It was Ghayle who let the memory fade away this time, bringing them back to the dream garden and the circle of stones. Neredos and Prism shared a look of understanding before turning to Ghayle.
"Ghayle, knowing what I know now, I have to ask . . . Did you really teleport in?" Prism asked. "From my understanding, you were no longer able to affect the physical world. You showed us Kixhan before, and told us he was the one who performed all the magic you displayed while you were with us."
"In that state, I could still teleport by the same means I used before the trial. I was still connected to the world, and still am now—though that connection is fading," Ghayle replied. "That is the exact center of teleportation; that connectivity. You must believe, with pure conviction, that everything you touch is simply an extension of yourself, and that you can therefore transfer your consciousness to any part of you, then simply rearranging all that you are connected to in accordance with your desire. If your instinct is strong enough, the matter will simply work itself out, and the consciousness will shift."
Neredos nodded in understanding. "But that requires such purity of thought that it's nearly impossible. Odiran and I spent years crunching the numbers, analyzing what it would take to be able to hold all that data together at once. We've never met a human who could do it, though I have heard of several others have managed to accomplish the feat over the centuries."
"While Kixhan did not teleport me, he did use a teleportation spell," Ghayle said, earning an approving nod from Neredos. "Kixhan was more than capable of killing all of you in seconds had you decided to move against him. He was also the one who stopped those splinters before they hit me. I told him what had to be done. He had to make his power seem like mine. Had Kixhan ever wished to rule the world, he could've done so without contest. Had he wished to end the war between Ultaka and Oligan he could have brought the nations to their knees to make peace."
Ghayle paused for a moment, ensuring that she had everyone's attention before continuing. "But Kixhan began his descent to such power for selfish reasons; at first, revenge, and in the end, a desire to withdraw from everything. He was empty, save for his devotion to magic itself, and me. He would never have become a savior, nor destroyer, because he would never deem to act upon the world at all—the world was beneath his focus. He did not care about the world, only about me. He obeyed me absolutely, and because of what I taught him, he was able to fulfill his duties to perfection."
"So, his vast power is what prevented him from replacing you," Prism surmised.
Ghayle nodded. "That is correct. He could've destroyed the demons quite easily, closed the gate himself, but that was never his plan. He would have been quite content had the demons destroyed everything but him. Even if they'd claimed him as well, he would've considered it a natural end and accepted it."
"That teleportation spell was not in the grimoire you gave me," Neredos said.
"That's because Kixhan developed that on his own, after obtaining the knowledge that I imparted to him," Ghayle replied.
"Is that what was in the leather-wrapped bundle?" Veil asked. "Was that the grimoire passing into your hands, Neredos?"
"It was," Neredos replied. "And what followed was the beginning of my tutelage under Ghayle. She taught me everything in that book, though I'm still not completely certain why."
"The why of it is simple," Ghayle said. "At that time, I was certain that you would be the one to replace me. Everyone had gathered beneath your banner, a banner you wished to do without. You had all the qualities I was searching for, but I misjudged the extent of your genius."
"My genius?" Neredos replied skeptically. "What do you mean?"
Ghayle sighed as she met Neredos' gaze. "You were always trying to solve problems bigger than yourself, and you always tried to do so before you were ready. You trusted in your genius too much, because it quite often pulled you out of the fire that you started by moving too fast. Unfortunately, when it came time to save the world, you wrapped everything up in a nice little package and believed fervently that your genius would be enough to keep the evils at bay. Hubris, Neredos, was ever your downfall."
"I see, Ghayle, that you aren't in the mood to pull any punches," Dogo said. "We have a saying in Incaria, one my father made sure I learned during my youth, and it kept me alive in The Shade. 'Every sure shot ends in tragedy for either hunter or prey'."
Telzath nodded sagely. "Indeed, Dogo," he said. "That is not unlike an Elrok saying: wait until the bird is cooking before you count its feathers."
"You believed everything would work out because it always had before, and that was the tragedy of your genius, Neredos," Ghayle said. "Just as Kixhan's genius led him to apathy, and Veil's to her machinations."
