Neredos and his group made it to the edge of the ruins of Khadrun before the demons turned around, the Vhor having reached its army and delivered its report. There were people trying to reach the gate, and they must be destroyed at all costs.
Or at least that was how Neredos perceived it, as he stared out from the rubble toward the west. The demons had halted, and now they were turning around; turning toward the ruins of Khadrun and waiting for something to move.
Those beside him wore expressions ranging from eagerness, to acceptance, to worry. Veil was the one who troubled Neredos the most, as she was the least used to this kind of situation. She'd spent most of the war away from the front lines, though she'd done more than her fair share in the effort against the demons. She shouldn't be here.
But did any of them really deserve this? Perhaps at one point, the world could've used a blow or two to its ego, but this . . . Demons at every turn, and even still the machinations of men moved forward. Even now, when the whole world seemed on the brink of disaster, they had let a woman like Veil walk out into the wilderness to save them instead of saving themselves.
It was a travesty. One that Neredos didn't want to accept. Veil was one of the few people he trusted in the world, and the only one he had trusted completely since Alazyn's death. He couldn't let her die, and certainly not here, where her lover had sacrificed himself years earlier.
"Any ideas?" he asked, hoping someone would offer him an alternative to the plan forming in his mind. Across the plains to the south lay a warren of gullies and natural tunnels that descended toward the distant bay. They could see the beginning of the crags from here but reaching them before the demons attacked would be impossible.
"We need a distraction if anyone is going to reach those crags," Grim said. "Something to draw the demons away, certainly."
Neredos considered Grim for a moment. Ever eager to fight demons, the Fedain seemed thoughtful now. "What is your plan?" Neredos asked.
"I run out there, straight at them. I'm quick, and I can dodge through them all if need be. Plus, they likely won't kill me," Grim replied.
"I think that's illogical, personally," Chald said, absently testing the tautness of his bow as he spoke. "It's not that I don't trust your ability, Fedain, but you need someone who is going to be able to hold the attention of the airborne demons. You can't touch them."
Chald was right, and even as he and Grim began to argue, the only path forward became painfully clear to Neredos. "It has to be me," he said, then adjusted his helmet as he turned toward the demons again.
"But Neredos, you're the one who has to reach the gate," Veil protested.
He met her eyes and sighed, wishing he had another option to erase the worry and pain he saw there. "If I fall, Revash will be your mage," he said. "But in order to distract them and give us our best chance of survival, we'll need someone who can fly."
"I don't think that's the best—" Grim started, but the demons started toward their position before he could finish.
"There's no time!" Neredos said, cutting him off and dashing out into the plains. He activated his cloak as he ran, and the air swirled around him to bear him aloft.
"Bah!" Grim growled before Neredos was out of earshot. "Fine, let's do as he says. To the crags!"
Behind Neredos the others moved, and he spared a glance to make sure they were moving in the anticipated direction. Grim may have been one of the eager ones, but he would protect the others. That, at least, would do for now.
Returning his full attention to the demons, Neredos mentally prepared every rune he could think of that would help him. He had never faced so many demons on his own before, but that didn't matter. He didn't have to kill them, only survive long enough to make sure the others made it to safety.
Though it was Grim who had led them across the plains toward the crags, Veil tried to take command as soon as they arrived at the first stretch of gullies. She caught Chald's arm and said, "Chald, your people stayed in the crags last time we were down here. Do you know your way around?"
He nodded, pointing to the southwest with his bow. "There's an old smuggling tunnel about a mile that way. I will lead you to it."
Veil nodded, but before she could say anything, Prism asked, "How is Neredos doing?"
Morga vaulted up the nearby stones to get a better vantage point. The others crowded around him, each peering into the distance as they tried to make out what was happening. The sun was rising, giving enough light for even the humans to see the battle.
Neredos darted through the air, dodging attacks from the flying demons at every turn. Aika quills shot toward him like arrow volleys, but the swirling vortex of air around him deflected all of them. Two serpentine Quay demons tried to grapple him to the ground, but he deftly dodged around them. An Ibrix challenged Neredos next, and with a swing of its massive, fiery arm nearly swiped him into the horns of a tall Goden demon.
Several demons lay dead, torn apart by magical energies, but they were closing the gaps in Neredos' defenses with each passing second. It would only be a matter of time before they caught him.
