Prism couldn't believe the sights he'd seen. First the death of Neredos, and then Veil. He'd thought both might live through the end of the demons at the rate things had been going. Yet even the mightiest of his friends were now laid to dust.
And the world would know demons again, in far greater numbers than they could handle. Many people would soon die, more than already had from the explosion, the plague, and the battle between the rebels and the Knights. It was all starting again.
He was surprised when Telzath squeezed his hand in comfort, and he gave the Elrok an appreciative smile. Casting his gaze to the right, he took in Dogo, who had watched Styx stab Veil in the back with a mixture of surprise, disappointment, and satisfaction. His son had avenged the wrongs done against his family, but he had become a murderer in the process.
Prism had to wonder what it was all worth. He hoped Ghayle would give him more answers, though it seemed the world might have to fall apart before she'd give him enough to satisfy.
"We're about to have two more visitors," Ghayle announced, breaking away from them. She moved to the same spot where she'd pulled Dogo from the path to the afterlife, her hands placed as if she were about to part a curtain.
"Neredos and Veil?" Prism asked, only slightly surprised. "Do they have a right to be Chosen after what they've done?"
Ghayle did not turn toward him, her eyes closed in concentration, but she answered in a voice that almost seemed relieved, as if a great weight had finally been lifted from her shoulders. "They were Chosen long before they made the choices they did. I'm afraid their choosing is outside of your influence, Prism."
Prism nodded. Ghayle had made it clear that some had been Chosen long before he'd arrived here, and he wasn't certain he wanted a say in the fate of others anyway. "I can accept that," he said at length. "Once, they were the greatest assets against the demons. Perhaps they'll have renewed perspective now."
"Commitment to the world and its people in the face of The Trial is what determines worthiness to be among The Chosen," Telzath observed. "Or so it seems from the patterns witnessed thus far."
"I'll have to work with them?" Dogo said, raising an eyebrow. "That'll be hard to get used to. Veil especially."
With Dogo's words still hanging in the air, Ghayle moved her hands apart and a bright white light filled the clearing. Prism did not look away, remaining focused on the rip Ghayle had apparently made in the air itself. She reached through the tear and pulled out Neredos, dropping him on the ground at her feet.
"What?" Neredos spluttered, his eyes adjusting to the scene before him. He stared at the feet before him and was speaking even before he looked up to Ghayle's face. "Ghayle? Where am I?"
"Hello, old friend," Ghayle said, helping Neredos to his feet. "Welcome to the world between."
Prism walked forward, putting a hand on Neredos' shoulder. Neredos turned toward him, a bewildered smile on his face. "And . . . Prism?" he asked incredulously. "Prism, I'm sorry I didn't listen to you. I should have, but the madness . . ." his face scrunched up in confusion, then an astonished grin spread across his features. "The madness! It's gone! There's no weight on my mind, no addling of my senses!"
"You have been healed of such maladies," Ghayle said. "All such things are cured in death."
"What is happening?" Neredos asked. "Why am I here?'
"Don't worry, we'll explain everything," Prism said, gesturing for Neredos to walk with him and join the others.
They'd barely gone two steps before Ghayle said, "She is coming."
"Who?" Neredos asked.
"Veil," Prism said, his smile faltering slightly.
"She's dead as well? And so soon after me?" Neredos asked.
"It was some time later, but time works differently here," Telzath offered in explanation. "We've been . . . watching you."
Veil came through thrashing, as if fighting against the light surrounding her. Ghayle dropped her with a loud thump against the grass, but she continued flailing and shouting. It was mostly unintelligible, though at the end one loud proclamation came through clearly. "I did it for them!"
She seemed to gather her senses then, and noticed the people standing around her. "Ghayle? Neredos? Prism!?"
"Hello, Veil," Prism said.
Veil stared at him, comprehension slowly dawning on her. "What am I doing here? Did I? Am I . . .?"
"Yes. You are dead, my friend," Prism said. He glanced at Ghayle and added, "But not finished."
"There are demons loose in Pentalus. We have to do something," Veil said.
"We are doing something," Telzath said. "We're watching."
"What!?" Veil replied with a wide-eyed stare. "You can't be serious. That's all you're doing? Pentalus, the Everbright City . . . all that we worked to build. We need to preserve what's left before it's all gone!"
Prism shared a look with Telzath and was about to respond when Neredos interrupted with a pensive expression. "This . . ." he said, looking at Ghayle, "we're becoming like you, aren't we?"
