Styx had never seen such a strange place. The chamber Neredos led him to was lined with an unfamiliar, light-blue metal. Etched runes covered nearly every inch of the paneling, and they glowed in a soft yellow light. In the center of the room was a large black sphere, its surface polished and reflective. It hovered in the air, suspended over a pedestal. Glowing veins of blue ran off from the pedestal in six directions toward the wall.
"Don't touch anything," Neredos warned as he approached the sphere. He glanced back at Styx once, eyes narrowing. "I mean it. If you touch anything in here without knowing what you're doing, it could kill us all."
Styx raised his hands, doing his best to look innocent. "Don't worry about me. As I said before, I'm here for your protection. What is this place, anyway?"
"It's the control room for the Everbright City. From here I can move the platform the city rests on and fly it away from Pentalus," Neredos replied, as he placed his hand above the sphere. He seemed to hesitate, then glanced back at Styx. "I need to move it before I start killing the demons."
Styx's eyes widened in shock. He wondered if Veil knew that Neredos planned to kill the demons. Would that have affected her decision to kill the King? It didn't matter, Styx supposed, since he'd come to kill Neredos regardless. Veil had asked him to do so, and he would do anything to please her.
However, something in him resisted the idea. He told himself that the right opportunity simply hadn't presented itself yet. Sure, Neredos had turned his back on Styx multiple times, but even when Styx reached for his dagger he couldn't bring himself to draw it. Neredos must die, but not yet. Not . . .
"Why do you need to move the city?" Styx asked, his hand twitching away from the dagger. This wasn't the time, this wasn't right. He would kill Neredos, but not yet, not until he knew what was happening. "And what do you mean by 'platform'? I thought the city floated on the clouds."
"Those clouds are part of the enchantment keeping the city obscured and nothing more," Neredos said. "I could dispel them from here if I really wanted, though I don't see any reason to. They've been there since the city first came into being, when I was not much older than you."
Styx realized he was clutching the hilt of the dagger again and relaxed his grip. He didn't understand this urge to kill Neredos. Why had he agreed to do Veil's bidding? Neredos seemed so human . . . standing over the orb with a look of wistful resignation, Styx couldn't see anything evil about this man. Could he kill a man who wasn't evil?
Yes. Yes, he could, because Veil wished it, and that was all that mattered. Veil had asked him, and she had saved his life, and that was all the reason he needed. The dagger slid an inch from its sheath and paused there, Styx's knuckles turning white from the tension in his grip.
"You haven't told me why you're moving it," Styx said, struggling to delay the inevitable. A war waged inside him between two desires, one to kill and one against killing. He was not a murderer, he would never be a murderer, no matter his upbringing or the promises he had made. How could he stab a man in the back?
Neredos sighed, his eyes growing distant. His shoulders drooped as he rested his hands on the edge of the pedestal beneath the orb. "I thought I was saving the world, but I believe I've only made matters worse. The world I was born into was violent, full of people who believed they had all the answers. I always tried to look beyond the answers I was given, to explore and create things that had never been explored or created. I succeeded, time and time again, and then . . ." he laughed. It was a bitter sound, full of misery and malcontent, a laugh at the state of the universe. "Then I became one of them. The people wanted me to be their leader, to fix the world, and I so I kept the demons contained and fed from their essence. I stagnated progress, I stopped all development of technologies that could lead to the destruction of the world I loved. Exploration and creation, my dearest ideals, became my greatest threats, and I could not allow them to persist."
He straightened then, and turned to face Styx, a wry smile on his lips. "The truth is, I have denied the state of the world as surely as the nations of my youth did. I could blame the madness I suffer from, but that would be nothing more than a crutch to rely on. I have had moments of lucidity, like now, during which I could have decided to end this, to finish what I'd started . . ." he laughed again, the same complex emotions ringing through the room. "But I couldn't accept that I was wrong. I didn't want to see that the world I created was just as lost as before. And now armies perch at my doorstep, as demons threaten my people once again. The world is no longer content with my stagnation and has demanded action against me."
He turned back to the orb and placed his hand against it. The orb shimmered, and then the floor seemed to disappear as Pentalus appeared below them. Styx jumped back in alarm, activating his hawk tattoo and preparing to fall to safety. Neredos' laughter took on a more mirthful tone as he watched Styx scramble to the wall.
