Lonely Pride

by Cynus

Chapter 18

Prism paced around the small circle of stones at the edge of the forest clearing. Telzath eyed him curiously, but Prism tried to ignore him. It was as if the Elrok was completely at peace with all this business of being 'Chosen'. Of course, he wasn't the same as Prism. Telzath wasn't 'the First' as Ghayle called him.

He didn't want such a responsibility, but, as usual, he also knew it was his to accept. in his past few decades of life, whenever a new task had come his way, he hadn't tried to pass it off to anyone else, as he would have as a boy. Instead, he'd done what had to be done. This was no different, no matter how much he hated it.

He just wished he had more empathy from Telzath, but it seemed he would get none here. Perhaps, when Dogo arrived, he would find someone who understood the absurdity of it all.

Prism glanced at Ghayle, who had momentarily ceased their viewing of the present, to pull Dogo into the dream world. She stood apart from them, her eyes fixated on something distant that Prism could not see. With one hand she reached into the air before her, her fingers parting an invisible curtain glowing with bright, white light. Abruptly reaching forward, she seized hold of something and drew it through the curtain.

Shielding his eyes from the light, Prism watched sidelong as Dogo appeared through the rift in the curtain and was dropped heavily to the ground. He grunted with surprise, then rose to his feet shakily. He breathed two deep breaths and seemed surprised to find that his lungs were working normally. Only then did he turn to Ghayle, a perplexed frown on his face.

"Where am I?" he asked.

"You're in the world between worlds, from my understanding," Prism said, when Ghayle did not immediately reply. He noted her nod of approval and suppressed a glare.

Dogo's eyes narrowed as he met Prism's face. "I recognize you from somewhere . . ." he shook his head as if to clear it. "I'm not entirely sure where."

"You've seen me twice," Prism replied with a curt nod. "You passed me once in the hall after delivering Styx to Salidar, and saw me again when I was escaping him, though how you would remember me from the latter, I'm not sure."

"Prism," Dogo said, nodding in understanding. Prism's eyes widened as Dogo added with a grin, "I'm good with names, don't look so surprised."

"I see," Prism said. He gestured toward Ghayle and went on, "Well, Ghayle recommended I be the one to welcome you here."

"Ghayle?" Dogo asked, turning toward her. He blinked as if seeing her for the first time. He took a step back, taking in every inch of her, from her naked and marbled torso, to the wispiness of her hair.

"Yes. She is the protector of our world," Prism said. "Or was, at least."

"Welcome to the dream world, Dogo of Incaria," Ghayle said, inclining her head toward him slightly.

"You're a Gor . . ." Dogo said, staring at her ears, more with admiration than with surprise. "My people speak of a Gor enchantress who led our people during the Demon War."

"Your people?" Prism asked. "The Incarians?"

"You may not be aware of this, Prism, but many members of the Gor tribes of the southern tundra ended up marrying into Incarian families after the war," Ghayle explained. "I wouldn't be surprised if every modern Incarian had a drop of Gor blood now."

"You don't know for certain?" Prism asked.

Ghayle shook her head and said softly, "I don't have quite the same connection to everything as I once did. I don't feel them the same way."

Dogo nodded as if to confirm the topic, but then peered past Prism to Telzath. "And . . . there's an Elrok here." Telzath rose gracefully to his feet and bowed.

"This is Chief Telzath, of the Clan of Lions, Chief of the united tribes," Prism said formally.

Telzath crossed the distance between them quickly, his long stride somehow managing to remain graceful despite his haste. He bowed to Dogo again, and said, "You do not know me, Dogo, though several of my children spoke highly of your honor in the arena. They were in Salidar's employ during your tenure there."

"You didn't mention that before," Prism said dryly. He eyed Telzath askance and muttered under his breath, "It might have been nice to know."

"It did not seem relevant to your choice, Prism," Telzath replied with obvious confusion. "You could only evaluate him by your own experience. I could offer my perspective, but how could you trust the opinion of people you had never met?"

