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Cynus

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    Bisexual, leaning male
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    Fantasy
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  1. Cynus

    Chapter 10

    Due to the bounty of comments, I'm just going to tag you all as I respond instead of quoting each one because I think that will look a little neater in the end. Thank you guys so much for the discussion, by the way! That was extremely fun to read through! @drpaladin - I love that you mentioned Neredos and his dreams. Writing Neredos and his existential hell was one of the places where I felt most connected to the story as I was writing it, so I hope as we revisit him throughout the story that it'll continue to be interesting. @jt15136 - Thank you for reading and loving the story! I try to have frequent updates with all the stories I write, which is why I prefer to finish my novels before I post them. There's a lot less headache that way. @flyboi - Oh yes, there is plenty in store, don't you worry. And Max has become sort of a badass, hasn't he? Remember when he used to be all timid about challenging authority? It seems he has arrived. @drpaladin, @Geoffrey257, @shyboy85, @flyboi - I absolutely love this discussion that you guys had. This totally just made my day, and you guys are welcome to do this on any chapters you'd like. I'm not going to say too much about the mechanics at this point, other than to confirm that there is definitely a bit of complexity to the situation. Once we return to Max and you know where he goes from here, I think I could discuss the finer points a little bit better then. I appreciate all the observations that you all made. I love that you're questioning the particulars of the magic, almost like you're thinking like a mage in the story world trying to decide if you can use a certain spell to accomplish something. It's awesome. I love all the observations about the potential social/political ramifications of this action. I love how you're all reading deeply into this. I love the question of Rega's potential reaction, and what that will mean. I love the attention you've all given to the details! Thank you!
  2. Cynus

    Chapter 9

    I think the Bradeth and Kirra dynamic worked better than I thought it would. I've noticed that I tend to have Kirra gravitate toward strong female characters. Without Alsha to lead him, he bonded naturally to Bradeth as soon as she was in his life. This scene in particular was one of my favorites to write, since I was able to play multiple angles of that connection. I appreciate all of your comments, so thank you for giving me them. We're going to get into Ghayle a lot more in book 4, so I'm going to try to avoid giving too many spoilers. but yes, as a Fletcher, Bradeth is near the top of Elrok society. Since they are a very spiritual people, they do have a greater connection to the land and the forces that shape it than most people do. Like I said, I appreciate all of your comments. That's what I like to hear! Sweet!!!
  3. Cynus

    Chapter 10

    Neredos paced his chambers in a fitful rage. He wanted to sleep, oh how he wanted to sleep! Never in the eight centuries since he had last rested had he wanted it more than now. He had thought all his friends dead—long dead, except for Veil, of course. And now his actions had led to Prism's death and Grim's imprisonment. Somewhere in the back of his mind he'd known that Grim was still alive, but he'd all but forgotten. And yet, he hadn't given a second thought as Grim battled Ibrix. Neredos had only seen one way forward, and that was to ensure that Ibrix was imprisoned once again. It had seemed so clear, and yet . . . Sleep. Neredos eyed the lavish bed in the corner of his room, its covers disturbed as usual. He spent time in that bed every day, tossing and turning, begging for an escape into unconsciousness, but the demons wouldn't let him sleep. The demons . . . He still didn't know if they were the voices in his head, or of those were simply manifestations of his own insanity. He knew he was insane, he knew . . . Grim. The Fedain riding Ibrix to the ground, sucking the life from the demon, melting its face into a puddle of gore. He would've only needed seconds more to finish the deed, seconds more to rid the world of another demon. Seconds that Neredos did not give him, could not give him, his mind unable to conceive the demon's death, only it's imprisonment. Two questions struck him then. What if he had allowed the demon freedom? What if he had allowed the demon's death? Then Neredos would die. Not at first, but slowly, the lack of one of the powerful demon generals feeding Neredos' soul would surely kill him over time. He was certain that containing the essence of all five was required to maintain his immortality. Each one prevented him from a different kind of death, a different kind of damage. If only one had prevented him from losing his mind. From losing his . . . His friends. If only one prevented him from losing those he cared about. Why were they not allowed to live while he ruled forever? All except for Veil. She still lived somehow, someway he did not understand, he did not want to understand. She had been there the whole time, but he did not trust her. She tried to kill him once, but he forgave her. She must be as insane as him, she must not know the answer. Does she still sleep? He wondered. Does she still dream? Does she still escape? Escape. Yes, that was what he needed, but how? He eyed his bed again. Sleep, yes, always sleep. That was how he had distanced himself before—before the madness came, before the demons became linked with his soul. But had the madness come first? Hadn't it . . .? He shook his head; it was all too confusing. Nothing made sense, nothing ever made sense anymore. No one could help him, no one could heal him, no one could help him bear this burden. Veil wasn't strong enough, Grim didn't understand, Prism was now dead . . . Prism. Yes, there was an answer, a change in the madness. Prism had said that Veil could not be trusted. She was an enemy, Neredos had seen it in Prism's eyes. At the war council, when the threat of Salidar releasing the demons was first revealed to him. Prism had said that Veil was mad to wait. The threat had to be addressed immediately. It was mad to wait . . . mad to wait . . . Wait. All he ever did was wait, all he ever did was . . . Madness. Madness was the enemy. Madness had stolen sleep from him, as surely as the demons ever had. Madness kept him there, screaming for release within his own mind. Would he ever be free? No, he had to bear the burden. He had to keep the people safe from the demons. He had to . . . To wait. Yes, he would know eventually. He would know, as soon as he found some sleep. Yes, it was time to sleep. Neredos climbed into the bed, pulled the covers over him, and closed his eyes. Sleep did not come, but nightmares remained. The nightmares never left. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ The wide bedroom window taunted Maxthane, reminding him that both escape and death were equally likely. A week earlier, he had freed Styx and allowed him to escape through that same window, and like a silent hawk he had glided into the darkness to safety. If only it would be that easy for Maxthane, he would leap out that window in a heartbeat. But two problems weighed on Maxthane, keeping him firmly rooted to the stone beneath his feet. First, he possessed no ability to help him glide away. If he tried to escape through the window, he would have to climb. Like many born and raised in The Shade, he had learned how to scale rock without need of rope or harness, but he had never excelled at it. He was as likely as not to break his neck attempting to climb to safety, especially as climbing down from his window would simply put him in the middle of the complex. They would likely catch him before he managed to escape. On the other hand, climbing up would not be much better. There were no access points to the surface immediately above the complex, and so he would merely reach the ceiling of the chamber and find himself as trapped as ever. No, the window would more likely lead to death than escape in any scenario he could imagine. Besides, he had a duty to remain. This was the second weight on his shoulders, as heavy a burden now as it had been before Fasha returned and assumed Salidar's identity. No, more so. His people were now in more danger than they had ever been before, and he could not simply abandon them to whatever fate the demon had in store for them. Even if he thought he could raise support against Fasha by leaving, Maxthane's escape would incriminate him at the same time. There was only one option, stay. Stay, and try to destroy Fasha's control from within. He wondered if Gobrak had made it out safely, and if there was any possibility the Elrok would be able to help him. Maxthane couldn't rely on that help any more than he could rely on Styx or Rega returning to set the record straight with the soldiers. Would they even be allowed to return? He thought with a grimace. Or would they be killed for what they knew? He had seen so much death recently, but the thought of either man dying for this made him want to retch. It was bad enough that his father was responsible for releasing demons on Pentalus, but this whole demon crusade could lead to worse repercussions still. An idea struck him as he pondered the demons of Pentalus. Demons he had helped free by use of an ancient grimoire. One he had yet to finish translating, but which spoke of more than simply ancient Gor magic. It contained information about the demons in general, and perhaps . . . He moved directly to the cabinet that held the grimoire and retrieved the old, leather-bound book. He opened it gingerly, afraid, as always, that he would harm the ancient paper. Of course, there was little danger of that. Whatever magic had protected it through the centuries could surely protect it from any damage his hands could cause, though that did not diminish his gentleness. In many ways he despised the book. If it had never been found, he wouldn't have helped his father—no, Fasha—free the demons. His father wouldn't be dead, and . . . and what? What was done was done, and he had to use all tools available to him. Opening the book, he skimmed through the pages, fixing in his mind the symbols that would represent Fasha's name. He started with the histories, not the rituals, doubting he'd find any mention of the demon in the spells themselves. Page after page he scoured, until he reached the end having found nothing. So, he's not mentioned . . . Maxthane thought sullenly. With a sigh, he went back to the histories again. This section had been far more difficult to translate than the rituals. Anyone with a current understanding of Gor magic could piece together the symbols in the rituals to figure out the spells, assuming they were willing to commit the time necessary to the study. But the histories required an understanding of grammar, not to mention the contextual nuances of the ancient language. Sometimes a word meant something different depending on its placement in the sentence, or even depending on which words specifically preceded it or followed it. Maxthane's understanding of the language was passable, but he still had to pick apart each sentence. Still, if there were answers to be found, they would be here. After a few lines, he skipped to the next page, then did so again, repeating this process until he passed the record of the Demon War itself. It held little more than facts and dates corresponding with major events. The fall of the Ultakan military, the anarchy in Oligan, and the organization of resistance in Lodan and Incaria. These places were meaningless to Maxthane, though perhaps a historian would find them useful. Grim and Prism were both mentioned here, alongside Neredos and the Oracle, Veil. Many others, too, though no one Maxthane could know for sure as Fasha. Perhaps he was impersonating someone then, too. But as he delved deeper, he encountered a section which caught his interest more than the others. It mentioned each demon clan by name and described their attributes. Goden with their claws dripping with poison that paralyzed the lungs. Maxthane had been bonded to one of those before, had watched it kill two men and almost kill Styx. Grim had killed it a short time later. He shuddered at the memory of the demon and moved on. Ibrix were familiar as well, the fiery beast he'd seen from a distance in Pentalus. Neredos had resealed that demon, but it had killed many before. Possibly even Grim, though no one he'd spoken with seemed to know for sure. He also remembered the Aika demon, and the screams of men dying who fought it. There'd been little time for him to focus on that one, however, as he'd been in the midst of challenging Fasha, while the quilled, flying demon had fought the Shades and Knights alike. Styx had faced the Aika and described it in detail. Then he came to the Nobak demon. This one was unfamiliar, and he thought at first that it might be the one Rega and Styx had left to hunt with Dogo. It's many sharp bone ridges and spikes seemed fearsome, but there was no mention of poison, and hadn't Dogo mentioned poison? No, he had no experience with a Nobak at all. The Quay, on the other hand, seemed much more familiar. The text revealed it to be venomous, its bite killing in minutes at best. Its blood was far more horrible, however, as contact with it created an almost incurable disease that killed slowly with vicious symptoms. A small notation at the bottom revealed that Veil had managed to cure the disease but did not reveal how it was done. So, does this mean we're all already doomed? Maxthane thought with a shudder. He hoped Styx and the others would be all right and manage to kill the demon before it dealt irreparable harm to The Shade. The grimoire warned that even small amounts of the demon's blood would kill whatever came in contact with it eventually. If Dogo was right, the damage could already have been done. Maxthane knew he had to find a way to save his people. This was on his shoulders, whether the people currently recognized him as King or not. He needed an answer to dealing with Fasha, but how? With grim determination, he returned to studying the grimoire. The Vhor were next. The Unknown . . . what did that mean? Maxthane wondered as he read. The grimoire described them as formless by nature, but able to assume any form they wished. These had infiltrated the races for some unknown purpose. Several had been rooted out during the Demon War, but the grimoire made it clear that more had survived, free from Neredos' prison. "By the dark waters," Maxthane cursed, "are there more like you, Fasha? Are there more waiting to destroy the world?" As he continued reading, he learned more of the vicious poison he'd once felt in his veins. The same poison that had killed his father. Maxthane hadn't understood how to heal the poison in another person, his healing abilities from his Fedain blood were too new to him to deal with such a virulent weapon. The poison was actually made from the Vhor's shapeshifting cells, aggressively attacking its victim from inside once leaving the main body. Only a Fedain could kill those cells, though the grimoire made it clear that not every variation of Gor healing had been tried. Despite this knowledge, Maxthane felt more defeated than ever. How was he supposed to fight someone like that? How could he take on an ancient demon by himself? By all accounts, the Vhor were the leaders of the demons. Fasha had to be one of the most dangerous beings to ever live. Maxthane was nothing more than a boy, no matter how much he knew. But Neredos and the others had defeated the demons before. They had risen to the challenge and won. That meant it could be done, and if it could be done, he had to try. He gritted his teeth to firm up his resolve. Fasha was one of a few demons free from the pillars. If he could handle him, then he could worry about the others. He flipped back to the rituals and skimmed through them. There would be an answer somewhere, and he would find it. His people needed him to, and that was all that mattered. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Fasha reached Maxthane's rooms hours after sending the prince there. No—Maxthane was the rightful King now, Fasha knew. In time that would likely be true again, and Maxthane would be able to lead his people into a new era. Possibly. If he survived. If the world survived. He had to find a way to ensure that. His plans with Salidar could still be salvaged as long as he continued to wear Salidar's face. It would take time to rebuild the necessary forces to seize Pentalus long enough to free more demons, but he had already waited centuries. A few more years would go by in a blink. Of course, it would be much easier with Maxthane's help. That was one more reason to keep him alive. The boy already knew the rituals and would be the key to training new mages quickly. Plus, he had the grimoire and understood it. That alone would cut the time down significantly. But it remained to be seen if Fasha could convince him to participate. With a resolute sigh, Fasha stepped past the four guards stationed outside Maxthane's door and opened it. He strode inside with purpose in his step, his eyes settling on Maxthane in a large chair, his bare feet resting on a soft rug separating him from the hard stone floor. An empty chair sat directly across from him. Fasha had not been in these rooms in many years, but those chairs looked as if they did not belong in their current position. Fasha smiled slightly. Maxthane had expected him, of course, and prepared this battlefield somehow. This would be interesting. Maxthane did not look up as Fasha entered, instead maintaining focus on the grimoire in his hands. Fasha's smile widened. It was good that Maxthane wanted to try to fix things. That would help in the end. "Maxthane . . ." he said softly as the door closed behind him. "I see you're doing some research." Maxthane closed the grimoire and set it aside, looking up with a false smile and hard eyes. "Fasha. So good to see you. Would you mind dropping the mask while you're here? I'm sick of seeing you wear my father's face." "Hoping the guards outside will hear you and they'll run in here and catch me?" Fasha chuckled dryly and moved toward the open chair. He sat in it rigidly, mimicking Salidar's posture. "You can try to sow dissension in the ranks, but they'll only see what's in front of their eyes. I look and sound like Salidar, and that's the only thing important to them." Maxthane's lips tightened, becoming nearly as hard as his eyes. "I should kill you." His fingers twitched, as if wanting to activate the tattoo on his left bicep of a salamander. Fasha had faced the effects of that tattoo before. "With fire?" Fasha scoffed, though he suppressed the urge to shudder. "Do you think I'd give you the chance now that I know you have the tattoo? I'll kill you the moment you reach for it." Maxthane nodded as if he'd expected the claim. "Why aren't you trying to convince me of your identity? Why be so open with me?" Fasha shrugged. "You might go along with it, seeing an opportunity to convince me that you're going to work with me, and then you'll try and kill me with a surprise attack. At some point one must accept that admitting the truth is the wiser course. This way I know where you stand at all times." "It's all strategy, huh?" Maxthane said with an incredulous chuckle. "What could you possibly gain from keeping me alive?" "That remains to be seen," Fasha replied, pleased with the direction this conversation had turned. Maxthane had decided to approach this with logic, and that would serve Fasha's purposes well. "I haven't decided to keep you alive yet. You may be useful, and you may not." Maxthane gestured angrily between his chair and Fasha's. "So, what is this? You've come to decide? You've come to irritate me, to see if you can intimidate me into helping you?" "There is no need for hostility, Maxthane. We should approach this as a . . ." Fasha paused to consider his words, "as a business meeting." "You murdered my Father," Maxthane replied flatly. Fasha gripped the arms of the chair and sprang to his feet, his eyes narrowing. "After you set him against me. After you ruined everything. If you hadn't . . ." he saw Maxthane's lips curl in a slight smile and dropped his anger with a huff. "No, I will not be baited into anger by you." Maxthane remained calm as he asked, "After I ruined everything? You were trying to unleash demons on the world." "I was trying to leash demons, actually," Fasha said, surprising himself by his admission. A force stronger than any other prevented him from revealing the nature of The Trial to anyone but the Chosen, yet his tongue felt unrestrained for the moment. "The plan would've worked if you hadn't distracted me. I could've told them all to allow them to be bonded." Maxthane blinked with surprise. "Why would you do that?" "Because I want Neredos dead. That is all you need to know," Fasha replied. He could not say more, not much, anyway. He had told Veil as much as this, long before Maxthane was born. He knew where the line was, how close he could come before the compulsion stopped him from revealing The Trial. Maxthane raised the grimoire again. "You are not mentioned in this, at least not that I can determine. I would recognize the symbols for the name 'Fasha', but skimming revealed nothing." Fasha nodded slowly. "You won't find that name in there. I've worn many faces in the last eight centuries. And I won't tell you which name of mine you'll find." He knew he wouldn't be able to if he tried. His true name was too revealing to those who knew history. It would risk too much. "But you are a demon—one of the Vhor," Maxthane said slowly. "Yes. That is true." "Which means you are one of the leaders. Which means you can order the demons," Maxthane surmised. "Exactly." "So, you're to blame for the Quay loose in the underground?" Maxthane asked. "Blame?" Fasha replied, raising an eyebrow. "I suppose I could order it to try to dig itself out and attack people, if that's what you want." Maxthane's eyes narrowed at Fasha's attempt at dark humor. "Dogo told me he believes its blood is poisonous and is leaking into our water supply." "That is . . ." Fasha sighed heavily, "potentially disastrous. Even you could die to that, despite your heritage. Your mother would not be pleased with me if that happened. I could lose my edge." "My mother?" Maxthane asked, dropping the grimoire in surprise. "How do you know my mother? My father would never tell me who she is, why did he tell you?" Fasha hesitated a moment before responding. Would it do any harm to tell Maxthane the truth? No—it was a good risk. It might help him earn Maxthane's trust, and that was an opportunity he couldn't pass up. "Your mother is Lady Veil, the Oracle of the Everbright City. Go ahead and tell people if you'd like. It won't do anything for you." Maxthane laughed without mirth. "That's insane." "Sometimes the truth is," Fasha said with a shrug. "It was a political move. Veil hired me to kill Neredos, I told her I couldn't do it, but I knew someone who could bring about his death, and I was already trying to. I needed something to motivate Salidar, however. Launching a war against The Everbright City is a dangerous thing. Once Salidar had you . . . all he wanted was to give you a better kingdom. I don't think he would've even left an heir if I hadn't lit the fire of ambition in him." "Am I supposed to thank you for my birth?" Maxthane said, snorting derisively. "No," Fasha replied immediately. "To some degree I regret your birth, so why would I want you to thank me for it? You are the one who stopped my victory. Our victory. And why? Why; I still don't know." "Do you expect me to tell you why I acted as I did, when you hold your own motivations so secret?" Maxthane asked. "My motivations are guarded by a force more ancient than you could possibly imagine," Fasha growled, leaning forward menacingly. He took a step, reaching for the knife on his belt and coating it with a thin layer of himself. Maxthane was now asking the wrong kind of questions. "Your motivations are nothing more than the naïve understandings of a petulant child." "A Fedain told me I shouldn't trust you. His name is Grim," Maxthane said. "I trust his judgment of character." "Ah . . . the naïve understanding of a petulant immortal then," Fasha said, chuckling. "Well, not an immortal, just hasn't died yet. Yet." Maxthane's eyes twinkled with amusement and promise. "I'd bet on him. I've seen him kill." "You might be right about that. I can't say I'd be able to last long against him, but how many times can he heal the sting of my poison before he runs out of energy?" Fasha asked. "It doesn't matter. He's out of reach now. Releasing him will kill Neredos, and that is all that matters." Maxthane raised an eyebrow. "How?" "Neredos is protected from death by the energies of the five demon generals. When we planned which demons to free, I made sure that we freed at least one of them. I intended to force Neredos to kill it himself, but Grim had nearly finished the job when Neredos arrived. Unfortunately, Neredos resealed Ibrix before the demon died. As soon as that pillar comes down, however, Grim kills Ibrix and Neredos is vulnerable," Fasha explained. "Veil believes that Ibrix may be dead already, but I'm not convinced yet." "Interesting theory." "It's not a theory, at least, not the part about Neredos' weakness," Fasha said. "I know the magic, even if I can't perform it in this state." "Why can't you perform magic?" Maxthane asked. "It requires lifeforce, and though we are built of lifeforce, our force is not controlled by us directly," Fasha said flatly. "I cannot tell you more." "So, if you're made of lifeforce, and Grim can kill you . . ." Maxthane sprang from his seat, clutching Fasha's arm and pulling him forward. Fasha could feel Maxthane reaching into his skin and trying to destroy him with his Fedain control of lifeforce. Fasha reacted immediately as he ground his feet into the rug, rooting himself in place, dagger drawn and at Maxthane's throat in an instant. "Do you think your abilities capable, fool? Do you think you are Grim's equal? You do not heal as well or as quickly as him, and I could stab you a hundred times before you could possibly destroy me. Can you heal my poison so effectively, do you think?" he asked in a deadly whisper. "No," Maxthane said, releasing Fasha and stepping back. "But I do know more about demons than most. Perhaps you should've never given me that grimoire." Fasha eyed him curiously, then shuddered as Maxthane began to chant in Ancient Gor, his voice thrumming with primal power. A soft light emanated from beneath Fasha's feet, and he glanced down to see shafts of light coming through the rug. With a growl of desperation, Fasha moved, lashing out with the dagger as Maxthane darted back. His arm collided with an invisible wall, a barrier of magic keeping his body contained in the rune circle Maxthane had drawn beneath the rug. If he could not leave, the dagger could, and Fasha tossed it with his near perfect accuracy. Maxthane had expected the attack, raising both hands, one to cover his heart and the other to cover his face. Maxthane's defenses only managed to slightly deflect the knife from its course. Instead of taking him in the forehead, it glanced past the right side of his face, cutting both the eye and leaving a long gash along the side of Maxthane's head. But it was in vain. Aside from a momentary cry of pain, Maxthane resumed chanting with full concentration. The air stiffened around Fasha, his limbs moving sluggishly as if through thick jelly. Fasha sighed, knowing it was futile to struggle now. He only had enough time to say one more thing, his eyes filled with as much sincerity as he could manage. "Kill Neredos, Maxthane. It's the only hope any of us have." The air solidified, becoming a thick wall of grey fog, and Fasha could say no more.
  4. Cynus

