Prism stepped away from Ghayle, slapping her hand away and fighting against the delirium of the memory. "I don't want to do this, Ghayle. These were the worst days of all of them. Worse than all the demons, worse than death."
"You have to go through it, Prism." Ghayle kept her hands lowered, but the weight of her gaze lingered on Prism's face all the same. "You've blocked it out. You refuse to see the state of the world. You've drawn up blinders created from the good times, thereby preventing you from seeing the truth."
"Truth?" Prism snorted derisively. "What is truth, Ghayle?"
"Reality, independent of our perceptions," Ghayle replied.
"Our perceptions," Prism repeated. "Including yours. What exists beyond your senses, Ghayle? I know you couldn't sense Khalis, couldn't sense any of the Vhor. Your own memories made that clear. Could you trust them? Were they speaking the truth? Are they even who they say they are?"
"I believe they were," Ghayle said. "Inevitably, it is our belief which guides us."
"But you don't know," Prism said, pressing the point. "You can't know the truth. Not even you, in all your godly perception, can know what lurks beyond your senses. Truth is a farce, Ghayle. It is carefully constructed, to the best of our ability, to the limits of our senses, but we cannot possibly know if truth really is truth."
Ghayle smiled patiently. "Prism, I agree with your wisdom, but not your methodology."
"What do you mean?"
"You claim our understanding of truth is limited by our senses. I agree with this, but should we not still seek as much information as we can?"
"Then why do you limit your senses to the veil of your own memory? You have an opportunity now to understand. You can see the world as it was, with the fresh eyes of the present. How can you deny yourself that chance?"
"Maybe I don't seek the truth," Prism said.
"We both know that's a lie."
"Yes . . ." Prism sighed. "Fine, Ghayle. Show me."
Prism gave Grandmaster Valkean his full attention. The Master stood on the second floor of the Temple, stepping out onto the roof to address the hundreds of people crowding the Temple grounds. Kobinaru citizens had fled to the temple well into the night before. Then the gates had closed, and the rebels stopped allowing people to leave.
No electricity fed the temple, the power plants in Kobinaru having gone silent. Oil lanterns now lit the corridors of the Temple, and in the evening twilight, several flickered from the windows behind Grandmaster Valkean, illuminating him from behind. Soon the plumbing wouldn't work either, and they'd be reduced to using only the old well in the prayer gardens to satisfy the water needs of the refugees.
These people had nowhere else to go, and so the Temple of the Mountain would do its best to see to their needs. Prism doubted the Temple's resources would last long, not in the face of so many mouths to feed. Ever since they'd arrived, he and Kaeral had assisted in every way they could, following the orders of the Masters in odd jobs and errands until long past the normal point of exhaustion.
And yet the Masters had done far more, bending over backward to serve the people who'd come to their doorstep. Prism owed it to them to do his best to help. At least keeping busy would serve other purposes as well, like keeping his mind off Grim.
Grandmaster Valkean waited until the crowd had quieted before addressing them, speaking in a calm and reassuring tone. "Welcome, to everyone who has taken refuge here. While we settle everything, I want to be clear that we're doing everything we can to ensure everyone has a place to sleep." Murmurs of discontent rippled through the crowd, and a few people even called out that the beds weren't sufficient. Grandmaster Valkean raised his hand to silence them all and continued. "Food is another issue. We've managed to get supplies from Kobinaru for the next week, but the city is now completely under the control of the rebels, who have thankfully left us alone for the time being."
Another rumble of dissent erupted from the crowd for a moment, this one directed at the state of the city and not at the Grandmaster. Multiple people criticized the rebellion, while others criticized the Fedain. But this crowd was made up of citizens who couldn't be bothered to participate in politics, they had just wanted to live their lives, but now war had struck and forced them from their homes.
Once the throng had quieted again, Grandmaster Valkean continued. "We're going to send several parties into the Dorram and into the Baltram Hills to request aid from the villages there. Anyone willing to volunteer for these parties would be welcome." He paused, smiling encouragingly as he bowed toward the crowd. "Please be courteous to your neighbors until we're able to sort out the best solution."
"When can we return home?" a single voice shouted above the others.
"You're welcome to attempt to return home whenever you'd like, but Kobinaru is not currently safe, and they aren't letting anyone into the city, either," Grandmaster Valkean said. "Unfortunately, by taking in refugees, the Order has been declared hostile by the rebels, and we will not be able to intercede on your behalf."
