"So, you all really managed to put your disagreements aside and work together, did you?" Dogo asked, pulling away from the others. "Just like that?"
"Well, it wasn't really that smooth," Neredos replied, nodding at his own words as if confirming the memory in his mind. "It took some time for us to mesh our armies. Nearly all the people left in Incaria came to join us during the next two years, and two more large groups of refugees from Oligan migrated to us as well. They had to shelter themselves in parts of the countryside that Odiran hadn't been able to reach in his own scouting missions, so it was understandable why he didn't know about them when I met up with him."
Prism spoke next, adding, "We also learned of an ambitious group of Lodani that had landed on the southeastern peninsula of Ultaka and fought their way to Cherrim Pass. To make it through, they had allied themselves with some of the Southern Gor tribes that had been cut off by the demons."
"An entire Elrok tribe died helping them," Veil said, sighing deeply. "There were tremendous sacrifices made by that group."
"Indeed," Ghayle agreed, nodding solemnly. "There were several Chosen picked from amongst them, though all long dead by now. You will meet them in time, as well."
"Anyone we know?" Prism asked.
Ghayle nodded and said, "Shaman Evarsh, the last Elrok of the Clan of the Mongoose. She awaits in another dream. The Gor scout, Pharid Chalrankodi, and his bear, Kond is near Evarsh, and sometimes they speak. The Three Sisters of Xalt are here as well, though you only ever met Palkra. There are several more who died along the way, but their feats earned them a place here."
"I remember stories of Evarsh. She is well respected in the oral traditions. There are not many who persist after their clan has disappeared, especially not one as advanced in age as she became," Telzath said reverently.
"She was an impressive woman," Veil said. "She taught me some things about healing that I didn't know, especially about healing emotions. Her techniques were less magical than practical, however. I don't think I ever would've overcome Tellen's death, if not for her."
"She is still an impressive woman," Neredos corrected Veil. "Ghayle just told us that Evarsh is still here, after all."
"Many more are not," Veil said. She glanced at Ghayle for a moment, her eyes hard. Then her features softened, and she breathed slowly through her nose. "I wish I had the answers as to why they are not, but I suppose as always, Ghayle only tells us what she wishes."
"I'm sorry for your loss," Dogo said. Every other pair of eyes turned toward him with surprise.
"Dogo," Prism said, a slight smile creeping onto his face, "that was almost sincere."
"It is sincere, Prism," Dogo replied, a bit gruffly. He turned back to Veil, showing no emotion on his face except a tint of conflict in his eyes. "Veil, I see you a bit more clearly now. While I still do not respect your decisions, I can understand why you made them."
Veil was stunned, but after a moment, she accepted Dogo's words with a single inclination of her head. "Thank you, Dogo."
"So, you said all this happened over the next two years. The war lasted for sixteen, correct?" Dogo asked.
"Roughly sixteen and a half, give or take eight centuries," Prism said, chuckling as he glanced at Ghayle.
"And still the demons kept coming," Telzath said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Remarkable how you managed to survive, considering how endless their armies were."
"Yes, and the Vhor kept up their games," Neredos said. "They were gathering us, trying to get us all to be in one spot. The Gor from the northern tribes made their way south shortly after the second group from Oligan. It wasn't long after that when every living Elrok made their way to Ultaka, all suspiciously with no demons ahead but demonic armies behind them. The Vhor wanted us together, but we didn't know why."
"We're still not even sure whose faces they wore during that time. Grim would know best, considering the lengths he went to start tracking them towards the end of the war," Prism added.
"I could give you a detailed account of where each one of them was at all times, but not yet," Ghayle interjected. "We have other things to worry about, and the individual movements of each Vhor is a small matter compared to the larger picture."
"Do you have something in mind to show us?" Prism asked.
Ghayle smiled warmly and gathered them close again. "We have much more to see."
