If someone had told me in my childhood which path my life would take, I would've never believed them. My reaction would've changed depending on when I was told, for I would've been more receptive to some aspects at one point than I was at another. I believe it is that way with all things. We can only receive the truths we are ready to receive.
If you had told me before the age of ten that I was destined to fight demons, it would've filled me with excitement. I was not a cautious child, despite how I became in my adolescence. I was filled with curiosity about the ancient legends, and the Gor blood in my veins made the thought of magic enticing. But still I would've believed it fiction; for I did not believe in demons, despite the pillars beneath the city I called home.
If I had been told after my parents had died, I would've known that demons existed. Fighting them, however, felt impossible to me then. I lived in the home of a man so evil, who performed such horrific and vile acts against me, that he made the demons of legend seem almost harmless. I was a captive to his whims, made to sacrifice my body to whatever desire he had needed to fulfill. I could not fight him, no matter how much I desired to remove myself from that situation.
When I found my home with the Knights, it was not much better. I found demons there too, wearing masks of those who were supposed to be my comrades in arms. They must've sensed something in me, like the tingling in my ears when I encounter magic; they knew I was a victim, and that made me easy prey.
But, eventually, I discovered that my path to defeating demons did not have to be limited by my past enslavement. Alsha believed in me when I could not believe in myself. Styx loved me when I could not love myself. Bradeth forced me to move when stillness meant my death, then taught me that stillness could be used as a weapon to defeat demons, with proper planning.
There are as many ways to approach problems, as there are problems. Whatever path you wish to follow, or the obstacles that lie in your way, they are surmountable. There is power in the legends of demon slayers; no matter how powerful the demon, it cannot defeat a hero with the will to defeat it.
I cannot change the outcome of my childhood, nor do I wish to. I may not have become the person I am today, were it not for the paths I walked to arrive here. By that witness, I empower all who hear these words—demons exist, but they can be beaten.
Styx resumed his human form, allowing the shifting nature of his bones to redistribute the fractures he had suffered at the hands of the Aika. He would be in pain for days, if not weeks or even months, but he was better off than most on the battlefield. Many were dead… many more would likely die, long before the few Fedain would be able to reach them. Others, including several of his closest friends, were grievously injured, but hopefully they would pull through.
Kirra was alive, though he was much the worse for wear. There'd been many times in the last few days that he had been battered and broken, but this was one of the worst. His leg was broken in several places, several ribs had fractured as well, and he bore a long gash across his left arm. Styx had already bandaged this with some tattered cloth he had found nearby, and hopefully it would be enough for him to pull through.
He was conscious, but only slightly coherent, which was more than could be said for Alsha. She had suffered a tremendous blow to the head, and the Aika had rolled on top of her, crushing her in ways she would be lucky to survive. Madame Godani was seeing to Alsha as well as she could, but the prognosis was not good. Still, the Knight had survived significant injuries in the past, and Styx had faith that she would be able to pull through.
Hount was standing, but he was bleeding from a dozen places. Each one had already been bandaged, and he had a full crew of soldiers checking him for more injuries to make sure they'd caught them all. He kept swearing at Alsha for some reason, muttering to himself about how she'd 'better not die before he had the chance to set the record straight with her'.
Bradeth was one of the few who had come through the battle relatively unscathed, though there was a hardness in her eyes that spoke of how close she had come to death. Styx had heard a rumor that Gobrak was dead, but he knew this was not yet the time to mourn, even though he was certain that Gobrak had saved him from death earlier in the battle. Bradeth surely felt the weight of Gobrak's death more than any other, and it showed in every glare she turned on the dead demons laying throughout the city.
"Have you…" Kirra began, clutching at Styx's arm. He wheezed, speaking clearly painful for him. "Have you seen Maxthane?"
Styx shook his head. "Not yet, and I lost the communicator when the demon struck me. Until we get a report from somewhere closer to him, we won't know for sure if he made it."
"Krythe…" Kirra said, but this time Styx gently placed a hand on Kirra's shoulder to stop him.
"I understand. Many good soldiers died today," Styx said. "But the battle is over, and their sacrifice will not be forgotten. You should rest and try to conserve your strength until we can have someone look you over."
Styx caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and saw that Madame Godani was approaching him. "How is she doing?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," Madame Godani replied. "She may make it, she may not. I would feel much better about giving you an answer if any of those Fedain made it over here, or even if there's someone practiced in Gor medicine who could help us."
