Prism left the memory behind him with wracking sobs, his whole body shuddering under the weight of Grim's nearly unfathomable pain. Despite the link they shared, he hadn't realized how deep the sadness went, how the events of that day had broken Grim.
To his surprise, Ghayle held him, cradling him like a mother would a son. His head rested against her naked breasts, and his tears wetted her dark flesh, mingling with the white veins which pulsed and thrummed across her skin.
Eventually, his sobbing subsided, and he pulled away from her, embarrassed at the way he'd lost control. "He was so cold after that, not to me, but to the world . . . In his mind, he was no longer a Fedain. Losing his father had cracked his soul, but losing Veil ripped him wide open."
Ghayle put her arm on his back, caressing it. "That didn't last forever, though."
"Their relationship never fully recovered." Prism shook his head, staring into the distance at the years which followed that fateful day. "Neither did he. Scar tissue isn't the same as unmarred flesh. Fixing a broken soul is as difficult as rebuilding a mountain stone by stone."
"This is what you feared the most, but you needed to face it," Ghayle said softly.
"I suppose I did," Prism replied, nodding. He sighed, trying to regain the rest of his lost composure. "You're right that I wanted to deny it, that I wanted to believe Grim was forced to take those actions against his nature. That's just it though; he wasn't forced, he chose to save me because he loved me. He chose to save himself because he wanted to live. And he chose to fight demons because he believed they would destroy the world."
"That was their task," Ghayle said, "to reshape the world."
Prism nodded, beginning to understand now, though he hesitated to condone her actions. "So, Grim became the Purity of Stillness? That's why Khalis came to him?"
"But there was one more. The Purity of Form," Prism mused. "I have a hunch who it was."
"Let me show you. Let's see if you were right."
"Have you heard about Ultaka, Tagren?" Ibrix asked, stepping onto the rocky shelf, accompanied by Aika and Quay, all three wearing matching frowns. Tagren had heard them approach from a mile away. They could feel the coming destruction as surely as he, and it put them on edge.
"The civil war." Tagren nodded, glancing at them before returning his attention to Ghayle. For the past few weeks she'd moaned as often as she remained silent, her pain finally manifesting as sound once again. "Yes. It's coming, isn't it?"
"Oligan is about to collapse as well, or so my people say," Goden observed from a nearby boulder. He'd taken to meditating there, a pipe in his hands as he blew out large rings of noxious smoke.
"What's happening there?" Aika asked.
"They were about to launch missiles to destroy all of Ultaka's major cities," Nobak offered, joining them from farther up the mountain. "The order went public yesterday, leaked by a government official who is against the action. The mining revolt has turned into a full rebellion, and the Oligani government has already turned its weapons on its own people. One of my few remaining loyal shamans told me so in the wind."
"That explains the earthquakes, and the volcanic activity I've been sensing," Tagren said. "Ghayle must be in agony."
"You can feel some of it through your link with her?" Aika asked.
Tagren shook his head. "Not usually. She dulled the link ever since she started having trouble, but some of it leaks through every now and then."
His thoughts were interrupted by the approaching sound of flapping wings, and he turned as Khalis dropped from the sky. Nobak grunted as the Sendar shifted form, and offered a hopeful, "Maybe her agony will end soon?"
"Khalis," Tagren said as the Sendar approached. "I hope you have some answers for me."
"It's time to complete the ritual," Khalis announced. He opened his body to remove three objects. The first two were a pair of olive-shaped organs which he delivered to Tagren's outstretched hand. "The Purity of Stillness, the essence of a youth, harvested at his moment of decision to forgo his natural urges." The second organ plopped into Tagren's other hand, a human heart so healthy Tagren almost expected it to start beating. "The Purity of Form, the heart of a stalwart defender, harvested from a monk who fought to the last for the fate of the world."
Tagren nodded. "That's the last two. What now?"
"Mix the Purities together, along with the blood of all present Chosen." Khalis walked to Ghayle, his hand reaching for the metal spike in her chest. Blood gurgled up, coating his hand. "I will inscribe the spell, but you must perform it. I am not capable of performing magic in this state."
