The council room was more animated than it had been in months. Normally Veil did not mind being the center of attention, but the more this topic dragged on, the more she tired of it. She knew what needed to be done, yet everyone else couldn't stop dragging their feet.
"We've been discussing this for weeks, and we must come to a decision, now!" she said, slamming her palm against the table to disrupt the current cycle of the conversation. As all eyes turned toward her, she continued in a slightly calmer tone, resisting the urge to grit her teeth. "We are losing this war, and if we don't do something about the gate, we might as well admit defeat."
"As we have said, we appreciate your passion, Veil, but you have not given us concrete evidence that your claim is correct," said Dareth thu'Varish, a Lodani woman who had earned her seat on the Council by organizing a relief force of women and children to help move provisions between the battle fronts. She was one of the few non-warriors in the group, but she commanded respect with all the presence of a veteran general. It was her grandmotherly look that sold it. "All we have to go on is your personal word that something happened while you were interrogating a Vhor."
"We should trust her judgment," Neredos said, for the first time in that meeting though he'd been saying the same for many weeks. "We know that she managed to narrow it down to two locations from survivor accounts, and one of those was the Dobraeg."
"Still, what you're asking for is the deployment of a large force when our battle lines are already thin. The amount of manpower that getting to the Dobraeg would take is more than we can spare," offered Zaym Taldranba, one of the Northern Gor. He was generally regarded as the most powerful chief among his people, though some contested that.
Regardless of his relative level of power, he held influence in this gathering, and it was enough to make Veil want to scream. She couldn't understand how none of these people could see the importance of closing the demon gate.
Almost no one, she thought, as Neredos spoke once again. This time, however, he directed his remarks to a specific person. "Do you not have anything to add on the matter, Ghayle? Are you going to remain as tightlipped and unhelpful as usual?"
Several gasps of annoyance at Neredos' audacity erupted from amongst the Gor representatives of the Council. Neither Neredos nor Ghayle paid them any heed, as the latter simply inclined her head toward Neredos said, "I will lend my aid to any attempts to reach the gate. My Gor will fight alongside whatever forces are dispatched to handle the issue."
"So, you do believe that the gate is there?" Zaym asked.
"I believe that Veil is a woman of integrity, who would not say that she had found the gate if she did not believe it to be true. That, I believe, is enough," Ghayle replied.
This triggered another wave of murmurs as the council members discussed this point amongst themselves. Veil distracted herself from their mutterings by studying Ghayle. The Gor Queen had remained aloof during the year she had assisted the war effort. She rarely spoke to anyone, and usually offered only cryptic answers to those she did communicate with. Only Neredos and Kixhan ever seemed to have her ear, the former only in secret, where she reportedly taught him the highest level of Gor magic. The latter attended her in most places and was always present with her at the battlefield, where they slew demons by the scores with elemental fury.
Veil was never certain she could fully trust Ghayle, and she definitely didn't trust Kixhan. That trust didn't seem to matter, however, as together the pair had killed enough demons to rival Grim's and Prism's numbers. However, hadn't Wayar slain demon kin as well? Could Ghayle be working with the enemy? At any rate, no one seemed capable of dealing with the problem at hand, and Veil wasn't convinced everyone in this room wasn't working for the demons.
"There is another way," Grim said over the din, drawing Veil from her ponderings and the others from their private conversations.
"What way is that?" Dareth asked.
"A surgical strike," Grim replied. "We send our best, a small group that can move undetected. Each member carefully screened before we embark on the quest, to ensure there are no Vhor among us. We take the stealthiest route possible and reached the Dobraeg before the demons even know that we've left here."
Prism took up where his lover had left off, "Grim and I can go alone, if no one wants to join us. I can't guarantee we can close the gate without having a proper mage with us, however. There's no telling what we'll find when we arrive."
Veil was stunned by this level of support from her brother and Prism. Neither had said much in the previous meetings, though they had missed a large number of them. They spent most of their time on the front lines, whenever they could. Though they were prominent figures in the eyes of many—and Prism was considered the leader of the Order of the Mountain—their position on the Council was mostly honorary. Neither led groups of soldiers or civilians. Despite Prism's title of Grandmaster, he delegated most leadership tasks to other senior monks. They didn't speak in council, and their presence was often ignored, but this time they acquired some attention, most notably, from Neredos.
He stood and looked at Grim and Prism with profound respect, inclining his head toward them. "I will go with you," he said firmly.
"King Neredos, you can't be serious," Odiran protested.
"Unless Ghayle is going personally, and she has yet to volunteer her own services, I'm the best mage we have," Neredos replied. "I don't say this from a point of arrogance, only fact. However, you're certainly skilled enough to go in my stead, Odiran, should you wish to do so."
