Grim walked through the streets of Pentalus with as much ease as he had ever walked the streets of Ultaka. Despite having never lived in the former, for more than a few months at a time, he had visited it often enough over the past eight centuries to know it just as well as the city of his birth. Now his mind raced back through conversations held over the past few years with an unusually well-mannered bounty hunter, to find a specific building.
He hadn't expected he would ever have a need to visit this place, nor to seek the help of its occupants, but had retained the details of its location all the same. The home of the resistance, those who opposed the rule of Neredos and his Knights of the Firmament, would be unlikely to welcome the brother of their most hated enemy. However, he had to try, for the good of everyone.
The guards saw him approaching from a long way off. He hadn't tried to conceal his approach, and because of the troubles in the city they were already on edge and aware of threats at every moment. As he neared them, he could feel the distrust and see almost hatred in their eyes, but he did not slow. Hesitation at a time like this would only make it more difficult for everyone involved.
"That's far enough, Fedain!" One of the men standing guard at the door said, as Grim came within five paces of them. The man leveled a cudgel into his hand, his eyes narrowed menacingly. "We don't want any trouble with your kind, why don't you just move on out of here before someone gets hurt?"
Grim remained still, keeping his hands at his side as he smiled politely at the guard. "I wish an audience with The Mother, and I come as an ally."
The guard scoffed, sharing an incredulous look with his companion. "What use do we have for an ally like you?"
"I can tell you exactly where Veil is, for starters," Grim replied smoothly. "And I can help make sure your resistance survives this battle."
The guard arched an eyebrow. "You would sell out a member of your own kind?"
"I only wish an audience," Grim said. "Is it really such a bad trade?"
The guards shared another look, this one contemplative, and then one knocked on the door behind him. A small window in the door opened, and the guard exchanged brief words with someone inside. After the window was shut again, the guard returned his attention to Grim and said, "Wait here. We will see what The Mother says."
Grim remained exactly where he was, his eyes fixed on the guards in front of him. Over his long life, he had played enough political games to know how this would go. He would get an audience, and they would hear him out until he had said all he had to say. He had arrived promising what they wanted most.
Within a minute of his arrival, the guards ushered Grim into the building. An escort of four led him through the halls to an audience chamber where two women waited for him. One old and one young, though both regarded him with a contempt that seemed to have been stewing for ages.
Before either one could speak, he addressed the older woman. "Nal Maya Godani, I am Grim, friend of Dogo. I know what happened to you, and I know the revenge you seek. I can lead you directly to Veil and ensure that she faces the judgment that you require. I will do this regardless of your answer, but I also have a request to make."
To the two women's credit, neither reacted with more than a slight widening of their eyes. Their faces remained as stony as when he arrived. After a moment, the younger one spoke. "You may leave us now, guards. This man is no threat to us."
Grim expected protest from his escort, but instead the four bowed and left without complaint. As soon as the door closed, the older woman spoke. "You know my name, my identity, and I have heard your name before as well. Dogo has spoken of you in the past, and that is the only reason why I will hear you out."
"I don't believe I will disappoint you," Grim said, suppressing an amused smile. "As I said, I am prepared to deliver Veil into your hands for her to receive your judgment."
"What makes you think I need you for that?" Nal Maya replied. "I have already sent someone to deal with her. With the chaos happening above, I'm sure he succeeded."
"Oh?" Grim replied. "Well, unless your assassin is still in Pentalus, I'm afraid he has missed his mark. She is currently in the Plaza of Ibrix, aiding a rather odd group assembled to defend the city from the army at the borders."
"He failed," the younger woman hissed. "I knew we shouldn't have sent him. We should not have entrusted such an important mission to him."
"Quiet, Laris," Nal Maya replied. She placed a hand on the younger woman's arm and gave her a stern look. "Styx needed healing, and it was the only way. The others probably wouldn't have gotten close."
It was Grim's turn to be surprised. "Styx? You sent Styx to assassinate someone?" Unable to control himself, he started to laugh.
"You forget yourself, pale one," Laris said, her eyes shooting daggers at him. "You are surrounded by enemies who are willing to kill you for offending The Mother."
"I meant no disrespect," Grim said, raising a hand to stall her as he attempted to get his laughter under control. "I'm only surprised is all. Styx is not exactly known for his . . . Combat capabilities. I was a gladiator with him, as I was with Dogo. I'm sure Styx is capable of many things but entrusting him to assassinate one of the most powerful people in the entire world is extreme negligence."
