Every time a demon died, Neredos felt a tiny bit more mortal. Even though he was still in the process of killing the minor ones, each one fed him to a small extent. The lesser demons were nothing compared to the demon generals, of course, but they all had a connection to life force. They were all magic incarnate.
Over the centuries, his mind had often wandered down inquisitive paths. He had been at the demon gate, had helped close it to prevent more of the horrible creatures from spilling out into the world, but he had never been satisfied with the answers they had found there. They had never learned who had opened the gate in the first place. They had never learned why the demons had come.
As he felt the demons slipping away from his consciousness, Neredos felt a pang of disappointment. He had hoped answers would become clear to him over the centuries, that somehow, through connecting with their energies, he would be able to understand it all. But his genius had not allowed him the perspective he needed. He would end it all without ever knowing what it all was worth.
But at least he would be able to sleep again. At least he would be able to dream. It had been too long since he had had any hope in the world to come. He had resisted the inevitable and tried to stem the flow of time. He had done nothing, and in doing nothing the world had suffered.
He glanced at the prison of fog containing Styx. That boy deserved better than he got, as all the boys in all the world did. They deserved to live in a world that moved forward, instead of remaining stuck. They deserved a chance to grow and learn, without the shadow of the past looming over them, threatening to keep them in the darkness of ignorance.
A quick look at the floor told him that he was still over Pentalus, though the Everbright City had already moved a considerable distance from its original position. The center of the city was now passing over the Plaza of Ibrix, and he momentarily lost his focus on the pillars as he witnessed what was happening there.
A golem! Of all the ancient wonders he had ever read about, this was one he had never expected to see, though its composition was unmistakable. He saw it move into the center of the Plaza, and a group of horsemen rode to meet it. As the beam of light erupted from the golem's face, Neredos watched in horror. The horsemen didn't have a chance, their lives snuffed out in an instant by the awesome power of the terrible giant being.
"What great evils this world has awakened," Neredos muttered in shock. "How did this thing come to be here? Is this also the result of my folly?"
The riders retreated, but they had already lost so many of their number. They would lose more before they ever had a chance of destroying a golem. They would all die, unless Neredos himself fought the golem for them. He had to go to them, had to save them from—
No, he could not. He could not charge to the front lines and do all the work for his people. The fate of the world did not rest on his shoulders alone, a fact he had too often forgotten over the course of his long life. Eventually, the people below would figure out a way to defeat the golem. During the Demon War, many had risen to the challenge. Many had died, but more were there to take their place.
Death was the way of the world. Death was change, and change was necessary. Life consumed death to survive. Life consumed life to survive. There was no other way to grow.
Neredos had work to do. Ignoring the fight below, he killed another demon.
Maxthane vomited on the cobblestones, his ears still ringing from the screams of the dead. The bracer on his wrist weighed as heavy as a boulder now, bringing him low and making him wish he could sink into the stones and disappear. Oh how he hated what he had done.
He had never wanted to kill, though he had already done so in the past. This was different. Killing itself seemed unnatural, but this was an abomination. To slay his enemies as easily as that, killing so many in an instant . . . He may never be able to learn all their names, that was as much a tragedy as anything else.
Grim had once told him that he needed to know his enemy as well as he could before killing him. Any man killed deserved to be remembered by the killer, for the killer had to take responsibility over that life ended. It was the only way.
"Are you all right, Maxthane?" Kirra asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. The Knight had stayed to watch Maxthane's back near the front of the line of Elroks and city guards. He'd rejected an offer to join the Knights in the sky, and Maxthane was in a vulnerable position with his need for a view of the battlefield.
Maxthane wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and straightened back to his full height. He stared out at the golem, and the burned bodies of horse and soldier. "No, I'm not, but we have to see this through. Does it look to you like they're regrouping or retreating?"
"Retreating," Kirra said quietly. "I don't think they'll want to face the golem again any time soon."
Maxthane nodded, feeling the urge to vomit again. He had nothing left in his stomach, however, and knew retching wouldn't do any good. "Maybe I should send it after them? To chase them all the way back out of Pentalus."
Kirra placed a hand on Maxthane's shoulder. "I don't think we need to worry about that. Now that they know our strength, they might be more willing to talk. I wouldn't be surprised if Alsha raises the flag of truce in a moment."