"It was a fierce battle," Styx said.
"And you saw most of it," Madame Godani observed with a slight smile. "Regardless of everything which may come of it, I am proud of you for what you did. And it was wonderful to see you fly."
Styx nodded once in appreciation, then blushed. "It was impressive what you did to the demon. I haven't seen you jump like that in years."
"The perks and pitfalls of being a guild master," Madame Godani said with a chuckle. "You don't have to use your gifts. I wish I had kept them sharper than I did."
"Have you seen Mother?" Styx asked.
Madame Godani shook her head. "The last time I saw my sister, she was helping with the wounded. That was near the beginning of the battle, I think. It's hard to remember after so much happened in such a short time."
Styx opened his mouth to respond, but noticed a man staring at them from the distance. He squinted in the bright light of day, still not used to full daylight. Was it Master Kimbler? It was, Styx realized, and he was coming their way.
"Perhaps we are about to get news of some things. One of the scouts is coming towards us," Styx said, pointing towards Kimbler.
They waited until he came within speaking range, but he greeted them before they said anything. "Hello! How do you lot fare? I saw you defeat the demon; it was impressive work."
"Impressive or not, we have lots of wounded," Styx said. "Are any of the healers or medics about?"
Kimbler sighed and turned back the way he had come, as if searching for some landmark. "The last I saw one of the Fedain, he was working his way through the northern ranks. They're only healing the worst injuries, trying to save as many as they can. I'm sure King Maxthane will be headed your way shortly, however. They say he's weak, but conscious and able to move around."
The news relieved Styx more than he thought possible. At least one more of his friends had survived without grievous injury. It was something to hold onto in the sea of uncertainty that followed the battle.
"If it's all right with you, I'd like to have a brief conversation with that injured friend of yours," Kimbler said, nodding to Kirra.
Styx shook his head. "He's not able to say much right now; it'd be better if you left him alone."
"If it's all right, he only needs to listen," Kimbler said. "We met a short while ago in a tavern where he threatened my life, and I simply wish to thank him for taking an interest in the plight of the Pentalus citizenry. Things could've been a lot worse without it."
Kirra reached up and took Styx's hand. Styx look down to see Kirra nodding, and Styx sighed in resignation. He turned back to Kimbler and said, "Very well. If it's all right with him, I suppose I can't stop you."
"I'd like to have a private word with him," Kimbler said, "if you don't mind."
Styx hesitated, but Kirra shooed him away. Grumbling, Styx stepped aside to Madame Godani, wondering what the fuss was all about.
Tagren knelt next to Kirra's broken and battered body, taking the hand of his uninjured arm and holding it. This battlefield was littered with young men and women too injured to move, but few held personal significance for Tagren. He remembered his first encounter with Kirra fondly, despite how Tagren had handled himself that day.
Wearing the name of Kimbler, Tagren's work with the Pentalus Resistance had gained considerable traction. When Kirra and Alsha had investigated the disappearance of one of the pillars—a pillar that Salidar had opened to free the demon within— they had been short on witnesses. Tagren had not intended to be interrogated that day, and indeed had nearly told them nothing. But they had been insistent, and Tagren had been compelled to play the part of Kimbler as naturally as possible. That had meant capitulating to the Knights demands, and giving them information, which had nearly destroyed everything he had worked to build.
Of course, he'd also been gambling that the Knights of the Firmament would ignore the information he provided. Kirra and Alsha had surprised him, and investigated his claims of an intricate conspiracy. He hadn't given them enough credit, and both had won his respect as a result.
Had he known that giving them that information would lead to Prism's salvation and the subsequent disruption of Salidar's plan, he never would've given it. But it had all worked out anyway, for now he stood at the end of the Trial, with the demons gone and the world ready to rebuild.
But there was one more loose end to tie up. It pertained to a certain sword, which had unsettled Tagren when he'd first seen it strapped to Kirra's waist. The sword forged by Ibrix, at the top of a mountain where Ghayle had sacrificed herself to bring about the Trial.
"I don't know if you remember when we first met," Tagren said quietly, meeting Kirra's eyes. "But you were much less reckless then. Here you are, a man in every sense of the word, and no longer the timid boy trying to impress his commander."