"I never wished to put the world in jeopardy," Neredos said quietly. "I only wanted to protect it."
Ghayle placed her hand against Neredos' cheek and said, "You cannot protect the world from change. Change is inevitable, and necessary. If that change is not allowed to happen freely, pressure builds until cracks form, and then change rushes out like a flood. The world is more than capable of surviving without people on it, and indeed that is one potential end to the Trial. That may yet occur, dependent upon the battle in Pentalus that will unfold soon."
"You mean we can still lose?" Prism asked.
Ghayle sighed and nodded. "Yes, it could happen. Once, this world was united against the demons. The forces facing the demons now are not united at all. There is no telling what that may do."
"But Naxthul told Grim he was not allowed to fight. Why was Neredos allowed to end the demon threat but Grim is not?" Prism asked.
"For one very simple reason, Prism," Ghayle replied. "They must learn to stand together. Grim would do all the work for them, and that wouldn't be much of a trial at all, now would it?"
Five more years, and still the demons kept coming. The battle lines were thinning, though the demon forces were not. It seemed everywhere Veil looked, more graves were being dug. Death was the only ending she could foresee; death for everyone, with no hope of survival.
The arrival of the Southern Gor troops had marked the end of reinforcements coming from elsewhere. There would be no others. No one to save them, and no one else to take the soldiers' places on the front lines. They were losing ground on all sides, simply because there was no longer anyone to plug the holes.
And still Neredos' quest continued. Still that mad human thought there was some chance of victory, if only they could find the gate that Ghayle promised was out in the world somewhere. While Veil had initially felt hope at the thought of ending the demonic reinforcements, it had dissipated over the years of false reports she had sifted through in her effort to find the gate.
Veil had managed to narrow the search to two locations. It was either in the Dobraeg, somewhere in the icy mountains bordering the tundra, or it was in the islands south of Lodan. But it didn't matter anymore. Even if she could determine the location of the gate, there weren't enough troops left to close it down.
She had taken over the project of finding the gate as soon as she'd returned to the Everbright City and met with the Council. She had needed it then, a project that she could throw her full self behind, but now the days dragged on. For the first time in her life, Veil finally understood her brother's wish to die.
He was out fighting now, as he always did. No one was more tireless on the battlefield than Grim. Every single day, he danced through the blood and gore, melting demons with a touch. It was said that he had even recently danced with one of the demonic generals, as the five largest demons were now classified. Those generals had only recently appeared on the battlefield, five more nails in the coffin of army morale.
That demonic general managed to escape Grim, but at least, for a moment, they had almost had a major victory. When had the last one been? Veil couldn't remember the last time she had heard good news.
Someone knocked on the door of her chambers, and Veil looked up with a start. It was early in the day for her to have visitors, and she dreaded what terrible news this one would bring. Would it be another list of the dead? Would someone tell her that Grim or Prism had fallen? That the Everbright City itself was crashing?
"Come in," she called, then attempted to compose herself, straightening her posture as she sat behind her desk. She had slouched far too often of late, rarely finding the strength to hold her head high while she was alone. Only the unconscious discipline of nobility allowed her to do so in public.
The door opened and Neredos entered, a surprise considering he spent most of his time at the battle lines these days. He said he could not expect soldiers to fight and die for him if he was not willing to do so himself. She admired that, even though she believed Neredos was more effective as a symbol than a soldier. All those who still had hope, had placed it in him.
"Any progress?" Neredos asked as he settled into the chair in front of Veil's desk. He was wearing his cloak, helmet, and gauntlet, each one stained with the ichor of battle.
Veil ignored the question. She had nothing new to say. "Did you just come from the lines?"
Neredos nodded. "There was an attack on one of our outposts last night. I went with the eagle riders and the mages to rout the demons. I have crews working on repairing the walls now, but if the demons attack before they're done . . . We could lose the outpost entirely."
"We've already lost two this month," Veil said, slumping. "Sometimes I wish they would just kill us and be done with it."
Neredos stared at her like she'd gone insane. "And I thought I was supposed to be the crazy one. At least that's what people keep calling me. Do you want to talk about it?"