Prism's fingers were lost somewhere in Grim's hair, stroking his lover's scalp. They had just finished bathing, a rare thing for either of them in the last few years. It was as much a matter of lack of opportunity, as lack of plumbing, though their rare visits to the Everbright City afforded them both. Prism was grateful for that, as there was nothing he loved more than Grim's scent when he was freshly scrubbed.
But there was much on his mind, and though part of him wanted to flip Grim over and ravage his body, remembrances of the battlefield fought to kill the mood. "Six years, Grim," Prism said quietly, the words coming unbidden to his lips, "We've been fighting this war for six years."
"Five and a half at best for you and me, Prism," Grim sighed, leaning into Prism's hand and moaning softly. "And the war itself has gone on for six and a half."
Prism chuckled. As strange as it seemed to most people, he loved it when Grim corrected him on the simple details. It made him feel like they were a married couple, even though they'd never pursued any form of legal union. He doubted they ever would, especially if this war never ended.
Deciding not to dwell on the hopelessness of the war, Prism took the conversation in a completely different direction. "Fine, but that doesn't change anything. Six years and still no one has seen under Yatha's helmet. At least no one we can find who's alive."
"She exposes her hand to the flame like everyone else in the war council. She is clearly not one of the Vhor," Grim replied with a chuckle. It was becoming an old argument at this point. Neither of them really suspected Yatha of being a demon, though her peculiar attachment to her helmet was quite legendary.
"Yes, but she could still be working for them. Why else would she always be so cold and distant?" Prism asked.
"Maybe because she's a Fedain who doesn't like being shunned?" Grim replied, laughing. Even now, approaching seven years since they first bonded as familiars, Prism loved the way Grim's laughter echoed with his love across the bond.
"That theory is just as unfounded as mine," Prism replied, then kissed the top of Grim's head. "Why would she be killing people? You know that she has murdered more than just demons, and without a bit of apparent regret."
"So have I," Grim said plainly. Some of his positivity faded, and Prism reviewed his own words, immediately realizing where he'd gone wrong. How had he managed to muck things up so badly? He needed to be more careful.
He moved on, knowing his next point would be better received. "But she's from Lodan. I thought all Fedain were purged from Lodan four hundred years ago."
"Well, maybe she's only part Fedain?" Grim replied, then pulled away. Prism watched him as frustration bled into the bond. "I don't know, Prism, but she takes wounds all the time that no one, other than a Fedain, could walk away from."
"You know something, don't you?" Prism asked. "About her, I mean."
Grim sighed and nodded. "I know that she hates me, and that it's in a manner that only other Fedain ever do."
"But if she's a Fedain who doesn't care about killing, why does she judge you?" Prism asked, hoping that revisiting the earlier point would not trigger another negative reaction.
"I don't know, but maybe—" Grim began, but was cut off by a sharp knock at the door. "Who is it?" He asked.
A deep voice spoke through the heavy oak door. "Grandmaster Prism, Lord Grimfaeth, I'm sorry to disturb you at this hour, but your presence has been requested at the Council."
"Understood. Thank you for relaying the message," Prism called back. Retreating footsteps in the hall signaled the messenger's departure, and Prism turned to Grim with a bewildered stare. "What do you think that's about? It's the middle of the night!"
"Who knows anymore? Ever since we arrived here, they haven't left us alone," Grim replied, sighing deeply. He started looking around, as if trying to find where he had left his clothing. They'd returned from the baths in nothing but towels, as Neredos' palace had its own private facilities just down the hall from their quarters. It seemed silly to dress for traveling such a short distance.
Prism nodded. "I am glad that Veil and Neredos have managed to reach an arrangement regarding leadership, though. As good as Veil is with bureaucratic governance, Neredos is a better war commander than she ever was."
"Me too," Grim replied. "After the fall of Khadrun, it's a good thing that Neredos was able to step in with his military forces and bring order to our crumbled morale." Grim's face was scrunched in thought as he rose from the bed and continued to look around the room in confusion.
