In a small garden between the world and the not-world, Ghayle entertained her guests. Prism, her most recent guest, had spent a day processing memories from his youth. Memories Ghayle had shown him, hoping to bring him to an understanding of the role she'd assumed for eons.
But he hadn't fully come to understand. In fact, no matter how many times she went over it, Prism just wouldn't accept that Ghayle's decision to summon the demons had been the right move. And so, she let him deliberate, wondering if Prism would ever be ready for the next step.
He had already become Chosen, but Ghayle did not believe it would be enough. Not enough to support whoever became the avatar of the world, the one person who stood first and foremost in the way of total destruction.
But then Prism asked Ghayle a question that gave her some hope, "Why has everyone allowed Neredos to rule when he's so evil?"
beckoned him forward, leading him toward a path. "It is not up to me. There are few Gor who can even hear my voice now, for I belong to the dead. Neredos made sure of that."
How?" Prism asked. "And more importantly, why?"
"Since your freedom, have you had the chance to review recent history?" Ghayle asked. This question served a dual purpose, for at the end of this path Prism would need knowledge of recent history in order to understand what he saw.
"No," Prism replied, "Or, not much, anyway. I asked a few questions where I could. If I'd had more time to talk to Grim, I would've asked him plenty. I understand that Neredos is considered the most powerful man in the world, and essentially is its uncontested ruler, though I understand several nations have formed independent of his rule."
Ghayle nodded. "Yes. Most notably New Incaria. They are currently the most technologically advanced nation in the world, though they are nowhere near the level they once were. Many of the technological marvels of Ultaka and Oligan have become no better than myth, and I doubt we will see those marvels again."
"And this has something to do with Neredos?" Prism asked.
"He's the one who rid the world of as much technology as he could."
"But why?" Prism shook his head. "It doesn't make any sense. If he's truly immortal, why would he fear technology?"
Ghayle smirked. "He may be immortal, but not omnipotent. Neredos feared that others would be able to challenge his authority if allowed to use the technologies of old. He may have even thought his intentions altruistic, protecting the world from itself."
"Like you did," Prism replied.
Ghayle snorted derisively. "Like I did? No, I have no problem with technological advancement, Prism. The only issue I have, with either scientific or technologic development, is the arrogance that sometimes accompanies it. This arrogance permeates everything, becoming dogma at times, preventing people from understanding what lies beyond their own sphere of influence."
"But you destroyed the world because we were damaging it," Prism said.
"Because that destruction remained unchecked. Humans, Fedain, Gor . . . even the Elroks had forgotten the larger picture. When people turn on each other and the world, they forget that peace and prosperity are achieved by harmony, over conquest."
Prism nodded as he considered the point. "And Neredos only reinforced that division."
"He thought by uniting the world under a single ruler, he would be able to keep everyone in harmony. He assumed that harmony could then be maintained by destroying all threats to that rule," Ghayle replied. "Of course, the opposite is true."
"The Gor respected you as their queen, did they not?" Prism asked. "How is that different?"
"I never made claim to their leadership, and I was hardly involved in their politics," Ghayle said, suppressing a glare. "From time to time I would give them a nudge in the right direction, and I would display my power. I did that for the other races as well, but usually through my Chosen instead. It seems most people react better to those who look like them."
"My experiences have brought me to the same conclusion," Prism replied dryly.
"It is a true shame," Ghayle said, sighing deeply. A bend in the path awaited them, and beyond it a clearing where another soul waited for them. "But, at least some are able to rise above that. I have someone to introduce you to up ahead."
"Introduce me?" Prism echoed. "Another Chosen?"
"Yes," Ghayle replied. "One with whom you have much in common."
Prism raised an eyebrow, intrigued by this declaration. He followed Ghayle into the clearing, and immediately questioned his reality. A babbling brook cut through the center of the space, loud enough that he should've heard it long before arriving. Subtle floral scents permeated the air, coming from a thousand different flowers in myriad colors growing beneath and along the trees, also sprouting from flowering vines and Spring blossoms. He hadn't noticed them through the trees as they approached, but that seemed impossible.
"Are we not in the real world?" Prism asked.
Ghayle smiled in response. "More like adjacent to it. This is the world of dreams, the closest we come to the afterlife without crossing into it. We are but ghosts of our living selves at the moment, until it is time for us to assume our next roles."
"It's beautiful, wherever it is," Prism said. "Now where is the one I'm supposed to meet?"
