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Cynus last won the day on October 29 2015

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    Bisexual, leaning male
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    In the Matrix
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    Unraveling life.
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  1. Cynus

    Chapter 28

    Thank you for your comments, and I appreciate your questions. I hope I will answer them adequately as the rest of the story unfolds. I promise there will be plenty more to come, and I believe it will be filled with excitement and intrigue. I hope to see you there!
  2. Cynus

    Chapter 28

    Thank you all for reading this story. I appreciate all the feedback that has been given, and the comments have always made me smile. I apologize that it has taken me so long to respond to some of them. Personal matters interfered with my ability to mentally handle responding to people. Those situations are resolved for the time being, and hopefully permanently. I'm grateful for your patience with me. "Lonely Pride" is now complete, but "The Trial" continues. There will be two more books, and the next book should begin posting within the next few weeks. I'm still waiting on a few things to come together before it gets its public release. If you'd like to continue the series immediately, it is available for my patrons on Patreon (Link in my profile or chapter end notes). The next book is already available to read there, and we're halfway through the last book as well. Otherwise, the story will continue here shortly, so stay tuned! Thank you again!
  3. Cynus

    Chapter 27

    Emotional decisions can make some compelling mistakes. There are two more. The next one will begin posting soon. Both of them are shorter than Lonely Pride by a few chapters. (Book 4 is available on my Patreon for my patrons, and Book 5 is just past the halfway mark there as well) Good points all around. There's also something else going on here, which will be explored at some future point in the story, though the hint is here now. As for whether Veil is Chosen. -shrug-
  4. Cynus

    Chapter 26

    All the right questions to be asking, but our boys are also facing whatever comes with the faith Prism placed in them guiding them forward. There's a lot more to come.
  5. Cynus

    Chapter 25

    I absolutely adore these observations, thank you! Drawing the connection between this and Bradeth's hunt is amazing, and I never thought of it that way. You're amazing, and thank you so much! I'm glad to have sated your gambling urges today, heh. XD
  6. Cynus

    Chapter 24

    It is amazing how one man's single choice can completely alter the course of history. Destroying the Everbright City so violently was something that I was inspired to do in the moment. As soon as I did it, however, it felt correct, and the rest of the story was determined as a result. I struggled more with this book than I did with any other in the series, it was because I didn't know how to resolve this particular situation. Hount was my answer, and I love him for it.
  7. Cynus

    Chapter 23

    @drpaladin - I appreciate the summaries you give in your comments. They help me look back and consider whether or not I have included everything I want to include in a given chapter.I like the way you've analyzed the situation at hand, and I look forward to your reaction when you find out whether or not your analysis is proven correct. @Geoffrey257 - You ask some marvelous questions, and I'm really glad to see them. They help me see if I've laid the foundation I want to for things to come. I promise there is a lot more information on a lot of these points that we'll see in the future. @Sweetlion - This is also an excellent perspective, and I look forward to seeing what you think as more of this information is made available. We have a lot more ground to cover, and I hope to see you there.
  8. Cynus

    Chapter 28

    Prism couldn't believe the sights he'd seen. First the death of Neredos, and then Veil. He'd thought both might live through the end of the demons at the rate things had been going. Yet even the mightiest of his friends were now laid to dust. And the world would know demons again, in far greater numbers than they could handle. Many people would soon die, more than already had from the explosion, the plague, and the battle between the rebels and the Knights. It was all starting again. He was surprised when Telzath squeezed his hand in comfort, and he gave the Elrok an appreciative smile. Casting his gaze to the right, he took in Dogo, who had watched Styx stab Veil in the back with a mixture of surprise, disappointment, and satisfaction. His son had avenged the wrongs done against his family, but he had become a murderer in the process. Prism had to wonder what it was all worth. He hoped Ghayle would give him more answers, though it seemed the world might have to fall apart before she'd give him enough to satisfy. "We're about to have two more visitors," Ghayle announced, breaking away from them. She moved to the same spot where she'd pulled Dogo from the path to the afterlife, her hands placed as if she were about to part a curtain. "Neredos and Veil?" Prism asked, only slightly surprised. "Do they have a right to be Chosen after what they've done?" Ghayle did not turn toward him, her eyes closed in concentration, but she answered in a voice that almost seemed relieved, as if a great weight had finally been lifted from her shoulders. "They were Chosen long before they made the choices they did. I'm afraid their choosing is outside of your influence, Prism." Prism nodded. Ghayle had made it clear that some had been Chosen long before he'd arrived here, and he wasn't certain he wanted a say in the fate of others anyway. "I can accept that," he said at length. "Once, they were the greatest assets against the demons. Perhaps they'll have renewed perspective now." "Commitment to the world and its people in the face of The Trial is what determines worthiness to be among The Chosen," Telzath observed. "Or so it seems from the patterns witnessed thus far." "I'll have to work with them?" Dogo said, raising an eyebrow. "That'll be hard to get used to. Veil especially." With Dogo's words still hanging in the air, Ghayle moved her hands apart and a bright white light filled the clearing. Prism did not look away, remaining focused on the rip Ghayle had apparently made in the air itself. She reached through the tear and pulled out Neredos, dropping him on the ground at her feet. "What?" Neredos spluttered, his eyes adjusting to the scene before him. He stared at the feet before him and was speaking even before he looked up to Ghayle's face. "Ghayle? Where am I?" "Hello, old friend," Ghayle said, helping Neredos to his feet. "Welcome to the world between." Prism walked forward, putting a hand on Neredos' shoulder. Neredos turned toward him, a bewildered smile on his face. "And . . . Prism?" he asked incredulously. "Prism, I'm sorry I didn't listen to you. I should have, but the madness . . ." his face scrunched up in confusion, then an astonished grin spread across his features. "The madness! It's gone! There's no weight on my mind, no addling of my senses!" "You have been healed of such maladies," Ghayle said. "All such things are cured in death." "What is happening?" Neredos asked. "Why am I here?' "Don't worry, we'll explain everything," Prism said, gesturing for Neredos to walk with him and join the others. They'd barely gone two steps before Ghayle said, "She is coming." "Who?" Neredos asked. "Veil," Prism said, his smile faltering slightly. "She's dead as well? And so soon after me?" Neredos asked. "It was some time later, but time works differently here," Telzath offered in explanation. "We've been . . . watching you." Veil came through thrashing, as if fighting against the light surrounding her. Ghayle dropped her with a loud thump against the grass, but she continued flailing and shouting. It was mostly unintelligible, though at the end one loud proclamation came through clearly. "I did it for them!" She seemed to gather her senses then, and noticed the people standing around her. "Ghayle? Neredos? Prism!?" "Hello, Veil," Prism said. Veil stared at him, comprehension slowly dawning on her. "What am I doing here? Did I? Am I . . .?" "Yes. You are dead, my friend," Prism said. He glanced at Ghayle and added, "But not finished." "There are demons loose in Pentalus. We have to do something," Veil said. "We are doing something," Telzath said. "We're watching." "What!?" Veil replied with a wide-eyed stare. "You can't be serious. That's all you're doing? Pentalus, the Everbright City . . . all that we worked to build. We need to preserve what's left before it's all gone!" Prism shared a look with Telzath and was about to respond when Neredos interrupted with a pensive expression. "This . . ." he said, looking at Ghayle, "we're becoming like you, aren't we?" "Always five steps ahead of everyone else," Prism muttered. "Same old Neredos." "What do you mean we're becoming like her?" Veil asked, rounding on Neredos. Neredos continued speaking, pacing the small stretch of grass between Prism and Ghayle. "The only reason we'd all be here, in the world between, watching, is if this is all part of some special event, and we're all connected. Accepting that's true, then we must accept the rest of the pattern, which implies that Ghayle's power has waned, but yet she remains central to this. The demons have always operated under an intelligence, the Vhor, so we can conclude that either Ghayle has brought us to counter that intelligence, or . . . to become that intelligence." "Neredos, it's good to see your mind working again," Ghayle replied with a fond smile. "It has been a long time." "I failed, didn't I?" he replied, frowning. "I didn't pass the test." "You were not exactly yourself," Prism offered. "I can't believe you are all willing to stand here while the world falls apart," Veil interjected. She turned on Ghayle next, her eyes flashing angrily. "You abandoned us, you—" "Can I kill her?" Dogo asked, his expression unreadable. "I don't think it would work. Not here," Telzath said with a sigh. "Veil, your work is just beginning. The world will need you after this," Ghayle said, placing her hand against Veil's cheek. "You are Chosen, and you will help guide the survivors back to the light. For now, however, they must stand alone." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Every muscle in Maxthane's body screamed with fatigue. He had been through so much in one day, even death, and now he had spent the last several hours healing hundreds as they passed through the plaza. There were others that were sick that hadn't shown symptoms yet. He would heal them in time, but at least the most grievous had been handled already. He was certain he'd pushed past the edge of Fedain stamina and taken years off his life, but at least they'd finally managed to clear the square. Drake had followed him around, always watching his back, but it was Grim who appeared to need the most help. He'd healed twice as many as Maxthane. When the last sick person had departed the square, Grim had leaned against a wall and closed his eyes, his face gaunt and sickly. "Grim, you look exhausted," Maxthane observed, sitting down next to his uncle. "No more than you," Grim said, his eyes opening as he chuckled softly. "You did good work today." "Hopefully we got them all," Maxthane said. "There were so many, but that water would've gotten to a lot of people. I might still end up with an epidemic." "Anyone else suffering from effects will probably die before anyone could reach them," Grim said softly, "or wasn't yet sick enough to be here and you can help them later." "I'll issue a proclamation that anyone who is ill should come to the palace," Maxthane said with a nod. "That way, I can help as many as possible." "A wise move," Grim said. He sighed, then rose to his feet, stretching before turning to look Maxthane in the eye. "Maxthane . . . you'll be a good king. The Shade is lucky to have you." "Are you leaving?" Maxthane asked, slowly rising to stand with Grim. "I have to," Grim said, turning his gaze toward the Black Lake. A flash of light answered, and Grim nodded to himself, muttering, "He's waiting for me." "You can't leave yet," Drake said, coming between them. "Why?" Grim asked, eyebrows rising in confusion. "You have some friends to say hello to first," Drake said, then nodded beyond Grim. "Look." Styx led the procession that entered the square, his face lighting up as soon as he saw them. "Max! Grim!" he shouted, then rushed toward them. Kirra was right behind, with Bradeth and Gobrak up next. "Styx!" Maxthane said, staggering forward a few steps to meet Styx partway. They kissed, embraced, then kissed again. When Maxthane pulled back to look at Styx, he saw his own happy tears reflected in his love's eyes. "I'm so relieved to see you!" "Hey, step away from the King," Drake said, coming up behind Max to push lightly on Styx's shoulder as if trying to separate them. Styx stared at Drake in disbelief, then pulled away from Maxthane to wrap Drake in a tight hug. "Drake!? How?" "You were right about our ability to get out, I suppose," Drake said with an amused chuckle. "So that water washed me down the shaft, dropped me in the cavern with the demon. Had to swim, nearly drowned, and then I figured out how to get down the way we came in." "I thought you were dead," Styx said, laughing anxiously. "Me too, a few times," Drake replied fondly. "But I kept thinking that I had to prove you wrong and kept trying to die on my way out, so you'd know you were wrong when you came back for my corpse. Seems that luck favored us both, you with the truth and me with my life." "What's all this about?" Maxthane said, nodding behind them to the large group forming on the other side of the square. Madame Godani had arrived with her sister and was already directing some of the people to set up temporary camp in the area. The pair noticed Maxthane and made their way over. "We brought as many people down from Pentalus as we could," Kirra said, finally, seeing an opening into the reunions. "The demons, they're gathering." As eyes turned on him, Maxthane waved him forward and embraced him, giving him a chaste kiss on the lips. He was surprised by the forcefulness of Kirra's response however and let the Knight's kiss restore some of his energy. "Where's Veil?" Grim asked, turning to Bradeth. "She didn't make it," Bradeth replied, her eyes flickering briefly to Styx, then down to the sword at Kirra's waist. "I see," Grim said quietly. Maxthane heard the news of his mother's death, and it didn't register at first. He felt little emotion toward her but found a sliver of regret for the way things had ended between them. He'd wished she could be his mother, but she had done nothing to earn that position, and he accepted that. The looks Bradeth gave Styx and Kirra, however, were not lost on Maxthane. He would have to ask them what had happened, but it could wait for now. There would be time to catch up on everything that had happened, but his duties as King came first. "You are all welcome in The Shade," he said, stepping forward to greet the woman walking alongside Madame Godani. He anticipated she was the leader of this group from Pentalus, judging by the respect the others afforded her. "We'll find a place for you. There are a lot of abandoned structures, and plenty of places to put you up for the time being. I'll have my soldiers find some adequate accommodations." "Thank you, King Maxthane," the woman replied, bowing low. "It has been a long time since I've been in The Shade, and I will need all the help you can offer." "Max, this is my mother, Nal Maya Godani," Styx said, "I have a sister as well, though she's still in Pentalus, helping organize the retreat." Maxthane's eyes couldn't open any wider as he took in the elderly woman. How she could possibly be Styx's mother was . . . believable, he realized. Grim's words about Salidar trading Styx's mother filled Maxthane's mind. He wanted to vomit at the thought of what his mother had done to the family of the boy he loved. Grim's question brought him quickly out of those thoughts. "You said the demons are gathering?" "Yes," Styx said. "Gobrak suggested that they might be waiting for their leader." Grim nodded in appreciation at the older Elrok. "Styx, Max, Bradeth . . . I need to speak to the three of you." "Kirra too," Styx said. "Very well," Grim said, then paused as Kirra suddenly drew his sword and extended it toward him. "Is that . . .!?" he asked incredulously, reaching for the sword but pausing without taking it. "She wants to see you too," Kirra said, smiling fondly. Grim took the sword in hand and held it gently. He closed his eyes and muttered something to himself, which Maxthane couldn't hear. After a moment he nodded to himself and handed the sword back to Kirra. "I see . . ." He turned to Styx and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Styx, I'm sorry you had to go through that. But it was her time, though . . ." he hesitated, a frown quickly overtaking his features. "What's wrong?" Maxthane asked. He wanted to ask what happened with the sword, but Grim's mental state worried him more. "Fasha," Grim said. "He said something to me. I thought he was talking about Veil and me, telling us where he expected us to be. He said, 'one above and one below'." "What does that mean?" Bradeth asked. "There's another Vhor still alive, and he's above us, in Pentalus," Grim said. He shook his head, fists clenching angrily. "I missed one after all this time." "So . . ." Bradeth pressed, "are you going to hunt it?" "No. Not yet anyway. For now, I'm giving that task to the four of you," Grim said. "Each of you has faced the Vhor before and survived. I don't know how many others here could claim the same. There will be a battle above, the fiercest battle anyone alive but me has ever seen, and the Vhor will orchestrate every move of it." "Where will you be?" Styx asked. "Getting answers," Grim replied, his gaze once more turning toward the Black Lake. "And, with any luck, ending this. Maxthane, I'm going to need that boat." "It should be waiting for you already," Maxthane said. "Thank you," Grim replied, touching Maxthane's arm gently. "Father," Bradeth said, embracing Grim swiftly. "Be careful." They parted and Grim met the eyes of each of those around him. "All of you, be careful. Live through this, if you can. The world will need your strength when this is over." With that he turned and left. "What was that about?" Styx asked. "The Vhor, as it has always been," Bradeth said. "As it may always be with him." Styx nodded, and turned to Maxthane as if all his questions had already been answered. "Max," he said, embracing Maxthane again. "I'm glad to see you mostly in one piece. I'm sorry about your arm. Is there anything I can do to help you feel better about it?" Maxthane searched Styx's eyes, saw the lust in there, the need. There was something more. Regret, perhaps. Darkness. Styx needed a distraction, and Maxthane wished he could help. "Styx," he said softly, "I love you, but all I want is sleep." Kirra wrapped his arm around Styx's shoulders and looked at Maxthane suggestively. "Room on the bed for two more?" "I'll find one big enough," Maxthane said, laughing with surprised delight at the look in Kirra's eyes. "But no sex tonight. I think it'd kill me." "How about in the morning?" Kirra asked, eyes twinkling. Styx and Maxthane shared an astonished glance before staring at him. "I'm joking," Kirra said, then added with a grin, "Half joking, anyway." "I love you both," Maxthane said, smiling warmly. "For now . . ." a yawn overtook him, momentarily cutting off his words. "I think we'd better rest while we can. We have a war ahead of us." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ The boatman hooked the skiff to the metal ring embedded in the boulder near the island in the Black Lake. He quickly put a plank in place to give Grim a path to the shore, then finally turned to the Fedain. "Should I wait for you?" he asked, eyeing the island nervously. "No. I'll be fine but thank you," Grim said. "You've done enough. Go home, be well." The boatman nodded but Grim didn't wait around to see it. Instead he moved across the plank as easily as he would a wide street, landing gracefully on the rocky shoreline. He moved toward where he'd last seen the damaged golem, expecting Fasha to be leading him into a trap and deciding there was no reason not to face it head on. He encountered Fasha when he'd made it most of the way there. The Vhor was sitting on a boulder, his hand momentarily shifted into a firebug's body. It flashed with light as Grim slowed his approach. "You're here at last," Fasha said, smiling in greeting to Grim as he shifted his hand back to a human's. "I was wondering when you'd arrive." "Who is the Vhor in Pentalus?" Grim asked, hoping boldness would make Fasha reveal his secrets. "Straight to the point, huh?" Fasha asked, chuckling softly. "I don't know what face he currently wears. After you started hunting us based upon the connections of our plots, I ordered him to start hunting alone. I barely have any contact with him, though I know he's there. He wouldn't be anywhere else." Grim's eyes momentarily flicked to farther up the shoreline. A mass of metal lay there, broken into a dozen pieces. "You killed the golem." "It would've been a nuisance for our conversation," Fasha replied with a shrug. "After all this time, you want a conversation?" Grim scoffed. "Come on," Fasha replied, rolling his eyes, "you can't tell me you're not curious what this is all about." "Why me?" Grim asked. "Why you?" Fasha said, his face a mask of confusion. "You haven't told anyone else, so why me?" Grim asked. "Grim . . ." Fasha replied, rising to his feet and opening his arms wide. "You must suspect now. You must have some idea." "You've been trying to free the demons, but now you're going to let them die without leading them," Grim said accusingly. "You want them to lose." "This has lasted eight hundred years too long, Grim," Fasha replied, sighing deeply. "It was never supposed to be like this. Battles between good and evil should come to a resolution, not remain stagnant for centuries." "So, tell me," Grim said, crossing his arms over his chest. "First," Fasha said, "I need you to promise me something. If you do, I will tell you everything." "So you can go back on your word?" Grim replied. "I don't think so." Fasha raised his hands in surrender. "I won't run again. Whether you promise or not, my life is in your hands. I'll even let you maintain your grip on me while we talk if you'd prefer. But I will only give you the knowledge you seek if you will make the promise I require." Grim searched Fasha for any sign of deception. He couldn't trust Fasha, but the knowledge he might gain here would potentially be invaluable. "What is the promise?" he asked at last. "That I will be the last demon you kill. Promise that they will stand alone, that you'll leave those children to fight this battle," Fasha replied. "Why?" "Promise first, or nothing," Fasha reiterated. Grim paused for only a moment, then found the words leaving his tongue as if it had been made to deliver them. "I promise that you will be the last demon I kill, and that I will not fight in the battle above." Fasha nodded only once and replied, "I accept your oath. Know that if you break it, you will face a fate worse than any you could imagine." "Speak, Fasha," Grim demanded. "First, introductions are in order," Fasha replied, then his form began to shift. Human clothes and skin became a dark, leathery hide with patches of scales over vital areas. Large, leathery wings spread out from the sleek figure, and sharp horns extended from the back of his skull. Flashing a row of sharp, white teeth, Fasha went on, "Grimfaeth, son of Selfaeth . . . I am Naxthul, the Shadowtide, and I was once your god." The End
  9. Cynus

