"That must've been quite terrifying, seeing a demon for the first time," Dogo said as the vision faded. He regarded Prism curiously. "Though I must give you credit for running toward the problem instead of away from it. You fight with tremendous integrity, and I respect that."
"Considering the sacrifices you made on behalf of The Shade in facing that Quay, it's a respect I return to you," Prism replied, bowing humbly. "I think it's that willingness to do what needs to be done that makes us Chosen. Or so I've gathered from Ghayle, anyway."
Dogo's eyes flickered toward Veil. "What needs to be done, even if it's completely wrong, it seems."
Prism frowned, searching Dogo's gaze. After a moment, he nodded thoughtfully and turned toward Veil. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Veil, but you once dealt with the Quay on quite a personal level, didn't you?"
Veil nodded. "Yes, that demon breed in particular affected a lot of my decisions in the early part of the war."
"That's what I thought," Prism said. He returned his gaze to Dogo and said, "I wasn't there, but I heard the stories from more than just her. Grim and I ended up doing a lot of our fighting in the north during the early part of the war. But Veil kept order in the south, and did a hell of a job doing it. Perhaps it would be best to show you, however."
"I think that is a great plan, First," Ghayle said smoothly, touching Prism shoulder gently before reaching her hand forward for everyone to touch. "The Trial was held on many layers, the war on many fronts. In time you will see nearly all of them, in some form or another, but this event was indeed a turning point."
Over one billion people had died since Veil's father's death, but it was that one death in particular which troubled her most right now. How she wished he was here to offer her wisdom in this war she was losing. He surely would have done a better job than she, no matter how much support she had behind her.
It had been three months since the loss of the southeastern peninsula, where hundreds of millions of people had lived. The revolution days before the demons invaded to the southwest had claimed its own millions, but the demons were far worse. They left no traces of civilization in their wake, and even when her forces managed to beat them back, sickness and injury claimed many of the survivors.
And she didn't know what the losses were like in Oligan, Lodan, Incaria, or among the Gor and Elrok tribes throughout the world. One in two Ultakan citizens were dead. How would they ever survive against the endless horde coming from whatever hell spawned these demons?
Strange news had come out of the east of late, however. Veil still had not yet grown accustomed to hearing her brother's name again. It seemed Grim and Prism had joined up with her armies led by General Wayar and Grandmaster Jovun. They had been key players in the battle of Cherrim Pass, keeping the demon forces arrayed on the southeastern peninsula from invading farther inland.
Both were spoken of with reverence, becoming legends in their own right. It was said that fighting side-by-side, Grim and Prism had killed more demons than any hundred men combined, though Veil was certain these numbers must be exaggerated. No one could be that effective, no matter what dark forces they drew upon.
She hated herself for hating Grim. It was irrational, especially if he was doing as well as it seemed. But killing demons was still killing, and if Veil let go of that moral standpoint, she would cease to be Fedain. If she ceased to be Fedain, she would lose her right to rule, and the people needed her.
Tellen Farr had helped her maintain her moral purity throughout this difficult year and a half. He was the greatest thing to ever happen to Veil, and though she had to keep her relationship with him mostly secret, she was glad to share her bed with him. He brought her comfort through all the stressful nights, and gave her many opportunities to release all her physical tension in more productive ways than violence.
It was he who led the armies, with very little help from Veil. She oversaw the maintenance of society, keeping order and making sure resources were allocated properly. Veil had the final say in all military matters, though she never exercised it. Tellen knew far more about fighting wars than Veil ever would, and if he ever needed more insight, The Order of the Mountain was more than happy to advise him.
Veil had kept Master Vinh close at hand as well. When the Order offered her an advisor, he had been her obvious choice. He already knew Veil well, and also understood her and her tenuous relationship with those around her. He was one of few she could trust to watch her back, though he spent most of his time at the front lines instead of with her.
They'd set up headquarters in Khadrun, a small town nearly a hundred miles north of Xarin. The capital had fallen to the demons several months earlier, though there had not been much left of it by that point anyway. In the wake of the cataclysmic events precipitating the demonic arrival, much of the city had burned, taking a large portion of the revolutionary forces with it.
Khadrun was an old city, built in the days of horses and swords, and it had preserved its old wall that had once kept out bandits and raiders. The demons had only made it to the city twice, and in both of those cases, those walls had held. Of course, since several of the demon breeds could fly, the walls did not help is much as Veil wished they did.
