Despite everything happening around him, Kirra drifted off to sleep. The pain had finally taken him, driving him into much-needed rest. Or, at least, it was an attempt at rest. Styx's comforting touch at his side wasn't enough to ward against the forces waging inside his mind.
His dreams were filled with a thousand haunting images. It started with the blast, the horrible explosion that had sent him careening from the rooftop to the edge of the abyss. He'd crawl off the rock, his body aching, time and time again, only to find himself back on the rooftop, standing, watching the Everbright City explode.
It took him a dozen repeats before he realized that not all the details were the same each time he returned to the rooftop. The pillars of fog throughout Pentalus were disappearing and leaving pillars of darkness in their wake. He stopped struggling whenever the explosion hit him, focusing instead on the changing pillars, wondering what it meant.
There were forms in the darkness. Some he recognized as demons he had witnessed before, and some were unfamiliar. All were grotesque and fearsome; all filled him with dread. Then the explosion struck again, and he again landed on the slab of rock.
This time though, he didn't struggle off it as it fell into the darkness. The abyss of The Shade swallowed him as he fell, the enveloping shadows a comforting escape from the demons he felt surrounding him.
He awoke to find Styx's concerned face staring down at him. "What's wrong?" he asked groggily.
"You lost consciousness," Styx said. "I was worried about you."
"How long was I out?" Kirra asked. "Did you try to wake me?"
"No, but your breathing was becoming ragged and I was about to," Styx said. "You were only out for a few minutes, but . . ." he sighed in relief. "I'm just glad you're back."
Kirra nodded as best he could and shifted his position. "I'm all right. How is Alsha?"
Styx hesitated, his eyes showing the still dissatisfied worry, but he answered Kirra's question all the same. "She'll be fine. She's unconscious, and a little worse off than you, but she was coming to as I brought her here."
"That's good. Thank you," Kirra said, "for rescuing her, I mean."
"I flew over Ibrix Plaza on my way here. I spotted a few bodies, most of them were dead, but I saw her before I moved on. She was half-buried in the rubble, and I'm a little surprised she's alive," Styx said.
A chuckle from Kirra's side drew their attention to Fenri, who met Styx's eyes with a wry grin as he said, "Styx, if I'd known you were going to save Alsha's life, I might've been nicer to you when we found you on that rooftop."
"No hard feelings," Styx said, reaching across Kirra's body to offer Fenri a hand. Fenri took it and shook as Styx went on, "It's Fenri, right?"
"That's right," Fenri replied warmly. "I suppose I'm currently Alsha's second, though who knows now. How many Knights of the Firmament are left right now? Do we even have an Order?"
"I don't know. There was a lot of fighting in the Everbright City when I went to its heart with Neredos," Styx said. "I don't even know who was winning."
Kirra and Fenri shared a blank look before turning back to Styx. "Its heart?" Kirra asked.
Styx nodded and said, "There's a strange door under the command center—"
"You've been through the door!?" the two Knights replied in unison.
"Yeah, it leads to the control room for the Everbright City," Styx replied, and with a bewildered stare, "Didn't you know about it?"
"I knew about the door, but no one has ever gotten through it. How did you?" Fenri asked.
"I wish I could boast my reputation as a thief, but, as I already said, Neredos took me in there," Styx replied with a grin.
"Why would he do that?" Kirra asked.
Styx felt an urge to reach for a dagger that was no longer at his side. Deciding it was better not to give the real reason he'd gone to Neredos, he left out the part about murderous intent. "Because Veil sent me there, and he thought it would be easier to keep me safe that way."
Kirra and Fenri shared another look of wonder before the latter asked, "What was it like in there?"
Styx grinned, glad that they didn't ask about Veil, and gave a detailed description of the door opening, and the passage that took them to the control room. He described everything about the room down to the transparent floor, though he kept his details vague when it came to Neredos saving his life.
Kirra and Fenri listened with rapt attention until Styx spoke of Neredos' instructions to leave and get people out of the city. Kirra shook his head in stunned silence, but Fenri whistled to break the mood. "I can't believe a Shade made it behind the door before any of us did," he said with a chuckle.
"He's the only one to make it back there besides Neredos," Kirra said. "How lucky is that?"
"That's true enough," Fenri said. He rose to his feet then and nodded to both Kirra and Styx. "I'm going to go check on Alsha. You want me to say anything to her if she's awake?"
"Just let her know who is safe and who isn't," Kirra said weakly. "I'll speak to her when I can."
Styx sat up as Fenri left and placed a gentle hand on Kirra's shoulder. "I'm going to go ask where we're at with the evacuation."
Kirra caught Styx's arm and said, "Please, stay a little longer?"
Styx met Kirra's eyes and laid back down, snuggling up to Kirra's side. "Okay," he whispered tiredly. "Whatever you need."