Since he was naked, and Prism preferred him that way, Prism saw no reason to help Grim look for his clothing. Instead, he simply lounged back in the bed and let lust fuel him. The bed was comfortable, soft, and warm, and he didn't want to leave. He started stroking himself as he continued the conversation. "To be fair, you and I had plenty to do with that. The southern lines had never had us working our magic before."
"You put too much glory on battle, Prism. I'm beginning to think that you like it too much," Grim said absently. "Considering how you're feeling right now."
"I'd rather be battling you, here, in these sheets," Prism said pointedly.
"I would, too, but we've been summoned by the Council," Grim said, not catching the hint.
"They can wait," Prism said, driving all his intention across the bond to Grim.
"Yes . . ." Grim moaned, feeling Prism's lust enter him. His body responded immediately, springing to attention as he turned to Prism and saw what was going on at last. Nodding hungrily, Grim dove back into bed, sliding over Prism and kissing him forcefully on the lips. "I suppose they can wait, but you better fuck me hard and fast so it doesn't take too long."
"That," Prism said eagerly, "can be arranged."
Neredos resisted the urge to drum his fingers against the table before him. He'd sent the summons to Grim and Prism nearly a half hour ago, and for some reason they had yet to arrive. Every other member of the Council currently residing in the Everbright City was present, including Morga who had rushed up the elevator from Kallen at the summons. He had only arrived a few minutes earlier, but now they were waiting unnecessarily. He normally did not mind waiting, but the circumstances of this current meeting had put him on edge.
At the end of the table sat a shirtless Gor who had introduced himself as Kixhan. He'd arrived at Kallen less than two hours ago, and after undergoing tests to determine if he was a Vhor and agreeing to come alone, he had been escorted to the Everbright City. Neredos was certain that, even without weapons or being a demon, this man was dangerous. Nearly every inch of Kixhan's visible flesh bore arcane tattoos. Neredos recognized few of them, but he would've bet his life that each one was magical in some way.
Kixhan had said very little, saying he preferred to wait until every available member of the Council was present. Odiran and the two Lodani representatives had not been keen on this demand, although Morga and the two representatives from the Northern Gor tribes seemed to think it completely appropriate, and were waiting patiently. Neredos didn't know which way to act, not in this case, anyway. The only other person who seemed to be neutral was the representative from Incaria, a half-Gor woman named Temys.
Thankfully, before the waiting dragged on too much longer, the door opened and Grim and Prism walked through. Neredos rose to his feet and the other council members followed suit as he bowed to his two friends in greeting.
"I see you two finally decided to arrive," Neredos said, trying to keep the stiffness out of his voice.
"Neredos, what's going on?" Prism asked.
"That's King Neredos, you—" Odiran began, but Neredos cut him off with a wave of his hand.
"Odiran, Grim and Prism are not required to address me as 'King' any more than you are," Neredos said sharply.
"Why were we summoned?" Grim asked. Only then did he take stock of the room, and his eyes widened as he saw Kixhan. Prism also noticed the Gor then, and he mirrored Grim's astonishment.
"Grim, Prism," Neredos began, gesturing with his open hand toward Kixhan, "I'd like to introduce you to Kixhan, of the Southern Gor. Their people just arrived. All of them."
Prism and Grim both moved to their respective seats, two of the six open ones, bringing the present council members to a total of nine. As Prism sat down, he addressed the room, "The Southern Gor have been fighting at their own fronts. They've allied with us on several strikes, but for the most part they've fought on their own and seemed to prefer it that way."
"What has brought you here, Kixhan?" Grim asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously as he turned to Kixhan.
"Brothers, could you please show some respect to Kixhan?" Neredos asked. "He has come a long way."
"In our experience, few Southern Gor are concerned about respecting us. The only one I know who treated me like I wasn't inferior was exiled for deciding his path differed from that of his tribe," Prism said. "And even when they shared the battlefield in the south, the Southern Gor continued to treat Master Vinhkroludar with contempt, or so I have been told."
"That's how you see us, is it? Contemptible and disrespectful?" Kixhan replied, a hint of a smile on his face. He turned away from Prism and looked directly at Neredos. "Well, that's no matter to me. I'm not the one determining my people's path. I am only her representative."