Tagren returned to his tent, where he gathered the other ingredients Khalis had brought him into a large bowl. He brought them all back to the shelf, and mixed them by hand, pulverizing the organs with divine strength.
As he mixed the ingredients together, Khalis channeled Ghayle's blood through his body, extending straw-like tentacles in a dozen directions. Each one worked in tandem, inscribing runes across the slab. Though they resembled Gor runes, they were far more ancient. The Sendar had taught them to the Gor eons before.
Tagren understood their meaning intuitively, and a brief glance at Nobak confirmed his suspicions as the shaman's eyes widened with each inscription; these runes were intended for communing with and summoning the dead. As the circle around Ghayle expanded, additional runes gave further meaning to the spell. Transformation. Transference. Protection. Binding.
By the time Khalis finished inscribing the rune circle, the ingredients in the bowl had become a pulpy liquid, but one more ingredient remained per Khalis' instructions. He set the bowl down and drew a knife, cutting deep into his palm and dripping his blood into the bowl. The other Chosen knew their responsibility and approached, following Tagren's example. Ibrix donated his blood with a grimace, Aika with a smile, and she added the blood of her cat for good measure. Quay yelped in pain, but quickly regained her composure. The two Elroks bore it with their usual stoicism, and Nobak clapped Goden on the shoulder and led him away.
Compelled by instinct, Tagren walked toward the center of the circle and placed the bowl on top of Ghayle's stomach. He looked to Khalis for instruction and could read the incantation for the spell in the demon's eyes. He chanted, low and steady, ancient words beyond the scope of living memory dripped with power as they cascaded off the nearby rocks.
The Chosen witnessed it all in silence, following their own instinct to assume positions over five of the six rivulets of blood which continued to pour from Ghayle's body. Khalis moved to stand over the sixth as Tagren finished the chant, the contents of the bowl glowing white as the sun.
"Drink the potion, Tagren," Khalis ordered.
Tagren complied without question, his will now completely given over to the ritual. He lifted the bowl to his lips and drank deeply, some of the contents spilling down his body instead of his throat. He discarded the bowl to the side and faced Khalis, macabre and ghoulish.
Khalis snaked a single tentacle forward, a sharp spine extending from the tip. With surgical precision, he carved Tagren's heart from his chest and held it over Ghayle as it continued to beat, thrumming with the purity of Tagren's blood. Tagren's body collapsed to the stone, but the heart remained, beating rapidly over Ghayle's body.
"By the heart of the First, the Purified, let the womb be opened, and let the Trial begin." Khalis slammed Tagren's heart into Ghayle's open mouth, and the world screamed in response.
Ghayle died for the second time in her existence, but it had not felt like this before. So linked to the world was she, the cracking of the planet's crust rippled across her own skin. The rivulets of blood spreading out from her became as crevices, and a wave of destructive force rippled out for thousands of miles in each of the six directions.
Earthquakes wracked the continents. Waves of lava seeping out across the land as the world bled, cutting fiery swathes through everything in their path. As the seas shuddered, great tidal waves swept across the open waters, a hundred coastlines soon to be the target of their destructive surge.
Her nightmares took physical form, manifesting in the bodies of the five Chosen who'd joined Tagren on the mountaintop. Each one became a manifestation of the corruption of the world, avatars of each corrupted purity.
Ibrix reformed in a burst of destructive flame. His human features disappeared beneath a salamander's visage. The toxic amphibious creature stood on two legs and a slick substance which ignited on contact with iron covered his skin. Massive, bat-like wings extended from his back. He stood at a monstrous height, towering over even the Elroks standing in the circle with him.
Aika reformed in a crackle of electricity, her cat curled around her legs as her Fedain beauty gave way to something more primal, an image not unlike the dragons of Ghayle's youth. The fearsome beast took to the air, leathery wings keeping her aloft as purplish scales shimmered in sunlight. Vicious quills sprouted from her back, each covered with fine hairs which generated static energy as they moved. A bladed barb tipped her tail, gleaming like a sabre.
