The lengths my people would go to, to justify their actions, always surprised me. No matter how many times I saw them turn a blind eye to the evils in the world, I still believed that they would pay attention the next time.
But that was never the case; not while I was alive. Not for most of them, anyway, but the few who did pay attention changed the world. First, they had to change themselves, and that took time. If others had made the effort to change, it wouldn't have mattered how long it took. Beautiful canyons are carved by countless water droplets across eons, but unless one can convince the river to flow there, the canyon will never be formed. Water follows the path of least resistance. If you wish the water to flow somewhere, remove the resistance to change.
My people considered me an oddity long before I met my death at my own hand in Kobinaru. They thought it odd that a Fedain would want to join the human Order of the Mountain. The monks were warriors in their eyes, and though I retained my pacifism, my people could not see past their bias.
I found strength in several individuals, however. I found strength in those willing to accept that there could be a different way. First was my dear friend, Vinhkroludar, whom I loved more than any other. We were like pilgrims together, traversing to a holy land where the origins of our birth did not matter. We found that holy land within each other, and the Order of the Mountain overall.
There were others, a handful of wonderful people. But it wasn't enough. If we cannot pull others into our alternative currents, they will simply be swept along in the main flow of the river, never knowing the deeper expression of what we could be.
In desperation, I destroyed myself to show them another way. I made sure they all paid attention, but I wish I had never resorted that. They all went back to their old patterns shortly thereafter, and I was no longer around to guide them to better ones.
Perhaps my friends would not have lost themselves the way they did, if I had stayed?
"This is madness," Prism said, stepping away from Ghayle. He stared at her as if she was a poisonous snake seeking to bite him. "There's no way that Grim would've killed all those people. There's no way that he…" He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, finding meditative focus. "Yet I cannot deny what I just saw and heard, and there's no reason Grim would lie, is there?"
Ghayle shook her head somberly. "No, he would not. Not about killing. But he was also not in his right mind. Living a long time alone can cause some unpredictable effects."
"What happened?" Veil asked with concern, interrupting Prism's response. "By the blood, Prism, are you all right?"
Prism nodded and put up a steady hand to forestall her approaching him. "I'm just…" He paused, searching for the right words. "I'm just trying to comprehend how everything fell apart."
"How what fell apart?" Neredos said.
Prism looked at Veil and then Neredos in turn, shaking his head in dismay. "All of you, every single one of you lost track of what was important. Grim told me when I found him in Salidar's dungeon that everyone had changed, but I didn't want to believe him. It seemed so irrational that any of you could have traveled down the paths that you did, and yet here we are."
"I've already admitted to my faults," Neredos said. "What more would you have me do? It is in the past, I cannot change it, and now I'm dead. All my mistakes are now beyond my control. I don't wish to sound like I'm justifying my choices, but…" He shrugged helplessly. "What else would you have me do, Prism?"
Veil put a hand on Neredos' arm and said, "I don't think he's trying to ask us to do anything, my friend. He's just trying to understand it all. I'm trying to understand it too, if I'm being honest. We failed, and even if we went back and tried to do it again, I'm sure we'd fail differently. We are always blinded by what we think is right, no matter how open we become to new ideas. There is always a line we will not cross, which perhaps needs crossing, and lines we shouldn't cross, which we will end up crossing."
"It is the result of being in a position of power and influence over people," Ghayle interjected. "One thing all of you have in common, even Dogo—though perhaps to a lesser extent—is leadership. Prism led during the Demon War, even though he didn't take to it well, and delegated often. Those actions had consequences as well. The Order of the Mountain faded into obscurity, lacking strong leadership. The last Grandmaster it had with any spirit at all, was Prism, and after the war it slowly died."
"But I was never it's true leader," Prism protested.
"Weren't you?" Ghayle replied. "What is truth, Prism? How does one determine the 'true' anything? The Order thought you worthy of the honor, no matter what oaths you swore. What would've happened if you had actually led them? Could you not have changed them? Could you not have stripped them of the outdated traditions that led to their inevitable demise?"
Prism took a step backward, staring at Ghayle as if she had lost her mind. But the more he let the words sink in, the more he realized there was truth in them. He had resisted leadership when it was given to him freely; his actions, though taken in what he deemed to be humility, had irreversibly altered the lives of many.