"He's in trouble," Morga said, then turned to Revash and added, "Revash, close the tunnel after you're inside."
"But—" Revash started.
"Revash . . ." Morga chided.
Revash bowed her head and offered a subdued, "Yes, uncle."
With that, Morga was off, running back toward the plains in the direction of Neredos and the demons, bow in hand. He could fire that bow from a significant distance, but it would still be some time before he was in a position to aid Neredos.
Veil considered following after Morga, ordering the others to turn and fight. Was it worth the possibility that they might all die against that force? There were less than fifty demons, still substantial for a group of eight to take on, but the people with her were the best of the best. Could they really leave one of their own behind?
But Grim was already moving and had managed to get Chald to take up the lead ahead of him. They had already decided to make use of Neredos' sacrifice—and now Morga's, for that matter—to proceed with the mission. The others were already turning to follow, and Veil silently joined them.
Chald's words proved true, and he led them straight to the mouth of a natural cave at the bottom of a gully. The cave showed evidence, a short distance beyond the entrance, of having been widened. Prism had already drawn and lit an electric lamp from his pack—one of the few they still had batteries for. Most people used torches and gas lanterns now, but Prism had insisted on a more reliable mechanism.
Considering how well it illuminated the dark, she was glad it was there, but she hated what the light signified. They would be going underground while their friends battled demons behind them. Grudgingly, she followed the others inside.
Grim was on Revash in a second. "Morga told you to close the tunnel," he said.
Revash shook her head. Though they could no longer see the plains from the bottom of the gully, she stared in the direction of the fighting, wearing a pensive frown. "Not yet. There's still time for him to make it to us."
"Don't be ridiculous. We can't endanger the entire mission just because you want him to be alive," Grim replied. "We have to keep moving, and we can't let them follow us."
"I have to. He saved me, when the demons first came, and . . ." Revash trailed off, shaking her head again.
"And he's saving us now. If there's a way out, he'll find it, and he'll catch up with us later," Grim said.
"But we should go save him!" Revash insisted.
"No," Grim said firmly. "We must reach the gate. That is our only task. Hopefully, they will find their way to us, and if not, then hopefully we will be able to make it without them. But our people are counting on us."
"If you don't close this tunnel, I will do it for you," Nijal interjected, reaching into her pack to draw out a packed explosive with an attached fuse. "And it will be a lot more dangerous than if you do it."
Revash stared at Nijal for a moment, then finally nodded. She quickly scratched Elrok symbols on the two cave walls and directed everyone to stand back. As she focused on the symbols, the walls seemed to fold in on themselves, reaching out to each other and then merging. Where the cave mouth had once stood, now was a solid wall of stone.
Veil noticed Prism frowning at the wall, and she quickly joined him. "I hope Grim's not wrong about this," she said quietly.
Prism sighed and nodded. "If anyone can outsmart a group of demons, it's Morga and Neredos. At least they have each other." With that he turned and walked away, joining Chald at the other side of the chamber.
Unsure what to do with the conflicting emotions in her heart, she watched the others slowly trickle toward Chald and away from the now-closed entrance. After a moment, only Revash was left staring at the wall, and Veil quickly moved to collect her. She smiled and said nothing; there was nothing to say.
"How far is it to the other side, Chald?" Grim asked from somewhere ahead of her.
"Three miles, approximately. The tunnel connects with some natural caves, which we will reach soon. The caves should deposit us about a day's journey from the Bay," Chald replied.
"Will you be able to guide us once we reach the Dobraeg?" Prism asked.
"Definitely," Chald said. "Crossing the open tundra will be the worst part, as we'll have no idea how many demons will be searching for us. I think the best plan will be to stay to the rocky coast, where at least we can take some form of shelter and hopefully avoid notice. It will add a few days to our journey, but I think it's worth it."
Revash stiffened next to Veil and glanced back over her shoulder. Though Veil still didn't know what to say about it, she asked, "Are you doing okay?"
"No. But we better succeed, or I'm going to die very angry," Revash replied.
Veil thought of anger, of Neredos and Tellen, and of the night spent in the ruins of Khadrun. She knew exactly what to say now, as she placed her hand on Revash's shoulder. "Then let's get through. Let's make all those demon bastards pay for all the loved ones we've lost."
