"Prince Maxthane!" Kirra and Styx looked up to see one of Salidar's men headed their way. He was dressed in the black leather uniform, except that his was of higher quality than the others, marking him as higher rank than the other soldiers. The sword he held was of a quality to match the armor, and from the scars visible on his middle-aged face, to the gait with which he walked, implied that he was a seasoned soldier. Worry was etched into his features as he saw Maxthane lying on the ground, unmoving. He slowed his approach and then stopped as he noted Kirra and Styx's suspicious stares.
"Captain Rega!" Maxthane greeted the soldier groggily, as he propped himself up on one elbow to look at him. It was a struggle for him to even make it that far. "It's good to see you survived. How many soldiers do you have left under your command?"
"Twenty-four, though only six of us are uninjured," Captain Rega replied after a quick salute. "Your father told us that you were staying in The Shade to watch over his affairs, I'm surprised to see you here. Can we be of assistance?"
"Maxthane needs to be taken out of here," Styx answered for Maxthane. "He's too exhausted to keep fighting."
"And who are you to speak for the Prince?" Rega replied dangerously, glowering at Styx.
"Rega, please," Maxthane interjected, and Rega visibly relaxed as he turned his attention back to him. "Styx is a friend, and he is also correct. I'm afraid that I'm not going to be of much more use."
"Why don't we regroup with your father and see what he would have us do?" Rega suggested as he resumed his cautious approach toward the trio. When he noticed Styx and Kirra eyeing his drawn sword he sheathed it before reaching them.
"My father is dead," Maxthane explained with a blank expression as Rega knelt beside him, "He was killed by Fasha."
"No . . . my King," Rega said reverently. Laying a hand on Maxthane's leg he sighed and said, "I suppose you're my King now. What are your orders?"
"I think we should regroup as you suggested," Maxthane said firmly. "Help me up."
Between Rega, Styx, and Kirra it was easy to get Maxthane to his feet, though he started to fall over as soon as he was standing. While they struggled to keep him balanced, the rest of Salidar's soldiers approached, either wounded or supporting those who were. Maxthane addressed them with a steady voice, though it took nearly all of his will to do so.
"People of The Shade," he began formally, "The plan has failed, and my father was killed during the attack." Astonished murmurs traveled amongst the soldiers, but they were quelled quickly by Maxthane's upraised hand. "We need to gather the survivors and return to The Shade. We have been gone too long from our home."
"Yes, my King," Rega said with a salute. Turning to the rest of the troops he barked, "You heard the King. Let's move. Those of you who are able, rendezvous with the other captains and relay Maxthane's orders. The rest of you should head below. We'll meet you at the palace."
The soldiers dispersed and Rega returned his attention to Maxthane, offering his arm to lean on. As Maxthane leaned into him, Rega said appraisingly, "You handled that well, King Maxthane."
"Thank you," Maxthane replied with a forced grin. "Honestly, I'm surprised that the men followed me so readily."
"It's because you spoke like a king," Kirra offered, drawing surprised glances from both Maxthane and Rega. The captain nodded sagely as Kirra went on, "You must have learned well from your father to have such a regal composure. You're a stronger man than you look."
"How observant for a Knight of the Firmament," Rega said with a laugh, clapping Kirra on the shoulder. "You've got a great deal of skill, Knight. I was surprised by how well you managed to do against that demon. I'm even more surprised that you're alive. I lost almost every single man who faced it on the ground."
"Most of the work was done before I arrived," Kirra replied, returning the smile, though his eyes continued to regard Rega with suspicion. "There were a lot of arrows in that thing, though from how thick its hide was I admit that I'm surprised at how much damage they dealt. It was moving fairly slowly when I reached it."
