Neredos hoped this would finally be the end. The madness had been getting worse of late, and still Veil had not been able to find some way around it. She could not heal him, that much seemed certain now. He wanted to see the last of the demons before the madness claimed him entirely.
He'd given so much to this war, and yet it had dragged on. After returning from closing the gate, they found that the demons had continued their assaults. There were still many thousands of them left, and they had become relentless. As the demon numbers shrank, they took ten times as many of the allied forces with them.
And now, several years after closing the gate, there were few demons left, and few people left to fight them. Whatever the strange conversation he'd had with Tagren on Mount Varun had meant, it all seemed pointless now. He doubted he would ever learn the motives behind the invasion. He doubted he would ever care.
But at least they had finally reached a conclusion. One final effort to bring the last of the demons to their deaths. It had cost many more lives, and many hours in council, devising the plan.
And now he stood in the hills overlooking Kallen. An army was arrayed behind him, hidden in every crack and crevice they could find, ready to spill out onto the plains. The one thing in which the demons had maintained consistency was their utter destruction of all civilized places left abandoned.
Odiran had taken some convincing to leave Kallen behind. He had entrenched himself in the ruins, fortifying many of the structures and establishing a society that ran like a well-oiled machine. He'd clarified the definition of 'abandoned' with Neredos, and with some reluctance had moved into the vast cave system beneath the city instead.
In the last few days, Odiran thulu'Khant's spirits had improved, and he'd taken to affectionately calling those caves 'The Shade' as it kept him out of the sun. Neredos had only made one brief journey into that cave system. He had seen the beautiful glowing lichens of the grand cavern, and had even traveled to the bottom to see the dark waters of a subterranean lake. It was a beautiful place, in its alien way. He hoped its beauty would be preserved once this day was done.
In order to create the illusion that the city was abandoned, Neredos had also ordered that the Everbright city be moved to a secure location, nearly a hundred miles to the east. He hoped he would get to see it one more time before he died, but that would depend entirely on what happened here.
"Do you think . . ." Veil said from Neredos' side, "do you think they'll come?"
"It doesn't matter how many times you ask the question, Veil," Prism said from her other side, "Neredos does not know everything. Besides, aren't you the one that they're calling 'Oracle' these days? Shouldn't you be the one who knows?"
Veil snorted. "They call me that because I was right about the gate, and I guess I've been right about a few more things recently, but I wish they would stop assuming I know everything."
"It does tend to get annoying after a while, doesn't it?" Neredos replied, chuckling.
"I still wish Grim was here," Prism said. "It seems like he should be standing with us at the last battle."
"You know him. He is not convinced this is the last battle, especially since the Vhor are still out there," Veil said.
Prism nodded and sighed. "That is true enough, though we probably could use him today. After all, we have to keep the demons inside of Kallen long enough for you to do your work, don't we, Neredos?"
Neredos smiled weakly in response. "That's correct, and hopefully the other mages I roped into this task did their due diligence. That way, hopefully we can save us all a bit of fighting. I hope that spell of Ghayle's works the way it's supposed to."
"Kixhan was mumbling all morning about how you modified it, perverting the purity of it," Veil observed. "Are you completely confident it will work the way you want?"
Neredos shrugged. "There are less than a thousand demons left. We've come this far, and still they move in predictable patterns. Whatever consciousness has directed them, if they hold true to form, the five demon generals and what's left of their armies will arrive as predicted and we will handle them. Our armies are large enough to be able to kill them even if the spell doesn't work."
Prism chuckled at that and said, "You have that right. Between what's hidden in Odiran's caves and what we have behind us, we'll win this day for sure. And, finally, this will be over."
"Have the scouts reported anything about the demons' movements?" Veil asked.
Neredos nodded. "Yatha keeps updating me every fifteen minutes. The demons have been spotted to the south, but they're moving slowly. We don't know why, so who knows when they'll get here."
"Either way, we'll be ready for them," Prism said confidently. "And then we can rebuild among the ashes. Society will be built upon the foundation of fallen demons."
"I like that idea," Neredos replied, smiling. "I like that a lot."
The demons had come just as Neredos had promised they would, and Prism was eager to meet them. Only those who had traveled to the gate knew the truth of their gamble. The Vhor wanted them alive, and in some ways, they seemed to want this conflict to end. None of the five survivors could reason out why. Until they knew, discussing it in council had seemed like a bad idea.
Grim especially had been tracking the demons' patterns for the past few years, on a quest to understand and eliminate the Vhor. It was a quest he began before the journey to the gate, and he had zealously pursued it since their return. Finding Nijal's and then Morga's bodies on their return trip had fueled Grim's hatred of the Vhor in ways Prism could not fully relate to.