"Don't worry, the floor is still there," Neredos said with a grin. "But you see all the pillars? The Everbright City has rested atop them for support all these centuries. I can kill the demons inside by focusing on each one, but if I did it before I moved the city, the Everbright City would crash into Pentalus and likely kill everyone. It might even break through and destroy The Shade as well."
Styx nodded as his breathing slowly returned to normal. He took a shaky step forward. He'd spent enough time in the air to not be completely discomforted by walking through the sky, but it was difficult to not think he would fall at any moment. He chose to focus on Neredos instead, as he crossed the floor to stand beside him at the orb.
From up close, he could see that the orb was etched in small runes as well, the grooves polished just as much as the rest of it. He wanted to reach out and trace the lines from sheer curiosity, wondering how this obviously magic stone felt to the touch. Before he could even try to lift his hand toward the orb, he found it clutching the dagger and refusing to leave the hilt.
Neredos stared at Styx's hand and frowned. He nodded, his gaze narrowing. "Veil sent you to kill me, didn't she?"
Styx's mouth twitched, his hand itching to pull the dagger from its sheath and ram it into Neredos' chest, but he managed to keep it contained. Nothing Veil had said compelled him to remain silent, however, so he met Neredos' gaze and replied, "Yes. She thinks you shouldn't be allowed to rule."
"Within the hour, I won't be ruling," Neredos replied dryly. "That should be soon enough, don't you think?"
Styx nodded, but was unable to release his grip on the dagger. "I promised her I would kill you."
"You poor, unfortunate one. I don't know how you've resisted this long. I can't have you hovering over my shoulder in this state however," Neredos said, and raised his gauntleted hand. He sketched several runes in the air with his finger, light trailing and remaining visible in a small ring. Once the circle was complete, Neredos uttered a single, unrecognizable syllable.
A field of blinding white fog surrounded Styx, dragging him backward through the air. He fought to move through it but could find no end to it. Everywhere he turned was nothing but whiteness. He clutched at the knife again, sure now that Neredos was the evil man he had come to kill. It leapt into his fingers, and Styx slashed out wildly at where he thought Neredos should be.
The slashes caught nothing but fog, and Styx stumbled forward, oblivious to the boundaries of his prison. He had to kill Neredos. He could not be allowed to continue in his madness.
"Do you think the Knights are going to try to kill us?" Gobrak asked, eyeing the eagles above them with a wary eye. He had an arrow against his bow but not nocked, ready to take aim at the Knights at any moment, should they swoop in for an attack.
Maxthane patted the leg of the golem beside them. "I don't think they know what to make of our friend here."
"He's not the only one," Kirra said, looking askance at Maxthane and the golem both. "But since the golem hasn't done anything yet, we might get a chance to explain ourselves first. Well, I suppose it has done something. That hole in the ground isn't exactly promising for our case."
"Why don't you just call up to them?" Gobrak asked. "Are you not one of them?"
Kirra sighed and nodded. "They don't seem to want us to go any farther, so I guess we don't have any other option if we want to avoid conflict. What do you think will—" he cut off his question as the Knights suddenly shifted formation and dove toward the golem, swords leading. "Take cover!" he shouted.
Gobrak nocked his arrow and took aim, but Maxthane quickly tackled him, disrupting his fire. The arrow sailed wide but earned them the attention of the Knights.
"What are you doing, Fletcher Gobrak?" Maxthane shouted. "We don't want to start a fight!"
As he spoke, the golem raised its arms to protect its eye. The Knights dove past, swords scraping noisily against the metal casing covering the arms. The maneuver did far more damage to the blades than the golem, one sword snapping as it collided with the sturdier material.
Kirra cursed in alarm as the sword tip dropped next to him, clattering to the cobblestones. Sensing he was out of time, he stepped forward, calling up to the Knights with his sword sheathed and arms open wide. "Stop the attack! In the name of the Firmament stop your attack!"
"Kirra Elrhanadan!" one of the Knights shouted. "It's Alsha's boy!"
"Didn't he go missing during the attack on Pentalus?" another said.
A third joined in. "And he came back with a demon!"