"Is there any word on the state of the monarchy?" Another voice asked.
"King Hashayne was deposed and executed early this morning," Grandmaster Valkean said. Gasps erupted through the crowd, though Prism wondered how the people could've expected a different outcome. The Fedain nobility had no defense without the military, and the military had turned against them. "We do not have conclusive reports on the state of the country, but we will keep you informed," Grandmaster Valkean went on, "This evening, if the fighting has subsided enough, I will lead a delegation of monks to the rebel leaders in Kobinaru to elucidate our understanding of the situation."
He concluded his address with one more statement. "Please see one of the Masters if you have any questions or concerns, and we will attempt to answer them to the best of our ability."
Grandmaster Valkean bowed toward the crowd one more time and disappeared into the Temple. Murmurs followed him, and Prism regarded the crowd with frustration, though he did understand them. The world had certainly taken a turn for the worse, and they had a right to be upset.
He saw Kaeral standing beneath a tree and moved to join him. "That was depressing," he said as soon as he reached the Gor. Kaeral motioned in the direction of the prayer gardens and they started walking.
"Yes," Kaeral said. "Hopefully it's not a sign of things to come. I'm not looking forward to more speeches like that. The rest of the world can't be doing much better, but we don't even know, do we?"
"Ultaka is shattered, Oligan is looming over us, and who knows how the Gor are reacting," Prism replied. The conversation had become too heavy and changed the subject. "How's your son?"
"He's doing well," Kaeral said, beaming with pride. "Do you want to hold him? You haven't done so, yet. He's with his aunts right now, but we can go find him."
Prism shook his head. "I can't."
"Still holding to those oaths, huh?" Kaeral said, chuckling and bumping into Prism with his shoulder, thereby showing just how much he thought of Prism's oaths. "Even when the laws which made you a monk in the first place are now no longer in effect. You're a strange man, Prism."
"Says the guy with a sword," Prism said, nodding to the weapon sheathed at Kaeral's hip. "What's up with that, anyway?"
"Lots of Gor still use swords," Kaeral said. "We prefer the adrenaline rush of melee combat, and I did learn a little when I was young."
Prism snorted. "You may look like a Gor, but you've mostly grown up on the streets of Kobinaru, and you're almost as human as me. Why do you have a sword?"
Kaeral laughed and drew the sword. "I guess I can't keep anything from my best friend. Touch it and find out." He handed the sword to Prism, who took it, inspecting it for some mundane reason Kaeral would attach himself to it.
He nearly dropped the sword when it spoke into his mind with a familiar voice. "Hello, Prism."
"Marhys?" Prism asked aloud, staring at the sword in awestruck horror. He glanced at Kaeral, then back at the blade, holding it away from him as if it was a serpent ready to strike him.
"That's right. It's good to see you," the sword responded. "If you want an explanation, you might want to go to Kaeral on this one. I can feel your fear, and I think you'd be more comfortable with him telling the story."
Prism handed the sword back to Kaeral, eager to be rid of the strange object. Kaeral sheathed it with a laugh as Prism asked, "Okay, what . . . what was that?"
"Have you ever heard of Aika?" Kaeral asked. Prism shook his head and Kaeral asked another question. "How about Ghayle?"
"Both are goddesses. Ghayle is well-known among the Gor, and Aika, who was originally worshipped among both the Gor and the Fedain, is now known almost exclusively by the Gor of the Northern woods," Kaeral explained.
"Your people," Prism clarified. "But what does that have to do with . . ." he pointed at the sword, "that."
Kaeral chuckled in bewilderment. "Aika came to me, bringing the sword with her. She caught me one night while I was returning to the Temple, and it's why I decided I needed to stay with my family."
"Of all the farfetched things you've said before, this one is . . ." Prism said, but stopped at the serious look in Kaeral's eyes.
"The proof is right here," Kaeral said, resting his hand on the hilt of the sword. "That was Marhys' voice, Prism. You heard it yourself. She said the gods reforged her, and that Ghayle herself wanted me to have her to protect my family." His features softened as he continued, "Now, maybe she only meant my son, but . . . as far as I'm concerned, that means all of my family. If I hadn't met her, I might not have come for you on the streets of Kobinaru yesterday."
Prism nodded, sensing the gravity of Kaeral's words. Kaeral had certainly produced some proof of his claim, and that was enough for now, even if it wasn't enough to completely convince Prism. "So, Gods are walking the world again?" Prism asked.