"Her?" Neredos asked.
"Ghayle," Kixhan replied. Morga and the Northern Gor gasped collectively, and even Temys seemed shaken by the name. Neredos remained unaffected as Kixhan continued. "She has returned to us, and I am simply her speaker. I represent her in all legal forms, as I act only in accordance with her will."
"So, you're like a prophet then?" Odiran asked. The tone of the question implied that it came with barely concealed sarcasm, a sentiment that Neredos agreed with completely.
"No," Kixhan replied, shaking his head. "I only speak for her in such matters when she herself cannot be present."
"So, others have seen this . . . Ghayle?" Neredos asked.
"She is coming here now. You will see her soon," Kixhan said.
"Is she among your people then?" Grim asked. Neredos watched the Fedain for a moment, considering his sudden pique of interest. Grim had an odd collection of esoteric knowledge in his head, and Neredos wondered how much Grim knew about Ghayle. Was she a legend from his past as well?
"No. She is far to the south. In the Dobraeg," Kixhan said.
"By 'soon' you must mean a month, at least, unless she has the means of traveling by air," Neredos replied skeptically.
Kixhan's slight smile became a full grin. "No. She will travel here before I have finished speaking these words."
Spots of blue light appeared in the air; four at first—one central. With three dots orbiting—then the outer three became six, three above and three down, rotating as they separated from the central dot. As soon as the bottom three reached the floor, the top three stopped ascending. All six lower and upper dots spiraled outward then, remaining in synchronous orbit with each other and increasing in speed until they became circuitous rings of light below and above the central light. Tendrils of blue light arced from the rings toward the center, and soon became a swirling vortex as the light from the top met the light from the bottom. The spinning rapidly increased until the vortex became a solid shaft of light large enough to easily encapsulate a man.
The lights faded all at the same time, disappearing into the same nothingness they had emerged from. As Neredos' eyes adjusted to the sudden light differential, he became distinctly aware of a bare-breasted woman standing before him. While she had the shape of a Gor, her skin was darker than that of any Gor he had ever seen, and fissures of white light spiderwebbed across her skin.
"Teleportation! Impossible!" Neredos heard himself say.
"Apparently not," Odiran said, thoughtfully. "I wonder what could accomplish that trick?"
There were murmurs from around the room as the others became aware of the Gor woman's arrival. All of them quieted at once as the woman spoke, like a moment of pure quiet before the avalanche of her presence descended upon them.
"Hello, Neredos," she said, "I am Ghayle, Queen of the Gor."
The room was so quiet that Neredos could hear his own pulse. It was racing, just as fast as that avalanche he had felt before. He wanted to deny the impossible feat he had just seen, to believe it was all an illusion concocted by Kixhan to fool them into accepting the validity of his claims. He latched onto that sliver of doubt and turned it into his lifeline back to sanity.
"My wife has told me about you," Neredos said at last.
"You don't believe I am who I am?" Ghayle asked, cocking her head to the side.
"I have heard of false gods all my life. Sometimes those myths have some basis in reality, but rarely is their omnipotence confirmed in the archaeological record," Neredos said, his resolve to resist this farce growing with every word.
Ghayle smiled. It was an expression that felt like Spring while her eyes spoke of Winter. "So, you believe me to be a false God, then?" She asked.
Neredos moved away from the table. He wanted to react immediately if this strange entity did anything to attack the Council and couldn't do that as easily with the table between them. "I believe it is far more likely than to believe you are in control of this world. My wife filled me with tales of your splendor. If you are truly so powerful, why have you not defeated the demons?" He asked.
Ghayle's gaze followed him like a hawk tracking a mouse. "It is true that my power is not absolute, Neredos. I am not the supreme being, nor am I certain that such a being exists. But I am here to help, now that all the peoples of the world have gathered together against our common threat."
"I do not yet believe that you are even real. Why would I trust you at my table?" Neredos asked.
