Veil lounged in her chambers, a cup of the finest azure wine in her hand, sipping it slowly as she enjoyed the coolness of the evening. These were dark times, in some ways as dark as the days of the Demon War, now eight centuries in the past.
No, not past. The same war had persisted throughout the centuries, continuing to play out through the madness of the King. Neredos was a fool, or perhaps simply insane, and sometimes Veil didn't know which she feared more. Both would be curable by death, if she could find some way to end Neredos' life.
Fasha's most recent plan had come to naught, at least for now. After manipulating Salidar for the better part of two decades, coercing him into freeing several of the demons, only two demons remained free. One had flown off and had so far evaded those hunting it, likely trying to recover from its wounds. The Knights of the Firmament knew of this one and would inevitably deal with it.
Another had gone underground, one of the dreaded Quay demons, a noxious serpent that could both fly and burrow according to its needs. The Knights would not be able to deal with this one, nor could Veil inform them of its existence. She only knew because Fasha had told her; her revealing that knowledge would compromise her ability to bring down Neredos.
She felt for the people of The Shade. A single Quay demon could wipe out a city if given enough time. Their venom contained enough toxin to guarantee death if left untreated for a day, but the blood was even worse. Contact with the demon's blood transferred an insidious disease, far worse than any other illness Veil had ever seen. It slowly turned the body against itself, cell by cell. Those who contracted it died agonizing deaths over the course of several weeks or sometimes just days, depending on how much of the demon's blood made it into the victim's system, and the victim's strength. Without knowing how the disease worked, even a Fedain couldn't heal it, not in themselves or others.
If The Shade faced a Quay, many would surely die, even if they managed to kill it quickly. She wanted to help but couldn't; there was just too much at stake for her to worry about the fate of a single city. Though that did little to take away the weight of responsibility.
She hated herself for every moment of inaction, for every day she lived beyond her natural death at the expense of others. But all of it was necessary in her eyes, for someone had to protect the world from Neredos. No one else was left now. Even Grim and Prism had fallen.
Prism. The image of his corpse wouldn't leave her mind. He had forced Fasha to kill him, or so Fasha had said. Veil doubted the truth of that claim, but she had to behave as if it was fact. Prism would've been an asset to the world once the rest of the demons were freed, if only he hadn't interfered, that might've been his fate. Instead, the Knights of the Firmament burned him as a hero and entombed his ashes in the High Crypt, a place reserved only for the nobility of the Everbright City.
The Pillar of Ibrix kept Grim entombed, and from the reports of the Knights, he would remain there until the demons were freed. Veil rarely saw eye to eye with her brother anymore, and though she found some of his beliefs obsessive, he had fought harder than anyone to end the demons.
She'd told Grim of Neredos' madness, and her need to survive to protect others from it, but Grim hadn't believed her. He nearly killed her and would have if Fasha had not intervened. What must he think of her now? Had he reasoned out her alliance with the Vhor? Did he judge her for the terrible things she did to counter Neredos?
It didn't matter, stagnation had persisted long enough, and Veil would end it or die trying. Unfortunately, that meant making some sacrifices along the way, the least of which was her own purity. It hurt every time she had to step beyond that, but she would do what was necessary.
A knock at the door announced the presence of her manservant, Clasean. She rose gracefully and walked to her door, opening it to find the grizzled old man standing on the other side. He had served her for fifty-three years, and knew most of her secrets, though little of her motives. Yet he had served with distinction, as his mother, and his mother's mother had done before him.
"Oracle, your . . . servants have arrived," Clasean said, bowing low and showing the top of his bald head. How long had it been since he'd had hair? How long since the dashing young version of this decrepit soul had charmed Veil with his long, full blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes? Beyond the stoop and wrinkles of age, Veil still saw the man in his prime, ready to join her in bed at a moment's notice.
But those days were gone, faded along with Clasean's youth. He no longer had the stamina to keep up with her, nor did he experience arousal in quite the same way. So instead of serving her physical needs in the bedroom, he saw to the everyday upkeep of her enclave and its staff. "Very good. As soon as you've brought them to me, you may take your leave, Clasean."