"I doubt they ever left," Kaeral said solemnly. "They must be quite upset with the state of things now."
"So, you're a believer now?" Prism asked.
"When a cat that's been extinct for two thousand years sits on your chest, and a beautiful Fedain woman hands you a sword which speaks to you in your wife's voice, skepticism isn't an option," Kaeral said, laughing. "I'd have to be mad not to believe now."
Prism snorted. "I suppose so," he said simply, but the thought of gods walking the world did not sit well with him.
"You're troubled," Kaeral said. "Do you need further convincing? I could let you hold Marhys again."
"It's Grim," Prism said, glancing toward the temple where Grim currently rested in one of the Master's quarters. Grim's apathetic mood had only deepened over the last day and a half. Any time Prism thought about the state of the world, his own feelings mirrored his lover's. "It's something he said a month ago, about the Cataclysm."
"Hey now, civil wars happen. That doesn't mean it's the end of the world," Kaeral said. "The Gor have fought amongst themselves for ages, and if war alone brought on the end of the world, we'd have lost everything a long time ago."
"Are you sure?" Prism asked. "Grandmaster Valkean didn't tell the crowd everything he knows. Reports are indicating that Oligan declared war hours before the coup. The coup leaders, disorganized as they are, have told Oligan they'll fight to the bitter end." Prism sighed and added, "Ultaka doesn't have a chance now that it's broken apart."
"It gets worse," a voice said from behind them. Prism and Kaeral turned together as Veil approached, a hooded cloak keeping her features obscured from any onlookers.
"Lady Veil," Prism said, bowing low, "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you approach."
Veil raised her hand to stall him and said, "Just Veil, please. The less that people know about me, the safer I'll be. Only the monks and Kaeral's group know Grim and I are here."
"Of course, Veil," Prism said, nodding in acceptance. "You heard our conversation?"
"Just the last bit," Veil replied. "My Father contacted me yesterday morning. He told me talks with Neredos had finally concluded, and Neredos would give us the technology to stop Oligan's weapons."
"But now?" Prism asked.
"Now there will be no agreement," Veil said, sighing as she met his gaze. "The rebellion couldn't have happened at a worse time."
"It was to be expected though, wasn't it?" Kaeral offered.
Prism glared at his friend. "Are you really going to attack her right now, Kaeral?"
Kaeral yelped in pain and tore his hand away from the hilt of the sword, shaking it in the air as if trying to return feeling to it. "Don't worry, the wife scolded me, too."
Veil gave Kaeral a dubious look but returned her attention to Prism after a moment. "No, he's right. My father hoped by defeating Oligan diplomatically, we'd be able to give hope to our people and focus on the problems here at home. But we ran out of time."
"You're taking your father's death better than I expected," Prism observed. "When you talk about him, I can see your pain, but you're still able to function."
"Better than Grim, you mean?" Veil asked. "It's a matter of station and training, Prism. Grim has never had to worry about what would happen if his father died, while as heir I've had to deal with the possibility every single day. Believe me, it weighs on me just as heavily as it weighs on Grim, but I've trained for the burden."
"Grim is lucky to have you," Prism observed.
"And he's lucky to have you," Veil said. "Don't look so surprised. I overheard Kaeral say he came to rescue 'you and your lover'. Anyone with half a mind could figure out whom he meant by 'your lover'."
"And you're okay with it?" Prism asked.
"What does it matter, in the end?" Veil said, chuckling. "Anything I have to say about it is irrelevant. My power is gone, though it will serve as an image to some people, I guess. Is there law anymore? Is there any room for what's proper? How could I hope to define that now? Sharis would say you are corrupting Grim by being a human, but three humans, including yourself, saved me from death yesterday. Humans would say you're wrong for loving another man, but what right do they have, when they're currently killing each other over pride? I think you're an honorable man, Prism, and I know you love my brother. If he loves you back, then what else matters?"
Prism cast a forlorn look at the Temple again. He ached to hold Grim in his arms, to comfort him now in the ways only a lover could. Maybe the oaths didn't matter anymore. Maybe it was time to forget about what others considered 'proper'.
"You are a saint, Veil," Kaeral said, clapping Prism hard on the shoulder and leaving his hand there. "Finally, it looks like Prism is getting it."
Prism nodded, slipping out from under his friend's hand. "I need to go see him."
