Veil missed her brother. Both brothers. It had been two years since Seldorym had died, almost to the day. She mourned him still, in her own way, though she had accepted his absence. At least the war was no longer going full force, and the shaky cease-fire seemed to be firming more with each passing day. Perhaps they would soon see a day where fewer pointless deaths had to happen.
The cease-fire had come about as a result of the terrorist attacks that happened on the same day that Seldorym and Duchess Casthene had died. Their deaths had been ruled an accident, as no evidence of explosives were found where their transport had crashed, unlike the three other sites that had been targeted that day.
Originally, the terrorist attacks had nearly led to an increase in conflict. The Ultakan government had originally blamed Oligan, long before evidence arrived to the contrary. No one in the nobility had foreseen that the humans living in their own country would target them. When Ultaka finally learned who had been responsible for the attacks, the young King Hashayn had done something completely unexpected. He apologized to Oligan, and that had opened the door for temporary peace.
Veil wasn't sure it would last, and her father kept her busy studying everything about the conflict in case the cease-fire ended abruptly. She no longer studied with Sharis, as all Seldorym's tutors had instead been assigned to her. She was the heir now, and it was her duty to learn.
Originally, Duke Selfaeth had ordered both of his children to study. He grieved mostly in private, and often with a bottle, and in public he'd become a somewhat stern man. He still made an effort to help the people, but his energy was waning. He didn't have enough left to force Grim to learn alongside Veil, not when he resisted as much as he did. That resistance had put a wall between father and son, and it had slowly driven a wedge between Veil and her brother as well.
Veil missed her brother, but there was nothing she could do. At ten years old she was far from being an adult, but she had to act like one anyway. Grim still wanted to play, to hold on to the last traces of childhood he could. Veil understood. It's what Seldorym would've wanted, anyway. She just wished she could spend more time with Grim.
"Excuse me, Lady Veil," the accountant said, drawing her from her musings. She turned toward the gray-haired Fedain, who was pushing his spectacles up his nose as he adjusted the ledgers in his hand. "Is this a bad time? If you'll forgive my observation, Lady Veil, you appear distracted. I can come back if there is something you need to attend to."
If this had been the first time she'd heard those exact words, Veil would have thought the accountant was being patronizing. But she knew better by now. The man truly did not want to disturb her if there was something more important for her to attend to. She appreciated that, even though her distraction had nothing to do with important work.
Grim is probably in the garden right now, playing tricks on Sharis. Veil glanced toward the window, aching to walk to it and peer outside to see if she could spot her brother. Instead, she simply sighed and regarded the accountant with the politest smile she could muster. "I'm sorry, please continue. You were talking about research being conducted by the Kobinaru Medical Institute?"
Veil didn't bother to listen as the accountant nodded and resumed speaking. It was just a standard update on the way her father's tax money was being allocated, and she doubted she would need to remember this particular data. But she continued to smile and nod, acknowledging the accountant's words even as she ignored them. Numbers just didn't interest her. That was the reason they hired an accountant, wasn't it? So that someone else would have to deal with the numbers?
Eventually the accountant finished his report and left Veil alone. She decided it was time to take a break as soon as he was gone. Waving away her servants and two more clerks who were waiting to speak to her, she allowed her guard to follow her as she made her way to the garden.
Sure enough, as soon as she arrived, she found Sharis frantically searching through the bushes as if he'd lost something. She knew exactly what he'd lost—his young noble charge. She briefly turned to her two guards and said, "Help Sharis find Lord Grim. I'm sure he will welcome the assistance."
The two guards nodded and left her side, walking the short distance to where Sharis stood and addressing him quickly. Once Veil was certain that their attention was no longer on her, she moved a short distance away and ducked behind a hedge. As soon as she arrived on the other side, Grim's voice acknowledged her.
"Do you always have to talk like you're in command?" Grim asked. "You sound like Dad."
Veil looked toward the source of the sound. It came from a hole in the hedge next to the wall. Grim barely fit behind it, but unless someone was looking directly at him they would miss him every time. He'd always had a knack for finding hiding places.