"Wise words," Ghayle offered with an approving nod.

"What am I doing here?" Dogo's question drew everyone's attention back to him. Prism grimaced, reading familiar signs of suspicion in Dogo's eyes. Dogo was sick of this introductory game and was ready to demand answers. Prism understood, he just didn't want to give them.

As he hesitated, Ghayle said simply, "You have a choice."

"He gets a choice?" Prism asked, turning back to her and balking.

"Yes," Ghayle replied, meeting his eyes and beginning a silent battle of wills by their gazes.

Dogo groaned and stepped between them, surprising even Ghayle by his brashness. "What do I have to choose?" he asked, looking between them. "Is anyone going to tell me what the hell I'm doing here?"

When Ghayle didn't respond, Prism sighed and said, "Let me explain some things about the world . . ." he proceeded to explain about the Trial, the demons, and the current state of the world. Ghayle joined in only when Prism left out something important. Dogo listened intently, asking questions when he didn't understand, but giving only the barest hint of surprise when Prism finally finished.

"And so, you want me to be one of these Chosen?" Dogo said, scratching his chin thoughtfully.

"Ghayle thinks you'd be good for the job," Prism said, shrugging. Ghayle regarded him with piercing curiosity, and he felt the intent behind her eyes. With a sigh, he added, "I do, too."

"Let me think about it," Dogo said after a moment's consideration. "I can do that, right?"

Prism looked to Ghayle for support, and she nodded slightly before turning to Dogo. "Of course. And while you take the time to absorb it all, how about I show you your son?"

Dogo smiled at the thought. "You can do that?"

Instead of answering, Ghayle touched his arm.


Styx followed his mother through the complex. Now that they trusted him to move around blindfolded, he found himself in the middle of a large house in one of the oldest sectors of Pentalus. Likely it had been a manor house at one point, repurposed for common housing once the noble family who owned it had dwindled in power. Styx wondered how it had come into the hands of the resistance.

The resources of the resistance seemed far more extensive than he would have expected. From the opulence in the halls and the manner of food they'd fed him so far, they lived as well as any of the large guilds in The Shade. It surprised him that they hadn't made more of an impact on the power structure.

But then he considered that the thulu'Khant family had resisted Neredos for eight centuries and had barely managed to keep their rebellion in the history books. Few people in Pentalus likely thought much of The Shade, other than its reputation for housing criminals. Would this rebellion by the citizens of Pentalus itself remain in the memories of its people? Would any of these actions have an impact greater than the legacy of the Immortal King?

He wanted to give the resistance the benefit of the doubt. If their story proved to be true, then at the very least their motives seemed justified. Despite the connection he felt to the woman walking just ahead of him, he wasn't yet convinced that she was his mother. She had similar features, certainly, but that was not the only explanation for such things.

Nevertheless, he wanted to help her as well as his own nature would allow. As they stepped onto the rooftop, he was filled with a mixture of doubt and conviction, warring for supremacy. Both fled from him for a moment when he caught sight of the beautiful creature before him.

"You have an eagle?" Styx said excitedly as he crossed over to where the beautiful bird roosted. Its handler, a middle-aged man dressed like a Knight of the Firmament, stood next to it.

"We have six," Nal Maya said, reaching out to stroke the head of the bird. "The first two were stolen a decade ago and were a mating pair. They had four chicks, each of which has been trained to carry a rider as well."

"Where do you fly them?" Styx asked of the middle-aged man. "There's no way you could get away with keeping them in Pentalus all the time. Someone would eventually realize they didn't belong to the Knights, even if you're disguised as one."

Nal Maya nodded, answering for the rider. "Out in the country, usually. Baron Khiljan is a friend to the resistance and allows us to use his lands up north. In the wake of Neredos' recent maddening orders, we had them returned to Pentalus, knowing we'd need them."

"They're beautiful creatures," Styx said, stroking the eagle's back with slight trepidation. "I've only had the chance to ride one of them, but flying is like nothing else I've ever experienced."

