He had done it. Maxthane had imprisoned Fasha, and now he could . . . "Now what?" he thought, staring at the pillar of grey fog in the center of his room. He could feel Fasha's presence inside. Since he'd been the one to perform the ritual, Fasha was connected to him. With a thought, he could kill Fasha if he wanted, but did he want to? Having Fasha as his hostage wouldn't earn him any loyalty with the soldiers. They didn't even know Fasha's real identity. They all thought . . .
They thought Salidar had come to Maxthane and would now think Maxthane had turned against his father in an attempt to seize the throne. Maxthane considered freeing Fasha then and there. If he showed mercy, then maybe . . . No, that thought would get him nowhere. He would not make the same mistake his father had. He would not make a pact with a demon, neither in ignorance nor knowledge.
He knew what he had to do. Rummaging through his chambers, he found a leather satchel and placed the grimoire inside, along with chalk he could use to inscribe further rune circles as needed. He would have to flee now. Leaving the grimoire behind would only weaken his ability to do so. Any other mage left in The Shade who had a knowledge of Gor could puzzle out the way to free Fasha from his prison.
Retrieving a small knife from his attached kitchen, he moved to the window. He knew several runic inscriptions by heart, and the manipulation of stone was one of them. He quickly scratched a rough rune into the stone outside his window. Pressing his hand against it, he concentrated, willing a cavity to open in the stone beneath.
The stone groaned in protest as it parted, but soon a shelf large enough to fit the satchel opened in the stone. Maxthane put the satchel inside, carefully tucking the strap in as well. He placed his hand against the rune above again and concentrated, willing a sheet of stone to cover the cavity.
It would be difficult for anyone to even see the rune, and more unlikely for anyone to know what it was. He would have to come back for the satchel later or send someone for it. "Can I even trust anyone?" Maxthane thought ruefully, then sighed. He would have to find someone he could trust eventually. This was too big a problem to face on his own. No king acted alone, and he was king, no matter what the people thought of him now.
And now, he had to play their game a little longer. With a resolute breath, he strode across his room, around the pillar of air containing Fasha, and opened the door.
The guards looked in with surprise. "Had they expected a knock?" Maxthane wondered as they studied him. When they looked past him and saw the fog pillar, their eyes widened with shock and swords leapt from their sheaths.
"If you kill me, I promise my father will die first," Maxthane said, standing firm in the doorway. "If you recognize that pillar for what it is, then you know it is for imprisoning demons. I can kill him with a thought. Now, instead of threatening me, you should probably take me to Krythe."
The soldiers shared a brief glance of uncertainty before one motioned Maxthane to step backward. Keeping his sword at the ready, the soldier stepped inside the room as Maxthane retreated several steps. Two other soldiers followed, and Maxthane eyed the sea of steel, his bearing regal despite the pounding of his heart.
Each of the soldiers eyed the pillar with a mixture of fear and caution, and one of the soldiers darted through the connected room, searching it briefly to make sure Maxthane wasn't hiding Salidar somewhere other than the pillar. He returned shaking his head, and the commander of the unit grimaced.
"Go tell Commander Krythe what happened here," the soldier said to one of his subordinates.
Maxthane smirked at the thought of meeting Krythe here. He'd hoped to have a chance to move through the complex, so he could assess the current situation, but at least the soldiers weren't trying to kill him. He would work out some way of learning more later.
The soldiers made no conversation as they waited, and Maxthane saw no reason to start one. These men would've been chosen to guard him because they were loyal to Krythe, and he doubted he could sway their opinion. They had all seen Salidar alive, and that would be enough to earn their loyalty, no matter that it was an illusion.
Eventually footsteps sounded outside the room again, and Krythe entered, pausing briefly at the doorway to give whispered orders to the guards who resumed their position outside. Krythe closed the door and turned a scowl on Maxthane.
"Are you going to tell me what you think you're doing, Prince?" he said, spitting the last word like a slur.