Kirra raised his hands in surrender, gritting his teeth as he thought of what to say next. This wasn't going the way he'd expected things to go, but he was now the best chance they had of diffusing the situation. He stepped forward and shouted at the Knights. "I wish to speak to your commander!"
The Knights regrouped but were disinclined to attack again. Upon seeing that the golem had no intention of doing anything other than protect itself, their commander turned her attention to Kirra. She broke away from the others, landing at the edge of the plaza. Dismounting, she waved Kirra forward.
He nodded his appreciation and moved toward the plaza, keeping his hands visible. As he approached, he studied the commander's face. While he didn't know her personally, he had seen her many times throughout his tenure with the Knights. She raised her hand to stop him when he came within ten paces of her. He stopped short and said, "Commander Belthin, thank you for calling off your Knights."
"I've had no end of strange occurrences today, and I'm not in the mood for more, Elrhanadan," Belthin replied with a fierce scowl. "Look behind me, in the plaza. Do you see the demon's body and the Elroks? I just dealt with that, and there are armies surrounding Pentalus. Last I heard, you were missing. Are you part of the problem, or the solution? You arrive with a . . ." her eyes darted from Kirra's face to the golem as an involuntary shudder struck her. "You arrive with a metal demon, the Prince of The Shade, and another Elrok, who just shot at my Knights, I might add. What do you have to say?"
Kirra wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all. He could see the Elroks in the distance, even recognize Bradeth among them. They were approaching slowly, led by the Fletcher and a naked Fedain—one of the most beautiful men Kirra had ever seen. He didn't know what he could say to explain what had happened, the strange road that had brought him to this precise moment, but he had to try.
"We came to rescue the Fedain, Grim," Kirra explained slowly. "But that has already been done. King Maxthane is an ally, and we reached Pentalus by means of the golem, er, the metal giant behind us. We didn't know we would arrive in the middle of the city. You are not under attack, and we will be happy to leave as soon as we rendezvous with our allies."
"What is going on!?" Belthin said, scoffing. "Has the whole world gone mad? First, Neredos evacuates the Everbright City, then the Elroks show up to rescue their Fedain chief, then a renegade Knight shows up with the Underking? And all that while the city is under attack!" She shook her head in disbelief, meeting Kirra's eyes. "What's next, the sky will start falling?"
"Commander!" shouted a voice from above them. Kirra and Belthin looked up to see a grizzled old Knight hovering nearby. When he saw that he had their attention, he continued. "Commander, there are Shades in the city! A whole army of them!"
"What!?" Belthin asked, turning to Kirra. "Are you in league with them?"
Kirra shook his head, keeping his hands raised in surrender. "No. There was a coup below, and Maxthane is in exile. Perhaps they came looking for him, or maybe the Elroks?"
"This is insanity!" Belthin cried.
A loud creaking erupted from the clouds overhead. It rippled like thunder through the city, and every living being looked up as one. The clouds above them were shifting, lifting away from the pillars of fog spread throughout the city.
"What is happening?" Belthin asked.
Kirra stared at the sky in disbelief, as the clouds drifted westward. "Maybe the sky is falling after all?"
Neredos kept the sphere of white fog in his periphery. He hoped Styx would understand the need to place him in stasis. Unlike the spell used to contain the demons, this one kept the prisoner conscious, yet just as imprisoned. The sphere felt like fog despite being impassable to either caster or prisoner. It would also dissipate as soon as Neredos died, or simply willed it to stop.
But for now, it would keep the threat to his life away from him. He considered killing Styx to spare some of his mental focus, but it took little effort to divide his mind into three parts. One would maintain control of the sphere holding Styx, another would pilot the city, and the third would begin his most important task.
In Pentalus, a demon dissolved, fed to the mists that contained it, destroyed by Neredos' will. The pillar disappeared as well, though with all the other chaos happening below Neredos doubted anyone would notice. He wondered how many he would have to destroy before the people noticed.
He couldn't destroy them as quickly as he preferred with his focus divided as it was. Moving the Everbright City was the most urgent task, and his hand remained in constant contact with the orb. Through the orb he could connect with the six reactors, which powered the anti-gravity generators.
Sparing a moment to peer through the floor, he watched the army slowly surrounding his city. If he'd installed weapons in this city as the President of Oligan had suggested, he could have wiped out that army within seconds. He had regretted the decision not to arm the city, over the course of the Demon War, but now he was glad he no longer had the option.