Was he any different than Veil and Neredos then? He had not known the pressures of their roles, and they had been guided by good intentions, no matter where those intentions had taken them. They had wanted to preserve the world, and in so doing they stagnated it. There were consequences to every decision, no matter how simple each seemed.
"But Grim still surprises me," Prism said.
"You'll have to give us something to go on, if you want us to understand and help you find perspective," Telzath said, earning an encouraging nod from Dogo. "You must remember, Ghayle has not allowed us to see your visions of Grim."
Prism nodded, looking to Ghayle to see if she would approve him sharing information. She seemed to consider the point for a moment, then shrugged and said, "While I believe most of what Grim and Naxthul are discussing should be communicated to the rest of the Chosen in small doses, they are, until Grim arrives anyway, your Chosen. If you wish to speak of these things, I suppose I cannot stop you. Perhaps they are ready, and perhaps they are not, but your mistakes are yours to make."
After only a brief hesitation, Prism turned to Veil and Neredos and asked, "are you familiar with someone called 'White Death'?"
Veil staggered backwards as if Prism had attacked her, her hand covering her mouth as she stared at him in shock. "No, I thought that couldn't be him… At the time, someone suggested it to me, but I couldn't… He killed so many people…"
"I don't understand," Neredos said, staring at them confusion. "Who is this 'White Death' you speak of?"
"By the time Grim started killing…" Veil said with a shudder, "Neredos was already starting to go a bit mad. The Knights rarely bothered him with mundane matters, and they kept anything particularly troubling out of their reports entirely. It was at my recommendation, so they often consulted me instead."
"Grim isn't a killer," Dogo said. "He's practically a pacifist!"
"Yes, he is now, but he told me about the dark days in his life," Telzath offered, drawing surprised glances from the others. "As part of an Elrok marriage ceremony, the spouses confess everything to each other. It took Grim nearly a week to get through it all, and by the end he was so mentally exhausted that I wasn't sure he would recover."
"How could you be okay with that?" Prism asked. "The one thing I never expected Grim to become was a mass murderer."
"Eventually, he became something else," Telzath replied. "How long do you punish a man for the crimes he has committed? Do you beat him with it every day from sunrise to sunset? Must one atone for eternity? Perhaps that is what your religion says, but mine acknowledges the weight Grim carries on his shoulders. Most are burdened by a boulder, but Grim carries a mountain."
"Though I had intended to wait until after the Trial was over, I think it's time one of the other Chosen joined us," Ghayle said, drawing everyone's attention.
Light footsteps sounded on a nearby path, and a face familiar to both Prism and Veil stepped into the circle of stones. Janlynd, monk of the Order of the Mountain, smiled at Veil and Prism. To both their surprise, she then embraced him warmly.
"I had never expected to hug you," Prism said, "though Ghayle told me that you were here, and I was eager to see you."
Janlynd chuckled softly at that. "Death breaks all oaths to the Order, Prism. I'm glad to finally be able to touch you with the warmth of friendship I felt for you from our first meeting."
"It is so good to see you," Veil said.
Janlynd stroked Veil's hair, pushing the stray strands back from her face. "I, too, have waited eight centuries, my dear. Though time works differently here, and I have not been without company. I hope the others will be able to join us soon, though Ghayle has been keeping us away. Too many voices in one place can be disorienting, it seems."
"You knew we were here as well?" Prism asked.
"I have been listening, when able. You will learn how to do that here as well, in time," Janlynd replied. "It is because I was listening that I decided to come right away, and I insisted that Ghayle allow me to see you."
Prism and Veil shared a look. "And why is that?" Veil asked.
"The morality of choice is perhaps the trickiest of all," Janlynd said. "You could deliberate your decisions to the end of your lives and never know if you are making the right one. Or, in my case, you could contemplate your decisions long after you've died and still be unsure. That Grim's actions were horrible is undeniable; that you have all done questionable things is undeniable. But you must decide what you are going to do now, not what you could have done then. How do you move forward? How do you reach where you wish to be? This is what matters, and what the Trial is all about."
"Those who fight for the world are those who are Chosen," Ghayle said, stepping next to Janlynd and placing a hand on her shoulder. "Not for country, not for their loved ones, not for guilt, shame, or atonement. Those who fight because they believe the world deserves a chance to do better, and they know that only their blood and sweat can bring that about. That is why you are all here, and why many others are not. At some point, you put aside everything else to make the world better. Regardless of mistaken approaches, it is the attempt that means everything."
