The vision ended abruptly as Odiran thulu'Khant collided with the street below. Neredos ripped himself away from the group, his body tense and his eyes wild. He avoided the gazes of the others, though Prism could see the color flooding Neredos' cheeks.
"I apologize for disrupting the flow of memory," Neredos said. "I need just a moment."
"I felt something from you there, Neredos. Something . . ." Telzath said with concern. He stood and approached Neredos, putting his hand on Neredos' arm. "You are haunted by that image the way the spirits sometimes watch over the living."
Neredos nodded, though he did not look at Telzath. "Indeed, noble Elrok. That is quite an accurate description of my feelings. Haunted . . ." he shuddered. "That was the first time I'd ever killed a man, and I killed four in one day, in barely more than a minute."
"You didn't kill Odiran," Prism offered.
"Oh, but I did," Neredos replied, finally turning back to the others. His eyes were brimming with tears, though they were caused as much by rage as regret. "I was the one who led him to the ledge, did I not? And at many times leading up to that moment, I wished for his death with all my will. If magic is a thing of willpower, then how can it not be said that by my will he died?"
"But you did not make him jump," Prism replied.
"I believe he was simply trying to catch me and tripped," Neredos said. "He would not have jumped had he not thought he would be able to drag me back to the rooftop."
"Such is the way for those who hunt what is not right for them. No matter how well you aim, the wind can alter an arrow's path at a moment's notice," Telzath said.
"That is certainly true. It reminds me of the bounty hunter's superstition in The Shade. 'Check your mark twice lest you catch death instead'," Dogo added. As several pairs of surprised eyes turned toward him, he shifted uncomfortably and locked gazes with Neredos. "But I'm curious what happened next. Clearly your city survived the Demon War."
"Perhaps Ghayle can show us what hap—" Veil offered, but stopped abruptly when Ghayle shook her head forcefully.
"I'm afraid I can only show the memories of those who are either still living or still within the dream such as you. All those who were there that day other than you have already passed on," she said without emotion.
"So . . ." Neredos said slowly, "I won't see Alazyn again?"
"You've waited eight centuries. Eventually you will cross into the great unknown and discover her waiting for you, but it may take eight more centuries, or even longer," Ghayle replied with a noncommittal shrug.
Prism placed his hand on Neredos' arm and said gently, "You will not have to bear it alone, my brother."
"I suppose we won't get to know then?" Dogo asked.
"No . . ." Neredos replied, shaking his head. "No, I can tell you. Alazyn recounted her exploits to me, and I recall them as if she told me yesterday."
The others shared a look of intrigue, and after a moment, Neredos cleared his throat and began. "Alazyn and I had made a pact. We'd discussed it bit by little bit over the course of the months leading up to the project's completion. It was difficult to find times to discuss it when we knew we would not be observed. They had already planted listening devices in our home and Alazyn's garden, and we were always under surveillance of some sort even when we went out. Our discussions took place mostly in our own code, and even then we had to be careful to avoid the code's detection."
"That sounds like quite the hassle," Prism observed.
"But I assure you, it was necessary," Neredos replied, nodding sagely. "Alazyn was to attempt to seize control of the Everbright City after the test launch. We'd managed to convince our superiors that we needed at least one more day to run final tests on the reactors. That gave Alazyn all the time she needed to plant resources for her and our allies' use throughout the city."
"Resources?" Dogo asked.
"Weapons. Magical trinkets. Some of our allies themselves," Neredos clarified. "She smuggled aboard all our Gor allies and had them waiting in some of the smugglers' holds our loyal engineers had constructed. She ensured that the human mages that we'd trained were assigned to the clean-up crew. Almost all the humans we worked closely with, except for Odiran, had developed a fondness for us and had assured us of their loyalty. Alazyn herself then made sure she was on board for the final round of testing."
Neredos made sure the others were paying attention before continuing, his eyes growing distant as he remembered the events of the day. "The next test was of the navigational thrusters, a test flight that was supposed to only go a few hundred miles to the north and then back to the launch site. As soon as the city was well away from the construction site, Alazyn gave the signal to our allies that they should take over the city."