He understood, to some extent. Khalis had been one of the Vhor, after all. It was that demon who had first stolen a valuable piece of Grim for some unknown purpose. That was before the invasion, and in Grim's mind, Khalis and the Vhor were responsible for the entire war. Prism respected that perspective, though he was not convinced.
And now Grim could think of nothing other than hunting down every last Vhor and making sure they could never duplicate their efforts. Every time he left the battlefield, he went immediately to poring over reports, trying to find where the Vhor might be hiding. It had become an obsession, and Prism had decided his best chance of helping his lover was to stay out of the way.
But he regretted that Grim could not join him today, to see the end of the demon armies. It would happen; Prism was sure of it. Even if the Vhor remained behind, the largest threat would be over. The world could recover, and he and Grim could settle in some small quarter of it and live a quiet life.
Despite Grim venturing off and exploring some hunch on where one of the Vhor was hiding, at least Prism could still feel him. The bond had never quite recovered, and Grim felt it stronger than Prism did, as he was the one who retained his full tattoo. They had asked Zaalf about restoring the enchantment on Prism, but they had not yet taken the opportunity. There was simply too much to do.
But at least Grim was there. Somewhere in the back of Prism's mind, and somewhere to the east. Prism would not be completely without his lover on the battlefield, and that would be enough. He would fight this last battle for both of them.
"Grandmaster Prism," said someone to his left. Prism turned to see the young female monk, one who had been trained by other members of the Order of the Mountain. Prism recognized few of the younger members now, though he had likely signed the orders that sent them to their respective battlefields.
"Yes, what is it?" Prism asked with a polite smile.
"What do you think they're doing?" The young woman asked.
Prism looked out at Kallen. The demons had entered just a few minutes earlier, and already they had begun destroying the ruins. He wished he understood why they felt the need to do that. The motivations of the demons would likely remain elusive, no matter the outcome of Grim's quest.
There were many demons here, somewhere between six and eight hundred, by his best estimate. But these were some of the largest and most fierce. He and Grim had once faced one of the demon generals on the battlefield. Aika, whose monstrous aerial form dominated the sky. The purple scales reminded Prism of the sunset, though Aika's quills spoke of thunderbolts. She had nearly killed them both while the army managed to destroy her bonded cat.
The army had not fared well that day, for Aika's revenge had been swift and deadly. She had personally hunted down every single one of the warriors who had participated in her cat's death. Looking at her now, flying over the ruins of Kallen, Prism hoped no one else would have to suffer that fate.
The other demon generals were there as well, of course, though Prism had never faced any of the others. They had made appearances at other battlefields over the years, leading their armies in devastation. However, the primary times to spot them were in the destruction of civilization. They were the ones who dismantled the cities, ensuring that very few traces of habitation survived. Neredos had designed his plan specifically to lure them here. Kallen was the only city left to be destroyed in that manner.
"They're clearing it out, as expected," Prism answered at last. "And once they've moved into the center, we move after them. You should be ready, as that will happen shortly."
The young monk nodded and fell silent. Behind them were several dozen monks, all that was left of the Order of the Mountain. Though they had constantly recruited and trained throughout the war, the order had always sent its troops to the front lines. It was voluntary, of course, but anyone willing to join The Order of the Mountain did so with the understanding that they would give their all. Prism was proud of all of them.
The allied forces had scattered through the hills near Kallen, ready to enter the city from as many sides as possible. Odiran thulu'Khant would lead a second force from beneath the city, and they would do everything they could to keep the demons contained within the boundaries of the city limits. Elrok archers and Gor mages would fight at the outskirts, keeping the fliers pinned down and unable to escape.
But that would not be the main event. Neredos, and as many mages as he could recruit, had studiously prepared this battlefield according to exact specifications. The whole city was now a rune circle, and it was tied to Neredos' blood as if it were his child. He would be the one to end this, as was only fitting for the man who now led them all.
The demons moved into the center of the city, and Prism shouted to his troops, knowing it was time. "Let's move! Show Yatha's cavalry that you don't need four legs to move quickly! To Kallen!"
And then he was running, sprinting with every monk beside him. Yatha would still win, but Prism would be right behind. The call to the last battle spurred them onward, and eagerness filled their hearts.
Ahead of him, the eastern edge of the city loomed. Yatha's cavalry moved past him to his right, and to his left and farther back came human and Elrok infantry. Fedain healers had been placed among that unit, ready to assist wherever needed.