    Chapter 8

    As always, I appreciate your observations a great deal. Thank you so much. The deterioration was in fact what I was going for, and I'm glad that it was reasoned out that way. I had a lot of fun with Bradeth, Alsha, and Kirra when I was writing this section, so hopefully it's something that you'll also enjoy.
  5. Cynus

    Chapter 9

    No thunder. Kirra eyed the narrow window skeptically, wondering at the nature of the storm beyond the foggy glass. He had just walked into the bunkhouse after his long conversation with Alsha and hadn't yet stripped out of his armor. The flashes of light had drawn his attention first, as lightning often did. Thunderstorms had long been one of his favorite kinds of weather, mostly for how rare they were in the Everbright City, which rested above the reach of most storms. They often struck out in the nearby countryside, however, and he loved to watch them from the edge of clouds. But something was wrong about this one, lightning, but not a trace of thunder. He had heard of such storms before, but he'd never experienced one. Was the lightning simply too weak to generate powerful thunder that rippled across the miles? He was eager to find out and started toward the door just as an alarm sounded outside. Angry shouts inside answered it, and all around him forms stirred from the bunks surrounding him. Alsha was at the door before he could open it, still dressed as well. Her private room was just down the hall from the bunkhouse, and she had headed straight here once the alarm sounded. Her eyes met Kirra's for a moment and she ordered, "Rouse the others and meet me outside as quickly as possible. The demon is attacking the town." Kirra's eyes widened, but he saluted quickly and moved through the room, raising his voice to be sure to wake those who hadn't already done so. "Everyone, armor on and swords at the ready! The demon is attacking! Rally at Lady Alsha in the courtyard." He heard several sharp, "yes sir's" and a few more rumbles of assent. Before Kirra could consider his next action, however, he also heard a soft voice say, "Kirra? Is that you? By the sun and stars, it is!" Kirra swiveled to find Fenri staring at him, one of the few Knights he had managed to get to know at all during his time in Lady Alsha's company. Kirra forced a smile despite the situation and said, "We can talk about it later, but right now the important thing is to follow Lady Alsha's orders and meet her outside as quickly as possible." He turned back to address the room at large and asked, "Does anyone need help with their armor?" Approximately a minute later—but no more than two—every man had his armor and weapons on and ready, and as one unit they left the room. They joined Alsha in the courtyard of the garrison, where fifty local soldiers in red cloth and polished steel chain already stood waiting for orders—those who were already on duty, no doubt. The rest would be coming from the other bunkhouses soon. Standing next to Alsha was a tall and broad-shouldered man with a shaved head, though grey stubble ringed his scalp. He wore the same armor as his soldiers, with a golden-knotted rope tied around his left bicep, signifying his rank. These soldiers were not an official part of the Knights of the Firmament, though they had once been. Within the first century after the end of the Demon War, the Knights had separated the general military from their order, retaining only the Inquisitors and the Defenders of Pentalus. The first was charged with investigating threats to King Neredos and the Everbright City, especially concerning demons. The latter were simply expected to protect Pentalus and its citizens. The military, on the other hand, was charged with keeping order throughout the surrounding lands. They reported to the Everbright City and the Knights of the Firmament, and were inspected by them, but otherwise had their own command structure and were largely left to their own devices. Kirra had always found this way of organizing things odd, and knew his opinion was a common one, but King Neredos preferred things this way. No one thought to question an immortal man who could kill you with a rise of his hand. Usually, the military was eager enough to accept help from the Knights of the Firmament, but sometimes the bureaucratic consequences of being two separate organizations got in the way. He doubted it would be the same here, since this was a matter for Inquisitors. Demon hunting, although practically unheard of for the last eight hundred years, was their job. "Lady Alsha Tremlaine will take the lead on this operation," the garrison captain announced. His tone, eyes, and expression all were completely neutral. A scream followed by a flash of light in the distance added urgency to his words that weren't there before. "Fight, for the glory of Lord Chaltus and King Neredos." Lord Chaltus? Kirra shook his head at strange name, trying to remember who it was. Much of the nobility had deserted the Everbright City over the centuries and settled in the surrounding countryside. He knew the military often worked through them, but they weren't supposed to serve them directly. If Alsha found it odd, she didn't show it in her words as she picked up where the captain had left off. "This is a very dangerous foe, more dangerous than a small army if you don't know what you're doing. Your captain has already briefed you once, but let me remind you . . . Watch out for the quills, take cover whenever possible, use wooden shields if you have them, and strike at the underbelly or wings. For the archers among you, try not to hit us while we we're in the sky with it. If you don't have a clear shot, don't take it, wait until you do. My Knights will be trying to bring it down, so that we can fight it on the street without having to worry about its mobility. Let all our actions be toward this end, and the safeguarding of our world. To the demon's death!" She raised her sword in salute, and all those in attendance returned it in kind, spears, swords, and bows rising with their cheers. "To battle!" Alsha cried once more and turned on her heel and jogged away. The Knights fell in step behind her as she moved toward where the eagles were roosting. Kirra sprinted to catch up to Alsha and spoke as they jogged. "I don't have an eagle." Alsha hesitated for a moment before responding. "I don't think we can afford the extra weight on anyone's mounts. It's not that I want to keep you out of combat, but you need to find some other way to fit into the plan. Find a bow or wait for us to bring it down and meet us on the street." Kirra lagged as the rest of the troops continued, letting them pass him. He watched them go with a sour expression, trying not to take Alsha's words personally. He would find some way to help his unit, even if there was no plan for him yet. With a sigh, he turned back the other way to find a bow. Even as he did, the demon screeched overhead, powerful wings driving it through the air. He caught his first sight of it then, against the light of the moon—first sight since Pentalus, anyway—and felt a chill sink into his marrow. He had already been in this demon's mouth once, the sharp teeth in its reptilian mouth had crushed him through his armor, shredding his skin and spilling his blood everywhere. Minutes before, the quills sprouting from its purple-scaled back had slain his eagle from a distance, piercing the air like lightning bolts to strike their targets. He remembered everything about this demon now, the vicious claws and the way it had cut a Knight out of the air with its wickedly bladed tail. Hope fled from him. He was useless from this distance and filled with fear that the demon would come his way. Once again, he would face a force he couldn't possibly fight against, trapped by those who wanted to destroy him for their pleasure. He was ten years old again, paralyzed by the knowledge that he couldn't escape his fate. Lightning flashed again without thunder, but Kirra hardly noticed, waiting for rain that would not come. Waiting to be washed away, knowing this time he would finally drown. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Bradeth had to subdue one guard, though that had taken minimal effort. He hadn't even known she was there before she choked him into slumber. Her things had been easy to find from there, though it took her a moment to find the right key for the lock on the chest that held her equipment. Only afterward did she realize she could've broken the lock much more easily. When she made it outside, she cursed at the sight that awaited her. Human soldiers lined the rooftops nearby, firing arrows at a large winged creature that seemed oblivious to the small missiles. Either the shots weren't piercing the demon's hide, or they weren't hitting it at all. Either way, the demon was killing without anything to stop it. It was not discriminatory about his targets, either. Some soldiers took quills, but it was heading toward the nearby docks and killing any civilian it found along the way. Most people were still inside their homes at this time of day, but in this part of town commerce ran at all times. There were enough targets that, unchecked, this would soon become a massacre. She glanced around for a place to climb to the roof, but then spotted a familiar face in the courtyard. What is he doing just standing there? Bradeth thought, angling toward Kirra. The demon could double back at any moment if it decided the soldiers' arrows were worth noting, and Kirra was the most open target of all. She grasped his arm and pulled him roughly with her, darting into the space between two buildings. He moved with her numbly, only realizing her presence after she said his name. "Kirra, what is wrong with you!?" "The demon," Kirra said softly, meeting her eyes but with little strength, "it almost killed me once. Would've killed me if not for . . . I don't think I can fight this. It came straight for me in Pentalus, wanted my blood for killing its mate." Bradeth slapped him. When his head snapped back and he fell against the wall behind him, she realized she hadn't adjusted for their relative size. She thought about apologizing but decided it would lessen the impact of her next words and went on. "You are a Knight, a warrior in service of his people, a defender of the weak and innocent. Right now, people are dying, you can hear their screams." As if in answer to her statement, several pained shouts rang out in the darkness. Kirra stiffened at the sound as he regained his footing, his eyes slowly coming to grips with the situation. "But it's so much stronger than me," he whispered. "They all are." Bradeth snorted. "As if that means you can't still win," she said dryly. "If Gobrak were here he would say something like 'the mightiest beast falls to the single well aimed arrow'. Strength and size are only some of what makes something powerful. Now, I owe you a debt, since you led me to information I needed, so how about I help you kill this demon?" Kirra nodded, finding the strength Bradeth knew he had. She grinned encouragingly and clapped his shoulder, this time remembering to adjust for his relative size. He staggered under the blow just the same but recovered quickly. Above them eagles screeched as the Knights raced to join the fight. Without having to look to see if he would follow, Bradeth turned and ran into the night. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Seeing the demon made Alsha hesitate, but only for a moment. She had not fought this one in Pentalus, though several members of her unit had. It was smaller than the Ibrix demon had been, but it looked just as frightening; perhaps more so. As she lifted into the air on the back of her eagle, Alsha considered the purple scales gleaming in the moonlight. It had a dangerous beauty to it, she realized, and if she had seen it in a different situation she might've even felt regret for having to kill such a beast, but there was no regret here. This demon had killed some of her Knights and was killing people now. There was only one thing to do. She led the charge toward it, her soldiers in a fan behind her. She glanced back only once, to see that all were accounted for in their armor, illuminated by the pale moonlight. Satisfied that they would have her back, she put all her focus on the demon. The Aika took note of her long before they arrived, turning to face them and beginning a charge of its own. Alsha's eyes met its gaze and she was surprised to see the level of intelligence there. This demon was no simple-minded beast, and it regarded her with a look of contempt. One of them would die this day. Alsha snarled and drove her eagle faster, sword at her side, seeming to shine white as the polished steel caught stray rays of moonlight. As the demon neared, Alsha followed through with the plan she had made with her unit upon receiving this mission. She willed her eagle to drop, and the two soldiers directly behind her followed suit, bringing them under the demon just as its foreclaws and teeth snatched at empty air. It screeched at the denial but kept its focus forward on the rest of the Knights ahead of it. But if it had expected easy prey, these Knights had recently been tested and were no fools. Half darted to the right, the other half to the left, circling around the demon and slashing at its wings from above. Several swords managed to nick the demon's hide, drawing its full ire. The demon rolled in the air to come back at the Knights, spreading its wings wide in the maneuver and knocking one mounted pair from the sky. Knight and eagle struggled for control of their descent, but neither managed it in time before they collided with roof tiles. Alsha couldn't spare them a glance, she and her two attendants were already working on their next stage of the maneuver. All three Knights gripped their saddles tightly as their eagles spun in the air, for a brief instant flying upside down before righting themselves and speeding back toward the demon from below, angling toward its underbelly. With the demon still distracted, all three Knights reached their target and slashed at the demon's flesh. Alsha's blade cut a deep gash, and a grunt of triumph from her companions told her they had done the same. Before they had much time to celebrate, however, the screeching demon pulled back from the blow with a powerful sweep of its wings, buffeting the trio with a burst of air. It was enough to stagger them, but the true attack came without warning. A flash of glinting purple startled Alsha before pain and vertigo swept over her beneath a fountain of crimson blood. She was falling, her sword gone, her eagle limp beneath her, and searing pain erupting from her chest. A hand grabbed her from behind, pulling her from her saddle though the falling feeling remained. She heard Fenri's voice—all too distant to be the man holding her, yet who else could be speaking next to her ear? "Hold on!" And then his arms wrapped around her and they spun, him landing hard against something, her landing as softly as possible against him. Fenri grunted in pain, then sharply again as he moved from underneath her, but whatever injury he had sustained in the fall, his focus was elsewhere. "Commander! Lady Alsha!" He shouted, and she felt pressure on her chest. "I'm going to need you to stay awake, Commander. You need to stay with me while I stop this bleeding. You have to fight!" Alsha fought for words, latching onto his voice with everything she had. "What happened?" She croaked. "The demon . . .?" "Cut you out of the sky," Fenri said. "Tail cut clean through Grala's neck and into you. You have a gash along your chest to your shoulder. Not extremely deep, but deep enough and long. I'm gonna try and get the bleeding under control until we can get you to a medic." Alsha tried to nod but thought the better of the movement as it pulled on her wound. "The demon? The Knights? Are we winning?" "We lost three already, but you and I both hit it," Fenri said grimly. "The archers are going in for another volley, though I don't know how many of them are still alive, and it doesn't seem any of their arrows have done any good." "We'll just have to hope . . ." Alsha began, but the words failed her as darkness threatened to take over. She dimly heard Fenri shouting again, but she couldn't make out any of the words. The last thing he said that made any sense at all was, "What is Kirra doing? He's going to get himself killed!" Not even this was enough to allow her to remain awake. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Kirra was ready, for what it was worth. All of Bradeth's encouragement filled him, giving him the courage needed to stand tall on the roof of the barracks, sword drawn and looking toward the demon. His heart pounded in his ears, reminding him that fear remained just a thought away. But he would stand fast, and he would not yield this battleground until he had no other choice. But he wasn't sure this would work, especially since the demon was so far away. Would it even notice him? He wondered, staring at the beast in the distance, swiping at Knights with its wicked claws while sharp quills pierced the air, crackling with electric light as they sought to pierce armored flesh. Several Knights had fallen already, and the eagles were tiring from the complex maneuvers that their riders took them through to avoid injury. They would not be able to do this alone, though they had managed to wound the Aika. Blood dripped from two long gashes along its belly, dripping to the roofs and streets below. But it wouldn't be enough, not at the rate the fight was going. Kirra sucked in his breath, hesitated, and then let go of his fear. "Aika!" He shouted, projecting his voice as far as possible, hoping to be heard above the screech of eagles and steel against scale. He continued, not knowing if the demon would hear him, but hoping his instincts were correct. "I killed your mate, Aika! Come and face me!" The Aika pivoted in the air, turning toward the sound, its eyes searching. Kirra's pulse thundered in his brain as the Aika's gaze settled on him. He remembered all too well the sound of the screech this same demon had uttered after he had killed its mate on the streets of Pentalus. The sound had reverberated through his skull then, seeming to echo from every wall, every stone. The demon was silent now, but the glare of pure hatred that fixated on him brought a surge of echoes to Kirra's ears. Then it charged him, and Kirra remembered fear again. He wanted to run, his legs aching for freedom from his ironclad will. Memories of being trapped, cornered by those who would abuse and injure him, threatened to overrun his will. He had space to run, the stairs leading down into the safety of the barracks lay only a few paces away. He could hide, he could— No. He could not, not this time, not after watching Alsha fall from the sky, her eagle surely dead, and she likely as well. He would not run and abandon his Knights, these few who had done nothing but welcome him. Though others had abused him, these had not. Their honor demanded his courage. Even as the demon swooped toward him, a large owl landed on a nearby spire. Kirra could see it out of his peripheral vision, recognizing it for Parril. He smiled and met the demon's eyes, filled with the certainty of death. Pure wrath glinted in those dark, saurian orbs, contrasting with the silver moonlight illuminating purple scales. Such alien eyes, yet filled with such relatable emotion. Kirra understood. He hated those who had wronged him, too. The demon had nearly reached the rooftop when the owl lifted from the spire, giving Kirra all the warning he needed. Snapping jaws leading, the Aika attacked Kirra's position, but the Knight had already dropped to the ground, lying flat as a huge arrow shot through the air above him, straight into the Aika's open jaws. It pierced through the soft tissue of the demon's mouth, burrowing deep into its brain. Too stunned to scream, the Aika continued forward, its momentum carrying its hind claws into Kirra, dragging him along the roof of the barracks. Kirra grunted as a sharp claw pierced his leg and flipped him over near the edge of the roof. He clung to the stone as the dead demon toppled over the edge, landing with a resounding crash against the pavement below. He was aware of the silence, though his own mind screamed at the pain in his leg. He heard someone running, and then a large shape landed next to him. At first he thought it was the Aika climbing back onto the rooftop, and reached for his sword only to find it lying far away from him. But then he recognized Bradeth and gasped with relief. "You did well, Knight," Bradeth said with a grin, sliding her pack from her shoulders. "You stood against your fear, enough to do any boulder proud. Let me look at that wound." "The demon?" Kirra asked, still disoriented from being tossed about by the demon's claws. "Is it . . .?" Bradeth nodded. "You gave me the cleanest shot possible. I'm glad you have sharp eyes, and paid attention to Parril instead of letting your fear get the better of you." "You're glad I have sharp eyes?" Kirra echoed in wonder as Bradeth knelt beside him to look over his wound. "I still can't believe you convinced me of your plan. You sure it's dead? You didn't just wound it?" "If it has a brain where a brain should be, it's dead," Bradeth said. "The Knights and soldiers are already going to investigate, but I think we'd hear it screeching if it still lived. I shot straight through where you were standing, got it right in the mouth." Her grin quickly became a grimace as she looked at his leg. "I'm going to have to tie this off for now, to slow the bleeding." She reached into her pack and pulled out a cord and a rag. She handed the rag to Kirra then set to tie the cord around his leg. "Apply pressure before your strength runs out from the blood loss." Kirra did as instructed then looked about in alarm as shouting rose up around him. One glance at the Knights made him realize they were cheering. He looked back to Bradeth and grinned through the pain. "Thank you, Fletcher." "For you, Knight, it's Bradeth. No need for titles between friends," Bradeth replied with a nod of acceptance. "Now, this is going to be very tight, you might want to brace yourself . . ." Kirra's grin faded, but his happiness did not. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ "Oh, this isn't nearly as bad as the last one," the elderly Fedain man said as he touched Kirra's naked leg. It had been less than an hour since the battle, and Bradeth herself had carried Kirra into the barracks and set him on the nearest available bed. Medics had arrived soon after and did what they could, but before long one of them was calling for someone named 'Zade'. Zade turned out to be an elderly Fedain who spent most of his time healing the citizens of Port Salmus. He was the oldest Fedain Kirra had ever seen, not that he'd seen many. Zade barely seemed to have strength to stand, though despite this he put both hands on Kirra's skin and it prickled in response. By the time Zade pulled away, the wound remained, but it had healed partway. The bleeding had stopped, and a massive scab covered it. "I'm afraid that's the best I can do, young man," Zade said with a grimace. "There's too many to heal today. Too much; I won't be able to save them all." Kirra tested his leg and found it tender, but he knew he could walk on it. He swung out of the bed, looking for his clothes. His thick trousers were gone, destroyed by the puncture and the blood, and his skinclothes hadn't survived either. He glanced at the Fedain and said, "I need to see my commander; do you know where I can get some clothing?" "I'm afraid not," Zade replied, straightening. He looked tired, but he smiled all the same, and his eyes lingered briefly on Kirra's exposed lower half for a moment. "But I'd be surprised if anyone would mind the sight of you as you are." Kirra gritted his teeth and was surprised at his anger. This man had just healed him, he owed him—no . . . he didn't owe the man a lecherous look. He'd had enough of that in his life, enough of giving himself to people who thought they deserved a piece of him. "Look away, old man," Kirra snapped, and was surprised to see Zade snap up in alarm. "Shouldn't you be seeing to your other patients?" "Forgive me," Zade replied, bowing respectfully, "I'm afraid in my old age my tongue doesn't behave itself. I'll ask the soldiers to find you something to wear." The old man left the room, avoiding Kirra's eyes. Kirra wrapped himself in a sheet, and then immediately returned it to the bed. He wasn't going to let one incident rob him of his sense of security. He had done enough of that in his life, and he liked being naked. No lecherous healer would disrupt his peace of mind. "Kirra," Fenri's familiar voice said from the doorway. Kirra turned and saw the man holding two folded pieces of clothing in his hand. "I just ran into that Fedain. He looked frightened. Don't tell me you're still prickly to people who want to help you." Kirra snorted. "He wanted to look at me, more than look," he said, taking the clothing from Fenri. He started to dress and noticed Fenri watching him. No, not watching, just staring at him in confusion. There was no lust in the young Knight's eyes. "Thank you for bringing me these." "You're welcome, hero," Fenri said, chuckling. He shifted uncomfortably, favoring his left leg. "We both took a leg wound. Without that Fedain's healing, I'd be down for a few months, though I don't think he completely healed the break. Looks like he didn't fix you up all the way, either." Kirra nodded as he pulled up the trousers, hiding the scabbed flesh. "Says there's too many to heal. The stories always say Fedain healing is limitless, but that's not reality, I guess. Maybe we're spoiled with Lady Veil, eh?" Fenri chuckled. "With the Oracle, maybe Alsha would be able to use that arm already." "She's okay then?" Kirra asked. Fenri nodded solemnly. "She'll mourn her eagle, of course, but she's alive." "Thanks to you," Kirra said, smiling softly. He paused, locking gazes with Fenri. "Thank you for that too. Hero." Fenri grinned broadly. "But you helped bag the prize. We can share the glory, I think. I'm going to drown you in drink, if I'm not too drunk myself to buy the rounds." Kirra was surprised by the laugh that escaped him. How long had it been since he'd laughed naturally? With Styx, certainly, but that was different. Fenri didn't make his heart flutter, didn't drive him wild with that sweet sense of security only the Shadeling offered. Was this . . . maybe Fenri could be a friend after all. "I don't think I want to drink yet," Kirra replied, smiling. It faded as his thoughts grew serious. "I need to see Alsha, make sure she's okay. Not that I don't trust you . . ." Fenri held up his hand. "Say no more. Commander Alsha's important to me, too." Kirra nodded, then looked around the room. "Do you know where my boots are?" "Should be under the bed," Fenri said. "Your sword should be there, too, if it's like my room." Smiling in appreciation, Kirra looked underneath the bed and felt a chill. His boots were there, but the sword was gone. He glanced back up at Fenri and frowned. "Is there any other place they may have placed my sword?" "They could've left it on the rooftop," Fenri replied, shrugging. Kirra sat on the edge of the bed and slid into his boots, lacing them up quickly. "Alsha will have to wait. I need to find my sword first. I hope you understand. It's a family heirloom, and irreplaceable." "Sure thing. I'll see you at the Commander's chambers in a bit," Fenri said causally. "And then I am buying you a round." After Fenri left, Kirra walked to the roof access as quickly as his injured leg could carry him. The steps hurt, but he managed the ascent well enough and found Bradeth waiting for him. She sat in a meditative pose, his unsheathed sword across her lap. He approached cautiously, and his movement caught her eye. She smiled at him softly and sheathed the sword, handing it out to him. "You keep some interesting company, Knight," she said softly. "Why didn't you tell me you know someone who knew Grimfaeth? Not to mention Ghayle." The second name sounded familiar, but it took a moment for recognition to take hold. "What do you mean? She knows Ghayle? I had no idea! I never thought to ask! I'm looking for her, or at least, Styx is." "Ah . . ." Bradeth replied as Kirra took the sword from her. "Well then, we've both received an education today. I can tell you about her, if you'd like to know more." "First, I think there are some people who want to buy you a drink, but I'd love to hear about it on the way back to Pentalus," Kirra replied, grinning. When Bradeth didn't respond, he added, "For your help in killing the demon, I think it's only fair I help you free Grim." Bradeth laughed, the rumbling sound filling him with a strange sense of comfort. "I knew I was going to like you, Knight." "Kirra," he replied. "There's no need for titles between friends. Now, let's go see if we can get Alsha to pardon you." Bradeth snorted, but both laughed at the idea. The heroes of Port Salmus had no need for pardons.
  6. Cynus