And there was another problem still, one which walls did nothing to help at all. Disease had come to Khadrun, a disease as vicious as anything Veil had ever seen. She knew its source, but that seemed to matter very little in curing it. She was not the only Fedain working on the problem, of course, but the others were just as baffled as she. The Quay demons, the brightly colored feathered serpents which tore men apart with their claws and teeth, carried a dangerous toxin in their blood. During the last demon siege of Khadrun, a Quay corpse had polluted their water supply. Veil's people were dying, and she could do nothing about it.
But still she moved among the sick, offering comfort where she could, and moving on when she could not. More people died every day, and even some of the Fedain were starting to show signs of weariness. Veil wasn't certain if it was a sign of the sickness, but she feared it may be. If even her people could be infected by the Quay, was there any hope at all?
She stopped by the bed of one of those suffering, taking his hand in hers. He coughed several times, dark spittle covering his lips. He was on the brink of death, and still he clung to her, still he fought. Could she really give up so easily when this man did not?
"He'll be dead within the hour," said a voice behind her. Veil turned toward the sound but maintained her grip on the dying man's hand. An old Fedain doctor stood behind her, cleaning his hands on a towel. He hadn't shaved in weeks, a scraggly beard giving him a grandfatherly appearance. "I wish I knew what I could do to help him, other than give him the bed. Still can't make any sense of this disease. It's like the body turns against itself, as surely as any revolution. Some of those who still have faith in the Blood wonder if it's a sign of our own sin."
Veil finally released the dying man's hand and faced the doctor fully. "If sin is what this is about, then the whole world has sinned. I'm willing to believe that is true, but not yet. I'm not willing to condemn us all until the last one of us falls."
The doctor nodded appreciatively. "Yes, I suppose it is as you say. There is still good in this world, still something to live for until we no longer draw breath. Thank you, Lady Veil, for lightening my spirits a bit this day."
Veil smiled, inclining her head slightly as she stepped past the doctor, briefly touching him as she left. She could do no more for the sick here, no matter how much she wished she could. She wanted to believe her own words, though in her heart she did not. The world had certainly sinned to bring this calamity down on them. There was no hope, only denial until they all succumbed to the evils in the world.
"You seem troubled, Veil," Tellen said, kissing the back of her neck before wrapping his arms around her. They were lying in her bed after a brief session of lovemaking, though Veil's heart had not been in it. "More than usual, if you'll forgive the observation."
Veil suppressed the urge to turn toward him. As much as she thought she had to gain from facing him, she didn't want him to see the indecision in her eyes. Doubt had nearly completely overridden her, and she could not bear to infect her general, her greatest champion in these troubled times.
There were other warriors of course, greater than Tellen. He was a competent commander, but it was good that he rarely led the troops on the front lines himself. Many of the soldiers who'd chosen to follow Veil in the early days were better commanders still, and Tellen left a great deal of the individual decisions up to them.
It was one of the reasons he stayed behind to guard Veil so often. Tellen led the soldiers garrisoned at Khadrun as well, though he left the day to day minutiae to his second. The rest of his time was spent following Veil and making sure no threats were made on her person. Unfortunately, despite the need for unity in these troubled times, those threats came far too often.
"It's nothing," Veil said softly, hoping Tellen wouldn't hear the lie. It wasn't nothing at all, it was, in fact, everything. "I've just spent too much time among the sick recently. Seems nearly everyone in the city has come down with it. Everyone but you and the Fedain, anyway."
"I'm sure they'll figure out a cure," Tellen said, kissing her just behind her ear. She shuddered, wanting to recoil from his touch with the dread that filled her now, and hoped he would interpret it as a tremor of pleasure. She didn't want him to think that his touch was unwelcome, even though he would gladly leave her alone if she was honest. She just couldn't risk that he wouldn't come back when she wanted his touch again.
"Yes, but when?" Veil asked, staring ahead of her in the dark. There was nothing but a blank wall before her, but still she traced the hanging shadows across it, attempting to find focus. "Since it seems you're not affected, maybe if I can find some way to recreate the vaccine . . ."
Tellen sighed and released her, rolling onto his back. Had she been too obvious? No, Veil realized, Tellen simply needed to think, and he did that best when he wasn't cuddling up against her. "You know that's a dead end," he said without a trace of judgment. "If some of your colleagues had survived, maybe. But you already said you don't know enough about the science behind it to do it yourself, and everyone else here would have to start from scratch. Their attention is better spent elsewhere."
"We have another option," Veil said after a moment.