It took the group several hours to reach the end of the tunnel. Though the distance was relatively short, the last mile and a half was treacherous and took time to navigate. Veil had several near falls as she followed the others, though Prism was quick to help her whenever they occurred.
Prism still didn't understand why Veil had come. This was a dangerous mission, beyond anything she had experienced before. The others were seasoned warriors, but Veil was not made for combat. She was a political figure, one who had certainly done her fair share of good for the people, but she belonged behind a desk and not enemy lines.
He promised himself that he'd look out for her, as it was unlikely anyone else would now that Neredos was probably dead. Grim certainly would not, especially now that he'd appointed himself leader. Grim rarely lead, but this mission was important to him and that had brought him out of his normal detachment.
But Prism didn't believe Grim should be leading, and he did his best to keep those thoughts from trickling across the bond they shared. Grim was too reckless sometimes. He was losing his ability to relate to anything other than the war, and that frightened Prism more every day.
The Grim of a decade earlier would've never ignored his sister's struggles in the tunnels. He would've helped Veil every step of the way in these unfamiliar surroundings. But the Grim that had spent all these years on the front lines had only one thing on his mind; the demon threat had to be ended.
As they exited the tunnel and continued through the crags toward the Bay with what daylight they had left, Prism continued to mull over those thoughts. Grim walked at the front with Chald, and Prism kept himself in the back with Veil to create distance with Grim. He couldn't let Grim feel the doubts in his mind. How could he allow his disbelief to harm someone he loved so much?
They had finally stopped for the evening under a rocky shelf that gave protection from both weather and sight. Prism and Veil had set up camp with the help of Revash while Nijal and Aven scouted the nearby area for any sign of demons. On the far side of the camp, Grim and Chald were poring over a map Chald had sketched into a patch of sandy dirt.
"Tomorrow we reach the Bay," Grim was saying as Prism moved closer to set out a bedroll. "Do you have any idea how are going to cross it?"
Chald frowned, then followed the shoreline in the drawing with his finger. "We could skirt around the edge . . ." he said slowly.
"No, I don't think that will do," Grim said. "it will take far too long, and we'll be caught for sure. The demons already know that we're here, so our best option is speed. We have to go across, some way or another."
"Swimming isn't an option, so maybe a raft?" Revash offered as she neared the others. Prism glanced at her and saw that Veil had also keyed into the conversation and was approaching.
"Do you think there are any boats hidden around here?" Grim asked Chald.
But it was Veil who answered, walking past Revash and then Prism to join them. "I assume anything like that would've been destroyed during the tidal waves that ripped through this area just before the demons arrived. Or they were destroyed by the demons themselves."
"A raft then," Grim nodded. "We have rope and hatchets, so that will be our best option."
"You think you're the leader now that Neredos is gone?" Veil asked.
"What does it matter? If you have a better idea, say it, and we'll decide as a group," Revash said.
Grim frowned at Revash and then Veil. "The best answer is whatever gets us to the gate. That is the only thing that matters."
Chald scoffed at that and said, "No, it isn't. You dismissed us traveling around the Bay without giving any consideration as to why I would suggest it. If we cross the Bay, we will be in the open the entire time. If any demons come after us then, we can't escape them, and will barely have room to fight them. Traveling around the Bay is safer, because at least we can retreat inland and find a place to hide or fight."
"But we won't be in the open for very long. It'll take us a day at most to cross the water. That's one day of risk to save us a week of time," Grim replied.
"You're forgetting that the demons already know that we're out here somewhere. We will meet resistance for sure," Aven said, as he and Nijal walked back into the shelter. "Though it does appear our skies are clear for now."
"But there's no reason to believe that resistance will come immediately," Grim said.
Aven moved to the other side of the map and stood beside the crouching Chald. "I agree with Chald. The safest route is the better course."
Grim snarled at that and said, "Big surprise there, agreeing with the other Gor."
"You're forgetting that Chald also knows this territory best, Grim. That day on the open water could turn treacherous in an instant. Storms frequent the Bay, and a makeshift raft won't survive one very well," Aven said firmly, ignoring Grim's attempt to rattle him.