    Chapter 7

    I love hearing that! Thank you so much. So, way back when I wrote "Shadow Honor", Salidar is arguably the person I put the most of myself into, both some of my good traits and my bad traits. I didn't necessarily want him to be redeemed, per se, but I did hope that some of his good traits would come through. I don't know that I relate to him the same way as I once did, and that's probably a good thing, all things considered, but when I write about him, I still have that very strong note of familiarity unmatched by most of the characters in the series. Thank you for your comments, they are, as always, appreciated. There certainly is a lot of doom on the horizon, isn't there? But they've all survived this far, so who knows what will happen? Other than me, anyway. Thank you for feeling for Styx. He needs all the support he can get.
  7. Cynus

    Chapter 8

    "It is time," Bradeth said suddenly, rising from the boulder she'd used as a seat. She looked at Kira expectantly. "Parril has arrived at Port Salmus. Are you ready?" Kirra stood as well, though he still eyed Bradeth skeptically. For all her reassurances, he remained doubtful of her claims of teleportation. Nevertheless, he was willing to give her an opportunity to prove him wrong. "Absolutely, what do you need me to do?" Bradeth moved over the recently disturbed earth where they'd buried her runic leather. She stooped and removed a stone which marked a specific spot for her to stand, then took its place. She waved Kirra toward her, then pointed down directly in front of her. "Stand here," she ordered. Hesitating for only half a second, Kirra complied. As soon as he reached the spot, Bradeth embraced him, pulling him tight against her body. He fought her for a moment until she said, "We must be this close, to both be inside the rune circle. Stop struggling, or you will interrupt my concentration." Kirra did as instructed, though he didn't like it. There was nothing at all he liked about being restrained by another person, no matter how necessary it was. He did the best he could to relax, and let Bradeth continue. "This next part may be difficult for you," Bradeth said, "but I'm going to kiss you, bite your lip, and taste some of your blood. This is the only way I can temporarily fool myself into thinking you and I are one person. I need a piece of you inside of me, integrating with me. I'm telling you this instead of surprising you, because if you struggle from the pain, you could disrupt everything." Each word widened Kirra's eyes farther. He didn't have the least bit of interest in kissing an Elrok, especially not one who promised him pain. He started shaking his head and said, "I don't think—" She cut him off with a glare. "That's right, you don't. This has nothing to do with anything other than getting you to the other side. This is the only way for me to take you with me, and now that you know where my circle is buried, I will not leave you here alone. You chose this path when you agreed to come with me, so we are either doing this, or I leave you here as a corpse." The words left little room for doubt, but the tone alone would've convinced Kirra of the truth behind those words. He considered his options for the briefest of moments, but then nodded in resignation. "Do it, but don't take any longer than you have to." Bradeth nodded and closed the distance between their mouths. Kirra felt a little tug and then pinch on his lower lip as Bradeth's teeth cut into him. He closed his eyes against the pain. His ears twitched furiously as ancient magic enveloped him. In an instant he felt as if he were falling, then rising again, a feeling he knew well from riding his eagle through the skies; like a little dip before an updraft. When he opened his eyes again, his surroundings had changed. He stood on a flat rooftop in a small port town. The sound of seabirds filled his still-twitching ears, along with the ringing of bells. To his left was the open sea, a scattering of islands dotting the horizon. To his right, the town of Port Salmus spread along the shore of the bay and up into the low hills beyond. Only a few thousand people lived here, but yet the streets bustled with people. It was a regular stop for many merchants along the sea trading route, though not a major one. Many of the people in the streets, however, were likely foreigners. They stood atop a high warehouse at the docks, the building wide enough that no one nearby would've been able to see them appear out of nowhere. They might've noticed the grey owl perched on the edge of the roof that seemed to regard the world with contempt. For a brief moment, the owl's head turned almost backward to regard Kirra curiously. Clicking her tongue, Bradeth separated from Kirra and then whistled. The owl flew toward them, landing on Bradeth's outstretched arm. "Kirra, this is Parril. Parril, this is the Knight I've been grumbling about through our link. He didn't believe we would make it here." "I stand corrected," Kirra said, stepping away and raising his hands. Speaking reminded him of the pain in his lip, and he reached up and wiped away a small bead of blood. A small price for anyone to pay to teleport here, and he stared at Bradeth with newfound respect. As he took another step backward, he became conscious of the difference in textures beneath his feet. He had crossed over the edge of the leather, identical—to his eye—to the one they'd buried near Pentalus. It had worked exactly as she'd said it would. "So, what we do now?" "He doesn't even have the decency to apologize," Bradeth said, grunting. "And I did the hard part already. You are the one who said your commander will be here, so it's up to you to get us there." "And I'm supposed to do that in secret?" Kirra asked, looking Bradeth up and down. "You won't exactly blend in." Bradeth laughed. "You've never left the Everbright City's influence, have you?" When Kirra stiffened, Bradeth took it for confirmation and continued. "The world is a lot larger than you think it is. Trust me, I've been through most of it. While we Elroks may avoid your city and Pentalus, we go freely most everywhere else. We trade regularly with the merchants of this town, though I have not been here myself." "So, we'll just hop down from here and look for her then," Kirra said stiffly. He didn't want to give her any more satisfaction than he had already. "I assume she will be in one of three places. She'll be at the mayor's office for coordination, the local guards' barracks for planning, or out hunting the demon right now." "Well, our day is mostly over," Bradeth said, glancing at the sun heading fast toward the horizon. The color of the sky hadn't begun to turn yet, at least not dramatically, but the sunset would begin soon. "I assume she wouldn't hunt the demon in the dark. Your eagles are not nocturnal." "One of the first two, then," Kirra agreed. "Since the eagles aren't currently in the sky, we can assume they're currently roosting. Which means they're likely at the barracks. That's the only place in town where they would keep proper housing for the Knights of the Firmament." Bradeth nodded. "Do you think you can find the barracks? Or should I do the asking?" Kirra sighed and said, "We can take turns. Or we can just watch the troop movements. Once you know how one army moves, some of the simple things are easy to determine about other armies. The patrols would all start at the barracks, so if we trace them all back . . ." He trailed off as the owl suddenly took off from Bradeth's arm and flew high above the city. Immediately after, Bradeth bent to pick up the piece of runic leather, rolling it before sliding it into her pack. She looked at Kirra after a moment and said, "That was a good idea, and since I have the same knowledge of how an army moves, I'll use Parril's eyes to cut down our search time." "That's . . . really useful," Kirra said with surprise. He decided he was being too hard on Bradeth, and said, "A lot of what you've done and said has been really useful. You're very professional, and I can see why you're so determined. You really like to get things done, don't you?" "I do," Bradeth replied, "I have the blood of chiefs in me. I do not abandon a task until it is finished. I believe for this reason the Shaman Council sent me after Grim, because they know I will do what must be done." What must be done? Kirra repeated in his head. It sounded as if Bradeth had a second meaning for her words, but he did not feel like questioning her. Instead, he vowed to watch the hardness in her eyes and hoped he had not made a big mistake. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Alsha Tremlaine stood on the roof of the barracks in Port Salmus, watching the setting sun. Her emotions were mixed, her mind troubled. The mayor had told her of the demon sightings, at the farms just east of town. So far, no one had been killed, but many had felt threatened. But if the demon had not killed anyone, the threat did not feel as immediate to her, though if it were up to her, she would've charged after it already. This was the demon which had killed Kirra and many others she had fought alongside over the years. This demon could not be allowed to go free, and she was eager to end it. She cursed herself for her vengeance and tried to lose it in the setting sun. Vengeance led to folly, for one lost themselves to anger and hatred if guided by nothing but revenge. Mistakes were easy to make when all one cared about was destroying the enemy. She reminded herself that it was also her duty to kill the demon, to allow her orders to motivate her instead of her anger. It did little good, and she merely gripped tighter on the railing at the edge of the roof. "Lady Alsha," a voice spoke from behind her. She turned to see Fenri, a young but accomplish soldier under her command. He saluted her and approached. "Speak, Fenri," Alsha commanded. "You are supposed to be sleeping along with the others so we can get a head start tomorrow." "I was still in the mess when a runner approached me, Commander," he replied. "They were looking for you, but I told them I would deliver the message in their stead. It seems you have visitors, a Knight and an Elrok." Alsha raised an eyebrow but remained otherwise composed. "Do you know the identity of either?" "I do not," Fenri said. "If the runner knew them, he failed to relay them to me. Unfortunately, I also forgot to ask." "Understood," Alsha replied. She sighed and glanced once more toward the colors gathering on the horizon. Change was in the air. Nearby, a light-colored owl swooped down to catch a mouse on a rooftop across the street, reminding her that some changes were good, and others bad, depending on who was hunter and who was the prey. "I suppose I'll go find out what this is all about then. I do hope the Knight didn't come to recall us, but the presence of the Elrok is even more curious." She smiled at Fenri and then left the rooftop, heading straight for the office at the front of the barracks. Wasting time wouldn't serve her, even if the Knight had come to recall her. There was nothing she could do about orders, other than choose whether to obey them. A few minutes would do nothing but stall a decision. When she walked into the office, however, all thoughts of orders fled from her. Kirra stood before her, talking with an Elrok sporting a large bow and heavy pack. Alsha stared at Kirra as if he were a ghost, and didn't act until he turned toward her and smiled. "Commander!" he said excitedly, "I'm glad I found you." "What . . ." Alsha shook her head, unable to process this strange fortune. "You're alive? Where have you been? What are you . . ." she trailed off, conscious of the Elrok's eyes watching her. "Who is this?" "Bradeth, Fletcher of the Clan of Lions," Kirra said formally. "And the reason I was able to reach you so quickly. We should speak in private, however." He glanced at the bored soldier sitting behind a nearby desk, playing with a blacksmiths' puzzle. Although he didn't look up, Alsha agreed with Kirra's desire to avoid any eavesdroppers. "I will make use of the council room," Alsha announced to the soldier. He jumped to attention, dropping the metal puzzle to the desk with a clatter as he saluted. "Yes, right away, Lady Alsha," the man said, reaching for a ring of keys on his belt. He moved around the desk and started down a hallway. Alsha stepped in behind him, knowing the other two would follow. The soldier led them to a room, unlocked the door and held it for them, and then excused himself. A heavy wooden council table took up most of the room, and a large slate board occupied one wall, a tray of chalk pieces sitting next to it. "Before I get into anything else," Alsha began when the door closed, "I would like to know why you are here, Fletcher Bradeth. In my life I have only met two Elroks. Your people do not visit Pentalus or the Everbright City, not even for trade. I don't mean any offense, but I must question this." Her eyes narrowed dangerously on Bradeth, but she gave no other sign of being uncomfortable. "She is—" Kirra began, but Bradeth cut him off with a glare. "I can answer for myself, Kirra," she growled, then turned to Alsha and spoke more formally, "I understand your caution, Lady Alsha Tremlaine of the Everbright City. I share it, as I would not be here if I thought the answer lay elsewhere. I have no love for the Knights of the Firmament, but Kirra believes you may be able to tell me where someone is." "Oh?" Alsha replied. She took a seat at the head of the council table, spreading her arms wide as she added, "Ask away then. I can't guarantee I can, or will, be willing to help you." Bradeth nodded as if that was the expected answer. "I'm seeking a Fedain named Grim, or Grimfaeth. It is imperative that I find him as soon as possible. My trail has led me to you, and I hope you'll be able to tell me where he has gone." Alsha sighed heavily. "Unfortunately, Grim was sealed inside the Pillar of Ibrix along with the demon. They were engaged in combat when Neredos arrived. Neredos chose to seal them both, in order to protect the city from the demon." Bradeth's body stiffened with each word. She spoke through gritted teeth, her eyes dark. "You mean to tell me that he is dead?" "Not dead," Alsha replied. She shook her head, smiling reassuringly. She wanted to set the Elrok at ease, if that were possible. "Recently, a man was freed from one of those pillars by Salidar thulu'Khant. He had been in there for eight centuries and hadn't aged a second. I assume Grim is very much alive as well." If Bradeth was reassured, she didn't show it. In fact, her next words showed the level of her displeasure. "Neither alive nor dead but unreachable," Bradeth growled, slamming a fist down on the table hard enough to make the wood splinter and crack. "That is the worst possible fate. It will mean war for the clans, an end to nearly half a century of peace. If I cannot free him—" Alsha blanched at the thought and scoffed, "Free him? And unleash Ibrix on the world again? Are you insane!?" "When I tell you this is the worst thing you could have told me, you had better believe it," Bradeth spat. "I must leave at once. The sooner I get back to Pentalus, the sooner I'll be able to figure out some way of freeing the demon. Perhaps King Maxthane can help me. Maybe then I'll be able to—" Alsha jumped to her feet, drawing her sword and leveling it at the Elrok. "I do not know you, but you have just declared intent to free a demon to a Knight of the Firmament. By my sacred charge, I cannot let that slide." Bradeth eyed Alsha's sword with contempt. She chuckled softly after a moment and said, her features softening slightly, "I should've known a human would be this shortsighted. Even one whom Kirra speaks of so highly. If I free the demon, I would kill it myself just to have a chance of a conversation with Grimfaeth. I have no intention of unleashing a demon upon the city of Pentalus, only of freeing the Fedain." "That matters little to me," Alsha replied, her sword remaining as steady as ever. "I am charged with keeping the demons contained, and that means I must place you under arrest. Kirra, go rouse some of the locals so we can find a cell for this one." Kirra looked between Alsha and Bradeth and sighed before leaving the room. Bradeth didn't move at all, her eyes never leaving Alsha's face. "You do not know what you are doing, and by detaining me for this reason you will risk war with the Elrok clans whether they are united or not." This declaration gave Alsha pause, but not enough for her to reconsider her position. When Kirra arrived a short time later with four of Port Salmus' garrison, Alsha didn't hesitate to tell them to take Bradeth away. To her surprise, the Elrok did not resist. Instead, Bradeth calmly handed over her bow and pack, and left with her escort to some other corner of the garrison where she would be held for further questioning. Once she was gone, Kirra said softly, "I really don't think that was necessary, Alsha." "Oh?" Alsha said, "Does that mean you question my orders? I'm not sure yet if I shouldn't throw you in a cell with her. I didn't want to believe that you were dead, but finding you here and alive raises some uncomfortable questions, especially considering the company you've kept. Tell me everything, Kirra. Leave nothing out." Kirra sighed, but he opened his mouth anyway. He told her of how Maxthane had brought him back from the brink of death, then led immediately into Prism's battle with Fasha, and how he and Styx had arrived too late to save the old monk. He spoke of The Shade, and even found himself confessing to the budding relationship between him and Styx, though he left the complication of Maxthane out of that part. Alsha listened to it all with a neutral expression, feeling little need to ask any questions. Kirra was being thorough, at least enough to satisfy her curiosity. Only when he had finally recounted his journey with Bradeth—she raised an eyebrow at the concept of teleportation but accepted it with a single nod—did she speak. "Sounds like you've had quite the adventure, living in The Shade, traveling with Elroks . . ." She shook her head, trying to wrap it around the scope of the story. "I think you know that I'm disappointed you didn't report to me. I have been worried about you, even flying all the way here with white knuckles on the reins because I couldn't get the thought of you from my mind. You know I fought to have you added to my unit, because I saw potential in you. I thought I had failed you, and led you to death . . . You should've reported back." Kirra slumped in one of the chairs, looking defeated. "I know, I just . . . I was with Styx, still in a bit of a haze . . . I guess I just thought a few days wouldn't matter. I should've known better, but maybe . . ." He didn't continue. When the silence stretched on too long for her comfort, Alsha said, "Maybe what?" "I didn't want to go back to the Everbright City," Kirra said at last, meeting her eyes with defiance as if he expected her to deny the claim. "The Shade welcomed me faster than my peers ever did." Alsha sucked in her breath, wanting to snap at him for making such an absurd statement, but she saw the sincerity in his eyes and stopped. She considered his face, letting his words sink in. She had fought for him to be in her unit, because she saw his potential, but also because she'd seen his issues. She liked misfit soldiers best, and Kirra had been one of the most misfit she'd ever had. He had a point. "I think you've done well in our unit, so far," Alsha said honestly. "The other soldiers seem to like you, and I think, in time, you would come to like them too. But . . ." She sighed, leaning back in her chair and tapping her fingers in time to her thoughts. "Unfortunately, I still have to discipline you. I have to think of something that will be fair punishment for your failure to report in." "How about you give me my discharge papers?" Kirra suggested. Alsha recoiled as if he'd slapped her. "Discharge? You want to leave the Knights? Kirra, you're not going to get anywhere by running away from this . . . You have to face—" "Discharge me, Alsha," Kirra demanded. His eyes left little room for debate. "I can no longer serve the King in good conscience, though neither do I intend to rebel against him. I simply want to leave. The nobility, the Order of the Firmament . . . They are both corrupt and caused me a great deal more harm than they've ever done any good for me. I'm done." "I know there's a few questionable members in the Order," Alsha said slowly, "but to call it corrupt . . . what do you base that on?" Kirra didn't answer immediately, and Alsha almost spoke again before he jumped in. "How much do you know about what happened in my first unit?" Something in his voice caught her and drew her in. "Not much," she said at last. "I know you had some issues with your commander and your peers. It was Commander Elsfrath, wasn't it?" Kirra nodded. "Let me tell you a story, it began when I was ten, and involve some people you likely wouldn't suspect . . ." Alsha's eyes widened with every word as Kirra recounted the abuse he suffered at the hands of his guardian and then his fellow soldiers. Before the end, she felt the call to revenge bubbling up inside her once again, far hotter than it had ever raged before. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Bradeth glanced through the bars of her window, noting Parril perched on a nearby rooftop. With the magic she knew, getting out of the cell would be easy, but she had to think of a way to get all her supplies back first. Since both the pack and her bow contained some of her blood, she knew from a quick divination through her tattoos that they were both down the hall from her cell. But they were likely guarded, and she couldn't guarantee she could get them back without killing any of the guards. She wanted to avoid that, if at all possible, since killing any of King Neredos' soldiers would mean a manhunt. Since she intended to spend a great deal of time in Pentalus in the future, she couldn't afford to have people looking for her. She took stock of her resources again. The cell was made to contain human-sized prisoners. Besides the chamber pot, the only other object in the room was a small cot that wouldn't fit her even if she clutched her knees to her chest. Simply sitting on it made it creak, and she doubted it would survive if she put all her body weight on it. With a grin, she did just that, swinging her legs off the floor and laying across the cot as heavily as possible. It groaned in protest, the heavy bolts straining to keep the cot anchored to the wall, but they held. Frowning, Bradeth decided to focus on a different tactic for now. She rose from the cot again and looked out the window. Parril remained free, and that meant tools could be brought to her, but that brought her back to her first problem. Even if she salvaged scraps from the broken cot and found some way to escape her cell with them, she would still have to deal with the guards. The guards . . . how many were there? With a determined grimace, she bit into the flesh of her hand hard enough to draw blood. Growling to mask the pain, she dipped her other hand into the blood and inscribed the Elrok symbol for 'human' on the stone floor. It would be a weak focus, hardly anything at all, but she hoped it would be enough. She pressed her hand against the symbol and drew in deep, meditative breaths, searching through the stone toward the nearby chamber where her gear waited. Nothing. She sensed no one there, but she could not be sure if that was because her divination had failed or if there truly were no occupants in the room. Kosh!" she cursed, using the Elrok word for 'murder'. With a dissatisfied grunt, she threw herself back onto the cot. It groaned more than last time but remained anchored. Then she sensed something, movement nearby. No, not near her, near Parril. With a start, she glanced out the window, expecting to see some great danger. Realizing her mistake, she calmed her nerves and focused on the link with her familiar. Parril saw something moving on the horizon, out in the hills. Something big. Bradeth could almost see it herself, but the link wasn't quite that strong. She knew the something had wings and moved like both a lizard and a cat while on the ground. It currently slinked along the distant hills, stalking prey. Stalking . . . A woman's scream split through the night, rising above all other sounds. It seemed the world quieted in response, as the scream echoed through the blood of all who heard it. Lightning flashed in the hills and the scream ended in an instant. The night erupted in sound, shouts coming from down the hall and all around her, the garrison rousing as cries of 'Demon!' rose in the lookouts' throats. With a growl of frustration, Bradeth once again searched for the means to escape. She had prey to hunt, and she was stuck in a cell! But a wide grin then spread across her face. This was an answer of sorts to her dilemma. The soldiers could hardly hold it against her if she broke out to help them fight the demon. Still lying on the cot, she dipped into the blood on her hand again and scratched out another rune, this time on the stone wall. Her name. As more screams sounded, more lightning flashing in response, Bradeth shut them all out. Focusing the wall, she drew on the stone, connecting herself with it as strongly as possible through her blood. Her body grew heavier with each passing second, the anchored cot straining to hold her. All at once it pulled free from the wall, some bolts snapping and others sliding out. She collapsed on top of the broken canvas, groaning at the pain of hitting the floor. Momentarily dazed, she released her connection to the stone and staggered to her feet. Searching through the rubble, she picked three of the whole bolts and moved to the bars at the front of the cell. With a careful hand, she drew identical runes with her blood on both the bars and the bolts, then focused again. She wedged a bolt against an unmarked bar and pulled with all her strength. Even the strongest human she'd ever met wouldn't have been able to bend the bolt, but she was no human, and adrenaline soared through her veins. Her Elrok strength proved enough, and the bolt bent around the bar. One of the marked bars bent inward in tandem. Her success reinforced her determination, and she repeated the process with the other marked bolts, and the marked bars bent in turn, this time both bending outward. Discarding the bent bolts, Bradeth moved to the bars and slid sideways through the gap she made. It was tight but sucking in her breath allowed her to fit. By the time she was free, the whole city seemed roused by the cry of "demon". As silent as a mountain lion, Bradeth sneaked down the hall to retrieve her bow. It was time to prove her worth.
  8. Cynus

    Chapter 6

    I'm so excited for you to get later into this story and experience all the different twists and turns I have in store for you. What are Fasha's plans? And what role will the Elroks play in what's to come? I appreciate the words all the same! Thank you so much for the feedback!
  9. Cynus