"I hadn't meant to say the words out loud, but I suppose now that I have, there's no sense in hiding from them," Veil said, sighing. She met Neredos' eyes, feeling that tears should be in her own but finding them absent. "There is no progress. We have only been driven back."
Neredos nodded, then looked away. His face was conflicted, his body rigid. "I have a confession as well. One I have not trusted to anyone until this moment. The madness . . . the one everyone accuses me of . . . it's real. I'm losing my mind, Veil."
Veil rose from her feet and moved around the desk. "That simply won't do, Neredos. You are the one symbol left to us. You must let me try to help you."
"How?" Neredos asked, his eyes wide with fright. "Unless Ultaka was particularly good at hiding it, I always understood that the brain was the one thing you couldn't heal entirely."
Veil shrugged and said, "That doesn't mean that we don't know how to heal a few things, and you're in luck. I spent several years in the singular purpose of studying neurological and mental health, and it's something of a specialty of mine. If there's an answer to be found, I'm your best chance of finding it."
"I keep thinking I should mention the matter to Ghayle, but nothing she has taught me pertains to healing, other than the water purification rituals, of course," Neredos replied. "If she has nothing to offer on the subject, why should I believe there's any hope? Gor healing is notoriously limited, after all."
"There's nothing to be lost by trying, at this point," Veil said.
Neredos stared at her again, but this time he started laughing. "I believe you just answered your own dilemma, Veil."
Veil quirked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"If you truly believe that we're all going to die, then what's the harm in trying not to?" Neredos asked. "What are we risking other than the death that is already guaranteed? If we find the gate, we might as well take every last man, woman, and child with us in our attempt to close it. We haven't given our all yet, Veil. Until we do, we haven't met that fate you're so certain we're going to reach."
Veil shook her head and sighed, closing her eyes as she tried to compose herself. To her own surprise, when she opened them again she was smiling. "One last stroll into nothingness, into the jaws of death itself. See, this is why we need to get you back to good health. You brought hope to me in seconds, hope I haven't felt in years."
Neredos chuckled and took Veil's hand. "I truly love you, Veil. Not in the way I loved Alazyn, but more like the way I love our people. All those who fight with us, all those who stand ready despite the certainty of death. Grim, Prism, even Odiran . . . I love all of you now."
"Now that truly is mad," Veil said softly. "Will you let me look inside that head of yours?"
Neredos removed his helmet and said, "No Fedain has ever looked inside my head. If President Caliphar could see me now, he would never approve the funding for the Everbright City."
"Maybe it's good that some people didn't survive the war," Veil said.
Grinning, Neredos replied, "that is the one thing we can thank the demons for. At least we're no longer trying to destroy each other."
"It's time for healing, and with a little luck, maybe we can have a small victory today," Veil said. She put her hands to Neredos' temples and began to explore the possibilities.
"I want to know what this is about," Wayar said. "Why have we told everyone that we are going on a tour of the battle fronts when we're really coming here?"
He was following Grim and Prism into the central structure of the Everbright City. While the building had originally served as a public meeting place for the Everbright City's citizens, it had been remodeled into the central war office during the last few years. It was the perfect place for the meeting Prism planned to hold with Wayar, as much for its security as anything else.
"Don't worry, it will all be clear soon," Prism said. "But what we need to talk to you about can't be spoken of in the open. Like we said, this is a matter of security on the highest level."
"It's nothing to be worried about, Wayar," Grim added. "At least, not for anyone but us."
Wayar didn't seem convinced, but he flashed his usual false grin and said, "Very well, but you know I don't like all this sneaking around. It's bad luck to keep secrets from the soldiers."
"Worse luck to give them this news," Prism replied, forcing a smile. "Trust me, we are protecting morale, not hurting it."
They made their way to a small room in the basement of the structure. Inside the room were three chairs set around a small table, each on a separate side. Grim and Prism each took one and indicated the third to Wayar.
"Now that we are alone," Wayar said, "will you please tell me what is going on?"
"Absolutely," Prism replied, "but first Grim is going to ward the room against eavesdropping."
