"Prism! Please, wait!" Styx finally caught up to Prism in front of the barracks. Since Prism was not a member of the Knights, he could not pass the guards on his own and instead he stopped in front of the building and glared at it. He turned around at the sound of Styx's voice, carrying the glare with him, which stopped Styx in his tracks.
"Styx, there's nothing more to talk about," Prism said in a flat tone, though his entire body was quivering with rage. "There's nothing to be done."
It was then that Kirra caught up to them, but before he could say anything Styx turned to him quickly and said, "Kirra, could you give us some room please?"
"If you want me to," Kirra replied, hurt by the request. "But before I do, I want to say something."
"All right," Styx agreed with a slight inclination of his head, "Go ahead."
"I'm against anything that might bring harm to the people of Pentalus," Kirra began as he turned to Prism. He was expressionless as he added, "And a rebellion is the last thing we need right now."
"So, you're saying that you agree with the bureaucrats?" Prism growled as his voice began to rise.
"Normally I would," Kirra went on quickly before Prism could react, "but every instinct I have is telling me that you're right about this. If it were in my power to help you, I would."
Prism visibly calmed down as he replied with his usual reservation. "Thank you, Kirra. I believe you're sincere but unfortunately the three of us can't do much about it." With a dismissive gesture he added, "Unless your superiors choose to act, we can't stop this."
Kirra sighed and said, "If there's anything you can think of that might help, you have my support." Prism nodded and Kirra bowed before stepping back from them. Styx smiled at him weakly before moving closer to Prism, and gesturing toward a nearby plaza with a bench for them to sit on.
Kirra maintained his distance as he followed them to the plaza and then stopped when they took their seat, glancing between them and back toward the barracks. When Prism was satisfied that Kirra would remain there he turned to Styx and asked with a puzzled expression, "Why did you want him to leave?"
"Because I needed to talk to you alone," Styx replied, shrugging. "I wish we could trust him, but I can't know for certain, even after what he said a second ago."
"I think if there is anyone in this city we can trust, it's him, but I understand your caution," Prism replied with a sage nod. "I've had my expectations turned upside down recently, and today was the worst of all of it. I wish Kirra's Gor heritage was enough for me to trust him, as it would have been eight hundred years ago."
"Kirra's a Gor?" Styx asked in surprise.
"You never noticed the points on his ears, or his unusual eye color?" Prism asked in surprise, and Styx shrugged as if he couldn't see the relevance. "Clear indicators of his heritage," Prism remarked with a quirky smile, "if Gor were still common . . ." He trailed off with bitterness in his eyes.
"I just thought he was unique," Styx replied as he glanced back at Kirra, taking in his attractive appearance. There was certainly something different about him, he realized now; Kirra's ears were certainly pointier than Styx had first realized, and his violet eyes seemed to sparkle in the bright sunlight. Styx had been too distracted by his attraction to realize Kirra wasn't entirely human. Until Prism had said so Styx hadn't even been aware that it was possible to mix human and Gor blood. Not that it mattered. Styx could no longer deny that he had fallen for Kirra, and no matter what else he learned about him, he didn't think his feelings would change.
"Oh, he's certainly that," Prism observed, drawing Styx's attention back to him. When Styx realized that Prism had caught him staring, he blushed deeply. "You like him, don't you?" Prism asked with a sly smile.
"How did you know?" Styx asked while he tried in vain to stifle his embarrassment.
"Love is easy to recognize from the outside," Prism explained with a shrug, "Though impossible to understand regardless of the angle you view it from."
"Do you have a saying for everything?" Styx asked dryly.
Instead of answering Styx's sarcasm, Prism's face grew more serious. He looked away, his eyes resting on a statue that sat in the middle of the plaza. "In Ultaka," he said at length, "When two men loved as you do, they were put to death."
"Are you saying you disapprove?" Styx asked, surprised that Prism would offer such an opinion.
Prism shook his head and smiled supportively. "Morality becomes unimportant when faced with total annihilation. At that point, people are willing to do anything to survive. I spent most of my life facing annihilation, and I can tell you that the many people who died fighting alongside me were all the same. We wanted to survive. We wanted our people to survive. It was the love of our people that kept us united; kept us fighting to the end." He turned to Styx and laid a hand on his shoulder, giving it an affectionate squeeze. After glancing in Kirra's direction, he went on. "Morality also becomes unimportant when faced with true love. I had many good friends who loved as you do, and they fought just as hard as I did. We are no different in spirit, Styx, so what gives me grounds to judge you?"