"I know you, Neredos. I know you better than you could possibly understand at this time. Let me show you. Behold, the most important thing in your life," Ghayle said and raised her hand.
An apparition appeared standing next to Ghayle. One Neredos immediately recognized. It was as she had appeared when they first met, her cloaked and hooded form hiding from the frost in the warm library. He remembered laughing as he flirted with her, and the warmth he felt as she flirted back.
"Alazyn!" Neredos gasped, his knees suddenly weak. He reached out to steady himself against the back of one of the nearby chairs. It was Odiran's, and for once in the young man's life, he did not appear to be in control. Odiran was just as awestruck as the others by Ghayle's presence.
"I know of your love for her, and every moment you spent thinking about her, both before and after she died. You have built this world for her, but you fight for it for everyone else. Please, allow me to lend my knowledge to your cause," Ghayle said, and though she addressed Neredos directly, her words seemed to touch everyone in the room as if they were personal.
"And what role does Kixhan have in this?" Neredos asked.
"He is only my voice when I cannot be there. Nothing more, nothing less. He does not command my people, I do," Ghayle said.
Neredos shook his head, ignoring the image of Alazyn. She was dead and would remain dead. He would not tolerate her image being used against him. He clutched his denial with a white-hot grip and brought all of his will to bear, forming the runes he would need in his mind. Without looking, he scratched them into the back of Odiran's chair with his fingernail. It didn't matter if they were accurate, or if he'd even scratched the surface at all, as long as he was certain the runes were there. He needed to believe it. They were there; they had to be. "I think this illusion has gone on long enough," he growled.
Odiran's chair exploded as Neredos brought his will to bear over it. Keeping his focus, he willed every single shard to take a direct path toward Ghayle. Odiran fell to the floor without a scrap of wood in him as the splinters launched toward their target. As each one neared her, it slowed and fell to the ground as if it had just fallen from a tree. Soon a pile of splinters lay at Ghayle's feet, and she casually strode over them to approach Neredos.
"You believe you can destroy me so easily?" She asked.
"How . . ." Neredos said, staring at the pile splinters in disbelief. "I have never seen someone break a spell like that."
"I am Ghayle, Queen of the Gor," Ghayle said in answer. "I do not come here to be worshiped, nor to be accepted as an absolute power. I do have abilities beyond your understanding, but I do not wish to lead. One of you must do so, not I. I am here to assist, if you will take my assistance." She paused and glanced around the room, adding, "Unless someone else would like to test me?"
Neredos stared at her, dumbfounded. After a moment, he spared a glance at the others. Each of them remained motionless, but were nodding at her words. She had come, displayed her power, and left everyone on the Council knowing they stood no chance against her should they make her their enemy. If any of them wanted to protest, they saw little point to do so now. Neredos had already failed, what chance did the rest of them have?
"Very well," Neredos said, defeated. "Then we welcome you, Queen Ghayle."
Ghayle inclined her head in acceptance of Neredos' words. "A very wise decision, King Neredos. I regret that the Lady Veil could not join us. It is unfortunate that she has traveled so far away at this time."
Neredos breathed deeply, collecting himself before returning to his seat. Instead of sitting, however, he slid the chair to Odiran and remained standing. Still refusing to let go of all of his power, Neredos declined to offer a seat to Ghayle.
"What aid can you offer us?" He asked stiffly.
Ghayle turned back to Kixhan and said, "Kixhan, please give Neredos my gift, and then excuse us. Your task has been completed for today, and I shall rendezvous with you when this is over."
Kixhan nodded dutifully and retrieved the satchel that had been sitting next to his chair. Opening it, he withdrew a leather-wrapped bundle and stood, bringing it over to Neredos and setting it before him. He moved back to his chair where he was joined by Ghayle. She sat down as he said something to her in a whisper too quiet for anyone else to make out. Then he withdrew, leaving the room entirely.
"Please do not open that here, King Neredos. You and I will discuss the contents of that package when we are alone," Ghayle said.