"Is it a bad thing to sound like Father?" Veil asked, putting her hands on her hips. "Father just wants what's best for people. Me and you especially."
"Sure," Grim answered. "That's why he has Sharis watch me all the time instead of letting me explore. He never lets me do anything."
"That's because you're always getting in trouble," Veil replied.
Grim harrumphed loudly. "I only get into trouble because the rules are stupid. If we had better rules, then I wouldn't get into trouble at all."
Veil knew why her father had rules, and she also knew the rules that governed most Fedain children, especially those noble born. If anything, her father was extremely lenient by most Fedain standards. It was rare for a Fedain noble to let their family leave their homes at all these days.
But she also understood her brother. She missed the days when she could play games with him, and chase him into places without worrying about his or her safety. But she was all too aware of the looks that they received from the humans. They weren't as bad as some that she saw directed towards other Fedain, but she could feel their hostility.
Maybe the rules did need to change. Something definitely did. There were problems in the world, and they were only increasing. The cease-fire wasn't going to last much longer. As much as she wanted to dwell on positive thoughts, she couldn't deny the dread she felt.
"I wish I knew what the answer is, Grim," Veil said. She nearly sat down in the dirt and then realized what she'd been about to do, and pulled at her dress nervously. "The rules . . . I see reasons for them, though I think there's something wrong with them. And I'm not just talking about the ones that Father asks us to follow. The people . . . there's so much sickness out there, and it doesn't seem like we can heal it."
There is a rustling in the bush ahead of her, and Grim squeezed his way out from behind it, then brushed the branches and leaves from his clothing. He looked at her then, his eyes as expressive as ever. They held the same youthful exuberance she had always come to appreciate, but they also still carried the deep sadness of loss. Grim's joy had never been complete since Seldorym's death. It had affected him even more than the loss of his mother. He mourned her still as well, but Seldorym's loss was different. With Seldorym, Grim had had an ally in his mischief, and no one could fill that void.
"I know the people are sick," Grim said. "Sharis tells me the humans don't like us, not anymore. He says it's because they're misguided, that they've forgotten that we protect them from sickness and harm. But we haven't. The people . . . there's something wrong, that's pretty obvious."
Veil nodded. "You go out in the city a lot more often than I do. Do you still ditch your guards?"
"As often as I can, which is far more often than they like."
"I'm surprised father still lets you go out at all," Veil replied with a touch of jealousy. "He keeps me behind a desk most days."
"Well, you're the heir," Grim said, shrugging.
Veil was shocked at the nonchalance of the statement. She had never heard Grim speak so casually about their brother's death, or rather the results of it. She took a step back and eyed her brother critically. "You seem different today."
"Maybe I'm sick too," Grim replied. He smiled at her. While the smile did reach his eyes, it carried profound bitterness with it. The smile was almost a smirk directed at the absurdity of the universe and how it had personally wronged Grim. It made Veil want to take a bath.
"They're going to find us soon," Veil said, now wanting the conversation to end. "We should probably go back out there."
"I think I'm just going to go back behind the hedge," Grim said with a wry smile. "You won't tell him I'm back there, will you?" Without waiting for a response, Grim made his way back to his hiding position.
"Why don't you just attend your lessons?" Veil asked. "You know Sharis would let you play if you would just study first."
"If he wanted to talk about history, I'd care," Grim replied, "but instead he wants to talk about religion, as if any gods are still out there. As if anything is there beyond life and death."
Veil didn't respond. She couldn't. She missed her brothers. Both had died two years ago.
"Am I supposed to be sympathetic just because she lost a family member?" Dogo asked, pulling away from the circle. He paced a few feet away, glared at Veil for a moment, and turned to Ghayle. "Death happens. And she's dealt out more than her heartbreak is worth."
"Oh, and you're a pillar of virtue, Dogo?" Veil snapped, rising on her heels and facing Dogo. "A bounty hunter, and not just for anyone, but the Shadow King Salidar thulu'Khant himself. You want to talk about dealing death unnecessarily, look to your own hands."