Nal Maya nodded, accepting Grim's words. "Yes, I'm not surprised by that, though I knew he could get close to her, and I'd hoped that would be enough."
"It wasn't," Grim replied. "I have it on good authority that Veil sent Styx to assassinate Neredos after she spoke to him."
"Good authority?" Laris scoffed. "Whose?"
Grim met her eyes. "Hers. Veil's."
"I believe you," Nal Maya said, before Laris could reply. "So you say that Veil is in Ibrix Plaza. Is she really in a position where we can just assassinate her? You mentioned she was aiding others, which means she has allies. Our resources may be extensive, but we have already failed to kill her many times in similar situations."
Grim reached into one of the folds of his clothing and drew out a large and ancient book. He tossed it to Nal Maya and said, "You will find many different ways to kill a person in this book. I know you can read Gor, being a former High Mistress of the Inkblades as you are. I have met your sister on two occasions, and I know her to be a capable magi, as much from my observations then as from what Dogo has told me. I also know that you are her twin, and I know something of sibling rivalries. I'm sure you are every bit as capable with magic as your sister."
Nal Maya turned the book in her hands, her eyes widening with shock as she opened the pages and looked within. "This is . . . The level of the spells in here are beyond my understanding."
Grim sighed. He was tired, ready to put an end to this entire ordeal, and he was sick of having the fate of the world rest on his shoulders alone. "Then give me the book, and I will find someone else to entrust it to."
"I fail to see why you would trust us with something this powerful to begin with," Nal Maya said, regarding Grim with renewed interest. "Why would you want us to kill Veil, anyway? As I recall, you are her brother, aren't you?"
Grim bowed, and when he straightened again his eyes were hard. "Yes, and I know the weight of her sins more than anyone else living. I bear some of my own, though my tasks are not yet completed. Veil was consumed by a need to serve as a check against Neredos, but soon she will not be needed in that capacity. It is time she receives judgment for the pain she has caused to you and others. Soon, I will atone as well."
"So, this is about redemption?" Laris asked venomously. "You betrayed your sister out of guilt?"
Grim shook his head. "Somewhere in her own mind, she wants to be brought to judgment just as much as you want to bring her to it. I do this for her. So that she can finally rest."
"Are you not just as old is she?" Nal Maya asked. "How can a person live for eight centuries and retain any amount of perspective on what it's like to be mortal? Why should we trust your motives?"
Grim smirked at that. "Unlike my sister, my immortality was never selfishly motivated. She has wanted to live for eight centuries, I have wanted to die since the moment when I first took another's life. She kept herself apart and above, to live with the God King himself, surrounded by the comforts of nobility and prestige. I have walked every road this world has to offer, have lived my life among the poor, the sick, the dying. I know better than anyone that all things end. I have faced death a thousand times, and I have ended more lives than any demon. You ask if I understand what it means to be mortal? I don't think anyone understands mortality better than the man who wants to die but cannot."
By the time he finished speaking, Nal Maya's eyes had moistened, and her cheeks were wet with tears. She approached Grim, extending the grimoire back to him. "I, too, understand this sentiment. You have a mission to fulfill, something you must accomplish before you can rest. It doesn't matter how old you get, or how many obstacles are in your way, you will see it through. I wanted to hate you when you came in here today, despite the good things Dogo said about you. But I find that I cannot. What is it you would have us do?"
Grim held her gaze and nodded solemnly. "I only asked that you help us defend Pentalus. We need to save as many lives as we can, the best way I can see to do that is to make the army see that we cannot be easily beaten. If we can gather a large enough force, they will hesitate to attack us, and we will have a chance to end this with diplomacy."
Nal Maya nodded. "We will help you, Grim, friend of my dead love. Laris, summon the other leaders of the resistance. Tell them to spread the word; today we fight for Pentalus."
"Lady Veil, are you all right?" Clasean said, rushing from his position with the Elroks and city watch. He had agreed to fight alongside them, lending his sword to the front lines once the enemy decided to move against them. After seeing the assassin attack Maxthane, however, he had left his post without hesitation.
Veil ignored him, all her attention focused on the boy lying on the cobblestones next to her. Maxthane thulu'Khant had already bled enough to kill a man, and from the sheen of sweat on Veil's face, it wasn't clear if the boy had already died or not.
"Is he going to be all right?" Kirra asked, leaning over Maxthane, opposite Veil. "You can heal him, can't you?"