"Always five steps ahead of everyone else," Prism muttered. "Same old Neredos."
"What do you mean we're becoming like her?" Veil asked, rounding on Neredos.
Neredos continued speaking, pacing the small stretch of grass between Prism and Ghayle. "The only reason we'd all be here, in the world between, watching, is if this is all part of some special event, and we're all connected. Accepting that's true, then we must accept the rest of the pattern, which implies that Ghayle's power has waned, but yet she remains central to this. The demons have always operated under an intelligence, the Vhor, so we can conclude that either Ghayle has brought us to counter that intelligence, or . . . to become that intelligence."
"Neredos, it's good to see your mind working again," Ghayle replied with a fond smile. "It has been a long time."
"I failed, didn't I?" he replied, frowning. "I didn't pass the test."
"You were not exactly yourself," Prism offered.
"I can't believe you are all willing to stand here while the world falls apart," Veil interjected. She turned on Ghayle next, her eyes flashing angrily. "You abandoned us, you—"
"Can I kill her?" Dogo asked, his expression unreadable.
"I don't think it would work. Not here," Telzath said with a sigh.
"Veil, your work is just beginning. The world will need you after this," Ghayle said, placing her hand against Veil's cheek. "You are Chosen, and you will help guide the survivors back to the light. For now, however, they must stand alone."
Every muscle in Maxthane's body screamed with fatigue. He had been through so much in one day, even death, and now he had spent the last several hours healing hundreds as they passed through the plaza. There were others that were sick that hadn't shown symptoms yet. He would heal them in time, but at least the most grievous had been handled already. He was certain he'd pushed past the edge of Fedain stamina and taken years off his life, but at least they'd finally managed to clear the square.
Drake had followed him around, always watching his back, but it was Grim who appeared to need the most help. He'd healed twice as many as Maxthane. When the last sick person had departed the square, Grim had leaned against a wall and closed his eyes, his face gaunt and sickly.
"Grim, you look exhausted," Maxthane observed, sitting down next to his uncle.
"No more than you," Grim said, his eyes opening as he chuckled softly. "You did good work today."
"Hopefully we got them all," Maxthane said. "There were so many, but that water would've gotten to a lot of people. I might still end up with an epidemic."
"Anyone else suffering from effects will probably die before anyone could reach them," Grim said softly, "or wasn't yet sick enough to be here and you can help them later."
"I'll issue a proclamation that anyone who is ill should come to the palace," Maxthane said with a nod. "That way, I can help as many as possible."
"A wise move," Grim said. He sighed, then rose to his feet, stretching before turning to look Maxthane in the eye. "Maxthane . . . you'll be a good king. The Shade is lucky to have you."
"Are you leaving?" Maxthane asked, slowly rising to stand with Grim.
"I have to," Grim said, turning his gaze toward the Black Lake. A flash of light answered, and Grim nodded to himself, muttering, "He's waiting for me."
"You can't leave yet," Drake said, coming between them.
"Why?" Grim asked, eyebrows rising in confusion.
"You have some friends to say hello to first," Drake said, then nodded beyond Grim. "Look."
Styx led the procession that entered the square, his face lighting up as soon as he saw them. "Max! Grim!" he shouted, then rushed toward them. Kirra was right behind, with Bradeth and Gobrak up next.
"Styx!" Maxthane said, staggering forward a few steps to meet Styx partway. They kissed, embraced, then kissed again. When Maxthane pulled back to look at Styx, he saw his own happy tears reflected in his love's eyes. "I'm so relieved to see you!"
"Hey, step away from the King," Drake said, coming up behind Max to push lightly on Styx's shoulder as if trying to separate them.
Styx stared at Drake in disbelief, then pulled away from Maxthane to wrap Drake in a tight hug. "Drake!? How?"
"You were right about our ability to get out, I suppose," Drake said with an amused chuckle. "So that water washed me down the shaft, dropped me in the cavern with the demon. Had to swim, nearly drowned, and then I figured out how to get down the way we came in."
"I thought you were dead," Styx said, laughing anxiously.
"Me too, a few times," Drake replied fondly. "But I kept thinking that I had to prove you wrong and kept trying to die on my way out, so you'd know you were wrong when you came back for my corpse. Seems that luck favored us both, you with the truth and me with my life."
"What's all this about?" Maxthane said, nodding behind them to the large group forming on the other side of the square. Madame Godani had arrived with her sister and was already directing some of the people to set up temporary camp in the area. The pair noticed Maxthane and made their way over.
