Styx heard Drake approach but didn't look up. He kept staring across the chamber to where he'd arranged sixteen bodies in a row. Sixteen, including Rega and Dogo, Rega's twelve men, and the twins. It had taken him all day to get the bodies all in one spot, but he had felt it necessary.
Eventually he would make it back, and then send any who wanted to claim those bodies into this bright chamber of death. Eventually—if he lived long enough. His body ached in ways he didn't understand, and some he did. His bones would take months to heal, if they ever did. Redistributing his bone structure during his injury had saved him worse damage, but it had compromised the overall integrity of his body.
But that didn't bother him nearly as much as the nagging sensation that something in him wanted him to die. A sickness he had watched destroy Dogo, and that filled him with a dreadful fatigue. His lungs felt as heavy as sandbags.
"Where do we go from here?" Drake asked after a moment.
Styx didn't answer, he just continued to stare, fingering the kukri in his lap. It hadn't saved Dogo's life in the end, and he doubted it would do much for him, either. But he couldn't abandon it. No . . . it was all he had left of a father he'd barely known but respected deeply.
"Styx?" Drake said, waving his one free hand in front of Styx's face.
"What?" Styx asked, blinking with surprise. "Why do I have to decide?"
"I'm asking for your opinion, kid," Drake said, snorting derisively. "Neither of us is more qualified here. We should make decisions together."
"I don't know. I don't have any ideas. I'm wounded, you're wounded, so we're pretty much out of luck," Styx replied, shrugging as if the dour news hardly mattered. "If I tried to take you out the way we came in, we'd both die. You couldn't make it down the chute in your condition, and I couldn't possibly carry you. I don't think we have enough rope, either. I'm not sure I can make it on my own, either. My bones are all weakened by what the demon did to me before I shifted back."
"Then you'll have to leave me and take your time," Drake said.
This sentiment snapped Styx out of his melancholy with a flash of anger. He pointed at Drake with the kukri to punctuate his words. "That's not an option, Drake. I've lost too many friends recently. I'm not going to abandon another."
"I wasn't talking about abandoning me," Drake said, stepping back as if expecting Styx to take a swing at him with the weapon. He tried to recover by gesturing around him, but with only one arm he simply looked unbalanced to Styx. "You know exactly where I am. The passage leads straight here. You go back, let them know where I am, and then bring help." He nodded behind Styx to the gathered stockpile of backpacks and side-pouches salvaged from the stores the group had brought with them. Enough supplies to feed eighteen men for a week. For the two of them, it could last significantly longer. "I have enough provisions."
"We're so much closer to the surface than we are to The Shade," Styx replied, unconvinced. "It's going to take me a long time to get down there, if I can even make it in my condition."
"Stop thinking of the obstacles," Drake said. "You can take half the food with you and I'll still be fine. If I need to, I can hunt birds or fish."
"Birds . . ." Styx said, looking up. An idea struck him. He climbed to his feet and looked up at the ceiling where the birds fluttered in giant flocks. "How did the birds get in here?"
"What?" Drake asked, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Why do you care?"
"There's another entrance, Drake," Styx said after a moment. "These birds might be adapted to this environment now, but they're not natural cave dwellers. Birds are creatures of the open air. They had to have come here from outside."
Drake nodded along, catching on to Styx's logic. "So, you're thinking, if we find the other entrance . . ."
"We'll be able to go up instead of down," Styx said, finishing the thought. "We can enter from Pentalus after that to get you home."
"How are we going to find it?" Drake asked.
"If it was obvious, either Dogo or the demon would've found it earlier and used that to get out," Styx surmised, staring at the walls as he thought about the problem. "So, it has to be something they'd have avoided."
"The Rogali," Drake suggested.
"Definitely," Styx agreed, letting his gaze linger on a large clump of the glowing purple lichen. "The entrance must be covered in it, so neither Dogo nor the demon would've thought twice about going there."
"All right, where do we start? Did you want to split up to look for it?"
