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.
"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."
"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.
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