"Do you know if . . ." Kirra started, his hesitation making Styx lift his head to make sure Kirra was okay. With a slight tremble in his voice, Kirra continued. "Grembal made it out of the city?"
"I have no idea," Styx replied. "A lot of people were evacuated ahead of time, but I'm sure there were plenty more still in the city."
"I hope he didn't," Kirra said after a moment.
Styx kissed Kirra's cheek then said, "Me too."
Kirra sighed, then lifted his hand to Styx's hair, slowly running his fingers through it. "I'm not sure I'll ever be satisfied until I know he's dead."
"What does that mean?" Styx said with concern. He stared at Kirra's face from the side, searching his expression as best he could. Grembal's sins against Kirra had formed a wall that kept the young man from intimacy, and Styx worried if the wall would ever come down.
"Oh . . . less than you think," Kirra said with a contented sigh, glancing Styx's way. His fingers continued to gently caress Styx's scalp. "I've been through a lot in the short time we've been apart, and I think I have a better perspective on what I'm afraid of."
"What are you afraid of?" Styx asked.
Kirra sighed, closing his eyes. His fingers froze in place, and his breathing became ragged for just a moment before he finally answered, "That you'll make me feel as used as he did."
Styx bit his lip and asked, "Have I ever given you reason for that?"
"No. But that doesn't stop the fear," Kirra replied. "We are prisoners to the lives we've lived. But I don't want to be anymore. And, most of the time, I feel freer with you than I've ever felt before. I'm ready to leave my chains behind, with you at least."
Kirra blushed as his body responded to the emotions coursing through him. Even through all the pain, lust and love for the boy at his side could still get him hard. He soon felt something poking him in the leg and glanced down at Styx. With an embarrassed chuckle, Styx adjusted himself and said, "I think we'll probably have to wait until you're healed, but that sounds lovely."
"How come you're naked?" Kirra asked.
"Why didn't you ask that before?" Styx asked with a laugh.
"I planned to, but I forgot," Kirra said, then glanced down again. "Until a certain reminder, anyway."
Styx kissed Kirra's cheek again and replied, "I can't transform inside my clothing."
"Transform?" Kirra asked.
"Do you want to see?" Styx asked. "Ever since the first time, I can't get enough of it, so I'd be happy to show you."
Kirra stifled hid urge to nod emphatically. "Oh yes. Definitely."
Styx rose from the cot and took a few steps back. His body tensed, though his expression showed nothing but focus. Kirra's pulse quickened as the transformation began, first out of concern and then out of pure fascination. Styx's limbs and torso slimmed down, and his height decreased as large feathery wings emerged from his back, growing and expanding as Styx arched his back, his face frozen in painful ecstasy.
Every muscle in Styx's body seemed taut, his toned stomach and chest showing every contour. Kirra traced them all with his eyes, letting them pull his gaze downward, where Styx's erection stood proudly. Kirra's eyes lingered there for just a moment before he looked up again, taking in the entire image of the winged human before him.
"How could you possibly get more attractive?" He said, then paused for breath. "I didn't think it could happen, but I stand corrected."
"You like my wings then?" Styx asked, turning to give Kirra a backside view.
Kirra coughed at the sight of Styx's tight ass and said, "You're shorter like that too."
"Must be the way my body redistributes itself," Styx said with a shrug, then approached Kirra, completely unashamed of his nakedness. Kirra's penis throbbed in time to Styx's steps, calling for release. It made his broken bones hurt, but the urge to make love to Styx remained as he said seductively, "You like shorter men?"
"Only a little," Kirra replied, hoping the pun might defuse the situation. "But I like you either way," he went on with a grin. Before he could even process the words, he added, "I love you."
Styx crouched down and took Kirra's face in his hands, kissing him deeply. "I love you too," he said quietly, putting his forehead against Kirra's and sighing deeply.
Kirra placed his hand against Styx's cheek and said, "I hope we're able to get out of this alive, because there is a lot I want to do to you, Shade."
"Likewise, Knight," Styx murmured.
Kirra chuckled. "I'm not one of those anymore."
"You still are to me," Styx replied. "You came to my rescue more than once."
"I suppose that's true," Kirra said. "Though I seem to remember you leading me from darkness more than once yourself."
Styx kissed Kirra again. "We're going to make it through this. We'll survive and make the world better as we do it."
Kirra's eyes moistened at the thought, and he was about to respond in similar sentiment when Fenri arrived back at their sides and said, "Hey, lovers, it's time to move. Alsha's doing well, by the way, if you're not too distracted to care." He grinned to show he was only teasing, and Kirra returned the expression.
"Great news!" he replied as enthusiastically as the pain would allow, then added more dryly, "I'm excited to be on that stretcher again."
