"So, are we to assume that this journey with Odiran is what ended up bringing you all together?" Telzath asked, looking around at the others. "Pentalus was built in one of the ruins of Ultaka, no?"
"That is correct, Telzath," Neredos said. "We cleared out the burned and melted rubble of Kallen. The name survived rather well, considering the years. The Plains of Kalle were named such around seven hundred years ago."
"The circumstances of our first meeting are quite interesting as well," Prism added. "The war was actually going well at that point, in comparison to how it had gone in the time before."
"Then perhaps we should show them, don't you think?" Ghayle suggested.
"Were you present there as well, Ghayle?" Dogo asked.
Ghayle shook her head. "Not yet, but soon. My work remained in the south, bringing knowledge back to my people as they also worked to fight off the demons. Kixhan was quickly building my reputation among the Gor, just as these heroes had their reputations forged among the Humans and Fedain."
"When did everyone get together, then?" Telzath asked. "There are legends, but even with Elrok memory there are errors in our oral tradition."
"I will take you there soon," Ghayle replied. "For now, however, I will take you to the moments before, when the world began to notice The Trial itself."
Neredos had never seen the ocean so silent. Ahead of them stretched nothing but open water, as it had for nearly a week. The Everbright city could move no faster than the slowest ship in Odiran's fleet, or risk spreading the defenses too thin to guard the entire group.
But he had not expected to encounter so little along the way. No demons stood to challenge them, though a harrying force occasionally followed them and attacked their flanks. It was as if they were reminding Neredos and his company that the way ahead was clear, but to move backward would be folly.
He'd had many strange thoughts of late, ever since waking up from being attacked by one of the Vhor. He wasn't sure if it was the demonic poison Odiran had claimed to have purged from him—or if Odiran himself had done something through the healing ritual—but something was happening to Neredos' mind. He was losing it, piece by piece.
The demons had shown some sense of rationality, but they still seemed to be a destructive force without primary purpose other than the annihilation of civilization. The Vhor had added a new angle to that, one that showed cunning and manipulation of events. It was enough to make Neredos want to jump at every shadow, and to distrust everyone around him.
There was one exception to that, though Neredos hated that exception. Odiran faithfully proved he was not a Vhor before every meeting, and insisted that everyone else do the same. Despite knowing that Odiran was not a demon, Neredos rarely felt at ease when the other man was in the room. He understood the underlying hatred in Odiran's eyes; Neredos had killed his father, or at least caused his death. That was enough to send chills down his spine every time he looked at the younger man.
That was another possible explanation for the mental degradation Neredos was noticing within himself; guilt. Shame. The pressures of leadership were beginning to take their toll on him, especially now that he felt he could no longer trust those he had trusted before.
It hadn't helped that there were still at least two Vhor on the loose. No one had been able to track what had become of Chief Valdrek, or the one who had impersonated him. And Odiran still claimed there was one loose among his people. Either one could be waiting at any moment to spring a trap, assassinate someone important, or simply overhear key conversations. Worse, like the other demons, there could be many more than just two.
All the possibilities were driving Neredos mad. He wanted to scream in frustration, and lash out at others, but he knew that would only serve to fuel whatever discord the Vhor strove to weave into his ranks. No, he would have to silently observe, waiting for them to play their hand. Watching the ocean, knowing the storm would soon hit.
"Where are they?"
Neredos turned at the unexpected question and was surprised to see Odiran joining him at the city's edge. Odiran made regular trips by eagle between the ships below and the flying city, making sure to maintain coordination between the two allied factions.
"Excuse me? Where are who?" Neredos asked, not sure if he'd heard Odiran correctly.
"The demons," Odiran replied, gesturing to the open water ahead of them. "Why are they letting us move unhindered?"
"You noticed that too?" Neredos asked.
Odiran snorted. It was among the few displays of emotion that he would often express. One of the small, subtle differences between Odiran and his father. Odiran could display emotion, during those rare moments that he remembered he was a young man. "It's hard to miss," he said, giving Neredos an impatient look.
"I agree. I'm glad I'm not the only one to notice, however," Neredos replied, nodding. "It makes me wonder why the demons came in the first place, and what their motivations are."