    Chapter 27

    Veil healed Drake the moment he was laid before her. She left his missing arm alone, knowing Grim's words to Maxthane to be perfectly true. To artificially heal a missing limb meant creating something alien to its owner. It could turn against its master; could fail at the worst time. Sometimes it was better to accept loss. Sometimes . . . she glanced upward, staring at the hole leading to Pentalus. Loss. Everything she had built was now gone, and it itched like a missing limb, phantom pains of all the memories she had created in that city. She ignored every offer of thanks Drake gave her, too consumed by her pain to give him more than automatic nods. Eventually, he gave up and moved away, joining Maxthane and Grim to give them a quick report of everything that had happened with his own demon hunt. Demons. The world would soon know them again, would need someone to help them fight. Yes, down here they faced the evil residue of a Quay, but the above city lay in ashes, and if Neredos died before killing all the demons . . . "Bradeth, please take me to the surface," Veil said abruptly, stopping all the conversation around her. "Aren't you going to stay and help heal the plague?" Maxthane asked. "Didn't you insist that—" Veil interrupted him with an upraised hand, her eyes flashing with annoyance. "The people in Pentalus need my help. There are thousands of wounded up there." "And thousands of sick down here," Grim said, rising to Maxthane's defense. "Are these people less in your eyes?" "Of course not," Veil scoffed. "But their need is also less immediate." "Grim . . ." Fasha interjected from his sitting position just behind Grim and Maxthane. Drake eyed him warily as he continued. "You should let her go. One above and one below. If you divide your forces, you'll be more effective." "Why should I listen to you?" Grim asked. "You believed me about not running. Why should this be any different?" Fasha replied with a casual shrug. "You swore you wouldn't run. As far as I'm concerned, you've sworn nothing of the sort about helping these people," Grim replied. "Why would you care which survivors of your campaigns we help?" "I've done everything for these people," Fasha said with a puzzling smile. His eyes remained on Grim, but Veil felt as if he were somehow watching her, giving her the permission to feel as she did. It was a strange comfort from a demon, whether she'd worked with him before or not. But Grim only grew more suspicious by Fasha's cryptic words. "You are a demon. Your agenda is to destroy and consume." "Grim," Fasha said with a dry chuckle. "The war is ending. My demons are dying. Neredos is killing them. I can feel their numbers fading. This is almost over." "You act as if you want it to end," Grim said, frowning with a question in his eyes. "Grim . . . it is ending. You don't understand, but you will soon," Fasha replied. As if in response to his statement, a tremor moved through the cavern. It was less intense than the ones before, but the walls still shook and several more boulders crashed from above. It sounded like thunder, but the sky remained as clear as before. "What was that?" Drake asked. "Another explosion from above us," Maxthane said. "What does that mean?" Drake asked. "Are we under attack? Is it just an earthquake? I felt some shaking earlier." "No . . ." Fasha said, staring upward. Not through the hole, Veil realized, but straight up, his gaze seeming to pierce the rock above him. "Neredos is dead," he whispered with disbelief. "How do you know?" Grim asked. Fasha looked back at him and stated with surprising plainness, "The last of the demons are free." "No . . ." Grim said, turning his gaze skyward. "It can't be. The people up there aren't prepared for so many demons at once. We have to help them." He started moving, toward the grand staircase, Veil realized, when a tentacle reached out to grab him. "Grim. Don't," Fasha said, tugging him backward. "What are you talking about?" Grim said, breaking free from the tentacles grasp with a snarl. "Don't," Fasha insisted. "You are not to be their savior. You've done enough. Let Veil go." "I do not have to listen to the likes of you," Grim spat, eyes flashing with anger. "No, but you want to kill me, don't you?" Fasha said. "Which is your more important mission?" He rolled backward, shifting as he came to his feet, large wings spreading behind him. The rest of his body soon followed suit, transforming to the form of a large bird flitting just out of reach. "You swore on Khalis!" Grim roared. "An oath of love is strong, but some oaths are stronger still," Fasha replied, keeping his gaze on Grim. Bradeth took up her bow and quickly let fly an arrow. Fasha merely morphed around the missile, as it passed through his body and continued freely into the darkness beyond. He continued addressing Grim, ignoring Bradeth entirely. "Meet me at the island if you want your last battle, Grim. Do not go to Pentalus. One above, one below." And then he turned in the air and disappeared into the darkness, flying toward the Black Lake. Grim followed immediately after, rushing, without any care for the obstacles he'd face along the way. Before anyone could react, he was gone. "Grim!" Maxthane shouted, taking a step after him but stopping there. In the distance he saw a flash of light but couldn't determine its source. For a moment he thought he saw Grim's dashing form illuminated by the glow, but he was gone as the darkness returned. "What do we do now?" Drake asked. "Wasn't Grim going to help you heal people?" "The people above still need us," Veil said. "Injury often kills quicker than sickness, and I'm going to help them." "So, you would abandon my people after all?" Maxthane asked, turning to her. "It was you who wanted to come down here. It was you who wanted to help. Now that you're here, you want to go before helping anyone." "I will teach you how to heal them, and then leave it up to you," Veil offered. "I have already helped you with the poisoned stream, after all." "That's the best you can do?" Maxthane asked, keeping his face neutral. Veil bristled at the look in his eyes, but her gaze traveled upward again. "You have your priorities, Maxthane, and I have mine," she said at length. "I swore oaths to protect the people above, and they must be seen to." Maxthane waved his hand dismissively and half-turned away. "Grim already told me what needed to be done. If you won't stay, then leave. I have no use for you." Veil felt a sudden pang of regret. How could she make him understand? "Son . . ." she began, hoping the familial tone would soften him. "You have no right to call me that," Maxthane snapped, rounding on her once more. "You never did. Leave, Veil. May our paths never cross again." Veil nodded, wishing she could do something to take away the pain in Maxthane's eyes. But it was the pain of a son learning his mother was not whom he thought. She had experienced a similar pain herself, and no Fedain healing could fix that problem. Even if she tried to change his mental state, the result would be a lie. And it would change nothing for her. She owed nothing to The Shade. Despite her role in freeing the demon who had poisoned the water supply, the world was larger than the thieves and scoundrels who lived here, and decent people needed her. "I'm sorry," she said, knowing it would fall on deaf ears. She couldn't put enough conviction behind it to even fool herself. "Chief Bradeth, please take her away from me," Maxthane said, meeting the Elrok's eyes. "I'll consider it a personal favor." Veil felt the Elrok's thorny gaze settle on her. "As you wish, King Maxthane. I'll return when I'm done and see if there's any way I can help you." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ As soon as Veil and Bradeth were gone, Maxthane turned to Drake, the only one still standing with him near the stream. Two of his soldiers waited a short distance away, but far enough to remain out of earshot. The commander of the unit Fasha had led here had insisted that Maxthane retain an escort. Maxthane cast a look toward them, then said in a dark tone, "Drake . . . do you have any family?" "Aside from the Inkblades?" Drake replied. "No. And, judging from what I just saw, maybe I'm lucky." Maxthane grimaced at the statement but couldn't help but agree. "Are you loyal to me, Drake?" "Of course, my King. Though you know I'm loyal to Madame Godani first," Drake said with a reserved grin. "But as far as I know, she supports you completely." "Guild before King," Maxthane replied with a forced smile. "Don't worry, I won't hold it against you. I have a favor to ask, however." Drake nodded. "Anything. Just name it." "I want you to come with me and guard my back," Maxthane said, casting another wary glance at the soldiers below. "I'm not sure how many of my soldiers I can trust completely. Until a moment ago, they were loyal to Krythe." Drake bowed his head slightly to the right. It was different than a nod and carried the same weight in The Shade as a kneel. "Of course, King Maxthane. I am yours to command until further notice." Maxthane gripped Drake's shoulder and nodded appreciatively. He turned and walked toward the soldiers, Drake following close behind. "Take me to the where we've gathered the sick," Maxthane ordered as soon as they arrived. The soldiers nodded and led him into the streets of the Lower Shade. They took their time leading him to the gathering place, a large square near the base of one of the large pillars supporting the roof of the cavern. Hundreds of people filled the space, and more were coming by the minute. Torches were being lit as well. Despite the lack of need most Shade residents had for light, many still appreciated and used it whenever there were large gatherings such as this. It helped put people at ease to see a face illuminated by a soft glow, rather than the shadowy images of Shadesight. Many voices murmured an astonished greeting at seeing Maxthane, but it was a man at the far side of the square who attracted his attention first. He moved from person to person, crouching down and placing his hand against their exposed flesh. Whenever he rose from his crouches, the people he touched stopped coughing, reinvigorated by his ministrations. Maxthane made his way immediately to Grim's side. Before Maxthane could say anything at all, Grim said quietly, "I hope you'll forgive me for starting without you." "Grim! You came back!" Maxthane said, glad to see the familiar face. "Fasha did exactly what he said he would. I watched him fly toward the island. You can still see him if you look that way," Grim said, pointing in the distance. The square they currently occupied was on a slight rise before descending toward the shores of the Black Lake. While the island itself was difficult to make out, a periodic flash of light emanated from it. "See those flashes of light?" "What is that?" Maxthane asked. "He transformed into a giant firebug while he was flying away from me. He's signaling me, taunting me," Grim explained. "But once I knew he was stopping there . . . I decided to come back here and help you. It will take me time to charter a boat, anyway." "Maybe the golem will take care of him," Maxthane said with a snarl. "Something tells me that won't happen," Grim said, sighing. Maxthane echoed the sentiment with a sigh of his own. "Well, I'll have a boat take you there when we're done, if that'll suit you." Grim nodded appreciatively, then pulled Maxthane back from the wall of people, to the nearest open space in the square. Drake started to follow but held back at a brief shake of Maxthane's head. Whispering, Grim asked, "Where're Veil and Bradeth?" "They left for Pentalus," Maxthane explained in a similar hush. "Veil insisted, and I told her to leave. Why are we talking quietly?" "I didn't want to mention her name where too many can hear. I'm sure there's plenty of bad blood for her down here. There was a time when she valued life over station. Her reputation here is well deserved," Grim replied dryly. He sighed and glanced around at the people surrounding them. "No matter, we can do the work ourselves, though I would've liked to see Veil again before she died." "What do you mean?" Maxthane asked, eyes widening. "By returning to Pentalus, she's almost guaranteed to run into the Dark Mother and her retainers. They'll execute her, and probably before she has a chance of healing anyone," Grim explained. "But . . . why? Because of her working with Fasha?" Maxthane asked. "She worked with Fasha?" Grim asked with surprise. "You didn't know?" "No . . ." Grim replied, shaking his head and wearing a dubious expression. "I knew about . . . about Styx's mother, but not about Fasha. So, she's the one who gave you all the information you needed for your rebellion?" "That's right," Maxthane said. "What was that about Styx's mother?" "She deserves death even more than I thought," Grim muttered, his eyes growing distant. He shook his head as if to clear his senses and added, "What would father think, sister?" "Grim . . ." Maxthane began, then continued in a softer tone, "Uncle . . . what about Styx's mother?" "Your father traded Styx's mother, Nal Maya Godani, for the rights to Veil's womb," Grim explained. Maxthane's body went rigid, and a pang of nausea threatened to overwhelm him. Grim placed a comforting hand on Maxthane's arm and went on, "Before you start blaming yourself for things outside your control, I tell you this because I'm rather certain Styx knows already, and I feel you should be prepared in case he addresses it with you. I doubt Salidar knew he was sentencing a woman to death for nothing but his personal gains. He was ambitious, and I disagreed with almost everything he did, but he wouldn't do something like that." "Still . . . how will I ever make it up to him?" Maxthane asked, suppressing the urge to retch. Grim smiled reassuringly and replied, "Why don't you find out if he even holds it against you first?" "If he's even alive," Maxthane said. "Have faith in him. He's a survivor, that one," Grim replied, giving Maxthane's arm a comforting squeeze before letting go. "Now . . . I believe your people are waiting for their King. Save your strength and focus for that." "I know you already explained, but will you show me what to do?" Maxthane asked. "For my favorite nephew?" Grim asked, his eyes twinkling. "Of course." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Bradeth wanted to throw Veil as far from her as she could, but she managed to contain the urge. Having the woman's arms around her neck was bad enough, but Veil's attempts at conversation made it even worse. "Are you sure this is the best way up?" Veil asked. Even though Bradeth couldn't see her face, she could feel the disdainful look of battled fear behind her. Bradeth took a moment to glance down into the darkness. She'd taken Veil straight to the cavern wall, far below the grand staircase. In order to reach the staircase the normal way, they would have had to traverse most of the Lower Shade. But Bradeth didn't have the patience for that. Instead, she'd carved a few Elrok symbols with Gor runes into the rockface and performed a spell, reaching all the way up the cavern wall with her will. Stone rungs had erupted from the wall, forming a ladder for Bradeth to climb. Veil had balked at the thought of Bradeth carrying her, but Bradeth had simply waited for Veil's tirade to end, and then started up. "We have a lot of ground to cover. Trust me, there's nothing like straight up for an Elrok. It's much faster than walking to the stairs," Bradeth replied, hoping that by finally answering a question she'd get Veil to stop talking. "I've never witnessed magic like this. Of course, I've spent very little time amongst your people," Veil said neutrally. "You should've gotten out more," Bradeth said with a snort. "Perhaps if you'd come to know the people in the world you wouldn't have become such a coldhearted witch." "I could kill you right now, you know," Veil said. Bradeth snorted. "You'd be killing yourself. If you think I couldn't make you fall to your death in the process, you haven't thought this through." "Still, there's no reason to be rude," Veil replied. "After all this, you still don't get it, do you?" Bradeth said incredulously, pausing briefly on the wall to collect her thoughts. Her hand twitched, wanting to reach up and unhook Veil's arms and drop her into the darkness. "Get what?" Veil asked. "You are not righteous. You are not divine. Your people worship an illusion," Bradeth said, "For some reason they see in you a savior, who was never there." She resumed her climb, increasing her speed slightly. The sooner she was rid of Veil, the better. "I did everything for my people," Veil insisted after a moment. Bradeth grunted, climbing up several more rungs before replying. "Yes, for your people. Not everyone. Not for the world. For the people you saw as beneficial