"I wasn't aware you performed magic, Grim," Wayar observed. "Have you been studying with the Gor as well?"
Grim shook his head. "Only very little. Bits and pieces here and there. I've had a very specialized education. I've only concerned myself with things that help me do my job."
With that, Grim closed his eyes and focused. He uttered a few words, too low to be properly made out by anyone else, then opened his eyes again. "The room has been protected now."
"Don't most people have to draw a rune circle of some sort?" Wayar asked.
"Oh, the rune circle is already in place," Grim said, meeting Wayar's eyes with a deadly glare. "I simply activated it. It's burned into the underside of your chair."
Wayar's fake smile remained frozen on his face for a moment until the reality dawned on him. A look of horror crossed over his face as he shifted focus between Prism and Grim, finally settling on the latter. He tried to move, his whole form straining to get out of the chair, but it didn't move an inch. "What have you done to me?" He asked. "What is the meaning of this?"
"We've recently discovered that there is a Vhor in your command, Wayar," Prism said, enjoying the way Wayar squirmed. "You have any guesses as to who?"
"You have this all wrong, Prism," Wayar said frantically. "You've seen me hold my hand over the flames. You know I'm not a Vhor."
"Yes, always with gloves on. A unique trick, that," Grim said. "It took me a while to piece that fact together. We know that the Vhor don't wear clothing, they simply shift it as part of their form. But you are different from the rest of them, aren't you? You've been infiltrating us for so long, you knew you had to play the part entirely and make sure your wardrobe came in layers. Having to keep one form all the time must be agony to someone like you."
At this point, if Wayar were the human he claimed to be, he would've been sweating. Prism nodded in satisfaction that Wayar could not sweat if he wanted to. He simply sat there, struggling to move in a rune circle designed specifically to immobilize demons. Their suspicions had already been confirmed.
"What do you intend to do to me?" Wayar asked, sensing his own defeat. "Do you want to interrogate me? Do you think I have answers?"
"Yes, to all of the above," Grim said. "Though if you simply tell us what we want to know, we will give you a swift death instead of killing you slowly."
"Torture!?" Wayar scoffed, staring at Grim as if he'd lost his mind. "A Fedain is going to torture someone. I don't believe it at all."
"Not torture," Prism said.
Grim nodded in agreement. "Experiments, Wayar. We are going to do everything we can to break you down and find out what the Vhor are made of. You're the only live Vhor specimen we've ever caught, and we need to know everything we can about you. If you help us, it will be less painful."
Wayar looked between Grim and Prism again, then finally sighed. "I do not have the answers you seek. No matter how much you ask, and how you demand it, there is a limit to what I can tell you. I can tell from how you're looking at me that you are already convinced of my identity."
"I'm glad you admit it so easily," Prism said. "At least you're self-aware that you're evil. It's a good place to start."
Wayar shook his head and chuckled. He smiled then, and for the first time since Prism had met him, the expression seemed sincere. There was no longer a mask to his intentions. "You cannot possibly know what I have endured. You cannot possibly know what you've gotten yourself into."
"Then perhaps you should tell us," Grim suggested. "Perhaps you could start by telling us how long you have been Wayar Fashalmanis."
"Since the very beginning," Wayar replied almost casually, like a man who had embraced his death already and now all that was left was the walk to the gallows.
"So, you've been helping us lose this war the entire time?" Prism asked, his eyes narrowing. He normally had a good handle on his anger, but this time was different. He had fought alongside Wayar for eleven years. Though he had never considered the general a friend, he had considered him a comrade in arms. This secret identity enraged Prism in ways he hadn't felt since his youth.
"How many of our friends have we lost due to your manipulations?" Grim asked. "You were the one who ordered Kaeral and his skirmishers to their deaths. You were the one who cost us Cherrim Pass last year, and we've been losing ground ever since. Oh, you fought the battles, but you have been making sure we lose the war."
"You will never know the extent of things I've done," Wayar replied. "Mr. Elrhanadan's death was . . . unfortunate."
