"These are the six pillars we should focus on, based on their location," Fasha explained, pointing out the positions on the map of Pentalus with his finger. He had painstakingly made his way through Pentalus over the past few years, making sure that he knew the location of every single pillar of air, and only now was that knowledge finally coming into play. As much as Maxthane didn't care for his father's assassin, Fasha did have his uses.
It had been two weeks since they had freed, then enslaved the demon, and their time had been filled with planning how to go about doing the same to more of them. They had reached a consensus as to which method they would employ to avoid detection, as well as which of the magi could be trusted to learn the rituals, but they had yet to settle on which pillars or even how many they would target.
"I'm a bit concerned about our ability to pull off six at once, though we will know more after today," Salidar replied as he looked over the pillars that Fasha had selected. They had narrowed it down to twelve potential targets the day before, and only four of those were among the ones that Fasha had chosen now. It seemed to be a constant issue with him, being indecisive about which targets were prime and which weren't, but for some reason Salidar trusted him to make the decision. Maxthane had never understood the relationship between his father and Fasha, though he also knew that Fasha had been in Salidar's life for longer than Maxthane had. Whatever had started their friendship came from a past that Maxthane could not relate to.
"Trust me, these six are the ones we want," Fasha replied firmly. Only Fasha was allowed to take such a firm tone with Salidar and get away with it. Maxthane gritted his teeth as he watched the exchange, unhappy that his father seemed to be nodding in agreement.
"I don't have enough men for that many targets," Salidar said, returning Fasha's firmness. Maxthane was glad that his father hadn't given in so easily. "If they are to be battling knights at the same time that they are trying to control the demons, I highly doubt we'll succeed. Besides," he went on with a grimace, "We don't actually know how strong the demons are. That one we brought down two weeks ago wouldn't have been taken so easily if we hadn't had Prism show up."
"I'm normally not one to side with Fasha, but I doubt the knights will be a problem," Captain Rega, the towering man to Salidar's right said with a grin, "What with the arrowheads that we procured from Sabreeza we'll cut through the eagles like light pierces the darkness."
Rega was a contrast to Fasha that Maxthane appreciated, and he was always a welcome addition to the meetings as far as Maxthane was concerned. Rega was tall and broad shouldered, and the strength he could put behind his sword was nearly legendary. On top of that he could move as quietly as a mouse if he needed to, and few had a keener eye with a bow. He was revered as one of the greatest fighters in all of The Shade, with few other names ever raised to challenge that distinction. But none of that mattered as much to Maxthane as the fact that Rega knew all the troops under his command as captain of Salidar's forces, and exactly what all their capabilities were.
"On top of that," Fasha added with a grin, "I have influence with a very powerful person in The Everbright City, one who could keep the knights from immediately coming after us. All you will need is time, yes? Time to get the demons under control?"
"Who do you know in the Everbright City?" Salidar asked, but then shook his head in disbelief as if being hit by the reemergence of a memory long forgotten. "Never mind. Do you really think you could make that happen?"
"Yes. I know that I can," Fasha said without a trace of doubt.
"If he can keep the knights away then I am sure we can manage," Rega agreed. "Still, six is a large enough number that we will have our forces spread out quite far," he went on thoughtfully as he leaned over the map to analyze the terrain of the city. Pointing down at the largest marked pillar, Rega added, "But perhaps if we can figure out a way to employ the Elroks at the largest pillar . . ." He was interrupted by a sudden knock on the door, and the group turned as one to look at the young servant poking his head through the entrance.
"Excuse me, your majesty," the servant said with downcast eyes, "but the arena has been prepared."
"Good," Salidar said as he rose to his feet. "Captain Rega," he said with a pensive expression as he turned to address the man, "Though you should probably come see this fight to learn what you're up against, I think I would rather have you working on strategy with Fasha. The two of you will stay and work on the plan. I trust you to be sound in your judgments, and I look forward to seeing what to two of you have prepared when we return."
Fasha and Rega nodded as Salidar turned on his heel and said, "Maxthane. You should come with me. It would be better for the people to see us together."
Maxthane cringed as he watched Styx close his eyes in the face of the demon's charge. He had spent the last few hours thinking about Styx, and couldn't seem to get him out of his mind. Something deep within him had instantly connected to Styx when their eyes had met at the gates, and he wanted to get to know Styx better. The last thing he wanted was to see him trampled by the demon.
But that didn't mean that he could go against his father either. He had wrestled with himself ever since he had laid eyes on Styx, thinking that if he made the request his father might grant him what he wished, but he had been too afraid. He was always too afraid. Salidar was known for keeping his word, and he had decreed that Styx was to be thrown in with the gladiators. Maxthane's desire would not likely change that.
He breathed a sigh of relief as Kutos gathered his senses in time to save Styx by pushing him out of the way with a quick shoulder rush, and then setting his shield against the charge. Though the demon easily knocked Kutos aside with a sweep of its horns, Styx had enough time to roll out of the way.
"Something troubling you, son?" Salidar asked. Maxthane glanced toward his father briefly, but then looked back to the fight with his heart racing as he began to sweat. "I know that you've never been fond of the fights," Salidar continued, "but you seem particularly on edge about this one. Is it because of the demon? Are you worried you won't be able to control it when it's time to return it to its cage?"