"I think I'm holding my father hostage, or at least the man you think is my father," Maxthane said coolly. He gestured at the pillar and added, "He's not, you know. I would never do this to my father."
Krythe's scowl darkened. His hand twitched toward the sword belted at his waist, but managed to still it before he replied, "Everyone who was involved in the invasion of Pentalus knows there's a way to free the demons. Do you think our mages won't be able to free him?"
Maxthane had expected some form of this question, and he replied without hesitation, "Every mage who knew the ritual died during the attack, except for me. And I don't think any others will be able to find it."
Krythe's hand twitched again, and he took a step toward Maxthane, but then turned his back on him and made a quick circuit of the pillar. "So, what do you suggest I do with you then? Pretend you're the rightful king?" He asked with a snort.
Maxthane was shaking his head long before Krythe finished speaking. "Let me go," he said calmly.
Krythe's mouth hung open for a moment before he responded, "You must be joking."
"No, I'm not," Maxthane replied. "You can even be in charge if you want while I'm gone. I will find evidence of the imposter, return, and free him after I can prove his real identity. Then we can settle this."
"That is ridiculous," Krythe said. "I will simply keep you under guard until we can figure out how to free Salidar."
Maxthane's features darkened. He'd expected this, but he had to play the part. With a tone of pure deadly calm, he said, "If you do that, I'll kill him."
Krythe paled at the threat. "You wouldn't."
"Why not? You know that I don't believe he's really my father. I don't care if he dies."
"You wouldn't anyway. He's your only piece to bargain with," Krythe said after a moment of consideration. A slight smile crept onto his face, his eyes twinkling dangerously. "No, I think I'm going to put you under guard, somewhere I can see you."
It was Maxthane's turn to snort. "People will ask questions if I'm kept under guard all the time. Are you going to be the one who explains this situation to them? How many people do you think you can keep loyal to your side? Do you really think there are no soldiers left who would consider me a better option than you, Krythe? I would think you'd want to get rid of me."
"Oh, I do," Krythe replied, his tone leaving no doubt as to how he would prefer to be rid of Maxthane. If Maxthane wasn't careful, his body would end up floating in the Black Lake and Fasha's fate be damned. "But I can't have you out in The Shade raising an army, either. Salidar is the rightful king, and you are a usurper. I will find a way to free him."
Maxthane shrugged as if it didn't matter. "Then I'll just kill him now and be done with it."
The blood drained from Krythe's face again as he whispered hollowly, "Then you will die, and The Shade will be without a ruler."
"Better that than a demon ruling my people," Maxthane replied without a hint of fear.
"You really believe this delusion, don't you?"
"Fasha was always close with my father. He saw everything my father did, knew his mannerisms better than my father did himself, I'm willing to bet. If anyone could pull off impersonating Salidar thulu'Khant, it would be Fasha," Maxthane replied, glad to have a chance to voice his position to Krythe.
"He looks like Salidar," Krythe said flatly, though his eyes showed a hint of genuine interest. "Explain that to me."
"Why wouldn't a demon be able to assume the form of a person?" Maxthane suggested.
Krythe shook his head. "That is shaky evidence for the crime you claim has been committed. Just because something could be true is hardly evidence something is true, and I saw, spoke with, and felt Salidar today. My king lives. You have taken him prisoner, and I will not bend to your childish delusion."
"Then what will you do?" Maxthane asked, his body tensing as he braced for Krythe to order his execution.
Krythe considered Maxthane's eyes for a long moment, his eyes dark, but with a hint of doubt. Just a sliver, but it was enough to give Maxthane hope even as Krythe spoke. "You will be kept under constant guard, as I stated earlier. If you kill Salidar, we'll kill you immediately. If you try to sway anyone to your side, we will kill you immediately, and consequences be damned. When Rega returns, we will hear his testimony again. If it is found lacking, he will share your fate."
"Surely other soldiers also saw my father's body. Will you kill them all to protect your delusions, Krythe?" Maxthane asked.
