"I remember very little about that fight, to be honest," Neredos said as he returned to the clearing in the dream. "It was all a blur, being surrounded by that many demons and all alone. I'm still surprised that I made it out of there."
Prism nodded. "Of course, there was a reason for that, wasn't there?"
Neredos' face fell. "Indeed."
"You all are so tightlipped when it comes to talking about the past, even though we keep on going into your memories. Why can't you say anything plainly?" Dogo asked. "Is it so much easier to show us than it is to simply tell us?"
"There is a thing about humans," Telzath said solemnly, "and talking about heavy things. I'm surprised you don't know, considering you are one."
"I would not expect you to generalize so easily," Prism noted. "We have our stereotypes about Elroks as well, and I'm sure I could tell you a few things that would make you wonder how we got it all wrong. In my experience, most people have a hard time talking about war, and I don't think it's about an unwillingness to dwell on heavy subjects."
Veil joined in then, her voice clear and full of authority. "It is partly that, certainly. Most people have a difficult time reliving traumatic experiences, which is the reason why we develop many of our mental instabilities. They're coping mechanisms to allow us to process trauma at a rate, or in a way, that we can handle. Obviously not all mental illness falls into this category, but much of it does. Or, at least that's what my studies taught me."
"In my case, I legitimately cannot remember," Neredos said. "As good as my memory was—and still is for that matter—there was simply too much going on."
"Ah, but you do remember what the 'reason for your survival' was, that Prism alluded to," Dogo said. "And that's what I want to know. You can't have survived against that many demons, with or without one of your companions helping you. Three dozen against one man . . .? It's impossible."
"Need I remind you, that you were not on that battlefield," Prism said. "While it may have taken a whole team of you to take on one demon, Dogo, we had already been fighting the demons for a decade. We knew where their weaknesses were, we knew what to watch out for. And Neredos did not become King by being incapable. Especially with Morga's help to divide the demons' attention, I would've placed bets on my companions any day."
"I still don't believe it," Dogo said.
"Well, believe it or not, you just saw it," Prism said. "Or at least as much as any of us remember."
"But we can alleviate your curiosity," Ghayle said, speaking to Dogo. "If you would like."
Dogo's gaze swept over all the others until he finally nodded. "Yes, I think I would like that."
"Trust me, you'll understand much better by seeing than us telling you what happened," Prism said. "Perhaps then you will understand our pain."
Prism rushed back to the clearing, a clutch of Junjun berries in his hand. They were red and full of juice, ripe with the late summer season. It had taken him several precious minutes to find them, hanging tight to a scraggly bush nestled between two rocks. Exactly where Chald had said they would be. He only hoped he had found the berries in time.
Chald was propped up against a tree, gasping. He had a small, yet serious wound on his leg; the result of an ambush by three Goden demons. His belt pouch was open beside him, several items laying scattered next to it. Most of the items were useless in this current predicament, and Chald had already applied an ointment made from the Kingsflower extract he'd been carrying, but that had only slowed the breathing problems.
He was also busily chewing on a bit of dried root, and as Prism approached, he held his hand out for the chewed-up mass. Chald spat it into Prism's palm, and Prism crushed the berries into it, mashing both together with his fingers. Once he had a sufficient pulp, he applied the mixture to Chald's wound.
"How are you feeling?" Prism asked.
Chald shook his head, his eyes frantic. He didn't want to answer, preferring to save his energy. Prism understood. He'd helped many dying from the effects of the Breathstealer poison. Goden were always dangerous to face on the battlefield, as both their claws and horns carried a poison that paralyzed the lungs. As long as a Fedain was nearby, or a half-competent herbalist, they could help someone survive the poison, but it still killed more than its fair share.
"I tried to send something to Grim, to let the others know that we're out here and need help," Prism said. "I can feel him coming closer, so just hold on."
Chald nodded once weakly, then settled back against the tree again. They would have to wait, and hope.
Crossing the Bay had been easy, with Neredos' help. They constructed a raft, inscribed it with symbols, and Neredos had imbued the raft with his will, moving it far faster than the wind and makeshift oars would allow unaided. They had crossed the Bay in a matter of hours, completely negating Chald's argument regarding the amount of time spent on open water.