Beneath her, the cat connected to Aika's lifeforce transformed as well, growing in size as quills matching its companion's sprouted from its back. It growled menacingly as it flexed its muscles, testing out the extremities of its new, more powerful form.
Quay squawked, the veins in her body throbbing with a thousand noxious chemicals, a cocktail of disease and toxins forming one pernicious strain of deadly venom. Her body shifted along with her blood, elongating into the form of a mottled serpent, splashes of bright color cascading down her rippling scales. Colorful feathers sprouted from her back, forming two pairs of iridescent wings.
Goden's bones broke and shifted, dragging his stony form upward. Coarse hair appeared along his skin, and sharp horns erupted from his skull, curving forward to sharp points. Jagged claws extended from the back of his hands, lined with a poison which prevented the oxygenation of blood. He growled, drawing attention to his long snout, filled with alligator-like teeth, and his four, pupil-less eyes glowed with a soft white light.
The bony shards which adorned Nobak's flesh became absorbed into his skin, connecting with the Elrok's skeletal structure. By the time the transformation neared completion, Nobak had the shape of a bear built of spiny bone. The bones continued to shift and form, jutting out from his body in a thousand sharp ridges which could rend flesh with a simple touch. Bones overlapped to create microscopic channels, which could suck the blood from his prey with frightening speed.
Khalis changed back to the featureless form he'd worn when he first emerged from the blood. Behind him the blood rivulet opened and formed another being just like him, then another, and another. This continued until thirteen featureless beings had risen from the blood.
The last of the thirteen moved forward, shifting his structure as he moved. His skin turned grey and scaly, and large, leathery wings sprouted from his back. Long, black horns curved slightly backward from his skull. He took a position next to Ghayle's body and faced Khalis, who resumed his Sendar shape.
"Khalis, you have done well," the grey-scaled demon said.
"Naxthul, welcome back to the world," Khalis said, bowing low.
Naxthul smiled and turned to regard the newborn demons, Ghayle's Chosen, whom he hadn't seen in four thousand years. "The true Chosen stand before me," he said, meeting each of their eyes in turn. "Each of you is a representation of the darkness of the world. Your task is simple; you will destroy all that is corrupt. Every nation, city, and person with darkness in their hearts will fall before you. The lifeforce of the slain will fuel you, heal you, and increase your power. The womb of the dead stands open and shall reinforce you after your kind. Go forth and lead your armies, go forth to your appointed task, that the inhabitants of this world may learn the price of its arrogance, and learn to overcome it."
The five demons bowed to him, each one understanding the task before them on an instinctive level. Even as they left, the spirits of the dead escaped from the rivers of blood spreading out from Ghayle's corpse. Their lifeforce would fuel the entire army, would give form to more demons, endlessly reinforcing the ranks of the demon armies until the gate was closed. As they entered the world of the living, they took form, following the patterns of the five demons. Fiery salamanders and feathered serpents, quilled dragons and cats . . . these would be the nightmares of the new Trial, the omens of destruction for a world which had succumbed to sentient folly.
"Naxthul, are you well?" Khalis asked, drawing Naxthul's attention.
"Of course, my love." Naxthul embraced Khalis and kissed him fondly. It had been well over a year since they'd last met. Though Naxthul measured time in eons now, he had missed Khalis for every second of their separation. "Our task is just beginning, and we have more work to do. Go and announce the Trial. The rest of our Chosen will go to every corner of the world and prepare the descendants of our children for the Trial." As he spoke, he looked past Khalis to the twelve featureless beings behind him. They all shifted now, taking on the visages they'd worn in their lives, thousands of years before, when they'd served as his Chosen.
"Where should I go?" Khalis asked.
"You, my love, my First, must go to the place where the children will be most receptive to the message."
Khalis bowed. "I will abide by your will, as I always have."
"Return to me, Khalis." Naxthul stroked the cheek of his lover, his eyes filled with longing. "You've been gone too long already."
"We'll have eternity when our task is done," Khalis said, smiling wide.