"You," Veil said, finally turning toward him. "We could make transfusions from your blood. At least those with your blood-type would be able to benefit."
Tellen answered immediately, "I'm willing if you'd like me to."
"But that also means revealing your secret. No one knows that you have the nanites," Veil replied. "That's part of the reason why you're able to attract the support of the soldiers. They all know that you take injury and keep fighting, even injuries that would kill almost anyone."
"That's true." Tellen nodded thoughtfully, then shrugged as if it didn't matter. "But I'm willing to reveal my advantage if you think it would help."
"I'll consider it. I'm not sure that the effect on morale would be worth it, especially since there is only a limited amount of blood to go around without compromising you," Veil replied, shaking her head. "No, the more I think about it, the more it won't work. If we give a transfusion to one, others will be clamoring for it. How could we explore something that will only help a few people?"
"But wouldn't the first people you give the transfusions to be able to eventually give it to someone else?" Tellen asked.
Veil nodded, but eventually conceded the point with a nod. "As I said, I'll consider it, but I'm still not convinced it won't backfire. The first people we gave it to would have to be trusted, and even then we would have to continue to . . ." She trailed off as the potential problems slowly began to consume her. There were just too many variables, and she couldn't trust anyone else. How could he be so casual about this?
"Speaking of creating a link between blood . . ." Tellen said, reaching out and touching Veil's naked stomach. "Have you . . . have you gotten tested?"
Veil hoped Tellen couldn't feel her body tense up. She knew exactly what he meant, and even though she wanted to play dumb, there was no use to it. "I'm not pregnant," she said slowly. "I know you want us to have a child, but . . . still nothing. Perhaps something is wrong with my reproductive systems."
"I didn't even know Fedain could have health problems," Tellen said, sighing.
Veil wanted to scream. She was frustrated at the disappointment in his voice, knowing she was the cause even though he was unaware. She'd already been pregnant five times, had felt it from the moment of conception as all Fedain women did, and had terminated each one as soon as they began. She couldn't explain this to Tellen, not ever. He wanted to create a family with her, but she could not fathom why. How could he wish to bring a child into this apocalyptic time? How could anyone?
And so she fed him a lie like she always did. It was a new one, the one she had hinted at before. She continued to build the web of her deceit, thickening the walls brick by brick, until inevitably not even she would be able to see the truth. "We can if we're born with the defects. Our bodies are only capable of restoring our organs to the pattern of our own DNA. We cannot escape our genetics any better than anyone else can."
She must have missed something in her tone, because Tellen's reply bore a hint of suspicion. "You do want a child, don't you?"
"Yes, of course. For you . . ." Veil trailed off, leaning in to kiss his cheek before she continued, hoping the gesture would help put him at ease. "I would do anything for you."
"But do you want a child?" Tellen pressed, turning toward her again. Yes, there was suspicion in that gaze, though it was backed by sincerity and love. It was almost enough to make Veil want to tell him the truth. Almost.
"Children are a blessing, Tellen," Veil replied cryptically. Though she didn't believe the logic behind it, she offered an answer she hoped would put his fears to rest. "New life in a destroyed world. It will be rough for a child, but if we don't have children then who will raise up to keep fighting?"
"In the wake of destruction, new growth takes hold. Sometimes that's the only thing that makes the ground fertile," Tellen said, smiling. He looked like he was about to say more, but Veil put a hand on his arm, stalling him.
"Wait . . ." Veil said, Tellen's words sprouting in her mind and bearing the fruit of thought, "destruction to create new growth . . . Tellen, you're a genius!"
"How so?" Tellen asked with surprise.
"Nothing, just . . . oh! You've given me hope again!" Veil said excitedly, rolling out of the bed and reaching for her clothing. It may have been the middle of the night, but she had places to go, and ideas to put to work.
Tellen started after her, reaching for his own clothing. "Where are you going?"
"Get ready," Veil said, grinning with madness. "We need to get to the sick hall right away. Right away!"
Veil rushed into the sick hall with Tellen in tow, dodging past the concerned doctors and nurses working the night shift. She looked for the Fedain with the mustache but saw him nowhere and realized his shift must've already ended. She had hoped to be able to test her idea with him as a witness. He had been just as hopeless as she, after all.
But there was one familiar face, the same soldier whose hand she had held before. Against all odds, the soldier had fought hard against the sickness destroying his body and managed to hold on a little while longer than his prognosis had originally indicated. He was conscious even, if slightly delirious.