"My grandmother always said, 'If you seek learning, serve truth'. It sounds a little awkward in the modern tongue, but . . . she always explained it as, 'if you want to understand something, you have to accept what is already in front of you'. The demons have a plan for us, that much is certain," Odiran said.
"And where do the Vhor fit in?" Neredos asked.
Odiran considered the question for only a moment before answering. "The puppet masters, surely."
"But can we be certain of that? How do we know they don't serve a greater purpose than their own?" Neredos asked.
Odiran scrunched up his face in confusion and gave Neredos a sidelong glance. "What's your basis for that?" He asked. "Everything we've seen so far has indicated that they are manipulating us, driving us into position."
"When I killed that first Vhor, just before you arrived, the other one . . ." Neredos paused to gather his thoughts, remembering the day he'd nearly died. "He told me about the Vhor and tried to keep his cover. If he was acting independently . . ." Neredos shrugged helplessly. "I think he would've tried to kill me first, to avenge his companion, without trying to maintain his disguise. I saw the desire for vengeance in his eyes. It takes a very strong reason to suppress that level of anger."
"Can you be certain a demon can even feel desires for vengeance?" Odiran asked. His tone sounded academic, rather than doubtful. He didn't disbelieve Neredos' claim, only wanted to explore all the options before drawing his own conclusion. Neredos could respect a man like that, even if Odiran wanted to kill him.
"When you kill an Aika, its bonded mate seeks out vengeance on the battlefield. This has been observed countless times now," Neredos replied. "I'm certain."
"What do you think are motivations then?" Odiran asked. "If vengeance is not their first choice . . ."
Neredos nodded and continued his thought. "I think that they wanted me alive. For whatever reason. I think they want all of us in this group alive, for whatever reason. That's why there are no demons ahead, only behind."
"Unless we're heading directly into a trap," Odiran countered.
"Do you think we should turn around? Deviate from our plan?" Odiran asked.
"No. I think we'll gain more insight by 'serving truth', as your grandmother put it. We already know they're watching us and have changed their plans because of us more than once. We won't gain any more insight, other than another confirmation, by deviating from this course. But if we hold true, we will find what awaits us," Neredos replied.
And he was surprised to see a genuine smile on Odiran's face when the young man replied, "Then full speed ahead. Commit to truth, and let's find out what awaits us."
"Agreed," Neredos said. "To the eye of the unseen storm, and shadows beyond the light."
Veil steadied herself against the desk and rose to her feet, taking a moment to catch her breath. She felt faint, dizzy even, and was nearly certain she would fall over if she didn't take her time. There had never been a more important meeting in her life than the one before her now.
She glanced at Tellen, who stood beside her, ready to offer aid if she requested it. She'd wanted him here, not so much for his prestige and importance as would suit her typical guests, but on account of love. She needed his emotional support, because this encounter would be difficult.
Composing herself, she walked around the desk to face the doorway, trying to imagine she was in her father's study. About halfway around, her step faltered as she realized imagining her father's study made it worse. There was too much emotional weight to that distant memory and that place ruined by time. Enough emotion to drown her a hundred times over if she allowed herself to feel it. Why had she even wanted to go there?
No, that was easy for her to understand, she realized a moment later. It was because this moment was about family, and that had instinctively pulled her back to her last memories of family. It wouldn't do to stay there, however. She had to move forward.
She nodded to the man standing by the door, her personal clerk who had relayed her visitor's arrival. With a curt bow, the clerk opened the door and stepped into the hallway. "Lord Grimfaeth?" He said. "The Lady Veil will see you now."
Veil heard an unintelligible curse, and then Grim walked toward the door, fixing the clerk with an icy stare. "She would use that name. So, it's about title and rank, is it?"
"I'm sorry?" The clerk asked, blinking.
"No matter. Forget I said anything at all," Grim said.
The clerk bowed and gestured toward the open doorway. "If you'll please step inside."
Grim walked inside and bowed deeply, his body stiff and movements methodical in obvious disdain. As he straightened, he turned his glare on Veil. "Duchess Veillynn, daughter of Selfaeth and rightful heir to the throne of Ultaka, how may I be of service to you today?" He asked with badly concealed bitterness.