Styx nodded slowly as he let the words sink in. He had never even thought that his feelings might be wrong and was glad that Prism wasn't challenging that belief. His support was still important, however, and the advice in Prism's words helped him understand his heart a little better. He needed to listen to his heart, regardless of what it told him.
Prism gave him a moment to think it over before bringing the conversation back to the matter at hand. "But that isn't what you wanted to talk about, is it?"
"No, but thank you," Styx replied sincerely. "It actually helps put a few things in perspective for me."
Prism smiled and squeezed his shoulder again, and Styx knew it was time to move on. "Tell me what's going on," Styx said firmly, looking Prism in the eye.
"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean. Perhaps you can give me something more to go on?"
"In the short time I've known you, I have never seen you angry until earlier today. Annoyed yes, but angry?" Styx shook his head as he continued, "I get the impression it doesn't happen very often. I'd like to know why you were."
"Why was I angry?" Prism replied, a hint of the mentioned emotion touching his voice. "No, 'why am I angry' is what you mean. I'm simply repressing it now. I can't control how I feel any more than anyone else can, but normally I can stop it from controlling how I act. Do you realize what is about to happen?" He asked incredulously. His next words showed that it was not Styx he was questioning but the situation. "Everything we worked for is about to come undone because they're afraid of losing their image. It's preposterous!"
"No, it's more than that," Styx countered, "This is personal."
"You're right, it is," Prism agreed. "I'm not ashamed to admit that. These people were my closest friends, Styx. I knew them better than I knew anyone. This isn't how things are supposed to be."
Prism clenched his fists as he went on bitterly, "Neredos has been corrupted, and I fear that Veil has as well, though I can't tell for certain. Her concern may be genuine but . . ." he trailed off and shook his head in disbelief. "These were people I served with, that I fought alongside to end the demon invasion, but it seems as if they have become demons themselves . . ." It seemed to Styx that Prism had more to say, but that Prism's reservation had regained control again and stopped his tirade. Styx wished he could bring some comfort to him, but he didn't know what he could possibly do to help his friend's turmoil.
"So what can we do?" Styx asked instead.
"Nothing, at least not right now," Prism replied, throwing his hands up in defeat. "I'm afraid that there is little we can do except wait, but I guess we can plan for the inevitable."
"What do you mean?"
"Listen closely, Styx. I think my time is running out," Prism explained in a quiet voice just above a whisper. "Eventually they will find a way to dispose of me, if I even survive this next battle. If that happens, you have to figure out a way to stop the demons, for the good of the world."
"Me?" Styx replied in surprise. "What do I know? I have no experience in things like this!"
"Neither did the rest of us when the demons invaded," Prism replied with a smirk. "We were infantile in our understanding then, and because of the knowledge that Neredos has kept from the world, we are infantile once again."
He met Styx's eyes as he asked, "Do you realize that you are among a handful of humans still alive who have ever fought a demon?"
"When you put it that way I suppose you have a point," Styx admitted in a whisper. "But what am I supposed to do? And what are you talking about dying for? You're the most capable fighter I've ever seen!"
"No one lives forever, Styx," Prism replied cryptically, and shrugged as if there wasn't anything else to say on that particular point. Instead he answered Styx's first question, "Fight as hard as you can for as long as you can. There is another war brewing, and I fear that the demons will all be unleashed again. It will be up to the youth of this world to win that war, for only they have the strength to keep fighting for as long as it takes. It will be up to you, and others like you, who have the will to survive." Glancing back at Kirra standing apart from them he added, "I'm sure you will have the support of Kirra, and maybe you could even recruit Maxthane to the cause. I do not think he has his father's heart, regardless of what he may have done. They will help you, but if you need direction there is someone you can go to."
"Grim?" Styx asked, sure that was the answer. "You knew each other from before, and he is certainly a capable fighter."
"Grim's path is his own, I'm afraid," Prism replied, shaking his head. "He is on the road to something just as important as the task I am charging you with. Perhaps he can aid you for a short time," he conceded, "but you cannot rely on him."