Shouting from the doorway drew their attention. Nante and Madame Godani were already moving in that direction, pensive looks on their faces. Kirra sensed a shift in Styx's mood and regarded him with concern.
"Hold on," Styx said, resting a hand on Kirra's shoulder, "I want to see what's happening outside. I'll be right back."
"Styx," Kirra said, "You might want to get dressed first. At least somewhat."
"Good point," Styx said, searching around for something to cover himself with. He found a blanket and then sighed as he tried to find a way to wrap it around his wings. With an annoyed groan he began his transformation back to his normal self.
Once fully human again, Styx wrapped the blanket tight around him and smiled reassuringly at Kirra. "I'll see you soon, okay?"
"You better," Kirra said, waving for Styx to come back to him. He gestured that he wanted to whisper something in Styx's ear and then surprised him with a kiss as soon as his lips were close enough. Styx returned the kiss and left Kirra grinning.
Styx stepped through the doorway of the makeshift infirmary and into the night air. Torches had been lit all around, illuminating the nearby streets. Beyond them the rubble of Pentalus was bathed in starlight, the sun having finally set.
The large remaining piece of the Everbright City loomed over everything, still pulsing with occasional bursts of light. Styx wondered if Neredos was still alive, but then took in the sight of the remaining pillars throughout the city. Still nearly a hundred pillars stood out in the night by Styx's best estimation, though one disappeared as he was watching it, the thin tendrils of mist dissipating into the night air.
But his attention was quickly drawn to the gathering ahead of him. The resistance had formed a half-circle of ragged men and women with makeshift weapons, Nante and Madame Godani at their center. Ahead of them were a group of mounted soldiers, slowing to a halt some distance away.
"What is the meaning of this?" Madame Godani asked, addressing their leader, a man in a blue cloak with a bandage wrapped around his head. "Who are you?"
"I am Lord Hount, and I've come to inform you that the battle of Pentalus is over. We have beaten you," the man replied.
Before Madame Godani could respond, a familiar voice rose up from a different direction. "Is that so? What claim do you have on this city?"
Laris and Nal Maya stepped into the light of the torches, the younger woman leading. As she approached, voices of admiration and hope came from the assembled members of the resistance.
"It's the Dark Mother."
"She's come at last!"
"She'll get us out of this for sure. She'll know what to do."
"And who are you?" Lord Hount asked, turning an unreadable stare on Laris.
"I'm one of the leaders of this group. If you've come looking to subjugate us, you'll find we'll fight just as hard wounded as we do uninjured. You think you have us cornered but you just kicked over an anthill," Laris replied with a glare.
"I see," Lord Hount chuckled. "You still think you can win this day."
"Your reputation makes you out to be an intelligent man, Lord Hount," Laris replied, her eyes flicking to the darkness around them. "I promise you, I have more arrows and bolts trained on you than even your luck could possibly survive, despite what your luck has done for you so far this day."
"So what if you do?" Lord Hount replied, as unnerved as ever. "My armies will continue to function even without me. You will be overrun."
"Why are you still fighting for this city?" Styx asked, stepping forward. He was surprised by the conviction in his own words, and the unwavering tone in his voice. But he was sick of this battle, sick of the destruction he'd already seen, and sick of fools who wanted it to continue.
"Excuse me?" Lord Hount said, turning to Styx with surprise and taking in his blanketed form. He scoffed incredulously and asked, "Who are you?"
"A Shade, with no stake in this fight save to protect my friends," Styx replied, meeting Hount's arrogance with a stern glare. You squabble over rubble. It's time to end this. Hasn't there been enough death this day?"
"Styx . . ." Laris said, eyes narrowing as she turned to face him. "Are you saying we should surrender?"
"I'm saying we should admit that Pentalus is lost," Styx replied. He gestured to the rubble behind him by releasing his grip on the upper part of the blanket and exposing his naked torso. Filled with his current conviction, he hardly noticed as he continued. "They've won, whatever they've won by destroying the place they wished to conquer. But let's end this without further bloodshed. We're moving into The Shade. Let us escape there, and you can have the city," he finished, turning back to Hount. "And you can have your life."
"I have seen enough craziness for today, but a boy in a sheet telling me to withdraw my demands in order to keep my life is certainly one of the strangest of them all," Hount said, amused. He turned a bewildered eye back to Laris. "Do you agree with the terms this boy has suggested? Can we have Pentalus?"
Laris paused, sharing a look with Nal Maya and Madame Godani. The former nodded slightly, and the latter merely shrugged. With a heavy sigh, Laris returned to Hount and nodded. "Only if you allow us to withdraw safely."
Hount's gaze flickered to Styx for a moment. "We will."
"Then you may depart in peace, Lord Hount," Laris said. "May we never cross paths again."
