Nightmares plagued every moment of Ghayle's existence as she lay splayed across the stone. She'd lost track of time, but still experienced every second of her children's lives. Darkness encroached upon the world with each passing second, the slow degradation of society corrupting the lifeforce of every being.
Over the course of her reign as the avatar of the world, this corruption began time and time again, but each time her children had fought against it, coming together in times of crisis and working harmoniously to create times of peace.
But slowly the weight of conflict gathered momentum, increasing exponentially as society turned on itself, cannibalizing its virtue and spreading its filth like paint on a canvas. Only fools exploited their resources to extinction. Only fools bit the hand which fed them. Only fools seemed to exist.
She felt the aching of the world as surely as she felt the life upon it. Every bomb dropped on the tundra of the Dobrag by Ultaka scarred her, and the radiation burned her flesh. Every time Oligan tested their new device, a magnetic field which could destabilize the molecular connections in solid rock and rip mountains to shreds, she felt the world quake in pain.
Minor disputes erupted in other nations, and though these affected her less than the great weapons of the two most powerful nations, nearly every community sparked with conflict. Less powerful bombs scarred the warring states of Lodan in their civil war. Inhabitants of the Incarian sub-continent had destroyed most of their frozen forests to fuel their fires and build their mighty fortresses.
The corruption had even seeped into the Gor tribes, too busy warring with each other to care about the damage done to the forests and plains they inhabited. A new war tactic had led to devastating deforestation and near annihilation of the brushland as the Gor burned their enemies out of their homes.
Only the Elroks seemed to leave the world largely alone, though the government of Ultaka had lured some to work in the massive strip mines north of the Dorram. Others worked for Oligan in their deep and explosive mines, seeking the rare magnetic materials that fueled the Oligani weapons.
Over time, Ghayle had grown used to the pains of the world. Scars came with the territory of being a planet, even from the creatures living on it. Growing pains occurred regularly in the form of earthquakes, weather patterns, and solar winds. Life consumed life. She understood it as surely as the spider ate the fly, and the cat ate the mouse, and the deer ate the grass. This was the way of things, and all creatures had the right to fight for their survival.
But the builder races—those who constructed societies and technology—had grown complacent in their stewardship of the world. They no longer cared about the extent of the damage they caused. What happened to the spider when all the flies were gone? Would they perish along with their food source? Ghayle worried for them all, for they failed to see the downward spiral leading them all to destruction.
They thought only of the squabbles they fought amongst themselves, the corruption of dogmas and ideologies preventing them from recognizing their displacement of the web of life. And the problem grew worse by the day.
The stone beneath her kept her grounded, but the stake through her heart continued to throb in time with the heart of the world, feeling every single wound committed by one child against another. She'd long grown numb to the stings of hunters piercing the hearts of prey, but the extent of needless slaughter, masses dying in the face of political protest and on the front lines of war nagged at her, feeding her nightmares with every breath she drew.
She screamed when Janlynd killed herself, the first sound she'd uttered since Tagren staked her to the rock. Tagren took note of it, of course, moving to her side from his constant vigil on a nearby boulder. He spoke to her, even though she could not respond.
"Is everything all right?" he asked. He'd asked the same a thousand times in the months since she'd last spoken to him. She heard every single one, felt the sorrow in his heart, but she did not speak. Words could not describe the way she felt, and so she did not respond. He could not understand her pain.
"I heard the scream, is she doing any better?" Ibrix asked. He'd been the first Chosen to arrive on the mountainside. A massive man, nearly as tall as an Elrok, the Shadowmen of Incaria still referred to him in myth as Hundrog, which meant Firebeard in their tongue. He'd been a friend and companion to Ghayle during Naxthul's Trial, now thousands of years in the past.
A lithe Fedain joined his side, her thin gown blowing in the chilly mountain wind. Aika's beauty remained renowned in the poems of Fedain bards, though only the Gor in the northern woodlands ever saw her now. Her constant companion followed her, the large hunting cat with whom she'd shared her essence before joining the Chosen. Fedain had been much more plentiful before the previous demonic invasion, almost to the present human population, but their numbers were now in decline. Aika considered this a personal failure, thinking herself to blame for the Fedain's unwillingness to procreate. Ghayle didn't see why. The Fedain hadn't listened to anyone but their own arrogance in centuries.
"When I checked on her last night, I thought I heard her whimpering," Aika said softly. "She must be in agony."
"I wish I knew how to help her," Tagren said. "But Khalis said we had to wait."