"Do you really think that'll happen?" Maxthane asked hopefully. He put a finger in the cuff of the bracelet. Sweat had made the device start to chafe, and he wanted to tear it off his forearm and throw it as far away as possible. "Do you think we can end this now?"
Kirra shrugged. "It's difficult to know for certain. I don't think any of us correctly estimated the power of your golem. If it can do that repeatedly, then they won't be able to reach us."
Maxthane shuddered. "I don't want to do that again. Ever."
"I understand," Kirra replied. "If you want, I'm willing to take control from you. You won't have to do it again."
Maxthane glanced at Kirra's eyes in surprise. He had detected no eagerness or desire for killing in Kirra's voice, and his eyes confirmed the absence of both. There was only willingness and determination in his gaze. Gone was the unconfident youth who questioned every decision he was making. Kirra knew what needed to be done, and he would do it.
And if he could, then Maxthane could as well. Neither boy had to like killing to do it when necessary. He stood tall and focused on the golem. Stand your ground and keep anyone from reaching our position. The golem assumed a readied stance, arms poised to strike like giant clubs at anything that moved toward it.
"I'll be okay, but thank you," Maxthane replied with as much dignity as he could muster. "I chose to bring this weapon here, and it is my responsibility to bear the burden of it. Just keep watching my back."
To Maxthane's surprise, Kirra smiled at his words. "You know," he said, "I was so jealous of you when I first learned about you and Styx. You'd known Styx for only a short time, but you'd impressed on him enough to keep Styx from being willing to explore things with me. I wondered what kind of a man you were to win him over so easily."
"You were jealous of me?" Maxthane asked, laughing despite his current situation. "You got to spend all your time with him since the first time we all met in Pentalus. I've been too busy, no matter how much I wanted to join you both, and I assumed by the time I had an opportunity to be with him I'd have lost him."
"Interesting . . ." Kirra said, chuckling softly. "I think he really does care for us both, like he says. But I can definitely see why he likes you. You're determined, and you have conviction. I was taught that Shades were the most morally depraved people in the world, but you . . . you have integrity, Max."
Maxthane snorted. "I don't know about that," he said, looking away. "I feel like I've messed up everything. All I'm trying to do is keep my people safe, but I feel like I can never live up to my father. Say what you will about him, but he kept my people alive."
"That's why you're here, isn't it?" Kirra asked. "To fight for them?"
"But nothing. You are doing everything you can, and that's all that can be asked of you. You imprisoned Fasha, a threat to your kingdom. You kept the grimoire out of their hands to prevent his release," Kirra said with a soft smile. "Just because things haven't worked out yet doesn't mean you're doing the wrong thing."
"But why am I here?" Maxthane asked. "Why am I fighting for Pentalus?"
"Because it's the right thing to do," said Veil from behind them. She approached and stepped in front of Maxthane, her presence alone was enough to bid him to look her in the eye. "Because that's what a king has to do, even if he has to make those decisions alone."
"Lady Veil," Kirra said with a bow. "I haven't had a chance to properly greet you."
"Do not call me Lady anymore, Knight," Veil said gently. "I'm not deserving of that title any longer, and soon I will make that known to all."
Maxthane and Kirra shared a puzzled look at this untimely confession. Though Maxthane wanted to ask for clarification, it was Kirra who spoke first. "Have you abandoned hope for the Everbright City, Oracle?"
"Oracle . . ." Veil chuckled dryly. "There's another title I don't deserve. I would have never predicted this outcome." She gazed across the Plaza to the dead and dying. Her eyes lingered a moment on the cavernous opening leading to The Shade. "We are watching layers of history unfold before our eyes. Eight centuries have led to a single day, and my own mistakes may undo us all now."
"You mean the rebellion?" Maxthane asked. "Are you responsible for the people coming against us now?"
"No," Veil replied. "That happened independently of me. I assume that is simply the result of our mismanagement of events. You, as a Shade, have accepted that Neredos' rule was imperfect your entire life. But, as I'm sure Kirra knows, not everyone views it the same way."