From there, however, different challenges had arisen. They had stayed close to the rocky shore, as Chald had suggested, which had proven the right move several times over. For the entire week since they had arrived in the Dobraeg, they had dodged several patrols a day by hiding in the rocks on the shoreline.
They had also engaged in two skirmishes; both had worn them down, and they lost Aven in the second battle. No Fedain could heal the amount of blood loss Aven suffered when he was cornered by a Nobak demon. The group had buried the dried husk of their former Gor companion and moved on; there was no better way to honor him.
Now before moving each day, they scouted in pairs for safety. Because it took too long to hide the demon bodies, it was difficult to mask the group's trail. Demonic patrols seemed to be increasing, and it was better to know what they were getting into.
But this was the first time they'd run into trouble during one of their scouting forays. It had only been three demons, all of them no taller than Prism, but they'd managed a lucky shot on Chald's leg. One prick was all it took for a Goden to succeed.
Chald's head rolled to the side, his breathing becoming even more ragged. Prism reached up to support Chald's head and noticed immediately that Chald's breathing had stopped entirely. Prism shook Chald first, then lightly slapped him, hoping to rouse the Gor.
"Chald! Stay with me!" He shouted, then slapped him again. There was no response. Prism checked Chald's pulse and found nothing.
Not willing to give up so easily, Prism pulled Chald away from the tree and laid him on his back. He positioned himself properly for chest compressions, then did everything in his power to make Chald's heart beat again.
He could feel Grim coming closer by the second. If he could just keep Chald alive long enough, Grim would be able to heal him. All Prism had to do was find a heartbeat.
He tried and tried again, counting his compressions and checking Chald's pulse. Nothing. Not even the faintest hint of a heartbeat. Prism continued to work on him until even his nanite-infused muscles ached. Still nothing.
"Blood!" Growled in exasperation, then pulled away.
Chald was dead. Another name for the casualty list. Another hero who would never breathe again, and who had given his life for a world still far from being saved. Prism wanted to scream at the futility of it all.
Less than a minute later, Grim rushed into the clearing. He had followed their bond all the way here, but had arrived too late. He moved to Chald anyway, saying, "Prism, what happened!?"
"You're too late, Grim. He's already dead," Prism said, shaking his head. "Another one dead. Are we going to make it to the gate?"
Grim placed his hand against Prism's and squeezed it gently. There had been many such gestures over the past week, reaffirming their relationship even though much of Grim's darkness remained. "I came as fast as I could, I'm sorry, Prism."
Prism nodded. It certainly wasn't Grim's fault that Chald was dead. He met Grim's eyes and said, "Where are the others?"
"They're a few minutes behind. I sprinted the last of the way," Grim replied. "One of us will probably need to go back a little way along my route here, to make sure they can find us."
"I'll do it," Prism said. "I should report to Neredos what happened."
Grim squeezed Prism's hand one more time, and then let go. Prism rose to his feet and walked from the clearing, heading toward the low ridge he'd used to access the area several hours earlier. He soon encountered Neredos, Veil, Nijal, Revash, and Morga at the top, searching for him.
"What happened?" Neredos asked. "Grim just told us to follow him, and he didn't say why other than that you were in trouble."
"Chald is dead," Prism replied. "Grim is staying with him, though we shouldn't expect any miracles. Goden poison. We were ambushed. We were on our way back when Chald realized he'd been cut. I managed to slow it with herbs, but . . ."
Neredos nodded, grimacing. "Not only have we lost a companion, but we lost our guide as well. Who else knows the Dobraeg best?"
"I think we'd be better off trying to charm some animals in the area than having any of us lead," Revash said. "And that probably won't get us anywhere."
"Has Grim already started the burial?" Veil asked.
"No," Nijal said. "No burial for Chald. He has to be burned."
Prism's eyes widened at that. "Burned? We don't have time to wait for that, and we don't want to attract the kind of attention the fire will bring."
"The Southern Gor burn their dead, and I will not disrespect an honorable man's customs," Nijal said firmly. "I'll stay behind and burn him myself if none of you will help me. But Chald deserves our respect."
Sufficiently chagrined, Prism bowed and said, "You are right, of course, though if we can find some way to minimize the smoke and light, that would be best for us all."