Without even straightening from his bow, he replied, "Thank you, Oracle."
He turned on his heel and left without making eye contact with her. He wanted nothing to do with the distasteful business about to occur in her bedchamber. Veil understood; she didn't want any part in it, either, but that didn't change its necessity.
Clasean returned a few minutes later with a group of four men escorting a scantily clad woman wearing a black sack over her head. As soon as the visitors were inside the room, Clasean bowed and left.
"You're late," Veil said testily, addressing a gruff man with a thick black beard. Homar was Incarian, one of the few nations to resurface after the Demon War. Of course, it was nothing like it had been in the times of Veil's youth. Neredos had stripped most of the world's technology away long before the descendants of the original Icarians reclaimed their homeland.
"We 'ad some interference. The first two got away," Homar said.
Veil nodded in acceptance. "That's unfortunate. The Dark Mother again?"
"Yes. We nearly 'ad one of their leaders, a man named Kimbler, but 'e evaded us in the end." Homar growled.
"A pity," Veil said, sighing before turning her attention to their prisoner. "Well, tell me about this one."
"'er name is Darya. She's a prostitute, who serves the merchants near the Pillar of Quay," Homar explained. "She 'as no family, and few friends. She is unlikely to be missed except by 'er clients, who would never report her."
"Very good," Veil said, sitting forward at last. "Bring her to me."
Two of the other men hooked Darya under her arms and lifted her upward before dropping her lightly at Veil's feet. One reached forward and removed the black hood from her head.
Darya - a brown-haired woman with startled blue eyes - peered blinking up at Veil. "Why am I here? Wh-who are you?" She asked, recoiling from Veil's presence.
"You have had a difficult life, I understand," Veil said, setting her wine aside and leaning forward. "I'm here to help you."
"Help me?" Darya scoffed. "I don't even know who you are. These men kidnapped me."
"I did not think you would come willingly. You may leave us now, Homar. Clasean will see to your wages," Veil looked up at Homar and waved him back. He bowed and turned, gesturing for his companions to exit the room first. Once they were gone, Veil returned her attention to Darya. "I'm under the impression you have little faith in the government. You've been treated poorly by the people who surround you. The merchants, the Knights . . . even your neighbors look down on you for your profession."
"What do you know of my life? You are obviously a rich woman. You are . . ." Darya stared intently at Veil's face as her eyes finally adjusted fully to the dim light. "You're not even human."
"So, you've seen a Fedain before?" Veil asked. "There's not many of us left."
Darya shook her head. "Not in many years, but I once serviced one. He was a traveling doctor."
"You poor thing," Veil said gently. "You should've never had to resort to such drastic measures for survival."
Darya shook her head, rising to her feet at last to stare defiantly down at Veil. "Maybe I enjoy it."
"You have pride. That's a redeemable quality," Veil said, leaning back on her couch again and analyzing Darya from top to bottom. "I would like you to serve me."
Darya's eyes widened. "You'll pay ten times my rates. I know you can afford it from your appearance."
Veil chuckled and shook her head, rising to her feet and stepping past Darya to fetch the wine bottle from a nearby table. She returned with it and an extra glass, filling both glasses before handing one to Darya. "No, I want to offer you a permanent position. Here, at the Enclave."
"The Enclave . . ." Darya began, reaching for the glass but stopping short as recognition dawned on her. "You're the Oracle!"
Veil raised the glass in toast and said, "That's right."
Darya fell to her knees. "My Lady, I'm so sorry for my disrespect. Everyone speaks well of you, that you're a person of great virtue, worthy of our love and devotion."
"Do they?" Veil asked with a smile that never reached her eyes. "I hope I live up to that distinction."
"What would you ask of me?" Darya said.
Veil knelt in front of Darya, placing a hand against her cheek. "Do you wish to serve me? You will live here for the rest of your days, surrounded by this beauty and wealth. You'll never have to worry about your clients again."