"Then give our children hope, that they may stand together to end the Trial swiftly, in the name of purity."
Khalis took wing and left the mountaintop, flying hard and fast to the North, knowing precisely where he would go to rally the races, whose skin he would wear, which group he would speak to . . . Ghayle could sense him now, aware of his intentions as clearly as she was of her Chosen, regardless of the forms they now inhabited.
And she could feel Naxthul, as he directed the twelve remaining demons of blood. He sent them each in a different direction, to lead the races in the fight against the demons. The world would learn to stand together again, and to respect the lifeforce which connected them all.
Naxthul's hand grasped hers, and pulled her soul from her body, drawing her upward. She stood, feeling insubstantial as she stared down at her own body. "Ghayle," Naxthul said, wrapping her in a warm embrace. "It has been a long time, my daughter."
"Lord Naxthul?" Ghayle asked. Her physical senses slowly returned to her. It had been too long since she'd used them. She stared at her hands. They merely had the appearance of her original extremities, and she could no longer use them to affect the world. "Where is Tagren?" she asked, suddenly frantic.
"He's here," Naxthul said, nodding behind her.
"What happened to me?" Tagren said, rising to his feet. His open chest closed, though no heart beat in his chest.
"You've become one of the Vhor. Your body may shift and bend to your will, powered by the purity of your lifeforce," Naxthul explained. "Like me, your task is simple. I must lead the armies, but you must protect the gate."
Tagren bowed low. "I understand, Lord Naxthul."
Naxthul responded with a bow equal in respect before returning his attention to Ghayle. "Ghayle, your body is rooted here, where it will decay and become part of the world, but your spirit is free to move and manifest at your will. You may watch, you may encourage, but you must remain true to your oaths, and only reveal the purpose of the Trial to those Chosen to guide the world after you. You are between death and life and will remain so until the Trial has ended."
"Thank you for your guidance, Lord Naxthul," Ghayle replied.
"I will return to check on you and will summon you for counsel whenever I deem it necessary," Naxthul said. "You may come to me at any time if you wish to speak to me. You can sense me."
Ghayle nodded. "Yes . . . I can sense all the demons now."
"Hopefully, the children will rise up and defend the world, and they will put aside their pettiness and greed in the face of destruction," Naxthul said, staring into her eyes.
"What happens if they lose?" Ghayle asked.
"Then we'll have truly failed in our duty as guardians of this world," Naxthul said grimly. "I prefer not to think of such a bleak fate."
"He almost seems . . . human," Prism said, letting the image fade,
"Naxthul?" Ghayle asked.
Prism nodded. "Yes. Not at all like he seems now."
"The centuries have not been kind to him." Ghayle sighed. "We did not anticipate the Trial would extend for eight-hundred years. It can be maddening to wait for the world to change, especially when it is your responsibility to make it happen. I'm not sure if he'll have the strength to see it through."
"What happened?" Prism asked. "Why hasn't it ended?"
"The Trial cannot end until every demon is defeated," Ghayle replied. She ensured she had Prism's full attention before adding, "Every last one of them."
"So, when Neredos imprisoned them . . ."
"He put the Trial on hold." Ghayle shook her head, her eyes brimming with tears, the first time Prism had ever seen her so affected. "He didn't end the war, only delayed it. And now the world has already forgotten the lessons it learned during that time. Petty squabbles have arisen again, people fight for territory and material greed. They kill each other, not out of survival, but out of a desire to control and hate. Corruption persists in the world; a sliver remained and festered."
"Neredos, in his arrogance, assumed he could take the power of the demons for himself and use it to fuel his own immortality," Prism concluded.
"So far, he has been successful, but at what cost?" Ghayle asked.
Prism nodded, considering the implications of everything he'd seen. "The end of the world. Neredos has brought doom upon everyone, because he wanted to be the savior without respecting the cycle."
"Do you understand, yet, Prism?" Ghayle asked.
"Teach me, Ghayle." Prism reached for her hand and placed it against his face. "Show me the day the world broke."
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