Veil did her best to push all the voices around her from her awareness. None of them were conducive to the focus that she needed. Her son lay before her, unconscious and bleeding out. No, dead . . . Maxthane was dead, but it was fresh enough that she still had a chance.
There was more than just a missing limb to contend with. Whatever strange weapon had removed his arm had also left behind a quick-acting poison that had stilled Maxthane's heart in seconds. In order to save him, Veil needed to force the poison from him and seal the wound on his arm simultaneously. Only then could she work on reviving him.
She began the process, painstakingly working every trace of poison out of Maxthane system that she could manage as quickly as possible. Despite her skill, she wasn't sure it would be enough. There were limits to how long a person could still be brought back from death. She needed speed, not just technique.
Kirra moved out of the way and a pair of pale hands rested on Maxthane's opposite arm. Veil felt the poison dissipate faster, and Maxthane's wounds began to close. She risked a glance upward and nearly sighed in relief. Grim had returned from wherever he'd gone just in time to save her son.
Their energies worked in concert, dividing the labor between them. Meticulously thorough, both Fedain made sure that every trace of the poison was gone before they set to work at reviving Maxthane. Drawing on their extensive wells of energy, Grim and Veil poured their life force into the dead king.
Maxthane's body convulsed, energy coursing through him. His heart began pumping again, his brain flaring to life and sending signals to every nerve. He was missing an arm from the shoulder down now, but the stump twitched just as much as the rest of him, aching to move fingers that were no longer there. In a matter of seconds, it was done, and Maxthane lay gasping on the cobblestones.
"What happened?" He said hoarsely, looking between Grim and Veil. "I felt . . . So much pain, then nothing. Then light, so much light . . ."
"You died," Veil said, pushing back the hair that had fallen on Maxthane's face. "But you are back now, you're safe."
Maxthane attempted to raise the arm that was no longer attached to him then stared at the place the limb should be. He closed his eyes, fighting back tears. "It's gone, he's gone . . ."
"Yes, the golem . . ." Kirra began, looking out to the Plaza. "I couldn't stop them from taking it, didn't even have a chance. He was too fast, and he . . . Maxthane I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault, Kirra," Maxthane replied. "What is the golem doing?"
"It's still chasing after the last two assassins. It's chasing them away from the Plaza," Kirra reported. "It looks like the army is getting ready to advance on our position now that it's out of the way."
"It will follow the last order I gave it," Maxthane said. "The last one was kill those four assassins, so I assume it will chase them until they're dead, unless someone else takes command of it before then."
"I don't want to think about what will happen once the golem is under their control," Kirra said. "Either way, it's time we get off the front lines. Now that you don't have the golem, there's no reason to be up here."
Veil and Grim helped Maxthane to his feet. Both put a consoling hand on his shoulder nearest to them. "I agree with Kirra," Veil said. "There is no sense in waiting here to be killed again."
Before any of them could move, a large form approach them from a nearby building. Gobrak rushed to Maxthane's side, his face grim and his eyes frantic. Upon seeing Maxthane standing and healthy—at least as healthy as he could be, now missing an arm— he sighed in relief and bowed in greeting. "What happened? Why is the golem running off?"
"Did you see the assassin who surprised us?" Kirra asked.
"Yes, Bradeth is tracking his movements through the ground with a spell," Gobrak replied. "By her best guess when I left, he was headed straight for the enemy army."
"That means Krythe has decided to side with the invaders," Maxthane said. "It’s what my father would've done, so I'm not surprised. We need to try to stop him. It's the only chance we have."
Gobrak nodded. "As I said, Bradeth is tracking him. This isn't over yet, King Maxthane. No matter how grim it may seem."
"Speaking of Grim," Veil said, eyeing her brother, "where have you been?"
"Securing more allies," Grim replied. "They will be here shortly, and hopefully they'll bring an army." Veil didn't like the pity in his eyes. It was like looking at the executioner before the axe fell.
Lord Hount readied his soldiers for another attack. Whatever Flax and his assassins had done, the golem was no longer a problem. On top of that, the infantry had finally arrived. He would be able to seize the city before the morning came, if he was lucky.
Above him a bird sounded, an owl by his best bet. It was an odd bird to hear in Pentalus, but these were strange times with stranger omens. In the lands of his rule, the owl symbolized coming change, often negative but just as often positive. He would not rule out either until the change occurred.
The cavalry would charge in first, to act as a distraction before the infantry followed. The streets ahead were not wide enough for him to use his cavalry effectively, but in the Plaza they could still be of use.