The world had suffered enough from his poor decisions. There was no need to add more now. He concentrated on another demon, killing it inside the pillar. By the time the sun finished setting, he would have killed them all, removing the last thing keeping the world from moving on.
Glancing once more at the sphere holding Styx captive, Neredos decided he would leave the demon generals for last and continue to feed from them. If any more assassins lurked in the shadows, he would have to survive long enough to finish what he had just started.
"What news have you from the front?" Veil asked, keeping pace with Alsha on their way out of the Enclave. They approached the edge of the city where Alsha and her company had left their eagles. They could see Knights engaged in combat with other eagle riders in the distance. The Knights were holding their own, but they'd made little progress in repelling the invaders.
"The most recent report has us stretched thin on the outskirts of the city," Alsha said, without looking at Veil. She kept her attention fully on the combat ahead of them, aching to join her companions in defending the city. "Apparently, the military has been breeding eagles for many years, biding their time for this moment."
"Why now?" Veil asked. "Of all times to come, this is grossly inconvenient."
"We were unable to give a full accurate accounting to the High Inquisitors, but we had rumors that it's because of King Neredos' madness," Alsha replied. "We left Port Salmus as soon as we learned the military was planning on coming here. High Inquisitor Isean didn't want to hear us out. He said the evacuation was more important than anything else."
"Of course he did . . ." Veil replied with a sour expression. "Neredos brought doom down on us. And the typical lack of initiative by the Inquisition's leadership failed to assess the threat the military posed to them."
Alsha nodded as they reached the eagles. She didn't have much to say about the leadership of the Knights. She'd often felt unimpressed with their decisions—as Veil seemed to be—and doubted any well-reasoned person would feel differently. Considering what she'd learned recently about High Inquisitor Grembal, she wondered if maybe the whole system was corrupt, and only she and a few others held true to the Order's ideals.
But that was a matter to think about at another time, when there weren't people trying to kill them and their charges. Waving Fenri over to her, she pointed at the two eagles saddled and waiting for them. "We might have to fight to get you to safety. I'm going to let you ride with Fenri, and Clasean will ride with me."
Veil glanced back at Clasean and nodded once, before returning her attention to Alsha. "Very well, if you insist. But we will stick together. I don't want to be separated from him if I can help it."
Alsha nodded once to her and once to Fenri before meeting Clasean's eyes and gesturing toward her eagle. She mounted, then let him climb in behind her. As soon as the rest of the riders were saddled, along with Veil's coterie of servants, she urged her eagle to take off.
As they neared the outer ring of the city, Alsha drew her sword. A chorus of drawn steel followed her, and she could feel the tension in the air. Knowing the mettle of her soldiers, she called out one final order to her troops, "The Oracle's safety is more important than killing the rebels! Don't fight unless you have to, just focus on breaking through!"
"Yes sir!" came the united reply.
"Let's fly!" Alsha shouted, then spurred her mount to as much speed as it could manage with its present burden.
This was a new eagle to her, one she'd only ridden once, but whoever trained it had done their duty well. The eagle was strong and eager, and it took to the skies with a determined screech. It showed no fear of the dangers ahead, the clash of steel ringing through open air.
But Alsha had no intention of brining the eagle anywhere near the battle. She led her company through the lines of her allies and then aimed her eagle into a dive right at the edge of the clouds, hugging tight to the edge like a waterfall.
Her company followed her maneuver exactly, forming a cascade of eagles diving toward Pentalus. Pentalus . . . instead of the open land beyond the city that should have been there. Alsha nearly pulled up short at the unexpected sight before her. This particular edge of the Everbright City should've hung over the Eastern hills, rolling up from the Plains of Kalle.
But she didn't have time to question her location. Angry and surprised shouts followed them, and several enemy fliers pursued them. Alsha knew they wouldn't keep up the chase, however, and continued the dive. With the city fast approaching, she pulled up at the last moment, banking into a graceful forward arc.
Their pursuers broke away, returning to the battle at the edge of the Everbright City as the rest of the Knights regrouped around Alsha. But they were far from out of danger. More eagle riders rose up from the ranks of the armies surrounding Pentalus. They would not be as easy to evade as the first group had been, for they could see Alsha's company coming from a great distance and intercept without any issue. Burdened as Alsha's eagles were, they wouldn't stand a chance at breaking through.