to you. The world suffered while you catered to your nobles and your Knights. Even the citizens of Pentalus eventually suffered the effects of your neglect." "You don't know what you're talking about," Veil said. "You don't know the position I was in." "I know there's a rebellion going on above us, and that this rebellion is directly responsible for the state of Pentalus," Bradeth replied. "I'm sure part of why you insisted on going up there now is the guilt you feel." "You don't know that," Veil growled. "We don't know what brought the Everbright City down." "Avoid the truth all you want, Veil. You will not escape the consequences of your actions, and that is good enough for me," Bradeth replied. "Though I must say, your guilt is definitely wearing you ragged. Your reputation marks you as someone cool and collected at all times, but all I see is a disillusioned woman trying to hold onto scraps of power." Veil barked a laugh. "If you hate me so much, why are you helping me?' "Because King Maxthane of The Shade asked me to, and he is an ally and friend," Bradeth replied without hesitation. "Because your brother is my father, and my former chief, and I owe him my life several times over. He would want me to help you. He saved you from your fate once, after all." "You don't know—" "Stop telling me what I don't know," Bradeth interrupted. "You believe yourself superior to everyone. You believe your perspective gives you authority over the rest of us, just because you've lived eight hundred years. But you've spent those centuries in comfort, in youth, in opulence. You are not worthy to call yourself mortal, and only a mortal has the right to determine the fate of mortals." "Yet you follow my brother," Veil replied, her tone implying an accusation. "Grimfaeth is mortal. He's known it his whole life. You do not know him," Bradeth said angrily. She wanted to scream, wanted to challenge Veil to a battle to the death for comparing herself to Grim. "And now you're the one assuming another's knowledge," Veil said. Bradeth nearly let go of the wall to end the conversation, but instead she took a deep breath, cooling her anger a few degrees before responding. "Everything is an argument for you. Are you incapable of accepting responsibility for your actions?" "How about we stop talking about—" Veil began, but Bradeth felt a vibration in the stone above them and cut her off with a hiss. "Shush . . . there's someone above us," Bradeth said quietly. "What?" Veil whispered. "I said stop talking . . ." Bradeth replied. The vibrations continued, growing more intense. The feeling of many footsteps moving together. "I can feel them. There's a large group coming down the grand staircase." "From Pentalus?" Veil asked. "Yes." "Then let's hurry and catch up with them. They might have answers we need," Veil said. "Hold on. I'll have to speed this up to intercept them," Bradeth replied, then prepared herself mentally for the task ahead. "You weren't already going at full speed?" Veil asked in the same accusing tone as before. "I was conserving energy," Bradeth replied with a grin. "But now, hopefully I can get rid of you sooner. That will give me all the energy I need." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ The rubble-strewn streets of Pentalus were difficult for Styx to navigate, but thankfully he didn't have to take the lead of the group heading for the nearest access point to The Shade. As luck would have it, they were closest to the main entrance leading them to the grand staircase, which would make it easier for them to make it down with the wounded. Styx had volunteered to carry the front half of the litter bearing Kirra, while another man had taken up the back end. At Kirra's urging, Styx had found clothing and dressed for the trip down, though the simple sandals he'd managed to find for footwear were not to his liking. He had already stubbed his toe twice on loose rubble. A growling from the side made him pull up short, and everyone near him joined in the search for the source of the noise. A large, quilled cat with yellow fur sprang onto the one remaining wall of a nearby ruined house. It looked at them, its mouth curled into a snarl, then bounded off in a different direction without attacking. "That was a smaller version of the demon I killed during Salidar's siege," Kirra said when they all could breathe again. Styx spared him a glance and saw him gripping the hilt of his sword laying next to him in the litter. "I wonder why it didn't attack us. Do you really think we'll be okay?" "I don't know," Styx said. "I hope so. That wasn't the first demon to move on without attacking us." "You should leave me behind," Kirra said. "I'm dead weight. Get yourselves out. You're too exposed out here." "Don't talk like that," Styx replied with annoyance. "You're one of the ones who can't walk, so you get to go first. The perks of being wounded. We just have to get you to Grim or Veil. You said they're both in The Shade, right? " "But . . ." Kirra said, "How are we going to save everyone?" "We are lucky that the demons appear disoriented," Fenri said, coming up on them from behind. With his one injured arm he couldn't help carry any of the wounded, but he still had a pack of supplies over his shoulder. He eyed the rubble and shuddered. "Or maybe they're searching the rubble for easy pickings." "That's a bit morbid, don't you think?" Styx asked. Fenri glared at him. "My home was just destroyed and the demons I was charged to keep contained are loose on the world again. Forgive me if I'm not exactly chipper." "I understand. I'm sorry," Styx said. He pointed ahead to where a few men and women stood at the remains of a brewery. The brewery was owned by the thulu'Khant family, though a Pentalus resident had his name attached to all the paperwork. The building had guarded the entrance to The Shade for centuries. "Look, we've made it to the entrance to The Shade. The advance scouts have already cleared away the rubble. We'll be safe in no time." "Do you really think the demons won't follow us?" Kirra asked worriedly. "They don't seem to be doing much of anything. Look," Styx said, nodding ahead of them. They'd just come around a bend in the road and could see across the crater that had formed during the initial explosion of the Everbright City. "It's like they're . . . gathering," Fenri said. "Waiting for something." Styx frowned at the assessment but could not deny the truth of it. Even as he watched, the cat from before picked its way across the rubble and into the crater. Several demons flew overhead as well, a mixture of Aika, Quay, and Ibrix demons, all angling toward the center of the crater. Dozens of demons had already assembled there, centered around five large demons. The paired Aika were curled up against each other, the cat now lying in the arms of its scaled winged counterpart. The large-clawed hulking form of a Goden demon stood next to them, bringing Styx memories of his brief time as Salidar's prisoner when he'd fought a nearly identical but much smaller version of the same demon. Next to the Goden was a demon Styx had not yet seen, its body covered in ridged, bony plates. Flying over their heads was a winged serpent like the one Styx had faced the day before, though far larger. They must be the remaining demon generals gathering their forces. "But what are they gathering for?" Kirra asked. "I don't know, but we should take the opportunity to get out of here while we still can," Styx said. "Maybe they're just trying to figure out what to do about Lord Hount? His forces are still surrounding the city, after all." "Maybe," Kirra muttered. "That's not it," said a deep voice from their right. An Elrok vaulted over a low wall, bow in hand, and landed next to them. Styx didn't recognize him, and set the litter down abruptly, preparing to defend Kirra as best he could, but the Elrok simply spoke to his companions. "Hello, friend Kirra, Knight Fenri." "Fletcher Gobrak! You're alive!" Kirra said, then groaned as his exuberance pulled on his injuries. "Yes, and about half the Elroks as well," Gobrak replied. "We've been pulling people out of the rubble on the far side of the city as best as we can. We sent them out to the west." "Fletcher Gobrak, this is Styx," Kirra said, nodding to his lover. "Why didn't you rendezvous with us sooner?" "We've been busy. But we ran into one of your search parties and decided to make our way here a short time ago," Gobrak replied with a smile, then turned his attention to the crater. "But the demons . . . they're waiting for their leader." "Their leader?" Fenri asked. "Do they even have the ability to be led?" "The Vhor," Gobrak explained. The word pulled painfully on Styx's memories as he recalled the day he and Prism had escaped The Shade. Prism had explained all about the Vhor and their role in commanding the demon forces. Gobrak continued, though he briefly met Styx's eyes and saw the recognition there first. "There's one still alive, and until he commands them to act, they will do nothing." "Either way, we're going down, and we're doing it now," Styx said. "The sooner we make it to safety, the sooner we can regroup and figure out what to do about the demons." "Lead on, Shade," Fenri said. "Please, allow us to help carry some of the wounded," Gobrak said. "I'd appreciate that," Styx said warmly. "But Kirra's mine." "I understand," Gobrak replied, nodding in approval. "We'll fill in where we can, and I'll take up the rear on Kirra's litter." "Are you injured, Gobrak?" Kirra asked when Gobrak relieved the man in the rear. "I fared well. Far better than you, Kirra," Gobrak replied. "Rest, we'll speak soon." Their conversation with Gobrak had stalled them enough for some of the others to catch up. The Godani twins were now in the lead, walking past Styx and nodding in greeting. Styx smiled at his aunt and mother and followed immediately after them. They descended into the cellar of the brewery, then down toward the antechamber leading to the grand staircase. A contingent of soldiers dressed in the black leathers of the thulu'Khant's forces blocked the passageway, their leader immediately raising her voice as Madame Godani stepped into the room. "Who is there?" "We've come from Pentalus. We seek shelter in The Shade," Nal Maya said, speaking before anyone else could. "We're under orders from Commander Krythe to—" the soldier continued, but Madame Godani silenced her with a glare. "You will let us through." "Madame Godani," the soldier said, finding courage from somewhere, "you are under arrest for—" More people were entering the cellar by the second, some drawing weapons as they sensed the mood in the room. Nal Maya held up a hand to stall them while Madame Godani continued to address the soldier. "You cannot arrest all of us. If the Underking wishes to arrest me, he can find me at my guildhall. Let us pass." The soldier maintained her glare for a few long seconds before finally sighing and waving the group forward. "Very well." Madame Godani nodded in approval and waved for Styx and Gobrak to lead the way with Kirra's litter. Fenri maintained step beside them as they walked past the soldiers. Styx tensed as he felt the stares from the black-leathered warriors. He wondered if he would find a blade in his back before he made it all the way through. To his relief, they passed without incident, and arrived at the top of the grand staircase. Styx continued down, leading the entire group into the darkness. It felt odd to be returning home this way, but at least they were alive. They'd descended nearly halfway to the Lower Shade when Styx heard someone grunting with effort ahead of them. "There's someone coming," he said setting the litter down and turning to Kirra. "Styx?" a familiar voice said from ahead of them. "Veil?" Styx said with surprise as he turned to find the Fedain standing before him, climbing up from the edge of the staircase. An Elrok face soon followed. "Bradeth?" Kirra and Gobrak said in unison. "Kirra? Gobrak?" Bradeth said, eyeing them both with surprise. "By the blood, you're in a state, aren't you? Here, let me help," Veil said, approaching Kirra's litter. She immediately placed her hands on Kirra's exposed chest, letting her healing energies work their magic. Styx resisted the urge to stop her, knowing Kirra needed her help, but he couldn't help the feelings of betrayal that surfaced as he watched them. When Veil pulled away, Kirra tested his arm and then leg, smiling in appreciation. "Thank you, Oracle." Veil smiled and turned toward Fenri, placing her hand on his arm. "I'll take care of you, too." Fenri shifted his arm a moment later, testing the movements of his fingers. "Thank you," he said with awe. "I was worried it would never be the same again, but it feels as good as new." "What's happening?" Madame Godani said from farther down the line. Styx could see her coming to investigate what had stalled their progress. Fenri, who was closest to the approaching woman, called back to her. "The Lady Veil has come back. She's come back to—" "Kill her," Madame Godani interrupted, passing the last person between her and Veil and fixing the Fedain with an icy glare. "What?" Fenri said with surprise. Styx glanced at Kirra and saw a similarly confused expression on his face. "Kill her now," Madame Godani said to no one in particular, her eyes remaining fixed on Veil, murderous rage burning intensely within them. "Madame Godani?" Kirra asked with alarm, struggling to his feet. "What is the meaning of this?" "She deserves a trial, aunt," Styx said, surprising himself with the words. "And if she's willing to heal the injured beforehand, we should let her." He didn't completely disagree with his aunt's sentiment, but he also saw the logic of keeping Veil alive to help the wounded. She could face justice later. "Many with us would refuse that help," Madame Godani replied. "Many of us would rather she never touched a soul again." "You are Nal Maya's sister, aren't you?" Veil asked, eyes widening with recognition. "I suppose you have every right to hate me. I only wish to heal the injured. Please, let me help." "She just healed me. What is all this about?" Kirra asked. Styx glanced his way and replied, "Veil destroyed my mother's life and sent me to kill Neredos." "You tried to kill Neredos?" Kirra replied his eyes widening with shock and horror. "Are you responsible for the demons being released then?" "Do not be angry with him, Kirra," Veil said. "I made him do it, though if I'd known who his mother was I wouldn't have made the mistake. Your mother had a sliver of Fedain heritage, which means you do as well. I assume you were able to break out of your compulsion to kill Neredos?" she asked, giving Styx a forced smile. Styx did not return it. With a heavy sigh, Veil returned her attention to Madame Godani. "I admit to my crimes. I will submit to your judgment willingly, after I've healed those in need." "Don't you understand, Veil? No one wants your help," Bradeth said. "It's like I said before, you don't understand the people you claim to serve." Before Veil could respond to Bradeth's accusation, Nal Maya stepped into view from behind Madame Godani. She fixed Veil with an icy stare. "You . . ." "Nal Maya. You're looking well," Veil said. "No thanks to you," Nal Maya replied. Veil took a step forward, her hand raised as if to touch Nal Maya. "Please, let me—" Styx acted on impulse, seeing his mother tense at the thought of Veil touching her. Remembering the way Veil had invaded his mind, had compelled him to kill for her. Knowing the darkness she had admitted to, and knowing it had to end. He reached into Kirra's litter, drawing his sword with one swift movement and closed the distance on Veil, driving the sword through her back and into her heart. It cut her words into ribbons, as blood spluttered from her mouth. Bitch, Kirra's sword whispered in Styx's mind. She, too, was glad to have been the end of Veil. Styx held the sword in place, knowing Veil would be trying to heal herself from even this mortal wound. "You won't touch my mother again," Styx said quietly. "You'll never understand . . ." Veil sputtered, dropping to her knees. Styx crouched with her, her last words coming out in a whisper of agony. "What I did . . . I did it for . . ." she collapsed completely, sliding from the sword and landing in the quickly spreading puddle of her own blood. "You killed her," Kirra said, coming up and placing his hand on Styx's. The sword fell from Styx's grasp as he came to realize what he'd just done, his muscles weak and trembling. "I . . . I had to," Styx muttered. "Come on, Styx," Kirra said, wrapping Styx in an embrace. "Let's get you home." "Yes . . . home . . ." Styx mumbled, but his eyes remained fixed on the corpse of the woman before him. The woman he'd killed, who had done so much good and so much evil. If only he knew which it was that he had just done by ending her.
  10. Cynus