Kirra opened his mouth, but Tagren stalled him with an upraised hand. "Please, there's no need to speak. You just have to listen; there's something very important I have to tell you. I can tell from how you're holding yourself that, you're likely to survive the day. I know battle wounds better than most, and you'll pull through. That is something important, but not the most important thing to say. I hope you'll bear with me, as I don't have a lot of time."
Kirra nodded slightly, a curious glint in his eyes. Tagren smiled and continued. "First, I want you to put your hand on that sword of yours. Remember the strength she gave you at the times you needed it most."
Tagren reached for Kirra's sword, smiling as he felt the familiar presence inside. He slid it into Kirra's grasp and nodded forcefully, his words starting to form a lump in his throat. "What I'm telling you may seem confusing, and that's quite all right. You'll understand when death eventually comes knocking at your door and you answer its call. I believe there is a bright future in store for you, Knight."
Kirra shook his head, his mouth forming a question that never left his tongue, for Tagren put a hand to his lips to silence him. "No, there is no need to speak, as I said. You have done your duty, and she has done hers. Do not forget to say goodbye. This is the last you will ever see of me. I do not know if this will make sense to you or not, but you have a bit of Gor blood in you, so perhaps you know the language. I am the last of the Vhor to walk the surface of this world, and soon I will be dead."
Kirra's eyes widened with shock, his mouth opening once again. "Styx!" He shouted hoarsely, but the words quickly devolved into a coughing fit. Styx heard the shout and looked over with concern, but if he'd understood his name being called, he didn't show it.
Tagren took the opportunity to say one more thing before leaving. "Build a better world, Kirra Elrhanadan. You have a brilliant legacy to fulfill, and countless generations to pass it on to. May your legacy live another thousand years."
With that, Tagren stepped away from Kirra and walked back into the battlefield. He had one more destination in mind and hoped he would arrive in time to see the spectacle. While Kirra's coughing fit distracted Styx and the others, Tagren collapsed to the ground and shifted form to that of a burrowing rodent, then skittered toward the great entrance to the Shade.
Maxthane moved slowly through the ruined city, his body still weak, though less compromised than it was before. The Fedain who had greeted him upon waking had told him he was very lucky, then glared at the Shade standing guard beside Maxthane's bed.
That same guard accompanied Maxthane now, and had informed the King that Kirra had ordered Maxthane be healed at all costs. Maxthane would have to have a word with Kirra about that, once they found each other again. The Fedain's time should've been spent healing the soldiers fighting the battle, not ensuring Maxthane's survival.
Nevertheless, Maxthane was glad he had survived the battle. Better yet, the battle was over, and the demons appeared to be destroyed. There was still a matter of the charge that Grim had left with him, Styx, and Kirra. Somewhere, there was a Vhor who remained to be found. With all other demons dead, perhaps it wouldn't be an issue, but that hardly put Maxthane's mind at ease.
It took him a moment to realize the pained grunting he was hearing wasn't coming from him. He was groaning so much that it seemed to drown out everything else around him. Glancing to the side, he noticed that Nal Maya seemed to be breathing heavily. The elderly woman was too old to be picking her way through such terrain, even at the slow pace Maxthane had set. She, too, had chosen to accompany him in his search for the others, and he hadn't the heart to refuse her.
"Are you going to be all right?" Maxthane asked.
Nal Maya grunted. "Yes, and there's no reason for you to keep asking that. There's business to attend to, now that the battle is won, and a score to settle with that Hount fellow."
"Shouldn't your daughter be handling that?" Maxthane said. "You should really sit down and rest."
"And you should really mind your own business, Maxthane thulu'Khant," Nal Maya snapped. The way she said his last name made it sound like a curse. "I don't even know if my daughter is alive, thanks to this battle. Who knows where she got off to, or what she's doing? If Kimbler hadn't disappeared, I could ask him, but…" She shook her head. "It's none of your business, and I don't need your advice or help."
Maxthane sighed and decided to drop the matter. There wasn't much he could do if Nal Maya continued to be stubborn. He understood, to some extent, the intensity of her disdain. Not only was he the son of the two people who had ruined her life, but they were walking through the city she had claimed as her home for nearly two decades, which now lay in complete ruin. That the demons were gone seem to mean little to her, for everything that she cared about had gone with them.
"The scout said we would find Styx in this direction, and Hount as well, for that matter," Maxthane said. He peered into the distance and saw the group surrounding the Goden's body. "In fact, I think that might be them there."
"Then let's get on with it," Nal Maya said gruffly, and then moved past him to lead the way. Maxthane followed silently, after sharing a bewildered look with his escort.