"How long? He's been gone for months. You called us as soon as he left, didn't you?" another voice said. This one belonged to a short Gor, her eyes like glittering sapphires and her hair a vibrant gold. Despite being the same race as her, Ghayle had never quite seen eye-to-eye with Quay. Gor cults still revered the youthful-appearing alchemist, harvesting poisonous creatures in their natural environment to use them against their enemies in her name. Ghayle didn't fault them for that, yet that same destructive mentality had fanned the fires of deforestation.
"All Sendar are cryptic. That's probably why they died out. Couldn't figure out how to have sex because of too many riddles," a gravelly voice answered, as wise Goden joined his fellow Chosen at Ghayle's side. His twin brother, Nobak, followed after him. The two Elroks had just arrived, coming from the distant mountains of Oligan and Lodan. Goden carried his massive bow, designed to function as both a club or bayonet, as the situation required. Despite his wise nature, Elrok tradition considered him a demon—The Breathstealer.
Nobak, on the other hand, dressed in Elrok shamanic garb, adorned with shards of bone across his knuckles, chest, and back. He was known as the Bloodless, and revered as a warrior, though in all his peaceful years he'd never killed a soul aside from the demons unleashed by Naxthul in the Trial.
"Never negotiate with a Sendar," Nobak said, laughing at his joke even before he finished it. "They will keep you guessing long enough to steal the advantage."
"I resent the way you malign Lord Khalis, Nobak," Tagren said, his eyes narrowing. "And you both insult a proud race who fought valiantly in the Trial."
"Apologies, noble Tagren," Goden replied. "The Sendar and the Elroks never had the best of relations. Though it is a shame all the Sendar who remained died in the Trial. For all their faults, they died like warriors."
"They shouldn't have created the golems in the first place," Nobak said. "They may have realized their mistake and fought the demons with us, but they triggered the Trial, and deserved their fate."
"We've been having this argument for millennia," Aika said. "It's irrelevant now. Naxthul performed his duties as Ghayle does now. The whole world is in peril, and so it must be purified. All our peoples were at fault, just as they are now. The problems have achieved critical mass, and if we don't stop them at the source, everything we've built will be destroyed."
"As usual, Aika speaks wisdom," Ibrix said. "We should not fight amongst ourselves. Our task is to wait until Khalis returns, and wait we shall."
"What about the others? Are they going to arrive?" Quay asked. "Or are we the only ones coming? Have even the Chosen succumbed to the corruption?"
"Perhaps," Tagren said. "I can feel them still, as I'm sure Ghayle can, but they are distant. Perhaps they resisted the call because they remain hopeful they can stem the tide and prevent the Trial from resuming?"
"That is a fool's cause," Goden said. "What a terrible waste of time. We should've done this a century ago."
"Ghayle still believed there was hope then," Tagren said. "I wanted to believe there was hope now, yet I followed her here, and drove the stake through her heart at her command. The other Chosen should accept that as we have."
Ghayle loved him more than ever, but she could only listen. This, too, was something she could not communicate from the depths of her agonizing darkness. Conversation drifted on without her, fading into time as she succumbed to the aftermath of Janlynd's sacrifice.
A riot surged in Kobinaru, and the ripples of unrest permeated every corner of the Ultakan Kingdom. As the humans rallied behind their unlikely Fedain martyr, the nobility answered with dignity, admitting some of their faults and negotiating the lessening of some restrictions.
Conditions improved, for a time, but it wouldn't last. Corruption had spread too far, and unless the hearts of the people changed permanently, it would only stall the inevitable.
Even as Ghayle contemplated this, in her feverish nightmare world, she sensed a presence moving toward her position. Of all the beings currently living on the world, only one evaded her ability to read its thoughts and emotions. Khalis, the First demon, the herald of all to come, had returned at last.
She managed to deafen the darkness in her mind and listen to her friends, who once again met on the mountainside, keeping Tagren company. "Good, you've gathered together," Khalis said, as he landed near Ghayle's head. He'd arrived in the form of a giant eagle but shifted to his more familiar Sendar form as he addressed the group.
"Words flutter like wings," Nobak said, indicating he'd just been speaking about Khalis. "Have you come to complete the ritual?"
Khalis shook his head as he lifted a small blood-filled vial in his hand. He'd kept it contained within his morphic body as he traveled. "No, but I've brought a piece of it."
"A piece? Only one?" Quay asked, groaning. "How long is this going to take?"
"Will you shut up, Quay?" Aika said, stroking the head of her cat as both stepped between Quay and Khalis. "We don't know how long it took Khalis and Naxthul when they opened the gate. I believe he knows better than us how much patience is required."