"I would think you'd be quite familiar with flight," Nal Maya said with surprise. When Styx looked at her in confusion, she explained, "The hawk tattoo should give you quite the experience, and Dogo has told me you are quite the glider."

Styx shook his head and said, "Gliding and flying are different. Had I not experienced flying, I might have assumed the same thing."

"I suppose they are," Nal Maya said. "We will be sending you with one of our operatives." She nodded to the handler in the Knight's armor and he inclined his head respectfully in return. "Since you're not a trained rider, it's the only way. I wish we could trust you to do it on your own."

She gathered him by the shoulders and moved him away from the eagle. On the far side of the roof were a pair of benches set up with a good view of the city. As they approached the benches, Styx said quietly, "It's okay . . . If I were well, I could fly there on my own."

"What?" Nal Maya asked, regarding him curiously.

"Madame Godani did some of her best work on me. But I was damaged during my fight with the demon," Styx explained with a gently smile. "I could grow wings if I were well. I wouldn't want to risk flying on them now, however. I would have . . . if you hadn't agreed to help me."

"I see," Nal Maya replied, her eyes twinkling with delight. Such youthful energy seemed out of place on her weathered features, but Styx felt a pang of familiarity from that delightful glow. "That's impressive. Few have pulled off wings with ink in all known history. She must be proud of her work."

"She was disappointed in me, actually. I only used them once that she knows about, and then refused to use them again until two days ago," Styx replied.

"Why?"

"I almost died. I was afraid to use them. She kept trying to push me to try again, and I . . . I couldn't do it," Styx said, shaking his head. Sadness threatened to overwhelm him as tears gathered in the corners of his eyes. "I'm not brave like my father is. Was . . ." he suppressed a sob as he recalled Dogo's face. "I try now. I want to be, but . . ." he trailed off with a shrug, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. The urge to sob became a need to cough, and he let several hacking tremors escape his lips.

Nal Maya patted his back and regarded him with concern. "But you also want to stay safe. You want to live," she said softly. "Everyone does, so you shouldn't be expected not to."

"I never took a risk on anyone else's behalf until recently. Someone—a friend—convinced me to go back for someone who had helped me, to try to help them. He ended up refusing our help, so that he could help others. He stayed in prison . . ." Styx sighed and looked out at the city, two tears rolling down his cheeks. "I just don't understand sacrifice, I guess."

"Why are you telling me this?" Nal Maya asked.

"Because I want to understand, I suppose," Styx replied, fighting the bitterness that threatened to taint every word. "I've lost so many friends recently. Most of them new, but all of them tried to help me. Did I do enough? Did Drake . . ."

"Drake?" Nal Maya asked. "The cute boy with the mischievous smile who used to chase me around before Dogo showed up and stole my heart? What about him?"

Styx couldn't help the sob this time, his mind returning to the moment he looked over his shoulder and saw the end of the rope dangling free behind him. "He died . . . he let go, so that I would be able to make it out. I was trying to save him. I wasn't able to save anyone else, so I had to get him out, and then . . . then he was just gone."

"So, you feel guilty? You wish there was something you could have done?" Nal Maya reasoned.

"Yes."

She nodded in understanding and moved to put a hand on his shoulder. He started to pull away, but then stopped and let her touch him as she said, "Sometimes you just have to embrace the reality that there's nothing you can do. You move forward, because that's all there is to life. Bad things happen, unexpected things happen, uncontrollable things happen. No matter what, however, the only thing you can do is approach life with renewed understanding and face your present circumstances for what they are."

"Like you did?" Styx asked, turning to her with full venom. His eyes were hard and accusatory, though he saw nothing but compassion expressed in his mother's eyes.

But she didn't back down. She kept her hand on his shoulder as her eyes misted over. "I'm sorry I wasn't a mother to you. I know you feel cheated, but I didn't think I'd live this long. By my best guess, I have the body of a woman of ninety years now. I couldn't chase you around and play with you. I couldn't have taught you how to explore life the way a mother should." Tears streaming down her cheeks, she choked on her next words several times before finally managing to get out, "I wanted to give you the best life I could."