As a procession slowly gathered around Veil, she took the dying soldier's hand and gently tried to secure his attention. "Can you hear me?" She asked.
"So much death," the soldier wheezed. "So much death for our sins."
"Hush now about that," Veil said softly. "There is no sin here, only mercy. I've come to help you."
The soldier continued in his delirium. "We should've never stormed the Council, never overthrown the King."
Veil paused at this. She had extended amnesty to those who had rebelled against the Ultakan government. She'd met numerous soldiers who would've killed her before the war on account of her heritage, but they all flocked to her banner now. She had forgiven them, for the demons were a far greater threat.
But this man was different. He spoke about storming the Council, and that could only mean one thing. He had been there during the National Assembly, when her father had been killed on the national newscasts. Perhaps he'd even been the one to pull the trigger on him. Was this truly the man she wanted to heal?
She hesitated as the man coughed, dark blood oozing from his lips. Perhaps she couldn't even heal him anyway. She didn't know if this would work, and it was better to try on someone who was this close to death. She had other options, but she had come here first. This was a man who needed her, regardless of the violence he had committed. Perhaps he did have sin, but Veil was a Fedain, and it was her duty to heal all those who required healing.
"I need you to try and focus," Veil said. "I have to ask you a question, and I need to know your answer before I can go through with it."
The man gasped, clutching at Veil's arm. She searched his emotions as well as she could through the contact, but mostly she only felt desperation and regrets from him. Both were common among the dying, and left Veil little indication as to whether the man perceived her at all.
Still, she had to ask anyway. It was only proper, especially considering her plan. "I'm about to try to heal this illness, but in doing so I'm going to have to cause you pain and harm. I am not certain it will work, and I am not certain you will recover even if it does. This is the first time I have made this attempt, and I'm nearly certain it is the only time anyone has made this attempt. Do you want me to try and heal you?"
The man gripped her tighter, gasping and then coughing again. There was no noticeable shift in his emotions, only the intensity of his symptoms. Veil tried again.
"I'm going to need your permission," Veil said insistently. "I will not do harm to another without their permission. If you would like me to heal you, you will have to let me know somehow."
The man started to speak, but it devolved into coughed before any recognizable words came out. His grip loosened, his eyes rolling backward. Veil took hold of his collar and shook him gently. "Something, anything! Tap my arm with your finger for yes!" Veil said firmly.
And with those words, the man tightened his grip just enough be able to deliver a firm tap with his index finger. Then he released her, collapsing onto his cot as his body began to seize. Veil wasted no time in placing both hands against his skin and delving into him.
She could feel all the places where the demonic disease had ripped apart the man's body. There were nearly no parts left that were healthy, and she wasn't sure that the strategy would work with this much damage to repair. Still she had to try.
Beginning with the most vital systems, Veil found the line between healthy and unhealthy tissue and stopped. In order to do what she was planning, she had to break a Fedain taboo. The same one she had vilified and disowned Grim for breaking. While she had no intention of killing the man, he could still die as a result of her actions even though the disease had precipitated those actions. But she would also be using her healing to harm someone.
Harming to heal. Perhaps that's what was happening with the world. Maybe some cosmic force and decided that the world needed to be cleansed of its tumors for new life to grow. Maybe the demons were a message, and in that case, perhaps the way through was to follow suit.
She hesitated only a second longer, and then destroyed the infected tissue in the man's heart. The man began convulsing under her touch. Somewhere nearby, she heard one of the doctors cry out and attempt to intervene. Veil was vaguely aware of Tellen intercepting the doctors, keeping them back. Vague awareness was all she could offer, for Veil put all other things from her mind as she continued her experiment with surgical focus.
Even as she destroyed the infected tissue, she built up good tissue from the remaining healthy portions of his heart to replace it. She gave the cells as little guidance as she could as she urged them to multiply in the patterns necessary to rebuild the heart, fueling them with her own life force. Bit by bit, Veil worked her way through the entire circulatory system, rebuilding every blood vessel on her way.
Then she pulled away, staring down at the man. He was breathing a little easier, but his body was covered in sweat, and she still wasn't sure she could keep him alive. She'd have to do something about his lungs before she left him alone, or he'd stop breathing long before she could fix any of his other systems.
"What do you think you're doing!?" someone shouted from behind Veil.
Veil turned at the words to see a Fedain rushing toward her. Not a doctor this time, but a woman Veil knew as Kovrane. A Priest of the Blood, one of the few who still wore their robes despite the reputation the Church of the Blood now had among the populace of Ultaka.
