Maxthane pulled away from Bradeth as soon as they arrived on the teleportation circle in The Shade. He blinked into the darkness around them, wondering at the strange sensations in his body. He could feel the clamminess on his skin; the dampness that permeated The Shade. It was so different from the air in Pentalus, and the abrupt shift sent a shiver down his spine.
"Wow . . ." he said, "that was like nothing I've ever experienced. Teleportation is something I never thought I'd see, much less do."
"That tends to be the way people react to it," Grim said, chuckling. "I felt much the same way the first time."
"You've done this before, Father?" Bradeth asked with surprise.
"I have," Grim replied. "There is a Gor master who uses the root network in his forest to teleport. I had the pleasure of teleporting with him several centuries ago."
"Several centuries ago?" Bradeth said, her eyes wide with shock. "But he's still alive! How can that be? You and Veil and Neredos all have your methods of staying alive, but—"
Grim cut her off with a raised hand and said, "The one currently in charge of that forest is from the long line of apprentices descending from the master I knew. They're not the same person."
"I see," Bradeth said quietly. "I didn't realize it was inherited knowledge."
"I love a discussion on magic as much as anyone, but, where are we?" Veil asked, shivering as she stepped away from the teleportation circle to look around.
Maxthane gestured around them, taking in the view of the Shadowking's palace in the distance and the Lower Shade stretching out before them. "You're in The Shade. Welcome to my home, Mother."
"You're his mother?" Bradeth asked, glaring at Veil. "Well . . . I'll try not to hold it against you, King Maxthane."
Veil sniffed at that remark and looked at Grim. "Can we just get this over with? We need to get to the water and clear it as soon as possible. The longer we stand here, the more people will die."
"Quite right," Grim replied with a nod. "Maxthane, would you mind leading the—"
He was interrupted by a loud boom sounding from above them. The entire cavern seemed to shake, and all four struggled to keep their footing. Astonished cries rose from all around them as the residents of The Shade felt the ripples of force from above them.
"What was that?" Maxthane asked with alarm.
"It came from above us," Bradeth said, then pointed upward as a loud crack split the air. "Look!"
The hole leading up into Ibrix Plaza was cracking at its edge. Large chunks of stone had broken away and were falling toward them. It crumbled more and more, and the large form of Ibrix fell into the darkness along with the stones.
"Take cover!" Maxthane shouted, though the words were wasted on the others. All four ran into the darkness in search of protection from the falling stones, despite none of them falling nearby. It wasn't until the crumbling had subsided that they finally returned to the place they'd first arrived, each one on edge as they stared at the much wider hole in the cavern ceiling.
"What could've possibly happened?" Bradeth asked as she gingerly began rolling up her teleportation circle. She kept one eye on the ceiling even as she meticulously made sure the piece of leather was rolled evenly.
"Maxthane, the Shadesight tattoo makes your eyes better than all of ours. What do you see up there?" Grim asked.
Maxthane focused on the hole in the ceiling. "Clouds. Clouds and . . . lights, beyond the clouds," he squinted, then gasped. "Stars. They're stars."
"The Everbright City, it crashed," Grim said with disbelief.
"It was moving when we left," Veil offered. "Maybe it simply moved past and something else happened. With the golem perhaps?"
"There's no way it had completely cleared Ibrix Plaza by this point. It had to have crashed," Grim said.
"But . . . all those people . . ." Veil said, casting a forlorn gaze upward. "We still had half the city to evacuate when I left."
"I'll send Parril up to investigate. There's nothing we can do from here," Bradeth offered. "That way we can at least get answers, though." Grim nodded, and Parril took flight from a nearby perch, angling toward the hole.
"We could go back. We could help," Veil said.
Grim put a hand on her arm and shook his head. "We are still needed down here. We don't know the extent of the devastation up there. Until we know, there's no reason to overreact."
"We'll take care of purifying the water," Maxthane said, "and then we can worry about what happened, once Parril brings back his report."
"So, where is the source?" Bradeth asked. "We should get to it as soon as possible."
"Over there," Maxthane said, pointing into the darkness. "We're not far from it."
"Then let's go. We can have it done long before Parril gives us a full report," Bradeth replied. "It'll take him awhile to survey the extent of the damage."
Maxthane cast one more look up at the ceiling before taking the lead toward the poisoned stream. One problem at a time, he reminded himself. There's plenty of time left before the end of the world, isn't there?
Grim dipped his hand into the water as Maxthane slowed near the stream's emergence from the cavern wall. He could feel the filth inside the water. It seemed to be multiplying, feeding off the small things living in the water and becoming more potent by the second. He suppressed a curse and said, "This is the spot. Bradeth, will you start setting up the circle? We'll need to include directional focuses to affect the water at the source and down below."
