"How did you sleep, Styx? I trust that our beds were not too uncomfortable."
High Inquisitor Kinar Grembal regarded Styx curiously as the young man stirred his bowl of breakfast porridge. The old man's gaze was unsettling to Styx, but he couldn't determine why. Inquisitor Grembal had proven to be an excellent host and had treated him with the utmost respect, but there was something in his gaze that sent a shiver down Styx's spine whenever Grembal looked his way.
"It wasn't what I was used to, but it was certainly soft enough," Styx replied before eating another spoonful of porridge. "I don't know if I've ever slept better," he added after swallowing. "I appreciate your hospitality, Master Grembal."
"I enjoy having unique guests," Grembal remarked with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "It is a rarity for there to be visitors to the Everbright City at all. Foreign dignitaries come from time to time, but they normally stay in the palace with the King." Styx shivered under Grembal's gaze as he added, "I must say this is the first time we've had a Shade visit."
"You're embarrassing him, High Inquisitor," Kirra interrupted with a dangerous edge. "Can't you lay off a bit?"
"Kirra, I have no intention of embarrassing my guests," Grembal replied in an offended tone. He glanced back to Styx and smiled. "I simply find him curious." His smile dropped again when he turned back to Kirra. "Maybe if you would come and visit every once in a while, I wouldn't have to interrogate your friends whenever they come by."
"This is hardly about you and me . . ."
"It always is, and you know it," Grembal replied with a snort. "I took care of you after your parents died, when no one else would. The least you could do is show some gratitude and pay an old man some respect by dropping by every so often."
"I'm sorry," Styx interrupted, growing more uncomfortable by the second, "it appears that I have walked into the middle of something here. Would you mind if I left you two alone?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact I would mind," Grembal replied without hesitation. He turned to Styx and reached out to touch his hand, causing Styx's stomach to knot. "Stay. I'll behave. I won't bring it up again. Can we agree to a truce, Kirra?"
Kirra snorted and looked away, which tightened Grembal's smile. The smile had never touched his eyes anyway, but Styx kept that thought to himself as Grembal turned his attention back to him. "Have you enjoyed your time in the city so far?" He asked, stepping back into the role of the grandfatherly host instead of the unhappy parent.
"I suppose," Styx replied noncommittally before taking another mouthful of porridge. As Grembal continued to look at him expectantly Styx swallowed and explained, "It's a little bright for me. My eyes haven't adjusted yet. I'm sure that will improve with time."
"Yes, I'm sure it will," Grembal agreed. Then, with a slight shrug he added, "Depending on how long you choose to stay, of course."
"That hasn't been decided yet," Styx replied quietly, glancing back at Kirra. The look wasn't lost on either Kirra or the Grembal. It seemed as if Grembal was about to press for an explanation when a servant stepped into the room and bowed deeply to him.
"Excuse me sir," the servant said quickly, without straightening from the bow, "but Lady Alsha Tremlain has arrived. She is asking for Lord Kirra and your honored guest."
"If you'll excuse us," Kirra said before Grembal could reply. He stood and neatly placed his napkin next to his bowl of porridge before going on, "we have another appointment this morning."
"Very well," Grembal replied with a curt nod, "though I hope you will join me again for dinner."
"We'll see if we're available," Kirra answered with a fake smile. Without another word he gestured for Styx to follow him and left the room, not even waiting to see if Styx was coming.
"What was that all about?" Styx asked as he caught up to Kirra. "He seems like a nice enough guy."
"He isn't," Kirra replied sternly. "Trust me. I'll tell you about it later."
Styx pondered Kirra's words as they continued through the halls of the spacious manor. It was the most extravagant home that Styx had ever seen, and it made him wonder if High Inquisitor Grembal had more resources than Salidar.
It also made him curious as to how Kirra had ended up as he had. Being surrounded by riches tended to make a person soft, but that wasn't what he saw in Kirra. Instead, Kirra was a fighter who stood up for himself and those he thought needed protecting. He was a defender of the weak, a true knight in the service of a higher cause.
Which was the opposite of Maxthane, Styx mused. Or was it? Hadn't Maxthane let him go when he could have held him prisoner until he got what he wanted? Maxthane was soft; there was no denying that fact, and surely it was the result of his rich upbringing, but that softness had bred a gentle side in him that was an extreme rarity in The Shade. Maxthane had stood up to his father by freeing Styx, his gentle nature not allowing him to keep caged the boy he loved. Maxthane had proven that he served a higher cause as well.