"So, you sacrificed," Styx said flatly. Despite the emotion in his mother's gaze, he couldn't connect to it, couldn't give himself over to it. Not now, not yet. He needed time to process all of this, but time was a luxury he didn't have.

"I wanted to be there. It hurt so much that I couldn't. For either of my children. Laris only found me a few years ago. Those other years . . ." Nal Maya finally withdrew her hand and stared out at the city. Twilight would descend in the next hour, and some had already begun to light their lanterns for the evening. Each light belonged to a person or family, and yet they were so distant. So many people that Styx would never know or likely have a chance to know. "Those years were so lonely," Nal Maya continued, her words ringing true with Styx's ruminations. "While Dogo was imprisoned by Salidar . . . I don't know how I would have survived without the goodness of the resistance."

"Who knows your real identity?" Styx asked. As much as he'd wanted this talk, to understand, he needed to change the subject before his emotions overwhelmed him.

"Laris, you, and a few others," Nal Maya replied quickly, seeming just as eager to change the direction of their conversation. "Master Kimbler knows enough to get him in trouble but not enough to cause me much. Obviously, your aunt, though she has kept her distance as well."

Styx nodded, and a silence fell over them. Together they watched the city, contemplating the lights and the people in the streets. All the people he would never meet, the stories he would never know. But there were stories he could have, that he didn't have to live without. As much as he feared the emotions bubbling up inside him, he said quietly, "When I get back, you're going to tell me everything about you, and about Dogo. You're going to be my mother."

He felt her hand slide into his, leathery skin gripping him with surprising gentleness. She spoke softly, but her tone rang with conviction. "For all the years I have left, I'll do my best."

"Then . . ." Styx said, looking down at their joined hands, "I'll consider killing Veil."

Nal Maya's breath caught, before she said, "I don't ask you to."

"I don't know if I will, but if . . ." Styx exhaled slowly, then turned to his mother. "If she reveals her true crimes to me, I'll consider it."

"Very well," Nal Maya replied, nodding slowly. "For now, I think it's best you get to sleep. Dawn will come quickly."

"He has to go now," said a voice from behind them. They turned together, taking in a frantic-eyed Laris.

"What has happened?" Nal Maya asked.

"The Knights are mobilizing. One of the pillars has been opened," Laris said, pointing in the opposite direction. "The Pillar of Ibrix, opened by Elroks, or so they say. The same one Salidar opened but Neredos resealed. There's more . . . there are forces approaching from the west and south."

"Whose forces?" Nal Maya asked.

"We don't know for sure, but they're military. We reached out to Baron Khiljan, but we haven't heard from him yet. We don't know if they're friend or foe," Laris replied. "Either way, it looks like a battle is brewing."

Nal Maya waved the eagle handler to them and spoke sharply, "You will take this boy to the Everbright City. Get as close to the Oracle's Enclave as possible."

"We'll get him up there in the chaos," the handler replied with a low bow. Whether Nal Maya was considered the Dark Mother or not, she was regarded as above the others in the resistance all the same. Styx wondered how many of the rebels suspected the truth, no matter how Nal Maya and Laris attempted to hide it.

But he didn't have long to dwell on the thought. Nal Maya released his hand and gripped his shoulder firmly. "Good luck, Styx."

Styx smiled at her, then on impulse he embraced her, pulling her tight against him. "Thank you, Mother. I'll come back to you, I promise."


Alsha stood in the chaos of the Everbright City, unsure where to go. She and her company had yet to be properly debriefed, and they'd sat without orders while waiting for the bureaucracy to catch up. All the tumult of the evacuation had delayed procedure, though they'd done their best to help without proper orders.

Now, however, procedural delay was frustrating her more than ever before. Rumors of a pillar disappearing filled the mouths of every Knight around her. She had called her company together near the eagle roost. Most had gathered already though they awaited a few more.

