"So the world stood on the brink of war for all your lives," Dogo said as the vision faded. "I'm now beginning to understand the forces that shaped the two of you." He alternated looking at Neredos and Veil, his gaze momentarily resting on the latter. "I can't say that I approve of your actions, but I do understand some of your motivation."
"I appreciate your willingness to learn, Dogo. Regardless of whether or not we ever agree, it is knowledge that helps us see the way to a brighter future," Neredos said. He turned to Ghayle then and added, "And I now see where the grimoire came into being. I don't think any of us suspected that Kixhan was ever more than your servant. All the magic you wielded during the Demon War, that was all done through him?"
Ghayle nodded solemnly. "Indeed, since my death the only magic I can perform is that of the dream."
"Is Kixhan one of the Chosen?" Prism asked. "Will we be meeting him later?"
Ghayle shook her head. "No. Though he may have been pure in action, in a sense, his actions were never on behalf of the world. He contributed because I asked him to, and not because he saw any good in giving that knowledge to the world. He would've gone to his grave without ever passing on the knowledge he had if I had not intervened."
"It is good that you did," Telzath said. "As Neredos said, knowledge generates progress. When I was a a young boy, my mother taught me to observe the patterns in the world, so that I could find better resources for the tribe. It is in sharing knowledge that we all come to greater understandings, and by so doing we keep the community fed."
"Speaking of which," Dogo observed, "we've learned very little about your past, Prism. What were you doing during this time?"
"During my childhood, or during the Demon War?" Prism asked.
Dogo chuckled. "As much as I am interested in learning about your childhood, I can already see a bit of that. A rogue knows another rogue as soon as he sees one. From the small amount I observed while we occupy the same region, you knew your way around rogues like you were born to the life. We can save your childhood for later, but the war is on my mind now."
"Well, for me the war was almost better than my childhood," Prism said with a smirk. "I don't mean to say that I enjoyed the war, only that I fought it with a sense of purpose, and I always knew what I needed to do. That was something I didn't have in my early life."
"Perhaps you could simply show us," Telzath suggested. "I, too, am curious about your life. Grim told me much from his perspective, though I'm sure he only told me a hundredth of it."
Prism looked to Ghayle and asked, "Should we venture into my memories, then?"
Ghayle smiled and nodded. "I think that can be arranged. I will let you guide us to the memories you feel are most appropriate to answering their inquiries."
"Gather close, my friends," Prism said, "let me introduce you to my homeland, the Dorram."
Heat. Prism hadn't missed it at all while living further south, but the Dorram straddled the equator and baked like an oven. Even during the rainy season it was common to be able to see the heat rising from the ground. Prism hadn't remembered it affecting him this much when he was a child, but two years in Kobinaru had changed a lot.
Of course, he hadn't lived this deep into the Dorram since he was a little boy. As he'd grown older, his guardian had moved him farther and farther south, but now they were in the heart of it. In some ways that was a benefit, in other ways not.
Grim took to the weather much better than Prism did. He was more than comfortable embracing the local fashion, which meant wearing very little clothing whatsoever, if any at all. Prism didn't mind this aspect one bit, considering the many opportunities it afforded him to view his lover's physical form in public.
Prism was less inclined to go nude or nearly nude in the Dorram, hating the insects that bit his skin. Instead, he dressed in the multilayered garments of the nomads, designed in such a way to circulate the air to keep the wearer cool. It was a stark contrast whenever he and Grim were in the same location. Not only were their skin tones on the opposite end of the spectrum, but one looked ready to bathe and the other looked ready to trek across the desert.
Though the culture regarding homosexual relationships was more lax in the Dorram than it was further south in Ultaka, a fact that gave Prism and Grim both great joy, they still had to be careful. With all the refugees moving into the Dorram of late, they had brought some of their superstitions and taboos with them. This was one of the reasons why they stayed where the weather was hottest, to avoid the less hardened people from the South.
Kaeral Elrhanadan had moved further north with his family, though Prism and Grim still made a monthly trek up to visit them. They'd been in the Dorram for a year, and though they heard of trouble elsewhere, even of demons destroying all of civilization, life seemed simple here. They could live by helping out on farms, and they had family within a day's travel on foot. For the most part, life was good, or at least as good as it could be while the rest the world seemed to be falling apart.
They were taking their afternoon rest under the shelter of a large Chamcao tree. Grim was naked, though he had a water-soaked cloth laying across his eyes. Despite his pale skin, the Fedain never burned in the sun, his healing properties keeping him from damage. Prism was shirtless for a rare moment, the fieldwork causing him to sweat far too much to maintain his wardrobe. They would resume work in another hour, once some of the heat of the day had gone away.