"Unfortunate?" Prism echoed. "You dare call the death of my best friend 'unfortunate' to my face?"
Grim put a calming hand on Prism's arm and said, "He's been giving us information so far, Prism. As much as we may feel anger toward him, there is not yet a need for violence."
Prism seethed but nodded in acquiescence. They had not seen Kaeral much over the past five years, though they had been on the battlefield the day that he died. As the borders of safety had closed in on them, the distance between the southern and northern battle lines had decreased with them. Grim and Prism now fought wherever the battle was thickest, had recently joined Kaeral in the north.
A week into that offensive, Wayar's orders had placed Kaeral behind enemy lines. The demons had swept up his forces and destroyed them before Yatha's cavalry could relieve them. She had returned Kaeral's sword to his son, and, in a rare moment of emotion, had offered condolences to Grim and Prism.
Though most of Prism's personal losses had not affected him enough to suspect foul play, Kaeral's death had changed his perspective. Prism had considered Wayar's orders from as many angles as possible and found the logic behind them lacking. He became even more suspicious when he learned that Kaeral had been questioning Wayar's orders for months.
That had begun his private investigation into Wayar himself. Neither Prism nor Grim had suspected Wayar of being a Vhor at first, but the evidence continued to mount over successive months. The only person they had shared their suspicions with was Neredos, and he had authorized the construction of this room and called the three of them back to the Everbright City in secret.
They had hoped their suspicions would not be confirmed. A few Vhor had been discovered over the years, but no others had been killed. They escaped easily, to infiltrate and manipulate once more. To finally have one within their grasp was a blessing, despite what it would do to morale if anyone learned the truth about Wayar's identity.
"Neredos should be here shortly," Prism said. "He said he would check in on us and interrogate you personally if we confirmed your identity. He was informed when we were entering the city, and I suspect he will be here at any moment."
"Do you really think Neredos will get any more out of me?" Wayar asked. "We're not nearly as scared of him as you may think. You've killed far more demons than he has, Prism. You and Grimfaeth both. Even I've killed more demons than he has."
"Why have the demons invaded?" Grim asked, refusing to let Wayar take control of the conversation.
Wayar chuckled softly. "Why do you think I would tell you that? The demons have been here for eleven years and not one of them has bothered to explain. You'd think if we wanted you to know, we would've told you already."
"That is not a good enough answer," Grim said. "And if you do not answer that question, I will be compelled to get it out of you by whatever means necessary. Perhaps studying your internal makeup will provide us with that answer. I'm looking forward to seeing inside of a Vhor."
Grim rose from his seat and moved to Wayar. As soon as Grim's hand reached inside the boundary of the rune circle, Wayar's form shifted. A tentacle-like appendage ending in a tiny mouth filled with rows of teeth burst forward from his cheek, wrapping around Grim's forearm and latching on while staying within the boundary of the circle. Grim screamed in agony and pulled away, but Wayar held on tight, keeping him in place.
Prism was on his feet in a moment, his bond with Grim sending waves of pain to him. By the time he reached them it was over. Grim had used his contact with Wayar to melt away the tentacle through his control over life force. It was Wayar's turn to scream as the black ooze that had once been his appendage splashed to the floor.
Grim staggered backward, and Prism caught him, guiding him away from Wayar. As he settled Grim into the corner, the door opened and Neredos walked through. Veil was just behind him.
"Veil was with me when the news came in," Neredos said, glaring at Wayar. "What happened?"
"He bit Grim," Prism said, then turned his attention back to his lover. Grim hadn't recovered yet, still clutching at the wound on his arm that seemed to refuse to close. Prism could feel the burning working its way through him, fighting against everything the Fedain had. "Grim broke free, but . . ."
"So much poison . . ." Grim whispered hoarsely. "So much more than I've ever felt."
Veil glanced between the people in the room but turned her full attention on Grim at those words. She dashed over, pushing Prism out of the way as she clutched Grim's arm. She hissed, recoiling for a moment before returning her hand. "He threw everything he had at Grim," she whispered. "Enough to overwhelm any Fedain, though thankfully not any two."