As one of her soldiers—a young woman named Phari—arrived from the direction of the central command, Alsha caught her by the sleeve and said, "Go back and find out where they want our company. We are ready to move as soon as they give us orders. Why are we just sitting here?"

Phari saluted but instead of leaving she replied, "Command is in complete disarray. No one knows what's happening with the evacuation, and it seems no one is in charge right now."

Alsha cursed and looked toward the inner city. "Very well then. I suppose I'll have to seize command. If no one over there can do it, I'll organize us."

Fenri stepped up from behind her, his eyes grim. "With all due respect, Lady Alsha, you are not a Grand Inquisitor. Do you expect the other regiments will listen to you?"

Alsha snorted and said, "No, but if there isn't one to command me, what exactly am I supposed to do?"

Fenri hesitated for only a moment before responding with a salute. "What are your orders?"

"What is the status of the demon?" Alsha asked. "Have we had a recent report?"

"Dead, by all accounts," Fenri replied. "We just got word."

"Are there other pillars in jeopardy?" Alsha asked.

"Not that anyone has found," Fenri said. "And it appears the Elrok forces have withdrawn."

"Then what is the Underking's game?" Alsha asked. "What could he possibly be plotting now? Did he really come to release a single demon?" I thought Maxthane was supposed to be different, Kirra. Isn't that what you told me? Alsha thought, a frustrated sigh escaping her lips.

Another soldier came running up to her. Not one of hers, but a messenger assigned to the Grand Inquisitors. He saluted quickly and said, "Lady Alsha! New orders for you!"

"At last!" Alsha replied. "Give them to me straight away."

"King Neredos has ordered that the evacuation be sped up. You are assigned to ensure the safety of the Oracle and her enclave."

"What!?" Alsha asked, but the soldier was already gone, not bothering to wait for dismissal. He sped toward a group of soldiers under another's command, and relayed another message before running off again.

"What would you have us do, Lady Alsha?" Phari asked.

"If the Oracle is in danger . . . I guess we have to rescue her. Let's go," Alsha replied, shaking her head in dismay. She wanted to investigate the demon, and whatever was happening with the Elrok forces down below. No one had faced more combat against demons than Alsha, and now she was relegated to an escort mission. She would have a long talk with her superiors once this was over.

But she led the way to the Oracle's enclave all the same. As soon as she arrived, she ordered her troops to split up and round up the servants and guards to begin evacuating them. It would take an hour at least to get everyone out of the city. Eagles were in short supply, and the Knights could only take one passenger down at a time.

Alsha retained the most important task for herself. She would ensure that Veil herself was situated and all her affairs set in order. Even if it had not been expected of her as the commanding officer, Alsha considered the Oracle's safety a matter of personal interest.

As she rushed toward the center of the enclave, however, she saw a familiar form darting ahead of her, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, though there was little shadow to be had. Styx. Alsha hung back to observe him. If the evacuation of the enclave would take an hour, she could spare the time to find out why he was here.

But before Styx reached his destination, he practically ran into a guard coming from an adjoining hallway. The guard stopped him immediately, sword leaping into his hand as he glared at Styx and took in the Shadesight tattoo marking his origin.

"Who are you?" the guard demanded as Styx pulled up short.

Styx responded smoothly, raising his hands in a casual surrender. "I'm on a mission for the Lady Veil. I was here a week ago, and she is expecting me back today."

"We're in the middle of an evacuation," the guard replied menacingly. "You will be lucky to find her, and I don't think I would tell you where she is even if I knew."

Alsha heard Styx sigh as she approached. He lowered his hands and said gently, "I am a friend of Grandmaster Prism, who served in the demon war alongside the Oracle."

The guard shook his head and replied. "You will not see the Oracle now. You must come back later. If she wishes to see you, she would have provided you with a way to prove your identity."

"Styx!?" Alsha said, stepping up to join them. "I told you not to get ahead of your escort."

"Lady Alsha!" Styx said with delight. Though his eyes betrayed some of his surprise, he continued as if he'd expected her arrival. "Could you please explain to this . . . guard, that I'm a friend of Lady Veil's?"