Revash and Neredos shared a look before the former said, "I think we can manage that between the two of us. I know several ways to make nearly smokeless fire with my magic, and I'm sure Neredos can make the flames burn hot enough that it won't be burning for long."
Veil sighed, drawing all attention to her. When she realized everyone was looking, she said, "I'm sorry, I'm just saddened that none of us are emotionally affected by this. We've all seen so much death, and even the death of someone who we traveled with for so long . . . We've all gone straight to business, and not one of us has shed a tear."
"I'll do my crying when the war is over," Nijal said. "For now, I'll settle on paying my respects. Could you lead us to Chald's body, Prism?"
"Of course," Prism said. "It's just down this ridge, in the middle of those trees over there."
With everyone working together, it took no more than an hour to put together a makeshift pyre to burn Chald's body. Veil worked carefully with Nijal to make sure it would be proper, though Nijal herself wasn't certain. The customs of the Southern Gor differed greatly from those of the northern tribes, and the tribes themselves were diverse. Still, Veil agreed that honoring Chald's customs to the best of their ability was something he deserved.
And if anyone disagreed, they were silent about it. Morga most of all, as he stood in silent vigil over Chald's body. Veil had come to appreciate the Elrok solemnity that they showed towards all spiritual practices, though Morga's actions seemed different somehow. Morga was almost aloof, as if he couldn't bear the sight of it.
Perhaps he had been closer to Chald than Veil had realized. That was the thought that continued to play in her mind as she studied the group preparing for the brief funeral. Yes, there was a need to accomplish the mission, but they could not forget the reasons they were fighting. They were fighting to preserve the good things in the world, and that included the grief felt for a fallen companion.
So she continued to ponder as Prism and Morga lifted Chald's body onto the pyre. Morga walked all the way to the back of the clearing once he was done, while Prism stayed close. Had she misjudged Morga's connection with Chald? Was it not respect but distaste that she sensed?
She wanted to be sure, only because Morga had become a friend. He deserved her soothing words, if she could find the right ones to help him through this process. She had put so much of her healing focus into the mind, that whenever someone she cared about was hurting, she felt a need to help them.
But she would need more information, and that could only be gained by getting Morga to speak. Once this ceremony was over, they would be on the move again, and likely unable to speak until they had a chance to stop for rest. Perhaps if she could get him to talk before then . . .
"Is everyone ready to begin?" Neredos asked, drawing Veil from her thoughts.
Neredos and Revash were both moving toward opposite sides of the pyre. The others were forming a solemn arc around the pyre, except Morga who remained some distance back. Veil saw the emotion in his eyes and determined that she had to do something about it now.
"Can we be less formal?" Veil asked. "Can we say a word or two, remember a companion, for once? None of us said anything about Aven. We just buried him and moved on."
"We can spare the time," Neredos said, nodding. "Though I suggest we remain brief."
"I will begin, if that's all right," Veil said. The others nodded, and she continued in a less formal fashion. "While I didn't take the opportunity to get to know Chald very well, he has always been an honorable leader of his people. During the early days of the war, his father worked with me on occasion, until his death. By that point, Chald had proven himself on the battlefield time and time again, and his sacrifices will be recorded, and he will be remembered as a hero."
As Veil finished, Nijal started her own words. "Chald could throw a knife better than anyone. He could track better than anyone I've met, and he knew all the words of my favorite songs, despite his stoicism. He was a good drinking partner, and a friend, even if a distant one. We'll get this gate for you, brother. We'll kill them all in your memory."
Grim was next in line, and all he said was a quick, "Chald did what had to be done, and that's the best honor I could give him." He then nodded for Morga to take over, but the Elrok declined. Veil regarded Morga curiously but said nothing.
Prism spoke next. "I have not met many of the Southern Gor who have earned my respect. I admit my bias and know that it is simply a matter of where my road has taken me. Chald and I once spoke of my mentor, Master Vinhkroludar, and he was the first Southern Gor I have ever met who honored Master Vinh without a hint of spite. Chald earned my respect on his own merits, but his willingness to embrace the merits of others is perhaps what I consider his greatest asset, as both a leader and as a friend. Enjoy the view from The Mountain, Chald."