Grim lay naked on the bedroll the monks had provided for him. More than one person had recommended he discard his opulent clothing to protect his identity. The more he blended in with the common folk, the less likely they were to target him.
But once he'd stripped and undone his braids, he couldn't bring himself to dress. Where would he go? What would he do? His entire life had disintegrated, all but Prism and Veil, but what could they do for him now?
His mind kept returning to the footage of his father's death. Duke Selfaeth, spending his last moments sacrificing for the people who would kill him. It was a fitting end for a great man, but not nearly the one he deserved. The world hadn't deserved him. Grim hadn't deserved him.
What did it feel like to die? Grim had lived his entire life free from ever worrying about it. Fedain only died of old age, when they gave up too much energy, or when their bodies took too much damage to vital organs to heal quicker than they died. His mother and brother's death had happened when he was too young to fully process it, and he hadn't personally known a single Fedain who died until Master Janlynd killed herself.
Now, he'd seen two. Both had hit him hard. Both made him question the point of existence. Did he even have a reason to continue? All his power had been political. He couldn't protect Prism, couldn't assist Veil-without purpose or function, what did he have?
He had a life, such as it was, but now he was dead weight. Master Jan had the right idea; she'd used the last of her life to make a point. Maybe it was time for him to do the same?
She'd done something strange, something Grim hadn't thought possible. Fedain used their powers to heal and were pacifists. Self-harm, like all other forms of violence, was considered antithetical to Fedain nature. Grim hadn't even known his powers could destroy the body, yet Master Jan had done so.
Could he do the same? He put his hands against his chest, assuming a meditative focus. He was weak from two days of hunger, and two days with no sleep, but he could still sense the lifeforce within him. His body worked despite its deficiencies, trying to keep him alive when he wasn't sure he wanted to.
If he was going to stop it, he needed to figure out how. He delved into the heart of his cells, communicating with them the way he'd communicate to any patient's body. His own cells welcomed him as their master, and he established the connection he would use to heal but stopped there. A Fedain's body healed itself instinctually, but this would require a conscious effort.
He pushed on one of the cells, urging it to burst. It resisted the command, but it tremored against the will of its master. This ran contrary to instinct, and he needed more force. Summoning all his resolve, he delved back into his tissues, commanding the cell to break down.
It popped like a bubble. Such a small piece did little to cause Grim pain, to allow him to feel death, and so he popped some more, then some more, a small hole slowly expanding across his chest. Sweet, painful oblivion washed over him. As did fear.
But it wasn't his own.
Prism burst into the room, breathing heavily and clutching at his chest. Grim removed his hands from his chest in an instant, meeting Prism's eyes with the same apathy he'd worn since his father's death. Prism stared at the spot on Grim's chest, the wound slowly healing from Grim's quickly diminishing energy stores.
"What were you doing just now?" Prism asked. "Were you trying to hurt yourself?"
Grim turned away from him, rolling on his side and facing the window. The sun had just set, and only the flickering lamplight from outside the window filtered in. He wanted total darkness, wanted to stop feeling the urgency from Prism, but couldn't completely remove it. "Nothing. It was nothing," he said softly.
"I could feel it, Grim," Prism said, lighting the lamp beside the door. It flickered to life and Prism stepped fully into the room, closing the door behind him. He knelt beside Grim's bedroll, staring at his naked back. "Why would you do that?"
Grim sensed the worry and sadness emanating from Prism. Prism's heartbeat thundered in his head now, the rise and fall of his breaths coincided with Grim's own, and the way the air and anxiety pebbled Prism's skin tickled Grim's flesh. He wanted to hide from it all, the sensory overload that made him feel when all he wanted was stillness.
"Leave me alone, Prism," Grim mumbled.
"Grim," Prism said gently, "Please don't leave me? Please? You're the reason I'm here, the reason I've fought through all this. You took a chance on me, when I was a scared boy running from my past, and you helped me then. Don't you remember?"
Grim listened but did not respond. He didn't want to remember, though the memories came to him all the same. A boy crashing into him from out of nowhere, the colorful dance that followed, the feeling of Prism against him. He'd had a blade to his throat then, but he hadn't feared death-he'd felt invincible.
"You helped me so much," Prism went on. "Not only did you rescue me the day we met, you gave me hope for the future. You loved me when I didn't even love myself."
"And so you came here to rescue me from the same fate?" Grim asked. "You came out of a sense of obligation?"