"We brought as many people down from Pentalus as we could," Kirra said, finally, seeing an opening into the reunions. "The demons, they're gathering." As eyes turned on him, Maxthane waved him forward and embraced him, giving him a chaste kiss on the lips. He was surprised by the forcefulness of Kirra's response however and let the Knight's kiss restore some of his energy.
"Where's Veil?" Grim asked, turning to Bradeth.
"She didn't make it," Bradeth replied, her eyes flickering briefly to Styx, then down to the sword at Kirra's waist.
"I see," Grim said quietly.
Maxthane heard the news of his mother's death, and it didn't register at first. He felt little emotion toward her but found a sliver of regret for the way things had ended between them. He'd wished she could be his mother, but she had done nothing to earn that position, and he accepted that.
The looks Bradeth gave Styx and Kirra, however, were not lost on Maxthane. He would have to ask them what had happened, but it could wait for now. There would be time to catch up on everything that had happened, but his duties as King came first.
"You are all welcome in The Shade," he said, stepping forward to greet the woman walking alongside Madame Godani. He anticipated she was the leader of this group from Pentalus, judging by the respect the others afforded her. "We'll find a place for you. There are a lot of abandoned structures, and plenty of places to put you up for the time being. I'll have my soldiers find some adequate accommodations."
"Thank you, King Maxthane," the woman replied, bowing low. "It has been a long time since I've been in The Shade, and I will need all the help you can offer."
"Max, this is my mother, Nal Maya Godani," Styx said, "I have a sister as well, though she's still in Pentalus, helping organize the retreat."
Maxthane's eyes couldn't open any wider as he took in the elderly woman. How she could possibly be Styx's mother was . . . believable, he realized. Grim's words about Salidar trading Styx's mother filled Maxthane's mind. He wanted to vomit at the thought of what his mother had done to the family of the boy he loved.
Grim's question brought him quickly out of those thoughts. "You said the demons are gathering?"
"Yes," Styx said. "Gobrak suggested that they might be waiting for their leader."
Grim nodded in appreciation at the older Elrok. "Styx, Max, Bradeth . . . I need to speak to the three of you."
"Kirra too," Styx said.
"Very well," Grim said, then paused as Kirra suddenly drew his sword and extended it toward him. "Is that . . .!?" he asked incredulously, reaching for the sword but pausing without taking it.
"She wants to see you too," Kirra said, smiling fondly.
Grim took the sword in hand and held it gently. He closed his eyes and muttered something to himself, which Maxthane couldn't hear. After a moment he nodded to himself and handed the sword back to Kirra. "I see . . ." He turned to Styx and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Styx, I'm sorry you had to go through that. But it was her time, though . . ." he hesitated, a frown quickly overtaking his features.
"What's wrong?" Maxthane asked. He wanted to ask what happened with the sword, but Grim's mental state worried him more.
"Fasha," Grim said. "He said something to me. I thought he was talking about Veil and me, telling us where he expected us to be. He said, 'one above and one below'."
"What does that mean?" Bradeth asked.
"There's another Vhor still alive, and he's above us, in Pentalus," Grim said. He shook his head, fists clenching angrily. "I missed one after all this time."
"So . . ." Bradeth pressed, "are you going to hunt it?"
"No. Not yet anyway. For now, I'm giving that task to the four of you," Grim said. "Each of you has faced the Vhor before and survived. I don't know how many others here could claim the same. There will be a battle above, the fiercest battle anyone alive but me has ever seen, and the Vhor will orchestrate every move of it."
"Where will you be?" Styx asked.
"Getting answers," Grim replied, his gaze once more turning toward the Black Lake. "And, with any luck, ending this. Maxthane, I'm going to need that boat."
"It should be waiting for you already," Maxthane said.
"Thank you," Grim replied, touching Maxthane's arm gently.
"Father," Bradeth said, embracing Grim swiftly. "Be careful."
They parted and Grim met the eyes of each of those around him. "All of you, be careful. Live through this, if you can. The world will need your strength when this is over." With that he turned and left.
"What was that about?" Styx asked.
"The Vhor, as it has always been," Bradeth said. "As it may always be with him."
Styx nodded, and turned to Maxthane as if all his questions had already been answered. "Max," he said, embracing Maxthane again. "I'm glad to see you mostly in one piece. I'm sorry about your arm. Is there anything I can do to help you feel better about it?"