Rega pulled one of his arrows from the quiver on his back and showed Kirra the arrowhead, which was made of some dark, black metal. Styx recognized it immediately as one of the arrowheads he had attempted to steal from Salidar. "These arrowheads were commissioned by Salidar as soon as we knew freeing the demons might be a possibility," Rega explained while Maxthane nodded, backing up his words. "Each one hides a pressurized capsule that breaks open as the arrowhead pierces the skin, releasing a numbing tar. We intended to use them on your eagles once you came to interfere, but once we realized that we couldn't control the demons we put them to better use."
"Oh no!" Kirra shouted, pulling away from the others as he started scanning the skies, searching for something. "I have to find Saiyo, my eagle. We were shot down, and I have to know if she's all right."
"Let's go," Styx said, coming up on Kirra's side and grasping his hand to pull him toward the wall of a nearby building. "As I said, I never forget a rooftop, and I think I know exactly where she'll be."
Styx turned back to Maxthane and said, "We'll meet up in The Shade." He met Maxthane's eyes as he added, "I promise."
Maxthane nodded and smiled, and Styx and Kirra scaled the wall to the rooftop. Styx began a quick sprint to the north, pulling Kirra along with him. As they ran Styx cast several glances at the fiery demon that he could still see in the distance. His stomach lurched as he watched the demon pluck one of the Knights from the sky and crush it in its massive hand, spraying gore in every direction. He was glad that Kirra's focus was directed ahead of them, rather than at the demon. If Styx knew the Knights who were being slaughtered as Kirra most likely did, he didn't think he'd be able to keep going.
They climbed over a rooftop near the place where they had fallen, and found Saiyo on the other side, lying on its back against the roof. "Saiyo!" Kirra shouted as he rushed toward the eagle. He stumbled across the roof tiles but hardly slowed his advance. Styx knew it wouldn't make any difference how quickly Kirra made it to the eagle. The eagle wasn't moving at all, and Styx was certain that she was dead. He didn't have to approach it to know that the thick quill protruding from her chest had pierced something vital. Saiyo had been dead long before she crashed into the roof.
But Kirra was too stricken by the sight to notice. As he reached the bird he hastily checked it for signs of life, and then set about removing the quill, drawing his sword and severing it with a single blow before reaching inside the wound to withdraw its tip. The eagle twitched as its nerves were triggered, and Kirra shouted in response, taking it as a sign that Saiyo might not be dead. He returned to his task with renewed energy, pulling the quill clean from the bird's breast.
Styx approached slowly as he watched Kirra go through the ordeal. It was painful to watch him, knowing that there was nothing that Kirra could do. Kirra would realize the truth soon enough, and Styx wished more than anything that he could spare him the pain of that loss, but he knew that he couldn't and prepared for the next best thing.
At the same instant that Kirra realized that Saiyo wasn't breathing, Styx enveloped him from behind and pulled him into an embrace. "Saiyo!" Kirra screamed again, and tried to crawl back to her side, but Styx held him firm.
"Kirra," Styx said soothingly as Kirra called Saiyo a third time. "Kirra, there's nothing you can do." Kirra continued to struggle, but he slowly gave into Styx's embrace and let himself be held while he stared at Saiyo's body. Styx was surprised that he had been able to hold onto Kirra so easily, considering how much stronger Kirra was than him, but he hadn't realized how weak and helpless Kirra was until he collapsed into Styx's arms, sobbing.
Eventually Kirra calmed enough for Styx to feel it was all right to release him. Kirra crawled back to his eagle and embraced his dead friend. Styx stood and turned away, giving Kirra his moment alone and turned his attention back toward the fiery demon, who was now fighting in the sky amidst a cloud of Knights.
The Knights were losing badly, until one brave soul took a chance and jumped out of the saddle toward the demon's wing. Styx heard Kirra cry out and turned to see that Kirra was now watching the unfolding battle as well. He was standing now, and wiping away the moisture from his eyes as he growled in the demon's direction.
"Let's go," Kirra said firmly, his face a vengeful mask of determination. "The more of them we kill, the better."