"And they won?" Veil asked with surprise. "Against trained Oligan military personnel?"
"Yes," Neredos replied, not bothering to answer her incredulity with an explanation. Instead, he continued his recitation of events. "After they took control, one of our human allies, Dreok Talbar—one of the Lady Alsha Tremlaine's ancestors, if I'm not mistaken—used a spell of his own design to mimic the captain's voice and appearance and managed to convince them that the navigational controls had gone awry, and the city was on an uncontrollable trajectory toward Gor territory."
"Didn't they send someone to investigate?" Veil asked, her incredulity only increasing.
"Of course, but the investigators weren't expecting any enemies when they arrived," Neredos replied with a touch of impatience. "Alazyn was ready for them, took them captive, and then set another person to impersonate their leader. For the next three days, the Everbright City inched toward Gor territory while Dreok kept the government from sending others to find out what had happened."
"And then you arrived shortly thereafter," Prism said.
Neredos nodded. "That's correct. It took me a while to escape from Oligan, because I was a wanted man. Despite the ability to fly, a flying human wasn't exactly a common sight, and I was too vulnerable during the daylight. I had to fly at night, which offered its own challenges. I lost my way several times."
"I know a thing or two about losing my way," Veil said, a touch uncomfortably.
"Aye, there's a metaphor or a dozen in there for sure," Neredos replied.
"Metaphors . . ." Veil muttered. "Why is it always a metaphor?"
"Is something on your mind, Veil?" Prism asked, turning toward her with concern.
Veil needed only say the man's name to answer Prism's question. "Master Vinhkroludar."
"Of course," Prism replied, chuckling.
"Here, let me show you," Veil said, waving the others forward as she took Ghayle's arm and chose the path into memory.
Veil stood before the sweeping boughs of an apple tree on the edge of the Temple of the Mountain. The tree itself seemed out of place, but there was more to it than that. Everything about the scene around her stood out as peculiar, from the way the moon seemed brighter than it should be, to the quiet of the courtyard.
The latter was explained by the mass exodus from the Temple that morning. Most of the humans who had escaped the carnage of Kobinaru after the revolution and the earthquake had decided to move on, realizing that life in the Temple was not sustainable. The monks had begun running out of provisions to feed so many. There was food in the countryside, or so it was said. Therefore the humans had left, their bellies already beginning to ache.
The moon . . . the moon was not truly brighter than before, or was it? Perhaps now that the lights from Kobinaru no longer competed for dominance of the night sky, the moon's light had simply won the battle over the stars and radiated its victory. Or, Veil noted, it could've been the way the moon highlighted that spot of dried blood on the ground, where a Fedain had committed murder.
So much had changed in the last week. It had seemed to Veil that the world could still be salvaged, until the revolution occurred. Desperate hope had clung to her like a shroud ever since Master Janlynd's death, but she had hardly managed to do more than wrap herself in its thin warmth. She'd been weeks away from releasing her vaccine to the general public, and now the hospital of Kobinaru lay in ruins, shattered by disaster after disaster and her samples along with it.
Had there ever been a point in trying? Had it all been in vain? The world had made Janlynd a martyr, and her own father had now followed suit. Grim had succumbed to his darkness and crossed a line even Veil could never hope to understand. She ached for her losses. The world had lost its way, and Veil could not help to navigate its now twisting passages no matter how brightly the stars now shone.
Possibility had once guided her. Her morality had once held her firm to the path she knew she must walk. But where was it now? What had it brought her but this sea of pain on a quiet night when the moon illuminated her deepest loss of all?
As if in response to her despair, Master Vinhkroludar's voice spoke from the shadows of the Temple behind her. "You know, your brother stood at that spot this morning."
Had he read her mind? The question lingered in Veil's thoughts as she pointedly avoided staring at the bloodstain where her brother had murdered a man. No . . . not her brother. Not anymore. "I do not have a brother," she said forcefully.
"I suppose it is as you say," Master Vinh replied, shrugging as he moved to stand before her. He curiously regarded the apple tree for a moment, then faced her, his expression blank.