"I believe it's safe to say that we have all committed regrettable actions," Telzath offered, stepping between them. "Every mountain offers a different view of the horizon. We make the choices we can with the vision we have. That is all any of us can do."
"And what happens when you build your mountain so high you can only see your own light?" Dogo asked. "That is not a perspective I think I can benefit from, not now, not ever."
Prism had remained silent through this brief discussion, believing that his new companions needed this opportunity to work through some of their emotions. He considered intervening now, seeing the hatred in Dogo's eyes and the scowl forming on Veil's face. Before he could, Telzath clapped Dogo on the shoulder and gestured to one of the forest paths leading away from the circle of stones. "How about we take a break then? I think you could benefit from some air."
Dogo nodded when Ghayle met Telzath's suggestion with an approving smile. Instead of waiting for Telzath to lead the way, he simply picked one of the paths and started down it. Telzath trailed after him and asked a question the rest of them could not hear. They were soon out of sight, their voices disappearing like a light summer breeze.
"Is that really how you felt about Grim?" Prism asked after a moment. He tried to keep all traces of emotion from his face as he turned toward Veil again.
Veil's scowl faded as she met Prism's gaze. "Yes. I still feel that way. I never feel like I truly got him back."
"I know what that's like," Prism said. "After your father died . . . And then, when he killed that man at the temple . . ."
"I should've never said to him what I said to him then," Veil said, her eyes distant as she looked down at her hands. "There's a lot I regret, but that's one of the worst."
"You know, it took him a while, but he did eventually forgive you," Prism said. "He always understood why you did it, but he still couldn't believe that you rejected him. Hated by humans for being a Fedain, hated by Fedain for not being Fedain enough. That was how he used to describe himself."
"And you, Prism?" Veil asked, looking up again, her eyes moist with barely contained tears. "Have you forgiven me?"
"No," Prism replied. "I never had to. Not for that, anyway. As I said, Grim knew why you did it, and that meant he could heal from it in time. That was enough for me."
"Prism; ever the believer in the goodness of people," Neredos said with a chuckle.
Prism regarded Neredos with a smile. "You almost make that sound like an insult, Neredos. Is there something wrong with seeing the goodness in people?"
"Definitely not. I was the same way, at least until I went crazy," Neredos replied. "If anything, it just makes me like you more. Grim, too, actually."
"Our relationships were very similar with our loved ones. I always saw the good in people, and Alazyn always saw the bad. She was the cynic, just like Grim," Neredos explained.
"Grim is not a cynic," Prism protested, "he just . . ."
"He just what?" Veil asked when Prism couldn't continue his sentence. She shared a look with Neredos before going on, "He just wasn't a cynic regarding you. You were an anchor for him, through the worst period of his life. You saved my brother from his cynicism, though you definitely didn't defeat it."
"Face it, Prism," Neredos said, "Grim has never seen much hope in the world. I fought alongside you for years, and I know that he walked into every battle expecting to die. The only reason why he didn't was because he also expected you to live, and he wasn't about to leave you alone."
"You know they're both telling the truth," Ghayle offered, joining the conversation at last. Prism regarded her with surprise, which only increased as her words continued. "One of the reasons why we have to go through these moments is for you to gain a better understanding of him as well. All your life you've had only one perspective, but now . . . to safeguard the world and its peoples, you must be able to understand through different eyes."
"What benefit is there to knowing that Grim is a cynic?" Prism asked. "How does that help me with my task?"
Ghayle beckoned him toward her. As soon as Prism reached her, she placed a hand against his cheek and his vision shifted to the shore of a dark island in the middle of midnight black waters.
"You're Naxthul," Grim scoffed, skeptically eyeing the shape shifter in front of him. "You do look like him, I'll give you that, but why exactly would I trust a shape shifting demon?"
Naxthul sighed deeply. If only he could make Grim understand. Oh, the many things he wanted to teach this doubting Fedain! But he would have to be patient. As difficult as the last eight centuries had been for Naxthul, they would've been hell on a mortal mind like Grim's.