"I did not know Chald well, but he was a good tracker, and I honor his sacrifice," Revash said.
"I have no pretty words to say," Neredos said next. "This war has claimed many lives, some dear to my heart, and many honorable warriors such as Chald. I think the best thing we can do to honor that memory is to complete this mission."
"I will now light the fire," Revash said.
Neredos nodded, the others stood back several feet. Revash had carved several symbols into each log used in the pyre's construction. She touched one of these and incanted a low and steady chant. Flames grew on the log, quickly spreading to all the others. Very little smoke trailed off from these flames, even when Neredos took over and fanned the flames with concentrated winds.
The fire roared, engulfing Chald's body in a whirlwind of flame. The heat was intense enough to drive everyone back a step, although as Veil turned away, she realized Morga had taken far more than one step. She saw Morga's eyes then, fixated on the flame. Eyes full of terror.
She understood now. The way Morga continued to avoid contact with her or Grim, and how quiet he had been for the past week. Why he, one of the most spiritual members of the group, had refused to take an active role in Chald's funerary services.
Veil moved slowly, not wanting to alert Morga to her suspicions. She made eye contact with Grim and approached him in the same way she had when they were children and needed to share a secret. Her twin caught on in an instant, and as she walked towards the tree line, he followed her.
"What is it, Veil?" He asked quietly once they were away from the others.
"I think you and I both need to comfort Morga," Veil replied. "The same time, on either shoulder. It looks to me like he could use a comforting touch, Vhor maybe a hug."
She hoped Grim would hear a strategic use of the word 'Vhor', and as his eyes lit up with understanding, she knew she'd succeeded. He nodded, and together they returned to the clearing.
Veil moved past Morga, while Grim walked a little slower. When Veil had passed far enough that Morga had relaxed, but was still within arm's reach, she turned back to him and grabbed his arm with both of her hands. As Morga shouted in surprise and tried to pull away, Grim gripped his other arm in a similar fashion.
Veil sensed it immediately beneath her fingers. The amorphous nature of the creature she held. He felt like pure life force, if maybe a corrupted version of it. Something dark and deadly, full of poison and malevolence. She couldn't sense its emotions, but she could see its fear.
And then it tried to bite her, but before the flesh beneath her could fully form its teeth, the Vhor who had worn Morga's face was screaming. Veil looked at Grim, and realized he was already killing the Vhor. She hesitated for just a moment, wondering if it was better to keep him alive, but then she joined in.
It was not the first time she had done harm, but it was the first time she had ever tried to murder someone. The Vhor that had impersonated Wayar had been killed by some other force. This was different. This was the moment that she decided to kill.
"What are you doing!?" The Vhor shouted. It had already drawn the attention of the others with its scream, but it now had their full attention.
"Don't listen to him, he's Vhor," Veil said. "I don't know how, but he's one of them."
The Vhor shifted, trying to pull out of their grasp, but Veil and Grim only pressed harder, following its every step. Veil felt a gust of air move past her, and the Vhor stopped moving as much, now held in place by Neredos.
All at once, the Vhor stop struggling, and he turned to Grim and spoke forcefully, "He is waiting for you at Mount Varun. He will destroy the world if you do not come." As those final words left its tongue, the Vhor's body destabilized, and he collapsed into a puddle of inky darkness.
"Chabath!" Revash screamed. It was an Elrok curse, one of the most loathsome ones. Veil had heard it before, but she could not remember its meaning. But it attracted her attention, and she turned to see the young Elrok woman being held back by Neredos and Prism.
"How did this happen?" Nijal asked. "When was he switched?"
"He's been acting strange ever since . . ." Prism shook his head as if to clear it. "Are we sure he actually walked away from that battlefield when he rescued you, Neredos?"
Neredos was muttering soothing sounds to Revash, and eventually she collapsed against his chest. As he held her, he said solemnly, "When I went down, he was surrounded. I just assumed that, because he rescued me . . ."
"Maybe he did rescue you," Grim replied. "But maybe he died in the process, and the Vhor simply took advantage of the situation. They've been known to do that before."
"But why rescue me at all?" Neredos asked. "Why not just let me die?"
"Karak tora na!" Revash wailed.