"There are other soldiers who once claimed to have seen things, of which they now admit to being mistaken. After all, the evidence is before them," Krythe replied dismissively. "You would be wise to follow their example and release your father."
Maxthane sighed, and it gave him no relief. It settled on him heavily, seeming to draw all the air in the room save the heavy fog of the pillar surrounding Fasha. He had hoped Krythe would be more receptive, though he'd known it to be a fool's hope. "I suppose we're not going to find reconciliation then," he said sadly, then his hand slid toward a tattoo of a flower on his leg.
Krythe's sword leapt from its sheath and settled against Maxthane's throat. "Don't try it, Maxthane," he said with an icy chill. "You would attempt to seduce me? I have no taste for men. The second you attempt to activate that tattoo of yours, I'll put the blade in your chest myself."
With a look of utter contempt, Maxthane dropped his hand to his lap and remained silent. Nodding in satisfaction, Krythe withdrew his sword from Maxthane's throat and sheathed it again. Calm and self-assured once more, Krythe said, "You will be allowed to wander the halls of the complex, and you will not sleep in these chambers any longer. I will allow you exercise but not freedom, and no chance to affect Salidar further. You will be under guard at all times, and they will keep you from talking to any of the soldiers or servants. They will make it seem as if they are your escort. If you try anything, they will kill you."
"If that is your final decision . . ." Maxthane trailed off with a sigh. At least he would be allowed to move. That would help. It likely wouldn't be enough, but it would help. But there was one more move to make, and hopefully it would be all he needed.
"It is," Krythe said. "For now," he added, the words giving Maxthane pause.
But one moment of hesitation wouldn't be enough either. The knife hidden behind the painting beside him, on the other hand, was just the leverage he would need. "That's not good enough . . ." he said, then lunged for the painting, ripping it from the wall and throwing it at Krythe. He snatched at the knife from its hiding place, a small niche in the wall, and missed badly. It pointed the other way than he remembered, and his hand gripped nothing but blade, cutting him deeply across the palm and fingers.
"You aren't very good with a knife, are you?" Krythe said testily, his sword in his hand once more as he glared at Maxthane. "Never bothered to learn how to fight without your pretty little tricks. I'll send you to the infirmary first then."
"I hope you rot in the light, Krythe," Maxthane spat, clutching his wounded hand.
Tongue clicking ruefully, Krythe growled and said, "Such a terrible choice for a king. Your father should've raised you better. It's the one mistake he made."
They spoke no more words between them, and as Krythe's soldiers entered the room he decreed Maxthane's fate to them. A small circle formed around Maxthane and escorted him from the room. They would take him to other chambers eventually, but first he would be taken to the mess hall to receive medical attention.
Unbeknownst to them, however, Maxthane had no need of their healing. The mess hall would serve him in other ways, however, and so he kept his innate powers at bay. He'd always healed quickly, and only recently had learned it was the result of his Fedain heritage, but that would only hinder him now.
His blood dripped across the cold stone as he was marched forward. Each drop of that blood signified his willingness to suffer on account of his people. They may never appreciate the sacrifices he made, but they would one day recognize them. They would know he did what he must to save them from themselves.
As soon as he entered the mess hall, one of the physicians, a tall woman with greying brown hair pulled neatly behind her neck, approached the group. "What is the meaning of you barging in here like this? My patients need rest!"
"Please, excuse me, Edaine," Maxthane said softly. "I'm injured and under guard for reasons I can't discuss. I've injured myself and I need your expert hand. I'm feeling a bit faint from the blood loss, however, so if you don't mind, I'd like to take a seat."
Edaine nodded perfunctorily and gestured into the hall, indicating that he should take a seat on one of the open cots while she fetched bandages. Despite several open places, Maxthane made his way toward the far end of the room where he could take an open spot next to Kubriss.
"Prince, Krythe said . . ." the leader of his escort began as Maxthane crossed the hall.