    Chapter 26

    Despite everything happening around him, Kirra drifted off to sleep. The pain had finally taken him, driving him into much-needed rest. Or, at least, it was an attempt at rest. Styx's comforting touch at his side wasn't enough to ward against the forces waging inside his mind. His dreams were filled with a thousand haunting images. It started with the blast, the horrible explosion that had sent him careening from the rooftop to the edge of the abyss. He'd crawl off the rock, his body aching, time and time again, only to find himself back on the rooftop, standing, watching the Everbright City explode. It took him a dozen repeats before he realized that not all the details were the same each time he returned to the rooftop. The pillars of fog throughout Pentalus were disappearing and leaving pillars of darkness in their wake. He stopped struggling whenever the explosion hit him, focusing instead on the changing pillars, wondering what it meant. There were forms in the darkness. Some he recognized as demons he had witnessed before, and some were unfamiliar. All were grotesque and fearsome; all filled him with dread. Then the explosion struck again, and he again landed on the slab of rock. This time though, he didn't struggle off it as it fell into the darkness. The abyss of The Shade swallowed him as he fell, the enveloping shadows a comforting escape from the demons he felt surrounding him. He awoke to find Styx's concerned face staring down at him. "What's wrong?" he asked groggily. "You lost consciousness," Styx said. "I was worried about you." "How long was I out?" Kirra asked. "Did you try to wake me?" "No, but your breathing was becoming ragged and I was about to," Styx said. "You were only out for a few minutes, but . . ." he sighed in relief. "I'm just glad you're back." Kirra nodded as best he could and shifted his position. "I'm all right. How is Alsha?" Styx hesitated, his eyes showing the still dissatisfied worry, but he answered Kirra's question all the same. "She'll be fine. She's unconscious, and a little worse off than you, but she was coming to as I brought her here." "That's good. Thank you," Kirra said, "for rescuing her, I mean." "I flew over Ibrix Plaza on my way here. I spotted a few bodies, most of them were dead, but I saw her before I moved on. She was half-buried in the rubble, and I'm a little surprised she's alive," Styx said. A chuckle from Kirra's side drew their attention to Fenri, who met Styx's eyes with a wry grin as he said, "Styx, if I'd known you were going to save Alsha's life, I might've been nicer to you when we found you on that rooftop." "No hard feelings," Styx said, reaching across Kirra's body to offer Fenri a hand. Fenri took it and shook as Styx went on, "It's Fenri, right?" "That's right," Fenri replied warmly. "I suppose I'm currently Alsha's second, though who knows now. How many Knights of the Firmament are left right now? Do we even have an Order?" "I don't know. There was a lot of fighting in the Everbright City when I went to its heart with Neredos," Styx said. "I don't even know who was winning." Kirra and Fenri shared a blank look before turning back to Styx. "Its heart?" Kirra asked. Styx nodded and said, "There's a strange door under the command center—" "You've been through the door!?" the two Knights replied in unison. "Yeah, it leads to the control room for the Everbright City," Styx replied, and with a bewildered stare, "Didn't you know about it?" "I knew about the door, but no one has ever gotten through it. How did you?" Fenri asked. "I wish I could boast my reputation as a thief, but, as I already said, Neredos took me in there," Styx replied with a grin. "Why would he do that?" Kirra asked. Styx felt an urge to reach for a dagger that was no longer at his side. Deciding it was better not to give the real reason he'd gone to Neredos, he left out the part about murderous intent. "Because Veil sent me there, and he thought it would be easier to keep me safe that way." Kirra and Fenri shared another look of wonder before the latter asked, "What was it like in there?" Styx grinned, glad that they didn't ask about Veil, and gave a detailed description of the door opening, and the passage that took them to the control room. He described everything about the room down to the transparent floor, though he kept his details vague when it came to Neredos saving his life. Kirra and Fenri listened with rapt attention until Styx spoke of Neredos' instructions to leave and get people out of the city. Kirra shook his head in stunned silence, but Fenri whistled to break the mood. "I can't believe a Shade made it behind the door before any of us did," he said with a chuckle. "He's the only one to make it back there besides Neredos," Kirra said. "How lucky is that?" "That's true enough," Fenri said. He rose to his feet then and nodded to both Kirra and Styx. "I'm going to go check on Alsha. You want me to say anything to her if she's awake?" "Just let her know who is safe and who isn't," Kirra said weakly. "I'll speak to her when I can." Styx sat up as Fenri left and placed a gentle hand on Kirra's shoulder. "I'm going to go ask where we're at with the evacuation." Kirra caught Styx's arm and said, "Please, stay a little longer?" Styx met Kirra's eyes and laid back down, snuggling up to Kirra's side. "Okay," he whispered tiredly. "Whatever you need." "Do you know if . . ." Kirra started, his hesitation making Styx lift his head to make sure Kirra was okay. With a slight tremble in his voice, Kirra continued. "Grembal made it out of the city?" "I have no idea," Styx replied. "A lot of people were evacuated ahead of time, but I'm sure there were plenty more still in the city." "I hope he didn't," Kirra said after a moment. Styx kissed Kirra's cheek then said, "Me too." Kirra sighed, then lifted his hand to Styx's hair, slowly running his fingers through it. "I'm not sure I'll ever be satisfied until I know he's dead." "What does that mean?" Styx said with concern. He stared at Kirra's face from the side, searching his expression as best he could. Grembal's sins against Kirra had formed a wall that kept the young man from intimacy, and Styx worried if the wall would ever come down. "Oh . . . less than you think," Kirra said with a contented sigh, glancing Styx's way. His fingers continued to gently caress Styx's scalp. "I've been through a lot in the short time we've been apart, and I think I have a better perspective on what I'm afraid of." "What are you afraid of?" Styx asked. Kirra sighed, closing his eyes. His fingers froze in place, and his breathing became ragged for just a moment before he finally answered, "That you'll make me feel as used as he did." Styx bit his lip and asked, "Have I ever given you reason for that?" "No. But that doesn't stop the fear," Kirra replied. "We are prisoners to the lives we've lived. But I don't want to be anymore. And, most of the time, I feel freer with you than I've ever felt before. I'm ready to leave my chains behind, with you at least." Kirra blushed as his body responded to the emotions coursing through him. Even through all the pain, lust and love for the boy at his side could still get him hard. He soon felt something poking him in the leg and glanced down at Styx. With an embarrassed chuckle, Styx adjusted himself and said, "I think we'll probably have to wait until you're healed, but that sounds lovely." "How come you're naked?" Kirra asked. "Why didn't you ask that before?" Styx asked with a laugh. "I planned to, but I forgot," Kirra said, then glanced down again. "Until a certain reminder, anyway." Styx kissed Kirra's cheek again and replied, "I can't transform inside my clothing." "Transform?" Kirra asked. "Do you want to see?" Styx asked. "Ever since the first time, I can't get enough of it, so I'd be happy to show you." Kirra stifled hid urge to nod emphatically. "Oh yes. Definitely." Styx rose from the cot and took a few steps back. His body tensed, though his expression showed nothing but focus. Kirra's pulse quickened as the transformation began, first out of concern and then out of pure fascination. Styx's limbs and torso slimmed down, and his height decreased as large feathery wings emerged from his back, growing and expanding as Styx arched his back, his face frozen in painful ecstasy. Every muscle in Styx's body seemed taut, his toned stomach and chest showing every contour. Kirra traced them all with his eyes, letting them pull his gaze downward, where Styx's erection stood proudly. Kirra's eyes lingered there for just a moment before he looked up again, taking in the entire image of the winged human before him. "How could you possibly get more attractive?" He said, then paused for breath. "I didn't think it could happen, but I stand corrected." "You like my wings then?" Styx asked, turning to give Kirra a backside view. Kirra coughed at the sight of Styx's tight ass and said, "You're shorter like that too." "Must be the way my body redistributes itself," Styx said with a shrug, then approached Kirra, completely unashamed of his nakedness. Kirra's penis throbbed in time to Styx's steps, calling for release. It made his broken bones hurt, but the urge to make love to Styx remained as he said seductively, "You like shorter men?" "Only a little," Kirra replied, hoping the pun might defuse the situation. "But I like you either way," he went on with a grin. Before he could even process the words, he added, "I love you." Styx crouched down and took Kirra's face in his hands, kissing him deeply. "I love you too," he said quietly, putting his forehead against Kirra's and sighing deeply. Kirra placed his hand against Styx's cheek and said, "I hope we're able to get out of this alive, because there is a lot I want to do to you, Shade." "Likewise, Knight," Styx murmured. Kirra chuckled. "I'm not one of those anymore." "You still are to me," Styx replied. "You came to my rescue more than once." "I suppose that's true," Kirra said. "Though I seem to remember you leading me from darkness more than once yourself." Styx kissed Kirra again. "We're going to make it through this. We'll survive and make the world better as we do it." Kirra's eyes moistened at the thought, and he was about to respond in similar sentiment when Fenri arrived back at their sides and said, "Hey, lovers, it's time to move. Alsha's doing well, by the way, if you're not too distracted to care." He grinned to show he was only teasing, and Kirra returned the expression. "Great news!" he replied as enthusiastically as the pain would allow, then added more dryly, "I'm excited to be on that stretcher again." Shouting from the doorway drew their attention. Nante and Madame Godani were already moving in that direction, pensive looks on their faces. Kirra sensed a shift in Styx's mood and regarded him with concern. "Hold on," Styx said, resting a hand on Kirra's shoulder, "I want to see what's happening outside. I'll be right back." "Styx," Kirra said, "You might want to get dressed first. At least somewhat." "Good point," Styx said, searching around for something to cover himself with. He found a blanket and then sighed as he tried to find a way to wrap it around his wings. With an annoyed groan he began his transformation back to his normal self. Once fully human again, Styx wrapped the blanket tight around him and smiled reassuringly at Kirra. "I'll see you soon, okay?" "You better," Kirra said, waving for Styx to come back to him. He gestured that he wanted to whisper something in Styx's ear and then surprised him with a kiss as soon as his lips were close enough. Styx returned the kiss and left Kirra grinning. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Styx stepped through the doorway of the makeshift infirmary and into the night air. Torches had been lit all around, illuminating the nearby streets. Beyond them the rubble of Pentalus was bathed in starlight, the sun having finally set. The large remaining piece of the Everbright City loomed over everything, still pulsing with occasional bursts of light. Styx wondered if Neredos was still alive, but then took in the sight of the remaining pillars throughout the city. Still nearly a hundred pillars stood out in the night by Styx's best estimation, though one disappeared as he was watching it, the thin tendrils of mist dissipating into the night air. But his attention was quickly drawn to the gathering ahead of him. The resistance had formed a half-circle of ragged men and women with makeshift weapons, Nante and Madame Godani at their center. Ahead of them were a group of mounted soldiers, slowing to a halt some distance away. "What is the meaning of this?" Madame Godani asked, addressing their leader, a man in a blue cloak with a bandage wrapped around his head. "Who are you?" "I am Lord Hount, and I've come to inform you that the battle of Pentalus is over. We have beaten you," the man replied. Before Madame Godani could respond, a familiar voice rose up from a different direction. "Is that so? What claim do you have on this city?" Laris and Nal Maya stepped into the light of the torches, the younger woman leading. As she approached, voices of admiration and hope came from the assembled members of the resistance. "It's the Dark Mother." "She's come at last!" "She'll get us out of this for sure. She'll know what to do." "And who are you?" Lord Hount asked, turning an unreadable stare on Laris. "I'm one of the leaders of this group. If you've come looking to subjugate us, you'll find we'll fight just as hard wounded as we do uninjured. You think you have us cornered but you just kicked over an anthill," Laris replied with a glare. "I see," Lord Hount chuckled. "You still think you can win this day." "Your reputation makes you out to be an intelligent man, Lord Hount," Laris replied, her eyes flicking to the darkness around them. "I promise you, I have more arrows and bolts trained on you than even your luck could possibly survive, despite what your luck has done for you so far this day." "So what if you do?" Lord Hount replied, as unnerved as ever. "My armies will continue to function even without me. You will be overrun." "Why are you still fighting for this city?" Styx asked, stepping forward. He was surprised by the conviction in his own words, and the unwavering tone in his voice. But he was sick of this battle, sick of the destruction he'd already seen, and sick of fools who wanted it to continue. "Excuse me?" Lord Hount said, turning to Styx with surprise and taking in his blanketed form. He scoffed incredulously and asked, "Who are you?" "A Shade, with no stake in this fight save to protect my friends," Styx replied, meeting Hount's arrogance with a stern glare. You squabble over rubble. It's time to end this. Hasn't there been enough death this day?" "Styx . . ." Laris said, eyes narrowing as she turned to face him. "Are you saying we should surrender?" "I'm saying we should admit that Pentalus is lost," Styx replied. He gestured to the rubble behind him by releasing his grip on the upper part of the blanket and exposing his naked torso. Filled with his current conviction, he hardly noticed as he continued. "They've won, whatever they've won by destroying the place they wished to conquer. But let's end this without further bloodshed. We're moving into The Shade. Let us escape there, and you can have the city," he finished, turning back to Hount. "And you can have your life." "I have seen enough craziness for today, but a boy in a sheet telling me to withdraw my demands in order to keep my life is certainly one of the strangest of them all," Hount said, amused. He turned a bewildered eye back to Laris. "Do you agree with the terms this boy has suggested? Can we have Pentalus?" Laris paused, sharing a look with Nal Maya and Madame Godani. The former nodded slightly, and the latter merely shrugged. With a heavy sigh, Laris returned to Hount and nodded. "Only if you allow us to withdraw safely." Hount's gaze flickered to Styx for a moment. "We will." "Then you may depart in peace, Lord Hount," Laris said. "May we never cross paths again." Hount chuckled softly and urged his horse to turn. Before he managed to completely turn the beast, Styx said loudly, "Lord Hount." Turning a curious eye on Styx, Hount asked, "Yes, strange boy?" "You might want to move your soldiers away from what's left of the Everbright City," Styx said. "Why?" Hount asked, his eyes twinkling. "More friends you want to spare, perhaps?" "I've been told that it could explode at any moment," Styx said. "And my source is reliable." "I see," Hount replied with a nod. The corner of his mouth turned up in a half-smile. "We'll take your warning to heart." With that, he turned his horse the rest of the way, putting his back toward his enemies. Laris raised a hand as if to call off unseen archers, and Hount disappeared without anyone stopping him. As soon as he was out of sight, however, all attention turned to Styx. "Why did you do that?" Laris hissed. "We could have convinced him to camp there and killed him and all his soldiers." "You would bring more death on this city?" Styx replied. "Haven't enough people suffered from this?" Laris' eyes narrowed. "I can't believe you're my brother." "I can't believe you're my sister," Styx replied immediately. "Quiet, both of you," Nal Maya scolded. "This is no time for squabbling. We need to get these people moving as quickly as possible." "Nal Maya?" Madame Godani said, touching her sister's arm. "Is it really you? How long as it been?" "Fau Shae," Nal Maya replied fondly, putting her hand against her sister's face. "It's been a long time." "Forgive me, sister," Madame Godani said. It was the first time in Styx's life that he had seen his aunt's face show true regret and agony. "For what?" Nal Maya asked. Madame Godani hung her head in shame. "I had Veil in my sights and I could not kill her. She was useful to us. Too useful at the time." "It's all right, my dear," Nal Maya replied, pulling Madame Godani into a hug. "We will get our justice, wherever she has fled. If she even survived the end of Pentalus." As if in response to Nal Maya's words, a loud boom thundered from the west. All assembled turned in that direction, their voices raised in alarm and panic. "What was that sound!?" "Look!" An explosion of light erupted from the remaining piece of the Everbright City as the last reactor blew. Those watching had to shield their eyes to prevent from being blinded, though their ears soon demanded as much attention as the structure disintegrated in a shower of metal and fire. Styx opened his eyes a moment later, dread overwhelming all his other senses. "We're too late. That was our last chance to get out of this city alive." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ As Neredos killed each demon, his recovery time increased. As much as he wanted to destroy them all quickly, he couldn't afford to risk that the damage dealt to him by his metal prison would finally do enough to kill him with one less demon to feed on. But he continued through the pain, knowing that he was all that stood in the way of unleashing great evil on the world once more. The same world that was no longer equipped to handle a demon threat. The world he had created. The world his arrogance would destroy. He killed another demon, a small Ibrix. It disintegrated along with the pillar that had contained it. The metal dug in a little deeper, and he held his breath, waiting for his body to recover. Nearly two minutes between kills now. "Ghayle, if you're watching this," Neredos whispered through gritted teeth to the night sky above, "I'm sorry I didn't listen." He wondered if she was still alive. The last time he'd seen her was shortly after sealing the demons away. She'd told him to kill the demons and he'd refused. He'd thought he knew more than an ancient Gor sorceress; than the one revered as god by her people. He'd once trusted Gor instincts above anything else. They could see the future sometimes and were in tune with the progression of fate. Would they come as they had assembled near Oligan when the demons first invaded? Would they see the signs in the night sky and in their dreams? "Please, if you are there," he continued, "Let them know. Let them come. It won't be enough. I can't kill them all." He remembered the signs, the cataclysmic natural disasters the world over, the nightmares. Neredos' people would've been destroyed in days if the Gor hadn't helped him defend them. They had known then; would they know this time? Tremors moved through the wall beneath him, shaking the metal embedded in his flesh. He hissed at the pain, though he quickly brought all his focus to bear. The tremor could only mean one thing; the reactor was about to explode. Closing his eyes, he began to kill the demons as rapidly as possible. Two Quay, one Aika, a Nobak, a Goden, and another Ibrix. His blood streamed from his wounds. Each moment he spent focusing on the demons kept his body from fixing itself. Another Goden, two Nobaks, another Quay. His muscles ached with the fatigue, and he slumped down, grinding against the sharp metal. It sliced deeper and deeper into his flesh, cutting into bone. Another Aika. He reached out to an Ibrix, and an explosion sounded from somewhere below him. "I'm sorry," he said to the emptiness around him. It would never be enough. As the heat and radiation from the explosion overtook the room, it burst the bulkheads, driving the metal even deeper into him, severing flesh and bone alike. Shrapnel pierced every vital organ, and Neredos' mind lost all sense of his surroundings. By the time the explosion had run its course, there were no surroundings left for him to sense anyway.
  11. Cynus