"Do you ever think . . ." Grim started, but trailed off before he managed to make it much of a question. Prism felt a stirring in the bond between them. Though some of the intensity of their Familiar bond had faded, Prism could still read Grim's emotions as if they were his own. Something had troubled Grim recently, but the emotions were so complex that Prism could not fully identify them.
So Prism tried the comedy route. "I think all the time, actually. Though, sometimes when you're inside me I forget to. Speaking of which, maybe we should go inside so that we can—"
"I'm too tired today," Grim said, groaning. But some of the negativity in his mind faded away, and he smiled as his body responded a bit. Prism's own smile widened as he stared at Grim's growing erection, licking his lips as he thought about swallowing it, no matter how public they currently were.
"Your body says otherwise," Prism said.
Grim chuckled and replied, "that may be true, but my mind . . . Well, you know how I'm feeling. Not sure I could really explain it any better if I used words."
"Maybe not," Prism said, "but sometimes talking through things helps us organize our thoughts."
"Is that something you picked up from your time at the Temple of the Mountain?" Grim asked. "Or is this a matter of self-enlightenment?"
"Both," Prism replied.
Grim sighed and sat up, sneaking in a kiss before he settled against the trunk of the tree next to Prism. "Do you ever think that we're doing the wrong thing?" He asked.
"What do you mean?"
Grim gestured vaguely in front of him at the field they'd been weeding an hour before. "This. The domestic life, here in the Dorram while the world falls apart. When I went to town yesterday, there were people talking about what Veil is doing in the South. She's leading the armies against the demons and the rebels alike. And you know how Kaeral talks about Neredos and that supposedly flying city of his. He's been taking in refugees from Oligan and Ultaka alike. They're trying to build something up there, and instead, we are here."
"Yes, but I thought you wanted the simple life," Prism said. "You wanted to settle down somewhere."
"But while my people die?" Grim asked. He shook his head helplessly and sighed. "That was never what I wanted."
Prism exhaled through closed lips, closing his eyes as he thought on Grim's words. "Well, helping your sister is pretty much out. After all, she doesn't want you around."
"Thank you for reminding me," Grim said sullenly.
"I wasn't finished, but the point still stands. You are in exile. Even the Fedain in the Dorram no longer want anything to do with you," Prism went on. "I'm not trying to upset you, I'm simply stating the fact. We can go somewhere where the fighting is more intense, but we will run the risk of danger to you on more than one level. It's not just demons we would have to face if we went to help; it's your people and mine. Humans in most of Ultaka are killing Fedain right now. Not all of the humans, but the rebels are as scattered as anyone else."
"So we go north," Grim suggested. "We join up with Kaeral and his Incarian family. That way, we'll have more people to watch our backs, and I can at least help the sick people in the area."
"That will put us within range of the new refugee camps, full of all the disillusioned Ultakans who are staying out of all the conflicts. That place is as lawless as anywhere in the world right now. Even the rebels have more honor than those people," Prism said.
Grim gave Prism a sharp look, and pure annoyance came across the bond. "It sounds like you don't want to go anywhere, and you're content to just let people suffer."
"No, I'm simply trying to keep us in line with what you implied were our original ideals," Prism said. "You wanted a quiet life. Are you sure you want to live in danger again?"
"If it means doing something important, yes," Grim insisted.
Prism didn't want to make his next point, though he knew that Grim had already sensed his emotions and would demand that he speak them. With a sigh, Prism spoke quietly, "Even if it means you have to kill someone again?"
Grim snarled and turned away, crossing his arms over his chest as anger seeped across the bond. "How dare you? You would use my worst memory against me to keep us here?"
"Take a moment to read the bond, and you'll know that's not what I'm saying," Prism said gently, placing a hand on Grim's bare shoulder. "I will live and die wherever you are, and I will do so happily no matter the life we have. But if we leave this life behind, we may never come back. I may never be able to fulfill my promise to you, that we can settle down in a quiet corner and forget about the rest of the world."
"So it's really up to me?" Grim said after a moment. "You really are okay with leaving?"
Prism shrugged. "As long as I get to be with you, we can go anywhere and do anything, and I'll be satisfied."
"Let's go see Kaeral," Grim said at length. "Zaalf and the others, too. Maybe we can convince more of them to join us?"
Prism grinned and kissed Grim quickly but passionately. "I love this plan already. When do we leave?"
"We promised to finish out the day," Grim said. "And it's better to travel at night here anyway."
