"By life itself!" Grim exclaimed in awe as they stepped into the room. "Do you know where we are, Dogo?"
The supports for the tunnel they stood in had been set by an expert at the craft. As if the architecture wasn't impressive enough on its own, the walls were decorated in intricate pictures depicting various scenes. The largest was of a bat-winged humanoid with two large horns extending out of the back of its skull, with an urn of water that it held upturned, with the water flowing out and becoming a great river. The two sides of the river were distinctly different from each other, with one showing cities and villages populated by cheering people, and the other side showed strange beasts who seemed to be cursing those on the other side. As Maxthane searched the beasts his eyes settled on one in particular; a large, bipedal creature with bull-like horns and four eyes. The resemblance to the demon that Maxthane had been bonded to was uncanny.
"Enlighten me, Grim," Dogo replied. "I have no idea what this is, though it is certainly fascinating."
"This is the lost Temple of Naxthul, the Shadowtide," Grim explained reverently, as he approached the painting and ran the fingers of his good arm gently across the surface.
"Lost Temple of Naxthul?" Dogo asked, sharing a look with Maxthane who shrugged at the question. "What is Naxthul?"
"He was once revered as the God of our world," Grim replied, resting his hand on the face of the bat-winged horned humanoid. "Before I became involved in the demon disaster, I studied ancient cultures extensively. Look here," he gestured to a portion of the painting that showed a humanoid figure standing at the base of a pillar, with several much smaller humanoid figures standing beside it. "I'm betting the golem down below us was protecting this place, possibly even from demons, if the rest of this picture is any indication. It was said that Naxthul became a god by fending off a demon invasion."
"So this isn't the first time that the demons have been to our world?" Dogo asked. "Why didn't you bring that up sooner?"
"This is the first time I've ever seen proof of it," Grim explained with a reverent sigh. "I searched for a long time to learn if it were true, but the location of the Temple eluded me for all of those years. To think it's been here this whole time."
"I'm just as surprised as you that this has been above my head my whole life without me knowing about it," Maxthane said in wonder, "I've never heard of Naxthul or anything like this place."
"Before your time I suppose," Grim mumbled as he looked over the painting with a smile. "I wish we had the time to explore it more thoroughly . . ." he trailed off as his smile became sad before fading altogether. He composed himself and looked back at the group before clearing his throat and saying, "Let's move on. We have no more time to waste."
"Hang on," Maxthane said as Grim stepped away from the painting. "Let me take a look at that arm. I know a thing or two about healing."
"I can take care of it myself," Grim replied simply, "but thank you."
"Then why aren't you?" Maxthane asked with a raised eyebrow.
"We don't really have time for this conversation," Grim replied with a frown and started walking away. Maxthane moved between him and the exit from the room, crossed his arms, and gave Grim a stubborn look. Grim sighed and said, "But I can see that you're not going to drop it. I could heal the wound immediately," he explained with an impatient sigh, "but that takes more energy than healing it over time."
"I could heal it right now if you'd let me look at it, and then you wouldn't have to spend energy at all," Maxthane replied smugly. Dropping his hint of arrogance, he begged, "Come on, I'm sure you've helped everyone in this room, won't you let me return the favor?"
"How are you going to heal it?" Grim asked incredulously, "You're not a Fedain . . ." Maxthane took the grimoire out from under his arm and a smile spread across Grim's lips. "Ah, you know a Gor ritual," Grim said with a sudden smile. "Very well, I'll let you give it a shot since you're going to insist anyway."
"All right," Maxthane said excitedly and withdrew ink and a brush from one of the deep pockets of his dhoti. He stepped up to Grim and grasped his arm as he continued, "Just let me inscribe a few quick runes and . . ."
"Maxthane!" Grim shouted, pulling his arm back quickly in shock. His eyes were wide in wonder as he went on, "What! No, that's impossible!"
"What?" Maxthane asked with a puzzled expression, "What's wrong?"
"I could instantly sense it in you when you touched me. You do have Fedain blood!" Grim answered excitedly, "More importantly . . ."
Whatever Grim had been about to say was interrupted by a surprised Maxthane. "What? How is that possible?" He asked, shaking his head in disbelief. "My father told me that my mother was human!"
"Well, maybe she had Fedain blood but wasn't completely one of us. Maybe you're a quarter blood," Grim offered with a shrug, though he didn't sound convinced. "The important thing is that you actually can heal, directly. Here, let me teach you what you need to know."