"It's immeasurable. The patience is equal to Ghayle's pain." Tagren said, studying Ghayle's face for a moment before turning to Khalis.
"Indeed, Tagren," Khalis said, approaching Tagren and putting a consolatory hand on his shoulder. "I see you're doing your best to adjust to your role as First."
"Every day is a trial," Tagren said, his eyes drifting back to Ghayle. "For both of us."
"This takes time. Until every purity has been obtained, there remains hope the Trial may be averted, though only the smallest sliver. Avoidance of fate is as unlikely as an ant stopping a rockslide," Khalis said.
"Riddles!" Goden spat, gesturing to Khalis angrily. "See? The God of the Sendar clearly shows us why his entire race never made any sense."
"Quiet, you old boulder," Ibrix said. "As if an Elrok knows anything about making sense."
"No wonder the world is in the state it is, even her protectors are at each other's throats." Tagren growled at the other Chosen, a guttural sound which echoed off the nearby rock with enough primal fury to give Aika's cat pause. "Can we please agree to work together?"
"Yes." Aika said, glowering at Ibrix, while her cat stared down Goden. "We can."
Ibrix muttered an apology while Goden's eyes narrowed, yet he shrugged and sat, seeming to fade into the boulders next to him. Tagren shook his head helplessly before addressing Khalis once again. "Now, Lord Khalis, you've brought one of the purities?"
"The blood of a martyr. A pure destructive force," Khalis said, placing the vial in Tagren's hand. "Keep this safe until the other purities have been acquired."
"How long will that be?" Tagren asked.
"How long until the world slips again, and a powerful mortal seeks to restore it with purity?" Khalis asked. "How long until someone seeks purity in the face of corruption? The womb is filled with the hope of the world, the pure lifeforce of those who seek to change it for the better. Sacrifices will be made by those with the will to change it, and I will harness the purity of their sacrifice."
"Can we not help you search?" Aika asked. "Must we only wait?"
"Only if I fail, then will the task be passed onto Tagren. If he fails, the task will pass onto one of you," Khalis replied. "Until all the Chosen fall, there remains hope for the Trial."
"Then get out there. You're wasting time," Quay said.
Khalis bowed to her and took to the air, shifting back into the form of an eagle as he ascended. Though his Sendar wings could carry him aloft, the eagle's form allowed him greater speed and agility, to attend to his task as diligently as possible.
Ghayle wanted to agree with Quay but couldn't deny the truth. Release would not come soon. It could be months, possibly even years, until Khalis returned again. Each man and woman standing near her knew the curse and responsibility of immortality, yet they'd forgotten patience. Corruption had tainted even the Chosen, though less so.
"He's as pompous as ever," Nobak grunted.
"I found him refreshing," Aika said.
"You've always appreciated riddles," Ibrix said, smiling at her, though it quickly turned into a scowl as he added, "I, for one, tire of this game. I'm going to go hunt something."
Aika patted her cat's head and smiled at him. "I think I'll join you. Unless Tagren needs company."
"We'll keep him occupied. We brought up some mountain-berry wine this morning. It's perfect for when you want to sleep like a boulder," Nobak said, clapping Tagren hard on the shoulder.
"I don't believe Tagren has slept since he got here," Quay observed. "Could you, if your love lay splayed across the rock?"
Before Tagren could answer, Goden spoke for him, his gravelly words rumbling across the rocks with the weight of experience. "She is. We would all do well to remember that. We all love Ghayle, that's why we answered her call. That's why we're here, to see this through and trust her judgment. We all love this world, and she is the world."
"Thank you, Goden," Tagren said, nodding in appreciation to his old friend.
"They all know," Goden said, waving to the rest of the Chosen. Even Ibrix, his old rival, regarded him with respect as he continued. "For all our faults and misgivings about the state of things, we worked together during Naxthul's Trial, and we are together now for Ghayle's Trial. Forget old rivalries, my friends. I may be an old boulder," he met Ibrix's eyes and grinned, "but I've the patience of a mountain, and I forgive any past slights you've committed against me and ask for your forgiveness of any I've committed against you. If purity will eventually heal the world, we must be pure in our hearts as well."
"I can drink to that," Ibrix said. "Got enough of that wine for six?"
"I brought enough for six hundred," Nobak replied.
"An exaggeration. Six hundred could only share it if they sipped, but sixty could all have a cup or three," Goden replied, patting his brother on the back.
"Then pass it around my stony brothers," Ibrix said, returning to what had become his favorite boulder to sit on during their wait. "It's been a long time since we've gotten Quay drunk."
"If you think you're going to sleep with me again . . ." Quay said, narrowing her eyes.