"Neredos has a point, and I think it is better if Ghayle remains. She ensures the loyalty of the Southern Gor, and we need their troops here for protection," Dareth said.
"Couldn't Ghayle simply teleport there and finish this once and for all?" Odiran said. "And if so, why hasn't she?" He pointedly avoided looking at Ghayle, addressing the Council as a whole.
If Ghayle was offended by Odiran's attempt to defame her, she did not show it, as she said simply, "I'm afraid whatever awaits us there prevents me from reaching it. I wish I could be more helpful."
"Then I think the small force is the better plan," Neredos said firmly. Veil was glad to see the resolution in his eyes and latched onto it as he continued, "Grim, Prism, and I will leave tomorrow, with anyone who wants to come with us."
Veil resisted the urge to jump for joy. Something was being done! Finally the talking was over, and a decision had been reached! She held her breath, hoping no one would protest Neredos' decision.
"I will travel with you," Morga said, speaking for the first time in that meeting. He rose to his feet and indicated another Elrok standing by the door. While not an official member of the Council, Morga's niece Revash was training to become her uncle's shaman, and she had long been allowed to observe the Council's proceedings. "And my niece will accompany us."
"As will I," Veil said eagerly. All eyes turned back toward her, some analyzing her regal manner of dress with extreme skepticism. She ignored them and went on, "Finding the gate has been my responsibility since we learned of it, and I cannot ask others to sacrifice, on my word, if I am not willing to do the same."
"I will also go," said Chald Drenthorufan, a warrior from the Southern Gor. He looked to Ghayle for confirmation as he added, "to represent your presence, if you will allow me the honor." Ghayle nodded silently, and Chald turned to face Neredos.
Neredos let the silence linger for several seconds before addressing the room. "If there are no others, then so be it. We leave at dawn."
"Six will be enough," Grim said, in a casually confident tone. "I think we can take a few more, if anyone's willing, but we have to keep this mission secret from everyone save those in this room. The Vhor cannot know of this plan, or we will lose long before we arrive."
"Agreed," Neredos replied.
"How are we supposed to explain your disappearances?" Odiran asked.
"Tell them that Veil and I are working on a vaccine for Quay poison," Neredos said, "and that we've asked not to be disturbed until we find a way to prevent our soldiers from being poisoned."
"You want us to give them false hope?" Dareth asked incredulously.
"If we can close the gate, there is no need to develop a vaccine, so what does it matter?" Veil added.
"And the others?" Dareth asked.
"Surprise military inspections," Prism suggested. "That will keep everyone alert, and they'll think we're traveling in secret so they won't know when we're coming."
"With any luck, we'll be done before they get suspicious," Veil said. "With a tremendous amount of luck, this war could be over within the year if we're successful."
"As worthy a cause as any," Neredos said, "and a hope we've long waited for. This meeting is adjourned. It is time to prepare."
Dawn came quickly to those embarking on the journey, and they gathered at the lift that took them down to the ruins of Kallen. After a very brief planning session, the group established their initial route and set off down the road. It wasn't until they had put Kallen some distance behind them that the reality of their journey finally set in. A heaviness hung over the group like fluid in the lungs. Each step was a breath reminding them how close they were to death.
"Well, at least we got two more," Prism mumbled to break the silence, glancing behind him to his companions. He was walking at the front of the group with Grim and Neredos. Veil came next, walking alone. She had been quiet and distant recently, though Prism and Grim still made efforts to visit with her whenever they were around. It was the war weighing on her. It had that effect on everyone.
Morga and his niece followed after Veil, involved in their own conversation. Behind Morga came Chald, who was conversing with two other Gor, both from the northern tribes. Aven Taldranba, son of Zaym was one, and Nijal Zantrakal the other. Prism did not know either of them well, as they had only recently joined the Council. Nijal seemed like a strong and capable woman. Reportedly an assassin before the demon war, she had inevitably volunteered for this mission on account of its nature. She lived for surgical strikes and had employed them many times against the demons.
"This will be enough. It's best for us to have few members anyway. It'll be much more difficult for them to catch us this way," Grim said.
Neredos was nodding as Prism turned back toward them. With the Gor far enough out of earshot, Prism asked, "Neredos, why did you feel the need to challenge Ghayle on everything?"
Neredos sighed and didn't answer immediately. When he did, his words were tinged with uncertainty. "I don't trust her, Prism. I can't, not after Wayar."
"The Southern Gor have killed more demons than any other group. They've been fighting them since the beginning, and they know them best," Prism countered. "I may not like them, but their knowledge has done quite a bit for us."
"But doesn't that feel the least bit convenient to you?" Neredos asked.
"He has a point," Grim said, chuckling.