"No," Maxthane answered and then offered no further explanation. He knew that his father wanted more, but the intensity of the scene unfolding before him was too distracting for him to continue explaining what he was feeling.
As the demon focused on Kutos, the other experienced fighter, Hurr, moved to the beast's flank. Styx regained his footing but seemed unsteady and unsure, watching the demon with wide eyes and glancing back at the closed door that led out of the arena as if he were considering trying to run. Unheard over the crowd, Kutos seemed to be urging Styx on, and soon Styx settled into a fighting stance.
The demon lunged for Kutos again, but the fighter was ready for the attack. He already had felt the demon's strength and knew what to expect, and managed to deflect the attack to one side, then followed through with an attack of his own, slicing at the demon's arm with his broadsword. Though the demon pulled back enough to avoid most of the damage, it howled as the sword left a gash across its inner forearm.
Pain seemed only to enrage the beast further, and its rage served to increase its speed and strength. With a backhanded swing of its other arm, it sent Kutos flying backward twenty feet to crash into the wall, unmoving and momentarily stunned.
Cheers erupted from the crowd while Maxthane's heart skipped a beat. The fight was not going well, and it was not looking good for Styx. He hoped that the fighters would be able to regroup well enough that his father would call the fight over. Salidar wouldn't want his precious demon killed, but there was little chance that he would stop the fight otherwise. The lives of the fighters were definitely not worth enough.
Maxthane found himself cheering as Hurr jabbed his spear into the demon's side, and a fountain of blood erupted from the wound. It was the distraction that Kutos needed to rise to his feet, shaking his head to clear the haze that came from his injury. Unfortunately for Hurr, his attack brought the demon's full attention to bear on the spearman.
Spear flailing, Hurr did his best to avoid the demon's attacks as he stepped backward quickly, but the demon's longer legs were faster. In three quick steps the demon was close enough to catch the spear by its head and then drag Hurr towards it. In his fear it took Hurr a moment to let go and that moment cost him dearly. With a growl the demon stabbed at Hurr with its claws. The spearman tried to evade, but the wickedly sharp points pierced his shoulder. Hurr screamed as he pulled off of the demon's claws and reached up to grab the wound. He held his hand tight against his shoulder as he stumbled backward and fell to one knee, looking at the demon with a defeated expression.
What happened next caught both the crowd and the demon off guard, as both Kutos and Styx moved in at once. Styx did what he could, stabbing at the demon's legs with his rapier, while Kutos made a quick lunge for the demon's belly. Both strikes hit their marks, and the demon howled as it withdrew its attention from Hurr and swept back with one thick arm in a wide arc aimed at both Kutos and Styx.
Kutos saw the strike coming and managed to backstep out of range of the swing, but Styx was eagerly lunging forward to slash at the demon's leg when the arm connected with him. Maxthane cried out in panic as Styx was sent flying upward toward the metal net. Styx reflexively caught the net and hung on, pausing directly in front of Maxthane as he shook his head to clear his senses from the disorienting strike. Maxthane was distracted from the fight below as he studied Styx's features, his heart pounding as he saw the pain etched on Styx's sweat-drenched face. Their eyes met for only a second, but what he saw in Styx's blue orbs was enough for Maxthane to know that he couldn't let Styx die.
The same connection from before was there again and as strong as ever, and though he didn't understand how he could feel that way from such limited interaction he knew the truth; Maxthane was in love. When he saw Styx's eyes, it was as if he was staring into his own soul, and he knew that he had to do everything he could to preserve that connection, or he would lose his own self when Styx died. He was determined to not let that happen.
A mixture of gasps and cheers from the crowd drew both his and Styx's attentions back to the fight below. Kutos was engaged in one on one combat with the demon, and he was losing, badly. The demon was pounding into Kutos' shield, and it was all the gladiator could do to keep the demon from scoring a hit. With a sudden change of tactics, the demon stopped trying to pierce the shield with its claws, and instead grabbed it and ripped it out of Kutos' hands. It earned a gash on its other arm for the maneuver, but that hardly registered as it growled down at the now shieldless man who had wounded it.
With a primal yell of desperation, Kutos swung at the beast again, only to stare in horror as the demon caught the blade in its hand. The crowd's murmuring was immediately silenced by the surprising turn of events. The silence was broken by a low snarl from the demon as it stabbed forward with its other claws, piercing the chest of the stunned warrior, and freezing the disbelief on his face. No sound escaped Kutos' lips as the claws erupted from his back, spraying the sandy ground of the pit behind Kutos as his knees gave out beneath him and he crumpled to the ground at the demon's feet. The crowd remained silent as they watched him fall. Kutos, the best fighter among the gladiators, was dead. It was almost as if the world stopped moving to mourn his passing.
"Nooooo!!!" Styx shouted, shattering the moment in a sudden burst of motion. Noticed only by Maxthane, he brushed his cheek and activated his hawk tattoo as he leapt from his place on the net, gliding toward the demon's head. As he descended, he drew his two knives from his belt. Styx landed on the surprised demon's shoulders and wrapped his legs around its neck, then began to stab at the back of its head, screaming curses at it the whole time.