"Veron tora parlk te'hil," Grim said. Veil raised an eyebrow at him, and he quickly explained, "She asked why this is happening. I was trying to soothe her. I don't think I did very well."
Whatever Revash had been saying before, it disappeared into muffled, unintelligible sobs. Neredos continued to embrace her, his face showing his discomfort, as much for the physical contact as the situation.
"We need to start doing daily checks. Every time we split off, even if it's only for a few minutes, we're going to have to prove our identities," Nijal said. "No fire, either. It'll have to be blood. The best test."
"We're just supposed to cut ourselves every day, are we?" Neredos asked.
"Nijal has a point, Neredos," Grim said. "We can't trust anyone who hasn't been proven. It's not like Veil and I can't heal all those cuts as soon as they've been made."
Veil nodded and began searching for a place to wipe the inky substance off her hands. She paused after a moment, and said, "Actually, we can do you one better. Only Grim and I have to prove ourselves, and then we can test the rest of you."
The others nodded, all except for Revash who was still inconsolable. Unlike the other losses they had suffered on this mission, the loss of Morga was felt more deeply. Morga was Revash's uncle, and a good friend to both Grim and Prism who had known him since the beginning of the war. They had lost two this day, and hope was becoming a fragile thing.
No, they had lost Morga a week earlier. He'd sacrificed himself for Neredos. That had to be it. Veil had to believe that Morga's final moments were heroic, that he died protecting all of them. To do less would be a dishonor to his memory.
"It had to have happened during his and Neredos' battle," Grim said. "Unless he was separated from us for long enough during one of the morning scouting missions. I touched him that night in the ruins of Khadrun. He was alive then."
"I still don't see what advantage he could've possibly gained by leaving me alive," Neredos said. "It doesn't make sense!"
"I think I have it figured out," Veil said. "It makes more sense the longer I think about it. What was the only way for them to get a spy in among us?"
"Only if we were certain that there couldn't be," Nijal answered, meeting Veil's eyes and nodding. "I've used that tactic before when I needed to get into a place where I didn't belong. Infiltration works best when it's built on the principle of implied trust. In a palace full of many servants, it is easy to masquerade as one, especially when you're willing to do a servant's job."
Veil nodded. "We tested everyone before we left, and at no point was anyone out of sight from at least one member of our group, except for that brief moment when we left you behind. If Morga hadn't doubled back for you, then perhaps the Vhor would've attempted to impersonate you, Neredos."
"Of course, then he would've come back alone, and we would've tested him for sure," Grim surmised. "Instead, he had to wait for the perfect opportunity. He had to wait until he could slip in under our noses, and the only way to do that was to save Neredos' life."
"But how could we not know?" Revash asked, surprising all of them as she spoke clearly through her sobs. "How could I not know that my own uncle was gone?"
"'Vhor' means 'unknown' in ancient Gor," Nijal said. "What better imposter is there than one who can take any form? What better liar than a master of masks? How could we have known if we were not willing to remove the mask of our own denial?"
"So too did the world fall, did it not?" Grim said, drawing all eyes to him. He continued, sweeping them all in with his gaze. "We all watched the world crumble, heavy under the weight of its own denial. Every war a mask, every petty dispute another string in the noose wrapping tight around our necks. We ask how this happened, how the demons came to be in our world. Whether it was an outside force or not is irrelevant, for the question we should be asking is why we were not ready to meet the threat. Why did the world scramble to unite, instead of meeting this force head-on at the very beginning? Why were we so eager to trust in our delusions instead of questioning what was right in front of us?"
He shook his head and muttered a curse under his breath. "We all knew that we should've tested both of them, but we didn't. We all knew that Morga was acting differently, but we wanted to believe that our friend was alive. We wanted to believe that we hadn't mis-stepped, that our faith was placed correctly in each other. How did we let this happen? By refusing to accept that anything was wrong."
"You're wrong about one thing, Grim," Veil said in the heavy silence that followed Grim's words. "The question we should be asking is: how do we stop it from happening again?"
"We close the gate," Neredos said with a tone of finality. "And we keep careful watch over this world, to ensure we never travel down this path again. We eradicate the demons from the world and our hearts. That is the only way, and we must hasten to it, lest they destroy us totally."
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