On the other side of the city, Gor warriors from both the Northern and Southern tribes moved as one from where they had secreted themselves on the western edge of the city. Arrows and elemental magic soon followed from the north and south, raining death on the demon flanks.
Someone sent the signal to Odiran, and his forces of Lodani and Oligan with Elrok support spilled out of the cave entrance near the center of Kallen. They were where the fighting was thickest, but they could always retreat into the caves if needed. The Elroks with him included shamans who could close the entrance easily.
Demons rushed to meet the allied forces, and Yatha's cavalry was quick to oblige. Charge met charge, but the horsemen had been trained to skirmish rather than engage directly. They move swiftly, cutting and getting out of range as quickly as possible. Prism lost sight of Yatha's spear—which now sported a bright red tassel—before he entered the city. He hoped he would get the chance to congratulate her on making it there before him.
That was his last thought before battle was joined. His monks moved through the demons like a wheat harvester, cutting down everything in their path. At first, the demons didn't know how to handle such an elite force, and the monks made significant headway while they waited for the infantry to join them.
But then one by one, the demons return the favor. Prism turn from crushing the skull of a Quay, only to find a young monk dead at his feet. After nearly losing a wrestling match with a Goden, he turned to see an older, experienced monk drive his fist through the soft chest of an Ibrix, only to collapse from the injuries he had sustained in the conflict.
The deaths only spurred Prism onward. His fallen companions deserved every ounce of strength that he had. He was their leader in matters of war, and he would show them an example of courage and discipline. He killed another Goden, then rushed towards a feline Aika. The monks rallied behind him, and two helped him dispatch the beast. They pressed onward, as hard and fast as they could, smiles on their lips as they gave their all.
The infantry joined the fight, and the tables turned once more. The demons lost more ground now. Seeing their advantage, Prism rushed to the front of the line and fought harder than ever. Any moment now, Neredos would begin the end, and Prism intended to be fighting until the last instant. He owed it to all his fallen friends.
A low breeze whipped through the ruins; the signal from Neredos had arrived. Prism allowed himself to laugh as the wind became a gale, feeling it tug at his clothing and stir the debris cluttering the streets. He picked his target, a large Goden, and rushed the beast.
Grey fog seeped from the earth as Prism collided with the demon, his foot catching the horned figure directly in the center of its back. The beast howled and turned, then came at Prism.
Prism ducked into a crouch, preparing to take a shot at the demon's leg. As his hand reached into the fog, it collided with a small piece of rubble and slipped, making Prism fall onto his back. The demon took advantage of his vulnerability, as the fog swept over them both, poising its clawed arm to strike down at him.
The last thing Prism could do was raise his arm bracers in defense, but then all he saw was grey.
And then the world stood still.
Veil pored over the latest list of casualty reports. She hated seeing familiar names, but at least this time very few belonged to her friends. Compared to previous battles, the last battle of Kallen had very few casualties. There was still no mention of Prism, though no one had seen him since the battle, either. She hoped that meant that he had simply moved on to join Grim on his quest to hunt the Vhor.
Neredos' plan had worked beautifully. His seeking fog had singled out every single demon within the circle he'd prepared at Kallen, ignoring everything else. There was still the possibility that some of their soldiers had been trapped in the fog as well; Neredos hadn't been sure what would happen to anyone too close to a demon when the spell was completed.
But now it was done, and for the first time in many years, Veil did not feel the crushing weight of despair on her shoulders. They could rebuild now, and hopefully in a manner that would ensure peace for a long time to come. Only she knew the full extent of Neredos' plan, but she believed in it and saw a bright future ahead of them.
She left her chamber in the Everbright City and headed to the council room. Neredos had called them all there to discuss the state of affairs, now that the demon threat was over. He had returned the city to Kallen, and perched it atop the pillars of grey fog containing the demons. He had added a small illusion of clouds beneath the Everbright City, making the ruins below seem like they were always under an overcast sky. This was where they would rebuild. This would be the center of their new world.
The council room was bustling with festivity. Food and drink had been dispensed to everyone in the room, and the feelings of joy and hope were palpable. Veil basked in the glow of it all and couldn't help but smile when chants of 'The Oracle' greeted her on arrival.
But she kept her distance, her mind focused on finding certain people in the room. She had hoped Grim would be here, and that Prism would also come out of hiding to make an appearance. Wherever the pair was, she hoped they were happy with the results of the past few days.
She saw Odiran and Revash talking quietly in one corner. They had become friends of late, often whispering together at any gathering like this. Veil did not entirely trust Odiran, but Revash was a friend, and she hoped the Elrok was not becoming entangled in any of Odiran's schemes.