Alsha turned to the guard and said, "He speaks the truth. And I've come to personally see to the Oracle's evacuation. I'll take charge of him, but I must also know where she is."

The guard stared at her for a moment before sheathing his sword. "She is in her chambers, gathering her necessities. You need only continue down this hallway and enter the door at the end."

"I will find her there then. You are dismissed," Alsha replied. The guard blinked at her several times, eyeing Styx skeptically, then shook his head in dismay and walked away without acknowledging either of them further.

As soon as he was out of sight, Alsha turned to Styx and asked. "What are you doing here?"

Styx's only immediate response was to cough. It was a heavy, wet sound. When it subsided, he met Alsha's eyes and smiled meekly. "I'm not sure I can tell you that. Is Kirra with you?"

"Not anymore. He went back to find you, I believe. I would have expected him to find you by now," Alsha said with narrowed eyes. "You really should tell me of your purpose."

"I come for healing," Styx replied after a moment. "I fought a demon, and it poisoned me."

"The same demon as before? The one which killed Prism?" Alsha asked with alarm. "Is he here?"

"No. It was different," Styx said distractedly. Alsha noted the pain in his gaze and decided to drop the subject, before Styx changed it on his own. "What is going on with this evacuation?"

Alsha sighed and replied, "Neredos ordered it. We don't know why."

Before Styx could comment further, the sound of footsteps drew their attention back the way they came. A soldier approached at a run, pausing to salute Alsha before saying breathlessly, "Commander!"

"Yes, Frade?" Alsha asked.

"There are forces moving on Pentalus," Frade replied.

"Forces?"

"From the countryside. The local nobility have brought the military. They're seizing the garrisons and . . ." he gulped for air, his eyes wide with fright. "They have eagles."

"They're coming for us here?" Alsha asked, horrified.

Frade nodded. "Yes."

"Tell Fenri that the evacuation will continue. Our primary focus is to protect our people. We need to get them to safety as quickly as possible," Alsha said. "I will rendezvous with you at the northern plaza as soon as I have the Oracle's safety ensured."

"Understood," Frade replied, saluted, and then darted off to relay the order.

"Now, Styx . . ." Alsha began, but when she turned back he was nowhere to be found. "Styx?"


"Clasean, please make sure all the women make it out safely. Have them all under guard. I want to make sure that my charges are seen to. They can't be—" Veil stopped short as Styx stepped into the room without knocking. She rose to her feet as Clasean stepped around the desk, his sword halfway out of its sheath as Veil met Styx's gaze. "Styx?"

Styx stepped forward and closed the door behind him, eyeing Clasean before he said with a slight cough, "Veil, I need to speak to you."

"You do not look well. I worried for you when they found Prism's body. Have you encountered the same demon?" Veil asked, motioning for Clasean to sheath his sword as she stepped around her desk to greet Styx.

"No, another," Styx said, and coughed again, his chest heaving with effort. Veil moved quickly to his side and took his hand.

"Quay . . ." She said, her eyes widening as she stiffened. Gently, and with grave concern touching every word she added, "Please, let me heal you."

Styx breathed a sigh of relief. As much as he feared the reality his mother had instilled in him, he was grateful that Veil was willing to aid him. "Thank you."

Veil closed her eyes and focused. Styx could feel her inside of him, reaching in with energies he couldn't understand. It delved into every inch of his body, searching the extent of the damage. After a moment, Veil opened her eyes and peered at Styx quizzically. "You are troubled by something?"

Styx started to sweat, fearing Veil had figured out what he had come to do. She didn't appear angry, however, so he trusted his instincts and answered honestly. "Yes."

Before Veil could respond, a servant burst into the room without announcing herself and spoke immediately. "Oracle! The Pillar of Ibrix has fallen, the demon is dead, but we are being invaded."

"Ibrix is dead?" Veil asked, shock plain on her face.

"Yes," the servant continued. "Reports say that the Elroks have not moved since opening the pillar. They seem as stunned at the demon's death as the Knights."