"It'll either be on the wall or the ceiling, otherwise the birds couldn't have gotten in. I guess . . ." Styx frowned and stared at one of the nearby pools, "unless the water level used to be much lower."
"It's possible," Drake admitted with a sigh. "There could also be several ways out, some under water. It is unlikely that this much water only feeds the small stream we climbed through."
"It might be seeping into the whole Shade from several different angles," Styx said, shuddering. "All that demonic blood."
"What about it?"
"Dogo said it was poisonous."
"I suppose he'd know," Drake said, glancing over his shoulder to the row of bodies. "Is that how he died? How are you feeling? You were covered in it."
"I'm not really sure," Styx said. "I ache everywhere, but that is probably just my bones from when the demon hit me."
Drake nodded. "Just in case, we should probably get you out of here as soon as we can. If we can't find the exit, you're going down the way we came in."
"Drake, I won't—"
"I won't hear any arguments, Styx!" Drake growled, rounding on Styx with a menacing glare. "I'm your guild brother, and I'm going to make sure you survive. That's what matters now."
Styx held his ground for a moment, but eventually dropped his eyes. "Fine," he muttered. "But we're going to find the other way."
"We're splitting up. This needs to happen quickly," Drake said. "The sooner we get at least you out of here, the better off we'll both be."
Styx nodded and turned around, searching the walls and ceiling behind him. He walked away from Drake as he started in the opposite direction. It was hard to make out any defined openings in the rockface, covered as it all was with the glowing lichens. On occasion he'd spot a crack, but never one large enough to fit a person through.
He kept his focus primarily on the purple Rogali lichen. It secreted a corrosive poison which could maim or kill anything that touched it. The birds and moths seemed to have an immunity to it, as they perched on it without care.
Styx had only made it a hundred yards when he heard shouting behind him. He turned and saw Drake making his way toward him, moving as quickly as the slick floor would allow as he navigated his way around the pools.
"Styx! I think I found it!" Drake said excitedly when he saw he'd gained Styx's attention. Styx turned to follow as Drake led him across the chamber.
When he arrived and looked up at the spot on the wall, however, his mood turned from excitement to trepidation. "By the shadows . . . It's all Rogali!"
The opening was barely large enough for a man to fit through sideways, but several birds had built their nests beside it, and flittered in and out of the hole. These birds had built nests of twigs and branches, which they must have scavenged from outside.
"Yeah, but you have me," Drake said pointedly. "I'm still a mongoose, that tattoo is still there."
"How am I going to get through that?" Styx said, staring skeptically at the purple glow just above them.
"Well, we'll wrap you really well first, and I'll hack through as much as I can to create the clearest path possible," Drake said, stepping toward the wall. He was only a few feet below it, but it was a difficult climb with only one hand. He struggled a few times then looked at Styx with frustration. "Boost me up."
Styx stepped forward and bent down, giving Drake a leg to stand on and making a platform with his hands. As soon as Drake stepped into position, Styx hoisted him upward with all his strength. Styx's bones creaked, and his body protested, but Drake managed to clear the distance. He landed half-bent over the mouth of the opening, but found good footholds to root himself, then took a fistful of Rogali to pull himself up the rest of the way.
He peered into the crack, then looked at the edges of the entrance. With a nod of approval, he turned back to Styx. "Yeah, I think I can get you through here. Give me Dogo's blade, and I'll start working while you get dressed. Cover as much of your skin as possible. Salvage armor from Rega's men but take Chanda's gloves and mask. They're designed for working with poisons."
Styx unbelted Dogo's sheathed kukri and tossed it up to Drake. "I'll be back. I'll get as much of the provisions as I can into two packs for us as well."
"Good idea," Drake replied, then unsheathed the kukri and set to work carving at the lichen around him.
Styx returned to their supply cache and set to work arranging all the food and survival gear they might need into two separate packs. Once finished, he walked toward the row of bodies and looked them over. It was starting to smell like death and rot, and his stomach churned at the thought of stripping the armor from any of these soldiers.