The thoughts continued to roll about in Styx's head as they reached the entry hall to the manor and found both Prism and Alsha waiting for them. Alsha was tapping her foot impatiently, while Prism was busying himself in admiring the artwork. There was a balance between them that Styx noted as he studied them before he entered the room. Alsha's fidgeting seemed to be rooted in her warrior's heart, while Prism's tranquil demeanor reflected his inner peace. They were like two sides of a coin, but which worked together to form one whole, rather than being at odds with each other.
"Commander. Master Prism," Kirra greeted them with a pleasant smile. "You're both looking very refreshed."
"Kirra, you look terrible," Alsha observed with a raised eyebrow, noting the stress that hid behind Kirra's smile. She turned her eyes to Styx and said, "Styx, you're looking well."
"And he still smells good, too," Prism remarked without turning away from the painting he was examining.
"Would you cut that out?" Styx asked in a huff, drawing a chuckle from the other three. He shared his glare between all three of them before he brought them back to the matter at hand. "All right, so we're off to see the Oracle, correct?"
"That's right," Lady Alsha confirmed with a nod, smiling in response to his glare.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Styx asked impatiently. The others shared a chuckle before they left the manor.
"Have you enjoyed the city so far?" Alsha asked Styx as soon as they were outside.
Styx looked at Kirra and smiled as he remembered their time in the bathhouse together. "Yes, I'd say so. There are fewer restrictions on me here than I thought there would be. I expected them to be kept in a cell, and instead I was treated to a new set of clothes and spent the night in a rich house. I'd say it's been pretty good."
"If you say so," Prism said with a snort. "This is not unlike Ultaka was eight hundred years ago. It looks rich and extravagant, but it's a façade to hide cowards who aren't willing to do what needs to be done." His hands clenched into fists momentarily but then relaxed again as he turned toward Alsha with an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, I've been doing that all morning, haven't I?"
"Well, you're right that there's certainly a problem with the bureaucracy," Alsha said with an understanding grin. "But I wouldn't say they're all cowards. Kirra and I are doing the best that we can, and that has to count for something, right?"
"It does," Styx interjected, before Prism could say anything. He could tell that Prism's stress levels were rising and he didn't want to risk alienating their friends because of something Prism might say. "We appreciate all of the help you've given us. Prism wouldn't be alive if it weren't for you and I probably would have died trying to rescue him."
Prism sighed and turned to regard Styx curiously before adding, "Yes, we are grateful for what you've done. At least someone seems to care, though I would prefer to speak with Neredos; I'm sure he'd do something if he knew what was happening."
"Perhaps you can ask Veil about it when we arrive?" Kirra suggested.
"Maybe," Prism replied noncommittally.
They came upon the Oracle's enclave and Styx stopped in his tracks, stunned by the sight before him. The building stood in stark contrast to the rest of the Everbright City. Whereas the city had been built to show the wealth and power of its inhabitants, the Oracle's enclave was created with nothing but beauty in mind. Columns of purest white marble supported the structure and seemed to catch the sun's rays from every angle, making it seem to glow with a light of its own.
Knights, dressed in gleaming armor of silver and white stood at attention before the entrance. Styx found himself being pulled toward them, looking down in surprise to see Kirra holding his hand firmly as he smiled back at him.
"Come on, it's even more impressive inside," Lady Alsha said as she looked back at the two. Blushing, Styx nodded and allowed himself to be led. Before he knew it, they were striding through the columns, and Styx gasped at the sights that awaited him. Mirrors were set along every wall, reflecting those opposite them a way that made the space seem to extend forever. The illusion continued until they reached a room at the center of the enclave, where they found Lady Veil waiting for them. There were no mirrors in this room, but Styx would have found it difficult to be distracted by such mundane objects when faced with the beauty that stood before him.
His heart skipped a beat as Veil spoke, directing her pleasant smile toward him. "You must be Styx."
"Y-yes," Styx stammered, "er . . . your Oracleness?"
"You may call me 'Lady Veil'," Veil replied smoothly. "There's no need for formal titles." Her smile widened and her eyes sparkled as she added, "I understand that you saved Prism's life."
"I think not, Lady Veil," Styx responded humbly. "Prism told me before he was captured that he could only be healed by a Fedain. I simply passed that knowledge along."
"You were right to do so," Veil praised, "Prism would not be here now if you had said nothing." She beckoned Styx forward as she said, "Come, walk with me. I wish to speak with you in more depth and show my appreciation."
Styx didn't realize he was moving until he was standing directly in front of her and Veil was speaking again, this time to his comrades. "Prism, Alsha Tremlain, I will return to speak to you shortly. If you'll excuse us for a moment."