"Then there is no time to waste. You may go, Cassa," Veil said. The servant bowed and left, and Veil met Styx's eyes, considering. After a moment, she nodded slightly and said, "Clasean, leave us."

"Oracle?" Clasean asked with alarm.

"Leave us! And make sure no one else enters!" Veil snapped over her shoulder.

Clasean blinked in surprise but bowed slightly and said, "As you wish." With three quick strides he opened the door and left.

"Styx . . ." Veil said softly, recovering her composure, "you are a Shade . . ."

"I am . . ." Styx said cautiously.

"You resist the reign of King Neredos?" Veil asked.

Styx hesitated, then replied, "I was raised to resent him, yes. I don't know much about him, in all honesty."

Veil nodded as if his answer was irrelevant. "You are a thief. You can be stealthy . . .?"

"I can."

"I need you to kill Neredos."

"What!?"

Veil gripped his hand firmly and said, "With Ibrix dead, Neredos can now be slain."

"Why would you want him dead?" Styx asked, attempting to pull his hand away, but in his still weakened state he could not escape her grasp.

Veil leaned forward intently, meeting Styx's gaze. "He must be killed. He has ruled for too long."

Styx considered reaching for the dagger on his belt. His mother had been right. Veil was a killer with immoral aspirations. But he also knew the danger she posed by simply having contact with his flesh. Could he kill her before she killed him? He needed to stall until an opportunity presented itself. "Do you wish to rule instead?" he asked.

"No," Veil replied. "I do not."

Styx believed her, and it surprised him. Yet her grip remained as firm as ever, and he still had no opportunity to escape it. "I am not a killer," he said, staring intently into her eyes. "No matter how much one might deserve it."

"You don't trust me. I can feel it in you," Veil said, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.

Styx hesitated for several heartbeats. If he waited too long, he knew Veil would act decisively and destroy him before he could stop her plots. He was out of time, and only courage was left to him. With a deep breath he said acidly, "How have you survived all these years, Veil? What did you do? What price did you ask for providing Salidar with a son?"

Veil's eyes widened at the question. "You know . . ." she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

"I do," Styx confirmed. "But I'm willing to let you live in exchange for justice. Justice for all your victims."

"Styx . . ." Veil said softly, her expression tightening. "I will turn myself in, but only after Neredos is dead."

"Why?" Styx asked. "Just tell me why you want him dead."

"Neredos is insane. This evacuation proves it. Don't you see? He can't be allowed to rule any longer," Veil said pleadingly. "You have to kill him."

For several seconds, Styx considered all the implications before him. Veil was asking the same thing as his mother had, to kill someone based on accusations he that had no proof of other than their word. The same dilemma required the same answer, and though he feared the repercussions Veil might unleash on him, his honor demanded his reply. "I won't, Veil. There's nothing you could do to convince me."

Veil stared at him, expressionless. Then, slowly, she nodded, and her features softened. "If you won't, then at least let me heal you. At least let me prove that my intentions are not evil."

Styx considered refusing, despite knowing that his only chance for healing rested with Veil. Her actions disgusted him. But . . . but, he did not want to die, and she had decided she would heal him regardless of whether he agreed to kill Neredos. That was enough to convince him. He nodded, and he once again felt her delve into his flesh.

As she worked, his bones knitted back together, the thousands of weakening fractures suffered from earlier fading seamlessly. The fatigue in his muscles vanished, replaced with full vitality. When she started to work on his chest, however, at first there was nothing but pain. He doubled over, clutching at his chest as his lungs exploded in his chest. Blood vessel after blood vessel popped throughout his body.

Just as quickly as they were destroyed, new ones took their place. He gasped as oxygen filled new lungs, and blood was guided back into a new circulation system. He felt fresh, reborn, as if he had just left his mother's womb and taken his first step into a new world.

Then he felt her in his brain, and he stopped thinking about anything else. Something changed, a subtle, small thought, and suspicion fled from him. Before he realized what was happening, Veil whispered, "Will you kill Neredos, Styx?"