Grim guided a dumbfounded Maxthane's hand back to his arm and began to explain the process behind Fedain healing. "You should be able to sense me entirely, even down to my emotions. This sensing is how we find injuries, and how serious they are."
"Yes! Yes, I can!" Maxthane said excitedly, "Now that I think about it, I've always been able to sense things like that when I've touched people, but I just thought it was normal."
"I can't imagine what this must be like for you," Grim said with a smile, "I knew exactly what was happening from the time I was very little. Now that you can sense the injury in my arm, you need to talk to the cells in my body and ask them to work with you in fixing the damage."
"Cells?" Maxthane asked, confused by the foreign term.
"Those small pieces that make up everything in all of us," Grim explained patiently. "I spoke to you about them before. You need to speak with them by converting your emotions into signals that will tell them how to act. In this case you need to tell them how to fix the break in my bones."
Maxthane focused inwardly and then into Grim's arm. He could feel his own energy coursing through and from him as he willed the cells of Grim's body to put themselves back in order. He shouted triumphantly as he sensed the bones knitting themselves back together, and then the tears in Grim's flesh sealed shut. He pulled away when he was sure the process was done and looked at Grim with a pleased but slightly tired smile.
"Now you're officially a Fedain," Grim said with a satisfied nod. "You did good work for your first time, but you've probably been doing it to yourself your whole life without even realizing it. How many times can you remember being injured or sick?"
"None," Maxthane replied without hesitation.
"A Fedain has a natural ability to heal itself much faster than any other race; that ability is instinctive," Grim explained, nodding at Maxthane's answer which he had expected. "Keep in mind that it will always require energy, and you can't go too far without exhausting yourself. The reason why most Fedain tend to have shorter lives than humans is because we give up so much energy healing ourselves and others, and you have to be careful to limit how you use your gifts if you want to survive."
Maxthane nodded, accepting the admonition. Grim turned back to the group, which had watched in stunned silence, and gestured with his now healed arm, saying, "Now, I think it's time we moved on."
Dogo nodded before gathering the group together again, and then led them through one of the two exits from the room. Their walk took them through a myriad of rooms that were just as impressive as the hall through which they had entered, and Grim glanced longingly at each of these. The glances lasted for only a few seconds before Grim would grit his teeth in determination, and look away, and continue following.
The well-carved tunnels ended after the group walked through another grand hall. They entered a short earthen tunnel reinforced by a few wooden supports, leading to a small ladder that could take them upward. Dogo gestured toward the ladder and explained, "Up here is where we'll enter the cellar of my house in Pentalus."
"You have a house in Pentalus?" Maxthane asked in surprise. Shades did not have an easy time obtaining property in the surface city.
"Be glad that I do," Dogo replied. "Now, let's get up there and plan how we're going to stop your father."
The ladder led to a trap door that opened into a shallow cellar, the ceiling so low that they had to crouch in order to walk through and then up the small staircase that led to the next floor. The room that awaited them above had all the trappings of a home belonging to a rich merchant. The furniture was of fine quality, and expensive rugs covered the polished wooden floor. A spacious fireplace dominated one wall, with a large oil painting of an exotic vista hanging above the mantle.
"What a place, Dogo!" One of the gladiators exclaimed, clapping Dogo on the back as he stepped into the room. "You've done very well for yourself."
"Thank you," Dogo replied graciously, then gestured toward the couches and said, "Please, make yourselves at home." As the gladiators and the two boatmen took his invitation and moved into the room, Dogo tapped Grim and Maxthane on their shoulders and said, "Come with me. We have more to discuss now that we've made it this far."
Dogo led the two of them down a hallway and into a spacious study, with several cushioned chairs set around a central table. The table had several books laying on its surface, which had been pulled from the large shelves which stood against the wall. Maxthane had never thought of Dogo as being a cultured man, but the evidence was clear. Dogo settled easily into one of the three chairs, and gestured for Grim and Maxthane to take the remaining seats.
Maxthane took his seat quickly, not wanting to disappoint his host, and Grim slid gracefully into another chair. It was as comfortable as it had appeared and was of the quality he was used to, but something felt wrong about it all. They were about to go to battle and this was no time to be sitting around, contemplating the softness of the cushions.
Thankfully, Dogo went straight to the point and Maxthane was able to put his thoughts aside. "The first thing we need to know is how much time we have," Dogo said as he looked at Maxthane. "When do you think your father is going to act?"