"Then who?" Styx asked in exasperation. "If you're de . . . not around, and Neredos and Veil are corrupted, who else is left?"
"There is a book in Maxthane's possession that holds the answer. It's the same one that contained the ritual by which I was freed," Prism explained, while Styx nodded slowly, trying to follow along. "I knew as soon as I saw it that I recognized it from somewhere. The woman who wrote it was also with us at the demon gate, and I doubt that she has succumbed to the ravages of time; primal energy flows too strongly through her veins. Seek out the sorceress Ghayle, Queen of the Gor."
"I didn't know that the Gor had royalty," Styx replied in wonder. "As far as I knew they were just wild tribes living in the forests and the highlands far to the north. They've always seemed quite primitive to me."
"Then things have changed," Prism said with a shrug. "I'm starting to get used to that, but that doesn't mean the Ghayle is no longer with us. She always had a means of staying alive. If you need help she'll be the one to turn to."
"And what if she became corrupted like the others?"
"Ghayle was corrupted before the demons even invaded, and she will be until she is destroyed, but she'll never be corrupted in the same way as Neredos," Prism answered with a wry chuckle. "She cares little for the material things of men. She was primal and ferocious, and just as deadly as any force of nature you could imagine."
"Sounds like someone I would want to avoid, not seek out," Styx muttered dryly.
"If that is what you decide," Prism replied, but his tightlipped smile told Styx that he doubted that would be the case. "When the fate of the world rests on your shoulders, you'll be a lot more willing to take risks, I'd imagine."
"The fate of the world resting on my shoulders?" Styx repeated, and he shuddered at the thought. "I don't think I can take it."
"It doesn't matter if you can handle it or not," Prism replied smoothly, "it will still be your responsibility."
"Then I guess I'll need all the help I can get," Styx said with a sigh.
"You will surprise yourself by what you can accomplish when you are forced to act," Prism replied with a chuckle. "Sometimes not even death can stop you."
"But you think it's going to stop you," Styx replied with a frown.
"Styx . . ." Prism hesitated before going on sagely, "Death is the only sure thing in life. I've avoided it long enough, and it's about time it caught up to me.
"How can you speak so casually about it?" Styx asked incredulously. "Most people fear death."
"I never said that I didn't fear it," Prism corrected, "I simply accept it, and you would do well to do the same when the time comes. When I die, Styx, don't mourn me. Don't waste your time with the dead; they are no longer of use to you once they're gone. Carry their lessons with you and not the burden of that which you cannot change."
Styx sat back and thought about that admonition. He had been around death his whole life, but he had never been through the pain of losing someone close to him. Until recently the number of people he counted as close could have been counted on one hand if he was missing three fingers. Prism had managed to become close to him in record breaking time, and Styx didn't think he'd be able to avoid mourning when the man died.
"Bring Kirra back over here," Prism said, after a moment of silence, inclining his head back in Kirra's direction. "You have to start trusting people sometime," he explained with a smile, "I think he's as good as anyone to begin with."
Styx nodded and rose to his feet before walking to where Kirra was standing. He stared into Kirra's eyes as he approached, and could feel the question in his gaze. Kirra wanted to know what they were talking about, but he had shown them respect by not trying to eavesdrop and Styx had to give him credit for that. "Kirra, Prism would like you to join us," Styx said, and his heart skipped a beat as Kirra's eyes lit up at the request.
Kirra nodded and followed Styx back to the bench. While Styx sat, Kirra stood before them and looked at Prism expectantly. He didn't have to wait long for Prism to speak. "You said that we have your support," Prism said without preamble, "Do you stand by that statement?"
"Yes," Kirra replied firmly. "Definitely."
"I have a request for you," Prism said as he met Kirra's eyes. "I want you to stay with Styx regardless of what happens, even if it means leaving the Order."
"That's a pretty hefty request," Kirra replied, whistling through his teeth. "I know I said that I'd do anything, but could you at least tell me why?"
"If we fail to stop Salidar from releasing the demons then we may be at the brink of war," Prism explained. "I'm afraid the old bureaucrats won't know what to do in that situation, which means that the world will rely on those with the willingness to take action."