Hount eyed the Plaza skeptically, giving particular notice to the large hole left by the fight with Ibrix. Large cracks spread across the entire Plaza now, the result of the golem's heavy attacks and movements. He wondered if he could truly afford to send his soldiers in there now. Would hundreds of men flooding the Plaza weaken the ground structure further and send it all crumbling to The Shade below?
A low rumbling nearby made him wonder if the collapse had already begun. To his surprise, the ground gave way upward rather than down, and Flax emerged from the ground several feet away from Hount. Hount reached for his sword, caught off guard by the assassin's sudden appearance, and only relaxed a little when he recognized the man's identity.
"I have a gift for you, Lord Hount," Flax said, tossing a small arm bracer to Hount. "The key to destroying all of our enemies."
Hount quirked an eyebrow as he stared at the bracer. It was made of a material he could not identify, and its surface was etched with a few dozen small symbols he didn't recognize. "What is this?" He asked testily. "I have a war to fight and you bring me a trinket?"
"I believe this is used to control the large being currently chasing after my associates," Flax said with a flourish of a bow. "With it I'm sure you can send their weapon against the forces assembled on the other side of the Plaza."
Hount nodded in acceptance of the explanation, though he doubted Flax's motives. "And why wouldn't you keep such a powerful weapon for yourself? We may be temporary allies, but I would think you'd want to use this."
Flax raised his chitinous arms by way of explanation and said, "I don't think it would stay on, and I'm much more comfortable with the weapons I already have. I trust that you will put it to effective use. After all, we are alli—" a loud shriek from the owl sounded, and a large arrow sailed across the entire length of the Plaza, arcing perfectly to take flax in the neck from behind. He collapsed forward into Hount, his words stolen from him, along with his breath.
"Pull back!" Hount shouted to his troops. "They have an archer that can reach us!" He then moved to follow his own orders, taking shelter in the shadow of a building. Glancing upward, he caught sight of the owl, still hovering over Flax's position. They lined up the shot with the owl's help. Clever.
As his troops moved to comply with his orders, Hount looked over the bracer once again and decided to put it on. The moment it clamped shut around his wrist, he felt a presence in his mind. The presence didn't feel living, per se, but had a sense of intelligence all the same. He knew what the presence was, and he knew it was under his control.
Before it got too far away, Hount mentally ordered the golem to stop. It had already left the Plaza far behind in its pursuit of the two remaining assassins. He considered calling it back to do exactly as Flax had suggested. He had come to seize control of the city, and the forces before him were all that stood in his way. With the golem he could destroy them in seconds.
But he had intended to destroy them to make a statement, not because he wanted them dead. He was not a sadist, he had no hatred for the citizens of Pentalus nor even the Knights of the Firmament, though he disagreed with their ethics. He even liked Lady Alsha, and regretted the thought of having to kill her. Did he have to, now that the golem answered to him? Would control of the weapon be leverage enough to ensure their surrender, without needing to make an example of their officers?
No, he still needed a power move, something so grand that his enemies would see surrender as the only option. Possession of the weapon wouldn't be enough, he would have to use it. He had come to defeat Neredos, to destroy his rule once and for all and free the world from the mad King. It was time to end this.
"Whatever you are, strange giant, you will heed my will," Hount said, reaching out to the golem. "It is time to destroy."
Maxthane tried to force his missing arm from his mind. It would do no good to fret about it now, not while he was still in danger. He wondered if his Fedain heritage would allow him to regrow the limb, given enough time and effort. No! He shouted in his mind, no . . . No time for that. We are in the middle of a war. I am alive, and for now that will have to be enough.
They had rendezvoused with Alsha and Bradeth as well as the other commanders on the same rooftop where Bradeth and Gobrak had watched the battlefield. After Bradeth's shot had killed the assassin, the enemy had yet to advance on their position. Eager to keep such pressure on their enemy, Alsha had directed Bradeth and Gobrak to remain in position as long as possible. Since they could not leave, it seemed the only logical place to discuss their next move.
"What are we going to do now?" Commander Belthin asked, looking out to where the golem had stopped moving. It was easy to spot amidst the rubble; in its attempt to kill the two remaining assassins it had demolished several buildings. It had yet to move again, however, which put everyone on the rooftop on edge. "We can't possibly stand against that thing, even with these allies that Grim has promised us."