"I think we should wait at the shore to see if Neredos and Morga make it," Revash interjected.
"That isn't an option and you know it," Nijal said, rolling her eyes. "One thing Grim is definitely right about is that we need to decide quickly. Even though I'm a Gor," she glared at Grim and then went on, "I think crossing the water is worth the risk. They're less likely to expect it, since it is the riskier option, and that'll give us a better opportunity to make ground on the other side."
Grim turned to Veil and Prism and asked, "Are you two going to say anything?"
"I'm sorry, Grim, but I agree with Chald," Veil said after a moment. "The safest course is the wisest course."
Grim growled with disgust and turned to Prism. "And you, Prism?"
"I agree with Revash," Prism said after a moment. Veil's eyes widened as he continued, and she nodded along with each of his words. "Quite honestly, I don't know why we abandoned our friends at all. We could've all fought those demons. We likely would've won, considering the level of power we have on our side, and between you and Veil we could've healed our injuries and kept us all alive."
"So that's it, huh? You've decided that there is a line we can't cross when it comes to sacrificing lives to save others. Does unfamiliarity justify murder then, Prism?" Grim asked.
Pure anger came across the bond. Prism had never felt anything like it from Grim before. This wasn't just a passing bout of rage, it was cold, hard fury. It felt the way a known killer's eyes looked, piercing to Prism's soul in a way that made him want to shudder.
He didn't, because the longer he looked at Grim he realized it had been there for a while, hiding just out of sight much in the same way Prism had repressed his doubts. It was the anger Grim turned toward life and its demand for death. It was the anger that Grim had felt since the moment he'd first taken a life.
And that meant it was an older argument than any existing between them. It wasn't something new, as Prism had first thought, but the undertow of a current that had pulled Grim along the river of life for over a decade.
But Prism still wanted to deny it. Still wanted to believe he could rescue Grim from that current. "That argument has no bearing on our current predicament," he said stiffly.
"Both of them willingly sacrificed themselves for our benefit, and to wait for them would be to render that sacrifice irrelevant!" Grim growled, rising to his feet and taking a threatening step toward Prism. "At least they gave their lives willingly, unlike the man I killed to save you."
Prism's eyes widened at the violence he felt raging across the bond. While he'd denied Grim's anger over the years, this was completely different. Grim wanted him to shut up, and he was verging on the will to make it happen.
But he wasn't the only one who felt strongly about what had happened between them. Prism saw more flaws than logic in Grim's rhetoric. "You cannot equate letting our friends die to stopping a murder!" He shouted, his temper flaring as he fed on Grim's anger. "Much less saying that the latter is somehow worse than the former!"
Suddenly, Veil was between them. Glaring daggers at them both. "You two are going to bring every demon within five miles down on top of us! By the Blood! I ought to teach you both the meaning of the word 'VIOLENCE'!" Her body quivered with rage as she stared them both down. Silence followed, profound enough that Prism could hear her breathing.
Prism recovered first, his mouth dry as he let his anger dissipate. "Veil . . . are you . . . are you okay?" he asked.
"Yeah . . ." Grim said slowly, his eyes and the bond both filled with concern now, "can we get you some water? Maybe a bit of dried fruit?"
"No . . . I . . . I just . . ." Veil inhaled slowly then exhaled even slower, closing her eyes as she contained her own anger. After a moment, she turned to face Grim and said gently, "Prism is right, Grim. Not all harm is created equal, and not all sacrifices can be justified. We should've never abandoned them; we were stronger together. Those who are willing to work together and contribute deserve to have their community rally behind them when in need. Are we all supposed to be heroes, or were Neredos and Morga the only ones?"
Grim's body went rigid, and he stared at Veil for a moment before whispering, "I don't want to be a hero," his voice grew a hairs-breadth louder with each word, but it also grew harsher, like a man speaking curses. "I just want this to end so I can go back to my trees in the Dorram and feel my lover's chest beneath my cheek. To remember the simple pleasure of a hair wrapped around a finger and think that, for a moment in all my bleakness, I could love and be loved completely at risk of everything. I miss the sweet oblivion of love and peace, that feels so removed from this world now. Who remembers how to love, Veil? Who even has the energy left?"