"I'm sure it will be sooner rather than later, though he'll want to make sure that everything is in place before he does anything," Maxthane replied with confidence. He met Dogo's eyes and explained, "He's aware that Prism and Styx escaped, which means he will assume that they've managed to relay his plans to Neredos."
"Everything is in place?" Grim asked. "What do you mean?"
"Releasing the demons involves inscribing rune circles, an ancient form of Gor magic," Maxthane clarified. "He'll need time to get those in place, especially since he will be doing it as subtly as he can manage."
"How exactly is he going to be subtle about that?" Dogo asked. "I can't think of a way in which you could get away with that. Most of the pillars are in public places, and someone would notice if they were doing something so obvious."
"We developed a strategy to cope with that, and I wish I could say that I'm proud of it, considering it was my idea," Maxthane replied with a grimace. "We used chalk for the first demon we released, because it would wash away easily, but we needed something less likely to be scuffed by anyone walking over the surface. We decided to use ink, but the secret will be the delivery system."
Maxthane glanced from Dogo to Grim to make sure they were following his explanation. "There are two separate methods we devised to inscribe the rune circles without easy detection," he explained slowly, "We settled on one, but I wouldn't put it past my father to use the other if it came to it, so we need to watch for each."
"So what are they?" Dogo asked impatiently when Maxthane took a breath.
"I was getting to that," Maxthane replied. "One method we need to watch out for is the mages inscribing the circles by using cartridges of ink attached to the bottoms of their shoes. They've been practicing ever since we freed the first demon, and they may be hard to catch unless we're close enough to the pillars to see them doing it."
"I think they would be too obvious even if they have been practicing," Grim observed with a wry smile.
"That was the consensus during our planning as well," Maxthane explained, "but if the situation requires it my father may fall back on that plan."
"Noted," Dogo said with a nod. "Now what is the primary method your father will be using?"
"Have you ever heard of familiars?" Maxthane asked with a smile.
"I'm afraid not," Dogo replied, shaking his head.
"Certainly," Grim answered, nodding emphatically. "They were once much more common than they are now. The practice fell out of use when people began to associate familiars with animal cruelty, even though normally there is no cruelty involved."
"So what are they?" Dogo asked as he looked between the two.
"It's when a mage makes a blood pact with an animal through tattoo magic," Maxthane explained quickly. "It was the same process that we used to link me with the demon, but with a weaker willed animal like a cat or a bird, you could control the animal completely if you wanted to. It also tends to gain a bit of its master's intelligence, eventually ending up smarter for its benefit from the deal."
"How does that pertain to our current situation?" Dogo asked.
"My father will be employing the mages' familiars to inscribe the rune circles for them. The problem I see is that I'm the only one who knows which familiars to watch out for, and I don't exactly blend in up here, nor can I be at every pillar. To the untrained eye they'll just appear to be animals, albeit animals doing something strange."
"That does pose a potential problem, though I suppose you could give us a quick course on what to look for," Dogo said, scratching his chin in contemplation. "Though your other point also bears consideration. I don't exactly have the wardrobe to help everyone blend in. Grim can make do, and I certainly can, but the rest of our group are going to have to be careful and act as beggars." He smiled back at them as he suggested, "I recommend that we stick to the rooftops and alleyways to avoid detection until we have to move in."
"But from that far away we'll have a difficult time observing the pillars through the crowds," Maxthane protested. "We need to be closer if we want to catch the familiars in the act."
"Grim and I can watch one pillar each," Dogo offered, "that has to be worth something. We can still use all the gladiators, too. Even as beggars they can blend into the crowds."
"It won't work." Grim stated. His abruptness drew surprised glances from Dogo and Maxthane. He was staring into the table as if searching the wooden surface for the answer to the problem and didn't see their surprise.
"What? Why not?" Dogo asked.
"Dogo, have you forgotten that you and I are both well known amongst Salidar's men?" Grim replied. "I'm the arena favorite, and you once were. The mages will recognize us immediately."
"So what do we do?" Dogo let out a frustrated growl.
"We could employ the same strategy and use familiars of our own to watch the pillars," Maxthane offered with an eager smile.
"There are two problems with that idea," Dogo replied almost as soon as Maxthane finished his proposition. "First, we don't have any familiars, and second, who is going to command them? You're the only mage here."