"We should have made it outside of Pentalus when we left the edge of the city. I don't understand," Alsha said after a moment, still perplexed by their surroundings.
"The city has moved," Clasean observed, glancing back toward the Everbright City.
Alsha spared the city a glance as well, and it took her only a second to realize that the city was moving westward, toward the ocean. "So, it has . . ." she said, then turned her focus to solving their current problem. "We will land to assess the situation."
Flat roofs were common in Pentalus and finding a set of rooftops close enough for the company to land together wasn't difficult. As soon as they landed, the Knights helped their charges dismount and Alsha's officers and Veil moved to join her.
Just before they arrived, Clasean leaned toward Alsha and said, "Thank you. I'm glad it was you who came. Lady Veil is fond of you."
"I'm honored," Alsha replied with a polite smile. "Now we have to figure out how to get you past the army.
As Veil arrived with Fenri, the latter saluted and said, "Lady Alsha, Commander Belthin is in the middle of Ibrix Plaza next to what appears to be a demon . . . or . . . something like a demon, I guess. I spied her company on the way down."
"What in the Firmament . . .?" Alsha asked. She went to her saddlebags and pulled out her spyglass, then aimed it in the direction of Ibrix Plaza. At first the dead form of the demon drew her attention, and she wondered if what she'd told Kirra and Bradeth had led to this strange gathering. She saw the Knights, City Watch, Elroks, and the golem in the middle of it all. It didn't appear to be a battle, but she didn't know what to make of it. Regardless, it had little to do with her. "We should probably stay away, as I'm sure they have their orders. Our focus should be on getting the Oracle out of the city."
Even as Fenri saluted, Veil shook her head and stepped forward. "Where is safety?"
"I'm sorry?" Alsha asked with surprise.
"How do you know that anyone outside of the city will give us sanctuary? Do you simply intend to regroup with the rest of the refugees and find some place to lay low?" Veil asked. As Alsha stared at her openmouthed, Veil continued with a firm voice. "No . . . we should stay here, and help. My servants can find shelter in Pentalus as civilians, but we are under attack. Clasean and I will fight for this city."
"But my orders—" Alsha began.
Veil raised a hand, commanding silence with her gaze. "Are superseded by one who can see the future. We will meet with Commander Belthin and lend her the strength of your company and our expertise. It is better that we attempt to save the city than flee it unnecessarily. If the time comes that we have no chance of victory, then we will leave."
Alsha studied Veil for a moment and saw the resolve in her eyes. Eventually Alsha found herself nodding as she said, "Let's get the civilians to safety first, and then I will take you there."
"Wise choice," Veil replied confidently, but the uncertainty in her eyes unnerved Alsha to her core.
"King Maxthane thulu'Khant and Fletcher Gobrak, this is Commander Belthin of the Knights of the Firmament," Kirra said, indicating all three with a look as he made the introductions.
"Well met, though I think we should focus on the news that a Shade army is here," Belthin said, glancing back into the plaza as if expecting to see a horde of enemies descend on her flank. Upon seeing that Bradeth and Grim had nearly reached them with the remaining Elroks right behind, Belthin turned slightly, keeping both the newcomers and the golem in her sights.
"May we join your parlay?" Bradeth asked.
"Fletcher Bradeth—" Kirra began, intending to begin a new round of introductions.
Grim cut him off quickly and addressed Belthin. "May I present Bradeth, Chief of Lions, Chief of all Clans."
"But didn't you say you were the chief?" Belthin asked with a look of strained surprise.
"I was, until moments ago. I've abdicated," Grim said, making sure to include Gobrak in his look. The old Elrok nodded even as Grim continued. "Will someone find me some clothing? I hope that's not too much to ask."
Kirra noticed the distrust on Belthin's face and hastened to intercede on Grim's behalf. "I know this isn't easy for you, Commander Belthin, but these people really are here to help."
Belthin spared him a glance before she sighed and nodded. "Folrak! Go find this man some clothing and be quick about it. Raid one of the buildings if you must," she called out, and one of her Knights immediately rushed down the street. She didn't bother to watch him go and turned her attention fully to Maxthane. "Now, King Maxthane, you have brought an army into Pentalus? And what is this being behind you?"