"He is across the stream," Ghayle said, then led the way to a small path of flat stones perfectly set to span the rushing water. Prism eyed them curiously as he crossed, for despite the precise position of the stones, they appeared natural and ancient, as if they'd long occupied their place in the water.
"Whose dream is it?" Prism asked when his feet landed on the other side.
"Mine," Ghayle said, "And yours. Everyone's at once. We pass from one person's world to another, an ever-shifting consciousness of all the dreamers in the world."
Prism nodded and followed Ghayle around a bend, arriving at a circle of large boulders. Each of the boulders bore a distinct carving of an animal facing toward the center of the circle. Beneath the carving of a mongoose knelt an old Elrok male. He wore nothing, though deep grooves crossed most of his skin, filled with deep red tattooing ink. Prism was familiar with the brutal tattooing techniques of the Elroks, though he had never seen a tattoo so extensive as the tribal mosaic which adorned this one's skin. Only an Elrok held in great esteem could have received so many.
The Elrok opened his eyes as Prism and Ghayle entered the circle, amber eyes focusing immediately on Ghayle before he turned to Prism with a knowing smile.
"Ah . . . I've long awaited this moment," the Elrok said, rising to his feet with the grace of a veteran warrior. He strode toward Prism and reached for him, pausing for Prism's permission. Prism granted it with a nod, and the Elrok gripped both sides of Prism's face, pulling their foreheads together. They parted a moment later, and the Elrok grinned wide. "You must be Prism. No other man could carry the weight of his legends as well as you do."
"You have me at a disadvantage," Prism said, returning the grin. To have such an esteemed Elrok greet him as family put him completely at ease yet flared his curiosity. He had no enemies here but didn't understand why. "Though I've made friends with a few Elroks over my lifetime, they're all long dead by now."
"You saved the life of an ancestor of mine," the Elrok replied. "Morga."
Prism paled, his smile fading. "It was he who saved our lives."
"It was mutual," the Elrok replied. "But there is another reason I know you well. I am Telzath, Chief of Lions, and we have much in common."
Prism laughed helplessly. "I'll have to take your word for it until I learn more."
"There is time for that, but first, Ghayle," Telzath said, "What news of the world?"
Ghayle smiled and directed her companions to sit within the circle. Telzath sat beneath the mongoose again and patted the grass next to him. Prism joined him. Telzath surprised Prism again by taking his hand and holding it gently. Such a display of affection was reserved only for close friends in Elrok culture, and Prism stared at their joined hands in bewildered silence.
Ghayle sat in front of them, her eyes amused as she took in their physical proximity. "Prism, I asked you how much you knew of recent history, because Neredos is not the only one who has been busy these last few years. But first, Telzath's question. His niece has been busy these days."
Despite the protesting of her companion, Bradeth sped toward the meeting place as swiftly as her thick legs could carry her. Her bare feet met each step on the rocky ground like they were coming home, fitting in among stone and dirt alike.
No human could run as well as an Elrok could. No Gor and certainly no Fedain could, either. Yet somehow, her quarry had evaded her for seven long years. Somehow, the Chief of Lions remained elusive. Neither Bradeth's stony legs nor sharp eyes had been enough.
And that had only made her companion groan louder. She heard Gobrak grumbling between breaths as he sprinted alongside her. For all his mutterings, however, he maintained their pace easily despite the forty years separating them. She appreciated stamina, even if she did not appreciate his opinion.
They arrived at a collection of boulders in the hills south of the Kalle Plains and the city of Pentalus. The boulders disguised a small cave opening, barely large enough for an Elrok to fit through, though any of the other races could pass it easily. This cave was a lesser-known entrance into The Shade, though only someone with a keen understanding of stone could navigate it. As far as Bradeth could determine, that meant only an Elrok could ever use it. Which is why she always chose it as the meeting place to converse with the Elroks who lived in The Shade.
One of those Elroks had received orders to meet here but was nowhere in sight. As Bradeth climbed atop one of the boulders to peer into the cave, she hoped to see some evidence of the Elrok's presence but saw nothing but darkness.
"Where can she be?" Bradeth growled. "Our instructions were clear."
"Bradeth, you must have patience," Gobrak said, pulling up next to her and leaning against the stone to recover his breath. Though he'd maintained pace with her, it had exhausted him.
But Bradeth refused to relent just because the old man had worn himself out. "You have no room to speak to me of patience, Gobrak. Your patience kept us from making it here in a timely manner. We could've been here two days ago."