"What does that have to do with Styx?" Kirra asked in confusion. "No offense to you," he added with an apologetic glance at Styx, "but you aren't much of a fighter. What exactly do you have planned?"
"It's not his ability as a fighter that I'm concerned with," Prism answered, "it's his will to survive. That will grant him the strength to do what is necessary, I'm sure of it."
"You're putting an awful lot of faith in me," Styx mumbled, but both Kirra and Prism heard the remark and turned on him. Before either of them could address his comment, Styx's eyes lit up as an idea struck him, "You want to get down there as soon as you can, right?"
"That would be preferable," Prism agreed. "We don't know when Salidar is going to make his move, but we can't sit and wait around for it."
"I have an idea," Styx replied with a smile.
"What's your plan?" Kirra asked. Before Styx could reply Fenri came running toward them from the direction of the barracks.
"Kirra!" the Knight shouted, drawing their attention. "The company is mobilizing for deployment," he explained breathlessly. "Prism and Styx, you are coming with us. We'll be waiting to descend as soon as we receive word that Salidar has made his move."
"We should move now," Prism muttered, drawing concerned looks from Styx and Kirra.
"I'm sorry," Fenri replied with a shrug, "orders are orders."
They followed Fenri at a quick pace until they reached the edge of the clouds that the city rested upon. There was a contingent of Knights a hundred strong, waiting for them with their giant eagle mounts. Lady Alsha was positioned at their head, going over a map of Pentalus with several other Knights of a rank just below her own.
"Why are we just sitting here?" Prism growled, glaring at Alsha. If his clenched fists were any indication he was once again having trouble containing his anger at the situation. Kirra shook his head helplessly and beckoned for Styx to follow him to his eagle before turning his back on the pair and heading in that direction himself.
But Styx had other ideas. "Prism, follow me," he whispered to Prism as soon as Kirra was no longer facing them. Prism nodded and fell into step behind Styx as he started walking toward the edge of the clouds. As soon as Styx noticed one of the Knights had seen his intended path he dashed forward quickly, running for the edge with all the speed he could muster. Prism kept pace with him easily, and they were soon running side by side.
"What the hell is he thinking!?" Styx heard one of the Knights shout as they rushed past. The cry was joined by another Knight who shouted, "Is he trying to kill himself?"
The sound of flapping wings alerted Styx that one of the eagles was following them, and the familiar voice of its rider told him that he needed to increase his speed even further. "Styx, what are you doing!?" Kirra shouted, and Styx willed his feet to go even faster.
"Prism, hold on to me!" Styx shouted. As soon as he felt Prism grasp his arm he let out a primal yell and flung himself from the edge of the clouds, brushing the tattoo on his cheek as he went over. In the same motion he flipped himself around and wrapped his arms and legs around Prism, holding him tight as they began to fall toward Pentalus below them.
The tattoo slowed their descent dramatically, but Prism's weight dragged them down quicker than Styx was used to. Prism was considerably heavier than Styx would have thought from his slim but muscular frame, and he started to wonder if jumping with Prism had been a good idea and if they would end up crashing into the city at too high a velocity.
"Styx!" someone shouted from above them. Styx was pretty certain it was Kirra, but with Prism pulling him down he couldn't turn to see if he was right. An eagle screeched beside them and he looked over to see Kirra flying past, diving to get below them. As much as he wanted to ensure that they landed safely, his plan would work better if he did it on his own. He couldn't rely on Kirra to save them or the other Knights might not be coerced to take action. Using the knowledge he had gained from his years of gliding through The Shade, he tweaked their bodies to change their trajectory, and while Kirra moved into a position where he thought he could catch them, he instead found them falling past him.
Kirra attempted to move into position again and once more Styx angled them in a different descent, refusing to be caught. He noted the look of frustration on Kirra's face as they passed him, but Styx wasn't about to let that get to him. He was determined to see this through to the end.
"We're going too fast," Prism said suddenly, and Styx looked down into his face, trying to keep his own concern about their speed out of his expression. "I'm too heavy," Prism observed.
"We'll make it," Styx said with as much confidence as he could manage. This just earned him a patient smile from Prism who shook his head in response.
"No, we won't," Prism replied firmly, "You're going to have to let me go. Just do it a second before we hit the ground. I'll be able to manage, and that way you will too."