"Of course," Bradeth said. If she was offended by Grim stating the obvious, she didn't show it. Instead, she simply reached for the grimoire and turned her attention to Maxthane. "Maxthane, you're practiced with all the runes as well, are you not?"
"Yes," he said. "Though I'm better with the hand I no longer have," he added glumly.
"Then assist me. I trust your ability, either way," Bradeth said, handing him, a piece of chalk. "We'll inscribe it on the rockface, near enough for us to activate the circle and touch the water."
Maxthane lit up at the thought of being useful. He nodded enthusiastically and said, "I understand. Let's do it."
As the two walked toward the wall, Grim and Veil hung back and watched them divide the labor between them. Veil broke the silence first. "So, you have a child?"
"I do," Grim said with a soft smile. "She's my husband's child, but . . . I see her as my own, yes."
"What's it like? Having children, I mean," Veil replied.
"Well, Bradeth is the eldest. I have six other step-children," Grim replied, his eyes growing distant. "I didn't have much of a hand in raising them, but I was still involved in their lives as Telzath's husband. You get a different perspective on the world when you have children. You think about the future in a different way, wanting to make it better for them."
Veil nodded, quietly considering the words before asking, "Do you ever wish you and Prism had had the opportunity?"
Grim chuckled, though his eyes misted over at the thought. "We were a bit too busy for that. Besides, he had his kids, after a fashion."
"You mean the monks he took under his wing when the other masters fell during the war?" Veil asked.
"Yes," Grim replied with a nod. "Teenagers following him around like lost puppies. It's no wonder he took to Styx so quickly." His eyes narrowed as he turned his full focus on Veil. "I will not forgive you if you got Styx killed."
Veil snorted and said, "As if you'd forgive me for anything. Besides, he's more capable than you give him credit for having."
"Everyone else seems to think so anyway," Grim said, turning away from her but keeping the scowl. "You know the Dark Mother sent him to kill you, right?"
"Why did you spare me?" Veil countered. "They were coming for me, and you didn't have to bring me down here."
"You're right, but I also knew we could use you down here. You told Maxthane you would help him with the plague. I spoke to him about it briefly before we convened on that rooftop," Grim said. "I wanted to give you a chance to fulfil your word, but you'll suffer your fate soon enough. I'll deliver you to them myself when this is over."
"You seem sure of that," Veil replied dryly. "Are you sure you're capable of that?"
Grim sneered at his sister. "You already tried to kill me and failed. I'm certain you can't escape me, either. You don't have Clasean here to protect you, nor any of your other allies. You have done evil against the people of Pentalus, Veil, and they deserve justice from you."
Their gazes locked, both kept their silence for several long seconds. Eventually Veil sighed and looked away, toeing at a loose rock on the ground. "I understand that. And I will give it to them. But first, shouldn't we see the rest of this through? Don't we owe it to those that have passed before? Should we not witness the end of the demons once and for all, including the ones we created?"
Grim spoke softly but his words carried the weight of centuries. "I promise you I won't stop until the demons are dead. You know I could defeat them all personally if I was there. Prism, Alsha, and the Knights certainly made my job against Ibrix easier, but I still think I would've beaten him in the end."
"Hubris, Grim," Veil chided. "Do you think yourself a god now, capable of deciding life and death for all mortals? Do you put yourself above the rest of us?"
"No," Grim replied with as much fervor as before. "I believe myself above demons, even the ones within me. They are not a burden to me, for I have given them the burden of my guilt and resentment. They are the force which propels me forward, but as such I am always leading them. When I turn to face them I will win, as I have always won. It is simply a matter of course."
Veil sighed, her eyes hard and tired. "I think there's more arrogance in there than you care to admit, brother."
"Perhaps," Grim admitted with a chuckle, "but I'll need all my strength of will to defeat the last of the Vhor. He's here, you know. Maxthane imprisoned him, just like Neredos did the others. After this, I intend to end him."
"Wait . . ." Veil said, her eyes sharp, "Maxthane imprisoned him with the same spell?"
"Yes. Why . . .?" Grim asked, his whole body tensing. His pulse seemed to quicken at first, but then time itself slowed as dread thundered into his mind.
"Maxthane died, Grim," Veil said, "We brought him back, but he was dead."
"That means . . ." Grim's shoulders slumped, the tension rooting in like a tumor, his body aching with all the years he'd put it through. "He could be anywhere by now. He's escaped me again."