"And now the world hangs in the balance again," Neredos said.
"It does, yet there remain those who will fight for it," Ghayle said. "It is not a question of the mistakes they will make—and they will make them—it is a question of how to guide them to progress beyond the mistakes. This is something you all have done in the past and can do again. This is what it means to be here in the Dream, guiding the world."
Soon the sun would rise on a broken city, and Styx was not prepared for what it would illuminate. He kept telling himself that this was what had to happen, that both Dogo and Prism would've wanted him to be here. Someone had to face the demons, and he certainly wasn't alone in knowing it had to be done, but all he wanted to do was run.
He flexed his wings. Flying would be better than running, he supposed, though it was more difficult to hide in the air unless there were clouds. In anticipation of the battle ahead, he'd shifted form to serve as Maxthane's personal scout. Even knowing that he wouldn't be directly involved in the combat, Styx feared the demons with every fiber of his being.
Four times he had faced a demon, and each one had nearly killed him. The first had stolen his breath in Salidar's gladiator arena. Prism and Grim had saved him then, at Maxthane's insistence. Where was Grim now? Was his current mission truly more important than this battle ahead?
Styx shook his head, trying to clear his mind. Prism had trusted Grim implicitly, and that was good enough for Styx. He had known Prism only a short time, but he'd never met anyone with more integrity. No, whatever Grim was doing, it had to be important.
Hadn't he said he was hunting down Fasha? Fasha was by far the most dangerous demon Styx had faced, and he had done so on several occasions. Each time had nearly ended in Styx's death; Prism had saved him the first time, Kirra the second, and they'd pulled Prism out of a burning building the third. Somehow, Fasha had survived all those encounters, and now Grim was hunting him specifically. Yes, Grim had a good reason for being absent. Perhaps he would still show up before the end and save them all.
Styx knew he couldn't count on that. There were too many variables, too many things that could go wrong. It was best to plan for the worst, especially in matters as grave as these. The thought quickened Styx's pulse. How many ways would this day go wrong? How many of his loved ones would die? He was starting to run low.
The third demon Styx had faced had shot him and Kirra out of the sky, killing Kirra's eagle and nearly dropping them to their deaths. Kirra had lost loved ones as well, and nearly died himself when he had faced that demon alone. That had been the day the world changed, tipping over the precipice toward the downfall of Pentalus and the Everbright City. So much had happened since then, over such a short time.
Despite his misgivings, Styx had volunteered to join his father on a hunt for one of the demons that escaped that day. Nearly everyone who had pursued that demon now lay in a distant cavern, their corpses rotting along with the demon that killed them. Dogo lay amongst them, having given his last breath to slay the beast.
That battle had left Styx in a precarious position, dying quickly from the demonic blood that had seeped through his skin and poisoned him. He was still feeling the effects from that; not the poison, but the battle. Veil had healed him of the poison, but the trauma of the battle still threatened to overwhelm Styx whenever he let his thoughts run wild.
But it had all led him here, and once again he had volunteered. Once again, he had taken Prism's charge to heart and decided to do the honorable thing. He could die this day, and Maxthane and Kirra along with him. His mother, aunt, and newfound sister could all perish in the battle ahead.
The sun rose on a broken city, and Styx couldn't help but see the damage. Devastation, illuminated by the light he had lived without for his entire life. He had survived and worked to fight again, not just for himself, but for the world. This city could do the same, and so could the armies within it. Some of them would die, it was certain, but there was hope that the world would remain.
Kirra glanced at Styx from the corner of his eye, wondering what was going through his lover's head. They had been through hell together, fighting demons and men alike, and had watched good people die. He'd been the only one there with Styx when Prism breathed his last, and he'd received the charge as well. Someone had to save the world, and if not them, who?
But even the end of this battle would bring more change than the demons had by arriving. It wasn't just the destruction that terrified Kirra, but the uncertainty of the future. During most of his life, he had been afraid of making the tough choices. Until recently, he had not had the courage to stand up for himself, even in the face of horrific abuse.
It was difficult to rebuild things the way they were. Scar tissue had a way of interfering and reminding you of what was lost. He still felt the weight of all his wounds, could still see them all, but at least he no longer felt them as strongly as he once had. He had learned to accept his scars as signs that he had survived, and that he could survive again.