Ibrix laughed and replied, "As I recall, that was when you got me drunk."
"My memory is a bit foggy. Perhaps the wine will clear it," Quay said, coughing.
"That's not how wine works," Nobak said. "Speaking of which, I better go get it. I left it at base camp. I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Don't tell a chemist how wine works. It only encourages her to drug you," Aika said, stalling Nobak long enough for him to laugh his way back down the mountain.
"I've never raped you, Aika," Quay said. "Why do you look so upset?"
"You didn't rape me, but you slept with my lover while I was out," Aika replied, pouting.
Quay crossed her arms over her chest. "She wanted it! And you can't blame me. You kept trying to make it a threesome when we wanted privacy!"
An argument broke out and for the first time in months, Tagren smiled with sincerity. But his gaze drifted back to Ghayle within moments, and he stepped toward her, kneeling beside her face to stroke her cheek.
"It's just like old times, isn't it Ghayle?" Tagren whispered.
And it was like old times. Like thousands of years before, when a small few had to rise to prove the strength of the races and prevent them from extinction. When the world broke under the weight of corruption and the Trial began.
Prism shook from the weight of the vision. Pain and suffering in Ghayle's heart rippled through him from his core to his extremities. But she'd only given him a fraction of it all. "I get the impression you held back and didn't let me feel everything," he said when he regained the ability to speak.
"Even in your current state, you would've been a blubbering mess on the ground. The only way one can handle the amount of pain I felt at that time is with millennia of experience at feeling the weight of the world," Ghayle said, "I'm afraid you're likely destined to a role like Tagren's, to patiently await the end of all."
"So, does that mean you believe Grim will be the one who succeeds?" Prism asked. "Will I have to watch him suffer for months or years without being able to do anything?"
"Just because Tagren and I were lovers does not mean all avatars and firsts have been lovers. Though Naxthul considered Khalis his soulmate as well, so I suppose it's a common enough connection," Ghayle replied. "It could be any of the potential Chosen. You considered Neredos your brother, Veil your sister. There's two in the Elrhanadan line, and though neither were as close to you as the others, you certainly hold loyalty in your heart for both. Not to mention Styx and Maxthane . . ." Ghayle shrugged and added. "The one who finishes it may not even be born yet, at the rate things are going."
"I'd not thought Styx, Maxthane, or Kirra to be qualified," Prism said.
"Why not? The demons are still active, and those boys' hearts are as pure as any. Even Alsha could fulfill that role, if the fates align in that way," Ghayle said with a smile. "As I recall, you're fond of her as well."
Prism sighed. "If I'd been born with different attractions, I could've seen myself with her in the long run. Her loyalty is certainly appealing and resonates with my own. Though as it stands, she's not much more than an acquaintance, is she?"
"You mean you're not particularly connected to her?" Ghayle said. "Trust me, you'll get to know all the Chosen over the millennia you'll spend together. Some will become closer, others may become rivals, but with your loyalty, whoever takes my place will be someone you'll be honored to serve."
"I'm not particularly connected to Maxthane, either," Prism said. "Is his heart really so pure? Although I saw potential in him, is he not his father's son?"
Ghayle chuckled softly and said, "Oh? Considering his mother and his uncle, I'd think you'd feel differently."
"Who are . . .?" Prism paused as he worked through the logic. Ghayle had mentioned two people for a reason. Only one sibling pair had a place of prominence in his mind. "Mother and uncle . . . he's Veil's son?" He asked in surprise.
"Indeed," Ghayle said.
"So, despite all the living warriors from our age, until the Trial is complete, any could end up taking your place," Prism said.
"Yes, though I have my favorites," Ghayle replied.
"Care to share?"
Ghayle shook her head. "It would not be proper. Though my heart may pull me in one way, I have no control over destiny, and it may be any of them. Speculating in silence is one thing, but I'm not one for gambling."
"What about those who showed their strength beforehand?" Prism asked. "What about Janlynd? Could she have been Chosen?"
"I never said she wasn't," Ghayle said. "There were others, as well, who have earned the right to protect the world. But only in the last days of the Trial are potential avatars made."
"So, she's here somewhere?" Prism asked. Ghayle remained silent, which Prism took as confirmation. "May I see her?"
Ghayle shook her head. "Not now. Not until you know all that you must know. Shall we resume your education?"
"May I guide it?" Prism asked.
"I suppose we have time for that," Ghayle said. "Where would you like to go?"
"Show me Master Vinh. I could use some of his eccentricity right now," Prism replied with a wide grin.
Ghayle put her hand on Prism's face and pulled him into memory once again. "Done."
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