"That I should avoid contact with others," Maxthane snapped back. "I'm simply moving away from them, soldier."
The soldier nodded reluctantly and moved to follow Maxthane into the room, but hesitated when Edaine shot him a glare. "I won't have you hovering over me while I bandage him. Wait by the door."
"Commander Krythe—" the soldier protested, but Edaine's glare only sharpened. The soldier sighed and backed away to stand at the doorway.
Maxthane moved to sit down next to Kubriss. He nodded in thanks to Edaine as she moved in front of him, a bundle of bandages in her hand. She quickly took charge of Maxthane's injury as she whispered, "I don't know why you came all the way over here, but you better make it quick. I'll try to stall."
Blinking in surprise, Maxthane replied, "Why are you helping me?"
Edaine stared at him incredulously. "Whatever problem you have right now, you are a healer just as I am. I see you taking care of the soldiers in here, and any one of them would die for you. I heard Salidar is back, but I have heard enough tales of his body to know the truth. You have support here. Not enough, but we are here, should you make your move."
Maxthane nodded his appreciation. "Thank you. I will try and find some way to get information to you."
"Of course, my king," Edaine said with a slight nod, which somehow carried the same grace and dignity as a courtly bow. "Now, let me take a look at your injury."
As she worked on his hand, Maxthane turned to regard Kubriss and found the Elrok watching him with concern. He turned to face Edaine again but spoke to the Elrok instead. "Kubriss."
"Yes?" Kubriss answered immediately.
"Gobrak. Could you send him a message?" Maxthane asked. Or, at least, he hoped he had. He wasn't certain of the words. He considered speaking in the common tongue instead of Elrok, but even though he trusted Edaine now, he couldn't be as sure of anyone else in earshot.
"Message?" Kubriss repeated in her language. Maxthane spared a quick glance at her to see the understanding in her eyes.
"Yes," he said, then continued slowly, "I need you to tell him that Salidar isn't who he says he is."
Kubriss sighed deeply. "I don't understand."
"Salidar is not Salidar. Tell him that," Maxthane replied, hoping that by sticking to just words he knew, it would get the important message across without the proper grammar.
"Are you . . . what is wrong?" Kubriss asked after a moment.
"I am in danger. You are in danger," Maxthane said in the common tongue, then switched back to Elrok to add, "You must tell Gobrak."
"I will," Kubriss said.
Edaine glanced at her briefly and then returned to Maxthane. "Talking with her was risky. They're coming over."
Maxthane nodded as he glanced at the leader of the escort quickly making his way across the room. Before Maxthane could respond to Edaine, the soldier barked, "Hey, no talking to anyone."
"I was saying hello to a friend. She didn't know my father was back," Maxthane said neutrally.
"Sure, I bet you were," the soldier replied, glancing down at Edaine's handiwork. "It looks like you've been taken care of. Let's go, Prince."
Edaine opened her mouth as if to protest, but Maxthane withdrew his freshly bandaged hand and stood. "Thank you for bandaging me up. If I'm injured again, I'll ask for you personally."
"Try to stay out of harm's way, Prince Maxthane," Edaine replied smoothly.
Maxthane nodded and rejoined his escort. He hoped he would be able to honor her words but doubted he could. Even if Kubriss failed to deliver her message, he would do everything in his power to save The Shade from Fasha. Everything.
May Styx forgive me when he learns of my death. Father, I wish you were really here. Father . . . I will save our people.
Neredos paced his chambers. Sleep had never come. Sleep never did. It never would. He could close his eyes, he could see darkness, but he could always feel them. The demons lived just at the edge of his mind. They crawled in their cages, unaware of anything but a deep slumber.
He wondered if the demons dreamed in their prisons. Could they feel him the same way he felt them? Did he gnaw at their spirits in return? He certainly fed off them, made them a part of him, made them . . .