"So we leave tonight?" Prism asked.
Grim nodded, and a wide grin spread across his face. For once, his eyes were filled with light like they had been the day they'd met. Prism didn't need the bond to know what that expression meant. He led the way into the barn, and the rest of their afternoon break was far more physically active.
Toward the northern edge of the Dorram, at the shore of the Faldreth Ocean, lay a sprawling mass of makeshift structures built around what had once been a bustling city. Lobrak had once been the largest city in the Dorram, and the home to millions of human and Fedain citizens. Nearly all of its citizens and a large portion of its structures had been destroyed during the days following the revolution. A tidal wave spawned by the cataclysmic earthquakes had slammed into the city and leveled most of it.
Despite the efforts of some, the city had not recovered in the slightest. There was a sense of order to the place, if one could call hundreds of factions vying for control "order". Most of the residents lived in clusters or "families", which served their own needs, sometimes trading with other families for support. Blood relation was not required to be part of a family. Even race was not, as the ruins had attracted a large number of disenfranchised Gor and Fedain, in addition to the humans walking its streets. Families worked together to survive, and worked against each other for access to limited resources.
It was sometimes dangerous to visit the place without being part of a family, but Prism and Grim kept a wary eye on everyone they passed and felt little danger on this visit. Most people kept to themselves unless there was a chance for resource, and neither Prism nor Grim looked like they carried much at all.
Prism held but a tiny scrap of food in his robes. Some dried meat and crusty bread for he and Grim to share. When they were in Lobrak, they ate with Kaeral and his family and didn't have need for provisions, though this time it would be different. They'd have to help out if they intended to stay, though the longer they traveled through these dirty streets strewn with debris, the more Prism second guessed that decision.
It was perfectly fine to think about wanting to make a difference, but quite another to be able to accomplish it. The more Prism saw, the surer he became that this world would take more than he and Grim to save, and he doubted their actions would help much at all. There was too much to be done, and they were barely teenagers.
But as Prism glanced at Grim every so often during their day of travel, he saw a growing look of determination forming in his lover's eyes. The feelings Prism sensed through their bond matched the look, and Prism knew that, hopeless or not, this cause was exactly what Grim needed.
And so Prism let Grim lead; though they walked side by side it was Grim who set the pace. He walked with a sense of purpose, never deviating from his course. They didn't even stop to have sex, which amused Prism more than anything, though he hoped it wouldn't be a permanent change to their relationship.
Eventually they reached Kaeral's home, built in the rubble of a fisherman's shack on the outskirts of town. The door Grim knocked on was little more than a plank of driftwood set in the doorway of the derelict house. Indeed, when it was opened, it was simply slid aside to allow entrance. A weathered slit in the wood allowed someone on the inside to see who had come calling, and as Prism and Grim stood on the stone steps, they saw an eye appear at that slit and light up with excitement.
Before the door opened, however, two heavy weighted bars mounted on the inside were removed. Not only did they give the makeshift door something to lean against, but they also made it so if someone were to try to burst through the door, they would run into the bars before they could gain the element of surprise, and either stagger backward or fall forward into them. The tactic had saved Kaeral trouble more than once, by giving him enough time to draw his weapon and drive the attackers back. Prism had even witnessed one of those encounters.
But Kaeral did not greet his new visitors with anything but a smile and open arms, beckoning them forward. "If it isn't my two favorite lawbreakers!" he said boisterously.
As Prism stepped forward to embrace Kaeral, Grim slipped in first and claimed the embrace. Before Prism could take the next one, a high voice from the dark corners of the shack said, "I thought I was your favorite lawbreaker?"
"Sorry, love, but these two take the title every time," Kaeral said as he let go of Grim.
A Gor woman, nearing the end of her pregnancy, stepped into the light. She was several years Kaeral's senior, with flowing golden hair somehow clean despite the grime of the ruined city. She dressed simply, aside from the heavy wooden cudgel at her waist. "Oh, I can see why," she said, smiling at Grim and Prism as she took the latter in an embrace, "with two handsome fellows like these. Why are you two here? You were just here last week."
"Shaw, it's good to see you," Prism said, smiling as he felt the warmth from her hug.
"And it's not good to see me?" Kaeral scoffed.
Prism turned to find his old friend pouting, and he waved the Gor forward, laughing. "Of course it is. Come here, Kaeral."
Grim hugged the Gor woman next. "Why are you here, Shaw? Don't tell me you got mixed up with Kaeral again. I know you said the baby wasn't his, but I'd hate to see you make the mistake of courting him again," he said with obvious amusement. Kaeral gave Grim a scandalized look.