    Chapter 25

    Maxthane pulled away from Bradeth as soon as they arrived on the teleportation circle in The Shade. He blinked into the darkness around them, wondering at the strange sensations in his body. He could feel the clamminess on his skin; the dampness that permeated The Shade. It was so different from the air in Pentalus, and the abrupt shift sent a shiver down his spine. "Wow . . ." he said, "that was like nothing I've ever experienced. Teleportation is something I never thought I'd see, much less do." "That tends to be the way people react to it," Grim said, chuckling. "I felt much the same way the first time." "You've done this before, Father?" Bradeth asked with surprise. "I have," Grim replied. "There is a Gor master who uses the root network in his forest to teleport. I had the pleasure of teleporting with him several centuries ago." "Several centuries ago?" Bradeth said, her eyes wide with shock. "But he's still alive! How can that be? You and Veil and Neredos all have your methods of staying alive, but—" Grim cut her off with a raised hand and said, "The one currently in charge of that forest is from the long line of apprentices descending from the master I knew. They're not the same person." "I see," Bradeth said quietly. "I didn't realize it was inherited knowledge." "I love a discussion on magic as much as anyone, but, where are we?" Veil asked, shivering as she stepped away from the teleportation circle to look around. Maxthane gestured around them, taking in the view of the Shadowking's palace in the distance and the Lower Shade stretching out before them. "You're in The Shade. Welcome to my home, Mother." "You're his mother?" Bradeth asked, glaring at Veil. "Well . . . I'll try not to hold it against you, King Maxthane." Veil sniffed at that remark and looked at Grim. "Can we just get this over with? We need to get to the water and clear it as soon as possible. The longer we stand here, the more people will die." "Quite right," Grim replied with a nod. "Maxthane, would you mind leading the—" He was interrupted by a loud boom sounding from above them. The entire cavern seemed to shake, and all four struggled to keep their footing. Astonished cries rose from all around them as the residents of The Shade felt the ripples of force from above them. "What was that?" Maxthane asked with alarm. "It came from above us," Bradeth said, then pointed upward as a loud crack split the air. "Look!" The hole leading up into Ibrix Plaza was cracking at its edge. Large chunks of stone had broken away and were falling toward them. It crumbled more and more, and the large form of Ibrix fell into the darkness along with the stones. "Take cover!" Maxthane shouted, though the words were wasted on the others. All four ran into the darkness in search of protection from the falling stones, despite none of them falling nearby. It wasn't until the crumbling had subsided that they finally returned to the place they'd first arrived, each one on edge as they stared at the much wider hole in the cavern ceiling. "What could've possibly happened?" Bradeth asked as she gingerly began rolling up her teleportation circle. She kept one eye on the ceiling even as she meticulously made sure the piece of leather was rolled evenly. "Maxthane, the Shadesight tattoo makes your eyes better than all of ours. What do you see up there?" Grim asked. Maxthane focused on the hole in the ceiling. "Clouds. Clouds and . . . lights, beyond the clouds," he squinted, then gasped. "Stars. They're stars." "The Everbright City, it crashed," Grim said with disbelief. "It was moving when we left," Veil offered. "Maybe it simply moved past and something else happened. With the golem perhaps?" "There's no way it had completely cleared Ibrix Plaza by this point. It had to have crashed," Grim said. "But . . . all those people . . ." Veil said, casting a forlorn gaze upward. "We still had half the city to evacuate when I left." "I'll send Parril up to investigate. There's nothing we can do from here," Bradeth offered. "That way we can at least get answers, though." Grim nodded, and Parril took flight from a nearby perch, angling toward the hole. "We could go back. We could help," Veil said. Grim put a hand on her arm and shook his head. "We are still needed down here. We don't know the extent of the devastation up there. Until we know, there's no reason to overreact." "We'll take care of purifying the water," Maxthane said, "and then we can worry about what happened, once Parril brings back his report." "So, where is the source?" Bradeth asked. "We should get to it as soon as possible." "Over there," Maxthane said, pointing into the darkness. "We're not far from it." "Then let's go. We can have it done long before Parril gives us a full report," Bradeth replied. "It'll take him awhile to survey the extent of the damage." Maxthane cast one more look up at the ceiling before taking the lead toward the poisoned stream. One problem at a time, he reminded himself. There's plenty of time left before the end of the world, isn't there? ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Grim dipped his hand into the water as Maxthane slowed near the stream's emergence from the cavern wall. He could feel the filth inside the water. It seemed to be multiplying, feeding off the small things living in the water and becoming more potent by the second. He suppressed a curse and said, "This is the spot. Bradeth, will you start setting up the circle? We'll need to include directional focuses to affect the water at the source and down below." "Of course," Bradeth said. If she was offended by Grim stating the obvious, she didn't show it. Instead, she simply reached for the grimoire and turned her attention to Maxthane. "Maxthane, you're practiced with all the runes as well, are you not?" "Yes," he said. "Though I'm better with the hand I no longer have," he added glumly. "Then assist me. I trust your ability, either way," Bradeth said, handing him, a piece of chalk. "We'll inscribe it on the rockface, near enough for us to activate the circle and touch the water." Maxthane lit up at the thought of being useful. He nodded enthusiastically and said, "I understand. Let's do it." As the two walked toward the wall, Grim and Veil hung back and watched them divide the labor between them. Veil broke the silence first. "So, you have a child?" "I do," Grim said with a soft smile. "She's my husband's child, but . . . I see her as my own, yes." "What's it like? Having children, I mean," Veil replied. "Well, Bradeth is the eldest. I have six other step-children," Grim replied, his eyes growing distant. "I didn't have much of a hand in raising them, but I was still involved in their lives as Telzath's husband. You get a different perspective on the world when you have children. You think about the future in a different way, wanting to make it better for them." Veil nodded, quietly considering the words before asking, "Do you ever wish you and Prism had had the opportunity?" Grim chuckled, though his eyes misted over at the thought. "We were a bit too busy for that. Besides, he had his kids, after a fashion." "You mean the monks he took under his wing when the other masters fell during the war?" Veil asked. "Yes," Grim replied with a nod. "Teenagers following him around like lost puppies. It's no wonder he took to Styx so quickly." His eyes narrowed as he turned his full focus on Veil. "I will not forgive you if you got Styx killed." Veil snorted and said, "As if you'd forgive me for anything. Besides, he's more capable than you give him credit for having." "Everyone else seems to think so anyway," Grim said, turning away from her but keeping the scowl. "You know the Dark Mother sent him to kill you, right?" "Why did you spare me?" Veil countered. "They were coming for me, and you didn't have to bring me down here." "You're right, but I also knew we could use you down here. You told Maxthane you would help him with the plague. I spoke to him about it briefly before we convened on that rooftop," Grim said. "I wanted to give you a chance to fulfil your word, but you'll suffer your fate soon enough. I'll deliver you to them myself when this is over." "You seem sure of that," Veil replied dryly. "Are you sure you're capable of that?" Grim sneered at his sister. "You already tried to kill me and failed. I'm certain you can't escape me, either. You don't have Clasean here to protect you, nor any of your other allies. You have done evil against the people of Pentalus, Veil, and they deserve justice from you." Their gazes locked, both kept their silence for several long seconds. Eventually Veil sighed and looked away, toeing at a loose rock on the ground. "I understand that. And I will give it to them. But first, shouldn't we see the rest of this through? Don't we owe it to those that have passed before? Should we not witness the end of the demons once and for all, including the ones we created?" Grim spoke softly but his words carried the weight of centuries. "I promise you I won't stop until the demons are dead. You know I could defeat them all personally if I was there. Prism, Alsha, and the Knights certainly made my job against Ibrix easier, but I still think I would've beaten him in the end." "Hubris, Grim," Veil chided. "Do you think yourself a god now, capable of deciding life and death for all mortals? Do you put yourself above the rest of us?" "No," Grim replied with as much fervor as before. "I believe myself above demons, even the ones within me. They are not a burden to me, for I have given them the burden of my guilt and resentment. They are the force which propels me forward, but as such I am always leading them. When I turn to face them I will win, as I have always won. It is simply a matter of course." Veil sighed, her eyes hard and tired. "I think there's more arrogance in there than you care to admit, brother." "Perhaps," Grim admitted with a chuckle, "but I'll need all my strength of will to defeat the last of the Vhor. He's here, you know. Maxthane imprisoned him, just like Neredos did the others. After this, I intend to end him." "Wait . . ." Veil said, her eyes sharp, "Maxthane imprisoned him with the same spell?" "Yes. Why . . .?" Grim asked, his whole body tensing. His pulse seemed to quicken at first, but then time itself slowed as dread thundered into his mind. "Maxthane died, Grim," Veil said, "We brought him back, but he was dead." "That means . . ." Grim's shoulders slumped, the tension rooting in like a tumor, his body aching with all the years he'd put it through. "He could be anywhere by now. He's escaped me again." "He got what he wanted," Veil said quietly. "The war has begun. I'm sure he had his hand in all of it. Anything to remove Neredos from power would have involved him somehow." Grim wanted to question how much Veil knew. He had never managed to scratch the depths of her involvement with Fasha, but he'd slowly pieced together some of it over the years. He wanted to ask, but he couldn't. There was no reason to drag Veil through it now. None of the knowledge she had could help him anymore, and she had been through enough. He could see the weight of her decisions on her shoulders. She carried herself as regally as ever, but her eyes were haunted and dark, and there was a tightness to every expression that showed the weathering of guilt etched on her features. She was near the end now, as he was. As the world was. It made sense that it would all burst at once. He had seen this unfolding for some time. It had only been a matter of time before the bubble of serenity popped and the world resumed its course toward destruction. He and Veil had both fought to the end, but now he was tired. But he couldn't rest yet. There were too many people to save. If he didn't give his all to protect them, his soul would never be satisfied. The people needed his help, all those souls in the darkness. They were like his children now. He sensed a presence in the darkness and turned abruptly. "Someone is coming," he said quietly. More presences appeared. Each one radiated energy he could sense but not see. "A lot of someones, and they're all good at being quiet." "I don't hear anything," Veil said. "Are you sure?" Behind them, Maxthane and Bradeth stopped working, the latter reaching for her bow and nocking an arrow. Grim heard the sounds but didn't react, keeping her position in the back of his mind. The primary focus of his attention remained on the darkness and on Veil. "Do you have any idea what life sounds like anymore, Veil? Once, our people could feel life from miles away if they'd trained enough," Grim said softly, then stared directly at the leading presence in the dark, despite not being able to see its owner yet. "My range is not so far." "Fortunate for us, Grim," Krythe said as he stepped out of the darkness. Two dozen forms moved in after him on all sides, slowly surrounding their position. "You should be arrested and brought back. An escaped gladiator deserves to return to the ring." "Krythe. Why are you here? I was under the impression that you've been ruling in Salidar's stead, unwilling to accept Maxthane's