Maxthane searched Styx's eyes, saw the lust in there, the need. There was something more. Regret, perhaps. Darkness. Styx needed a distraction, and Maxthane wished he could help. "Styx," he said softly, "I love you, but all I want is sleep."
Kirra wrapped his arm around Styx's shoulders and looked at Maxthane suggestively. "Room on the bed for two more?"
"I'll find one big enough," Maxthane said, laughing with surprised delight at the look in Kirra's eyes. "But no sex tonight. I think it'd kill me."
"How about in the morning?" Kirra asked, eyes twinkling. Styx and Maxthane shared an astonished glance before staring at him. "I'm joking," Kirra said, then added with a grin, "Half joking, anyway."
"I love you both," Maxthane said, smiling warmly. "For now . . ." a yawn overtook him, momentarily cutting off his words. "I think we'd better rest while we can. We have a war ahead of us."
The boatman hooked the skiff to the metal ring embedded in the boulder near the island in the Black Lake. He quickly put a plank in place to give Grim a path to the shore, then finally turned to the Fedain.
"Should I wait for you?" he asked, eyeing the island nervously.
"No. I'll be fine but thank you," Grim said. "You've done enough. Go home, be well."
The boatman nodded but Grim didn't wait around to see it. Instead he moved across the plank as easily as he would a wide street, landing gracefully on the rocky shoreline. He moved toward where he'd last seen the damaged golem, expecting Fasha to be leading him into a trap and deciding there was no reason not to face it head on.
He encountered Fasha when he'd made it most of the way there. The Vhor was sitting on a boulder, his hand momentarily shifted into a firebug's body. It flashed with light as Grim slowed his approach.
"You're here at last," Fasha said, smiling in greeting to Grim as he shifted his hand back to a human's. "I was wondering when you'd arrive."
"Who is the Vhor in Pentalus?" Grim asked, hoping boldness would make Fasha reveal his secrets.
"Straight to the point, huh?" Fasha asked, chuckling softly. "I don't know what face he currently wears. After you started hunting us based upon the connections of our plots, I ordered him to start hunting alone. I barely have any contact with him, though I know he's there. He wouldn't be anywhere else."
Grim's eyes momentarily flicked to farther up the shoreline. A mass of metal lay there, broken into a dozen pieces. "You killed the golem."
"It would've been a nuisance for our conversation," Fasha replied with a shrug.
"After all this time, you want a conversation?" Grim scoffed.
"Come on," Fasha replied, rolling his eyes, "you can't tell me you're not curious what this is all about."
"Why me?" Grim asked.
"Why you?" Fasha said, his face a mask of confusion.
"You haven't told anyone else, so why me?" Grim asked.
"Grim . . ." Fasha replied, rising to his feet and opening his arms wide. "You must suspect now. You must have some idea."
"You've been trying to free the demons, but now you're going to let them die without leading them," Grim said accusingly. "You want them to lose."
"This has lasted eight hundred years too long, Grim," Fasha replied, sighing deeply. "It was never supposed to be like this. Battles between good and evil should come to a resolution, not remain stagnant for centuries."
"So, tell me," Grim said, crossing his arms over his chest.
"First," Fasha said, "I need you to promise me something. If you do, I will tell you everything."
"So you can go back on your word?" Grim replied. "I don't think so."
Fasha raised his hands in surrender. "I won't run again. Whether you promise or not, my life is in your hands. I'll even let you maintain your grip on me while we talk if you'd prefer. But I will only give you the knowledge you seek if you will make the promise I require."
Grim searched Fasha for any sign of deception. He couldn't trust Fasha, but the knowledge he might gain here would potentially be invaluable. "What is the promise?" he asked at last.
"That I will be the last demon you kill. Promise that they will stand alone, that you'll leave those children to fight this battle," Fasha replied.
"Promise first, or nothing," Fasha reiterated.
Grim paused for only a moment, then found the words leaving his tongue as if it had been made to deliver them. "I promise that you will be the last demon I kill, and that I will not fight in the battle above."
Fasha nodded only once and replied, "I accept your oath. Know that if you break it, you will face a fate worse than any you could imagine."
"Speak, Fasha," Grim demanded.
"First, introductions are in order," Fasha replied, then his form began to shift. Human clothes and skin became a dark, leathery hide with patches of scales over vital areas. Large, leathery wings spread out from the sleek figure, and sharp horns extended from the back of his skull. Flashing a row of sharp, white teeth, Fasha went on, "Grimfaeth, son of Selfaeth . . . I am Naxthul, the Shadowtide, and I was once your god."
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