Grim's breathing steadied and he collapsed in the corner, his eyes wide as he stared at Wayar with horror. "Thank you, Veil," he said, "I don't think even Khalis brought me that close to death. It was like he was pumping the poison into me."
"Well then," Veil said, "I suppose I'll have to be ready for that. Neredos, I'm going to need you to find any Fedain in the complex and have them waiting down the hall. Could you do that for me?"
Neredos nodded and stepped out of the room for a moment, then returned with concern in his eyes. "You're not going to try and touch him, are you?" he asked. "Not after what just happened to Grim."
"Wrap him up in air. Every part of him but the smallest stretch of skin. I only need a finger for contact," Veil said. "Reducing contact should decrease his ability to affect me."
"She'll be fine," Grim offered. "I was careless, and that was what put me in danger. Just because the rabid dog is caged doesn't mean it can't bite you."
Veil nodded in agreement, then looked at Neredos again. "I know you fear for my safety, but this must be done. We want information, and perhaps if I can attempt to read his emotions we'll be able to get something."
"Is that what you were going to do, Grim?" Prism asked.
Grim nodded. He hadn't emotionally recovered from his near-death experience, a fact abundantly clear through the bond. Prism took his hand and held it tightly, squeezing it for comfort and strength before turning to Neredos. "I think you should let her risk it. Veil isn't one for taking risks she doesn't believe she's prepared for."
"If it's all the same to you, I'd really rather none of you touch me," Wayar said, drawing four glares his direction. "Since it will teach you nothing, I'd really prefer if you either—"
Neredos hesitated no longer and Wayar stopped speaking as waves of solidified air wrapped around him. Wayar's eyes widened in shock, "I will try to keep him as stable and rigid as possible, which will hopefully prevent him from shifting enough to attack you. There is a small bit of exposed flesh at the back of his head. Go there."
Veil bowed in thanks to Neredos before crossing gracefully over to Wayar. "Prism," she said firmly, "if I start screaming, I need you to tackle me immediately. Until those Fedain are here, I'll have to rely on my own healing as Grim is now too weak to assist me. The less contact I have, the better it'll be."
"Understood," Prism replied.
Veil felt along the barrier of solid air surrounding Wayar's head until she found the hole Neredos had left for her. She slid her finger inside, and her face scrunched in concentration. She winced and sucked air through her teeth, growling. "He's a biter, that's for sure, but he can't get much of a grip on me right now. I'm going to see if I can try to disable him."
The barrier of air prevented them from hearing Wayar, but his expression passed through a multitude of emotions, from anger and smugness to fear. He seemed to be struggling, eager to get away from Veil's touch, but there was nowhere for him to go.
"I'm inside his mind and . . ." Veil stopped, pulling away for a moment and staring at Wayar in confusion. Turning, she faced the wall, then reached back into the barrier resumed contact with Wayar. "Do any of you know which direction I'm facing?"
"South by southwest," Neredos replied. "Why?"
"He is drawn there," Veil said. "His mind is connected to another mind, far in that direction. I can almost feel the emotions of that other being as well, a consciousness orchestrating all of this."
"You mean one Vhor who controls all the others?" Grim asked, "you found their leader?"
"I'm going to try and get more from this link," Veil said. "Maybe if I—"
She pulled away with a hiss. Inside the barrier, Wayar's body was vibrating. "The link was just severed. That other consciousness knew I was watching. I think he just killed Wayar to prevent me from learning more."
Even as she finished speaking, Wayar's body stopped moving entirely, black energy erupting in fissures along his skin. The fissures widened, spreading black goo across every inch of him. Neredos let go of his barrier, and the goo flooded out, escaping the rune circle and splashing all four of them.
"I guess that's the end of our only live specimen," Grim said.
"Unfortunately," Veil replied, but we did have one victory.
"That we know where the leader is?" Prism asked.
Veil shook her head. "That is important, but I think what's more important is what that location is. Based on direction, he's in the middle of the mountains of the Dobraeg." She smiled as she wiped at some of the black substance on her dress. "I think it's safe to say that we just found the gate, gentlemen."
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