"What would you have me say otherwise, monk?" Veil asked spitefully.
"I see you've let go of our earlier familiarity," Master Vinh said with a wry chuckle.
"I have no more love for humanity. They stole my father, my brother, and my home. What good would it do for me to offer familiarity? I do not know anyone anymore," Veil said, and resisted the urge to spit at Master Vinh's feet. She had never felt such anger before, nor such a need to display it. It reminded her of the nights when she'd witnessed her father clutch his wine glass in a white-knuckled grip, as if he wanted to crush it in his fist. He had come close to violence at times, near the end. She'd wanted to be just like him at one point, but after witnessing what Grim had done, she could not bring herself to see any good in violence whatsoever.
"Don't you have a dutiful human bodyguard who followed you when last we met in a setting like this?" Master Vinh asked.
The sudden change in topic caught Veil off guard, and it struck her with an edge of despair that momentarily overrode the pain. She had managed to corner Prism before he left and inquire after Captain Farr, and learned that he'd been shot while helping them escape. Or, at least Prism was nearly certain that had occurred. One more person Veil had to mourn, a man she had an almost insatiable lust for, which she had never sated.
Master Vinh's question was nothing but cruel, yet in asking it he displayed enough ignorance for Veil to forgive him. Master Vinh was concerned about the people in her life, and that was something most did not care about anymore. Nevertheless, the abruptness of the question sparked a desire for clarification. "Why would you ask me about that? You know that I did, Master Vinh."
"My apologies, Lady Veil. I simply wished to remind you that not everyone is disloyal, when one as dutiful as he is around," Master Vinh replied with a subtle bow.
Veil began to second guess her opinion of Master Vinh's intentions. She saw a spark of mischief in his eye that warred with his blank expression. He had an ulterior motive, and not one that she appreciated. "He died during the siege on the palace. He died so that we could escape."
"I see," Master Vinh replied, nodding thoughtfully.
"How can you be so emotionless at a time like this?" Veil asked incredulously.
"Emotionless?" Master Vinh replied with a raised eyebrow.
"You're so cold," Veil replied, shaking her head in dismay. "You act as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened at all. Here you are, a Gor in the middle of a war-torn human land, a new Cataclysm upon us by all accounts, should that demonic creature be believed."
Master Vinh shrugged. "What is there to be done but face the future with both eyes forward, nothing but shadows in our past? Shadows are nothing but the memory of where light was not, and we can only illuminate the truths they hide by walking into the light."
Veil let out an exasperated sigh, throwing her hands up in disgust. "You speak in riddles but do not answer my question."
Master Vinh raised a hand to stall her as she turned to go. "This world stands on the brink of great change, that is quite clear," he said solemnly. "You came to us quite recently, asking our members to partake in a scientific endeavor. You clearly saw signs and omens in your own way. You knew change was coming, and you hoped to make it positive. Your eyes were to the future, but you acted in the present. You walked forward. As a result, you created something that could save the lives of millions."
"And I'm supposed to walk forward now, without having any hope that we'll be able to salvage the vaccines and implement distribution to the masses?" Veil asked, reconsidering her urge to spit at Master Vinh's feet again. "I'm supposed to hope that we'll be able to make everything better?"
"Hope?" Master Vinh replied, his expression crinkling in confusion. "I said nothing of hope, only action. You acted, and you will act again. If you keep your eyes on the light instead of the shadow, your actions will be for the benefit of us all."
Veil struggled to find meaning in those words. Despite the shred of wisdom she saw in them, the world still felt bleak and pointless. What world was she there to benefit? Who would she care to save, now that all whom she loved were dead. Her Fedain oaths to protect the people seemed to mean nothing now. "But does anyone even deserve it?" She asked. "Perhaps it is better for us all to die, given what we've become."
"And what have we become?"
"Thieves," Veil replied after only a moment's thought. "Thieves who believe we are entitled to things that belong to everyone. We steal the resources of the world for our pleasure and prosperity. We steal the land from the flora and fauna, and think we're stealing it from each other."