Hount chuckled softly and urged his horse to turn. Before he managed to completely turn the beast, Styx said loudly, "Lord Hount."
Turning a curious eye on Styx, Hount asked, "Yes, strange boy?"
"You might want to move your soldiers away from what's left of the Everbright City," Styx said.
"Why?" Hount asked, his eyes twinkling. "More friends you want to spare, perhaps?"
"I've been told that it could explode at any moment," Styx said. "And my source is reliable."
"I see," Hount replied with a nod. The corner of his mouth turned up in a half-smile. "We'll take your warning to heart."
With that, he turned his horse the rest of the way, putting his back toward his enemies. Laris raised a hand as if to call off unseen archers, and Hount disappeared without anyone stopping him. As soon as he was out of sight, however, all attention turned to Styx.
"Why did you do that?" Laris hissed. "We could have convinced him to camp there and killed him and all his soldiers."
"You would bring more death on this city?" Styx replied. "Haven't enough people suffered from this?"
Laris' eyes narrowed. "I can't believe you're my brother."
"I can't believe you're my sister," Styx replied immediately.
"Quiet, both of you," Nal Maya scolded. "This is no time for squabbling. We need to get these people moving as quickly as possible."
"Nal Maya?" Madame Godani said, touching her sister's arm. "Is it really you? How long as it been?"
"Fau Shae," Nal Maya replied fondly, putting her hand against her sister's face. "It's been a long time."
"Forgive me, sister," Madame Godani said. It was the first time in Styx's life that he had seen his aunt's face show true regret and agony.
"For what?" Nal Maya asked.
Madame Godani hung her head in shame. "I had Veil in my sights and I could not kill her. She was useful to us. Too useful at the time."
"It's all right, my dear," Nal Maya replied, pulling Madame Godani into a hug. "We will get our justice, wherever she has fled. If she even survived the end of Pentalus."
As if in response to Nal Maya's words, a loud boom thundered from the west. All assembled turned in that direction, their voices raised in alarm and panic.
"What was that sound!?"
An explosion of light erupted from the remaining piece of the Everbright City as the last reactor blew. Those watching had to shield their eyes to prevent from being blinded, though their ears soon demanded as much attention as the structure disintegrated in a shower of metal and fire.
Styx opened his eyes a moment later, dread overwhelming all his other senses. "We're too late. That was our last chance to get out of this city alive."
As Neredos killed each demon, his recovery time increased. As much as he wanted to destroy them all quickly, he couldn't afford to risk that the damage dealt to him by his metal prison would finally do enough to kill him with one less demon to feed on.
But he continued through the pain, knowing that he was all that stood in the way of unleashing great evil on the world once more. The same world that was no longer equipped to handle a demon threat. The world he had created. The world his arrogance would destroy.
He killed another demon, a small Ibrix. It disintegrated along with the pillar that had contained it. The metal dug in a little deeper, and he held his breath, waiting for his body to recover. Nearly two minutes between kills now.
"Ghayle, if you're watching this," Neredos whispered through gritted teeth to the night sky above, "I'm sorry I didn't listen."
He wondered if she was still alive. The last time he'd seen her was shortly after sealing the demons away. She'd told him to kill the demons and he'd refused. He'd thought he knew more than an ancient Gor sorceress; than the one revered as god by her people.
He'd once trusted Gor instincts above anything else. They could see the future sometimes and were in tune with the progression of fate. Would they come as they had assembled near Oligan when the demons first invaded? Would they see the signs in the night sky and in their dreams?
"Please, if you are there," he continued, "Let them know. Let them come. It won't be enough. I can't kill them all."
He remembered the signs, the cataclysmic natural disasters the world over, the nightmares. Neredos' people would've been destroyed in days if the Gor hadn't helped him defend them. They had known then; would they know this time?
Tremors moved through the wall beneath him, shaking the metal embedded in his flesh. He hissed at the pain, though he quickly brought all his focus to bear. The tremor could only mean one thing; the reactor was about to explode.
Closing his eyes, he began to kill the demons as rapidly as possible. Two Quay, one Aika, a Nobak, a Goden, and another Ibrix. His blood streamed from his wounds. Each moment he spent focusing on the demons kept his body from fixing itself. Another Goden, two Nobaks, another Quay. His muscles ached with the fatigue, and he slumped down, grinding against the sharp metal. It sliced deeper and deeper into his flesh, cutting into bone. Another Aika. He reached out to an Ibrix, and an explosion sounded from somewhere below him.
"I'm sorry," he said to the emptiness around him.
It would never be enough. As the heat and radiation from the explosion overtook the room, it burst the bulkheads, driving the metal even deeper into him, severing flesh and bone alike. Shrapnel pierced every vital organ, and Neredos' mind lost all sense of his surroundings.
By the time the explosion had run its course, there were no surroundings left for him to sense anyway.
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