"I think you're fooling yourselves," Veil said, walking up to join them. "I've been thinking about this all night. Ghayle may be aloof, and I don't think she's the goddess she claims to be, but I think that the God image of hers is all part of how she leads her people. She must maintain that cool, emotional distance to keep her people's pride alive. That's why her soldiers are so effective. They haven't lost morale."
"I think I'd have lost faith in my God if I'd ever believed in one," Neredos said after a moment. "Considering what has happened over the past few years, anyway."
To Prism's surprise, Morga's voice then joined them. "The Gor are a very spiritual people, Neredos. It is at the core of their identity, and therefore there are more practitioners of magic found amongst them than anywhere else."
"Chief Morga, I respect your point, but spirituality is hardly required for magic. If it were, then how do you explain me and Odiran?" Neredos countered.
"Odiran is far more spiritual than you think, Neredos," Morga replied solemnly. "His approach to magic is far different from yours. His magic is rooted in the Lodani Ulchreft, the secret woods magic."
"He learned a little from his grandmother and his father, yes. But he works in a traditional style," Neredos replied, shrugging. "What of it?"
"You shouldn't underestimate him, Neredos," Grim said.
Neredos turned to Grim with surprise and asked, "What do you know of it, Grim?"
"That he's a Fedain, or at least a quarter, if my estimates are correct," Grim replied nonchalantly.
The level of confidence coming across their bond stunned Prism. Grim had never made this claim to him, though they had spoken of many of Grim's strange theories before. As Prism looked around, he saw his own shock and confusion mirrored in the eyes of all the others near them. Neredos seemed more stunned than anyone else.
"Don't worry, Neredos, I'm just as confused as you," Prism said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Grim, on what basis do you make the outlandish statement that Odiran is anything but fully human? Humans and Fedain do not look similar enough to cause problems in telling them apart."
Prism risked a glance behind them, wondering if anyone in the other group had noticed or heard their conversation. Morga's niece had gone back to join the Gor, and they seemed involved in a lighthearted dispute of some sort. Whatever it was about, they were oblivious to anything else.
As Prism turned back to the others, Grim answered his question, "Except for the small scar on his left hand, he has never been injured. It's so small almost no one ever notices it, though I have seen him questioned on it a couple of times. He always speaks about how he received the scar in his youth while hunting with his father."
"Ah yes, hunting! The primary activity of all Fedain youth," Veil said dryly. "I remember the many hunting trips Father took us on. There's nothing like skinning a wild boar you just shot through the heart to celebrate your pacifism."
Grim shot her a glare and said, "I'd thank you to hold your skepticism until I've finished."
Veil raised her hands in surrender and said, "I apologize. Please continue with this farce."
"A Fedain could resist their own body's healing if they wanted to," Grim continued, ignoring Veil. "It requires an extreme level of control and constant effort, as the body will eventually heal itself if left unchecked. This explains the scar."
"How?" Prism asked. "Why would anyone go through that level of effort?"
"Because Fedain were hunted in Lodan centuries ago," Neredos answered on Grim's behalf. To Prism's surprise, Neredos was nodding thoughtfully, and after a moment he said, "I think I see where you're going with this, Grim."
Morga reinforced the statement, adding, "There are stories among the Elroks of Oligan regarding the disappearance of the Lodani Fedain. While some escaped to Ultaka and Incaria, what happened to the rest of them? They must've hidden in the woods to avoid being killed."
"And between breeding with humans and only allowing the most human-appearing among them to reproduce, they figured out a way to integrate back into society. If they mated with humans for this purpose, it's likely that they mated with other marginalized groups. I imagine the witches of the Ulchreft would have fit that as well," Grim replied, nodding in satisfaction.
"Just so I make sure I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that Odiran is a Fedain because he never gets injured, has a scar that won't heal, and practices Ulchreft?" Veil asked.
"And refuses to touch any Fedain," Grim said. "I don't know if you've noticed that, but you and I are the only two council members that he refuses to shake hands with. He goes out of his way to avoid it."
"He's Oligani," Neredos said, shrugging. This earned him a glare from both Veil and Grim, and he hastily added, "Whoa, hang on, I don't mean I support the racism, but I understand that it occurs. Fedain aren't well-loved in my home country."
"That's also why he'd keep his heritage a secret," Morga said, nodding. "If the Oligani knew he was Fedain, they wouldn't follow him."
Veil shook her head and said, "You're crazy, Grim. This is all just speculation."
"He's also been poisoned two or three times and survived all of them," Grim said, shrugging. "Now, I admit it's possible that he survived by means of some other magic, however—"
"What!?" Neredos said, giving Grim a double take. "Why wasn't I informed?"
"Because nothing happened to him, Neredos," Grim said.