Maxthane reached out to control the beast as it reached up to pluck Styx from his perch. To his horror, he found that the best he could do was slow him down. Somehow the beast had become stronger and therefore more difficult to control. Slowing it down proved to be enough as Styx managed to evade the grasping hand by climbing over its head onto its face, where he proceed to ram a knife into two separate eyes.
The demon threw its head back and howled, causing Styx to lose his grip and fall off. With his tattoo still active, he glided safely to the ground, and landed at the ready with knives still in hand. The crowd went wild with cheers, but they were no longer cheering for the demon, but instead the lone gladiator that stood to face the frightening beast.
The demon turned to face its last opponent, but Styx proved to be quicker. He kept himself in the demon's blind spot as he darted behind it, seeking an opening. He dashed in and made a quick series of slashes at its legs. The cuts were little more than an irritant to the demon, who kicked Styx hard in the stomach sending him sprawling backwards.
Styx landed hard on his back, and the demon growled as it turned to thrust its clawed arm down at his face. It was all Styx could do to put his bucklered right arm in the way, bracing it with his other arm. The claws pierced the buckler, and both of his arms, causing Styx to cry out, but the crowd gasped as the clawed arm stopped an inch away from his face.
The crowd watched in stunned silence as the demon stood over Styx, unmoving. Maxthane felt the demon's presence in his mind, a wall of rage and hatred barely held back by Maxthane's force of will. He had regained control. With relief he tested the strength of his bond with the demon and mentally ordered it to stand down and walk back to its cage. Those around him gasped as the demon did exactly what it was told, and then erupted in cheers as Styx struggled to his feet, though he cried out when he attempted to use his arms to do so. Styx watched, dumbfounded, as the demon entered its cage, and the wall slid back down separating him from the monster.
For Maxthane it was over, but he winced as he saw the pain cross Styx's features as he hurried over to Kutos. Kutos may have been a seasoned warrior, but now he lay in a pool of his own blood, and the sight of it almost made Maxthane turn away. He was used to seeing the gladiators die, though it was rare, but in this case it seemed almost personal. Kutos had been fighting in the ring since Maxthane's childhood, but he figured that it was likely the anguish on Styx's face that caused Maxthane to feel such remorse over the loss and not his own familiarity with the dead gladiator.
Hurr finally managed to get to his feet, cradling his shoulder as he stumbled toward Styx, but he only made it a few steps before he fell over again, struggling for breath. At first Maxthane thought that the demon must have punctured one of Hurr's lungs, but then Styx began to show the same symptoms. He bent over Kutos' form, heaving, trying to force air into his lungs.
"Something's wrong," Maxthane said worriedly, glancing back to his father. Salidar was watching the situation closely as well, but his eyes were not filled with concern but rather curiosity.
"Maybe they're just catching their breath," Salidar offered with a shrug, though Maxthane could tell that his father didn't believe that to be the case. Maxthane looked between his father and Styx, his anxiousness growing by the second. "Or maybe it's something else, a poison perhaps?" Salidar added as Hurr collapsed to the ground. "No more fighting against the demon, I suppose. We'll lose too many gladiators. Maybe next time I'll send some of Jakkel's cats against it."
"We're going to lose two more if we don't do something!" Maxthane insisted, gesturing toward the arena. He was starting to panic. Styx was going to die.
Salidar regarded him curiously, searching his son's face for reason behind his emotional outburst. He leaned forward and whispered so that only his son could hear him, "Is that why you stopped the fight? You have feelings for the boy, don't you?"
There was no way he knew of to get a lie past his father, so he simply nodded past the lump in his throat. When his father didn't respond immediately, Maxthane's panic got the better of him. "Please don't let him die."
"I don't know that I have any other choice, son," Salidar replied, raising his hands helplessly, "We know nothing about this poison, other than it seems to make it hard for them to breathe. It's a demonic poison; no one knows that much about demons."
Maxthane turned back toward the arena, despairing as he watched the two fighters continued to struggle for air. It couldn't end like this. The connection he felt to Styx was burning in his mind. He felt like they were destined to be together, but he could also feel that destiny slipping away with each passing heartbeat.
"What about the man we set free with the demon?" Maxthane asked with sudden hope. "Could we ask Prism?"
"Prism? You are asking me to risk this entire operation on this!" Salidar said with a hint of anger, though it quickly subsided as he met Maxthane's eyes. Salidar could never stay angry at his son. "I don't know how he'll react when he finds out we've been using the demon in our pit fights. Remember," Salidar added with a smirk, "he's a personal friend of Neredos."
"Father," Maxthane replied, not knowing what else to do. He knew his eyes were speaking for him as he begged, "Please."
Salidar looked at his son as if he had never seen him before. Maxthane was not one who typically went against his father's wishes, for any reason. Though many parents put in Salidar's position would have been less likely to help a rebellious child, Salidar was different. The Underking was all about rebellion after all. If anything, Salidar was proud.
"Very well," Salidar conceded, "I'll see what I can do."