"If we'd traveled during the day and attracted the attention of every human village along the way," Gobrak said, his brow furrowing as he met her gaze. "A Fletcher must consider the horizon before the boulder in front of them."
"You resort to ancient idioms to reinforce your point, while neglecting to see the irony of it," Bradeth said, scowling. "The Elroks need leadership, and we are here to obtain that leadership."
"The Chief of Lions does not wish to assume his place as our leader," Gobrak replied dryly, "I believe you're confusing which one of us is too attached to tradition."
Bradeth slapped the back of her hand to her chest as she stuck her tongue out at Gobrak. It was the crudest gesture she was willing to display to him. Though she wanted him to feel her annoyance, she couldn't afford to offend him completely. "Why did the shamans assign you to me? You are as irritating now as you were in my youth."
Gobrak snorted. "You're still a youth."
"I'm a Fletcher now, same as you. If you wanted to command me, you should've never approved my advancement."
"Sometimes I feel that way," Gobrak replied. "Especially when you choose to ignore practicality in favor of recklessness."
Bradeth rounded on Gobrak fully, crouching on the boulder so her eyes were on the same level as his. "Recklessness serves me better than your stony resistance to change."
Gobrak held his ground. "Chief Grimfaeth all but abdicated."
"Disappearing does not mean abdicating," Bradeth said. "The shamans agree with me."
"The shamans should simply appoint a new chief," Gobrak countered. "As wise as Grimfaeth is, he is not fit to be our leader. He isn't even an Elrok!"
"Race does not determine one's fitness to rule," Bradeth replied, itching to slide her bow from her back as the tension rose between them. "Chief Telzath made that clear when he bonded himself to Grimfaeth."
"It's been seven years, Bradeth!" Gobrak roared, placing his hand on his own bow. He would meet Bradeth's challenge head on if he had to. Elroks had long settled disputes with archery when reason failed, and it would soon become necessary if Bradeth refused to agree to disagree. "How long must the Tribe of Lions continue to act without a leader before we accept that Grimfaeth refuses to accept the role?"
The scraping of rough fingernails on rock drew their attention to the mouth of the cave where a young Elrok climbed through the entrance. He shifted uncomfortably as he avoided the gaze of his arguing superiors.
"I'm sorry, Fletchers, it took me longer to get away than I thought it would," he said awkwardly.
Bradeth turned toward him, effectively ending the debate with Gobrak as she asked, "What is your name?"
"Hubbrak," the young Elrok replied. He continued to avoid her gaze. He was too young to own a title, no more than thirteen by Bradeth's best guess. Without a title, Hubbrak had no authority to meet her eyes, and to do so would incur her wrath.
But Bradeth had little time to respect those traditions. She needed his full attention. "Look at me, Hubbrak. Are you of the Tribe of Lions?"
Hubbrak hesitantly met her eyes and answered, "My grandsire was." He turned to show her the knotwork pattern on his left bicep, the mark of a bird in flight.
"But you are of the Raven Tribe. Why are you the one to come to me? Where is Kubriss?" Bradeth asked.
Hubbrak lowered his gaze until Bradeth growled and he answered with eye contact, "She was injured in battle. Fighting alongside the Chief of Lions. She could not make the climb."
"We are wasting time here," Bradeth said, turning away from Hubbrak as she hopped from the boulder. "Gobrak, we need to find Kubriss. We will be going into The Shade as soon as possible."
Gobrak shook his head solemnly. "Why don't you listen to what he has to say? Perhaps he has more to offer than Kubriss' apologies."
"I saw him myself, Fletcher," Hubbrak interjected. When Bradeth swiveled on him, he took a step backward, nearly tripping over the rocks at the mouth of the cave. Much more quietly, he added, "He showed me his mark as chief."
"You saw him, but you did not fight alongside him? When an Elrok chief calls you to battle, you answer, regardless of Tribe. There is no feud between Lion and Raven preventing you from serving him," Bradeth growled.
"He didn't call us to battle," Hubbrak replied. "He simply walked past. Salidar thulu'Khant kept him as a gladiator."
Bradeth prepared to backhand the insolent youth. "And every one of you let him fight alone?" she asked icily.
Hubbrak shook his head. "We did not know he was the Chief of Lions until he escaped."
Bradeth turned to Gobrak, her eyes narrowed dangerously. "We must remove our tribe members from the service of the Underking immediately. No Elrok should serve a man willing to imprison the Chief of Lions."