"I would be honored," Darya said, dropping her eyes. "But why me? I am unclean."
"You are ill. I can sense several diseases in you," Veil said. "May I release you from those burdens?"
Darya pulled away. "I am unworthy of your touch."
"No, I believe those such as you are worthier than anyone of the release I offer," Veil said. "May I?"
Permission came in the form of a single nod, and Veil placed her hand against Darya's face again. She delved deep into Darya's body. The venereal diseases she suffered from could be healed in a second with Veil's understanding, but that was not Veil's purpose here.
Nearly eight centuries earlier, she'd traveled paths Fedain doctors had just begun to explore before the collapse of society. Veil understood more about the brain - in particular the human brain - than any Fedain in recorded history. Neredos suffered from a rare, degenerative condition, and had confided in Veil long ago on their way to closing the Demon Gate.
Veil had studied him, trying to figure out how to heal it, but she hadn't figured it out until after the demons were sealed inside the Pillars of Pentalus. By then it was too late. Anything that affected Neredos was immediately negated by the life force of the demons feeding him. They restored him to his baseline, the condition he was in when he originally sealed them.
Neredos was crazy, and there was nothing Veil could do. Not sleeping for eight centuries had worsened Neredos' condition, wearing on his mind in ways few could ever understand. No dreams to break up the monotony of immortality. No dreams to remind Neredos of what was important.
Veil's duty was singular - survive, and act as a check on Neredos' madness. To do so, she used her gift of healing for evil. She'd become the thing she hated most. Darya would only be the latest in a long list of sacrifices. She reached into Darya's brain and damaged it subtly, targeting specific areas that would make Darya more susceptible to suggestion.
Veil finished, healing the venereal diseases and asking, "Does that feel better?"
"I've never felt more alive," Darya said in wonder. "Thank you."
"It is my duty to serve the people. This is why I have persisted for so long, to serve the Immortal King and his cause," Veil said. "Do you wish to serve this cause as well?" She needed to hear Darya voice her willingness. Veil could steal what she needed, and knew she was basically stealing it anyway, but hearing their voices made it easier.
"If it would please you, Oracle," Darya said.
"It would," Veil lied. "Nothing would please me more."
Darya prostrated herself before Veil. "I would live my entire life in your service."
"Yes, you will. Short as it will be," Veil said, her smile fading completely, her eyes darkening. Is this how Grim felt when he killed? "But I will take care of you in your old age. I need your youth, to continue to serve the people."
"I understand, Oracle," Darya said. "My body is yours to use."
Veil placed her hand against Darya's head again and delved into every cell in Darya's body. She took a single deep breath before draining all but a tiny percentage of the lifeforce from her. Not enough to kill her, but the effect left Darya looking old and decrepit. Cells now sick with lack of energy on display, a testament to Veil's guilt for those who knew.
And no one knew, save Fasha, Grim, Clasean, and Tau Breen Godani, and those they'd chosen to tell. Veil's final act inside Darya's body was to remove the memory of this unfortunate incident. Darya would think she'd spent her life as a prostitute until entering Veil's service as an old woman. Veil had tried to leave those memories intact before, and this was far more merciful.
Mercy. Did she even understand that word anymore? She released her grip on Darya and stared down at her, fresh tears forming. Veil would never be worthy of such mercy herself, and she would die wondering at the monster she'd become.
A knock at the door sobered Veil immediately. She wiped the tears from her cheeks and composed her expression. The extra lifeforce flooding through her now would serve to keep age at bay, repairing her cells with the same precision she'd used to take it. But it could also serve other purposes. With an almost insignificant amount of lifeforce, she redirected the flow in her lachrymal glands, stopping the tears and reducing the redness immediately.
"Come in!" Veil said.
"Oracle, please, forgive the interruption," Clasean said, pointedly avoiding glancing at the elderly Darya. "Lady Alsha Tremlaine is here to see you."
"Very well, I will see her at the pool," Veil said, striding toward Clasean and putting a hand on his shoulder. "Please take Darya to the others and introduce her. Tell them I would like her to be shown her duties."