As he neared the group, Styx was the first to notice them, or at least acknowledge noticing them. "Mother! Max! You're both all right!" he shouted, rushing forward to meet them. It didn't take long to realize that Styx was in the best condition of everyone present, except perhaps Bradeth, who poked around the rubble as if looking for survivors.
Nal Maya and Maxthane embraced Styx in turn, but the former noticed Hount and excused herself immediately. She marched toward him, leaving her son and Maxthane in the dust.
"With her attitude, you'd think we lost today," Maxthane said with a sigh. "How is Kirra doing?"
"He'll live, but it's going to be a long road to recovery unless he gets some healing," Styx replied. "He told me that you were on the brink of death yourself."
"Kirra made sure the Fedain took care of me," Maxthane replied. "I'm quite weak, but I'll see if there's anything I can do to help him when I get a chance."
"I'm sure he'd prefer if you check on Alsha first," Styx said.
Maxthane looked around, and only then did he notice Madame Godani hunched over Alsha's broken form. "I'll do that now, then I'm going to go help Hount. Your mother isn't happy, and I'm sure Hount could use some interference."
Styx embraced Maxthane again and said, "I'm just glad you're alive. I'll be with Kirra, once you're done."
Forcing a smile, Maxthane placed his hand on Styx's shoulder to give him what reassurance he could, then moved to Alsha's side. Madame Godani acknowledged Maxthane with a polite bow of her head, but otherwise kept her hands working on the bandages she had set against Alsha's wounds.
"She hasn't woken up since being trampled," Madame Godani said. "I'm not sure if she's going to make it."
"Let me take a look," Maxthane said, kneeling next to her. He placed his hand against Alsha's wrist, and then delved into her body with his energies, simply trying to understand the damage. She appeared stable, but that could change at a moment's notice considering the state of her head wound.
"I think about the best I could manage at this point is to reduce the swelling in her skull," Maxthane said. "It's not much, but it should help her recovery."
After giving Alsha what energy he could spare, Maxthane rose again on shaky legs. He would not be able to offer healing to anyone else, except at great risk to himself. As much as he hated to admit it, he was King now, and he couldn't be keeling over now that the battle was over. He needed to stay as strong as he could to organize the cleanup process.
And that began with figuring out what would happen to these armies. He glanced toward Hount, who had one hand over his eyes as if begging the sun to stop shining, while the other was raised toward Nal Maya who was shouting at him. "I'm not looking forward to this," Maxthane said with a groan.
"Would you like me to attend you, my King?" Madame Godani asked.
Maxthane shook his head. "No, stay with Alsha. Let me know if her condition appears to change. I'll see if there's anything more I can do for her if she starts slipping away." Madame Godani nodded, and Maxthane stepped away.
As he neared Hount, Bradeth stepped in next to him and said, "Fletcher Gobrak is dead. I know you thought highly of him, and I wanted you to know."
Maxthane paused, closing his eyes and breathing in deeply. "That is unfortunate news indeed," he said after a moment. "Is there any way I can assist in his burial rites?" he asked. "I'm afraid I am unfamiliar with your customs in that regard, but if there is anything I can do as an outsider, I would like to participate."
"If you have a place to preserve his body," Bradeth said, "I would prefer to perform his rites when the rest of the clans arrive. I intend to treat him as my personal Fletcher, and allow all my people to mourn with me."
Maxthane bowed his head in respect and said, "I know a few magical preservation techniques, if that will help. But there is certainly a place in the Shade where we can keep him until then."
Bradeth nodded in thanks and said, "I assume you are meeting with Lord Hount to discuss what happens next. I intend to join you on that discussion. The result of this battle has meaning for all of us, the whole world over."
"Of course," Maxthane said. "I wouldn't think of excluding you from any diplomatic meetings. I am just making sure Nal Maya doesn't make the situation worse before we have those meetings."
They could already hear Nal Maya's angry ranting, and as they neared her and Hount, it only seemed to grow worse. Hount appeared to be reaching his breaking point, and as Maxthane and Bradeth came within normal speaking distance, he suddenly dropped his hand and snapped at Nal Maya. "All right, you witch of a woman! You can have your ruined city. What use would it be to me now? Keep your graveyard, your piles of rubble… I am so tired of fighting over piles of stones."
Nal Maya paused, staring at Hount open-mouthed, her rant frozen on her tongue. "Good," she said after a moment. "It's settled then."