Does that make me evil? He thought suddenly, turning to stare at the wall which had once held a mirror. He could no longer bear to stay in rooms that had mirrors, had long since abandoned the notion that his reflection could be anything other than a sign of his degradation. Now he wondered if he would see the traces of the demons in his own eyes. I did kill my friends, after all.
He walked to the door and opened it, addressing the servant in attendance outside. "Bring me water," he said.
The servant bowed and left hurriedly. Neredos watched him go, curious if the servant thought the request odd. In all the years since connecting himself to the demons, Neredos had never felt thirst. He had never felt hunger, never felt pain. He had never felt physical tiredness, though his mind became wearier with each passing day.
It was enough to drive a man mad. A normal man. A mortal man. But he was immortal, wasn't he? Did he not have the strength to survive? He was the only one who could keep the demons at bay. He knew that as surely now as he had eight hundred years before. Only he could stop them.
The servant returned with the water, drawing Neredos momentarily from his thoughts. He did not bother to thank the servant as he took the full pitcher. There seemed little reason to thank a man for doing his job. After all, Neredos felt no desire for gratitude for his service to the world. He would do his duty, to the end of his existence.
There will be an end then? Neredos surprised himself by the question. How long had it been since he'd considered an end? Was he truly committed to carrying on like this until the world was no more? He knew science better than anyone living, knew that the world would eventually be destroyed by outside forces even if he managed to keep the demons at bay. A rock could fall from the sky and decimate all life. The life-giving sun could explode and incinerate them all. He had protected his world from science as well as demons. Science had nearly destroyed this world on its own and . . .
And it could anyway. Despite his best efforts, he had lost control. Already the surrounding countryside owed fealty to him in name alone. Incaria had seceded long ago. People had returned to living on the far continent, now recovered from the Demon War. He had lost control, and eventually the peoples of the world would be able to destroy themselves again.
With a growl of annoyance, Neredos dipped his cupped hands into the pitcher and splashed cool water over his face and chest. His disheveled clothing soaked up the liquid, but his face and hair continued to drip. As a young man he'd often splashed his face with water to wake himself mentally, whenever he needed clarity. He'd tried this before, even recently, but he hoped this time it would work.
A knock at the door announced the same servant as before. Neredos tried to suppress his scowl as he turned toward the young man, but his mood prevented him. "What is the matter?" he asked coldly.
"Your Majesty, the Lady Veil has come," the servant said, bowing low in apology.
Neredos' eyes widened slightly as he peered through the doorway into the hallway as if expecting Veil to appear at any moment. "She has? She never comes here."
"I only report the truth, Your Majesty," the servant said neutrally.
"I will receive her here. There is no need to prepare my audience hall. Not for her," Neredos said stiffly. He handed the pitcher of water to the servant expectantly.
The servant took the pitcher and bowed without looking up once. "As you say, Your Majesty."
As soon as he was gone, Neredos resumed pacing. It had been a long time since Veil had come to visit him at his palace. Years even, if he recalled correctly. What was so important that she would decide to visit today?
He didn't have to wait long to put that question to her, for she arrived a minute later, while several water droplets still beaded on his face and neck. He thought about wiping them off, but this woman had seen him at his worst. She could stand to see him a bit more disheveled than normal.
Her eyes radiated concern, despite her regal bearing, and she curtsied shallowly before meeting his gaze. There was an edge to her, something he couldn't quite read in her expression. He didn't want to waste time guessing what it was. "Veil . . . why are you here?" he asked as soon as the door was closed.
Veil frowned at his abrupt question. "That's a strange way to greet a friend."
"Are you my friend?" Neredos asked.
Veil's cheeks colored, whether from anger or embarrassment Neredos didn't know. "What has gotten into you?" she asked.
"Do I have any friends, Veil?" Neredos said, sighing as he turned away from her. "Do I have any right to them?"
Several long seconds paused before Veil responded softly, "I still think of us that way."
"Maybe kings aren't allowed to have friends," Neredos said, ignoring her answer. Whether she thought of him as a friend or not was irrelevant. He could not afford to see her in that light and still consider the options being weighed in his mind. Still, he softened his voice as he asked again, "Why are you here?"