Looking down at his own clothes, however, he realized that he would be better off without changing. He hadn't worn his clothing during the combat, and almost everyone else had. Dogo was the only one whose armor wasn't broken in any way, and as Styx stared at his father's face he couldn't bring himself to undress him.
But he followed Drake's other advice, pausing by Chanda to remove her gloves and face mask. He considered trying to remove the cloth which formed her hood, but soon realized it would involve undressing her most of the way. As much as he didn't mind theft, if he wasn't willing to disturb Dogo's body, he couldn't justify doing it to anyone else.
Slipping into the gloves and mask, he glanced at Dogo one more time before moving on. His chest felt as heavy as before, but now it was as much with emotion as the strain of illness. Why do I miss him? Styx wondered as he walked away. He may have been my father, but I never truly knew him.
Stopping to pick up the two packs of provisions, he returned to Drake at the wall. A sizeable pile of the purple lichen had been discarded at the base of the wall, and Styx eyed it warily. Distracted as he was, he didn't notice as Drake cut another tuft from the wall and tossed it over the edge. It hit Styx in the chest and fell to his feet.
"Are you okay?" Drake asked worriedly, noticing Styx for the first time, concern evident.
"Yes," Styx said, breathing a sigh of relief. "It didn't hit my skin."
"Good," Drake said with a grimace. "That was close."
"Too close," Styx agreed. "Now, how about I climb up there and we get on our way, huh?" He took one of the packs and tossed it up to Drake. Drake had to drop the kukri to catch it and the blade clattered loudly at his feet.
While Drake was busy retrieving the blade, Styx started his climb up the rock face. By the time he made it to the top, Drake had managed to set the pack down neatly and slide the blade into its sheath.
"You didn't grab any armor," Drake observed, handing the kukri back to Styx. "That might be a mistake, kid."
"Everyone's armor was broken," Styx replied. "Except Dogo's."
Drake opened his mouth to reply, but then read the meaning in Styx's eyes. He nodded once and pointed into the crack. "It goes back a ways before it widens. It'll be a tight fit, but I tried to trim as much Rogali as I could."
"We'll managed," Styx said more firmly than he felt. "Lead the way, and I'll let you know if I think I can't make it."
Drake nodded, holding his pack in his hand as he stepped deeper into the crack. They had to move sideways just to fit, and Styx took his time to avoid walking into any of the purple lichen covering the walls. With one hand holding the pack, it was difficult to maneuver at points, but watching Drake move inspired him. Drake had no free hand to steady or guide him, and he simply picked his way carefully forward.
After a while, Styx allowed himself to relax and simply put one foot ahead of the other. He might not have the level of experience that Drake did, but they had survived a demon together. This obstacle seemed nothing when compared to what they had already faced, and Styx kept that in mind whenever the space grew more confining.
Eventually the natural corridor widened, and Styx breathed more easily. The lichens were starting to thin now that they were farther away from the water source. Whatever had formed this part of the cave, water no longer flowed readily through it, though the sound of rushing water in the distance made Styx worry they had more obstacles to come.
The farther they went, the louder the rushing of water became, until eventually they arrived at the source of the sound. A natural chute opened before them, both rising upward and descending. A steady stream of water cascaded down the rocks, which again were covered in both species of lichen.
"So . . ." Drake said as Styx joined him at the small ledge overlooking the chute, "you didn't want to worry about the chute we arrived through. What do we do now?"
Styx peered upward. Despite an immediate vertical ascent, it sloped after a while with good handholds in the rocks, and at least one shelf was visible in the glow of the lichens, only forty feet above them. "This isn't that high. There's a ledge up there where we can rest before we move on," he said, opening the pack and pulling out a coil of rope. He eyed the glowing purple lichens and suppressed a grimace. "And there isn't too much Rogali."
"Or you could go on, and I could go back," Drake said skeptically.