    Chapter 7

    Captain Rega assembled a team of a dozen soldiers within minutes of Maxthane leaving him. He didn't bother consulting with Commander Krythe on the matter, a point Styx filed away for safekeeping. As soon as he sent for the soldiers, he directed nearby servants to retrieve packs of provisions for each of them. Shortly thereafter, the group departed for their hunt by way of Madame Godani's Guildhall with enough supplies to last them four days carried between them all. Styx watched Dogo as they walked, finding his silence unnerving. The only sound Dogo made at all was the occasional cough, after which his face would contort into a sickening frown. Styx wanted to ask him a dozen questions. About why Dogo had allowed him to leave The Shade with Prism nearly a week earlier. About whether he knew where Grim was. About the dangers they faced now . . . All of these weighed on Styx's mind, but yet Styx could not find the right words to voice them. Eventually, Dogo caught him looking, and his frown became a grin. "Are you trying to peer into my soul, Styx?" He asked. Styx blushed, embarrassed. "No, just . . . wondering a few things. You're not quite what I expected when I used to hear tales of you." "Oh?" Dogo asked. He shared a bemused look with Rega. "What tales have you heard of me?" "When I was a child, it was well known in the Inkblades that you were the best bounty hunter in The Shade. That was how they spoke of you, that you always got your prey," Styx said slowly. "It wasn't until I ended up as a gladiator that I found out you spent time there. That you led them once." Dogo nodded. "It makes sense that Fau Shae would want me remembered that way, instead of as a gladiator. She always did have a fondness for me, and despite her willingness to use it, she doesn't care much for violence. At least, no more than the average Shadeling." "When you let . . ." Styx trailed off, turning a wary eye on Rega. He didn't want to incriminate Dogo by talking about their last encounter, when Dogo had let Styx walk out of The Shade. "When we last spoke, you implied that you and Madame Godani were close, but I didn't realize you called her by her first name. Few people do." "Aye, that's true," Rega interjected. "Even when we were all young, as soon as she became guild leader, she insisted on her title. Said if she didn't, no man would respect her. As if any man would dare to disrespect her. Her and her sister . . ." "Her what?" Styx asked, his eyes narrowing. "What do you mean by 'her sister'?" Dogo shot Rega a dark look. "Oh, nothing," Rega said quickly. "Just a friend of hers, someone who has nothing to do with you." "You remain the most horrible liar The Shade has ever seen," Dogo spat. "It's no wonder you became a guard instead of an honorable thief like the rest of us." "You're not even a Shadeling," Rega replied testily. "You got no room to talk about Shade secrets." Styx glowered at both men. "Will someone please tell me what you're talking about? Dogo's glare lingered on Rega for a moment longer before he turned back to Styx with a tired smile. "If I promise to talk about it while we're on our way, could you wait until after we stop in at the Guildhall?" Styx hesitated, then nodded. "If you promise." "I swear by my shadow, I do," Dogo replied solemnly. "It's about time you learned things anyway." "See?" Rega said. "There's no place for secrets where family's concerned." Styx's eyes widened at that, but before he could say anything, Dogo full on punched Rega shoulder, sending him staggering backward several feet. "I told you to keep quiet. This is not your secret to speak on. You hear me telling secrets of you and Salidar?" Rega stiffened at that and shook his head. "You hold your tongue, and I'll hold mine." Styx stared bewildered at both men but chose to hold his tongue. He sensed that if he pushed the matter right now it would devolve into a physical altercation leaving one of the men too injured to speak, depriving him of answers. They didn't have to wait long until they arrived at Madame Godani's Guildhall anyway, and Dogo had promised him answers afterward. That would have to be enough. When they arrived, Styx was only partially surprised to find the Inkblades had expected them. Because of the presence of Rega and his soldiers, they went to the front door instead of the secret passage on the side of the structure used by guild members. This meant, of course, that the moment they arrived, heavy crossbows aimed at them from the shadows. Styx doubted he would be in any danger, but he didn't want to see his temporary allies become pin cushions either. Madame Godani herself greeted them at the doorway. "Dogo, when you said it was urgent, I expected you to be back sooner than now. Are you getting old?" Dogo flashed her a disarming smile. "I was always old, Fau Shae," he replied, "Though I always prefer 'experienced' over 'old'." Madame Godani's face remained as expressionless as ever, though her eyes twinkled a bit in the low light of the mage lamps that decorated her hall. "I was able to find a few volunteers for you," she announced even as soft footsteps sounded in the hallway behind her. Two women and one man walked out into the room. Styx knew them all well. The man was the middle-aged Drake Iskari, whose head was shaved, and he bore an eyepatch over his left eye, the painted image of a flaming red eye adorned it. It contrasted well with the bright blue of his right eye. He had a long-handled knife tucked into his belt, and a heavy crossbow across his back. The back of his left hand was uncovered, revealing a tattoo in a swirling red pattern. Dark leather and cloth covered the rest of his body. The two women wore very similar clothing to Drake, though one wore more leather than he, and the other wore less, favoring a formfitting but flexible black cloth while reserving leather for her more vital areas. The two women were twins, a decade older than Styx who had joined the guild when he was a boy. One was a skilled mage, the other an assassin, though they always worked together so no one knew which twin excelled at which job. Neither wore any obvious weapons aside from a simple knife. They kept their hair and most of their skin concealed, leaving only their identical pairs of gold-flecked brown eyes visible. Lyrae and Chanda, two of Madame Godani's most favored operatives. "Styx!" Drake said enthusiastically, walking over and clapping Styx on the shoulder. "Are you joining us on this fool's mission?" He eyed Dogo warily. "This seems a bit dangerous for you." Behind him, Madame Godani stiffened visibly. Before she could say anything, Dogo fixed her with a stare that spoke volumes, though Styx could not interpret the meaning. "He can come if he wants to," Dogo said firmly. "He's been through enough recently, I wouldn't worry about him. He has experience now." "Why would either of you worry about me?" Styx asked. "It's my decision whether I go or not. Even if you were my parents, I'm a man and have been for years." Madame Godani nodded slowly. "I suppose you are," she said with a thin-lipped smile. "Unfortunately, I can't spare any more resources. There is something happening in The Shade, though I can't tell what just yet. Something that will test the guilds." "Is that something your intelligence network tells you, or just instinct?" Rega asked, his eyes narrowing. "Just instinct," Madame Godani replied. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be so worried." Rega nodded to her wisdom. "Maybe I should stay . . ." He trailed off as Dogo placed a hand on his arm. "Whatever it is, it can wait a few days. I promise you, this other matter . . ." He shook his head solemnly, "it cannot. This demon, there's something about it. I can tell, if we don't handle it, it's going to kill us all." "I've heard that before," Madame Godani replied dryly. Dogo shot her a dark look and she raised up her hands defensively before adding, "But I trust your instincts as well, Dogo. It's why I agreed to give you three of my best. If it's really so urgent, however, why are you still here?" Dogo bowed to her, the action triggering a cough. He hacked for a long moment before he could respond to the awkward stares in the room. "You're right. Let's go, everyone." He turned on his heel and walked from the guildhall, everyone but Styx trailing after him. Styx met Madame Godani's eyes and held her gaze for several seconds until the last of his companions left them alone. "Why didn't you tell me you had a sister?" he asked quietly. Madame Godani's eyes widened at the question. It was the first time Styx had seen her so unsettled in his entire life. She glanced briefly toward the door, and Styx wondered if she was considering which of the others she had to kill for leaking the information. When her eyes came back to Styx's, she had regained some of her composure. "Who told you?" She asked dangerously. "I think I have a right to know who my mother is," Styx said bitterly. "Dogo . . ." she said softly. "Dogo told you." "What would that have to do with anything?" Styx asked, though he stored that thought away for later. It would require more analysis, but he already formed several theories. "And, no . . . I figured that part out on my own. I learned that you had a sister today, and the shadows revealed their secrets. You and I look alike, but you've always insisted you were not my mother. I believed you, and now it makes sense. You're my aunt instead, and for some reason you don't want me to know about my mother." Madame Godani nodded slowly, her lips curling into a thin smile. "You've figured it out. I don’t know who told you I had a sister, but you must understand, it is something you cannot speak about out in The Shade. There was an . . . arrangement. Ask Dogo for more details. I suppose you do have a right to know, after all." "We'll talk more when I get back," Styx promised, maintaining her gaze a moment longer, before turning to follow Dogo and the others at last. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ The group traveled in silence on their way to the outer wall of The Shade. They crossed three of the streams which fed the black lake, each one sending a slight shiver down Styx's spine as he followed their path with his eyes. It had been less than a week since he'd walked the edge of the Black Lake himself, and seeing the dark waters reminded him of the vicious things living within. He'd had enough of things lurking in unseen places, of secrets and their dangers. He'd had enough, and now wanted to clarify more of them. When he looked at Dogo, however, he couldn't bring himself to say anything. After confirming his mother's identity, Styx had already set several pieces in place. He feared the truth as much as he feared the doubt, and he wavered. Eventually the group arrived at the edge of The Shade, where a small rivulet drained from the wall and flowed down toward the Black Lake. The source of the water was a small opening, large enough for a man to fit through in a crouch. Rega drew up the group and eyed the opening skeptically. "This route doesn't look accessible," he said after a moment. "It wasn't until I came through it," Dogo said dryly. He quickly found a foothold in the wall and climbed up to the mouth of the opening, perching with one leg inside as he looked down at the others. "So, you discovered a new way out of The Shade?" Drake asked, his eyes filled with a familiar look. Opportunity, the powerhouse of The Shade. "Only to another chamber, and it's a long way up. The way up from that is blocked now, remember?" Dogo replied, shaking his head. "If you're thinking of using this as a smuggling hold, you'll soon learn it's inconvenient." Rega nodded as if Dogo's explanation had been for him, and he turned to two of their companions, a middle-aged man and woman, dressed in light clothes as opposed to the armor of the soldiers surrounding them. The two mages Maxthane had suggested Rega take with them. "The two of you know what to do?" "We'll be testing the water, as King Maxthane asked," the woman replied. "Though I don't see how this one little stream is going to make much of a difference to The Shade. It should be diluted by the Black Lake enough to keep everyone safe. All we have to do is quarantine the stream itself." "Why don't you find out how bad it is first and then make that decision," Dogo said. The man gave him a dark look. "You don't command us, Dogo." "I do, and you'll do as Dogo says," Rega said. "And as the King decreed." Dogo spoke as if the matter had been settled already, "Let's go. We don't want to lose any more time." He swung his other leg into the opening and started in. Styx paused for only a moment before he hurried up to follow Dogo. He found the tunnel cramped, but not so much that he felt confined. Dogo had already made it a good distance upward, and Styx hurried to follow as Rega climbed up after him. Despite intermittent coughing fits, Dogo pressed on tirelessly, leading them ever upward. The ascent was grueling over slick rock worn smooth over centuries with water trickling over it. At times the ceiling closed in on them, making them move at a crawl instead of a crouch, but eventually these narrow areas widened again letting the climbers breathe easily. As they moved, Styx alternated his focus between his handholds and the questions raging in his mind. He watched Dogo carefully when able, noticing the way he moved. There were many similarities between the two of them. Too many to ignore. Styx moved as if Dogo had been leading him his entire life. Hours after the beginning of their ascent, the tunnel widened to a space large enough for their entire group. Dogo paused for only a moment to make sure everyone caught up with him, then started toward the other end of the chamber. Before he'd gone more than a few feet, Rega called out softly, "It's time to break for a meal. The soldiers are hungry." Dogo nodded, turning back toward Rega. "I'll scout ahead for a bit, get my bearings, and eat up there. When you're done, head up after me." Styx felt as tired as the rest of the group, but he saw the opportunity to speak privately with Dogo and said, "I'll go with you." Dogo met his eyes, his face expressionless. "If you wish." Without another word, Dogo resumed his climb, and Styx followed him, gritting his teeth in anger. Fifteen minutes later, Dogo finally pulled up against a wall, breathing heavily as he swung his pack into his lap. His skin clammy and a cough seizing him, he glanced apologetically at Styx before opening his pack and withdrawing his rations. Styx swung his own pack over his shoulder but paused before withdrawing his food. "Are you going to talk to me?" he asked after a moment. "I haven't been ignoring you, Styx. I expected your questions, you've just been silent," Dogo said before tearing off a piece of bread. "That's all you have to say, huh?" Styx asked, growling as opened his rations. Fish, mushrooms, and lichen bread, the same as everyone else had. He dug into the fish, tearing off a piece and thrusting it into his mouth and chewing angrily. Dogo laughed. "Until you ask me a question, yeah." Styx swallowed hard and stared at him. Opportunity. He wouldn't have many like this one. "Are you my father?" "Straight out with it, I see," Dogo said, his eyes dancing with delight. "I like that. I'd have thought you'd cling to the shadows a bit more. You've grown in the last while. Not as overly cautious as you used to be." He smiled sadly, a tightness surrounding his features. "Yes. I'm your father. For all the good that does you. For all the harm that causes." "Good? Harm? What are you talking about?" Styx said incredulously. His eyes as sharp as his voice, he asked, "Why have you kept this from me?" Dogo sighed heavily. "We had our reasons." "Why did you abandon me?" Styx asked. "I didn't. Neither did your mother. That's the point, Styx," Dogo replied almost casually. The matter-of-fact tone irritated Styx. "Your mother owed Salidar a . . . a favor. After she gave birth to you, and marked you as hers with your name," Dogo reached up and stroked the hawk tattoo on Styx's face. Styx was initially so shocked, he let it happen until he finally pulled away and Dogo continued, "she gave herself up to him. Shortly after that, I learned that her favor left her crippled and dying, and I tried to kill Salidar. That meant I spent a decade as Salidar's prisoner, a gladiator in his service." Styx digested the information for several minutes, saying nothing as he returned his focus to his food. After seeing no more questions would be immediately forthcoming, Dogo resumed eating as well. Eventually, Styx broke the silence again. "That doesn't explain why you didn't tell me." "Because your aunt is pragmatic. She didn't want to raise you to rebel against Salidar. She didn't want to instill revenge, to make you hate your parents for not being there, to make you hate the King for taking them from you . . ." Dogo explained, then, seeing Styx was still confused he came at it from a different angle. "She knew you'd have our wills, and that you'd want to avenge the wrongs to your family. Now that Salidar's dead . . . I guess it doesn't matter, does it?" "But you've defended Salidar to me!" Styx protested. "Yes. And I would many times again," Dogo replied. "Salidar didn't know what would happen to your mother. That wasn't his fault. Salidar could've killed me outright, but he didn't. He gave me a chance to live and eventually earn his trust again. For all the wrong he's done, he's made up for it as far as I'm concerned." Styx rolled his eyes at that. "I still think you could've told me. You could've trusted me to not take on Salidar. I'm not an idiot, you know." "Styx, I barely know you," Dogo said forcefully, "But I know enough to see that you're too much like me to stop yourself." "I'm like you?" Styx asked, eyebrows raised. "I've observed you since I exited Salidar's service. You spent years as a loner, because you didn't like being told what to do by your aunt. Then, as soon as you got caught, you found your way free but discovered it was a lot easier when you worked with people. Others helped you, and you helped them in return, because it's important to help those you care about. Why else are you here?" "Because Maxthane didn't want me there," Styx replied. "Fair enough, I suppose," Dogo said, "but I think it's deeper than that. Ever since you started fighting demons, you decided there were more important things than riches and even survival." A wide grin crossed his face. "You might be surprised as to how similar our paths have been, and I think it's because we see the world the same way." "Am I like my mother, too?" Styx asked hopefully. As the words left his mouth, he became aware of movement below them and glanced down to see Rega's head appear in the tunnel beneath them. "You certainly look more like her than this old bastard," Rega said, nodding toward Dogo as he joined them in the narrow tunnel. He looked Styx up and down and winked lecherously. "Which makes you a sight more attractive in my book." "Rega . . ." Dogo said dangerously, "you are not going to seduce my son." "Why not?" Rega asked, grinning at Styx. "He's of age, and I already know he has good tastes." "I'm flattered, Rega, but you're a little old for me . . ." Styx said, suppressing a shudder. "No offense." "None taken," Rega said, barking a laugh. "But you can't blame a lonely man for trying." "Lonely?" Dogo scoffed. "Don't tell me you're still holding out for a dead man." "You'd speak ill of him now? You just praised him a moment ago," Rega said. "He didn't see fit to treat you right while you were in love. He had his good points, but with you, he . . ." Dogo trailed off, sighing. "You deserved better than what you got." Rega shifted uncomfortably. "He had a position to protect. I got what he could give me." Styx looked between the two men, his eyes widening with each word. He settled on Rega and said softly, "You and Salidar . . ." Rega snorted and looked at Dogo. "Your boy pays too much attention for his own good." "If I could figure it out in two words from your mouth, I'm not surprised he can," Dogo replied, chuckling. "If you remember, when we were all young men, I guessed too." His chuckle broke into a cough, and Rega and Styx regarded him with concern. "Wonder how many others know . . ." Rega said quietly. Dogo shook his head firmly. "None, I imagine. Salidar was careful even if you weren't. Any thoughts they might've had would've been pure speculation. Hard to make a case from just speculation. Thieves are too careful to act without a good bet on their side. You don't risk pickpocketing someone if you don’t know they're carrying coin." "I suppose there's somethin' to that," Rega replied. "Anyway, the soldiers ought to be done eatin' now. We should get moving." "We'll go back and get them then," Dogo said. "I'm eager to get this done, same as you." "Aye, but that's not necessary. I told them to start up in a few minutes. They'll be here soon. Still, I'll head back and drive 'em on." "We're not done, Dogo," Styx said when Rega turned back down the tunnel. "You have a lot to tell me." "That I do, Styx. I don't deny it. I owe you an explanation, and I've every intention of giving you one. Maybe you'll never see me as a father, and it's no less than I deserve, but I'd like the opportunity to teach you who I am if you'll give it." "We'll see." Styx hastily finished the last few bites of his meal. As he was cleaning up, he asked, "One thing that I've always wondered, though . . ." "Yeah?" "How the hell can you see down here? You don't have a Shadesight tattoo," Styx said. "Not on my face, no," Dogo replied, grinning at the unexpected question. "It's against Incarian custom to wear tattoos anywhere on the face, anywhere visible, really, but I've got one, same as you. But . . ." he leaned forward and whispered, "I also have one no one knows about. I've the nose of a hunting hound, another gift of blood ink. That's why they call me the Watchdog, you know, they know I can smell 'em, they just don't know why." "You like to keep people in the dark, don't you?" Styx said, hoping Dogo would feel the bite of his double entendre. Whether Dogo felt it or not, he merely grinned wider. "Is there anywhere safer?" ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ "Damn! It collapsed after me!" Dogo exclaimed abruptly as the ascent slowed to a halt. The tunnel had widened as they'd ascended, though the ceiling remained low. Styx peered around Dogo as best he could and saw that the way was blocked by a large pile of rubble. There were several cracks around the edges, but not wide enough for a man to fit through, though perhaps a child could. "Time for some of your Incarian magic, Dogo," Rega said, sliding up beside Styx. "Won't do us any good." Dogo sighed heavily. "It's not . . . magic, like I said before. It's targeted explosives, small scale. I was able to blow my way through here last time, but it looks like the roof collapsed in after . . . I could try to blow those boulders apart, let the stream take the dust down like before, but I might bring the whole tunnel down on top of us if it was loose enough to collapse like this." "It's all right, I have at least four people with slippers back here," Rega said, grinning. "We'll get past this, don't you worry." "Slippers?" Dogo asked. Rega stared at him in disbelief. "Don't tell me you've never heard the term, Dogo." "Nope." Styx jumped in, eager to prove useful. "People who can slip into tight places. It's a common ink. Usually snake blood, but there are others." "Aye, that's it," Rega said. "We can get some people on the other side, leverage up the loose rock and clear the passage well enough. Won't take more than an hour at most by my estimation, depending on how far back it goes." "I'll help from this side then," Dogo said. Rega snorted derisively. "You rest. You're looking awful. And you," he took Styx in with a glance, "strong as you are, stay with him. He's more likely to stay if it's you who's keeping an eye on him." "You got it," Styx said, sliding backward to give Dogo space to join him, which he did with surprisingly little protest. He looked worse than ever now, his face covered in sweat. Dark marks appeared on his skin, though Styx couldn't tell what was dirt and what might by symptomatic of illness. Rega organized his soldiers, directing several of them to use their tattoos to slip through the child-sized spaces at the edges of the rubble. A short time later, the soldiers moved the stones in concert, passing them down the line to pile them neatly at the edges of the tunnel. "Rega's a good man," Dogo said after several minutes of this. "People in Pentalus fear Shades, even more than those in the Everbright City do. They shouldn't. There's more order here than there is above. People more concerned for the welfare of their neighbors . . . we may take from each other often, may compete for resources as much as they or even more, but we take care of our own." "You're an outsider here. Can your opinion of us really be trusted?" Styx asked dryly. "Us? As if I'm not one of you now . . ." Dogo chuckled and then coughed. "I've been here since before I was your age. The better part of thirty years now. I've maintained ties with my homeland, of course, but I'm as much a Shade as anyone now. But you're right about me being an outsider too. However, that's what allows me to see The Shade for what it is. This is a place of people judged too quickly." "Kirra said something similar," Styx said softly. "Kirra?" Dogo echoed. "My . . ." Styx thought of Maxthane, "one of my lovers." "Ah . . ." Dogo's grin warmed Styx. "What can you tell me about this, Kirra?" "He's a Knight of the Firmament," Styx deadpanned. "Now that's something you'd never expect to hear in The Shade!" Dogo said, clapping Styx on the shoulder enthusiastically. "Your lovers are a Knight and the Shadowking? You've done well for yourself." "I'd have thought you would disapprove of me courting a Knight," Styx said incredulously. "Why?" Dogo asked. "Styx, whatever you think of me . . . you must think me terrible for what we've done to you, and, like I said before, that's within your rights, but I'm sure I'd approve of whomever you love. A man can't control his heart." Styx bit his lip thoughtfully. "Did you love my mother?" "Yes. Without a doubt," Dogo replied. "If you think anything other than love would've driven me to the madness of trying to kill Salidar, you're madder than I am." Styx smiled despite himself. "That makes sense." "So, tell me more about Kirra, and get me up to date on what you've been doing since I last saw you," Dogo insisted. As the boulders continued to pass them by, Styx spoke of all the things that had transpired over the past week. He spoke fondly of Maxthane and Kirra, and with respect for Grim and Prism. Dogo asked enough questions to show interest but was content to listen for the most part. Styx found it was easy to talk to Dogo, and a bond slowly formed between them. After he was done recounting his recent adventures and Dogo's questions had dwindled, he made one more request of his father. "Tell me about my mother." "Certainly," Dogo said softly. "She's . . ." he trailed off as Rega returned to them. "Dogo, we're through," he announced. Dogo clapped Styx on the shoulder and said, "Next time we stop, I'll tell you all about her. I don't have enough energy to climb and speak." Styx nodded and smiled. "I understand." Dogo moved back to the front of the line, Styx staying on his heels. Past the rubble, the tunnel took a sharp turn upward, and Dogo suddenly stood straight, looking up into the gloom. He turned back to his companions and said, "Past this point, we're going to be climbing straight up for a while. Everyone watch your step, it'll be slick!" Placing his hands on the wall, Dogo started upward, and Styx fell in behind him. As he watched Dogo climb, the similarities between them became apparent once again. Styx had a father, someone to show him how to step, and finally his path seemed a little more certain.
  10. Cynus