"Nah, I was just watching Villar for Kaeral. He just got back from working in the mines," Shaw replied, nodding toward the sheet obscuring the only other room in the hut from view. Behind that door slept an adorable Gor two-and-a-half-year-old. Kaeral's son, who looked more like six in Prism's eyes. It had taken a long time for him to adjust to the idea that Gor reached adolescence at roughly twice the rate humans did, though from there they slowed down in development. When he'd met Kaeral, they'd both been teenagers, but Kaeral had reached puberty nearly ten years before that day.
Of course, despite the amount of time Kaeral had spent living on his own, he'd managed to maintain the youthful glint in his eyes. He grinned at Shaw and clarified, "At the mines, Shaw. At. They still haven't managed to pump the water out so we can resume work, and I'm not sure we're ever going to manage it. Seems we may have a crack that's allowing in ocean water at a lower level after that last quake."
Shaw sighed, nodding in understanding. It seemed to be the way of things here in Lobrak, and most places they heard of. Those who tried to resume honest work hadn't managed to do so. It was just as often interference from people as natural disasters, however. Only the most remote parts of the world seemed to be able to make ends meet.
"Is there anything we can do to help?" Prism asked.
Kaeral shook his head. "You may have your strengths, but it's not going to compare to the help we already have. There's a team of Elroks that moved into town recently. Apparently, the twenty or so of them are all that's left of their entire clan after the mountain erupted without warning underneath their village."
"Which clan?" Grim asked. Kaeral gave him a curious look and Grim added, "I used to know a bit of Elrok, and if there's any language issues I could try to translate."
"Their leader—who refuses to be called chief, by the way—seems to speak our common tongue well enough. They're the Lion Clan, I believe . . ." Kaeral replied with a shrug. "Anyway, the lot of them have done some mining work in the past, and they're trying to help us with both labor and magic, though not a one of them is particularly skilled with the latter."
"Speaking of magic," Shaw interjected, "You should be sure to stop by and see my father while you're here this time. He was annoyed that you didn't come by the shop when you were here last."
Prism groaned at the mention of Shaw's father. Zaalf Terbrinix was a scruffy Gor who barely hid his disdain for Humans and Fedain alike. Well, that wasn't completely fair to old Zaalf, as he had more Human and Fedain friends than most Gor, it just took him awhile to warm up to them. Prism and Grim were counted among those friends, though Zaalf wasn't the type to show affection. "Usually Zaalf yells at us about messing up his shop when we visit," Prism said, snorting.
"That's just because you never get more ink," Shaw replied, nodding sagely as if it was the most logical reasoning in the world. "He's trying out some new techniques, you know. He's doing more business now than he ever did down in Kobi."
"Well, we'll have plenty of time to see him anyway. We're staying this time," Grim offered as Prism sighed.
"Is that so?" Kaeral said, raising an eyebrow as he took in both his friends with a glance. "What convinced you?"
Prism smiled and let warmth fill the bond with his lover to take any sting out of his words. "Grim has it in his head that he wants to do something important in this world."
Kaeral snorted and patted the sword belted around his waist. "Well, I have a sword that won't shut up about me doing something important in the world, so I can understand what that's like. My condolences, Prism."
"How is she, anyway?" Prism asked.
"The wife is doing well," Kaeral replied with a sad smile. "I talk to her every morning during meditation."
"You still meditate?" Prism asked with surprise.
"Yeah, don't you?" Kaeral replied.
"Of course, but . . ." Prism shrugged, and after a short chuckle he went on, "well, I guess I should've figured that the Order of the Mountain did something right by you."
"They did a few things for me," Kaeral replied, smiling warmly. He touched Prism's shoulder gently, then turned his attention to Grim. "So, you're coming up here to fight the good fight, eh? Not a whole lot happening up here except for a lot of lawless bastards trying to grab whatever advantage they can. I make sure every woman in my life has an escort whenever they're out these days, and I try to make sure the men walk in pairs, too. There's too many that'd take advantage if given half a chance."
"Well, perhaps I can help with that," Prism said. "I can offer some protection.
"You do know your way around a fight," Kaeral conceded, "I'll give you that. But who will protect Grim?" He jabbed an elbow Grim's way and as the Fedain danced backward, Kaeral followed and put him in a short-lived headlock long enough to mess up his hair.
Prism didn't bother to intervene despite the annoyance he felt coming through the bond. "He probably has some illusions of running off and getting into trouble every night," he said with a sigh.