"He got what he wanted," Veil said quietly. "The war has begun. I'm sure he had his hand in all of it. Anything to remove Neredos from power would have involved him somehow."
Grim wanted to question how much Veil knew. He had never managed to scratch the depths of her involvement with Fasha, but he'd slowly pieced together some of it over the years. He wanted to ask, but he couldn't. There was no reason to drag Veil through it now. None of the knowledge she had could help him anymore, and she had been through enough.
He could see the weight of her decisions on her shoulders. She carried herself as regally as ever, but her eyes were haunted and dark, and there was a tightness to every expression that showed the weathering of guilt etched on her features. She was near the end now, as he was.
As the world was. It made sense that it would all burst at once. He had seen this unfolding for some time. It had only been a matter of time before the bubble of serenity popped and the world resumed its course toward destruction. He and Veil had both fought to the end, but now he was tired.
But he couldn't rest yet. There were too many people to save. If he didn't give his all to protect them, his soul would never be satisfied. The people needed his help, all those souls in the darkness. They were like his children now.
He sensed a presence in the darkness and turned abruptly. "Someone is coming," he said quietly. More presences appeared. Each one radiated energy he could sense but not see. "A lot of someones, and they're all good at being quiet."
"I don't hear anything," Veil said. "Are you sure?"
Behind them, Maxthane and Bradeth stopped working, the latter reaching for her bow and nocking an arrow. Grim heard the sounds but didn't react, keeping her position in the back of his mind. The primary focus of his attention remained on the darkness and on Veil.
"Do you have any idea what life sounds like anymore, Veil? Once, our people could feel life from miles away if they'd trained enough," Grim said softly, then stared directly at the leading presence in the dark, despite not being able to see its owner yet. "My range is not so far."
"Fortunate for us, Grim," Krythe said as he stepped out of the darkness. Two dozen forms moved in after him on all sides, slowly surrounding their position. "You should be arrested and brought back. An escaped gladiator deserves to return to the ring."
"Krythe. Why are you here? I was under the impression that you've been ruling in Salidar's stead, unwilling to accept Maxthane's succession," Grim replied smoothly.
"Salidar has been freed," Krythe replied icily. "It seems my assassins were successful."
"Unfortunately, not quite as successful as you'd like," Maxthane said, drawing Krythe's attention.
Krythe's eyes widened and he took a step back, but he remained silent as one of his companions said, "How is this possible? Fedain can't heal death, can they?"
Krythe's eyes flicked from Grim to Veil, and for a moment there was recognition. No, Grim realized, familiarity. "That's not precisely true. If the healer is skilled enough and gets to the corpse quickly enough, it is definitely possible, especially linked together," Krythe said with surprising calm. "And you are looking at two of the most powerful Fedain alive."
"So . . ." Grim said, locking gazes with Krythe, "you figured out my identity, Krythe?"
To Grim's astonishment, Krythe simply smiled. It was a tired smile, full of the wisdom of ages. "As if I didn't always know," he replied in almost a whisper.
"We were just talking about you," Grim said, then shouted, "Bradeth, now!"
Bradeth let lose her arrow, and it thundered into Krythe's chest. She was immediately surrounded by soldiers and surrendered to their raised weapons, but Krythe staggered backward all the same. Grim dashed forward, immediately aiming to get his hand on any part of Krythe's body.
Despite the arrow in his chest, Krythe dodged nimbly backward, evading Grim's reach. He moved so fluidly it was as if he'd never been struck by Bradeth's mortal wound. And then the arrow fell through him as if he were made of jelly, clattering to the stones as the morphic properties of Krythe's demonic body became known to those around him.
"What, how!?" One of the soldiers cried in surprise as Krythe bumped into him. It slowed Krythe down enough that Grim was able to catch him, finally laying his hand on Krythe's arm.
"Reveal yourself, or I'll kill you now," Grim growled.
He'd expected a fight, but instead Krythe simply sighed, his body and clothing all shifting at once to the familiar form of Fasha. The nearby soldiers recoiled in surprise, then turned their weapons on Fasha and Grim.
"Commander Krythe is most certainly dead or incapacitated back at the palace. Fasha, on the other hand, is not," Grim said. "You've been fooled by an imposter. Salidar is dead, as King Maxthane has already told you."
"You knew," Fasha said, still smiling. "How?"
"Demons are made of pure lifeforce, and they radiate differently than other races. I can practically smell a Vhor when I'm this close," Grim lied. He couldn't tell the difference, much as he tried, but he knew it at least sounded believable to those around him. He saw no reason to let Fasha know the truth. Grim had dissected Fasha's tells long ago and would always be able to call his bluffs.