"Are you certain he was poisoned?" Veil asked skeptically.
"Not conclusively, but well enough," Grim replied. "I've been tracking the movements of the Vhor, as you know, and I've been accessing military reports to see if I can discover any patterns in them. While none of the poison attempts seem to have come from the Vhor, it seems that many of Odiran's underlings in the ruins of Kallen have tried to kill him. Poison has been common, and common enough that I'm positive some has slipped through."
"I can confirm that those reports exist," Prism said, "as I've seen them too. I realize none of you had much cause to read those specific reports, since the day to day military leadership is out of your hands. Though this is the first time Grim has told me of his theory."
"Why didn't you tell anyone this?" Neredos asked, looking between Prism and Grim.
"Because it's unnecessary. Odiran survived. I suspect he'd have to be at least a quarter Fedain for his body to naturally keep him safe from poisons without anyone noticing effects. If my theory is correct, he was never in any danger," Grim replied, shrugging. He then met Neredos' eyes and said firmly, "But you are."
"Why do you say that?" Neredos asked.
Prism felt Grim's confidence grow. Whatever his lover was about to say, it wasn't just a theory. To Grim, his next point was a fact.
"Look, Neredos . . ." Grim said slowly, "You do see the way he reacts to you, don't you?"
"Yes, he gives me respect and gives credence to my command," Neredos replied.
"By working directly under you," Grim said pointedly.
"So?" Neredos asked.
"And you're the one who killed his father. Or rumor has it, anyway," Grim continued.
Neredos nodded in acceptance of the statement and asked, "What is your point?"
"You're useful right now, but Odiran has designs for after this war," Grim said. "He's quite possibly the most optimistic survivor of us all. He expects us to win, and he expects to lead once this is done. Over your dead body is preferred."
"I can't disagree that he'd prefer me dead, but I think you're exaggerating. He wants to win this war as much as the rest of us do," Neredos replied.
"On the contrary, I believe Odiran wants this war over more than the rest of us do," Grim said.
"Why are you telling me this now, Grim? If you didn't think it was important before, this seems a strange time to tell me," Neredos said.
Grim glanced backward for only a moment before responding, "This is the first time that I've been certain none of Odiran's allies are around us. I also believe you may find the political climate has changed when we return." He paused for breath and then continued. "Odiran sees himself as your natural successor should anything happen to you. While we're away, he will undoubtedly do what he can to secure that position in case you don't return. If we do return, then he'll have set things in motion for your inevitable downfall."
Neredos sighed and shook his head, "I'd hoped we had put aside all of this pointless politicking,"
"You give too much credit to the world if you think we'll ever reach a point where no one will try to take advantage of another in a dire situation," Veil said dryly.
Prism nodded, unable to deny Veil's words. "Last I checked, you're just as likely to end up evil, as good, when you suffer pain and tragedy," he said. "While I think the tragedies we've endured have brought a lot of us closer together and have ended some petty conflicts—and some major ones—it would be unrealistic to assume that everyone feels that way."
"Even once we beat the demons—and we will beat them—eventually we'll return to our old ways. We might be a bit smarter for it, maybe we'll change how we harm each other, but it'll happen again. There's no stopping it," Grim added.
"The deer returns to grazing as soon as you fail the hunt," Morga said, nodding sagely.
Neredos scoffed and said, "So why do we bother closing the gate? You are all so cynical."
No one had an immediate answer, but Prism found one after only a few moments of searching. "Progression requires failure, and then trying again," he said slowly. "Master Vinhkroludar drilled that into me. We close the gate because the world deserves a chance to start again. And we earn that by getting there and doing what needs to be done."
"And what do I do about Odiran?" Neredos asked. "What needs to be done there?"
"He may be several steps ahead of you politically, but none of that matters if we don't close the gate," Grim said. "When you come back a hero, he'll have a hard time getting rid of you. Heroic acts have a tendency to make one immortal, though sometimes that immortality is only as a symbol."
"I suppose we better get there then," Neredos said. "The sooner we get back, the sooner we can solve the problems at home."
"Are you so eager for your immortality, Neredos?" Grim asked, chuckling.
"I'm eager to save this world, Grim," Neredos said. "There has been enough death."
Grim gave Neredos a strange look, then simply chuckled again. What came across the bond to Prism was nothing but cynical humor. "Progression requires failure," Grim said, then walked ahead of them. He stepped lightly down the road, almost skipping like a boy daydreaming on his way to school.
"What did that mean?" Neredos asked, looking to Prism for support.
Prism stared after Grim in silent wonder, wondering if he'd ever understand his lover as well as he'd like.
"Death," he answered, then rushed after Grim with a smile on his lips. The heaviness was gone from his lungs in his acceptance of the path ahead.
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