"If you have any ideas as to how I could prove it to you, feel free to voice them," Naxthul replied, extending his reptilian-like arms wide. He flexed his wings as well, glad to finally have them again. Unlike his other forms, this one felt real. Natural as the day he was born into it.
"I'm sure you know many ancient secrets, so it's not as if I could ask a question and hope to stump you," Grim said with obvious irritation. "What question could I find that only Naxthul would know, which I would have the answer to, when you would not? I don't think such a thing exists."
Naxthul pointed upward. "I suppose I could take you on a tour of my temple."
"No, I think I have something . . ." Grim said after a moment. His expression was unreadable as he maintained Naxthul's gaze. "Why did you tell me your identity?"
Naxthul answered the question honestly, hoping his sincerity would come through. "Because it is who I am, or perhaps who I was is more appropriate. I am different now, obviously. The Vhor come from all races, and my people could not change their form as I can now."
Grim nodded slowly. "Are you surprised that I consider myself familiar with you?"
"I do not know what histories were available when I first emerged from the gate," Naxthul replied, shaking his head. "I do not know what remnants of my time exist inside your head. I know that few, if any, know my name in this age, but eight hundred years ago? I was more concerned with other things then and did not bother to learn what the world thought of my history. I had already been gone for four thousand years, after all."
"Is that all you have to say on the matter?" Grim asked, his face as unreadable as ever.
Naxthul nodded. "I'm completely transparent to you now, Grim. I will hold no answers back, not to any of your questions. I don't believe you understand yet. We have reached the end, at least the end of my role."
Grim considered him for a moment. "I studied you; everything there was to learn about you. You were my favorite subject, and I begged my tutor to find everything he could on you and your people. Not to mention the Sendar."
Naxthul winced at the mention of the Sendar. It brought complicated emotions to mind, and he didn't want to deal with any of them. But this was different. He had promised to be transparent, after all.
"So, you know about Khalis," Naxthul said. "My beloved, whom Prism claimed to have killed in the Temple of the Mountain."
"Not just Prism," Grim replied, his voice strong as iron, "I helped to kill him as well. It was only the second time I had ever killed another being."
Naxthul stiffened at this news. Eight hundred years he had spent without his lover at his side, his First, the one who was supposed to lead the demons with him. For some of that time he had wanted revenge, but now he simply wanted this to be over, and that end was finally on the horizon.
"If I had found you then, I would have destroyed you," Naxthul said. "But that would've been a mistake on my part."
"I can tell by the look on your face that you did not come to that statement easily," Grim said. "You honestly cared about him, didn't you?"
"How would you feel about the man who killed the great love of your life?" Naxthul asked.
"Apparently, not enough to kill him before I interrogate him," Grim replied. He leaned in with a snarl and added, "since he offered to answer any of my questions with complete transparency."
Naxthul nodded slowly. "I suppose, in a way, I did get my vengeance on you, and on Prism."
"If you wanted this to end, why did you kill him?" Grim asked.
"Because he was trying to free you, and with you free I was likely to die before I managed to free the rest of the demons. No matter what, I couldn't let that happen," Naxthul said. "The demons had to die, but if you had succeeded first . . . there's no telling what would've happened to the world."
"Were you really so scared of me?" Grim asked, chuckling without mirth.
"Of you, no," Naxthul replied. "Of how your single-mindedness could've destroyed the world? Yes."
"A demon preaching to me about how to avoid destroying the world?" Grim scoffed.
"A former god explaining to you the nature of reality," Naxthul clarified dryly. "When all your focus is on one goal, nothing else matters."
"I do not trust you," Grim said slowly, "and I never will. But I will listen to you."
"Why did you show that to me and no one else?" Prism asked as the vision cleared from his mind. He could not read Ghayle's expression. The emotions expressed by her eyes were too complex, though thoughtfulness shone through the storm.
"It is not necessary for them to know yet," Ghayle replied. "That is also why I took us away from the others. Even Veil and Neredos should not yet hear the words that Naxthul has to speak. Those secrets are for the One and the First until such a time as the Chosen need additional guidance."