Veil stepped around in front of him again, regarding him curiously. "Are you sweating, Neredos? You're soaked. It is a warm day . . . Is there a problem with the link with the demons?"
"You might say that," Neredos said. He didn't see any reason to tell her the ways his thoughts had affected him of late. She could do nothing for him. She had tried to heal his madness many times since he became linked to the demons, and she'd never succeeded. "Are you going to answer my question?"
"I came to check on you. Last time you visited me, you were out of sorts," Veil said at last.
Neredos snorted at the absurd statement. "I'm always out of sorts. You know that."
"That may be true, but this was different. Would you like me to check you?" Veil asked.
Neredos sighed. No matter how little good it would do him, if it would put her mind at ease, it was a small sacrifice. "If you must."
Veil nodded and placed her hand against his forehead. She closed her eyes and concentrated. "There doesn't appear to be anything different," she said softly, but her touch lingered, and a warmth spread through at her fingertips.
"What are you doing?" Neredos asked as the warmth increased. It seemed familiar, though distant, almost unrecognizable. Was this pain? How long had it been since he'd felt pain? It was as if . . .
"I'm just testing someth—" Veil said, and Neredos caught her arm and pulled it roughly away from his face. It was as if she were using her powers to destroy his flesh, but the demon link was healing the damage as quickly as it appeared.
"You're trying to kill me!" Neredos growled, dropping his vice-like grip on her arm. "What are you doing, Veil?"
Veil raised her hands in alarm and said soothingly, "It was just a test, Neredos. Just a test."
Neredos pointed at the door, his gaze locked on hers as he said icily, "Get out."
"Get out!" Neredos screamed, gesturing madly at the door. "Get out! Get out! Get out!"
"You aren't being ration—" Veil began, but she stopped as Neredos' face became a mask of perfect calm, the eye of a hurricane with the promise of death and destruction swirling about it.
"Get out or I'll kill you," he said softly.
Veil didn't bother to curtsy. She fled, as quickly as she had ever moved in her life. Neredos didn't bother to watch her go, he merely fetched the servant from the hall and said hoarsely, "Prepare my meditation room. I will be using it for the next day at least."
"This . . ." Prism shook his head as the vision cleared. He had felt every nuanced thought of Neredos' madness, and his eyes were wide with shock. "What is going on in his head?"
Ghayle too seemed troubled by what they had just witnessed. "I don't know for sure. Sometimes his thoughts are too chaotic to sift through."
"I'm worried about the world, Ghayle," Prism said, looking from her to Telzath. "I keep thinking things are going to end badly."
"You shouldn't," Telzath said calmly.
Prism regarded the Elrok chief with surprise. "What?"
"There is no reason to give up hope, Prism," Telzath continued in the same tone. "There is an old Elrok saying: 'An avalanche begins with a whisper'. Small actions trigger great events, and as long as there is a single person fighting, there is a chance their small actions will lead to victory."
Prism nodded at the wisdom in Telzath's statement. "You remind me of Master Vinh."
"I'm afraid I don't know who that is, but I hope that was a compliment," Telzath replied with a deep chuckle.
"It was. Probably the greatest he could give," Ghayle answered for Prism. "Master Vinh is responsible for leading Prism to the understanding of the life he now has."
"Then it is a great compliment indeed," Telzath said solemnly. "You honor me, Heartbrother."
"Heartbrother," Prism repeated, teasing the term with his tongue. "Is that what Elroks call those who are also married to their spouses?"
"Yes," "Or Heartsister, as the situation applies."
"Then, Heartbrother Telzath, I am equally honored by your words."
Ghayle smiled warmly at the two men, and she took their hands in hers. "Regarding family, perhaps we should check on our wayward thieves, and see how they are doing?"
Prism nodded. "With Styx and Dogo working together, I've no doubt they'll gut that demon without an issue."
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