"I was raised on the belief that the Everbright City was the seat of all order in the world. King Neredos rules absolutely, and the Knights of the Firmament were the protectors of all that was good," Kirra said with a grimace. "But I knew when I first started investigating the disappearance of one of the pillars with Alsha that not everyone thought the same way. There's a peasant rebellion here in Pentalus, a group of people resisting the social order. Do you think they're connected with this army?"
"Are you sure this is what we should be talking about right now?" Maxthane asked, returning his attention to the Plaza. "Shouldn't we be focused on the battle?"
"At the moment there isn't a battle," Kirra said with a shrug. "We have to wait and see what the enemy commander decides, if he's even still alive."
Veil nodded, looking at the retreating line of horsemen. "Someone did signal their retreat. You heard the horn. Unless we had a spooked soldier sound the horn, they must have reestablished command to some extent. I'd say we wait until they do something or Alsha gives us new direction."
After seeing that Maxthane didn't intend to protest, Veil turned to Kirra and asked, "So, you were saying that you think the Pentalus rebels are connected to this army?"
"I wouldn't be surprised," Kirra replied. "They have a common enemy, after all. The Knights, and those loyal to the King. Maybe we should be watching our flank a bit better now that you mention it . . ." he glanced behind them, eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"I don't think we have time for that, look!" Maxthane said, pointing skyward. A trio of Knights were flying over the Plaza toward the enemy lines, Alsha flying just behind her two companions. "Maybe we'll get a chance to parlay after all?"
"Hopefully that means this conflict is over," Veil said. Her mouth tightened as her eyes focused on some distant object Maxthane couldn't determine. "And then we can move on to more important matters."
The enemy waved a white flag to greet Alsha's procession, and Alsha breathed a sigh of relief as her eagles neared their position. One of her forward guards carried a white streamer dangling from his saddle to announce their intention to parlay, hoping the enemy would welcome them. At least now she could approach without as much wariness.
She spared a glance for the battlefield below her and reconsidered her position. She wasn't sure what to make of the soldiers who had come against the golem. Not a single soldier or horse was in one piece. Alsha shuddered at the thought of having that powerful enemy turned against her. At least it was on her side.
Resisting the urge to keep the golem in her sights, she directed her escort to land at the edge of the Plaza, a hundred paces from the enemy. Dismounted, she approached the line of cavalry reassembled on the Southern road. Her eyes searched for some sign of their commander but couldn't spot him through his soldiers. The banner had been raised again, however, and the bannerman appeared to be speaking to someone near his position.
"I am Lady Alsha, Inquisitor of the Knights of the Firmament and commander of the forces on the other side of the Plaza," Alsha announced, meeting the eyes of every enemy soldier as she swept her gaze over them. She hadn't been in conflict many times over the years, but a seasoned Inquisitor had once told her that 'if you want to break enemy moral through the strength of your will, the enemy has to see the fire in your eyes'. "If you wish to resolve our conflict without further bloodshed, I would speak with your commander."
The horsemen parted after a moment, and the man with silver on his cloak stepped through. He regarded Alsha for a moment before announcing, "I am Lord Hount, of Judar Province. Let us speak face to face, without our guards."
"Very well," Alsha called back.
She released her hold on her eagle's reins, then nodded to her escort as she approached Lord Hount's position. As soon as she started moving, Lord Hount parted from his cavalrymen and moved to meet her at the midway point between their two forces.
Both slowed and stopped at ten paces, not once taking their eyes off each other's face. Alsha saw the presence in Hount's eyes and resisted the urge to rest her hand on the hilt of her sword. This was no fool standing before her, and she would not underestimate him.
"So . . ." Hount said after a moment, "you're the one controlling that . . ." his eyes flickered briefly to the golem, "thing. You would use a demon against us? And you call yourselves Knights." His lips tightened, and his eyes narrowed slightly as he said the last.
"That thing is standing in your way quite effectively, and it is no demon," Alsha replied with a tight smile. "I will not hesitate to use its powers against you again, should you feel the need to continue this unprovoked assault."
"Unprovoked . . ." Hount mused with a mirthless chuckle. "As if eight centuries of oppressive policies shouldn't be considered enough provocation for rebellion."
Alsha's smile widened, though her eyes grew as fierce as ever. "You wear your convictions on your sleeve, Lord Hount. I consider that an admirable quality for a politician."