Before she could consider crossing the room to join them, Neredos arrived and brought the room to order. She smiled at him but kept her distance, not wanting to create too strong a connection between them just yet. This next move would be a diplomatic one, and it needed to be handled cautiously.
"This day marks the dawning of a new era, my friends," Neredos said, raising his voice to be heard above the crowd. "We have sent scouts out in every direction, and they report that not a single demon has been seen!"
Cheers rose around the room, and Neredos gave them nearly a full minute before he spoke again. "But now it is time for us to build something new. Now it is time to make the world better than it was before, to honor our dead and give hope to our children. We must decide now what kind of world we want to build, and whether we will keep old prejudices buried in the past or allow them to return."
"With the demons contained, let them serve as symbols in their prisons, to remind us of these dark years. Let us forever be vigilant, and remember the unity that we have achieved here," Neredos continued. He looked around the room, pausing periodically to meet the eyes of some, personalizing every word to those listening.
"In accordance with this goal, I will be remaining here, in the Everbright City, where I will continue to rule for as long as time allows," Neredos said, and for a very brief moment, his eyes rested on Veil. Only she knew what those words meant. Neredos had achieved immortality by sealing the demons in the pillars through the ritual he had performed. His rule would be endless, and Veil would do her best to ensure that it was a righteous one. She had promised him that.
To the others in the room, not yet aware of Neredos' immortality, the declaration implied a different meaning. They would think that Neredos intended to rule until his natural death, and only later would they discover the nature of their immortal King.
The next words were some of the most important ones, and Neredos placed as much sincerity behind them as he could muster. "I am also ordering the establishment of an order of Knights, who will make their home in the Everbright City, to safeguard the ideals of our new world. The Knights of the Firmament will be open to members of all races and nationalities and will be united in preserving the peace that we now have."
More cheers rose from the crowd, though not everyone cheered for this. Veil once again became aware of Odiran and Revash. The latter wore a frown, but Odiran scowled at Neredos, his fist clenched around the glass of wine he held. He whispered something to Revash, and Revash's frown deepened.
She wondered what they were plotting, but Neredos' next words drew her attention once more. "Everyone who wishes to help build this new world is welcome to stay. We will clear out the ruins of Kallen and form a new city, one where all people are welcome. Who will help me build the dream of a united world?"
Veil smiled but said nothing, allowing the cheers of assent to permeate the room. She wished to seem reluctant at first, to serve as a symbol for the undecided. In a few days, she would publicly announce her support of Neredos' plan and extol its merits, while dismantling the arguments against it, some of which she will have expressed herself. Together, they would unite behind symbols of peace, and the world would finally be safe from madness.
Prism sighed as the memory faded, and he met the gazes of his two old friends, looking first to Veil and then to Neredos. "You had to have had doubt, somewhere in there. Were you both truly so blind to the possibility that it wouldn't work out?"
"My only defense is madness," Neredos replied, "and that is no excuse at all. I was so certain that the world needed to be guided with a strong hand, that I was unable to listen to reason even when it was presented to me by the wisest source available."
"I only wish he meant me," Veil replied, shaking her head. "But I, too, was blinded by the vision of a better world. I thought the ruse was justified, but instead of helping our people choose to build that world, we tried to control them. To the very end, I thought I knew best."
Dogo spoke next. "That is often the folly of rulers. They never seem to understand the individuality of their subjects. Guidance is necessary to keep some on the right track, but control will only make the strong-willed resist you more."
"Revash was one of those," Telzath observed. "She knew the Elrok clans would never agree to follow such a structured life. This was why she never sent allies to you, Neredos, and instead supported Odiran's claim to rule."
"In my opinion, neither man was fit for the job," Prism said, shaking his head. "It is unfortunate that no one saw the light for eight centuries."
Neredos turned to Ghayle and bowed formally. "I offer my humblest apologies that I did not listen to you when you told me it was a mistake to keep the demons alive. You told me that the world worked best with as little guidance as possible. If I understood who you were then, I'd like to think I would've listened, but I don't know if the madness would've allowed me."
Ghayle smiled sadly and placed her hand against Neredos' cheek. "No matter how many times the cycle continues, each time the one who guides the world makes the same mistake. We all believe that we know best, because we know more. There is tragedy in genius, for though we know so many paths to peace, we are also blinded by the belief that we know which path is right."
"So what is the right path?" Prism asked.
Some of the sadness drained from Ghayle's expression as she placed her hand on Prism's shoulder. "The right path," she said softly, "is whichever one takes us to our destination."
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