"I'm going to get you out, Drake," Styx said firmly.
Drake sighed but didn't argue. "All right, what do we do?"
"I'll go up with the rope. It'll reach that far," Styx said, pointing up at the shelf. "I'll anchor myself there and pull you up."
"And when we find out we have to go straight up after that shelf?" Drake asked.
Styx shrugged noncommittally and said, "Then we'll solve that problem when we get there."
"Okay, Styx. I'll give it a shot," Drake replied.
Styx nodded and turned to the wall, trying to find footholds above the stream. He climbed up the first few feet, his body protesting from all the strain it had been under. Hesitating, to get used to the feel of his own weight, he started the climb toward the shelf.
He had to keep his face far from the wall, avoiding each patch of Rogali as well as he could. His foot slipped once, and he hugged the wall instinctively as he sought for greater purchase, his face coming less than an inch from the lichen. As he shifted to continue, the edge of the lichen brushed against his forehead, and he recoiled with a sharp hiss.
He could feel the small bit of poison burning into his skin, but as it thinned out in his blood it lost its potency. Taking a moment to collect his senses, he resumed his climb. He took his time, and eventually covered the distance to the shelf and pulled himself onto it, with a great sigh of relief.
After a minute's rest, he uncoiled the rope from around his shoulder and tied it around his waist, then found a place to anchor himself as he tossed the other end down to Drake. As soon as Drake put most of his weight on the rope, Styx wished he was back on the wall and trying to avoid the Rogali instead.
Styx struggled to maintain his grip on the rope as Drake struggled to somehow climb up the wall with one hand. It took forever for Drake to reach the shelf, and by the time he arrived, both were exhausted. They knew immediately that they'd need to take a break.
"Let's eat some food, kid," Drake said, shifting his pack off his shoulder. He then looked past Styx to their ascent. "Once we get some strength back, the rest shouldn't be too bad, at least, not for a while. That slope is probably manageable as long as you can keep your grip."
Styx looked over his shoulder and confirmed Drake's words. As far as he could see, the chute continued at an angle instead of a vertical climb. He started planning his route as they ate. He would hug the wall as much as possible and stay out of the water to keep his handholds and footholds dry.
They spoke very little as they ate, recouping as much strength as possible, but after a half hour Styx moved toward the edge of the shelf and searched for his first handholds. After locating them, he checked the knot around his waist and then checked to make sure Drake had done the same. With a nod, he started up.
They progressed for nearly an hour, pausing for small breaks whenever there was a place for it. Every inch took its toll on Styx, as he had to do most of the work for the both of them. Drake could only do his best to climb with his one hand while his feet kept him stable. His earlier efforts had left even his one hand nearly disabled. They climbed with patience, but it wore on their endurance almost as much.
And then the slope steepened, and Styx's body protested every time his arms moved. They had just left another ledge thirty feet back, but he needed another one soon. Hand over hand, he pushed for more strength, but then his right foot slipped, and he caught himself in the middle of the stream with a white-knuckled grip.
"Styx?" Drake called out.
Styx tried to find purchase with his right foot but caught only smooth, wet rock. His fingers were slipping, and he called back, "I'm losing my grip. I'm going to try and swing you back toward the last ledge and then let go. You might have to catch me."
"That isn't going to work, Styx," Drake replied after a long pause. "The ledge won't catch us like that. You did your best, kid. But I'm not letting you die in here. Hang on tight."
"Drake?" Styx called back. His position didn't allow him to look backward to see his companion, but then the rope went slack. Without the extra weight of Drake pulling on him, Styx managed to regain his grip with his hands and pull himself into a more secure position.
"Drake!" he shouted behind him. In desperation, he anchored himself as well as he could and turned around. Drake was nowhere to be seen, the end of the rope dangling at his last position.
"Drake!?" Styx cried one more time, but there was no answer. Styx felt his grip slipping again, but he waited until the last second before returning his focus to his ascent. Tears mixed with the water splashing across his face as he resumed his climb.