"Yes, anything for you, Veil," Styx said. It made sense, more sense than anything ever had. He wanted to kill Neredos. After all, Veil had explained before that Neredos could not be allowed to rule any longer. There was no other option than to destroy him as efficiently as possible.

Veil opened her mouth to speak again, but instead the door opened and Clasean stepped into the chamber. His eyes lingered on Veil, and he frowned at the dazed look in Styx's eyes. His mouth opened, his initial words forgotten as others seemed to form on his tongue. After a moment he swallowed those words and spoke formally, no trace of emotion entering his tone. "Oracle, please forgive my intrusion, but the Lady Alsha has come to escort you to safety."

"Thank you, Clasean. I will see her shortly," Veil said, letting Styx go as she returned to her place at the desk. She faced Styx and went on, "Thank you for coming to see me, Styx. You should go and complete the rest of your mission."

Styx nodded and stepped past Clasean and into the hallway. There he found Alsha standing anxiously and eyeing the open doorway. She started when she saw Styx and stared at him curiously. "Styx, is everything well?"

"I need to see Neredos. Do you know where he is?" Styx asked with a pleasant smile.

"Rumor has him in Central Command," Alsha said. "Why?"

"Thank you. The Lady Veil has asked me to deliver a message to him," Styx said, nodding in appreciation. "I should do so immediately. I'll come and find you after."

As he turned to go, Alsha grabbed his arm and said, "Please be careful. The city is under attack."

Styx grinned, hiding the murderous intent in his mind. "I will. We have to take care of the city, don't we?"


"What did she do to him!?" Dogo roared, pulling away from Ghayle with disgust.

"The same thing she has done to many others over the centuries, I assume," Prism said, then turned to Ghayle. "Do you really think Styx can kill Neredos?"

"Veil is right. Neredos is vulnerable, now that Ibrix is dead . . ." Ghayle said thoughtfully. "Vulnerable, but still very hard to kill. A blade to the heart still might not be enough. He'll heal around it, but slowly. If he has enough time to remove the blade . . ." she shrugged helplessly.

"She's turning my son into a killer," Dogo said through gritted teeth. He pounded one fist into a nearby stone and grunted at the pain. "I had hoped he'd never have to."

Telzath approached Dogo and placed a hand on his shoulder. "It's against his will. You cannot hold a man accountable for sins committed when under the direct control of another. His mind is no longer his own."

"Can I go to him? Is there anything I can do?" Dogo asked, turning back to Ghayle.

"No," Ghayle replied. "Even if you become Chosen, you will not be able to interfere with this. Not now. You will have some measure of effect on the world when the Trial is over, but not before."

"He needs help now," Dogo replied. "He cannot do this. He will die."

"You don't have faith in his abilities?" Prism asked, regarding Dogo curiously.

"He'll die whether or not he succeeds. Styx is a soft-hearted boy, no matter how tough he tries to act," Dogo said.

Prism nodded, but countered, "He's also honorable and will understand that his actions were not his own."

"You claim to know him, but I am his father," Dogo replied acidly.

Prism raised his hand in acceptance of the point. "This is not a competition of who knows him best. We both know him, each in our way. The Styx I know is strong enough to survive. He climbs out of every hole he falls in, and he'll find his way out of this one."

"He is right, Dogo of Incaria," Telzath said calmly. "You have to believe in your son. He is your child, and therefore you are obligated to invest in his future. He will feel your strength from the dream."

Dogo switched his attention between the two of them before sighing. "Then I must remain to support him," he said quietly.

"Does that mean . . .?" Prism asked, raising an eyebrow.

Dogo nodded. "I accept the role as Chosen. To guide Styx as much as I can."

"And for the world?" Ghayle asked.

"Who knows if the world will survive beyond today? Armies on the move, demons on the loose . . . and the Immortal King now mortal. Will there be anything left to guide?" Dogo asked helplessly.

"Always," Ghayle replied. "Watch. The Chosen always make themselves known in the direst of times."

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