Alsha had begun that process for him, giving him the support he needed in an environment where he could breathe easily for the first time in his life. He hadn't trusted her in the beginning, but she had shown him more respect and validation than anyone had before he met her. She put him in positions where he had to choose their path, and take responsibility for his actions.
He would always treasure that gift, as surely as he treasured the friendship they had formed. He hoped they both would survive the day, and that life would provide them with many more opportunities to grow, together.
Growing together. The concept drew Kirra's mind back to Styx, and despite the looming battle, Kirra couldn't help but smile. Some of the decisions he'd made under Alsha's command had led him to the strange boy standing next to him. Although they'd only known each other for a short time, Kirra was already beginning to see that the future didn't have to be feared in all respects. As long as he and Styx made it through, he was certain they'd have many opportunities to explore what it meant to be in love. Growing together would simply be one of the many things Kirra had to look forward to.
Of course, Maxthane would be there as well. Kirra glanced behind him, making sure Maxthane thulu'Khant was still where Kirra had left him. If Kirra's parents had still been alive, they would've been shocked at what Kirra had become, but he liked to think that they would've been proud as well. Kirra Elrhanadan, a Knight of the Firmament, had become the personal guard of the Shadow King, and even shared his bed.
The world was a strange place, full of uncertainty, but at least it provided opportunities for change. Kirra hoped he never returned to the days when his past trauma kept him paralyzed; the moment he had decided to move, everything had changed for the better. Though the world had fallen apart around him, Kirra felt more alive now than he ever had before.
Around him, the rubble of Pentalus blazed with the light of dawn. Long shadows stretched out in uneven patterns, but they would shorten as the day progressed. Whatever uncertainty Kirra felt, it would fade as soon as he moved into that light and fought the battle that needed fighting.
Whatever the future held, Kirra would face it and overcome it, or die trying. Either way, he was done running.
This day would decide everything. Maxthane knew the future of his own world rested in the balance, regardless of what happened in this battle. There were many different possible outcomes, and many of them could destroy everything he wanted to build.
The least of which was the potential for his own death. That would likely leave one of the guild leaders in charge of The Shade, and might even start a war between the different guilds. The thulu'Khant line had managed to last eight centuries, and maintained the legitimacy of their rule by simply being the descendants of the first Shadow King, but Maxthane had no heir. He wondered if he ever would.
His friends could die as well, but again, this was lesser in comparison to the other fears Maxthane had. Losing Styx, Kirra, Gobrak, Bradeth… he would feel each loss and mourn for them appropriately, should he be faced with the reality of their death. Nevertheless, the death of a single great person was not enough to completely disrupt the world.
Maxthane was far more worried about what would happen should they fail today. If any demons made it down into The Shade, they could kill thousands before they were stopped. As skilled as many of Maxthane's people were at surviving their harsh environment, none of them had ever faced a foe as dangerous as the demons.
He imagined the same would be true of any demons that made it beyond the bounds of Pentalus. What if the Knights, Kirra, and Bradeth had not gone to Port Salmus? How many people would've died before the garrison managed to bring the demon down, if they even managed it at all?
This world was not prepared for the demons which had lived in their midst for centuries. They had not spent the time studying their histories, for everyone thought the demons were sealed away forever. And now the only thing standing between the demons and the world were several thousand scared troops.
He surveyed those assembled near him. Several of the guild leaders had already begun circling the demons through the rubble and moving into position. Hount and his troops would attack from due south, and his allies in the north with the Gor would attack from the opposite side. All the Shades would fill in the gaps between the two positions, remaining connected by the network of scouts from the Pentalus Resistance and the communications devices that Maxthane had provided them.
The plan felt solid enough, but some of those demons were as large as houses. He had to trust that the commanders of his forces would be able to think on their feet and make difficult decisions in the moment. He couldn't be everywhere, and even with Styx serving as a lookout and flying around the battlefield, Maxthane was certain he would misstep somewhere.
He wondered if his father had ever had to deal with this level of uncertainty. While Salidar thulu'Khant had not needed to employ his forces in many battles over the years, he had orchestrated many schemes in which he had been forced to rely on them. And just like that, Maxthane recognized his problem. He wasn't his father, and he was trying to be.
His father had always had a contingency plan, and normally they worked flawlessly. In the end, his plans had failed him, but they had given him a great deal of success over his life. But those contingency plans had all been built upon years of experience—experience Maxthane simply did not have.