"Grim, don't be like that," Veil said gently.
"Ah, so now you give me that tone of affection? You announce me publicly as 'lord' but think you can address me familiarly in private?" Grim asked, though his eyes soon flicked over to Tellen, looking him up and down before returning his gaze to Veil. "Well, almost private."
Tellen opened his mouth to respond, and Veil immediately raised her hand to stall him. Before he could say anything at all, Veil ordered, "Tellen, please excuse us."
"Are you certain, Veil?" Tellen asked with surprise.
"Quite. I'm safe with my brother, I assure you," Veil replied firmly.
Tellen stared skeptically at Grim and said without any attempt to conceal his words, "Isn't your brother a murderer?"
To Veil surprise, Grim did not stiffen at the label Tellen applied to him. Whatever had happened in the years since they had seen each other, he had changed. But despite that, Veil knew she could trust him as well as she always could. "Tellen, please," she insisted.
Tellen held her gaze for a moment, then turned and walked toward the door. He paused briefly just after passing Grim, looking over his shoulder for a moment to study Veil's brother. His face clouding over, he shook his head slightly before exiting the room.
As soon as the door was closed after him, Veil straightened her skirt and faced Grim directly. "Now, will you please calm down so I can apologize?" She asked.
"What?" Grim asked, eyes widening.
"I want to apologize," Veil said, clearing her throat awkwardly. It had been a long time since she felt this unsettled by anything at all, and even maintaining eye contact with Grim was a struggle.
"You disowned me, publicly decreed I was no longer a Fedain, and then turned your back on me," Grim said, barely containing a snarl.
Veil opened her arms in a welcoming gesture. "Yes, and now I'm here, arms extended, trying to make it up to you. Why do you think I used your title publicly? I was trying to establish your legitimacy, not create more distance between us."
Grim's face remained as serious as ever as he replied, "Why now? What changed?"
Veil nodded. She'd expected this, him needing an explanation. Grim always thought far too deeply about things for his own good, and she knew he wouldn't accept her on words alone. She had to be vulnerable. She had to offer him truth, or all he would see from this point forward would be lies. "I've done harm, Grim," she said slowly. "I used Fedain healing to cause harm. If I can justify doing so, then . . . I suppose you have your reasons, and I can respect that. I haven't killed anyone, but . . . I think I understand what it's like to feel that sometimes pain is necessary."
"You're talking about the Quay disease," Grim replied flatly.
"I am," Veil said. "I was the one who figured it out, who cracked the code."
"I see," Grim replied.
"So . . . I've invited you here to ask your forgiveness . . ." Veil hesitated, waving her hands frantically to stall Grim's reaction. "No, I just ask that you hear my apology, I suppose. I know things will never be the way they once were between us, but I'm hoping that in time we can repair some of the damage."
Grim bit his lip thoughtfully, and for the first time since entering the room, he seemed uncertain. It seemed ages before he responded. "Possibly, Veil, though I wouldn't hold out hope for much."
"I was wrong, Grim," Veil said softly. It was becoming easier to meet his gaze, to communicate her intent. The more she opened her feelings, the more she was willing to admit, the more receptive he became. "I was wrong about you, about disowning you . . . I was wrong about a lot of things. There's so much I wish I could change about how things happened between us over these past few years."
"Is that so?" Grim asked. Veil could tell from his eyes that he didn't believe her. She had wounded him deeply. Deep enough that the injury was far from being healed. At one point she had wanted to cure his depression, but instead she had only scarred his soul further. How had she traveled so far from her intended road?
She regained some of her composure, hoping to try another approach. "I know Father wouldn't want us to fight," she said softly. "He'd want us to work together in this crisis."
"We are working together. You're keeping the people organized, I'm killing the demons. I have Prism with me, and you have your . . ." Grim glanced to the spot where Tellen had stood moments before, then back to Veil's eyes as he finished with disgust, "bureaucrats."
Veil wanted to challenge Grim on his choice of word for describing Tellen, but in her current open-minded state, she also knew the truth of it. Tellen was a better bureaucrat than he'd ever be a general. While he had been a great bodyguard to Veil, he was much better suited to the small scale than he was to commanding the entire campaign.