"Do you intend to rebuild Pentalus then?" Maxthane asked.
"We will rebuild our city, and it will be better than before," Nal Maya replied. "A free city, with no kings or lords to rule over us."
"And are you willing to trade with Kings and Lords?" Maxthane asked. Nal Maya glared at him, and he quickly raised his hand to stall her protest. "I apologize, that was disrespectful of me to a fellow leader. I have no wish to usurp your authority, or to extend the will of the Shade into Pentalus. I only want freedom for my own people; that we may move to the surface without fear of harassment on account of our origin. I wish to establish peaceful relations. This world has seen enough war."
"My people wish for the same," Bradeth offered, "for what it's worth. And we will help you clear the rubble from your city, and aid in rebuilding it as well, if you wish for our help."
The venom drained from Nal Maya's expression, and she nodded resolutely. "I am open to potential agreements, and any aid would be appreciated, as long as it does not come with any strings attached."
"While clearing the ruins may seem a tedious task for a human, it will be a relatively simple thing for my people," Bradeth replied. "The only hope we have in offering this service is that you will not make the same mistake as Neredos and his ilk."
"I must admit, I'm a bit surprised you're willing to give up Pentalus so easily, Lord Hount," Maxthane said.
Hount sighed and let his gaze sweep across the surrounding area. "I see nothing here to claim. We planned to steal the Everbright City and establish a new order in it and Pentalus. Our goal was to remove Neredos from power, and build a new world to replace the constrictive one he had constructed. Neredos is no more; both cities are gone… Rebuilding here might be symbolic for some, but I'd rather leave it in ruin if it were up to me. Our task is done, and my people are free. I couldn't ask for anything else."
"Aren't you worried that the Knights of the Firmament will take revenge?" Bradeth asked. "From my understanding, there was an evacuation of the top officials before your siege began."
Hount chuckled. "Perhaps if Alsha makes it through, I'll have something to worry about. We found the supposedly secure location where the officials were evacuated to and captured everyone there. We executed the entire leadership yesterday."
"As you once threatened to do to Alsha and her officers," Maxthane said, his eyes narrowing.
"I assure you, I mean Alsha no harm now," Hount replied. "We've done enough killing for a century, I think. I, too, wish for a peaceful resolution. My people will have to be satisfied with the deaths of Isean and Grembal, and all the other High Inquisitors. I won't kill a woman who saved my life."
"Grembal is dead?" Maxthane asked with surprise.
"Was he a friend of yours?" Hount asked.
"Hardly," Maxthane replied. "From what I've heard from Kirra, he was a man who needed killing."
"His head is mounted on a pike somewhere south of here, should the boy wish to pay his respects," Hount replied. "It's a pity about Isean though. He was on our side, but the mob pulled him down without any hesitation. It seems they are not too keen on kings or lords either, so perhaps it's time I changed my title…"
"Regardless of what title you bear in the future, Lord Hount, it was an honor to fight alongside you today," Maxthane said. "And I hope this will be the first step toward further cooperation between us. "
Hount nodded, and a slight smile crossed his lips. "Aye, King Maxthane. I do believe that's the best course, for all concerned. We have an opportunity now, to do something different. We had a common enemy in Neredos, whom we all fought separately. If we had faced him together, perhaps we wouldn't have needed to face the demons. But at least we joined forces either way, and proved it could be done."
"When we've all recovered, I'd like to gather every leader in the area for a conference, to work out an agreement on how to proceed," Maxthane suggested. "But for now, I would like to spend a bit of time with my lover, if you don't mind."
The others nodded in agreement, but Hount offered one more word before Maxthane turned to go. "Which one is your lover, Styx or the Knight?"
Maxthane grinned. "Potentially both, why do you ask?"
Hount sighed. "It's a pity. Styx would've made a great match for my niece."
"Introduce them," Maxthane replied with a shrug. "I don't mind sharing. The same goes for the world as well, and all things that I love. Rest easy, Lord Hount." He acknowledged Nal Maya with a nod, and then gestured for Bradeth to attend him.
"Your ability to trust people who were once enemies never ceases to amaze me, King Maxthane," Bradeth said, once they were out of earshot.
Maxthane thought of Krythe, remembering Bradeth's earlier words to him on the subject. "People can surprise you once the context has shifted. I believe they both want a better world, and isn't that what we want too?"
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