Styx reached starlight a half hour later, climbing into a brackish pool near a natural spring. He waded to the shore, arms and legs aching. There he collapsed with exhaustion, no longer able to weep for the companions he'd left behind.
Pentalus loomed around Styx. He'd had to sneak inside by giving his provisions to a cabbage farmer to trade for a ride in his cart. But the farmer had also generously delivered him to the square where Dogo's house resided.
He considered spending the extra time to freshen up in his father's house, perhaps find some clean clothes, but he was too numb to care. If the people he'd come to see were unwilling to help him in his present condition, they would do little for him clean.
The bustling common room of the tavern quieted immediately as soon as he walked through the door. Each patron regarded his clothes with disgust. Brackish water had tainted the cloth, and the wound on his head from the Rogali added a red contrast to the dark mud of his face and hands.
He coughed; a deep, wet sound that made the people nearby shy away from him. The tavern keeper, a broad-shouldered man with a thick mustache, approached him. Styx spoke before the man could say anything to him. "Hello . . . I'm sorry, I'm looking for a man named . . . Kimbler."
"You look horrible," the tavern keeper replied, not appearing to have heard Styx at all. "We don't want plague in here. You need to seek lodging elsewhere."
"I'm not looking for a place to stay. I'm looking for Kimbler," Styx said with another cough. "Dogo sent me."
The tavern keeper's eyes narrowed suspiciously, but after a moment he waved Styx to follow, and led him through to the kitchen. He pointed to a stack of crates and said, "Sit here. Away from everyone else. And don't touch anything."
Styx considered standing as an act of rebellion, but his legs were too weak to give up the chance to rest. He sat on the crates and stared at the busy kitchen, barely noticing the disgusted glances of the cooks. Everyone left him alone, but he could feel their eyes on him.
He didn't know how long he waited before a man with a dirty mop of blonde hair arrived through the back door with two broad-shouldered men behind him. The blonde man stopped in front of Styx with a sour grimace. "Who are you?" he asked.
"My name is Styx. I'm Dogo's son, and I'm here to see Kimbler," Styx said, then yawned. The yawning quickly became a cough, and Styx's ribs ached with effort.
"That's me," the blonde man replied. He gave Styx an appraising look. "Dogo's son, eh? Now there's an odd claim."
"It's true," Styx replied as forcefully as he could manage. "He told me you could put me in touch with the Dark Mother."
"What do you know about that?" Kimbler said. Styx became aware of all the focus in the room shifting to him.
"Please . . ." Styx said, meeting Kimbler's eyes. "I'm sick, and I need help. I need someone to get me to the Everbright City. I have to see Lady Veil."
Kimbler recoiled as if Styx had slapped him, but he turned to the men behind him and said. "Bring him. Watch everything he does."
One of the large men pulled a dark handkerchief from his pocket, while the other reached for Styx's kukri. "What are you doing?" Styx asked, attempting to pull the kukri away from the man.
"Blindfolding you and disarming you," Kimbler replied. "You can't know where we're taking you. Your story is contradictory. It remains to be seen if you understand why, but we're not taking any chances."
Styx sighed and handed over the kukri, then allowed the other man to blindfold him. They each took an arm and led him through the back door. They walked for only fifteen minutes before they led him inside another building, down a flight of steps, and into a cool cellar.
Only then did the blindfold come off, and Styx stood in a room with two women, one young and pretty with dark hair, the other old and leathery. The young one resembled Madame Godani in many ways, and Styx found himself drawn to her.
"Who is this?" the old woman asked.
"He claims to be Dogo's son. Gave the name 'Styx'," Kimbler said.
The young woman walked up to Styx and wiped away some of the dirt caking his cheek. She gasped when she saw the hawk tattoo. With an unreadable expression, she met Kimbler's eyes and said, "His claim is accurate. Leave him with us."