The war had been going well, overall, for the past few months, but that had only made Tellen's inadequacies more apparent. Nearly all the recent errors that had led to great losses of life lay at Tellen's feet. At least the bulk of his sub commanders knew what they were doing, and could work around his orders when necessary.
But she was not here to talk about the state of the war, though she knew it was important to Grim and used it as her next talking point. She stepped closer, close enough to smell the sweat and dirt of the road on him. He had come straight here, without taking any time at all to freshen up. Even as her nose turned slightly, she admired that about her brother.
Wanting to reach out to him, she instead kept her hands firmly at her side as she said, "We could be fighting this battle alongside each other, you know. Imagine if you were here, backing me up with all the legends you've already made for yourself. Prism too."
Grim scoffed incredulously, his eyes meeting hers with bewilderment. After a moment, he chuckled, then trampled over all Veil's attempts to keep them talking about her apology. "They call him the Dark Monk now. It's the way he seems to teleport from shadow to shadow, and demons and men alike never see him coming."
Veil sighed, realizing Grim was now done playing by her rules. "Where is Prism now? I invited him as well. Surely the invitation was properly addressed?"
"Yes . . ." Grim said neutrally. He hesitated for a moment, then continued, "He has an appointment with a friend of ours. Something that should help him turn the tide of this conflict."
"You could take me to him if he won't come to me," Veil suggested. "There's something important I must go over with both of you. Regardless of whether you are willing to hear my apology, I'm afraid this request is vital and not negotiable."
Grim bowed low, almost as mockingly as he had when he'd entered the room, but just a touch less. That slight variation was enough to give Veil some hope, and Grim's tone as he answered was lighter as well. "As you wish. Your bodyguard will not be welcome, however," Grim said with a sneer.
"Then we'll sneak out," Veil replied, forcing a smile. "For old time's sake."
A smile briefly flickered onto Grim's face and then disappeared completely. "You were never very good at that," he said softly.
Veil grinned, encouraged by the slight changes. "I've learned a thing or two in the last few years. Let me show you how I get out of here at night when I want to walk the streets."
Prism gripped the sides of the table until his knuckles turned white, growling at the needles piercing his skin. They just kept coming, and aside from a brief resting phase, had been since the morning of the day before. It was a necessary evil, as far as Prism was concerned, but he was ready for the entire tattooing process to be over.
"Zaalf, you had best figure out some way to finish it this session, or I swear I'm going to kill you. I'm sick of laying naked on your table," he growled, glancing over his naked back at the Gor standing over him.
Zaalf was middle-aged for a Gor. Kaeral called him uncle, but so did most every other Gor—and the few Humans and Fedain—who knew him. He was known to be an angry drunk but was even angrier sober. Alcohol was in short supply now that the world lay in shambles. The drugs Zaalf had used to supplement his alcoholism were rarer still.
Still, Zaalf tended to have a fondness for Prism and Grim, still remembering the first time they met, when the pair had decided to get matching Familiar tattoos. As such, Zaalf's usual anger wasn't very strong as he replied, "That's not the monk I know. You're much too angry."
Prism growled testily, "Get on with it Zaalf. I'm sick of being here."
"Come on, I'm not that hard to look at, am I?" Zaalf asked with mock sweetness. "You spent all this time naked with me, I must be doing something right to keep you here."
"Finish. Your. Work," Prism said forcefully.
Zaalf cackled like the madman he was and set the needles to Prism's skin again. When Prism had first requested this tattoo, Zaalf had stared at him like he was crazy. It was a dangerous request, and one that most people would not be able to survive. But Prism was not most people, and the nanites coursing through his veins could repair his systems almost as fast as a Fedain could.
The tattoos themselves consisted of thin, silvery lines that crisscrossed over most of Prism's exposed flesh. Those lines were full of small metal fragments comprised primarily of several pounds of steel dust. The magic in the tattoo would prevent Prism's body from suffering the effects of having so much metal in his bloodstream, but that magic would not be activated until the tattoo and the enchantment ritual were complete. Since Prism wanted his tattoos to interconnect, he couldn't afford to do it in stages, each with its own enchantment, to give his body time to heal. Instead, he trusted in his nanites to keep him alive while Zaalf worked around the clock to finish the job.