Unfortunately, not everyone was as sure of what had happened. One of the soldiers put his sword against Grim's neck and said, "You will let him go. He's still our ally."
Before Grim could respond, Maxthane rushed forward, his voice furious. "Stand back. I said, stand back!"
To Grim's surprise, the soldier lowered his sword and moved away from Grim. Maxthane then stood next to Grim, his face composed once more. "I am your rightful king. The imposter has been exposed, and now you know I spoke the truth. You will heed my orders as you should have from the beginning!"
The soldiers shared a look, then sheathed their weapons. "Yes, my King," the soldier who'd threatened Grim said. "What would you have us do?"
"Keep this man under watch, with torches," Maxthane said, turning toward Fasha. "Make sure you can ignite him in a second if he moves."
"There's no need of that," Fasha interjected. "I will turn myself over to Grim's custody. He will be enough to save any of you from future trouble from me."
Grim narrowed his eyes and said, "You're just trying to escape."
"I give you my oath on the death of my lover Khalis that I will give myself over to your judgment," Fasha said plainly, meeting Grim's gaze.
"Your oaths mean noth—" Maxthane began.
"Maxthane," Grim interrupted, his gaze locked with Fasha's. He could read Fasha as well as he could read himself.
"He's telling the truth," Grim said. "I know he won't run. At least, not right now."
"I could have, all those years you've been here. If you think I didn't know who you were, you're wrong," Fasha said softly.
"You will stay within arm's reach while we're working," Grim said.
Fasha nodded. "I will."
Grim released his grip on Fasha's arm and turned to Maxthane. "Let's cure this plague," he said, putting his back to the demon.
"Are you certain we can trust him?" Maxthane asked.
"Not to run away while we're purifying the river? Yes," Grim replied. "I'm certain."
"But how can you know?"
A smile crept unbidden onto Grim's face. He glanced back at Fasha, his eyes considering. "I know that creature better than I know anyone save my own self. When you've hunted someone for eight centuries, it's hard not to know everything about them. He will not run."
"Okay. How should I direct the soldiers then?" Maxthane asked. "Shouldn't I keep him under watch?"
"I'd send several of them back to find the real Krythe, and to restore your order, then send the rest to round up those sick from the plague. Veil and I will be busy all night healing those who have been affected," Grim replied.
Maxthane's eyebrows rose. "Won't that drain you? How could you have enough energy for that?"
Grim pointed toward the stream and the nearly completed rune circle, then started walking in that direction. Veil fell in step with them as Grim answered Maxthane's question. "Two reasons. The poison makes a person's body destroy itself. Defeating the poison involves drawing energy from the victim first, killing the affected pieces off and then restoring them. As a result, very little energy is lost as it is simply transferred to the healer then back to the patient." He glanced at Veil briefly before continuing. "That's actually the reason why it took so long to figure out how to heal it. The Fedain weren't willing to cause harm to their patients. It took a Fedain who was willing to cross that line to determine the cure."
"I see," Maxthane said. "And the other reason?"
"If you think Veil and I don't have energy stores to last us a long time, you haven't been paying attention," Grim said with a smirk. "Speaking of which . . . now that you've had some time to adjust to being, well, alive, I could cure that arm, if you'd like, but I advise against it."
"You could make me whole? Why didn't you do it already?" Maxthane asked accusingly, looking between Veil and Grim.
"We could have, but it's better if you let it regrow naturally," Veil offered.
Seeing that Maxthane was still confused, Grim added, "You'll have to focus your own energies on it, but you'll end up with a natural limb that way instead of one created by someone else. If I guided the healing, that arm would always feel foreign to you."
"How do you know?" Maxthane asked skeptically.
Grim replied quietly, "I've lost a few limbs myself over the years."
"Are we going to keep talking about this, or are we going to purify the stream?" Bradeth asked as they approached. "And will someone please tell these idiots that I'm on your side?"
"Order your troops, King Maxthane," Grim suggested. "You have my recommendation on what to do with them."
Maxthane nodded, glanced back toward Fasha one more time, then waved for the soldiers around Bradeth to follow him back in that direction.
"What news is there from Parril?" Grim asked Bradeth when Maxthane was out of earshot.
"Pentalus is destroyed," Bradeth replied immediately, pointedly ignoring Veil's surprised expression.
"What!?" Veil cried, covering her mouth in shock. "How? We were just there?"