"We steal the breath from all living things, but is that not what all life does?" Master Vinh replied.
Veil recoiled from Master Vinh. "You would excuse our behavior as being right because it is natural?"
"No, I would excuse thievery as not always being negative," Master Vinh replied with a shrug. He paced around her as he continued, his hands behind his back as he gazed thoughtfully at the path before him. "It is not the thievery itself which is the problem. All life consumes life, Lady Veil. It is what we are stealing, and why we are stealing it. We steal to promote our own pleasures, it's true, but we also steal to preserve ourselves. If we were not meant to preserve ourselves, then why do we exist at all?"
Veil waited until Master Vinh was behind her and started toward the entrance to the temple. "I don't have the inclination to pursue such philosophies at the moment, Master Vinh. If you'll excuse me."
"Your human bodyguard . . . was his name Farr?" Master Vinh asked.
The question stopped Veil in her tracks, and she turned to face the master again. "How did you know that?" she asked, her breath catching in her throat.
"He was brought in several minutes ago and asked about you," Master Vinh explained with a sly smile. "They shot him three times, though he says they shot at him even more than that. He only managed to make it out alive because of that vaccine of yours. At least there's one loyal soldier, hm?"
Veil's pulse quickened with each word. "Where is he?" she asked frantically.
"The second floor. Masters Darrow and Farik are attending him. Find one of them and you'll find him," Master Vinh replied with a grin.
If the master said anything else, Veil couldn't hear him. She was already running.
"Captain Farr!" Veil shouted, passing between the two surprised monks standing just outside his doorway. She ignored their grumbled protests, her focus exclusively on the man laying on the bedroll beside a dim lantern.
"Lady Veil! I am glad you're alive after all," Captain Farr said, rising to a sitting position. He was naked from the waist up, his body glistening with perspiration. Everything about him showed the signs of exhaustion, or possibly sickness, though Veil was determined to remedy that if she could.
"What happened?" She asked as she knelt beside him, taking his hand. "Prism said you didn't make it out of the room alive and—"
Captain Farr put a hand over hers to stall her. "Prism had no reason to suspect that I'd survived. He didn't know I had that vaccine coursing through my veins. It was difficult to make it here. Kobinaru is a dangerous place, especially now that . . ." His voice faded his eyes gained a slightly glazed look. He shook himself, clearing away the haze of some difficult memory and added, "You should stay far away from there."
"I intend to," Veil replied. Then, no longer able to hold back her emotions, she wrapped him in an embrace as tears rolled down her cheeks. "I thought you were dead."
"I thought I was as well," Captain Farr replied, returning the embrace after a brief hesitation. "I went to the hospital to look for you, thinking you'd probably be there. But there was nothing, no indication. I saw Captain Tson just before he died, however. He pointed me in this direction. It took me a while to make it."
With even more contact with his skin, Veil could assess his physical condition much more easily. She sensed none of the pain that would be associated with having been shot several times, and could find no trace of the damage. Someone had healed him already, or the vaccine did even better work than she thought it was capable of. Still, she could feel his exhaustion. "Captain Farr, you need rest."
Captain Farr pushed her back gently, and when he could look into her eyes again, he said, "Please, do not call me Captain anymore. I do not serve the Ultakan military, I only serve you. My name is Tellen."
"Tellen Farr," Veil said, testing the unfamiliar name.
"That's it," Tellen replied, smiling warmly.
"I've retained my title of Lady because it helps me organize those left behind, but I'd appreciate it if you started calling me Veil from now on," Veil said, with equal warmth. "There is no longer a Kobinaru aristocracy. We are finished."
"But, Lady Veil—" Tellen protested.
Veil put a hand to his mouth and said firmly, "If I am to drop rank with you, you will drop rank with me."
Tellen nodded once, his smile widening. "As you wish, Veil."
"How are you feeling?" Veil asked. "Master Vinhkroludar said that you had been shot, but you seem to be doing just fine to me."
Tellen gave her a wry smile. "Well, the nanites kept me alive, but Sharis stopped by, actually. He made sure I was in good shape. I'm exhausted, however."