succession," Grim replied smoothly. "Salidar has been freed," Krythe replied icily. "It seems my assassins were successful." "Unfortunately, not quite as successful as you'd like," Maxthane said, drawing Krythe's attention. Krythe's eyes widened and he took a step back, but he remained silent as one of his companions said, "How is this possible? Fedain can't heal death, can they?" Krythe's eyes flicked from Grim to Veil, and for a moment there was recognition. No, Grim realized, familiarity. "That's not precisely true. If the healer is skilled enough and gets to the corpse quickly enough, it is definitely possible, especially linked together," Krythe said with surprising calm. "And you are looking at two of the most powerful Fedain alive." "So . . ." Grim said, locking gazes with Krythe, "you figured out my identity, Krythe?" To Grim's astonishment, Krythe simply smiled. It was a tired smile, full of the wisdom of ages. "As if I didn't always know," he replied in almost a whisper. "We were just talking about you," Grim said, then shouted, "Bradeth, now!" Bradeth let lose her arrow, and it thundered into Krythe's chest. She was immediately surrounded by soldiers and surrendered to their raised weapons, but Krythe staggered backward all the same. Grim dashed forward, immediately aiming to get his hand on any part of Krythe's body. Despite the arrow in his chest, Krythe dodged nimbly backward, evading Grim's reach. He moved so fluidly it was as if he'd never been struck by Bradeth's mortal wound. And then the arrow fell through him as if he were made of jelly, clattering to the stones as the morphic properties of Krythe's demonic body became known to those around him. "What, how!?" One of the soldiers cried in surprise as Krythe bumped into him. It slowed Krythe down enough that Grim was able to catch him, finally laying his hand on Krythe's arm. "Reveal yourself, or I'll kill you now," Grim growled. He'd expected a fight, but instead Krythe simply sighed, his body and clothing all shifting at once to the familiar form of Fasha. The nearby soldiers recoiled in surprise, then turned their weapons on Fasha and Grim. "Commander Krythe is most certainly dead or incapacitated back at the palace. Fasha, on the other hand, is not," Grim said. "You've been fooled by an imposter. Salidar is dead, as King Maxthane has already told you." "You knew," Fasha said, still smiling. "How?" "Demons are made of pure lifeforce, and they radiate differently than other races. I can practically smell a Vhor when I'm this close," Grim lied. He couldn't tell the difference, much as he tried, but he knew it at least sounded believable to those around him. He saw no reason to let Fasha know the truth. Grim had dissected Fasha's tells long ago and would always be able to call his bluffs. Unfortunately, not everyone was as sure of what had happened. One of the soldiers put his sword against Grim's neck and said, "You will let him go. He's still our ally." Before Grim could respond, Maxthane rushed forward, his voice furious. "Stand back. I said, stand back!" To Grim's surprise, the soldier lowered his sword and moved away from Grim. Maxthane then stood next to Grim, his face composed once more. "I am your rightful king. The imposter has been exposed, and now you know I spoke the truth. You will heed my orders as you should have from the beginning!" The soldiers shared a look, then sheathed their weapons. "Yes, my King," the soldier who'd threatened Grim said. "What would you have us do?" "Keep this man under watch, with torches," Maxthane said, turning toward Fasha. "Make sure you can ignite him in a second if he moves." "There's no need of that," Fasha interjected. "I will turn myself over to Grim's custody. He will be enough to save any of you from future trouble from me." Grim narrowed his eyes and said, "You're just trying to escape." "I give you my oath on the death of my lover Khalis that I will give myself over to your judgment," Fasha said plainly, meeting Grim's gaze. "Your oaths mean noth—" Maxthane began. "Maxthane," Grim interrupted, his gaze locked with Fasha's. He could read Fasha as well as he could read himself. "Grim?" "He's telling the truth," Grim said. "I know he won't run. At least, not right now." "I could have, all those years you've been here. If you think I didn't know who you were, you're wrong," Fasha said softly. "You will stay within arm's reach while we're working," Grim said. Fasha nodded. "I will." Grim released his grip on Fasha's arm and turned to Maxthane. "Let's cure this plague," he said, putting his back to the demon. "Are you certain we can trust him?" Maxthane asked. "Not to run away while we're purifying the river? Yes," Grim replied. "I'm certain." "But how can you know?" A smile crept unbidden onto Grim's face. He glanced back at Fasha, his eyes considering. "I know that creature better than I know anyone save my own self. When you've hunted someone for eight centuries, it's hard not to know everything about them. He will not run." "Okay. How should I direct the soldiers then?" Maxthane asked. "Shouldn't I keep him under watch?" "I'd send several of them back to find the real Krythe, and to restore your order, then send the rest to round up those sick from the plague. Veil and I will be busy all night healing those who have been affected," Grim replied. Maxthane's eyebrows rose. "Won't that drain you? How could you have enough energy for that?" Grim pointed toward the stream and the nearly completed rune circle, then started walking in that direction. Veil fell in step with them as Grim answered Maxthane's question. "Two reasons. The poison makes a person's body destroy itself. Defeating the poison involves drawing energy from the victim first, killing the affected pieces off and then restoring them. As a result, very little energy is lost as it is simply transferred to the healer then back to the patient." He glanced at Veil briefly before continuing. "That's actually the reason why it took so long to figure out how to heal it. The Fedain weren't willing to cause harm to their patients. It took a Fedain who was willing to cross that line to determine the cure." "I see," Maxthane said. "And the other reason?" "If you think Veil and I don't have energy stores to last us a long time, you haven't been paying attention," Grim said with a smirk. "Speaking of which . . . now that you've had some time to adjust to being, well, alive, I could cure that arm, if you'd like, but I advise against it." "You could make me whole? Why didn't you do it already?" Maxthane asked accusingly, looking between Veil and Grim. "We could have, but it's better if you let it regrow naturally," Veil offered. Seeing that Maxthane was still confused, Grim added, "You'll have to focus your own energies on it, but you'll end up with a natural limb that way instead of one created by someone else. If I guided the healing, that arm would always feel foreign to you." "How do you know?" Maxthane asked skeptically. Grim replied quietly, "I've lost a few limbs myself over the years." "Are we going to keep talking about this, or are we going to purify the stream?" Bradeth asked as they approached. "And will someone please tell these idiots that I'm on your side?" "Order your troops, King Maxthane," Grim suggested. "You have my recommendation on what to do with them." Maxthane nodded, glanced back toward Fasha one more time, then waved for the soldiers around Bradeth to follow him back in that direction. "What news is there from Parril?" Grim asked Bradeth when Maxthane was out of earshot. "Pentalus is destroyed," Bradeth replied immediately, pointedly ignoring Veil's surprised expression. "What!?" Veil cried, covering her mouth in shock. "How? We were just there?" Bradeth continued to address Grim as if Veil had never spoken. "The Everbright City has crashed, most of it has exploded, actually. Only half of the city remains intact, though it has landed in the city itself. I don't know the fate of our allies. Parril is still investigating. I'll let you know if he finds any of them." Veil spoke quickly and frantically. "I have to return there. There must be many wounded. Clasean . . . oh, my sweet Clasean!" "We mustn't tell Maxthane just yet," Grim said, nodding without showing any emotion. "He'll be torn by a moral quandary about aiding his people here and sending aid up there. He needs to keep his focus here." "Agreed," Bradeth said. Veil touched Bradeth's arm and spoke fervently, "Bradeth can you take me up there as soon as we've finished the ritual?" Bradeth removed Veil's hand from her arm with a contemptuous glare. "I can't teleport. I don't know where the companion teleportation circle is, and even if I did, it might be destroyed by the force of that blast. It can withstand a lot, but something as strong as what caused the crater up there? Who knows." "You could carry her on your back then and climb out of here faster than we could walk," Grim said. "Once we're done down here, anyway." "That's true enough," Bradeth said with a sigh. "Maxthane is headed back our way." "I've sent the others into the affected areas," Maxthane announced as he reached the trio. "I've asked them to bring the afflicted to a common location not far from here. Somewhere we can reach them all at once." "Good. Then let's get to work," Grim said, sweeping them all with a glance and a grin. "Bradeth, you and Maxthane will lead the circle. I may know my way around spells, but you're both better mages. Veil and I will simply give you our energy." Bradeth and Maxthane shared a look of understanding, then positioned themselves on either side of the stream. They'd drawn the circle behind the small waterfall exiting from the cavern wall. They'd used chalk for most of the circle, but where the rocks were wet, Bradeth had inscribed the runes into the rockface with her belt knife. Both Maxthane and Bradeth touched the rune circle—Bradeth with a hand and Maxthane with his stump—then reached into the stream, their hands meeting within the flow. Grim took his position behind Bradeth and placed one hand on her shoulder, the other touching the rune circle. Veil stood behind Maxthane and mimicked Grim. Grim gave himself fully to the ritual as Bradeth and Maxthane slowly began to chant in Ancient Gor. They established a synchronous rhythm and picked up speed, their words rumbling with power. Grim closed his eyes, connecting with Bradeth and feeling the energy flow through him. He could sense Bradeth's hand in the water, could feel her hand against Maxthane's and the energy dispersing from their contact. His sensing moved further, up Maxthane's arm and into Veil. As the ritual continued, he could sense her through the runes as well, the circle established, their energies in unison. Between them the stream bubbled from the energy surging into it. Grim sensed their combined will spreading forth, disrupting the virulent demonic blood. The blood had no uniform consciousness, only a desire to live and spread, and stood no chance against their directed energy. Their energy spread even further, against the flow and rising deep into the cavern wall, and also down into The Black Lake. Everywhere their will went, it purged the demon's essence from existence. Sensing the full eradication of the demon's essence, Bradeth and Maxthane pulled apart at last, and the spell was over. Each of the four felt the exhaustion from the spell but were disciplined enough not to show it. They shared a look of understanding and eagerness to be away from the stream. Grim took the opportunity to return his attention to Fasha. He half-expected the demon to be gone, despite his faith in the strength of Fasha's oath. But the demon remained, his curious eyes watching the four of them. Grim found his gaze strangely lacking in intensity. He'd expected to be unnerved. Veil broke the silence first, turning to Maxthane. "It is done. Now, lead us to the sick so we can get back to Pentalus as soon as possible." Before anyone could move, Grim sensed a presence from above, coming from the hole the stream emerged from. "Wait, there's someone in there." As they looked up into the darkness, a grime-covered, one-eyed man's face rose up from the stream's trough. Maxthane addressed him with astonishment. "Drake?" "You all look like you've seen a ghost," Drake said, propping himself up on one arm. It quickly became apparent that his other arm was missing. "You've never seen a one-armed man before?" "It's becoming a rather familiar sight, actually," Maxthane said dryly. Drake peered down at him and nodded in understanding even as Maxthane continued. "Are there any other survivors?" "Dogo's dead. Rega and his lot too," Drake said grimly. "But Styx . . . I don't know if he made it out. We got separated." "He's alive, actually," Veil and Grim said in unison. They shared a look before Veil added quietly, "Or at least he was a short time ago." "Finally, some good news," Drake said with a sigh of relief. "Now, if you don't mind, I'd love some help getting out of here. I think my leg is broken. I'm not even sure how I made it out, but have I got a story to tell you lot."
  12. Cynus