"Of course, Oracle," Lady Alsha replied with a formal bow, while Prism gave nothing but a short nod. Kirra bowed in deference as well, regardless of the fact that he had not been addressed. Veil accepted their gestures with a shallow nod and then left the room, leaving into a different hallway than the one they had entered from. Styx moved along with her, wondering what she could possibly want of him.
To his surprise, Veil reached down and held his hand, squeezing it gently. Her touch was soft and warm, and he was filled with a sensation of peace until she let go just as suddenly as she had begun. "You've been touched by a Fedain recently," she remarked with a smile, "and not just any Fedain. You know Grim?"
It was a statement more than a question, and when Styx nodded Veil asked, "Are you aware that Grim is my brother?"
"No, I didn't know that," Styx replied. "Neither Grim nor Prism ever said anything about it." With a chuckle he added, "Of course we have been quite distracted over the past few days."
"Grim and I haven't spoken in years," Veil replied wistfully, "but that doesn't really seem like such a long time anymore. It feels like little more than weeks at the moment."
They walked on slowly for a while longer with neither of them speaking. Styx was content to bask in the peace that Veil seemed to radiate, and she was content to let him do so. But the peace did not last forever as Styx's internal struggle began to resurface with thoughts of Maxthane and Kirra.
As he started to fidget Veil reached for his hand again, and her touch once again restored a semblance of peace to his mind. "You have a great many questions you find yourself unable to answer," she remarked as she let go again.
"You can read minds?" Styx asked in surprise. "I wasn't aware that was something the Fedain could do."
"Not exactly, but there are certain things I can learn by sensing the energy of life within you," she explained with another smile. "I can read the way your emotions fluctuate, which allow me to understand much of what is troubling you." With her eyes showing nothing but support she clarified, "In this case, I know that what is troubling you is a matter of your heart."
"You're very perceptive," Styx said with a sigh, looking away, "No sense in denying it I suppose."
"You're torn between two loves, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am," Styx confessed, shaking his head helplessly. "I am drawn to both of them, and though one of them has unintentionally hurt me, I cannot deny my connection to him. I cannot lean toward one without being pulled back by the other."
"And so you are stuck in the middle, unable to choose."
"That's right," Styx confirmed.
"What rule are you abiding by that tells you that you have to choose?" Veil asked; her cryptic question was lost on Styx.
"What do you mean?"
"In Fedain culture, we are not so strict in our relationships," Veil explained with a slight smile. "At times, there will be small groups of us who choose to spend our lives together, rather than as couples."
"Are you suggesting that I could be with both of them?" Styx asked in wonder.
"I'm suggesting that you haven't considered all of your options yet," she clarified. "When you narrow yourself to only two possibilities, you may overlook the best one which lies somewhere in between them."
Styx nodded as he let the thought sink in. Veil was right; he hadn't been looking at every possibility, and with that new perspective he also knew that the answer would come in time. "I hope you'll forgive me for saying this," Styx said with a grin, "but I expected your advice to be much more mystical, and a lot less straightforward."
"Ah, well you already know my secret," Veil replied with a mischievous grin.
"You know that I'm not truly a mystical being," she explained with a pleasant sigh. "I'm simply a very old woman with a great deal of experience. Anyone could pretend to be an oracle if they've lived for as long as I have."
"I'm surprised at how bold you are," Styx replied in astonishment. "Why are you trusting me with that understanding?"
"Everyone has to trust someone, Styx," Veil answered with a subtle shrug. When Styx looked at her incredulously she chuckled and asked, "What, my answer surprises you? Very well, I must admit the truth." Her grin widened as she explained, "I find little risk in telling you. Who would believe you if you said anything? These people would simply think you were trying to discredit me for some blasphemous reason. You'd be thrown off the edge of the city. Though I suppose your hawk tattoo would save you."
"So I'm not actually worthy of your trust then?" Styx replied with a sarcastic smirk.
"I think I know why Prism likes you," Veil replied with a chuckle. "If you keep that attitude, you have the power to change the world, Styx." Her eyes became distant, as if she were pondering an ancient memory, and when she turned back to him again she smiled fondly. "That man could serve to be the perfect mentor for you. He was not unlike you, once."
"Prism? I find that hard to believe."
"Don't sell yourself short," Veil scolded, though there was little sting in her words. "It has taken a great deal of training for him to get to where he is. You can become a great man, too, if you're willing to dedicate yourself."
Before Styx could respond Veil turned at the sound of heavy footsteps behind them. A silver-armored guard rushed toward them, and as soon as he had the Oracle's attention he stopped and shouted, "Oracle, the King is here!"