    Chapter 6

    Flowers brought Veil comfort where most things failed. She insisted that her servants maintain the garden behind her enclave, and they pruned and weeded it daily. She loved to walk down the narrow paths, gliding through a sea of colors. The beauty of them almost allowed her to forget. Almost. Clasean dutifully followed her, maintaining a distance of ten paces, his eyes as alert as ever despite their age as he kept watch for any threats to Veil's person. She wished he would walk beside her, but even if ordered, he would only do so in uncomfortable silence. Where once he had viewed her as the most beautiful flower in the garden, now he saw only the sharpness of her thorns. "Clasean," Veil said, turning toward him, "please have the women prepare a bouquet for me. I would prefer blues and whites, and I would like it delivered to my office." "Will you be meeting someone in your office today, your Grace?" Clasean asked neutrally. "Please forgive my question, but you usually only decorate your office if you plan on having guests. I was unaware of anything on the agenda." Veil nodded. "That is normally true, but I was hoping to do some work there today. I just thought it would lighten my mood." "Will you have need of a scribe?" Clasean asked. "No, that will not be necessary. My own hand will be good enough for writing, don't you think?" Her soft features narrowed into a glare. "Do you think me so delicate that I can't do my own work?" Clasean blinked once, but his face remained otherwise blank. "Forgive me, your Grace. Usually when you dictate matters of state, you use a scribe. I was asking, not insisting." Veil sighed heavily. She had been hoping for more of a reaction. What would it take to get him to love her again? Would he ever see the flower again? "Thank you for your concern, but I will not be needing a scribe. Forget about the bouquet as well, I'll keep my dark mood." "As you wish," Clasean replied with a bow. Veil gritted her teeth and turned away, resuming her walk. Before she'd gone more than a few steps, a young page arrived at the edge of the garden and hastened toward them. He bowed low to Veil before speaking. "Oracle, we were just notified that King Neredos is on his way to see you." "Is that so?" Veil asked, raising an eyebrow. It was unlike Neredos to pay anyone a visit, but Veil especially, despite their long history. She wondered what could've possibly roused him. "When will he arrive?" "Soon," the page replied, flushing in embarrassment that he could not offer a more concrete answer. "He did not state a time." "That means he could be here any minute," Veil said. "Clasean, I changed my mind about that bouquet, I'm going to need it after all. Boy," she said, returning her attention to the page, "I want you to have the guards direct Neredos to my office." The page bowed again and took off at a run. Veil walked quickly as well, toward the outer edge of the garden, where one of her servants knelt beneath a rosebush of white blossoms, weeding its roots. Veil paid no heed to the gardener, but heard Clasean exchange a few words with him, delivering her request for the bouquet before hurrying after her. Veil made her way straight to her office, hoping she would beat Neredos there, but the door was already open when she arrived. The Shining King paced the room in front of her large oak desk, his rich clothing disheveled, his eyes and hair wild. He glanced toward her, and Veil's eyes widened in shock. Neredos appeared to be sweating for the first time in eight centuries. His siphoning link with the demon generals granted him immortality, or at least a near likeness of it. It prevented him from any damaging effects of exertion or heat, it repaired his wounds, and made it so he needed neither to sleep nor eat to sustain himself. It prevented him from aging. He had not needed to sweat for any reason since becoming King. Was something wrong with the link? Veil composed herself quickly, hoping this was the case. Perhaps she would be able to finish this after all. "I'm sorry for my delay," she said as she strode into the room. She closed the door behind her as Clasean took up a protective position outside. As Neredos watched her in silence, she circled around the desk and sat down in the large comfortable chair on the other side. "Are you all right, Neredos?" Neredos shook his head. "No, I feel I may have made a mistake. I haven't been quite myself. I keep running into things, and I feel like I'm losing my mind." "We both know that was already true," Veil said guardedly. "Do you mean to say that your condition has worsened of late?" "No, not that," Neredos replied. "I . . . I have betrayed one of my friends. Two of my friends, actually, now that I think about it. I have grown so accustomed to not having friends, that I forget what they mean to me." Veil hesitated to answer, giving Neredos the appearance that she was merely listening intently, though in truth she had no idea what he was talking about. She waited for him to continue, hoping he would elaborate. He did not disappoint her. "Prism came to me, telling me my people were in danger, and I didn't listen," he said plainly. "Why didn't I listen? Many of my people died, several demons were freed, and Prism . . ." He shuddered. "And Prism died as result of my choice." Veil knew how to answer this one. She'd prepared for it nearly a week earlier. "It was probably the result of your condition. Also, you trusted my judgment, and I am also at fault. It was I who recommended we wait, thinking it would be better. We both failed to trust Prism's judgment." "Yes, but I know things of armies, and so did he, but still I failed to listen," Neredos countered. "I killed my friend. My pride killed him." "Before you end up repeating yourself," Veil said, "you said you betrayed two of your friends? Who else?" Neredos gave her a blank look. "For all our disagreements over the years, you know damned well who I mean. Grim, I saw him atop that demon, riding Ibrix into oblivion like a hell steed. He was killing Ibrix, and I sealed them up together. I consigned him to the same fate as his husband had just escaped, when all I had to do was let him finish the job." This declaration surprised Veil. Neredos and Grim had rarely seen eye to eye over the years, even long before the centuries separated their ideologies with an irreparable rift. But she also knew that Neredos longed for the old days, the adventure of traveling with the capable people he had come to call his friends. For the longest time, Neredos had thought that only he, Veil, and Grim remained. "Perhaps seeing Prism alive reminded you of how much you cared for Grim at one point," Veil suggested as she pondered this change in Neredos' mentality. A moment later, she realized a potential opportunity. If Grim had been so close to killing Ibrix, then perhaps he could still do so, and open a hole in Neredos' immortality. "If you feel guilty, perhaps you should free him?" But Neredos shook his head and replied, "it is too dangerous. I cannot free a demon for any reason." Veil sighed. She'd expected this. This was the result of Neredos' brain condition. He had it firmly set in his mind that there were several things which could not be disputed. Freeing the demons was too dangerous. That was the most important one, though there was another which also stood in her way. And, though she knew without a doubt what his answer would be, she decided to try one more time to end everything. "Well, you could always follow through on the original plan," she said slowly, "you have the power to kill the demons within their prison. Once they're dead, you can free Grim and not worry." Neredos was shaking his head long before she finished. The second incontrovertible truth of Neredos' dogma left his tongue as predictable as the sunrise. "You know I can't do that, Veil. The world needs a champion, the world needs someone to protect it, and if I do that, I will no longer be immortal. Then who will look after the world? No, it is nonnegotiable. It's pure madness, actually." Veil nodded. There was no use arguing. Neredos simply could not see reason on those two issues. His brain, frozen forever in the condition of madness by immortality, refused to yield. "Then what is there to do?" She asked helplessly. "I don't know, I guess I will have to live with this guilt," Neredos said. He mumbled something unintelligible and then added, "For the good of the world, I will suffer." "I suppose that's all that can be done," Veil muttered, defeated. "Indeed," Neredos replied, nodding as if it made complete sense. "Thank you, Veil. I appreciate your willingness to listen." "Of course, Neredos," she replied. "For you, my time is always yours." "I suppose I am lucky you managed to store enough demonic life force during the war to keep you still alive," Neredos said. "It will be sad for me when the years finally take you, and I am forced to carry this burden alone." "May that day be long distant," Veil replied with a tightlipped smile. "Is there any other way I may help you today?" Neredos shook his head. "No, but if I think of anything to do, I will come and let you know." Veil bid him farewell shortly after that, and as soon as he left the office, she turned to Clasean and said, "do not let anyone disturb me for the next hour. I have a lot to think about." "Your bouquet arrived, your Grace," Clasean said before she could close the door. He bent down and picked up a vase filled with a mixture of blue and white flowers. She took it from him. "Thank you." She closed the door and set the vase in the center of her desk, staring at it for a moment. Water droplets clung to the pedals like dew, making them look as vibrant as if they remained in the garden. Vibrant. Alive. How long had it been since she felt that way? How long had it been since Neredos felt that way? Did he really suffer as much as he let on? Did he— Sweat. Memory of moisture on Neredos' face came rushing back to her and brought a theory with it. If it was possible to kill the demons within the pillars, perhaps Grim had succeeded after all. Perhaps, Neredos was no longer as immortal as he seemed. Could he now feel heat? Could he now feel exertion? Or was it the cold sweat of someone denied sleep? If any of these were true, then she finally had a chance. She eagerly moved to her desk and slipped a key from around her neck, opening the top drawer. She withdrew a small device from inside, one of few such devices remaining in the world. A communications device from ancient Oligan, Neredos' homeland. It had a small screen and could be tuned to various frequencies, though the latter hardly mattered anymore. As far as she knew, only one other such device still existed. She turned it on and waited for her signal to be received on the other end. As soon as the screen flickered to life, she said, "Fasha, we need to talk. I think I know how to kill Neredos." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Maxthane rushed through the halls on the heels of the soldier, wanting to confront Krythe but knowing he had to deal with the intruder first. An Elrok had arrived unannounced and gone immediately to see Kubriss. What this meant, he didn't know, but hopefully it would finally be something other than bad news. He strode into the mess hall and immediately took stock of the situation. Three Elroks occupied Kubriss' corner, including the patient. One Maxthane recognized as being in his service, while the other carried a bow with a full quiver of arrows, a backpack, and enough tattoos to rival the mosaic on Maxthane's skin. Maxthane slowed, realizing he needed to handle the situation delicately. He took a second to compose himself, working out several contingencies should he need them. He had no reason to believe that these people were threatening, but something about the one with the bow told him they were capable of causing him harm if they saw a reason to. There were three tattoos on Maxthane's body which could be used as weapons if he needed. One could create fire, another could transform his fingers into wicked claws sharp as glass and hard as diamonds. The third turned his saliva into venom. He had never had a reason to use the latter two, but these were dangerous times. With full control of his grace and posture, Maxthane advanced on the Elroks. "Porak," he said, hoping the use of the Elrok tongue would put the newcomer at ease. "Welcome to my home." The Elrok with the bow turned toward him and smiled easily. "King Maxthane thulu'Khant, thank you for your welcome. I am Gobrak, Fletcher of the Clan of Serpents, though I represent the honor of all clans on this day. You honor me by speaking our tongue." "Porakum," Kubriss interjected, looking at Maxthane and nodding toward Gobrak. "There's no need for that, Kubriss," Gobrak said, continuing in Maxthane's language though Kubriss could probably not understand all of it. "Maxthane is a King, and he need not raise his speech for me." Maxthane coughed to hide his embarrassment. "Kubriss has been teaching me, but I'm afraid I haven't grasped the different levels of speech yet. If you could explain the difference to me, I would greatly appreciate it." Gobrak smiled. "You honor us further, King Maxthane. Porakum is used when speaking to someone of distinguished rank. As a Fletcher, it is what Kubriss would use for me. As a King, however, you do not need to offer me that distinction. I am below you in our terms of understanding." "Porakum," Maxthane said, bowing in greeting. "I do not believe anyone is below me, and certainly not a distinguished member of Elrok society. Now, I hope you'll forgive my rudeness, but why have you come?" "If we could speak in private, I would appreciate it," Gobrak said quietly. "It is a matter of great importance to the clans, and not something for idle conversation in the open. He who speaks to the open wind invites it to share his secrets." Maxthane nodded in understanding. "Yes, there are several rooms we can go to. If it's urgent, we can find one nearby. Or, if you prefer, we can go to my father's study." "It is not urgent, but it is important. Whichever room is most secure would be my preference," Gobrak replied. "The study it is then." As Maxthane left the mess hall with Gobrak in tow, he signaled for two soldiers standing guard there to follow him. He hoped Gobrak would not be offended by the extra security, though Maxthane felt it a necessary precaution. No matter how pleasant the Elrok seemed to be, Maxthane had to ensure his own safety. As they made their way toward the study, however, he grew less secure with this choice. Gobrak did not make a single threatening move and carried himself with utter dignity and professionalism. He was no more dangerous than any other diplomat, though that simply meant the soldiers would do little to protect Maxthane from the dangers Gobrak presented. As they entered the study, Maxthane ordered the soldiers to stand outside, and then motioned for Gobrak to take one of the large chairs near the fireplace. He'd always wondered why his father had kept such large chairs in this room but now understood. Salidar had received annual visits from the Elrok clans in the past, and though Maxthane had never sat in on any of them, he saw that the chairs were of perfect size. Salidar knew how to host his allies. Maxthane took the other chair, and though it dwarfed him, he didn't mind. He'd always enjoyed sinking into the soft confines of the cushion. It reminded him now of a paternal comfort he would never have again. "You may speak whenever you wish, Fletcher Gobrak," Maxthane said when he had settled. "My sources tell me of your recent loss, King Maxthane," Gobrak said immediately. "My condolences on the loss of your father. He was a great man, well regarded by the Elrok clans. It is unfortunate he did not succeed on his quest." Maxthane considered a diplomatic response, but the word shocked him so deeply that he couldn't help but say, "It is unfortunate that he did not succeed? Are you serious?" Gobrak looked puzzled. "Did you not share your father's dream of freeing The Shade from the oppression of the Everbright City?" "I thank you for your condolences, but no, he and I had a great disagreement on that matter," Maxthane replied. "The thought of unleashing demons upon the world just for such a petty reason . . . It makes me sick to my stomach." "I see," Gobrak replied, "just to clarify, I did not mean to offend. The Elrok clans support the thulu'Khant rebellion as a whole, not necessarily the specific methods used in that rebellion. We are opposed to Neredos as surely as you are. Though I agree the demons are better left undisturbed." Maxthane breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. I was beginning to like you, Gobrak, and I didn't want that to stop. Now, I hope you'll forgive me for being short, but what is the pressing matter you wish to speak about?" "Not pressing, important," Gobrak clarified. "First, I wish to formally thank you for taking care of Kubriss. I know two other Elroks died while fighting the fire demon. I will mourn their loss, and though the clan leaders will ask about their dead, I'll tell them that the current leader of The Shade continues to rule with honor. Kubriss has made it clear that you are a benevolent ruler." "At least someone thinks so," Maxthane said dryly. His eyes widened as he realized he'd voiced his doubts. "Please pretend you didn't hear that." "As you wish, King Maxthane," Gobrak replied. He went on as if Maxthane had never spoken, "Regarding the dead, I assume you will want replacements? I can have two more Elroks here and ready to serve you within a few days. I need only send a message." "That would be . . ." Maxthane began, but then shook his head. "I'm sorry, Gobrak, but I don't feel justified using Elrok labor without giving you something in return. I've never known my father to give you anything, but yet he has always had your support. Why?" "Working for the thulu'Khant family has long been a good way for our young to get valuable experience," Gobrak said. "We are not people who are well loved in the world at large, but here our young can have an opportunity to see more of how the world works. We believe in harmony, and that does not come without understanding. We send them to you for education, and they come back to us ready and able to contribute to the growth of our society." "And that is worth it to you?" Maxthane asked. "Are you sure there isn't more I could do?" "The clans are satisfied with this arrangement. We would normally send you two, to replace those who fell, but if you could make use of more of us, there are many young Elroks eager to prove themselves worthy of the opportunity." Maxthane let out a bewildered laugh, "send as many as you'd like, then. I think I'd prefer their company to those currently around me." Gobrak nodded appreciatively. "There is one other matter, if I may . . ." He hesitated, "make a request?" "Certainly," Maxthane replied. "Anything I can do to help after your generous offer, I'll do." "Kubriss said you know a Fedain man named Grimfaeth, is that true?" Maxthane regarded Gobrak curiously. "I know a Grim." "They're one and the same," Gobrak confirmed. "We are looking for him. Kubriss said she last saw him fighting the fire demon. Can you confirm this?" "I'm afraid I can't," Maxthane said. "We separated as soon as we reached Pentalus. I went to my father, and he went elsewhere. But I'm sure Kubriss is not mistaken. She could probably draw you a picture, if you gave her the time." Gobrak nodded solemnly. "I'd hoped you'd have more information. But I suppose I will have to take what I can get. The hunter can't afford to give up the quail because he wanted the deer." "I suppose not," Maxthane said, "I guess we should be grateful for what we have. That reminds me, I have to apologize to someone. Hopefully it's not too late." Gobrak rose to his feet and bowed to Maxthane. "It is an honor to meet you, Maxthane thulu'Khant. I must take my leave, but I'll be sure to send you reinforcements. Be forewarned, now that you said I can send as many as I want, you might find out you have more than you can handle." "I'll take my chances," Maxthane replied. He stood with a smile and added, "safe travels, and I hope you find Grim." His eyes lit up as he remembered a detail from his conversations with Styx. "Actually, there is one piece of information I have. Someone told a friend of mine that Grim is imprisoned somewhere. That someone is dead, unfortunately, but perhaps simply knowing that may help you find him." "Thank you," Gobrak said, smiling warmly. "That could end up helping a great deal." "I hope we get the opportunity to speak again," Maxthane said warmly. "I'd like to—" his words were cut short by the thunderous sound of footsteps heading toward the room. Raised voices communicated outside the door, and the door then slammed open, a dozen soldiers filing into the room. "What is the meaning of this intrusion?" Maxthane asked as he saw Krythe arrive at the back of the group. The soldiers circled Maxthane and Gobrak, pulling out manacles for each. "You're trying to depose me?" Maxthane asked incredulously. "No," Krythe said, "Not me. There is nothing to depose." Before Maxthane could respond to the absurd statement, Krythe turned to Gobrak. "Fletcher, I have been instructed to allow you your freedom, as long as you do not make any trouble." Gobrak's stony face regarded Krythe without emotion. "I have no authority to interfere directly in the internal politics of The Shade, only to negotiate the terms of my arrangement with the King." "All your prior agreements will be honored, I'm sure," Krythe said. "You may go now." "I would like to visit Kubriss first," Gobrak replied. "I told her I would stop by before I left for the surface." "Fine, but you will go under escort," Krythe said. Gobrak nodded and moved to leave, and the soldiers parted to let him pass. Maxthane watched it all in silence, not wanting to jeopardize Gobrak's freedom. As much as he wished the Elrok could help him here, against so many men it seemed unlikely. "What is happening, Commander Krythe." "That is Captain Krythe now, Prince," Krythe replied, spitting the last word venomously. "And your authority over the soldiers of The Shade has been suspended until further notice." Maxthane's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Those loyal to me will not stand for this. You will not succeed in the coup." "It isn't a coup, Maxthane," a dreadfully familiar voice said from the doorway. Maxthane's knees shook and sweat poured from him as his father—Salidar thulu'Khant—limped into the room, his face contorted in pain and sadness. "No more coup than yours was, at any rate," Salidar said thickly. "We'll have time to sort that out. For now, I have to decide what to do with you until that happens." "You're dead . . ." Maxthane said. "I saw you die. I saw your body." "I don't know what you saw, son," Salidar replied, "but I am alive. It took me a long time to get back here, because of my injuries. Unfortunately, we have to deal with the murder of Fasha. You killed him at Sabreeza's estate. Perhaps the trauma of that day caused you to hallucinate." "But Rega saw you!" Maxthane protested. "Rega . . . where is Captain Rega." "I'm told he left under your orders to dispatch a demon nearby," Salidar replied dismissively. "When he returns, we'll get his statement. Until then, you will be confined to your rooms." "Fa . . ." Maxthane had been about to say father, when he started to piece it all together. "Fasha. You're not my father. You're Fasha!" "He has clearly been stricken with madness," Krythe said, shaking his head in false dismay. "Take him to his chambers before he can cause further damage." Maxthane reached for the tattoo that allowed him to emit flames, but before he could activate it, rough hands pulled his arms back and slapped him in manacles. He glared at his father's face, peered deep into his eyes, and knew the truth. This was Fasha wearing Salidar's face, and Maxthane would find some way to prove it. Fasha knew it too, and he nodded slightly to Maxthane, imperceptibly to anyone else. "I'll come and see you later," Fasha said in Salidar's voice. "We have much to discuss."
  11. Cynus