Prism looked around him then, realizing that they no longer stood within the circle of stones. They were back at the same portion of the garden where Ghayle had first started speaking to him. Aside from the plants, there was not another living thing in sight.
"Then why did you show it to me?" Prism asked, returning his attention to Ghayle. "Why do I need to know?"
"Because you are the one who will have to guide him," Ghayle replied. "You can no longer view Grim as exclusively your lover. He must be more than that to you now. He will become the guardian of the entire world and will hopefully keep it moving in a harmonious direction for eons to come. But he will need you for that, because sometimes he will give into his cynicism when things are not as bad as he perceives them to be. You will have to be the voice of reason, who shows him the one perspective he can't see; one other than his own."
"But if he takes over for you, won't that mean he has your same perception? Won't he be able to sense the thoughts and feelings of everyone in the world?" Prism asked.
Ghayle nodded. "Yes, but he won't be able to sense yours. Even if both of your tattoos were still working, he will not be connected to the nuance of your mind the same way that he is connected to everyone else in the world. The thoughts and feelings of the peoples of the world will also become his thoughts and feelings. His thoughts will still have prominence in his own mind, of course, but yours will be separate and serve as a check on his perspective."
"So the First has far more responsibility than the Chosen?" Prism clarified.
"That is correct."
"If it is Grim's responsibility to oversee the world, it is my responsibility to oversee Grim."
Ghayle smiled warmly, her eyes bright with suddenly renewed energy. "You have understood this well. This is why the demons cannot be allowed into the world unless the One and the First are in agreement. I could not open the gate without Tagren driving the stake into my heart. Two must rule in harmony, one who can see the infinite manifestations of the singular, and one who can see the infinite manifestations within the singular."
"I'm not sure I understand that one," Prism replied with a wry chuckle. "I may have studied some philosophy, but that one appears to be beyond me."
Ghayle nodded and replied, "Let me explain it another way. Grim will see himself in all things. He will connect to everything living on the world and to the world itself. He will manifest infinitely, but it will all be him." She placed her hand against Prism's cheek and continued. "You will observe the infinite potential within him, but from the outside. You will know his thoughts and feelings only as he expresses them and judge the validity of them simply by your own observation instead of your participation. One infinite perspective outside, one infinite perspective inside."
"I believe I understand," Prism said. "But then what is the role of the other Chosen?"
"To serve as extensions of your combined will," Ghayle replied. "Many people need gods to guide them when they are uncertain of their own path. The Chosen can travel anywhere, can manifest as much they need, to help guide society onto a more harmonious path. They will be able to think and act freely, though assured in the knowledge that should they go against you and Grim, Grim has the power to send them onward into the next existence."
"So, I'm to be their judge?" Prism asked.
"Would you trust anyone else to do it?" Ghayle replied. She waited a moment for Prism to consider the words before she went on, "You were chosen to be the First because of your purity of intention. I assume that the reason why Naxthul has chosen Grim to be the One is because of Grim's pure intention as well. His is different than yours, as he is focused on saving the world and yours has always been focused on saving the individual."
"You don't know why Naxthul chose Grim?" Prism asked with surprise.
"No," Ghayle said, "though I suspected he would be the One. I have long suspected he would be Naxthul's pick. Ever since Neredos failed, anyway."
"Why is it Naxthul who picks?" Prism asked.
Ghayle smiled. Though there was some warmth to it, her eyes betrayed a maelstrom of complicated emotions. For a moment, Prism thought he could piece it all together, but he soon came to realize he would require a cosmic understanding to grasp what Ghayle's eyes expressed.
"Because he has been on the other side of this before. Because only he knows what it's like to be me, and knows what it's like to be Grim, and only he knows what's next. Someone did the same for him once, eons ago. I will do the same for Grim's replacement when the time comes."
"You don't think Grim will succeed?" Prism asked.
Ghayle chuckled softly. "Overseeing the world requires a certain dose of cynicism, Prism. If you can't accept that things can be wrong, how can you ever fix those things?"
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