"I was coming up to talk to you anyway. I wanted to see how you were doing," Prism said. "I wanted to-"
"You should already know how I'm doing," Grim spat, cutting Prism off. "I'm devastated and want to die. My world has been turned upside down. I've lost my father and nearly everyone around me wants me gone. What point is there to live when you're of no use to anyone?"
"Not everyone wants you gone. Some of us love you and would do anything for you. Some of us need you, because you're everything to them," Prism said. His hand touched Grim's, sliding into it and squeezing it tentatively at first, then with more strength. "Some of us are questioning why nonexistent laws are still keeping us apart."
"It's been so long . . ." Grim said, his walls disintegrating from the strength in that gentle touch. He turned toward Prism and the heartbreaking love in his eyes. How had he ever thought he could leave Prism? How could he cause so much pain to the beautiful man who had promised him his life, and to whom he connected on multiple levels, from the physical to the mystical.
Prism had remained true to his path since the beginning, had honored his oaths in the face of overwhelming odds. All because of his integrity, taught to him by an Order which had welcomed them in the face of destruction. Though he'd skirted the edge of his oaths, interpreting them in unique ways at times, his commitment to the Order remained. Grim squeezed Prism's hand and let go. "We can't, Prism."
"We can't?" Prism asked. "Why not? What will they do to me? We could go anywhere now, just you and me. We'll join one of the parties going out to the farms in the Dorram, and then head north, all the way to the forests with Kaeral and live among his people."
"We can't, because those oaths are what keep me alive, Prism," Grim said. "You and all your integrity-all your strength-is all that's keeping me from doing terrible things. I see it now, what I have to live for, and it's you," Grim said. "You represent the last hope I have in this world, and you made a promise to yourself and to the Masters. For as long as you're still serving your sentence, we can't be together."
"I would give anything to you," Prism said. "Anything to comfort you, and make you feel better."
"Two days ago, I might've given in to that," Grim said. "But now? Now all I want is to sleep, to feel hungry again, to see some peace in the world. I just want everything to stop, for the world to be still." Grim finished in a whisper, his eyes growing dark again, though in the darkness he clutched onto the single spot of light that Prism represented. "There's so much happening right now. Why can't it all just stop? If just for a moment, if just to catch my breath."
Prism smiled, his eyes brimming with tears. "I'll go get you some food, and we can talk about it some more. Do you think you could eat?"
"I don't know," Grim said, but he forced a weak smile to his face. "But I'll try."
Prism nodded and left the room, and Grim returned to his musings, but with a little more hope to accompany him. The world remained uncertain and bleak, but at least he had one surety in it all. Prism would be there for him, and they would face it together.
And, when Prism had met the terms of his sentence, he would give himself fully to Grim, as he already did in spirit. That was something worth staying around for, worth fighting for. He would live in the stillness between them which transcended physicality, not giving in to the hopelessness which threatened the world.
The flutter of wings alerted him to the window. What climbed through the window was not a bird but a winged humanoid. Grim sat up with a start, his pulse racing as the naked man came into the lamplight.
"Who are you?" Grim asked, studying the form before him. His grey skin and feathered wings spoke of an ancient race Grim had only known in myth. This was a Sendar, but how an extinct being now stood before him, he couldn't fathom.
"I am Khalis," the Sendar said, stepping toward him. "You are . . . pure in your stillness. You seek a better world, a quieter world, and world of order."
"Yes," Grim said, "but . . . what are you doing here? Khalis . . . that's the name of Naxthul's lover in the ancient records."
Khalis smiled, a creepy expression which almost seemed to break his face in two. Grim recoiled from it, in awe and terror, but then Khalis spoke again. "You know of Naxthul, that surprises me. But I cannot wait any longer. Hold still."
"Hold still?" Grim asked. Before he could question further, six tentacles formed from Khalis' naked flesh, snaking toward Grim. Each of Grim's limbs were restrained in seconds, and a fifth tentacle penetrated Grim's throat, cutting off his air supply. The sixth hovered over Grim's genitals, and the tip of the tentacle shifted into a razor-sharp spine.
Grim screamed around the tentacle in his mouth as the makeshift blade castrated him. It shifted into a hand-like appendage and scooped up Grim's scrotum and took it back toward Khalis' body. "Your sacrifice will be rewarded," Khalis said. "I will make a better world."
Grim's pain was immeasurable, far worse than the damage he'd done to himself earlier, and he sent it all along the link, silently screaming for Prism to save him from the darkness rapidly enveloping him.
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