"Of course, Oracle," Clasean said, bowing, his eyes hard.
Veil turned to go, but then returned to Darya's side and lifted her to her feet. "Go now, daughter. Your service will not be forgotten, even long after you've died." She hugged Darya close and then left, wishing she had the luxury of weeping for the sorrow in her soul.
Veil took the longest route possible to reach the pool room. She needed time to think, and to give Clasean an opportunity to have Alsha directed to the special chamber, but by the time she arrived her mind remained as troubled as ever.
The pool room consisted of a round chamber with two entrances, a raised, round pool set in the center. The water circulated in such a way that the surface shimmered like a multi-facetted mirror, preventing one from seeing inside unless they sat at the water's edge.
Lady Alsha Tremlaine, a commander of the Inquisition of the Knights of the Firmament, stood beside the pool, staring into its depths and wearing a furrowed frown. The sight of her in armor gave Veil pause, a momentary lapse in her strength of will.
Not even a week had passed since Veil's orders had led to the deaths of scores of Knights. Veil would bear their deaths on her shoulders as surely as the women she sacrificed for her own immortality. The woman before her understood the weight of responsibility as well as any, but even she would not forgive Veil's choices.
Veil took another step forward, and Alsha looked up, her frown transforming to a polite smile. "Oracle, please . . . forgive my intrusion."
"It's quite all right," Veil replied. "I am happy to make time for you. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?"
"I'm . . ." Alsha stopped, searching for the right words, "in need of counsel, and I'm afraid I can't go to anyone else. I don't know whom I can trust here anymore."
"What's on your mind?" Veil asked, forcing a smile to her face. Of all the people Alsha should trust, Veil was well aware of her true place on the list. She owed Alsha the truth but would have to settle on deception until the world moved forward once again.
Alsha paced along the side of the pool, hands tucked behind her back though her fingers continued to fidget. "We lost so many soldiers during the battle, in all divisions. Many are still missing, unconfirmed as dead. Those who survived lay in the infirmary, many of whom died despite the doctors' best efforts."
"I served as many as I could before my energy was drained," Veil replied. "I unfortunately could not save any more of them."
Alsha nodded, pausing in her pacing to stare at Veil. "I understand, and please don't misinterpret my worries. I'm grateful for your sacrifice, but the Inquisitors don't seem the least bit concerned about the injured. No one does. No search parties are being formed to look for the rest of the survivors. No one seems to care about anything at all."
"That is disconcerting. Perhaps I will have a word with the Grand Inquisitors?" Veil asked. This could present other opportunities as well, a means of sending Knights into The Shade to help search for the Quay. Veil's smile warmed at the prospect.
"That would be . . ." Alsha bowed low. "I would be grateful, Oracle."
"But that's not all which worries you. You're worried about someone specific?" Veil asked, noticing the worry that still haunted Alsha's eyes.
Alsha sighed. "I've been able to confirm the whereabouts of all but one of my soldiers. You've seen him before. Kirra. Kirra Elrhanadan."
"I'm familiar with him," Veil replied. "Like your own family, the Elrhanadan line was instrumental in the early days of the demon war. He's unaccounted for?"
"Not . . . exactly. Reports indicated that he died against the flying demon. Someone witnessed him slay the cat, but the winged one killed him immediately after," Alsha said.
"But you don't think that's what happened?"
Alsha shook her head. "Our last Knight in the area left Kirra surrounded by Shades, but his body was nowhere to be found."
"I see. And you're wondering why that would be," Veil said. "It's possible he was just mixed in with the others. Some of the Shades' corpses were mixed in with ours, but they could've taken his body with them."
"But I'm not convinced he's even dead."
Veil raised an eyebrow. "Did the witnesses describe his death in detail?"
"Yes. They said the demon tried to eat him and thrashed him with its teeth."
"Then, perhaps your question is wishful thinking." Her smile faltered as she added quietly, "People do not live forever."
"Except for you and King Neredos," Alsha replied.