Gobrak sighed. "Bradeth, don't be so quick to decide. We don't know if Salidar willfully imprisoned the Chief. He may not have known Grimfaeth's identity."
"Salidar is no longer king," Hubbrak interjected. Both Fletchers turned on him with equally stony expressions. He shifted uncomfortably and added, "I . . . thought you might want to know."
"What happened?" Gobrak asked when Bradeth remained silent.
"He died in the attack on Pentalus, or at least that's what his son and captain of the guard said," Hubbrak replied. "Maxthane thulu'Khant is now king of The Shade."
"Then we must take some time to pay our respects," Gobrak said. "If a new king rules beneath the city, we must give him our support."
Bradeth considered this for a moment, her mind working over the different paths she could follow from here. She had little interest in visiting a human king, least of all now, when she was so close to finding Grimfaeth. "If we have the time," she said at last. "Where is the Chief of Lions now? Kubriss was vague when she spoke to the shamans through the stone."
"She doesn't know, but there are theories," Hubbrak said.
Bradeth growled low and steady. "Tell me and stop wasting time."
Hubbrak nodded and explained, "Kubriss fought a large demon with the Chief of Lions. He was unaccounted for at the end of the battle, either among the living or the dead."
"He's alive," Bradeth said. "I assure you of that. He has simply slipped away again."
"Kubriss believes she saw him atop the demon as the Sun King sealed it back inside the pillar," Hubbrak added, "She believes the Chief of Lions is imprisoned along with the demon."
Bradeth said nothing, she simply stared toward the horizon, an urge to conquer it rising within her. Beyond that line lay Pentalus, and if Grimfaeth was imprisoned there, she had no choice but to go there. Her heart had determined her next move the moment the words had left Hubbrak's mouth.
She hopped off the boulder and took a step forward, her feet already yearning to reach the city. "I'm going to Pentalus," she said quietly yet firmly.
Gobrak guffawed next to her. "Are you insane?"
A flash of anger superseded Bradeth's determination for a moment. "You question me, Fletcher?"
"Yes. Yes, I do," Gobrak said, stepping forward, placing himself before her but at an angle, staying out of her direct path. "We are to avoid detection. Few of us ever visit the city, and you'll stick out like a Frazak on a clear peak."
Bradeth shook her head and grinned. Even as he questioned her, Gobrak showed his respect by comparing her to the proud mountain cat instead of something small and frail. But she did not appreciate his caution. "I intend to claim the view from that peak, Gobrak. Only when you know the wind can you know where to aim."
"The wind's heart is fickle, no matter the archer's aim," Gobrak replied.
"But I'd be foolish to ignore it just because it can't be tamed," Bradeth said. She took several steps forward and said over her shoulder, "They won't even know I'm there."
"And how do you plan to avoid being seen?"
Bradeth's grin faded quickly. Now the insult had come. Gobrak didn't consider her capable of this mission. "I can climb, and I can jump, and, if need be, I can use magic," she replied.
"You hunt a legend in a sea of rumors and will make more rumors in your wake," Gobrak said.
Bradeth rounded on him, her blue eyes fierce as lightning. "Do you think me unworthy of the title, 'Fletcher'? Have I not proven my arrows, have I not proven my aim, have I not proven myself invisible to my prey?"
Gobrak met her hot fury with calculated coolness, his eyes as dark as storm clouds. "You're taking unnecessary risks."
"Go see this Maxthane. That's what you wanted to do, isn't it?" Bradeth countered.
"Your search will be fruitless."
Bradeth turned back toward the northern horizon, pausing for several breaths to calm her anger. "Then hopefully your mission will succeed, so that we don't waste our time. I do not believe I will fail, however. I trust my instincts, Gobrak. My aim will be true. This will lead me to the Chief of Lions."
"If you're so determined . . ." Gobrak sighed and put his hand on Bradeth's shoulder. She turned toward him and he moved his hand to her left breast. She mirrored the gesture as he went on, "may the stones guide you, may the wind favor you."
"Likewise, my friend," Bradeth replied. "While you're in The Shade, please ask Kubriss about the Chief of Lions."
"I will," Gobrak said, nodding resolutely. He smiled and dropped his hand. "Let's rendezvous here in one week's time, or we will speak through the shamans if delayed."
Bradeth agreed with a single nod, then turned back toward the horizon. Nothing more needed to be said. The stone was certain, the wind was fickle, but her feet would take her where she needed to go. Until she found Grimfaeth and brought him to reason, no other prey mattered.
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