"I'm healing this man," Veil said simply. "And, if you'd please stay out of it, perhaps he might even live."
"I was giving comfort to the poor souls in the other room when I heard the doctor shouting," Kovrane said, her face darkening. Eyes like narrow slits, she turned her sharp features on the dying man and said, "You must be aggravating his pain somehow."
One of the doctors, a young Fedain man named Garamsyl, stepped between Veil and the priest. "Lady Veil was attempting a new method for treating the disease, as I understand from what she was asking the patient. A method which causes harm in order to heal, given the insistence of her requests for permission from the patient before beginning."
"Blasphemy!" Kovrane shouted. "As if such a terrible thing could be justified for any reason! And you allowed her to do this?"
"I did not know what she was doing until just before it began, Kovrane," Garamsyl replied dryly. "And once it had begun, it could've caused far more damage to have stopped it until it was completed. When someone is delving that deeply into healing, it is best to let them finish, even if they're doing it wrong."
"Not wrong," Veil heard herself say, then placed her hand against her patient's arm again. "Not wrong if it works."
"If it works," Garamsyl repeated, "I'm willing to at least hear what you have to say on the matter, as I think the rest of our staff will as well. We have grown tired of this disease we can do nothing about through conventional methods, and I think we'd all like some idea of a breakthrough, regardless of the moral implications of your actions."
"This is madness!" Kovrane shouted.
The doctor shook his head, and the gesture was mirrored by the rest of the medical staff. "No, the only madness is to not use whatever resources we have available to save our people, Human and Fedain alike. We as doctors have an obligation to help our patients. All Fedain share that distinction, as decreed by your own religion. If we cannot look past tradition to hold that greater oath, then we deserve to be destroyed."
"We do deserve to be destroyed," Kovrane said. "We have sinned, and that is why the demons have come."
"Then perhaps the best way to escape our sin is to try and take a different path than the one's we've followed before," Veil said, rising to her feet and turning to face Kovrane. "Did not our ways and methods lead us here? To the rebellion? To the war with Oligan? To the halls of sick and dying that we can do nothing to save? We must change with the world, or the world will swallow us. The sin is our stagnation and desire to maintain the status quo. For centuries the humans of Ultaka have worshipped us, putting us on a pedestal for our willingness to use our gifts to heal them. They turned against us when we sought power and comfort instead of mere protection in return."
"They turned against us because they were sinners as well, who forgot their sacred duty to safeguard our lives from outside threats in return for our aid," Kovrane said. "And now you have started the chain reaction that will lead to the unraveling of what remains of that sacred trust."
Veil shook her head solemnly. "No. That's not it at all. We cannot grow if we continue to act like all change is a detriment. Do you know the real reason why the war with Oligan began? It was because when the Fedain first came to power, some humans refused to worship them and traveled to the west to escape Fedain rule. The Fedain refused to let go of the need to control the Oligani and 'maintain that sacred trust'. The Oligani resisted, needing to maintain their own integrity."
"I thought no one could remember why the war began," Tellen said quietly.
Veil looked to him with surprise, but at seeing his curiosity and not judgment, she simply nodded. "That's widely circulated, yes, but the Fedain nobility have known all along. Many of us knew that we'd failed but denied it. Some, like my father, wished to heal that wound but knew that it would take a long time yet for Oligan to forgive us."
"It would stand to reason that it no longer matters, given the state of the world," Tellen replied.
Veil smiled but shook her head. "No, it matters more now than it ever did. Because we must remember the price of maintaining foolish pride in tradition. We must remember what stagnation does to a people, and why we must embrace change." She turned to Kovrane once again and said, "I do not wish to see your world destroyed, but it has already begun and will continue under the onslaught of demon and army alike. We have one choice, and that's to adapt, or we will all be swept away."
Without waiting for Kovrane's reply, Veil turned back to her patient and knelt down, taking his hand once more. Before she delved back into his flesh, however, she reached up and smoothed back his hair with a mother's tenderness. "I forgive you of your sins, soldier. No matter what path led you to this fate, I forgive you. My father would've done so, and he taught me that it is better to let go of that which you cannot change. I'm going to heal you some more, but only if you give me permission. Please . . . squeeze my hand if I have your permission."
The soldier squeezed Veil's hand gently, and Veil went to work again. It was time to eradicate the tumors and make way for new growth. No matter how painful it would be.
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