Veil's eyes widened in surprise. "I wasn't aware Sharis was still here. I would've thought some other Fedain took care of you. Though, I wasn't aware any other Fedain remained in the temple, either."
Tellen nodded. "They found Sharis in some dark corner while they were looking for you. The monks reminded him of his oaths to the Church of the Blood to watch over humanity."
Veil snorted derisively. "That must've been some lesson."
"From the look on Sharis' face, I'd say so," Tellen replied, nodding solemnly. "It seems most of the Fedain are having trouble reconciling themselves with this new shift in power. I'm glad to see that you, at least, escaped unharmed. The monks tell me that Lord Grimfaeth did as well."
Veil winced at the mention of her brother's name, but chose to avoid the subject entirely, and focus on her joy in the moment. "It is good to see you. I have so few allies left, Tellen."
"You have one who is loyal to the end. What will we be doing now, Veil?" Tellen asked. His eyes showed nothing but sincerity, an utter willingness to follow her every word.
But Veil didn't know what to do with that loyalty anymore. Her world had already died, the last wisps of its ghost dissipating quickly, like a morning fog in the sunlight. Try as she might, she doubted she could catch any of it before it disappeared completely. "I don't know. I don't know that there's anything we can do," she said, biting her lip nervously. "I'm completely lost."
"You can rally the people behind you," Tellen suggested.
"I can what?" Veil asked with surprise.
"You are a natural leader, and there are many people who will be looking for stability after what has occurred here. Though there are rebels who will see you as a threat to their power, most of the population will swing toward the strongest voice. That can be you," Tellen explained with a shrug.
"But who would listen to a Fedain anymore?" Veil asked incredulously.
"I would, for one," a voice said from behind her.
Veil turned to see a familiar face standing in the doorway. "Master Vinh?"
"The Order of the Mountain stands with you, Lady Veil," Master Vinh said, inclining his head slightly. "We held council this morning. If you will lead us, we'll fight for you."
Veil shook her head wordlessly, looking between him and Tellen. She was at a complete loss, still not sure what either man expected her to do. No, not just one man, but the entire Order of the Mountain! What business did she have leading them? "Lead you where? And why me?"
"I'll answer your second question first," Master Vinh replied. "To the best of our knowledge, you are the highest-ranking member left of the old aristocracy. Even without the nation of Ultaka backing you, your name will still carry weight among loyalists. As for where to lead us, we believe there are forces martialing to the south, rallying to the rebel banner. We need to either negotiate a peace or stand against them."
"There is also the matter of the Cataclysmic doom I've been hearing about ever since I arrived," Tellen said. "Having someone at the helm who is not only levelheaded but good in heart as well seems like a proper answer to our current dilemma."
"Yes . . . there is that," Master Vinh replied, nodding thoughtfully. "Perhaps with that in mind, you'll be able to negotiate a peace after all? The Order of the Mountain, though we have some influence, are not in the business of leading armies of any sort. We will bolster any cause of peace, however, and we are in agreement that you are our best hope to achieve that peace. Especially if we're about to face the Cataclysm again."
"I don't know," Veil replied, shaking her head.
Tellen took both her hands in his and bid her to look at him. "Stand with me," he said firmly, "I will be your bodyguard to the end of my days."
"Keep your eyes forward, Lady Veil," Master Vinh said. "Focus not on the shadows behind you, for the only way to see what they conceal is to walk into the light. You must move forward. That is the only way that we can reach the end of this."
"I'm not sure I'm strong enough," Veil said quietly.
"You asked why I do not worry?" Master Vinh said. "It is because whether there is strength or not is irrelevant. We must do what we can to overcome the obstacles. Whether that be surviving a mild winter or the end of the world, the process remains the same. Take steps. Move forward. Work."
Veil looked between the two men again, and after a few moments found herself slowly nodding. "I will do my best," she said resolutely.
"Then it will be enough," Master Vinh replied. "That is all that can ever be asked of anyone, and it will help us see the end of this trial."
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