Kimbler and his two companions departed, leaving Styx to gaze in wonder at this woman who looked so much like Madame Godani. No . . . not like her, like him! She was related to him as surely as anyone ever was. "Mother?" he asked unsteadily.
"Hello, Styx. I always wondered if you'd make it here someday," the woman said, smiling at him warmly.
"So, you really are my mother?" Styx asked.
"No," the woman replied, then nodded toward the elderly woman next to her. "She is."
"I don't understand," Styx said, looking between them. The older woman was far too old to be his mother. She would've passed child-bearing age long before Styx was born.
"You will," the young woman replied as the older woman remained silent. "But for now, you look exhausted. As much as I want to settle your curiosity, you need rest and a bath. We'll let you get cleaned up, and hopefully have a physician look at you. We'll talk more soon."
Styx tried to protest but couldn't find the words as both women left the room in silence. Moments later, a young man approached and offered to lead Styx to a place where he could change and wash. Completely at the mercy of his hosts, he allowed the servant to take him away.
He was offered a bath and accepted, despite his usual reticence toward water. All it took was one look in the nearby stand-mirror to realize how much he needed cleaning. He stripped out of his clothes and dipped into the warm water. It surprised him how good it felt. He was too exhausted to protest as the same young man from before set a stool behind Styx's tub and scrubbed at his hair, then rinsed and toweled it off for him.
When Styx finally finished bathing, a fresh set of clothes were waiting for him. They were a little large for his size, but comfortable and clean. He was also surprised to see Dogo's kukri and the key to his house resting next to the clothes. The young man offered to help Styx dress, a certain twinkle in his eyes, but Styx declined, and the youth left him alone.
After dressing, he belted on the weapon and stuck the key in his pocket. Then he heard a voice from behind him and turned to see the woman from before. "Styx?" she asked.
"Who are you?" Styx said guardedly. "You may not be my mother, but you look like you could be my relative as well."
"I'm your half-sister. I'm six years older than you, and was raised primarily by my father in Pentalus," the young woman explained.
"But you're with our mother now," Styx replied, "who is somehow an old woman."
"That's right," the young woman said with a nod. "My father died when he refused to yield to Sabreeza's power and pay him outrageous taxes. Now I work with the resistance."
"I recognize Kimbler from somewhere," Styx said. "He was there the night we raided Sabreeza's guildhall."
"Yes. I was there as well," the young woman replied. "But I did not make myself known. In public, the resistance avoids all notice of me to preserve my identity."
"You're the Dark Mother?" Styx asked.
"No, but the resistance thinks I am," the young woman said with a grin. "The real power is our mother."
"Why keep it a secret?"
"Most people have a hard time trusting their lives to an elderly woman who can barely stand up without groaning."
Styx nodded at the logic in that, but then paused and asked, "How is she our mother?"
The young woman's grin faded. "That is a complicated story, and one which she could tell you much better than I ever could, though I know it by heart."
"I have to see Veil—"
She cut him off with a raised hand. "I advise you refrain from saying that for now. That name is not well-regarded in these halls."
"Why not?" Styx asked.
"Again . . ." the young woman trailed off with a sigh.
"Something she would tell me much better than you ever could," Styx finished for her.
"Then take me to her," Styx said.
The young woman nodded and led the way out of the room. They walked in silence through the corridors, all lined with wood-paneling rich enough for a well-off merchant's home. An occasional painting adorned the walls, adding to the ambiance of middle-class affluence.
Every person they passed nodded in respect to the young woman, and she would acknowledge them with a gentle touch and a peaceful word before moving on. Each one thanked her in turn as she walked away. Styx began to wonder if people worshipped her, by the time they arrived at a sitting room, holding several small couches facing each other with a table between them.
The old woman occupied one of the couches, sipping steaming tea from a cup. A servant stood over her, still holding the tea pot. When the younger woman walked into the room, she addressed the servant directly. "Send for cheese and wine, please."
"As you wish, Mother," the servant said with a slight curtsy, setting the teapot down on the table between the couches.