"A politician, am I?" Hount said, raising an eyebrow. "Politicians rarely ride out with their troops. Why would you malign my reputation so?"
Alsha resisted the urge to attack his character further and changed tactics. Hount was obviously willing to talk about his motivations, and any information she could get might help her cause. "What exactly do you intend to do next? Keep us contained in Pentalus until you figure out a way to defeat us?"
"You could surrender instead," Hount replied with a casual shrug.
Maybe he's not as willing to give up information as I'd hoped, Alsha thought as she forged ahead with the only weakness she saw in Hount's position. "I'm pretty certain with our weapon, we could punch through and escape, killing your entire army in the process. I would think you'd want to avoid that."
"And where would you go?" Hount replied. "Do you really think that, with the Everbright City fallen and Pentalus contained, there will be anyone still loyal to Neredos? What has he done in recent years to ensure their loyalty? Are you as blind as he is? I would not think so."
"You have already killed hundreds of the Pentalus City Watch by seizing the garrisons. Are your intentions really so pure? Will you be razing the city now?" Alsha countered.
"We'll fight until there's no more resistance," Hount said, shrugging again. "As I said, however, you could still surrender."
Alsha barely hesitated at all before replying, "And we could still fight."
"A dilemma for you to figure out, Lady Alsha," Hount said, his eyes blazing. "For now, it seems we have a stalemate. You could try to punch through and risk the lives of all your soldiers, or you can surrender."
"Consider my position, Lord Hount. What assurances have you made that my people will be safe if we surrender? You have suggested an option but no terms. Do you really expect me to throw my people at your mercy in such a situation?" Alsha asked.
"Your people will not be harmed, but all of your officers will be executed, of course," Hount replied. "Starting with you."
"You're a fool, Lord Hount," Alsha replied with a disgusted snort. "I may be willing to sacrifice my own life for theirs, but I would not make that choice for my officers. You brought a war to my home, and that is inexcusable. If, perhaps, you were willing to offer your head on the chopping block, we'll consider letting your troops live on our way out." The last wasn't meant with any seriousness. This parlay had ended, and she couldn't resist a final barb at her opponent.
"Prepare for battle, Lady Alsha," Lord Hount said. "It's a pity we couldn't reach some form of arrangement." He smiled at her, and for a moment his eyes showed regret. He didn't want to kill her. He didn't want to do any of this, but he felt it was necessary.
Alsha could respect that, even if she didn't agree. And when she faced him in battle, she would afford him the respect he deserved. "Indeed," she said, openly showing her disappointment in her tone and expression.
Lord Hount's eyes widened at this vulnerable display, but he said nothing as Alsha turned her back and walked back toward her escort. "Let's go," she said, meeting the eyes of both Knights. They nodded in understanding that the meeting had ended poorly.
Without another word, she urged her mount into the sky. Her mind lingered on the meeting, and she failed to realize how low she was flying. She was driven back to the present by a sharp cry from her escort as the golem's arm swung towards her. "Commander, watch out!"
The Five Illusions watched the exchange between the two commanders from the shelter of an alleyway. Flax, their leader, stood at the front, his eyes locked on the golem in the center of the Plaza. He'd promised Hount that he could take out the strange being, but after further analysis of its structure he doubted his own claims.
He needed to figure out something to appease all the sides he was working for, however. With Fasha gone during Salidar's most recent campaign, there was an opening in the monarchy's power structure. Flax had every intention of becoming the next royal assassin, even if he had to take some bold risks to get there.
"What's the plan, Flax?" Yil asked. He was a tall man with greasy black hair he rarely washed. He smelled like he'd just crawled out of a pile of sewage, but he was also good at his job. He was, unofficially, second in command of the Five Illusions, though the other three assassins at their side would never side with him over Flax.
"We take out that thing," Flax said, pointing at the golem. "Just like I told you when I called you over here."
"Why are we bothering to work with the army at all? They're not Shades, their interests aren't ours," Yil asked.
Repressing the urge to turn up his nose, Flax wrapped his arm around Yil's shoulders and drew him close, grinning like a madman as he said conspiratorially, "Because making allies is good for business, Yil."
"But Maxthane is right there!" Yil insisted, pointing with his spear at the north end of the plaza. "We could end this without having to get involved in their squabble. Just one of us has to get close enough to spike him. We're wasting time."