Styx couldn't agree more.
"Take me to your father's body," Captain Rega said as he led Maxthane away from the bloody street. "I would like to see the King myself."
"He was killed on the roof of Sabreeza's estate," Maxthane explained as he took a step in that direction, supported by Rega. "Let's go."
The pair made their way slowly and carefully through the alleyways. Other soldiers met them along the way, and each received the same set of orders. Retreat into The Shade and wait by the entrance, and Rega and Maxthane would be down shortly to organize their return home. The soldiers who reported to them brought other news as well, death tolls from their engagements with the demons. They had lost a great many men, and from the number of severely injured soldiers who also joined their ranks they would lose even more before the day was done.
Eventually they managed to reach the estate, and Maxthane struggled to make it up the steps to the roof. "You can wait for me here," Rega suggested, trying to guide Maxthane to take a seat on the steps. "I won't be long."
"No," Maxthane replied with grim determination. "I have to see this through. I need to see my father one more time before I return home. I have to remember what he looked like in his final moments if I'm going to tell the people of his legacy."
Rega nodded and helped Maxthane struggle up each step, but once they arrived at the top Rega abandoned Maxthane and made his way to Salidar's side while Maxthane was left to shuffle along after him.
Rega shook his head as he looked over the wounds on Salidar's stomach and face, which had begun to fester and turn a sickly shade of green. "You're saying that Fasha did this?" He asked in disgust. Maxthane nodded and Rega continued, "How? Wasn't Fasha your father's familiar? Why would your father have allowed this to happen?"
"It seems that Fasha has been playing tricks on us the entire time," Maxthane explained, looking at his father's face as he somehow maintained his composure. "Fasha is a demon, and orchestrated the entire plan in an attempt to free his kin." His composure broke for a moment, and he took a deep breath to stifle the tears that came to his eyes. He looked away from his father so that the emotional image was no longer in his sight as he continued, "I didn't know that demons could look like humans, but apparently they can. The only thing we can take away from this is that I don't think he accomplished what he wanted." Maxthane gestured toward the distant plaza and Rega followed his gaze to see that a new pillar was beginning to form around the fiery demon. "It looks like the big one was just sealed up again."
"So it would seem," Rega replied with a thoughtful expression. "Your father was a good man, Maxthane, if misunderstood. He wanted true freedom for The Shade, and that's why I always followed him without question." He chuckled lightly and then laid a hand on Maxthane's shoulder and squeezed it gently. "My grandfather would always tell me tales of the thulu'Khant line. They were thieves and vagabonds, sure, but that just went to show that they were no better than the rest of us. They had a sense of responsibility for those they watched over, and they were always honorable with those in their charge. 'Shadow honor' was what my grandfather called it, and your father had it more than anyone else I ever knew."
"I don't think I can live up to that," Maxthane replied, wiping away a tear that slid down his cheek despite his best efforts at keeping it contained.
"You may, or you may not," Rega replied with a shrug. "Not all of your ancestors have been equal in that regard," He explained with a supportive smile. "I think you have it in you though, and that's why I supported you back there. I think you have what it takes to bring us back together, though you will encounter problems along the way."
"I think I'll encounter a few more than you may realize," Maxthane replied nervously, piquing Rega's curiosity. "I have a confession to make, Rega. I freed the gladiators and brought them to Pentalus with the intention of stopping my father. There's going to be some questions." With a sudden blush he added, "Especially from one soldier in particular who was tasked to guard the gladiators' cell."
Though his eyes had initially widened at the news, Rega shook his head and continued to smile supportively. "Maybe you'll experience problems from that, but I think we'll manage," he said, giving Maxthane's shoulder another squeeze. "You were right to do so, I think. Imagine how much worse this would have been if we had freed one more demon!" His smile faded as he digested the thought. "Depending on how powerful it was, we might not have had any survivors. You saw the destruction that your father was going to bring about and tried to reason with him, but he couldn't see past his own ambition." Nodding confidently he added, "I think you acted exactly how a King should have with your decision. I'll be there to back you up, and most, if not all of the soldiers who were here today, will stand with us."