"There's sure to be some animals in the city we could capture, and the link doesn't have to be established with a mage. Anyone could be in command of the link. All we have to do is capture some animals, link them to the gladiators . . ." Maxthane stopped his excited rambling when Dogo raised his hand to stop him.
"Whoa there, Maxthane," Dogo said with a supportive smile. "I hate to interrupt you but you're getting way ahead of yourself here. We don't have the time for any of that, not when your father could move at any second. We need something we can put into action right away."
"Damn," Maxthane whispered as he let that thought sink in. "You're right, but that brings us back to our first problem."
Silence settled over them for several minutes until Dogo spoke up excitedly. "I've got it! We use children!"
"I hardly think that turning children into familiars is an ethical action, Dogo," Grim replied dryly.
"That isn't what I meant, Grim," Dogo said with an annoyed glare. "I meant that we can use children to watch the pillars for us. Give them a little coin, and they'll be happy to help. We can train them to watch for animals doing weird things, and that should be enough, right?"
"That's brilliant!" Maxthane agreed excitedly. "Then they can report back to us while we wait in the shadows. We can move in as soon as the kids tell us that someone or something has started drawing the rune circles."
"Yes, that might work," Grim replied, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Good thinking," he added, looking up with a smile. "Now all we need is coin."
"That is something I can provide," Dogo replied smugly, "provided Maxthane can show us which pillars are at risk."
"Do you have a map of the city?" Maxthane asked before Dogo could even finish the thought. His question was met by Dogo's cocky grin, which momentarily reminded Maxthane of Styx. Before he could analyze why, Dogo was standing and digging through the shelves along the wall. Books were tossed backward until Dogo grunted in triumph and returned to the table and unrolled a large map of Pentalus.
"Unless my father has changed his mind, we have six pillars to worry about," Maxthane explained as he leaned over the map, searching for the landmarks that would give him the locations he was looking for. "We've had these picked out as of two days ago." He said as he pointed out six of the pillars. "Fasha and I helped my father determine which ones would make the best targets."
"Excellent," Dogo said with confidence. He retrieved a quill and ink bottle from the desk in the corner of the room and marked the locations on the map. "I think we have our plan, then," he continued, "Grim, you and I will . . ."
"Maxthane," Grim interrupted, "What role does Fasha have in this?" His tone was flat, but his eyes were full of concern.
"What do you mean?" Maxthane asked cautiously. "He's my father's familiar."
"Your father made a human his familiar?" Dogo asked.
Before Maxthane could answer Grim continued, ignoring Dogo. "Maxthane, listen to me very carefully," he said in a commanding tone. "You need to find your father and help him. He's in great danger."
"Help Salidar?" Dogo asked incredulously. "We're here to stop him! What are you saying, Grim?"
"Maxthane," Grim said firmly, without even sparing Dogo a glance. "Fasha is not who you think he is. He is a demon of the worst sort. Your father thinks he can control him but he can't. Your father is going to die if you don't get to him in time, and as much as I hate to admit it, your father will serve our purposes better if he stays alive. Now where is he?"
"My father said that Huzain Sabreeza's guildhall was compromised, so he'd be working out of Sabreeza's estate instead," Maxthane whispered. "We were going to orchestrate the entire strike from there."
"Then what are you waiting for?" Grim asked while Maxthane sat in worried silence. "Go. We'll handle the rest."
Without any further hesitation Maxthane left the room and then the building, ignoring the inquisitive glances from the crowd of gladiators as he moved past. Once he was outside, he immediately went to the nearest alleyway to remain out of sight of the busy streets. It was midday, and though the light was never incredibly bright in Pentalus due to the clouds bearing up the Everbright City above he was disoriented by what light there was.
He tried to get his bearings but then realized that he had no idea what part of the city he was in. Cursing himself for forgetting to ask Dogo for directions before he left, he considered turning back but then he saw a landmark that he remembered from one of his earlier surface excursions. It was a bronze statue depicting King Neredos in all his glory, triumphant in his victory over the demons. Maxthane almost chuckled as he saw the symbol which his father had taught him to view with anger, for when he looked at it now the statue filled him with hope. It was funny to him how much his perspective had changed over the past few days. He left the plaza and continued on his way, keeping that thought with him.
The closer he came to Sabreeza's estate, the more he started to feel the urgency that Grim had expressed. No matter how much he wanted to believe in the symbol of hope that Neredos provided he knew that something terrible was coming, and it would be more than simply a few demons finding freedom. He knew that somehow his world was about to change forever.