"Interesting . . ." Veil whispered, her smile fading. "Come, Styx. I'm sure that Prism is about to get himself into trouble."
"I thought they were friends." Styx remarked as they began a quick walk back the way they had come.
"They were," Veil replied with a tight smile, "but King Neredos hasn't liked hugs for centuries."
"Kirra, may I ask you something?"
Prism's sudden question caught Kirra off guard. He had been distracted, thinking about Styx, wondering what the Oracle wanted with his new friend. He composed himself quickly and replied with a polite smile, "Of course, Master Prism. What can I do for you?"
"That sword you carry," Prism said as he nodded toward the curved blade tucked into Kirra's belt, "it's a family heirloom isn't it?"
"Yes, yes it is," Kirra confirmed in surprise. "How did you know?"
"I've seen it before," Prism replied simply and then asked another surprising question. "I assume that your family name is Elrhanadan?" Kirra nodded as his mouth hung wide open.
"Might I hold it?"
Kirra's mouth snapped shut as he rested his hand on the pommel protectively and replied, "Normally I don't let anyone touch it,"
"Kirra, just let him hold me," the sword spoke into his mind, surprising him. He knew better than to show any outward signs of his astonishment, and instead he drew the blade from its sheath and held the hilt out to Prism, heeding the sword's wishes.
"But I suppose in your case I am making an exception," Kirra said, with a forced smile.
"Thank you. I appreciate your trust," Prism replied with a formal bow as he took the blade. Kirra watched as Prism held the sword tenderly, as if he were reuniting with an old friend. Then Kirra realized that Prism probably was. It was said that the Elrhanadan family had earned their place in the Everbright City because of their actions during the Demon War. The sword had most likely encountered Prism at one time or another.
"Same as she always was," Prism said fondly. He held the sword out for the boy to take back as he added, "I'll return her to your capable hands."
"She spoke to you?" Kirra whispered in wonder.
"Yes, if we get a chance I'll have to tell you the full story of how we first met, or perhaps she can, if I never get the chance," Prism said with a wry chuckle. "Your commander told me about how you faced off against Fasha. I'm assuming that your sword guided you through that?"
"Yes, she's the one who told me he was afraid of fire as well," Kirra said with a nod. "That man, Fasha? He said something that didn't make any sense to me. He said that my people called him 'Vhor'. My Gor is pretty rusty, but doesn't Vhor mean, 'unknown'?"
Before Prism could answer Kirra's question was forgotten by the sound of heavy footsteps heading toward them from the entrance. Kirra and Alsha snapped to attention as a procession entered the room, saluting their most formal salute. Before them stood a man whose power stood unmatched in the entire world. He was dressed in extravagant robes woven of pure gold, and studded with bright diamonds that twinkled in the light of the room. His black hair was wild and windswept, and though his garments were anything but, his face was that of an unremarkable middle-aged man. Even his beard appeared in need of trimming, though it had held that same appearance for the last eight centuries. King Neredos had never been one to accept change easily.
"Prism! You old bastard!" Neredos shouted, drawing nervous glances from the rest of his entourage, which was made up of elite soldiers and two Grand Inquisitors, only one of whom Kirra knew; Tibrae. "I knew I'd find you here once those devilish Knights finally found the time to let me know you'd resurfaced." The second Inquisitor looked sheepish while Tibrae openly glared at Neredos' back.
Prism chuckled as he approached Neredos. "Neredos!" He exclaimed excitedly, opening his arms wide. The guards behind Neredos brandished their weapons and prepared to rush to their king's aid, especially when Prism continued forward despite the threat that they posed. "Your bureaucrats shooed me away without a second thought," he said with a wry smile, "It's good to see you still alive and well."
Neredos stepped forward and embraced Prism warmly to the surprise of his guards. "Not as good for you as it is for me, I think," Neredos replied with a chuckle. "I've only had the company of our lovely Lady Veil over the centuries." His expression turned grim as he added, "The rest of our friends are dead, I'm afraid."
"Not all of them," Prism corrected with a warm smile. "Grim is still alive, though certainly not well. When last I met him he was imprisoned."
"I suppose he is alive, isn't he . . .?" Neredos mused. He waved his hand dismissively as he went on, "I've paid little attention to his dealings. Those times are over, and he has refused to let them go."
"I'm afraid that those times may be coming again, my friend," Prism said, frowning at the dismissal.
"Oh?" Neredos replied in genuine surprise. "What do you mean?"
"A demon has been freed from its prison," Prism explained grimly, "A man named Salidar intends to free more. We have to stop him."