"I hope you're right," Maxthane replied, unconvinced. His doubt changed nothing. Whether the people accepted him or not, it was now his responsibility to make amends for his father's actions. With a deep breath he smiled as confidently as he could at Rega and said, "Now let's go home and see what kind of a mess we have to pull ourselves out of."
Rega responded with a nod as he gestured back to the stairs that would take them back down. They would return to The Shade, and all would be well, or it wouldn't. That was the way of The Shade, and it was now Maxthane's responsibility to see that it worked out in the way that it should.
The poison burned inside of Prism's veins, threatening to steal his life away with every beat of his heart. The nanites were slowing the poison but it would end up killing him eventually, and he needed to use the time that he had left wisely. "What are you waiting for?" Prism goaded Fasha, making his voice sound as impatient as he could manage. He wanted Fasha to think that he was emotionally compromised, even though he was composed at his center. The quicker that Fasha decided to take advantage of any apparent weakness, the better off Prism would be. He had always fought better on the defensive.
"I plan to savor every second of this," Fasha replied with a sinister grin. "Why rush?"
"Whatever works for you," Prism replied, meeting the grin with a sneer. "You know, your brother died because he gave me time to think up a plan. Do you really plan to underestimate me like he did?"
"It was you!? You killed him!?" Fasha replied with sudden rage. His body quivered as he glared at Prism with the promise of death in his eyes.
"Yes, you pathetic creature," Prism spat, "and I'll do everything in my power to make sure you share his fate."
A low growl left Fasha's lips as his vengeful eyes zeroed in on Prism. Fasha didn't waste time on throwing his knives at the man as he would normally do. Instead he dashed toward Prism with great speed, his kris held backward in his hand and pointing behind him. Prism jumped backward as soon as Fasha came within range, but Fasha followed the maneuver easily and slashed across with his blade, aiming first for Prism's throat. Prism ducked out of the way and Fasha reversed the blade and thrust it toward Prism's stomach.
Prism caught Fasha's arm before the blade reached him and stepped toward Fasha, twisting his arm behind his back. The maneuver was meant to accomplish two goals. One was disarming his opponent, which seemed to have no effect on Fasha who continued to grip his blade tightly. The other purpose was to set him up to either pin or throw whomever he held in his grasp. Under normal circumstances he would immediately try for the pin, but he knew that employing that strategy with Fasha would only get him killed. Using all of his strength and channeling Fasha's forward momentum into the throw, he released Fasha and sent him sprawling forward.
Before Fasha could rise to his feet Prism was on the move, running in the opposite direction. The plaza was littered with rubble from their fight with the Ibrix demon, and Prism hoped that it would give him some semblance of cover to help him elude Fasha's senses for a short time, while he reached his intended destination. The sound of flapping wings triggered his finely tuned hearing and told him that he would have no such opportunity.
Activating his tattoos, the network of fine lines that covered his entire body except for his face, he coated his arm with thick metal and turned around just as the large raven was about to descend upon him with its talons. He punched out his metal arm, crushing the black bird's beak brutally and knocking it from the sky. When the bird hit the ground it returned to the form it had held before, and Fasha stood before Prism again.
Prism had anticipated the sudden shape-shift and kicked forward with his armored leg, activating the power of his tattoos again to increase the force of the blow. He hit Fasha in the chest with enough force to send him flying backward almost fifteen feet to land hard on his back. Knowing that Fasha would be practically uninjured and upon him again in a matter of seconds, Prism didn't wait around for him to recover. He turned on his heel and sprinted away from the scene as fast as his legs could carry him.