"Don't worry, they'll be here. They are rallying the forces of Pentalus as we speak, and it takes time to gather an army," Grim replied. He smiled reassuringly at Belthin, then swept the rest of the group with his gaze. "As for what we should do . . . we should rethink our defensive positions in anticipation of the golem's attack, then wait for our reinforcements to arrive."
"Tell us again who these reinforcements are, and this time don't say they're simply 'allies you have in Pentalus' like you did last time," Alsha said.
Grim's eyes twitched toward Veil for a moment, lingered briefly on Madame Godani, and then finally returned to Alsha. "They serve someone called the Dark Mother," Grim continued on, but Veil visibly stiffened at the name, "and have an organized resistance group in the city. It's a wonder that they're not allied with the invaders, but I assume this is simply because neither group is truly aware of the other. The invaders likely assumed rumors of an organized resistance unfounded, and if the resistance inside Pentalus had any knowledge of the rebellion outside, they certainly would've made their move by now."
"I need to go now," Veil said. "I think it's time I saw to the survivors and made sure they—"
"Are you trying to escape your crimes, sister?" Grim asked, ignoring the confused glances from the others. "Don't worry, I have already made arrangements for your safety. In a moment, Bradeth will be taking you and me to The Shade, where we will contain that plague you're partially responsible for."
"Wait, what crimes?" Belthin asked. "Do you dare insult the Oracle?" Her sword inched out of its sheath until Alsha put a hand on her arm.
"At ease, Commander," Alsha said. "This council has no need to turn on itself." Belthin hesitated, but eventually she released her sword and moved back, though her eyes remained on Grim. Alsha didn't give her a second glance as she, too, regarded the Fedain. "Can't you stay? We need healers here as well. And Bradeth especially . . . Right now we need all the allies we can get."
"Our powers are useless against the golem, and nothing lives that fights it," Grim replied with a sigh. "I have already done what I can for you by recruiting allies for you. It will be up to you to win them over, though I have absolute faith in your ability, Lady Alsha. I have already spoken with Bradeth, and she has agreed to leave the remaining Elrok forces with you, under Gobrak's command. Bradeth will return as soon as she has helped us cleanse the river. I hope you don't mind, Maxthane, but we'll be borrowing your grimoire a little longer."
Maxthane nodded, though he felt an immediate twinge of pain at the words. He felt useless, unneeded. This wasn't his war, not really, and he'd already lost control of the one weapon he had at his disposal. Plus, there was something more, a connection he realized was missing. His place was in The Shade, not here.
"Fasha is free again," he said, startling everyone but Grim, who merely nodded in resignation. "I lost my connection to his prison when I . . ."
Veil caught on immediately after those words. "When you died . . . Just as all the demons would be set free up here if Neredos would somehow be killed."
"Then all the more reason for us to be in The Shade," Grim replied. "Fasha fears only two forces; fire, and a Fedain who is willing to kill. If Veil and I are both there, we will be able to disrupt his plans."
"I'm coming with you," Maxthane said. "Provided there is room for one more."
Kirra followed immediately after Maxthane. "Then I will also go, to watch your back as I promised."
"No, your place is here," Maxthane said. He reached to stroke Kirra's cheek, then lifted his remaining arm to do what his ghost limb could not. "These are your people. Just as I must go to mine, yours need you here. But, I do want to thank you for all your protection." He leaned in and kissed Kirra on the lips, just deeply enough to imply a bond stronger than friendship.
Kirra nodded in appreciation and turned to Alsha. "I will remain whether we stand our ground or surrender. My sword is yours as long as you'll have me."
"If the golem attacks before our reinforcements arrive, we will surrender," Alsha said, meeting the eyes of everyone gathered to gauge their agreement. "Otherwise, we do our best to stand."
"In that case," Bradeth said, pulling away from the wall. She pulled her teleportation mat from her backpack and laid it on the rooftop beside her. "It's time for me to get you all down there. Parril has arrived."
Grim regarded both Veil and Maxthane with the same calculating smile. "Shall we go on our family picnic?"
Veil looked like she was going to be sick, but Maxthane merely chuckled. It was good to see some warmth in someone's eyes. How long had it been since he'd seen any of that? "Let's go."
The three climbed into the teleportation circle with Bradeth, who focused her energies into the symbols at her feet. She did not need the blood component, for the three who stood with her had instinctively connected their wills to hers. As seamlessly as any teleportation she'd ever performed, the four disappeared from sight, reemerging in the depths of The Lower Shade.
To those remaining on the rooftop, the world exploded in light and fire.
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