Bradeth continued to address Grim as if Veil had never spoken. "The Everbright City has crashed, most of it has exploded, actually. Only half of the city remains intact, though it has landed in the city itself. I don't know the fate of our allies. Parril is still investigating. I'll let you know if he finds any of them."
Veil spoke quickly and frantically. "I have to return there. There must be many wounded. Clasean . . . oh, my sweet Clasean!"
"We mustn't tell Maxthane just yet," Grim said, nodding without showing any emotion. "He'll be torn by a moral quandary about aiding his people here and sending aid up there. He needs to keep his focus here."
"Agreed," Bradeth said.
Veil touched Bradeth's arm and spoke fervently, "Bradeth can you take me up there as soon as we've finished the ritual?"
Bradeth removed Veil's hand from her arm with a contemptuous glare. "I can't teleport. I don't know where the companion teleportation circle is, and even if I did, it might be destroyed by the force of that blast. It can withstand a lot, but something as strong as what caused the crater up there? Who knows."
"You could carry her on your back then and climb out of here faster than we could walk," Grim said. "Once we're done down here, anyway."
"That's true enough," Bradeth said with a sigh. "Maxthane is headed back our way."
"I've sent the others into the affected areas," Maxthane announced as he reached the trio. "I've asked them to bring the afflicted to a common location not far from here. Somewhere we can reach them all at once."
"Good. Then let's get to work," Grim said, sweeping them all with a glance and a grin. "Bradeth, you and Maxthane will lead the circle. I may know my way around spells, but you're both better mages. Veil and I will simply give you our energy."
Bradeth and Maxthane shared a look of understanding, then positioned themselves on either side of the stream. They'd drawn the circle behind the small waterfall exiting from the cavern wall. They'd used chalk for most of the circle, but where the rocks were wet, Bradeth had inscribed the runes into the rockface with her belt knife.
Both Maxthane and Bradeth touched the rune circle—Bradeth with a hand and Maxthane with his stump—then reached into the stream, their hands meeting within the flow. Grim took his position behind Bradeth and placed one hand on her shoulder, the other touching the rune circle. Veil stood behind Maxthane and mimicked Grim.
Grim gave himself fully to the ritual as Bradeth and Maxthane slowly began to chant in Ancient Gor. They established a synchronous rhythm and picked up speed, their words rumbling with power. Grim closed his eyes, connecting with Bradeth and feeling the energy flow through him.
He could sense Bradeth's hand in the water, could feel her hand against Maxthane's and the energy dispersing from their contact. His sensing moved further, up Maxthane's arm and into Veil. As the ritual continued, he could sense her through the runes as well, the circle established, their energies in unison.
Between them the stream bubbled from the energy surging into it. Grim sensed their combined will spreading forth, disrupting the virulent demonic blood. The blood had no uniform consciousness, only a desire to live and spread, and stood no chance against their directed energy. Their energy spread even further, against the flow and rising deep into the cavern wall, and also down into The Black Lake. Everywhere their will went, it purged the demon's essence from existence.
Sensing the full eradication of the demon's essence, Bradeth and Maxthane pulled apart at last, and the spell was over. Each of the four felt the exhaustion from the spell but were disciplined enough not to show it. They shared a look of understanding and eagerness to be away from the stream.
Grim took the opportunity to return his attention to Fasha. He half-expected the demon to be gone, despite his faith in the strength of Fasha's oath. But the demon remained, his curious eyes watching the four of them. Grim found his gaze strangely lacking in intensity. He'd expected to be unnerved.
Veil broke the silence first, turning to Maxthane. "It is done. Now, lead us to the sick so we can get back to Pentalus as soon as possible."
Before anyone could move, Grim sensed a presence from above, coming from the hole the stream emerged from. "Wait, there's someone in there."
As they looked up into the darkness, a grime-covered, one-eyed man's face rose up from the stream's trough. Maxthane addressed him with astonishment. "Drake?"
"You all look like you've seen a ghost," Drake said, propping himself up on one arm. It quickly became apparent that his other arm was missing. "You've never seen a one-armed man before?"
"It's becoming a rather familiar sight, actually," Maxthane said dryly. Drake peered down at him and nodded in understanding even as Maxthane continued. "Are there any other survivors?"
"Dogo's dead. Rega and his lot too," Drake said grimly. "But Styx . . . I don't know if he made it out. We got separated."
"He's alive, actually," Veil and Grim said in unison. They shared a look before Veil added quietly, "Or at least he was a short time ago."
"Finally, some good news," Drake said with a sigh of relief. "Now, if you don't mind, I'd love some help getting out of here. I think my leg is broken. I'm not even sure how I made it out, but have I got a story to tell you lot."
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