"The Shade army appears to have arrived," Gobrak observed, pointing past Belthin. The group turned as one to see a group of roughly one hundred moving across the plaza from the alleyways. A familiar regal figure walked at the front of the group.
"Those aren't just any Shades. They're allies," Kirra said, smiling at Madame Godani.
"Not much of an army, is it?" Bradeth said with a snort. "A hundred at best?"
"If I'm not mistaken, it's the entire Inkblades guild," Maxthane added. "For Madame Godani to leave The Shade herself, and to abandon her guildhall entirely . . . something cataclysmic must have happened."
"Can this day get any stranger?" Belthin said with a sigh.
"The Everbright City is moving," Grim offered, looking upward. "That is something I certainly didn't expect to see."
"Is that what that noise was?" Kirra asked, glancing up at the sky. He remembered something he'd felt outside of Pentalus the day before, a feeling he'd suppressed since venturing into The Shade to find Maxthane. It came flooding back to him, magic nearly overwhelming his senses as he stared at the underside of The Everbright City. Something powerful resonated from within that place, unlike anything he'd ever felt before.
"I think so," Grim said after a moment. "I imagine it would have to be."
Belthin eyed him nervously. "Should we be worried about it falling?"
"No . . ." Grim said, lips pursed thoughtfully. "No, it won't do that. Neredos is moving it for a different reason."
"What different reason?" Belthin asked, eyes narrowing. "And what do you know?"
Kirra snapped out of his trance and said, "He's a lot older than he looks. You're looking at the same Grim who is recorded in the history of the Demon War. He fought alongside Neredos and Veil."
Belthin gasped and Grim was quick to hold up his hand to fend off her surprise. "I will answer any questions about that at some other time. But if you look in the distance . . ." he pointed to some distant point and added, "There was a pillar there. One of the demons has either been set free or killed. I'm sure we'll know which in a moment."
"Oh great . . . more demons set loose on my city!" Belthin said, throwing up her hands in frustration.
"If there are, we will help you defeat them," Maxthane said. "They will, too." He pointed at the advancing Shades. The bulk of the group had stopped fifty paces back in the plaza, but Madame Godani approached on her own, her double-bowed crossbow loaded and in her hands.
"King Maxthane, are you well?" she asked as she crossed the remaining distance. She spared barely a glance for the Knights as she focused on the familiar faces in the group. Her eyes widened a bit as she looked the naked Grim up and down approvingly.
"I am. What possessed you to bring your guild into the city?" Maxthane asked, giving Madame Godani a knowing smile.
"Krythe is on the move," Madame Godani explained simply. "With your escape and the Elroks moving toward the exit, he has reasoned that you are here. He has found the best assassins your family's money can buy and has sent them here to kill you. I decided it was in my best interest to ensure you stayed alive, considering my fate and that of my guild's is now tied to your survival after my open opposition to Krythe."
"I see," Maxthane said.
"So, you're working with them too?" Belthin asked Madame Godani.
"She is," Maxthane interjected. "And we will defend your city together if you wish." As he spoke the words, Madame Godani nodded, though her lips curled into a slight snarl.
"Against the armies as well?" Belthin asked. "Or just the possible demon threat?"
Before they could respond, Kirra stepped forward and cupped his hand to his mouth shouting, "Alsha!"
Alsha's eagle landed next to Belthin's and she and Clasean dismounted swiftly. Fenri arrived a moment later with Veil, and the four moved toward the gathering without delay. All Alsha's attention homed in on her former Knight. "Kirra!? What is going on here?"
"Oracle!" Belthin said as she noticed Veil.
Veil fixed her with a long look, then took in the others with a sweeping glance. "I am putting Lady Alsha in charge of your combined forces, Commander Belthin. If the rest of you are willing to fight on our side, you must also agree to serve under her command. We've come to help for all our sakes. Virtue demands it of us."
Almost all eyes turned to her, their heads nodding in agreement to her air of command. Only Madame Godani and Grim seemed completely unimpressed. The former remained silent, but the latter scoffed and said derisively, "Virtue?"
"Hello, brother . . ." Veil said, turning toward him with a slight smile. "Let's have a little chat and leave the mortals to draw up battle plans, shall we?"
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