The older woman set her cup down on the table as well and patted the couch next to her. "Styx . . . Come here, please."
Styx hesitated, but in seeing the warmth in her eyes he decided to trust her. He sat down, staring at her face. "You're really my mother? You have the same eyes as Madame Godani. You look like her, too, now that I see you up close."
"And I look like you a bit, too, I suspect, though you've nearly as much of your father in you as me. But I am Nal Maya Godani," the old woman said with a soft chuckle. She reached up and touched his cheek, her fingers stroking the hawk tattoo.
"How can this be?" Styx said, shaking his head in disbelief as he pulled away from her hand. "You are . . ."
"Old?" Nal Maya said with a snort. "Yes. There's no sense in denying that fact. Laris, please, sit." She looked at the younger woman and nodded toward the adjacent couch.
"Sorry, Mother," Laris said, sitting down and smiling meekly. "I didn't want to intrude."
"Please . . ." Nal Maya said, shaking her head, "this is a family reunion unlike any I ever expected. I told Dogo that it was better if Styx never knew. Apparently, he decided the opposite."
"He was dying," Styx blurted. Both his mother and sister stiffened at the outburst and he clarified with a quiet voice, "Is dead, now."
Nal Maya quietly nodded and patted Styx's hand gently. "Despite his risky lifestyle, I would've never anticipated that he would die before me. He was always too lucky."
"You don't seem fazed at all," Styx said, fighting to keep the accusation from his voice.
"I loved Dogo, in my way," Nal Maya replied. She smiled, and her eyes were moist yet no tears fell. "But now is not a time for grieving. There is too much to do. The Everbright City is in chaos, and we must take advantage of it."
"It's in chaos? Why?" Styx asked. "What happened?"
"Neredos has ordered an evacuation. It began at sunrise," Laris explained.
"No one knows why, but there is something else. The city appears to be . . . humming," Nal Maya added, her face pensive. "There is one Gor in the resistance, and he says he can sense the energy, even though he normally wouldn't be able to. Something has turned on inside the city."
"Then we have to act now, find out what it is, see if we can use it for our purposes," Laris said, nodding in agreement.
"Precisely," Nal Maya said.
Styx pulled back from both women, his thoughts reeling with a dozen different questions. "I'm sorry, but will one of you please tell me what is going on?"
"Styx," Nal Maya said, returning her attention to him, "I am grateful to finally meet you, but there is so much happening. I don't think we'll have time for a proper reunion."
"Can you at least tell me why you . . . why you never told me you were alive?" Styx asked.
Nal Maya sighed deeply. "Look at me, Styx. I'm an old woman with a Shadesight tattoo trying to live in Pentalus. I wouldn't last in The Shade, if I could even climb the steps. I can't do much here because the people see me as vile because of my birthplace. I had no life to offer you. My sister did."
"But what happened?"
"That vile witch happened, is what," Laris spat. Nal Maya gave her a reproachful look for answering on her behalf.
"Dogo told me you owed Salidar a favor," Styx said.
"And what a favor it was. I don't know if Salidar knew what fate he was consigning me to. I have to hope he didn't, though I won't say I'm sad he's dead," Nal Maya replied. "Veil was to give Salidar a son, and in return, she asked for him to send him a young woman to serve her."
Styx groaned in frustration. "But that doesn't explain anything."
"How do you think Veil has lived as long as she has?" Nal Maya asked. "Have you ever met a long-lived Fedain other than her?"
"Yes. One, and he was a friend and ally," Styx replied.
"Grim, Dogo's friend. I haven't met him, but I know of him," Nal Maya said, nodding. "How do you think he survived?"
Styx thought about the question for a moment before responding, his mind returning to his escape from Salidar with Prism. "I watched him drain all the youth from a man once. It was in defense of another, however."
"Veil does the same, but she only serves herself," Nal Maya said. "She has drained the youth from hundreds of women over her eight centuries of life. All for the sake of immortal beauty."