    Chapter 24

    The explosion left a ringing in Kirra's ears. They twitched wildly, as much from pain as from the residual magical energy in the air. He looked up from the rubble, dazed and confused, trying to piece together the last few seconds. It had begun when he noticed the golem started moving again, and he shouted out an alarm. To those watching on the rooftop, their alarm had quickly become confusion as the golem moved in the opposite direction, running away from them through Pentalus. Seconds later, the golem pointed its face towards the sky, aiming at the edge of the Everbright City. A beam of light erupted from the golem's head, bright and hot, and powerful enough to melt through the sturdiest of metals. It started at one end of the Everbright City, then carved straight through the center to the opposite end. Kirra's ears had twitched then, more frantically than they had ever twitched before, as the greatest surge of magical energy he had ever felt exploded across the sky. It didn't come from the beam, but from the Everbright City. A torrent of power like a rushing river that soon became a tidal wave. Krira shouted for everyone to take cover, but his words had made little difference. Light as bright as a hundred suns broke through the wisps of clouds keeping the base of the Everbright City from view. Five points of light, that now seemed burned into Kirra's vision, all emanating from near the center of the city. A shockwave reached them then, hitting the city below like a wave and rippling outwards. Long before any of them had a chance to seek cover, the force overtook their position, and the building crumbled beneath them. Blinded and disoriented, Kirra took stock of his new surroundings. He landed on a piece of stone not much larger than him. It was what remained of one of the stone walls of the building they'd taken for their vantage point. The stone sat teetering on the edge of the hole leading down into The Shade from the Plaza of Ibrix, the same edge that appeared to be crumbling now. For a moment he wondered how the blast had managed to send him so far away, and then noted the size of the hole. Ibrix Plaza no longer existed, its entire area collapsed to expose The Shade below. Around him the world screamed, as if thousands of lives had been snuffed out in a single second. From the devastation he could see around him, he couldn't doubt the truth of that thought. He could see several bodies lying amongst the rubble, though he could not tell if they were alive or dead through the clouds of dust settling on everything. He could not tell any of their identities, either. Some were Elroks simply by size, but most were human-sized. Kirra tried to move, but neither his right arm nor leg moved more than an inch despite his urging. Struggling with using just his left side, he inched along the slab of stone toward the safer edge of it. As his weight shifted, he heard a loud cracking and rumbling beneath him. Behind him the stone shifted, and Kirra found a surge of adrenaline to scramble forward off the slab and onto the last remnants of cobblestones. As he cleared the edge, the stone slab tipped into the hole, catching Kirra's right leg as it was in the air and scraping against it then hooking it. Kirra was dragged back several feet as the stone fell away from him and into The Shade. He barely managed to hold onto the edge of the crumbling plaza, his right leg pulsing with pain. He grunted, trying to force the pain away from him as he moved forward again. The stones beneath him continued to crack and shift, but he persevered, moving forward until he rested against the rubble of a building that had stood on the edge of the Plaza. Taking a moment to collect his senses, he scanned the area around him again. He didn't see anything he recognized other than the fact of the hole itself. The pillars containing the demons continued to stand out above the smoke and dust, though there were fewer than he remembered. And the mountain . . .? There appeared to be a mountain rising beyond the pillars, a dark mound he could barely make out in the twilight and dust. As he squinted, he saw the sheen of metal and veins of energy pulsing along its entire expanse. Not a mountain, but a large structure. The Everbright City, or at least a piece of it, lodged now between several of the demon pillars. He wanted to scream, but he wasn't sure he had the stamina. Instead, he called for the first person he thought might bring him a semblance of solace in the moment. "Alsha?" it came out as barely more than a croak. His ribs ached, and he was certain at least several were broken. "Gobrak?" he tried next, still as softly as before. He grunted with effort and collapsed, his chest heaving. He would have to rest before calling out again, if he even survived long enough to do so. "Over here!" a voice shouted nearby. "There's someone over here!" A form darted through the clouds of dust, an older man with a greying beard and a leathery face. The old man waved a couple of others to him, both youths a few years younger than Kirra. "Who are you?" Kirra asked. "Don't worry about that now. We'll get you to safety, if'n we can," the old man replied with a smile. His eyes darkened quickly, and he glanced around at the devastation. "If'n there's a place left to go." Another form appeared behind the two youths. His sandy mop of hair was even more disheveled than usual. Kimbler, of the resistance. "I know him," he said, looking at Kirra. "Make sure he's well taken care of. Once we find the Mother, we should make sure she sees him, too. He'll be able to give us some information." "Will do, Master Kimbler. Right away," the old man replied, and made several gestures to his youthful companions. Kimbler nodded and went the other way. "Have you seen any other Knights?" Kirra asked. The two youths settled on either side of Kirra, one inspecting his leg while the other looked over his upper body. "We've rescued a few so far. We're rescuin' whoever we can." "Have you seen my commander? She was with me a moment ago," Kirra asked, wincing when the boy prodded his leg. The old man regarded Kirra sympathetically. "I don't know, boy. But if she's around, we'll find her." "Right leg broken," one of the boys said. "We'll want to splint before we move 'im." "Right arm isn't much better," the other boy added. "Looks like a break to me, though not as serious as the leg. Guessing by the way he's breathing, I'd wager he's got something wrong in his chest too." The old man nodded satisfactorily. "Good job, boys. You'll do Old Nante proud before the day's done." "Old Nante?" Kirra asked the old man as the boys beamed with pride. "Is that you?" "Not me, I'm just her secretary," the old man replied. "She's a healer on the east end. Looks like her district is still intact, so the boys and I were intendin' to take the wounded there. Whoever we could find, anyway." "East end?" Kirra asked. "Then why are you all here?" The old man frowned and surveyed the scene one more time. "Kimbler and his friends were gathering the whole city to come fight for Pentalus. Guess he came too late." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Neredos had never felt more pain. He still wasn't sure what had happened a moment earlier, but he knew what was happening now. The Everbright City was crashing, exploding into a million little pieces and at least two large ones, and raining death and destruction on Pentalus. He hadn't acted quickly enough. He had failed his people. He could still see the bright flash of light that had seared through the center of the command room. It had blinded him at first, though the pain of it taking his left arm had been far worse. It had nearly regrown itself now, drawing on the power from the demon generals remaining within their prisons. At least, to some extent, his immortality remained. But it wouldn't last. He lay in a tangled mass of sharp metal, digging into his skin from several dozen angles. Every time he shifted, the metal dug in deeper. His connection to the demons would continue to heal him, but it would lose the battle eventually at this rate. He stared across what was left of the room. A swirling orb of grey fog remained tucked in the corner, dragged along with the rest of the city as it crashed into Pentalus below. It had been all Neredos could do to keep his focus on that orb and protect its prisoner. No shrapnel from the explosion had pierced the magical barrier, and Neredos was reasonably certain the barrier prevented any heat from passing through as well. Styx would be all right, assuming he could extract himself from this mess. With a groan of effort, Neredos focused fully on the fog and willed it to dissipate quickly. The mists faded, their last wisps floating upward as Styx dropped from the air, panting with effort, dagger still clutched in his hand. His eyes were frantic as they settled on Neredos. "What happened?" he asked, looking around the room with surprise. "Why are you buried in the wall, and why is the wall now the floor?" "Good . . . you're alive," Neredos breathed. He raised his right arm as high as he could—only a couple of inches before the metal twisted around him dug in too far—and he beckoned Styx forward. "Come here, boy, unless you intend to kill me." "No . . ." Styx said, sheathing the dagger. He forced his hand away from the hilt as he cautiously picked his way along the wall toward Neredos. "No . . . I, I think I can control the urge. I don't really know what . . ." he shook his head as if to clear it. "Veil," he muttered, "Veil wanted me to kill you." "I know," Neredos replied, gritting his teeth through the pain. "She thought I was going to abandon our people. If she'd known what I intended, she never would've twisted your mind to it." Groaning with effort, he nodded upward, to where the wall now gave way to the sky. "Now, I need you to do something for me." "What?" Styx asked, following Neredos' gaze. "Can you climb up there and give me a report of everything you see?" Neredos asked. "I think so," Styx replied. "The ceiling . . . er, wall . . . has enough handholds; it should be easy. I've spent a lot of time climbing these last few days however, so it might take me a bit. My muscles are exhausted." Neredos paused to consider the problem. He shifted, wincing as a shard of metal dug into his side. "See if you can remove my cloak. I can teach you how to . . . how to fly with it." "You want a bird's eye view?" Styx asked, eyeing Neredos with concern. "That would be best, yes." "I can't get your cloak, but I can do what you ask," Styx said, then to Neredos' surprise, he slipped out of his shirt and tossed it to the side. As he started on his pants, he asked, "What happened? This isn't how the world looked when you imprisoned me." "The city was attacked by something," Neredos said, wondering if he should explain the golem. "I'm not sure what. I wasn't paying attention to anything but the demons at the time." "And how am I still alive?" Styx asked, eyeing the destruction around him as he stepped out of his pants. "Judging by the state you're in, I'm surprised anyone survived. I mean, you're immortal and you look like you're dying." "I am dying," Neredos replied dryly. "As for you, the prison I kept you in protected you. I made sure it lasted during the explosion." "Why did you let me live?" Styx asked, stripping off the last of his clothes and tossing them aside. "I could tell that you didn't really want to kill me," Neredos said. "I never liked killing, but especially not when it was unnecessary. That's why . . . why I built this place. I wanted to create a haven for people to come together." Styx nodded once, then met Neredos' eyes. "It's difficult to make people work together. That's something they have to choose to do." "Wise words," Neredos conceded. "Now, will you care to explain to me why you've stripped down?" Styx grinned, though it quickly shifted to a grimace of pain. Neredos watched in initial shock and then admiration as Styx's body shifted, the mass in his muscles and bones redistributing as huge wings sprouted from his back. Styx collapsed from the effort, panting, then slowly rose to his feet and met Neredos' eyes again. Neredos nodded in appreciation and understanding. "Be careful. I have no idea who might still be out there. There were enough eagles in the sky before that any number of them could've survived, and they were not all friendly." "I will," Styx replied, then spread his wings wide. "I'll be back in a moment." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Styx lifted from the broken wall of the Everbright City, taking to the skies. At first, he thought he'd entered a thunderhead full of dark clouds and lightning, but he soon identified the fires and smoke around him for what they were. Only then could he appreciate the devastation around him. Pentalus was a smoldering ruin, a large, burned crater nearby seemed the epicenter of the destruction, as no buildings stood for a mile around, and few stood beyond that. Only the outskirts of the city to the east, north, and south had most of their buildings intact. The remaining demon pillars jutted up through the rubble, apparently unharmed and unmoved by the explosions. Several rose up on either side of the giant slab of the Everbright City Styx had emerged from, and the slab leaned against three of them. They seemed impossibly inadequate to hold the weight of half a city, yet they did so without any sign of leaning. To the north, the other half of the Everbright City had shattered into a dozen large pieces and a thousand small ones. They'd rained onto the city causing additional damage and starting fires wherever they landed. Some of the fires burned strange colors, from blue to green to purple. He flew out into the city, searching for anything else to add to his report. The armies to the north and south remained at the borders, and it seemed a large group was gathering in the east. As he watched, several people seemed to be moving out from the eastern group and searching the nearby city for survivors. The large hole in Ibrix Plaza drew his attention for a moment. It had grown significantly, a result of the explosion by Styx's best guess. There was a large group of bodies on both the south and north side of the plaza, some of which were still moving. Assured that he'd seen enough to give Neredos a report, he turned back toward the slab. The bottom of the Everbright City pulsed with energy in one sector, and two large holes showed light from the other side. The last rays of sun, piercing through the ruins of the city of light. Styx contemplated the destruction as he flew back into the opening and down into the chamber with Neredos. He felt an urge to return to his clothing, grab the dagger, and plunge it into the helpless King's chest, but he suppressed it and landed on the other side. "It's bad, beyond bad, really," he said, meeting Neredos' eyes with pity. "Is there anything left of Pentalus?" Neredos asked. Styx sighed. "On the eastern side, mainly. There's a bit to the north and south as well. Just the outer ring. Like a crescent moon of civilization at the edge of a crumpled ruin." "And the Knights?" "I didn't see any, but it was hard to see through the clouds of smoke," Styx admitted. "What about our situation here?" Neredos asked. "What's left of the Everbright City?" "We are inside a large piece of the Everbright City that is resting edge-down in the rubble. It appears that several of the pillars are supporting this piece, otherwise we would've fallen flat when we crashed." "Could you see any holes in the Everbright City?" "Holes?" Styx asked, then gestured around them. "You mean, like the one we're standing in?" "No . . ." Neredos said, shifting for comfort but ending up worse off as an edge of metal dug deeper into his thigh. "Below our current position. There should be three of them. From the explosions." "Oh, those . . ." Styx replied, shaking his head, "there were only two, and everything is pulsing with energy." Neredos sucked in his breath. "So . . . one of the reactors is still intact. That's not good." "Is there something I can do?" Styx asked. Neredos nodded. "Get everyone out of the city. Get them as far away from here as possible. Don't worry about rescuing anyone in the rubble. The more time you take to save them, the more people will die. Get everyone out of Pentalus and flee." "What about you?" Styx asked, looking over the metal bent around Neredos' body. "Even if I broke free from this, I would die today. I have work to do here, and I hope I have enough time to finish it before that reactor decides to blow," Neredos replied. He held his hand out as far as he could manage and pointed upward. "Go, Styx . . . make what peace you can of this shattered world. Slay the demons, don't contain them. Don't let fear of evil keep you from fighting to your last to make the world better." Styx held Neredos' gaze for a long moment but eventually nodded. "I will do what I can." "Go," Neredos said, smiling with grim determination. "I must finish this once and for all." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Kirra did his best not to squirm as Old Nante looked over his wounds. The long transport to the eastern outskirts had been pure agony. The people who'd come to his rescue had splinted his leg and made a makeshift stretcher. Crossing over the rubble jostled him enough to feel every broken bone. Even as Nante recounted the injuries, Kirra was sure some had been missed. "Four broken ribs," the healer stated as she pressed against Kirra's naked torso lightly. Nearby, an assistant was scribbling notes onto a piece of paper. "A hairline fracture of the right ulna, and a compound fracture of the right femur. Get him something for the pain. We'll get his arm and leg properly braced now and send someone else to wrap the ribs." Kirra braced himself for the pain as Nante set to work wrapping his leg and arm. She ignored all of his sharp cries whenever she brushed against his ribs, giving him nothing but an understanding look when she set the bone in his leg and he screamed. She said nothing, and simply finished the job with a steady hand. As she turned to go, Kirra caught her arm, panting through the sheen of sweat on his face. "Have any other Knights come in? Have you seen Lady Alsha Tremlaine? "I have not," Nante replied, crossing her arms over her chest. "Though there are more coming by the minute. Try not to think so much about what is happening out there. You need to focus on your recovery right now. As soon as my assistant returns with some herbs for your pain, you'll be going to sleep." "With all due respect, Nante, my duty is to those people out there," Kirra said. "You'd have to be a Knight still to mean that," a voice said from behind Nante. "Fenri!" Kirra exclaimed as his former comrade hobbled forward on a makeshift crutch. He was shirtless, wearing a fresh yet quickly reddening bandage on his side. Kirra avoided staring at the wound and returned his eyes to Fenri's. "Have you seen Alsha? Belthin? Any of them?" "No. Not yet," Fenri said as he settled onto the cot next to Kirra's. "You're the first one I've seen alive. If this isn't hell, anyway." "It's not. It's Pentalus, and you need to stop talking like the world is over. You need your head rebandaged. Maybe once we stop that we can prevent all those negative thoughts from spilling out, hmm?" A familiar female voice said. Madame Godani stepped up next to Fenri and glared at him. "You've been complaining the whole way here." "Madame Godani!" Kirra said. "Kirra, I'm glad you're alive," Madame Godani said warmly. "You don't seem injured," Kirra said with surprise. Madame Godani shrugged. "I had a few tricks that kept me mostly out of harm's way. The worst I suffered was a scrape on my arm," she said, pulling back her sleeve to reveal a bandage wrapped most of the way up her forearm. Nante reached for it and Madame Godani let her sleeve fall quickly. "It has already been seen to, thank you. Don't let me distract you from the people who need your attention." Nante seemed put off by this, but said nothing, instead doing one last check on Kirra's wounds. Kirra ignored her as best as he could. "Have you seen any of the others?" he asked. "One important one," Madane Godani said with a smile. "Alsha?" Kirra asked hopefully. "Styx," Madame Godani replied. "He was flying over the city earlier." "On an eagle?" Kirra asked with surprise. "No . . ." Madame Godani said, grinning, "my boy finally found his wings again." Kirra shook his head. "I don't understand." "You will. I'm sure he'll make his way here soon. He'll see the gathering here and look into it at least," Madame Godani said. "As for our other companions . . . at least half of my forces remain unaccounted for. I'm sure less are dead than I fear, but I won't be able to relax until more of them surface. Likely some have escaped into The Shade." "But you don't know anything about the others?" Kirra asked. Madame Godani sighed grimly. "With the collapse of Ibrix Plaza, some of our companions surely fell to their deaths." "That's a comforting thought," Kirra said dryly. "Thank you." Madame Godani shrugged. "There's no use in false hope, Kirra." "But it seems you have the right to, this time. Look," Fenri interjected, pointing to the doorway. Two of Nante's assistants were supporting a woman with dark but greying hair, guiding her to the nearest empty cot. "Alsha!" Kirra said excitedly. "Thank you for bringing her in," the assistant at the door said to someone standing outside. "You look like you're doing well. Do you need any assistance?" The other person stepped through the doorway. He was naked, but his brown hair and hawk tattoo on his face drew Kirra's attention first. "Styx?" he asked, a hopeful breath caught in his throat. "I found her on my way here," Styx explained to the assistant. "We need to get as many people out of this city as possible. We might be safe over here, but . . . we're all in danger. How soon could you get these people out of here?" Nante, hearing Styx's words, rose to greet him at the doorway. "We're not even close to that," she said testily. "We still need to rescue the rest that are trapped in the city." "That will take months at this rate, and what's left of the Everbright City is going to fall down on us at any moment," Styx said. "Have you not seen it out there?" "It's supported by the pillars," Nante said with a shrug. "Those pillars have been disappearing all day. Haven't you noticed there are less of them now than before?" Styx replied. Nante shook her head and looked around the room. "Most of these people were dangerous to move once; I don't know if we can move them again without killing them." "We might be safe here. It doesn't look like it's going to collapse on us from this angle, but whatever happens when it does . . ." Styx sighed and added, "we could all fall into The Shade if we're not careful." "The Shade . . ." Madame Godani said, joining Styx and Nante. "That's the answer. Pentalus is lost. If the armies really want to claim it now, they are too insane for us to stop anyway. We need to pull these people into The Shade as quickly as possible." "Hello, aunt," Styx said, then surprised Madame Godani by wrapping her into a hug. "Hello, nephew," Madame Godani replied with a sincere smile. "Did you get your answers? Where is Dogo?" "He didn't make it," Styx said, his face falling. "None of them did, except for me." Madame Godani's features tightened, but she nodded once resolutely. "We will mourn them when we have the luxury of time. Until then, I can order all those left of my people to your service, Nante. Every one of my operatives are trained in basic first aid. Accidents are common where we're from." "I will take your help," Nante said, then returned her attention to Styx. "If you're insistent about our need to evacuate . . ." "I am. Neredos himself warned me of its necessity," Styx replied, earning him several nearby gasps. Nante hesitated, reading Styx's face, then nodded. "Then we'll follow your suggestion for now. No one is in charge here, and if you've word from Neredos, it's better than nothing." "I appreciate it," Styx replied. "Madame Godani, I trust you can organize the retreat better than I ever could." "I'll get right on it," Madame Godani replied. "I'm glad you're alive." She hugged him back to her and then followed Nante to find out what needed to be done. Before Styx could move to follow them, Kirra took the opening in the conversation and shouted as loudly as he could managed. "Styx!" "Kirra!" Styx shouted back, then turned to Madame Godani and Nante, bowing slightly. "If you'll excuse me." He rushed to Kirra's side and reached for the hand on his unbroken arm. "You're here . . ." Kirra said, "you're alive." "I am," Styx replied, reaching up with his free hand and stroking Kirra's matted hair out of his face. "I've missed you. Are you okay?" "Broken bones, only. There's never a Fedain around when you need one," Kirra replied, forcing a smile. "Grim and Veil were both here an hour ago, not to mention Maxthane, but they left right before the . . . explosion." "Maxthane is well? What was he doing up here?" Styx asked. "You don't know what's happened, do you?" Kirra asked. Styx shook his head and Kirra continued. "Let me fill you in." "Only if you let me do the same," Styx replied. "How's your left side?" "Fine." Styx looked at the open space on the cot and smiled. "Care for a little company on that cot?" "I . . ." Kirra said, meeting Styx's eyes and seeing nothing but love and need there. He shifted over as best as he could, giving Styx enough room to lay down next to him. He smiled then and pulled Styx down gently. "I would love some."
  13. Cynus

    Chapter 22

    @drpaladin, @Geoffrey257 - This was a fun exchange to read through as well. Thank you guys again for your continued analysis. The question of Fedain healing is a good one, and something I've tried to stay consistent on (with explanations typically accompanying deviations from the normal rules) during the course of the books. Hopefully this will prove true when everything is said on done. I'm grateful that it's interesting enough to prove worthy of discussion. And I absolutely love what is happening regarding Krythe and Fasha, and I think you'll both enjoy where we go from here. I say think, because... well... we'll just see, heh. A lot is happening, and soon many threads will come together. I promise, you'll have a few surprises in store, some pleasant and some not. @flyboi - Oh no, don't die! You won't be able to see the resolution if you do!
  14. Cynus

    Chapter 21

    Veil has definitely had her world turned upside down, hasn't she? She was on top of the world (in an almost literal sense) just a day before, and now she has been brought down to the ground to face some very real consequences of her actions. Maxthane's not the only one who was in for more than one surprise. Thank you for the comment. Thank you!
  15. Cynus

    Chapter 20

    Thank you for the comment. As usual, I appreciate your observations and theories. There's certainly a lot going on right now, and many different angles to consider. We're ramping up to the climax of the book here, but will all the trails lead to the expected destination? Thank you for the comment. :-) I don't know that I explain at any point how Neredos came to that conclusion. I might have to address that at some point. Thank you for asking the question. I do know the answer, so that start. As for Grim and Veil... many trails leading in the same direction, but where do they meet?
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