Once the tattoos were complete, they would allow Prism to add significant momentum to each of his attacks. Though his training and experience both allowed him to hit harder than the average man, demon hide was often thick and durable, and anything Prism could do to break through it was worth the risk. According to Zaalf's promises, the tattoos would allow Prism to gather the extra metal in his blood all to one location, and make each punch and kick land like a hammer blow.
Zaalf had finished with ninety-percent of the tattoo, but that only meant there were several hours to go. Prism had spent more time naked in the last two days than he had at any other time since the war began, including his year with Grim in the Dorram. To make matters worse, Zaalf kept his makeshift tattoo parlor in a large tent susceptible to frigid Spring drafts. The Gor loved the cold. Prism missed the heat of the Dorram.
A cold wind whipped into the tent as if in answer to Prism's thoughts. He shivered, and that made the needle go in sharper than usual. Even through Prism's own pain, he felt Grim wince in the distance.
"Oh for the Blood's sake! Why are you coming here, Grim?" Prism said, glaring at the tent wall and feeling Grim approach. Grim was supposed to be meeting with Veil, and the city where Veil had established her headquarters was nearly four hours away by foot. It was the perfect amount of distance.
"Should I pause? I know you didn't want him to feel the procedure," Zaalf said.
"No, he knew he should stay away. If he came here, it's his own damn fault. Finish," Prism said, then lay back down sullenly.
"As you wish," Zaalf said, then returned his needles to the back of Prism's right thigh.
Another half hour passed before Grim arrived at the tent, walking straight there and wincing every time Zaalf poked Prism's flesh. The reverberation of the pain was enough to make Prism want to scream. Both he and Grim had adjusted to feeling each other's injuries during battle, but this was a constant, nagging pain, and entirely different.
As soon as Grim walked through the door, Prism didn't bother to look up, he simply kept his face turned to the side as Zaalf continued working. "Grim! What are you doing here?" Prism asked.
"Veil wanted to see you," Grim said neutrally.
"She did, did she? What the hell for?" Prism asked, looking up as he felt Grim's frustration through the bond. Then he noticed Veil standing next to Grim, staring at Prism's naked body. "You'll have to excuse me," Prism said with a slight snarl. "I'm in the middle of something, as I'm sure Grim's winces have told you by now."
"What are you doing?" Veil asked, her eyes studying Prism's body like it was a work of art.
"I'm getting a tattoo. What does it look like?" Prism said, glancing at Grim for explanation of Veil's presence. Grim simply shrugged and shook his head helplessly.
"A particularly dangerous tattoo. Why are there so many people distracting me?" Zaalf said, putting down his needles to look at Grim and Veil.
Prism sighed when he felt Grim's relief. The needles were getting to the Fedain. "We can take a few minutes," Prism said. "A few, and no more."
"As you wish," Zaalf said, but then his tone turned frosty as he moved his supplies out of the way. "Finish, he tells me," he grumbled. "Then he stops the first chance he gets. What is wrong with this generation?" Shaking his head in disgust, Zaalf moved past Veil and Grim without another word and left the tent.
"Who is that?" Veil asked.
"Zaalf," Grim replied. "You don't need any other name. If I gave it to you, he'd probably want to make sure he interrogated you before you left."
"He's an important man these days. Ever since Tala died, Zaalf's been running most of the crews from Lobrak, under Wayar and Yatha, of course," Prism explained as he rose off the table and reached for a nearby blanket to wrap around his body. He was conscious of Veil's eyes on him and made a point of keeping his back to her until the blanket was secure. "By contrast, Wayar trusts Grim and I to get the job done, so we just make our own way on the battlefield. A path everyone else stays out of."
"And for good reason," Grim said. "When others try to follow us, they die. It's as simple as that. Though Zaalf's group does good work. They're all tattooed in ways we haven't seen in Ultaka in centuries. They have magic and know how to use it."
"Zaalf's been calling his personal crew 'the Inkblades', recently, and he's training his daughter and her new Human lover how to run everything in case Zaalf dies," Prism added. "The man even has two grandkids now, though one of them is the human's offspring only."
