought power and comfort instead of mere protection in return." "They turned against us because they were sinners as well, who forgot their sacred duty to safeguard our lives from outside threats in return for our aid," Kovrane said. "And now you have started the chain reaction that will lead to the unraveling of what remains of that sacred trust." Veil shook her head solemnly. "No. That's not it at all. We cannot grow if we continue to act like all change is a detriment. Do you know the real reason why the war with Oligan began? It was because when the Fedain first came to power, some humans refused to worship them and traveled to the west to escape Fedain rule. The Fedain refused to let go of the need to control the Oligani and 'maintain that sacred trust'. The Oligani resisted, needing to maintain their own integrity." "I thought no one could remember why the war began," Tellen said quietly. Veil looked to him with surprise, but at seeing his curiosity and not judgment, she simply nodded. "That's widely circulated, yes, but the Fedain nobility have known all along. Many of us knew that we'd failed but denied it. Some, like my father, wished to heal that wound but knew that it would take a long time yet for Oligan to forgive us." "It would stand to reason that it no longer matters, given the state of the world," Tellen replied. Veil smiled but shook her head. "No, it matters more now than it ever did. Because we must remember the price of maintaining foolish pride in tradition. We must remember what stagnation does to a people, and why we must embrace change." She turned to Kovrane once again and said, "I do not wish to see your world destroyed, but it has already begun and will continue under the onslaught of demon and army alike. We have one choice, and that's to adapt, or we will all be swept away." Without waiting for Kovrane's reply, Veil turned back to her patient and knelt down, taking his hand once more. Before she delved back into his flesh, however, she reached up and smoothed back his hair with a mother's tenderness. "I forgive you of your sins, soldier. No matter what path led you to this fate, I forgive you. My father would've done so, and he taught me that it is better to let go of that which you cannot change. I'm going to heal you some more, but only if you give me permission. Please . . . squeeze my hand if I have your permission." The soldier squeezed Veil's hand gently, and Veil went to work again. It was time to eradicate the tumors and make way for new growth. No matter how painful it would be.
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