Flax gritted his teeth but forced a smile. If he had to, he'd offer Yil sex to get him to go along with the plan. Yil couldn't get a woman or a man to take him seriously most of the time, and he was as hungry for sex as most lonely men were. Flax had used the tactic before—in fact, a large part of his control over Yil stemmed from that exact strategy—but he only used it when it was absolutely necessary. The thought of Yil's body turned Flax's stomach every time.
But he wasn't out of ideas yet, and he pointed at one of the buildings overlooking the north road. A Shade crossbowman stood in that window. "Except that Krythe also said we should punish Godani and her guild for their . . . infraction. If you really think the five of us can destroy the Inkblades on our own, then you're deluded."
"He said if we found the opportunity," Yil countered. "We don't need to do it now."
"Lord Hount is the opportunity, Yil," Flax insisted. "His army could destroy the Inkblades for us. Then we can claim the full bounty from Krythe, and an additional reward from Hount for defeating the obstacle in his way."
"You are awfully confident that we'll be able to defeat it," Yil said, eyeing the golem skeptically.
Flax grinned even wider. "We've killed some rather powerful people in the past. Do you really think we'll fail here?"
Yil shook his head and said, "You told us what it did to those soldiers laying out there."
"So we will give it too many targets to focus on," Flax replied with a shrug. "You know what to do." He took in the other three assassins with a glance; two men—Kint and Darrow—and one woman, Varice. They stood a short way back, waiting for their leaders to finish their discussion. All three were no more than thugs before Flax scooped them up with Yil a few years earlier. No matter how dangerous the mission ahead was, they were too scared of Flax and Yil and too eager for payment to resist whatever orders came their way.
Which was why Flax was surprised when Darrow raised a fat finger and pointed into the plaza. "Look, the Knights are heading back," he said.
All five assassins turned their attention to the three Knights as they took to the air. Their leader took point this time, and they flew much lower than before. As they neared the golem, a massive metal arm raised and swung at the lead eagle, attempting to swat it out of the sky.
The eagle and its rider managed to evade the attack, but the golem raised its other arm and positioned itself for another swing. Before it could get much farther, however, Maxthane's voice of alarm rose over everything. "Stop!" He shouted, pressing something on his arm, his expression frantic.
The golem didn't move an inch more, its body frozen in the exact position of readiness. The Knights quickly regrouped and the three resumed their flight, casting wary glances at the golem until they'd put considerable distance between them.
"What do you know . . ." Flax said, his eyes sparkling with eagerness, "the thing listens to our wayward princeling."
"Then maybe we should just kill the prince," Yil said derisively.
Flax sighed. "I'll take care of the prince, you keep that thing occupied."
"Give us the dangerous mission?" Yil said. "You have a lot of nerve."
"Just keep it busy, and I'll keep it from killing you. All you have to do is look like you're fighting it long enough for me to finish this," Flax replied. He wasn't about to give Yil another chance to argue, either. Without another word, Flax activated the tattoo on his neck of a Steelcutter beetle.
His arms reshaped into large, viciously sharp pincers-like appendages, and his skin hardened like chiton. He dove at the cobblestones, his arms leading. The strength of his pincers broke through the stone like a miner's pick with the strength of a dozen Elroks behind it. He pierced the stone completely and entered the hard ground beneath, pincers working furiously to dig a tunnel.
"Damn you, Flax!" Yil cursed as Flax swam through the dirt like it was water. By the time the words dissipated, Flax was too far away to hear anything else, but he knew they would get the job done. As far as the other three Illusions were concerned, Flax had won the debate.
He always did.
"You saved her . . ." Kirra said, watching Alsha's flight but putting an appreciative hand on Maxthane's bare shoulder, "thank you."
Maxthane shook his head in dismay, his eyes locked on the golem. It didn't appear to be moving anymore, but that didn't mean it couldn't still surprise him. "I didn't even think about it," Maxthane said. "The last orders I gave it were to keep anyone from approaching our position. I suppose it doesn't know the difference between ally and enemy."
"Alsha probably nearly had a heart attack when it swung at her," Kirra said.
"But she's all right now, that's what matters," Veil offered. "And I'll make sure she's fine when she makes it back."