    Chapter 5

    I probably didn't explain this very well (If at all, actually... I'm really not sure, heh) but it's different whether we're looking at the past or looking at the present in the story. In "Clouded Purity" they were reliving memories as a sort of Virtual Reality, and could experience thoughts/emotions. When watching the present, they're simply observing, and therefore are not able to experience thoughts/emotions. I like to think of the reason they're all bumping into each other is that the world is starting to converge on Pentalus/the Everbright City/The Shade, because of what had happened there recently. But... I'm really just defending my own lazy writing. Originally, this was as much the Elrok book as it was anything else. Waaaaaaaay back when I first started this series (to refresh memories, I wrote "Shadow Honor" a long time ago, even though I only released it last year) Bradeth was one of the few characters I had already conceived of and written her introduction. I'd actually written the first few chapters of "Lonely Pride" at the time, and when I came back to the story again, I had to keep Bradeth because I adored her. I understand your position regarding Kirra's disbelief. The only reason why I'm defending it is just for the sake of clarity on why I wrote it the way I did. I appreciate the criticism, and I'll be taking it into consideration as I continue to build my worlds. Regarding teleportation: I was trying to set teleportation up as the pinnacle of magic. It's the most complex thing to accomplish using the magic system of this world. Even now, I'm thinking of strategies I could've used to sell this disbelief better (and probably could've toned the disbelief down as well) but it's extremely rare in the history of the world for someone to be able to master it. Whenever you have a feat that is possible but extremely difficult, you'll have people who disbelieve it on account of never having witnessed it. You're absolutely right, however, that Kirra shouldn't be one of these people. I don't know what I was thinking, honestly, XD
  12. Cynus

    Chapter 3

    My GA community is one of my favorites. I wouldn't want to disappoint my readers here.
  13. Cynus

    Chapter 8

    I'm happy to hear it! There's a lot more to come in this story, so I hope you continue to love it. (It's either five or six books. I'm about to start writing what I think will be the last one, so we'll see what happens. )
  14. Cynus