Of course, there was only one way to gain experience, and that was to go out and try in the first place. Many of the people below him knew their places and had survived many ordeals over their lives. Madame Godani had run a successful guild for decades. Lord Hount had been preparing for a campaign all his life. Commander Alsha had led troops in battle against demons before, and the Pentalus Resistance had waged a guerrilla campaign against Neredos for longer than Maxthane had been alive. They were all experienced in their own way, and he had reason to trust them to get the job done.
Maxthane breathed more easily, gazing out at the assembled forces once again. These were his troops, for the moment, and they were ready to die for this cause. Perhaps they didn't understand the full weight of the issues at hand, but they didn't need to. He would shoulder the burden for them and allow them to do their job.
He glanced at Styx and Kirra and smiled. To his delight, both smiled back despite the worry in their eyes. They were ready to face this too, or at least as ready as they could be. Soon this would all be over, one way or another. He would face the future when he met it, and face the present now.
Tagren smiled at the three boys, pleased to see the realizations come across their faces. He had seen the same in troops many times before when he led them into battle. During the cataclysmic events of his own youth, when he and Ghayle were a young couple on the run from their respective peoples, he had risen quickly through the ranks of those assembled to face the demons.
That was nearly five thousand years ago now. Though the face of the world looked very different than it had then, the look in a soldier's eyes remained much the same. Death would be dealt this day, and it would fall on both sides. Fear; nervousness; hope; calm; determination; they danced through the mind before battle, in erratic yet beautiful movements, reminding a soldier that he was alive.
It had taken a long time to get here, but at least it had finally arrived. When Naxthul had asked him to operate on his own, Tagren had doubted his effectiveness at first. He had never been known as a master schemer, for all he knew were battles and a little bit about fishing. He'd used this latter knowledge more than the other over the last few centuries. In order to defeat Neredos and free the demons, he'd need help. He'd sewn seeds of discord everywhere he'd gone; bait, to catch the malcontent.
Lord Hount was one of Tagren's schemes finally coming to fruition; a thousand whispered conversations with all the right people to set Hount on this path. His target had not been Hount specifically, but in the sea of those who detested Neredos' methods, Hount had answered the call for leadership and organized the rebellion.
The Pentalus Resistance was also Tagren's doing, though in that he had been more directly involved. They thought him just a man, albeit a useful one, and had allowed him into their highest circles. Naxthul would've been proud of the ways Tagren managed to infiltrate the organization.
Of course, there were several other elements that had not yet borne fruit. The recolonization of Oligan, and the secession of Incaria had both born his mark. They would've raised armies eventually, liberation forces to relieve Neredos of his rule. The Gor had also begun preparing for war; Tagren knew all the signs they watched for, and often took the guise of a Gor hermit to disseminate those signs to the tribes.
That there was a Gor presence here at all was likely a result of that, to some extent, though it was more likely the auspicious shooting star exploding in the air over the Everbright City nearly a week earlier which had caught their attention. That sign had given Tagren hope as well, and he wondered if it was a signal from Ghayle to her people that there would be a battle here soon. Was she aware of his schemes? Likely, as she was connected to everything still, albeit weakly.
"Master Kimbler," someone said from Tagren's left, drawing him from his thoughts.
Tagren turned toward the speaker, a member of the Pentalus Resistance whom Tagren did not know well. A new recruit, of which there were surprisingly many since the destruction of the city the day before.
"Yes, what is it?" Tagren asked.
"King Maxthane would like your report, and your assessment on whether it's time to attack," the recruit replied, saluting awkwardly.
Tagren smiled. He wondered if Ghayle had ever taken a moment to appreciate the irony of the name he now used. Kimbler had been his family name; a family he'd forsaken to marry her. He'd been using it for two decades now, and it somehow felt natural again. Perhaps it was because all of his family was long dead.
"Tell him the demons aren't going anywhere, unless we force them to," Tagren replied. "I'd say it's time, as long as he's ready."
The recruit saluted again, then ran back to Maxthane. Tagren watched him go, glad that this would soon be over. The demons would hold their ground, because Tagren had told them to. Naxthul had given him full control over this battle, and he would make it one for the history books.
He didn't want to kill the boys, or any of those under their command, but the Trial had to be satisfied. Death would be dealt this day, and it would fall on both sides.
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