He was no longer focused on his defense, and Fasha noticed. Knives began to fly past Prism as he dashed across the rubble. One grazed his cheek and another sunk into his lower back, but still he kept running. The only thing that would make this fight winnable for him was directly ahead; the building Neredos had knocked the Ibrix into several minutes before had caught fire and was quickly becoming a raging inferno.
Fasha caught up to him the moment he arrived at the doorway to the structure, and made his presence known by a flying kick to Prism's exposed back. The blow sent Prism tumbling forward into the smoke-filled room, but his training allowed him to roll along the floor smoothly and come up standing, facing Fasha.
"You're good," Fasha said with a smirk. He was unfazed by the smoke, despite the thick cloud of it that swirled above his head. "Truly a master of your art, but it won't save you."
Prism crouched to avoid the smoke, though it was still stinging his eyes. He was somewhat surprised that Fasha had so readily followed him inside, considering the fires that dotted the room. His hope had been that Fasha would retreat when he saw the flames. From his understanding the Vhor had always been careful beings, focused on securing their own survival before any other goal, but something was different about Fasha. If what Grim had said to him in Salidar's dungeon were true, this was not just any Vhor, but rather, the one who led the entire demon army. Perhaps he was strong enough to resist the fires that could kill his fellows. And if that were the case then Prism was as good as dead.
"Salvation has never been the thing I've sought, Fasha," Prism replied, stifling a cough. "I'm trying to protect the world that you're destroying."
"Truly?" Fasha replied with a knowing grin. "What have I ever done to destroy your world? I've only been trying to live in it, unmolested," he explained with a bored expression. His face turned sour as he went on, "Your lover, Grim, on the other hand, spent his years hunting me, obsessed with one goal only - to end my life. You and your kind are the true killers here. Getting Salidar to free my brethren was only a matter of survival for me and my kind. Isn't self-preservation a worthy goal?"
"Why are you wasting your words, demon?" Prism snarled impatiently. "You have every intention of killing me, and yet you stand there chatting away as if I posed no danger to you. Are you really so confident in your abilities?" The instant the last word left his mouth, Prism bolted for one of the support beams holding up the ceiling. While Prism had his back turned to Fasha, Fasha moved in for the kill, stabbing forward with his kris. The blade pierced deep into Prism's lower back, but Prism grunted and refused to let it slow his momentum.
He kicked the beam with as much force as he could, causing it to split in two. The fire-weakened ceiling creaked in protest, and started to collapse down on them, flaming boards landing on their heads. Fasha screamed as the flames bit into his flesh, but he still had the upper hand. Prism could feel the burning of the poison and willed his nanites to counteract it, flooding his bloodstream with them to block the spread of the poison.
Prism was left with very few options. He could run and hope to reach Veil, and hope that she could heal him in time, or he could try to finish off Fasha here and now while he was still trying to heal the damage the flames were dealing to him.
It wasn't a difficult choice for him to make.
He snatched a curtain from beside the large window and threw it onto Fasha's writhing form, and then grabbed a piece of burning timber with which to light it. The dry fabric ignited quickly, and Fasha began to scream even louder. Prism scanned the room for something else to add to the fire when he felt two sharp cuts, one on each of his ankles as Fasha lashed out at him from beneath the burning rubble, severing his tendons. Prism danced backward and then stumbled, his feet no longer able to support his weight. The wounds in his ankles were deep, and the burning venom inside told him it would be unlikely he would be able to make it out of the building in any way other than a crawl.
While Fasha began to make headway in breaking free of the trap, Prism's eyes focused on a side room that, from his vantage point, appeared to be a kitchen. He crawled toward the room, grunting at his limbs that were no longer responding as well as they should. There was too much of the poison in him now, and he couldn't fight it at every wound. He had to make good use of the time he had left, for he would soon run out of it completely.
He made it to the kitchen and scanned the room through the smoke. Sitting on the counter were several paper sacks labeled as common baking ingredients, and among them was the one Prism had hoped to find. Flour. He struggled to his feet and pulled himself along the wall until he reached the counter top.