Veil's body tensed, but she forced a calm reply, "Yes. Except for us. But King Neredos gives me a small portion of his essence to sustain me, and he lives off the essence of the demons trapped within the pillars. Both of our continued existences are explainable, though how a man would survive such an injury without immediate medical interference . . ." she trailed off and let Alsha draw her own conclusions.
"Maybe you're right," Alsha said, sighing again, "and maybe I just want to believe he's alive because I don't want my current mission to become one of vengeance. I've seen vengeance tear apart so many people in my life. My husband died shortly after our marriage, hunting the man who killed his mother."
"I'd not known that bit of your history. I'm sorry for your loss," Veil said, walking to Alsha and placing a consoling hand on her shoulder. "What is your current mission?"
"The demon was sighted near Port Salmus," Alsha said. "My squadron was assigned to dispatch it."
Veil raised an eyebrow. "Just one squadron?"
"Yes." Alsha's eyes widened as she recalled recent memories. "There aren't enough eagles left to spare. Many died during the battle, so we're forced to keep our numbers low."
This was somewhere Veil could definitely help, and she eagerly shared her knowledge. "Aika demons are tricky, though the most difficult part has already been addressed. When both halves of a pair are alive, they are far more dangerous. Though we can't know for sure, it seemed as if each pair had a telepathic link that allowed them to see through each other's eyes. If the cat is already dead, then it won't have that extra sense. It will be vulnerable to stealth attacks now, and it is particularly weak on its underbelly."
"Thank you, Oracle, for your knowledge. Those of us who live here in the Everbright City tend to forget that you fought the demons yourself all those centuries ago. So much attention is drawn to Neredos, your own efforts are sometimes overlooked," Alsha said, bowing humbly. "I will never make that mistake again."
"I killed very few demons myself, Lady Alsha. My duty was to heal all the warriors who fought the demons in my stead. However, as they lay dying, I learned a great deal about how to fight them." Veil patted Alsha's arm and added, "Watch out for the quills. As deadly and vicious as the claws and tail may be, if you're struck by a single quill, the fight is likely over. The quills generate a charge as they travel through the air, and even if they don't pierce anything vital, they'll stun you long enough that the Aika can get you."
"I appreciate the advice," Alsha replied. "Though that does little to help me with my other issue. What am I supposed to do for Kirra?"
Veil nodded, turning away to stare into the pool. It was several long seconds before she replied again. "As you said before, you don't know if he's alive or dead, and so there's no sense in being lost in vengeance. Not until you know for sure, anyway. Perhaps, before you leave the city, you could set some of the clerks down in Pentalus to inquiring after Kirra's whereabouts? That way, as you hunt down the demon, you will be able to rest assured that someone is trying to find him."
"Once again, I am in awe of your wisdom," Alsha replied. "Oracle . . . Sometimes, you can predict the future, can't you?"
"Yes, though it is not always a simple matter, and I'm usually better with individual predictions than global ones," Veil said.
"Do you think we'll win?" Alsha asked. "Will we slay the demon? Will the world be at peace again?"
"Those are three separate questions," Veil observed. "Winning is a matter of perspective. I believe the demon will be slain by your determination, but I do not know the cost to you. As for the peace of the world, I'm afraid we have a long way to go before that happens."
Alsha smiled, despite the gravity of Veil's third declaration. "I understand. Thank you for your time."
"The next time you're in The Everbright City, come and see me, will you?" Veil asked. "It's good to have your company."
Alsha bowed low once more and said, "Of course, Oracle." As she straightened, she turned on her heel and walked from the room. Veil silently urged her on to greatness and willed for her to survive. She recognized much of her former self in Alsha Tremlaine and hoped she would be spared the despair of regret.
"Clasean," Veil said, knowing the captain of her guards would be standing within earshot.
Clasean stepped from a door hidden in the wall, imperceptible to those inside the pool chamber. "Yes?"
"Have the women prepare a bath for me," Veil replied. "I need to cleanse myself after such an unsettling day."
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