"She made it back onto her eagle at least," Kirra said. "That's worth . . . who are those people?" He pointed to the east, where four people had left an alleyway to rush onto the square toward the golem. Their manner of dress, a hodgepodge of different cuts and styles, suggested an official army.
To anyone but Maxthane, anyway, whose attention immediately swiveled to the group approaching the golem. "What people? Oh no . . . I recognize them. My father would hire them whenever Fasha was already on assignment. They're very dangerous people." He turned his attention briefly to the eagles flying away from the Plaza. "Alsha, get out of there!" He didn't know if she heard him, but he hoped she was far enough away to avoid being caught by the golem. Wanting to avoid the consequences of his last orders, he fixed each of the approaching assassins in his mind as he mentally ordered the golem, Kill those four.
"Do they really think they can kill the golem?" Kirra asked.
"We'll see . . ." Maxthane said numbly.
As the four approached, the golem turned to face them, its metal limbs grating as it prepared to deliver a death blow to the one first in line. As it swung down with its massive right arm, the lead assassin seemed to split into two identical copies, and the arm swung against the cobblestones without catching any flesh.
The two copies split again, becoming four, and now seven assassins came against the golem, sharp weapons gleaming in the fast-fading sunlight. The golem swung again, this time cleaving straight through one of the four identical assassins. Its attack passed straight through as if the assassin did not exist.
One of the other assassins, a brutish man with a heavy pick, took a swing at the golem's leg. It punctured the metal and lodged there, and the assassin wasted precious time trying to pull it free. It was all the time Bradeth needed to line him up for a perfect shot to the skull. The assassin collapsed at the golem's feet and was trampled into the cobblestones a moment later.
"Good shot, Bradeth!" Kirra shouted toward the distant rooftop where the two Elrok archers waited with their bows. He doubted she could hear him but hoped she would at least know his sentiment.
The other assassins continued to swarm around the golem's legs, the duplicates of the one all seeming to act independently of each other. Kirra had never seen such an illusion before and he spared a moment for a question. "How do they do that?"
"That is Yil Adabar, I believe," Maxthane replied. "It's not a Spirit tattoo, it's some other Gor trick used by a tribe in the northern woods. The 'Shadowmen' they're called, making shadow copies of themselves to confuse their enemies. Only one of them is real."
Kirra nodded. He'd heard of the 'Shadowmen', but never seen one in action. Of course, this assassin was no Gor, but a human who had simply learned their tricks. He didn't move with the grace of Kirra's kin, but rather with brutish efficiency. One of the four identical beings moved forward, his axe cutting for the golem's ankles.
It struck cobblestone instead, and an instant later an arrow pierced his chest and sent him staggering backwards. Even from this distance, his shock was plain on his face as he clutched at the arrow protruding from him. He searched the rooftops and then collapsed. The duplicates disappeared along with him.
"Good shot, Gobrak!" Kirra shouted, seeing the older Elrok nock another arrow to his bow.
"Guess we don't need to worry so much about the golem. Two down, two to go," Maxthane said as the remaining two assassins glanced around for somewhere to run.
"One to go," said a voice from behind him.
Maxthane turned. "Wha—" he began as a monstrous form appeared, its arms ending in vicious pincer-like claws, though its face was human. Flax. The assassin grinned but wasted no time, reaching forward with his pincers to clamp down hard on Maxthane's arm. Maxthane screamed in agony as flesh and bone tore with ease. "Aiggggghhh!"
"Max!" Kirra said, turning toward Maxthane with alarm, sword in hand.
Flax had already darted away, Maxthane's dismembered arm in his now-normal hand. He deftly wrested the golem-controlling bracer from around its wrist as Kirra approached, then shoved it into his belt.
"Think again, Knight," Flax said, then threw Maxthane's arm directly at Kirra. "Catch you later!" he turned, shifting back into his insectoid form as he ran. Within a second, he was back beneath the cobblestones.
Kirra struggled to catch Maxthane's arm, fumbling in his need to keep it safe from further harm. The assassin was gone, and he'd taken the greatest weapon they had. Maxthane wailed in pain behind him, and Kirra doubted Maxthane would be the last of his friends to make that sound before the day was done.
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