The kris once again found its home in his back as Fasha entered the room. Prism screamed in pain as he collapsed against the counter, giving Fasha opportunity to stab him again. Prism gritted his teeth through the pain as he reached for the sack of flour, but the kris pierced his shoulder, making it impossible for his arm to move. Prism collapsed, breathing heavily as he realized that he had failed.
And then a knife spun through the air to pierce the sack of flour, sending a puff of it into the air, which exploded as it made contact with the nearby flames. Fasha staggered backward, clutching at his face as Styx raced into the inferno and retrieved the bag of flour. Tearing it open, he threw the entire bag at Fasha, coating him in the white powder.
Fasha, Styx and Prism screamed as the cloud of flour ignited, exploding outward. Styx covered Prism with his body and then rolled over him to put out the flames that had ignited his clothing but Fasha was not as lucky. He ran from the building shrieking as the fire consumed his flesh, only to be met by Kirra who slashed into him. Kirra attempted to press the attack but Fasha had other ideas, rolling past Kirra as he clutched at his side. Kirra moved to pursue when Styx shouted his name. "Kirra! Help me move Prism! This whole building is about to collapse."
Fasha was nowhere to be seen by the time they made it through the doorway and back to the street. They collapsed to the cobblestones less than ten feet from the entrance. The poison had almost reached Prism's heart but he would fight it until his last breath. He hoped that he had done enough damage to Fasha, and that somehow he had been destroyed, but he knew that it was unlikely. Fasha would recover and then he would be back. The Vhor always came back.
Arms wrapped around him and lifted him from the cobblestones. His eyes focused on the image of Styx whom he had come to know well over the past few days. "Prism!" he heard Styx shout, although it seemed as if he were much further away than the touch of his hands would suggest. "Quick, we have to get him to Veil! He's dying!"
The mention of Veil's name brought Prism back to the moment, and though the poison had nearly run its course, he managed to find a moment of clarity. "No, Styx. It's too late for that now." He groaned as the toxin pumped through his chest. "Listen, you are one of the few capable of stopping this mess," he reached up with his last remaining strength and lay his hand against Styx's face to make sure that Styx focused on the words he was about to say. "You have to free Grim. It's the only way. Only he can kill the Vhor. Thenó"
Prism's body seized up as the poison entered his heart and burned as if a piece of molten iron had just been thrust into its chambers. He screamed brutally, until he was left gasping for air. "Prism!" Styx shouted, but the cry fell on deaf ears. There was only enough strength left for one last attempt to push Styx in the right direction.
"Find . . . Ghayle . . ." Prism gasped, and then he was gone. The light faded from his eyes as his heart stopped, and his body gave one last violent shudder before falling limp in Styx's arms.
"Dammit!" Styx cried as he checked for a pulse, though he knew he wouldn't find one. When his search confirmed that Prism had expired, Styx clutched the man's body close to him and let the tears flow. He had followed Prism for only two days, but he had become closer to him than almost anyone else he had ever known. It couldn't end like this, it just couldn't. Prism was dead, and there was nothing he could do to change it.
Styx let the tears flow for several minutes, as he felt Kirra's consoling hand rub his back. He then lowered Prism's body to the cobblestones gently. This was the moment that Prism had warned him about, and he wasn't going to let the man's lesson go to waste. He wiped his tears away and stared at Prism's lifeless face, refusing to allow himself to mourn any longer. Prism was gone and it was time to move on; the responsibility was now his to carry, as Prism had charged him. He stood and surveyed the courtyard, seeing the destruction that the demon had wrought. There was no going back to who he had been just days ago, the time before he had been dragged into the middle of this by the man who lay at his feet. He had watched good men die, and worse men triumph, time and time again, and he would no longer be allowed to sit on the side, simply trying to survive.
What good was survival if there wasn't a world worth living in?