"You can't expect us to leave him alone with someone as powerful as you," Odiran said testily. Despite their earlier awe, the others in the room nodded in agreement with Odiran's statement.
Neredos placed his hand on the package and had the distinct impression that what lay beneath its leather wrappings was powerful indeed. "On the contrary, my friends, I believe that is your only option," he said, contemplating the strange turn of events. "Fighting Ghayle is pointless. We should be fighting the demons, not each other."
"Can you help us fight the Vhor?"
The question seemed to catch everyone off guard, Ghayle included, as it came not from Neredos or Odiran, but from Grim. Grim was watching Ghayle closely, his eyes as sharp as ever. Once again, Neredos had underestimated the Fedain man, as Grim did not seem awestruck at all. Not anymore, at any rate.
"In what manner, Grimfaeth?" Ghayle asked.
"To find them. To track them, and to dispose of them," Grim replied smoothly.
"Grim has become a bit obsessed with them, lately. Ever since we found out there were more than just the one who attacked him near the beginning of the war," Prism offered as explanation. He seemed just as casual as Grim, another factor that Neredos found perplexing.
"Yes," Grim said, confirming Prism's words. "It seems they have infiltrated us from many angles. I believe they are a particular thorn in our side."
Ghayle nodded, pursing her lips thoughtfully. "Perhaps. I can delve into my resources and see if there is some magic that can help us. Unfortunately, as I'm sure you are well aware, Grimfaeth, demons are not made of quite the same stuff we are. They are beings of life force only, manifested into matter to interact with our world. They cannot perform magic as we do because they are magic in entirety. Their forms are the only thing they can affect with their energy, as they have no connection with the world itself. It is possible that their magic may not be traceable by the magic of the world."
"Do you know why the demons invaded this world?" Prism asked as Grim considered Ghayle's point.
"I do, Prism," Ghayle replied, bowing her head to Prism.
"Then why?" Prism asked.
"Because someone opened the gate to let them in," Ghayle replied. "I'm afraid I have no other knowledge to share on the subject."
"Gate?" Several people said at once—too many for Neredos to track. The Council was accepting Ghayle completely, now that the initial shock was over.
"Indeed," Ghayle confirmed.
"If there is a gate, then maybe we can close it?" Morga suggested.
"I'm sure it required a spell of some sort, so perhaps if we break the spell, or perform another one . . ." Odiran said thoughtfully.
Prism reentered the conversation. "I think we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before we can close any gate, we're going to have to find it."
This opened a new series of murmurs as the council members began discussing things amongst themselves, excited by the prospect of finding an advantage in this war. Neredos had to admit, that though he was not fond of the circumstances of the meeting, they had received only good news that day.
Ghayle then delivered some more. "In the meantime, my forces are at your disposal, King Neredos. They will follow your orders and those of your generals in times of war, though they will return to their homes in the South as soon as the demons have been beaten."
"That is rather generous of you, not to mention optimistic," Neredos said.
"I am not a war leader, nor am I a fool," Ghayle replied. "Though a few faces are missing whom I would rather see here, I believe that those of you in this room are amongst the greatest minds facing the demon threat. I put my faith in the combined efforts of all those willing to face the demons together, but for that there must needs be one voice of reason above them all. I believe you are capable, Neredos. Will you rise to the occasion?"
The room quieted to hear Neredos' answer. Looking around the room, he saw the eyes of everyone, even Odiran, offering him their full support in this matter. Turning toward Ghayle, Neredos met her gaze and said, "I will."
"Then for as long as a demon walks this world, I give you the charge of saving it. You, and all others here, and all those who lead among your combined peoples," Ghayle said, meeting the eyes of everyone in the room in turn.
"How will we know when the last demon has fallen?" Grim asked.
Ghayle smiled at him, again Spring on her lips but this time her eyes were blossoming as well. She also believed that this meeting had been productive. "I believe that fate will reveal that to us. Signs announced their coming. Surely signs will announce their departure. I believe the first sign is this: we have gathered, and we will fight as one."
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