"But . . ." Styx protested.
"No time for that," Prism snapped back firmly, "Release me when we're about to hit."
Styx nodded and watched the approaching rooftops, waiting for the right moment. He couldn't hesitate or neither one of them would walk away from the impact. A couple seconds before he was about to hit he disentangled himself from Prism and launched himself away, allowing his tattoo to take over fully and slow his descent a touch more before he hit the rooftop below him. Once he made contact with the tiled rooftop he rolled into the impact, absorbing some the momentum until he completed his roll by landing hard on his back. The collision knocked the wind out of him, but he knew that he had managed to avoid any serious damage. Nothing was broken, and in a few seconds he was able to get up on his knees, wheezing as he forced air back into his lungs.
Prism had fared far better, even though he had hit the rooftop at a faster speed. He had rolled gracefully, absorbing nearly all of the momentum into his forward spin. He walked over to Styx and extended his hand to help him to his feet. Only after they were both standing did Kirra's eagle land on the rooftop and a very angry knight stepped off of his mount to approach them.
"What kind of stunt was that?" Kirra growled at Styx. "You could have been killed!"
"Looks like it worked," Styx replied smugly as he glanced upward. The other two followed his gaze to see that the Knights were leaving the clouds above them. If nothing else, apparently his stunt had convinced them to come to his rescue.
"You're right, the Knights are moving!" Prism observed with a triumphant shout, clapping Styx on the shoulder. "All we can do is hope that we were quick enough."
"You mean you did that just to draw us out?" Kirra asked with a hint of anger, "You could have told me!"
Styx was shaking his head before Kirra even finished the sentence and then replied, "No, your reaction had to be genuine if we wanted the Knights to follow. I'm sorry, but I couldn't do it any other way."
Kirra looked as if he were going to remain angry until he sighed and said, "All right, I suppose I can't blame you since it got us the result we were after. There's only one problem I see now." Patting his eagle fondly he went on, "Saiyo here can only support one other person than me. If we need to move again quickly I can only take one of you."
"Take Styx," Prism said with a smile, "It looks like my ride is coming down anyway." They followed his gaze upward to see that one of the eagles was headed their way, diving toward them with incredible speed. Styx nodded to Prism and then stepped toward Kirra's eagle. Kirra gave him a boost to the eagle's back and then climbed up in front of Styx and directed him to hang on.
"Are you ready for this?" Kirra asked, after Styx wrapped his arms around Kirra's waist. Styx's grip was strong, but there was a great deal of tension in his arms.
"I don't know," Styx replied, trailing off as he considered the question. "To be honest, I'm actually pretty scared."
"Me too," Kirra admitted in a whisper, though he made sure it was loud enough for Styx to hear. "What if we don't make it in time and the demons are freed?" He wondered aloud as he shuddered at the thought. "I've never seen a demon before, but the tales don't exactly put them in the best of light."
"They're not pleasant," Styx replied, feeling the shudder and responding with one of his own. "At least not the one that I fought."
"You haven't told me about what happened with that," Kirra replied, glancing over his shoulder.
"Kirra . . ." Styx began, not knowing what to say. He wanted to answer the unspoken question, but he knew that this wasn't the time or the place. He let his sarcasm take control instead and explained dryly, "You and I have only known each other for a little more than a day. It's not as if I've had the time to tell you my life's story."
"I'm sorry," Kirra replied with an apologetic smile, "You're right. Let's focus on making it through the day, all right? And then we can have all the time we need to get to know each other."
"I'd like that," Styx said sincerely as he leaned closer in, hugging tight against Kirra's back. Kirra didn't have long to bask in the feeling, for a moment later the sound of wings alerted him that the other eagle and its Knight had arrived.
Fenri alighted onto the rooftop beside them and said with a sense of urgency, "There's fighting in the streets to the east, Shades fighting Shades!"
"It's already begun," Prism said with a look of horror. "We need to get over there, now!"
"Climb up, let's go!" Fenri shouted, but Prism was already hoisting himself into Fenri's saddle before the words had even left his mouth. A second later they were off, and Styx and Kirra launched into the air after them. As they flew toward the battle, Styx hoped that they were not already too late.
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