"We tried to tell you, your majesty," Grand Inquisitor Tibrae said, drawing a scornful glance from Neredos. "It appears that Salidar has infiltrated one of the merchant guilds. His forces moved in less than an hour ago, into the estate of a rich merchant named Huzain Sabreeza."
"This is troubling news indeed!" Neredos said angrily, "We must stop him at once."
"I don't think that would be wise, my King." The group turned to see that Lady Veil had returned with Styx in tow. Neredos smiled at her pleasantly, while Prism looked at her in wide-eyed shock.
"Veil? What are you saying?" Prism asked.
"If we act now, the people will not know what cause we are fighting for," Veil explained patiently, looking Prism in the eye as she said every word. "Imagine if the Knights of the Firmament were to descend upon Salidar's forces without obvious provocation," she suggested calmly. "The people would see it as an unnecessary act of brutality."
"Are you saying that we should wait for him to act first? He's freed a demon and we know he intends to free more. What more provocation do you need?" Prism asked incredulously.
"Yes," Lady Alsha agreed, surprising everyone by answering for the Oracle. "There is wisdom in waiting, though I do see your point, Master Prism." Veil didn't seem to mind, but rather appreciated the support and nodded toward the commander, who blushed a deep crimson.
"I must admit that I am confused, Commander," Kirra began, but Grand Inquisitor Tibrae cut him off with a glare.
"You have no right to speak in this assembly, boy," Tibrae snapped.
"Why not? He's speaking the truth!" Prism countered.
"We need to have justification before we make an armed incursion into Pentalus," Alsha said forcefully. "The last thing we need is for the people to think that we're attacking for no reason. We should wait until Salidar reveals his plan openly, and then we can stop him before he gets too far."
"I respectfully disagree," Prism said firmly, drawing more disgruntled looks from the soldiers in the room. "Salidar cannot be allowed to free any more of the demons, or many people will die. If we wait, he may succeed, and mayhem will break loose."
"But mayhem will also break loose if we act preemptively," Alsha replied with a shake of her head, feeding from the confidence that Veil had instilled in her. "There is a great deal of unrest in the city of late. Going against Salidar without a legitimate reason could cause a full-scale revolt. How could we justify that?"
"Neredos, please," Prism beseeched his old friend. "You must see that this talk is madness! Everything we worked for could be undone in a matter of seconds by Salidar. We cannot stand by and give him the opportunity."
"Prism, you do not know the state of things," Neredos said dismissively. "Once I would have taken your council above any other; any other save the Lady Veil, that is. Do you not remember how many times her insight and wisdom led us to victory?" Neredos asked with a smile. "If she says that we wait, we wait. It is as simple as that."
"Bureaucrats! All of you!" Prism shouted angrily.
"You will watch your tone here, outlander," Grand Inquisitor Tibrae threatened dangerously, but Prism was already returning to his outer tranquility, using meditative breathing to calm himself. That didn't seem to be enough for the Inquisitor however, who drew his sword and leveled it at Prism, his eyes glowing with zealous wrath.
"Stand down," Neredos ordered, and after a brief hesitation Tibrae sheathed his sword, before Neredos continued in an annoyed tone, "Prism is welcome to speak his mind, though it will not change my decision." Prism closed his eyes as he accepted the news. "I will, however, prepare to meet Salidar on the battlefield," Neredos announced to looks of surprise amongst the guards. "He will move soon and we should be ready when he does. But we will not deploy our troops until it is time. Standard patrols only."
"I will pass that along to the troops," Grand Inquisitor Tibrae agreed with a salute. Without another word on the matter, Neredos turned on his heel and left the room, the rest of his attendants—other than Tibrae—following. "Inquisitor Alsha," Tibrae said, and the commander snapped to attention. "Your company will stand by as the first to deploy when Salidar makes his attempt."
"Understood," she replied, saluting formally. Tibrae returned the gesture and then turned, following Neredos. As soon as he was gone she turned to the others and said, "Kirra, Prism, Styx, you should all come with me."
"Yes Commander," Kirra replied with a nod.
"If there is no other choice to be made," Prism growled as he turned toward the exit and started walking.
"Prism!" Veil said pleadingly, causing Prism to glance back over his shoulder.
"Veil, this time you have doomed us all," Prism said with deadly calm. "I pray to all the gods that ever were that you are right." Without another word he turned away from her and left the enclave as she watched with sorrowful eyes.
"Lady Veil," Styx said with a weak smile and a half-hearted bow before hurrying after Prism. Veil smiled at him sadly, and though she still seemed as beautiful as she had when he had first met her, there was a difference he could not ignore. He no longer felt the peace he had felt before, and he couldn't wait to leave the enclave.