"You'd probably like Zaalf's son in law, Veil. He's big and strapping like that man of yours," Grim said, sneering at Veil. "He's from Godani, which, as I recall, was your favorite province for swimming because of the men."
"What do you mean 'that man of mine'?" Veil snapped. "And you don't know what you're talking about."
"The big fellow. He seems familiar, but I can't place him," Grim said. "Oh, that's right . . . he's our general. Is that because he's sleeping with you?"
"That is not for you to worry about, Grim," Veil said with barely concealed rage. Her cheeks reddened, her eyes as sharp as daggers.
Prism could discern Grim's emotions well enough to know that his lover didn't mistake the color in Veil's cheeks as Grim said, "Well, I may not really be your brother anymore, but I can still make you blush."
Worried that the conversation could soon descend into a brawl—and despite how interesting a sight it would be to see two Fedain in a fistfight—Prism hastened to ask, "Is either of you going to tell me what you're doing here?"
Veil spared one more glare for Grim before turning to Prism. "I came to invite you personally to a meeting."
"A meeting?" Prism asked, raising an eyebrow. "Didn't you already invite us to something? An invitation I declined, I might add. And Grim only went to see you out of masochistic curiosity."
Veil sighed heavily and plucked at her skirt. After a moment she regained her composure and spoke with more dignity than Prism would've expected, considering her company. "I'm sure you've heard that Neredos arrived with a substantial force to the North. Roughly twenty miles southwest of Kobinaru, he has set camp and entrenched his position. Likely against demons, of course, but there's a possibility he will not be welcoming to us, either."
Prism and Grim shared a look before the latter replied, "So, you want us to go with you?"
"Yes. If we bring the greatest heroes of our armies together, we are surely strong enough to protect each other while giving respect to a potential ally, and hopefully putting him at ease to prevent him becoming an enemy," Veil replied.
"Pulling us off the front lines," Grim said, "doesn't seem like the best course of action to me."
"In case you haven't noticed, the front lines are everywhere these days," Veil said icily.
"I understand that there's plenty of bad blood between you two, but could you not waste time right now?" Prism interjected. "Besides, you know as well as anyone, Grim, that the front lines have been quieter in the last month than they have at any other point in the war."
"That's a valid enough point," Grim conceded with a sigh.
Prism nodded and returned his attention to Veil. "So, who else will be coming to this meeting?"
"Wayar will be coming as well, to represent the military directly. Prism, I hope that, in the wake of Grandmaster Jovun's death, your succession as leader of the Order of the Mountain has been approved?" Veil asked.
"Only regarding leadership in the war," Prism clarified. "In all other matters, Grandmaster Shal presides over the Order. This is the only time there have been two Grandmasters in over three centuries, but I bear the title in name only."
"It should be Master Vinh in all regards," Veil said, then covered her mouth as she looked at Prism in apology.
Prism chuckled and said, "I don't disagree. But he had to go and get himself killed, the bastard."
"How can you smile about his death?" Veil asked incredulously.
Prism thought about his former mentor and tasted apple. It was sweet, if underripe, and he suppressed the urge to chuckle again. He settled for a wide grin and replied, "If you can't answer that question, you must not have known him as well as you think."
"Will it just be the four of us then?" Grim asked, satisfied that someone else bore the brunt of Veil's glare for a moment.
"That is my preference, although I may take a small honor guard at my general's request," Veil said, sighing.
"Still using Humans to protect yourself, huh?" Grim chided.
"I do when a Human insists on it," Veil replied sharply.
"Are you two done?" Zaalf's voice said from outside the tent. "Can I get back to work?"
"I think they are, or at least they can take it outside," Prism said, and Zaalf took that opportunity to push back through Veil and Grim, ignoring them both as Prism continued. "Either way, yes. Finish this thing so I can finally get back on the battlefield. After I attend a meeting."
"We leave tomorrow. Will he be able to ride with us?" Veil asked, looking skeptically at Prism.
"Yes. Without a doubt. Prism has faced as many demons as anyone, Zaalf is just worse than they are," Grim replied, then winced as Prism climbed back on the table and Zaalf immediately stuck a needle in his thigh. "A ride will be a cinch compared to this."
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