Grim stepped backward, glowering at Kaeral as he smoothed out his hair somewhat. Instead of getting after Kaeral, however, he simply said, "I'm hoping to find a doctor who will let me help him."
"Someone who doesn't know who you are?" Shaw asked. Prism and Kaeral both gave her exasperated looks, but she just shrugged and added, "No use avoiding the truth. I dated a Fedain woman for how many years? Three? I know all about the taboos, and Grim's a might notorious for breaking them."
"Precisely," Grim conceded. That nothing but resignation came across the bond surprised Prism. He'd expected Grim to be saddened or angry by someone else pointing out his reputation, but it seemed that Grim had begun to grow accustomed to how the Fedain regarded him.
"Well, I'm happy to ask around," Kaeral said, then started toward the only real door in the entire shack. He opened it to reveal a small pantry and withdrew two bottles filled with dark liquids. "Do either of you want something to drink? I've been homebrewing recently, and I stole a couple from Zaalf's stash as well."
"Homebrew maybe, but I think the day's a little young for Zaalf's stash," Prism replied with a smirk.
Kaeral grinned in response. "You're probably right, though—" he was cut off by a large man bursting through the door. Prism didn't recognize him, but he wore Tala's—Kaeral's uncle-in-law—colors. Recognizing him as an ally, he dropped his aggressive stance almost immediately.
But it returned as soon as the man spoke. "Kaeral, come quick! There's fighting at the shore. We're going to need ya!'
"What's happening? Raiders again?" Kaeral asked, his hand darting back to his sword hilt.
"No . . . no, it's like nothing we've ever seen. They're in the air, all crackling with fire and lightning!" the man replied. "I don't know what to make of it. They seemed alive almost, from the glimpses I caught."
"Oligan? Are they attacking?" Grim suggested. "I know we've heard next to nothing from them since the disasters began, but maybe they've rounded up some soldiers and decided to stake a claim over here."
"Don't know, just passing the word along to every able-bodied fighter," the man replied. "You two willing to help? This isn't some turf battle, all the families are fightin' alongside each other. This is for Lobrak."
Prism nodded and turned to Kaeral. "You lead the way and I'll follow your lead. Grim can stay here with Shaw."
"I'm coming with you," Grim replied, shaking his head. "I don't care that there's fighting. If someone tries to hurt me, I'll handle it, but I'm going to help whatever wounded I can."
Kaeral nodded. "That's good enough for me. I'm going to sneak out through the roof after I barricade the door for Shaw and Vil," he said. "You two meet me around the back, and I'll lead you to the shore."
"I'm off to round up more," the other man said before dashing off into the dusk.
Prism looked at Grim and stepped outside, nodding in respect to Shaw before Kaeral replaced the driftwood door. As they waited for him to join them, Prism said, "Are you sure you want to—"
"Yes, Prism," Grim replied. "You should already know that answer anyway. I can't make a difference if I avoid conflict, and I'm sick of doing nothing. You can hear it already, can't you? If you stop talking."
"Hear wh—" Prism started, but at Grim's sharp look and flash of anger, Prism shut his mouth and listened. There was screaming coming from the direction of the shore. More screams than he could've imagined. He dashed down the street for a better vantage point and Grim followed close behind.
Clouds billowed up in the distance, an approaching storm of rain and thunder, but it was no natural lightning that filled the sky. Winged forms filled the horizon, some crackling with electricity and others smoldering with fire and smoke. There were great winged serpents as well, and beneath them came forms swimming up from the depths of the ocean. Large horned figures with vicious claws extending from the backs of their hands, and other beings with plated, spiny bone covering every inch of their massive forms.
Kaeral joined them in the second it took Prism and Grim to recover from the sight, and they gasped collectively at the horde arrayed before them.
"Not Oligan," Grim whispered. "The demons have come to Lobrak. No corner of the world may be safe anymore."
"Looks like you get your wish, Grim," Prism said, letting his martial discipline take root and slowly fill him with the adrenaline he'd need for the coming conflict. "We have no choice anymore. It's time to make that difference."
"How can we fight so many?" Kaeral asked. "So many . . ."
"We do it for the world, and because there's no one else," Grim replied. Without another word he raced toward the shore, not bothering to see if Prism or Kaeral were following.
But they were, though fear blazed in both their minds. There was no one else, and the war had come here whether they wanted it or not. The grave's embrace awaited those who fought, and those who ran in fright; the latter hardly fared better than the former in the end. They ran toward the shore, and the shore rose up to meet them, its waves filled with demons, its storm filled with death.
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