Everyone stared at Grim, their eyes filled with such a variety of emotion that Prism lost track of them all. There was only one thing he could think of to do. Stepping up to Grim, he wrapped him in a tight embrace. The touch carried nothing but the sincere desire to make Grim feel loved. No romance, no lust, only pure devotion.
Grim pulled away almost immediately, puzzlement saturating the bond between them. "You d-don't . . . don't touch me like that . . ." he said, staggering away.
Prism looked to the others, who continued to watch in silence, then followed Grim. Grim's reaction had puzzled him, and he couldn't let the matter go so easily. "What's wrong?" he asked quietly, joining Grim out of earshot of the others. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No, I didn't want you to stop . . ." Grim said, shaking his head in bewilderment. He was trembling, and he looked to Prism with tear-filled eyes. "I was saying that you don't touch me like that. You never do. I haven't felt it in a long time. What . . ." he swallowed hard and then embraced Prism, waiting for him to respond in kind before continuing. "What are you feeling right now? I can sense it, but I can't . . ."
Prism shushed Grim and then replied, "I'm feeling that, though I may share your bed . . . I forget to be your friend. I forget to listen. I forget to memorize. You categorize the world that I just travel through . . . and you see so much, and you take it all in with no way of releasing the tension it brings you. I forget to take the time to let you know that I'm here to share that with you."
"Prism, you've been the one tie I've had to empathy for years. Without you . . ." Grim shuddered in Prism's arms. "I think I'd be as stoic and apathetic as Ghayle, or, worse yet, Kixhan . . . I don't know why I've been so upset recently. I just . . . need this to end."
"We'll make that happen, Grim. Sooner rather than later, I hope," Prism said.
Grim started to respond, but quickly pulled away and shouted, "Morga!"
Prism followed Grim's gaze and saw a large form moving down the gully that fed into their small shelter. It took Prism a moment to identify the Elrok in the twilight, but there was no mistaking him after that. Morga was coming toward them, and he wasn't alone.
"I hope we didn't intrude too much on your private conversation," Morga said, setting Neredos' body down just before reaching Grim and Prism. Neredos is breathing, but he was pale and trembling.
"How did you—?" Prism started asked.
"No time," Morga said, looking to Grim. "Help Neredos, please. He took two Aika quills and nearly lost his arm to an Ibrix, then he crashed."
"How did you get out of there alive?" Prism asked as Grim and moved to Neredos' side. Their conversation was already attracting the attention of the others in, and excited shouts of 'Morga' and 'Neredos' filled the air.
"Neredos collapsed shortly before the last demon fell," Morga explained. "We were lucky. Extremely lucky."
"You managed to kill them all?" Prism said incredulously. Even as the words left his mouth, several other jaws snapped shut as their companions joined them.
Morga nodded solemnly. "Not sure about the Vhor, but the others are dead. When I attacked them from behind, it gave Neredos enough of an opening to destroy most of them. There were only a few left when he went down."
"Are you hurt?" Veil asked, reaching out to Morga.
Morga took a step back and shook his head, raising his hand to stall her, then nodded back to Neredos. "No, I'm fine. They never got to me. Help him."
"What's going on?" Neredos asked groggily as Veil knelt beside him. Grim had already finished the healing process, and Neredos quickly came to his senses.
"You made it," Grim said, smiling down at Neredos. "We all did."
"Morga?" Neredos asked, looking around.
"I'm here, my friend," Morga replied.
"Thank you," Neredos said hoarsely, "I'm sure I only made it because of you. Those arrows of yours are worth every legend told about them. I thought you died. I lost track of you during the battle."
Morga chuckled deeply and said, "It takes more than a few demons to get the best of the likes of me." He approached Neredos and pulled him to his feet, and they embraced each other.
Veil followed them as they walked into the shelter, both men laughing at their narrowly escaped fate as they conversed with the others. Grim and Prism remain behind, the latter with a smile and the former with a blank expression.
"You see, Grim? Good things can still happen. People sacrificing for other people and being rewarded with life," Prism said after a moment.
"But is that a matter of love or of duty, Prism?" Grim asked.
"Cannot duty be a form of love?" Prism replied.
"Duty is what keeps me from love," Grim said, shaking his head. "We should get some rest. The Bay calls us forward. With Neredos here, I'm certain we can cross it, and then this all can be over."
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