"But how has no one ever known?" Styx asked.
"She changes their minds, Styx," Nal Maya replied. "She alters something in their brains to make them give it to her willingly. She did the same to me, only . . . something didn't work correctly, and the damage she did to my brain corrected itself. I don't know why, I only know that within moments of her changing me, I knew what she had done."
Styx settled against the couch, too stunned to know what to say. He had spoken with Veil, and she had been open with him. She had healed Prism and given Styx advice he needed. "She seemed so . . . pure," he said after a moment.
"It is all an act." Laris said. "We can only assume that Neredos has done just as much evil with his position. One need only look around to see that the people are oppressed under his rule. Whether through his direct influence or negligence, it does not matter. This must end."
"And how do you plan to do that?" Styx asked.
"We'll use the chaos, get our operatives up there and kill Veil," Laris replied simply. "We have limited ability to get our people into the city itself, so we'll have to use our best people."
"Or . . ." Nal Maya said, regarding Styx curiously. "We could just use one."
"You want me to kill Veil for you?" Styx asked.
"You say you already know her. Would she accept an audience from you?" Laris asked eagerly.
Styx looked between them, overwhelmed by the idea. "I think so, but—"
"A blade to the heart kills a Fedain as surely as anyone else," Laris pressed. "She couldn't possibly heal from it fast enough to make a difference, not if the blade stayed inside her."
"But why do I have any reason to trust you?" Styx asked. "Because you're my sister?" he turned to Nal Maya and went on, "Because you're my mother? Supposedly, you are, but I have not been nurtured by you, nor raised by you. Did you ever once sing me a lullaby?" His voice rose, anger coloring every word. "The moment you meet me, your son, you want to send me on a crazy mission to kill on your behalf?"
He finished in a hacking fit of coughs, his chest heaving with pain. He covered his mouth as well as he could, bending over and away from his mother as his eyes watered and face reddened from the strain. When he finished, he looked at his hand, seeing the bright splatter of red on his skin.
"Are you ill?" Nal Maya asked, handing him a handkerchief.
"Yes," Styx said quietly, taking the handkerchief and wiping his hand and face. "Poisoned, and dying, surely. Of the same thing that killed Dogo."
"Then that is reason enough to see Veil," Laris offered.
Styx glared at her. "And not reason to kill her."
"Trust us because Dogo trusted us," Nal Maya said.
"What?" Styx asked.
"Your father," Nal Maya continued. "He was an honorable man, don't you think?"
She took his hand and met his gaze. Familiar eyes, which had not seen him in almost two decades, tried to bore into his soul. "You are our best chance, Styx. Who knows where Veil will be after this chaos. It is our only chance to strike a blow at the heart of their operation."
Styx looked away, unable to bear the intensity in his mother's stare. "I don't know."
"I'm sorry I never had the chance to know you, but I did sing you a lullaby, and I did give you a parting gift," Nal Maya said, brushing her fingers against the tattoo on his cheek again. "I had hoped after I finished my service to Veil that I'd be able to return to you, but she stole that future from me. Help me stop her from stealing more mothers from their sons."
"You get me there, and I'll find a way to expose her crimes," Styx said after a moment's consideration.
"She deserves death," Laris said.
"She deserves judgment," Styx countered. "I don't disagree with that. But I'm not a killer."
Laris scoffed. "You're a Shade."
"Take it or leave it," Styx replied. "I'll find my own way up if you won't help me."
"Very well," Nal Maya said, nodding resolutely. "We will get you there."
"But—" Laris protested.
"I will do this for my son, if it is what he desires," Nal Maya said. "Come, Styx, I will put you in touch with your transportation. You won't be able to leave until tomorrow."
"Thank you, Mo . . . Nal Maya," Styx said, rising to meet her.
She smiled sadly at him and said. "I owe you the best that I can do, even now. Hopefully one day you'll see that everything I did, I did for you."
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