    Chapter 5

    "Okay, can we just pause for a moment?" Prism asked, reaching out to touch Ghayle's arm. "There's a lot for me to unpack here. I realize you're showing me all the potential Chosen currently active right now, but I need to take a breath." "Of course, Prism," Ghayle said, withdrawing her hand. "Let's take a moment to talk." Prism nodded appreciatively, then turned to the Elrok at his side. "First, Telzath, when Bradeth said you had bonded yourself to Grim, did she mean what I think she meant?" Telzath squeezed Prism's hand. "Yes, it's a form of marriage bond. I fell in love with whom I assumed was your widower at the time. Had we known you were in fact sealed in one of the pillars of Pentalus, I assure you we would've freed you first to ask your blessing." Prism considered the point for a moment. "All things considered, though the notion will take some getting used to, I understand the position everyone was in. I wasn't exactly . . . available. Plus, even if I had been, it is Fedain nature to fall in love, and to answer that love. If it weren't, I don't think Grim and I would've been together either." "Does that mean you accept me as your brother-husband?" Telzath asked hopefully. "From the little I know of you, you have already welcomed me as family, and shown great peace and tranquility," Prism answered solemnly. He broke into a sudden grin and added, "also, Grim's judgment of character has always been paramount." "If it helps, it took me three years to win him over," Telzath said with a light chuckle. It was light for an Elrok, that is, as it rumbled like a gentle landslide. Prism could feel the shaking through their linked hands. "It's not that he didn't love me, is that he didn't want to act on it, because he felt it would interfere with his mission." "Hunting the Vhor?" Telzath nodded. "He killed the second to last one saving me twenty-three years ago. He had no idea where the last one was, and I convinced him to stay with me and help my clan." "I see," Prism said thoughtfully. "But then after your death, he didn't stay?" Telzath's stony brow furrowed. "No, and I do not know exactly why he left. I have watched those memories through Ghayle time and time again, to the point where I can relive them at my will, but still I do not understand. He had not yet discovered the last Vhor in the employ of Salidar. Yet he left anyway, without any explanation to the clan." "If I had any guess at all, it would be that he simply didn't want to rule," Prism offered. "But I can't say I fully understand the problem. What is Bradeth searching for? Why does she need to find him?" "Perhaps it would be better if she explained that," Ghayle offered. "Seeing it through her eyes might offer you a greater understanding." "Very well," Prism said, "we may resume observing the others, though I do have my questions, and I would like a chance to ask them later. I want to know why Kira refuses to accept help, why Styx is locked in inaction, and why the son of Veil is snapping at everyone who cares about him." "All this is unfolding now," Ghayle said softly, "all we can do is watch, and see what they do." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Bradeth waited atop a flat roof, a small church dedicated to the worship of Neredos. Gargoyles adorned the top level of the church, their stony visages providing the best camouflage for her grey and rough skin. Entering Pentalus unnoticed had proven even simpler than she'd expected. No wall surrounded the city, and she'd moved from shrub to shrub as she approached the outskirts. From there, she'd kept to the rooftops, easily leaping across narrow streets, and crossing broader ones through the aid of her familiar. The huge cloud owl glided above her even now, completely unnoticed in a skyline normally host to giant eagles. Parril usually shied away from cities unless ordered to enter one by Bradeth, which happened rarely. If any eagles currently occupied the sky, Bradeth didn't know if she would've been able to convince Parril to enter the airspace at all. Small birds feared larger birds, after all. It was the same reason why Bradeth couldn't walk the streets of Pentalus openly. There was no specific ban of Elroks in the city, but the citizens feared them, as they had always feared them. It was due to a lack of understanding, of course. Humans especially feared that which they did not comprehend, the vast and unknown, things which differed from them. In their minds, an Elrok was no more similar to a human than any other animal was. Any Elrok would tend to agree, though for completely different reasons. Every Elrok was raised with an understanding that all life was equally connected, and that one could not hate a piece of the body without hating the whole. One could not love a piece of the body without loving the whole. Elroks generally stayed out of Pentalus for another reason. During the reign of Telzath and Grimfaeth, Neredos and his Shining Knights of the Firmament had been declared as cancer to the body. A necessary cancer, but cancer nonetheless. But that did not mean tumors would be allowed to grow. Neredos held the demons at bay, but he also divided the people against each other. It was an Elrok's mission to avoid contracting the perversions of Neredos' kingdom and bringing them back to the clans. The clans could not be allowed to fester as humanity had. Over the last seven years, however, a sickness had spread through Elrok society. Grimfaeth had abandoned a united people without word or warning. Elrok tradition demanded that as long as the ruler of the clan still lived, and had not abdicated, there could be no other ruler. Bradeth understood all of these conditions, and, for the sake of her people she would do everything in her power to change them. If this meant climbing on rooftops in Pentalus to avoid detection, she would do it. If it meant investigating the demons and the Knights who fought them, she would be a shadow on the wall until she learned all she needed to know. It hadn't taken her long to hear the townsfolk below her speak of the great battle that had erupted just a few days earlier. The huge, fiery demon had burned its memory into the minds of the citizens. The event remained fresh in their minds, and with little else to talk about, remained the most common and interesting topic of conversation. It would not remain this way forever, and already details had begun to fade, but some still spoke as if they were telling the story for the first time. Nearly all of them spoke of the valiant fight between the Knights and the demon, extolling the virtues of their champions in the sky. Many others recalled the presence of Shades in the streets, trying to face the demon. Then, in whispers of disbelief, fewer still spoke of an unusual pair who seemed to face the demon alone for a time. A human monk, and the naked pale Fedain. A Fedain who could command Elroks. It was all the detail she needed. She had found Chief Grimfaeth, or at least where he had been four days ago. She had only to determine where he had gone, and she was certain she would find him after that. She had never been this close to him before, at least, not since he had abandoned his people. It was time to bring him home. She started at the Pillar of Ibrix, but learned nothing from staring at the giant column of air. Whatever secrets it contained, she could not access. In frustration, she'd searched for some other avenue to explore. That was when a small contingent of Knights arrived and descended on a building nearby. Through stealth and cunning, she made her way to the building and waited among the gargoyles across the street. Eventually the Knights left, an older gentleman bidding them farewell from his office at the top of the stairs. Bradeth waited longer, weighing her options. She could go directly to the man's office, and question all he knew of the Pillar of Ibrix, and the role of those who fought the demon. He'd likely knew more than the average citizen, considering his dealings with the Knights. But that came with its own share of risks. She could be discovered during her interrogation, as she had no way to gauge how many people visited the man throughout the day. Someone could walk into the office at any time, and she might be forced to kill them to protect her secrecy. She had no taste for senseless killing and wanted to avoid it. Instead, she believed the best choice was to wait until the man left, and to abduct him. If she spoke to him in private, she was certain she could intimidate him into silence once she was done and still learn all that she wanted. This would probably involve violence, but at least she wouldn't have to kill anyone. And so she waited, and waited longer, hours passing until there was some change, but it was completely unexpected. A lone Knight staggered down the street toward the office of the older gentleman. She didn't recognize him from the group of Knights who had visited the man before, though she hadn't gotten a good look at all of them. Unlike the others, this Knight did not have an eagle, and appeared a little worse for wear. The Knight disappeared into the old man's office but was only inside for a matter of minutes before both exited the building. The old man walked down the street, but the Knight move toward an alleyway instead. Bradeth amended her plan to follow the old man, her instincts drawing her toward the young Knight instead. She extended her will to Parril, instructing the owl to deliver the roll of leather it carried in its talons to the roof above the Knight. She then pulled a nearly identical roll of leather from her pack and spread it across the rooftop next to her. She stared at the circle of symbols that were impressed and dyed into the leather. These primal runes shared much in common with the ones the Gor used in their magics, though these were far more ancient. Calming her mind as quickly as possible, Bradeth waited for Parril to land and spread the leather across the roof. As soon as the leather was set, Bradeth brought all her will to bear. This was amongst the most difficult magics she knew of, and not only was it difficult to perform, but it could go drastically wrong if her concentration wavered at all. She connected herself fully to her familiar's senses, feeling the exact state of the air and terrain around the opposite piece of leather. But with the full strength of her will, Bradeth concentrated on being surrounded by that air and terrain, while simultaneously connecting herself to the circle of runes beneath her. She sank into the leather, and reemerged on its companion piece across the road, Parril flapping its welcome to her. Bradeth wasted no time in picking up the piece of leather, rolling it up, and sliding it back to her pack before ordering Parril back across the street to retrieve the other piece. Only then did she glance down the side of the building toward the Knight below her. Her eyes focused with determination, Bradeth clung to the edge of the roof and hopped over the side, perching with her feet against the building for a moment. She paused for breath, and then leaned into the side of the building to slow her fall just slightly as she let go. Landing directly behind the Knight, she immediately reached out to clap a hand over his mouth, while her other arm restrained his sword hand. She pulled him back into the shadows at the back of the alley. Only then did she speak in the common human tongue of the region, "I will only say this once, Knight of the Firmament. Do not speak, do not alert anyone to my presence, and I will not harm you. Nod if you understand." The Knight nodded, and Bradeth released him. As he spun away from her, she took note of the slight points on his ears. This young man had Gor heritage, and the violet eyes confirmed it. "What is your name, Knight?" Bradeth asked. "Kirra," the Knight replied, "what is yours, Elrok? And why did you attack me?" Bradeth snorted. "My name is unimportant to the likes of you, and the attack was only temporary, and as promised, no harm has come to you. Now, you will tell me what you know." "I will tell you nothing until you give me some information," Kirra replied defiantly. "I've already agreed to your conditions, and I will not alert anyone to your presence. You want information, you must give some in exchange. I do not make a habit of giving out information to people who assault me in alleys." Bradeth gave him a hard look. But after a moment, she nodded. "My name is Bradeth, of the Lion Clan, and I'm seeking information regarding the recent demon attack." Kirra raised an eyebrow at this. "And what makes you think I know something about that?" "You are wearing the clothing of a Knight of the Firmament. I already know the demons fought with the Knights, and you are alone," Bradeth replied, "this last part has little to do with whether or not you know anything, but it did make you convenient." "I suppose it does make sense," Kirra said, "but why do you want to know anything about it? The only Elroks I've ever seen were in league with Salidar thulu'Khant, and I see little reason to trust you." Bradeth barked a laugh. "You know anything about my people?" Kirra shook his head and Bradeth continued, "you see this bow I carry? You see the tattoo engraved into my arm? These mark me as a Fletcher, the highest distinction an Elrok warrior can aspire to. We send our young to Salidar in order to gain experience; we do not sacrifice our best warriors to his service. I have never met the man, though I hear he died during the battle." Kirra stared at her blankly. "The only way you would know that is if you have affiliation to The Shade. No one on the streets would've told you that, if they even knew. But, you're in luck, where I'm concerned, having ties to The Shade makes me more inclined to trust you." It was Bradeth's turn to look surprised. "What a strange thing for a Knight of the Firmament to say. Well then, Kirra, would you give me the information I seek?" "I'm willing to hear you out, but I can't guarantee anything. It depends on exactly what you ask," Kirra said with a shrug. "I was there, but I didn't see all of it." "Do you know what happened at the Pillar of the Ibrix?" Kirra shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't know much, though I did hear some of your people were involved. Is that why you wanted to ask? If so, I'm told there are still some survivors in The Shade who might be able to tell you more." "I am not looking for them, and I already have an associate who was meeting with those survivors," Bradeth replied solemnly. "I'm looking for a man named Grimfaeth. A Fedain." Kirra's eyes widened. "I've heard of him, but not quite by that name. To my friend, he is known as Grim, which I assume is a shortened version of his name. I say assume, since I doubt there are two Fedain around here with similar names." "Around here?" Bradeth echoed, leaning forward eagerly, "you know where he is?" Kirra raised his hands to stop her, taking a step back and eyeing her warily, mistaking her eagerness for threat. "Calm down, he's a friend of my friend, and I won't have you going after him if you intend to cause him harm." Bradeth glared at him. "Why in all the nine sacred mountains would I ever bring harm to the Chief of Lions?" "I have no idea what you're talking about," Kirra said, "I simply wish to know why you want to find him." "That is none of your concern," Bradeth said, her eyes narrowing. "It is an internal Elrok matter, but I swear to you I mean no harm to him." Kirra paused, considering her words before responding, "My commander fought alongside him. Or, at least that's what makes sense from what I know. I was told that she fought the demon with a Fedain, and you're looking for a Fedain associated with the same demon. If we find her, perhaps she can tell you what happened." "Or perhaps we could go see your friend," Bradeth suggested, "unless your friend and your commander are one and the same." Kirra shook his head. "My friend doesn't know where Grim is. Our mutual associate, Prism, told Styx— that would be my friend's name, by the way—that Grim needed to be freed from somewhere, but he didn't say where. That's all I know, but my commander may know more." Bradeth growled and punched the wall in frustration. Her fist indented the clay bricks slightly. "Imprisoned?" She scoffed, growling heavily. "That means he's not even moving and still he escapes me. How can one man be so elusive that even the greatest hunters in the world can't catch him?" Kirra raised an eyebrow but said nothing. "Very well, Kirra," Bradeth said after a moment, "take me to your commander. If that means I have to go to the Everbright City, then so be it." "She's not there," Kirra replied. "She's at Port Salmus. I'm trying to find transportation there myself, as my eagle was slain during the attack." Bradeth caught hint of the emotion in Kirra's voice and regarded him curiously. "This eagle was your companion?" "Yes," Kirra said darkly, "slain by the same demon my commander now hunts." "Peace be to you, and may the stones know your sorrow," Bradeth said solemnly. "I can get you to Port Salmus as fast as any eagle could. If you help me find Grimfaeth, I will help you avenge your companion's death." "You can get me there?" Kirra asked incredulously. "How?" "The same way I sneaked up on you," Bradeth replied with a grin. "You'd think a Gor like you would understand the capabilities of magic." Kirra didn't hesitate, feeling a sudden liking for the stone-faced woman. "If you get me to my commander, I will help you find Grim." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Kirra found Bradeth waiting for him at the edge of Pentalus. They'd agreed to rendezvous there, since Kirra didn't feel like taking to the rooftops, and Bradeth didn't want to walk the streets. He had spent a little extra time to leave a note for Mister Swallow, to inform the old clerk that he'd found another way to meet up with Alsha. Bradeth walked out from behind a bush as soon as Kirra came into view, though Kirra heard her first. He doubted he'd have been able to, had she been trying to conceal her movements. This was another way that she earned his trust, though it was not the most important. He rested his hand casually on the hilt of his sword as he said to Bradeth, "Are you still sure about this?" Bradeth nodded, but it was not her response Kirra waited for. The sword spoke to his mind, a reassurance that he was on the right path. Yes, she is whom she says she is. The markings of an Elrok Fletcher are unmistakable to those who know them. We can trust her, I promise. "Then lead the way, I guess," Kirra said, dropping his hand from the sword. The sword had told him to trust Bradeth in the alleyway as well, otherwise he would not have given up any information nearly as easily as he had. He trusted the sword's opinion in most cases, as she was ancient in her own right. "First, we go into the hills," Bradeth said. "My owl, Parril will fly to Port Salmus." "How does walking away from our destination and sending someone else get us there?" Kirra asked. "I will explain," Bradeth said. She pointed in the distance to a small shape flying toward the horizon. "I've already sent Parril, and he'll arrive within the day, I bet. We'll arrive as soon as he does." "That doesn't make any sense," Kirra protested. Bradeth growled at him. "You have no patience. I see your human heritage outweighs your Gor heritage significantly." Kirra bristled at the comment. "It does, actually," he replied icily, "and I'm proud of both. There's barely any traces of Gor left in me, just enough for a few traits to show through. You have to go back centuries to find a full-blooded Gor ancestor of mine, though my ancestors seemed to attract plenty of mixed bloods, and I'm proud of all of them. Are you going to sit there and insult my heritage, or are you going to tell me what I want to know?" Bradeth harrumphed and started in the direction that she indicated, waving for him to follow. "I will explain as we go, at least as well as I can until we get there. "What do you know of Elrok magic?" "Nothing," Kirra replied. "I didn't even know the Elroks used magic. I thought in this age only the Gor did. Well, the Gor and the Gor-trained, anyway." "Typical Gor arrogance," Bradeth said with a snort. "I guess that must be one of those traits you held onto . . ." She added dryly, giving him a sidelong glance. "Don't mistake ignorance for arrogance," Kirra said glaring at her sternly. "I was raised among humans. I was educated by them, and I only know as much as they told me and as much as I've experienced since. The Gor stay away from Pentalus and the Everbright City, as do the Elroks. I've had little opportunity to learn about either." Bradeth sighed and nodded, "I suppose I wasn't being fair to you, and if we're to work together, I will have to respect your world and accept you for who you are." "Apology accepted," Kirra said neutrally. "The Elroks and the Gor learned magic from the same source, many thousands of years ago," Bradeth said, her tone becoming almost academic. "The Sendar taught both races how to see the energies behind the world, though both cultures took to it in a different way. Elrok magic is mostly about harmony, while Gor magic is about control and transference. I don't mean to sound judgmental, Gor magic works well enough, but I would rather harmonize with the forces of the universe than attempt to control them." "While I love learning new things," Kirra said, "I'd rather know the specifics of what we're going to do, than worry about the full history of magic. I'd love to listen to it afterward, however." "Human impatience, once again," Bradeth said, shaking her head ruefully. "What we're going to do is teleport to Port Salmus." "Teleport!" Kirra said, laughing. The absurdity of the idea stopped him in his tracks. When Bradeth turned toward him, he was staring at her like she was mad. "Teleportation is a fire tale, something used to inspire imagination in gullible children, and nothing more. If people could teleport, it would change everything. Assassinations, adultery, burglary . . . People would use it all the time in nefarious ways." "You speak as if it is easy," Bradeth growled. "I assure you, it isn't, but it is very much real. I am one of only four known to be capable of doing it, and three of us are Elroks. There is a single Gor hermit who is able to teleport within the bounds of the forest he guards over by using the root system, but that is not the method I use." "So, you're telling me, on top of being one of your clan's greatest warriors, you are also a wizard?" Kirra shook his head. "No one is so accomplished as that." "Do you not believe in the great accomplishments of your own King Neredos?" Bradeth asked. "Was he not a great Knight, an artist, an engineer, and the most powerful human wizard to ever live? I, for the record, never made a claim to be a wizard, only that I can teleport, and that teleportation is rare." "So, you put yourself on the same level as Neredos?" Kirra scoffed, completely missing the latter part of her statement and staring at her in disgust. "That's quite a leap." "No, I only wish to point out to you that great accomplishments are achievable," Bradeth said. She considered him for a moment, and then said thoughtfully, "You know what? Maybe it's better if I just do this alone. What was the name of your commander again?" Kirra glowered at her. "Fine, I'm willing to entertain the possibility that teleportation can get us to Port Salmus. How does it work?" "As I was saying before," Bradeth said after a moment, "Elrok magic is based on a theory of harmony. Which means, the more alike or connected things are, the easier it is to establish a flow of energy." She reached behind her and moved the flap of her pack to reveal the roll of leather. "This piece of leather came from a Hujam. Are you familiar with the animal?" "No, it doesn't sound familiar it all." "They are very large, similar to elephants, but hairy and they live on the high plateaus of the Braeg," Bradeth explained. "I hunted this one for twelve days, learning everything about her. I could've killed her on the second day, but I was hunting her for a specific purpose—to make this." She tapped of the piece of leather and then let the flap fall back into place. "There is an identical one carried by my owl, made from the exact same hide. To understand the leather, you must understand the beast it came from. For those twelve days of hunting, I observed her constantly, barely sleeping, barely eating. I learned her patterns, what she preferred to eat, what she looked for in a mate . . . I could tell you which way she would twitch based upon the way the wind blew around her . . ." She paused, her eyes lowered for just a moment. "When I killed her, it was the most painful thing I had ever done in my life, because she was a part of me." "I'm sorry," Kirra said, and meant it. He could feel her sorrow, and it stirred feelings for Saiyo up within him. He had known his eagle to a similar extent. "I accepted the responsibility of the kill, knowing it was the only way to achieve what I sought," Bradeth went on. "After I killed her, I skinned her, ate her flesh, and tanned her hide myself, getting to know her insides as well as I had known her outsides. This probably sounds gruesome or morbid to your human sensibilities, but you must understand, this is a rite of passage to become a Fletcher. To know a beast intimately, and to slay it. Though not all Fletchers then desecrate the memory of those beasts as I have." Bradeth went silent, and Kirra thought she was waiting for him to speak, so he asked the most neutral thing he could think of, "What do you mean?" "I mixed some of her blood with some of mine," she pointed to the tattoo of a lion on her shoulder. "It was first used to create my Fletcher mark, marking my distinction as a warrior of my tribe. But, I also asked the shamans to connect me to her hide as well. On both pieces of leather is a symbol which connects my essence to hers. I am as much in this piece of leather as I am myself." "So how does that give you the ability to teleport?" Kirra asked. Bradeth gave him a dark look and he hastily apologized, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to sound insensitive, I'm just curious." "It is a two-part process," Bradeth said. "First, I must believe with all my heart that one piece of leather is the same as the other. I stand in the center of the rune circle and focus, connecting fully to the piece beneath me. Then, I draw on the senses of my familiar, which connects me to the companion piece of leather. I and my familiar are one, the two pieces of leather are one, I and the leather are one. All of these things must be firmly true in my mind in order to transfer all of my energy across time and space to emerge out the other side." Kirra nodded. From the descriptions of magic he had heard in the past, it seemed to follow the proper pattern. Even though he remained skeptical that it actually worked. Especially since one thing still did not make sense. "But how do you intend to take me along?" Bradeth chuckled. "Oh, this won't be the first time I've taken someone along with me, don't worry. It's difficult, and it doesn't always work, but the concept is simple enough. All I have to do, is make you a part of me as well." "How do we do that?" Kirra asked, raising an anxious eyebrow. "I don't have to firmly believe this, do I?" Bradeth shook her head. "No, just be yourself, and we'll make it in one piece. You should be honored, Kirra, you're the first human or Gor I've ever taken with me." "Why does that not put me at ease?" Kirra said, smiling, despite his comment. "Well, you sound like you don't think I'm quite as crazy anymore, at least," Bradeth said, eyeing him curiously. "I think I'm starting to like you." Kirra rolled his eyes. "Well, you better if you're supposed to make me part of you. Can't have you hating yourself on account of me." They shared a low chuckle and then focused on their journey. Before long, they arrived at the boulders that marked the entrance into The Shade where Bradeth had parted ways with Gobrak. Kirra eyed the cave mouth and felt a slight longing for Styx, though he pushed it away and focused on the Elrok next to him. Bradeth found an appropriately clear spot of ground nearby and removed her pack. Kirra expected her to take out a piece of leather, but instead she drew out a small shovel and handed it to him. "What's this for?" He asked as he took it. "I intend to bury the leather, and then stand over it," Bradeth explained, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Trust me, compared to teleportation, moving through a few inches of dirt magically is simple. I have done this before, and I need to prevent the leather from being tampered with while we're away." "Aren't you worried it'll be damaged by the dirt and rocks?" Kirra asked. Bradeth stared at him in disbelief. "As opposed to being worried it'll be damaged by the rain and wind by leaving it on the surface?" She replied. "No, I'm not worried. If you think I would go through all this trouble to make something that could be damaged so easily, you must be an idiot. It is magically preserved to prevent that sort of damage." Grudgingly accepting that point, Kirra began to dig. Within the space of an hour, they had dug a hole deep and wide enough to accommodate the leather. They worked without speaking, and Kirra found it surprisingly pleasant work. Bradeth was a professional, and for all her rough edges, he found himself quickly growing fond of her. They buried the leather in the loose dirt, and Bradeth set to marking it with a series of stones. They formed a symbol Kirra didn't recognize. "Why are you doing that?" He asked after a moment. "It's so I can find it in the event that I don't simply teleport back to it," Bradeth explained. "Plus, this is the Elrok symbol for Hujam. If I need to tell someone else to find it, I can describe the location easily." Nodding, Kirra moved to recline against a boulder while he waited for her to finish. Once done, Bradeth took the shovel and return it to her pack, then assumed a sitting position on another boulder. After a few minutes, Kirra couldn't take the silence anymore. "What now?" He asked. Bradeth gave him a barely patient look. "We wait. Parril has not yet arrived at the city. Do you really want to make more light conversation?" Kirra shrugged. "I'm not opposed to it." Bradeth pursed her lips thoughtfully, then shrugged as well. "Very well then, tell me, how did a Knight of the Firmament come to trust The Shade so much?" With a wide grin, Kirra replied, "It all started with a boy named Styx . . ."
  15. Cynus

    Chapter 4

    I like your theories on what would've happened with Salidar. He and Maxthane certainly have different styles, and ways of going about things. Of course, Salidar also expected to live a lot longer. He had a lot more to teach his son, and perhaps, despite Salidar's more morally ambiguous approach to life, some of that edginess would have helped Maxthane deal with these things easier. What Geoffrey said is correct about Kubriss as well. :-) Styx facing another demon certainly will have its surprises. Maxthane does have a lot of surprises in store as well, and hopefully seeing him resolve the issues with Krythe will be as enjoyable when read as it was to write. Good catch on Kubriss.
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