Lonely Pride

by Cynus

Chapter 12

The ascent proved more taxing than Styx had expected. Dogo had not exaggerated about the inconvenience of the passage, and at times it became so narrow that each movement upward required as much flexibility as strength. He didn't know how some of the soldiers managed it with their thick leathers and broader shoulders, but eventually they all reached the top of the chute.

What awaited them was a sight Styx could not have prepared himself for. The chamber was covered in Tygali, a form of bio-luminescent cave lichen that filled the room with a soft green light. He had rarely seen it before, as it did not grow well in the primary chamber of The Shade. The years of civilization had stripped away its foothold, though some had managed to cultivate it in small gardens.

Here in this chamber untouched by civilization, however, the lichen thrived. Very little bare stone showed through the green light, and most of the openings bore dozens of white cocoons. Kobarik moths, another rarity in the rest of The Shade. Many of the moths had already hatched from their cocoons, their silver wings fluttering above the lichen. Every so often the moths would release a small burst of bioluminescence as well, a bright blue that paired beautifully with the green.

Some of the moths fluttered over the small rivulet running down the center of the corridor toward the chute the group had just ascended. In one particularly large pooling of water in the rivulet, several small fish jumped up to catch the moths as they hovered over the water.

At the other end of the chamber, the wall curved to the left. The sound of rushing water in that direction implied the presence of a small waterfall. The music of the splashing liquid made the colored light dance in Styx's vision.

"I've never seen The Shade so . . . alive," Styx whispered in awe. Even as he said the words, a small rodent darted out from behind a rock and dipped its head into the rivulet. It looked up suddenly as one of the soldiers shifted, then darted back into the darkness.

"It's amazing what exists so close to our own homes," Dogo said. "If I hadn't tracked the demon down here, it would've remained untouched forever. A pity, really. Such places should have the opportunity to exist without us trampling all over them."

"Where is the demon?" Rega asked.

"The chamber widens around that bend. It's big, not nearly as big as the Lower Shade, of course, but it could probably sustain a thousand people comfortably if there was any chance of a stable food source," Dogo explained, pointing at where the wall curved to the left. "The demon is likely hunting for fish, if it even eats. But we'll find it in there for sure."

Drake stepped up to them, eyeing the terrain ahead. It had been a long time since Styx had seen Drake in a tense situation, not since Styx's first heists with the Inkblades. Drake carried himself with the professional nonchalance of a seasoned warrior, not precisely eager, yet ready to kill. "Describe it to us in detail, please," he said, glancing only briefly at Dogo.

Dogo nodded and gestured toward the bend. "The chamber is wide rather than deep. The ceiling only goes up fifty feet or so, possibly more at the highest point but not by much. Most of the chamber's floor is covered in water, which feeds into this stream. I wouldn't call it a lake, since it all seems shallow, but it's enough water to cause concern. We'll be fighting in the wet the whole time."

"Do we have any chance of gaining a height advantage?" Drake asked.

"You mean climbing the wall so we can attack it from multiple angles?" Dogo asked. When Drake nodded, he shrugged and said, "It's possible, though the lichens might make it difficult. Interspersed with the Tygali is enough Rogali to ruin your hands for life."

Styx's ears perked up at the unfamiliar word. "Rogali?"

"It glows purple instead of green, and that's a bad thing," Rega offered with a grin.

Dogo rolled his eyes at the vague answer and expanded on it. "Whatever makes it purple also makes it poisonous to the touch. Even with gloves, it'll be dangerous to scale the walls, but if anyone is willing to make the climb it could give us a distinct advantage. Columns and small rises dot the room, too. If we can get a few up on the columns and then lead the demon around them, we could ambush it from above."

Rega nodded, stroking his chin as he considered the point. "That plan has some merit. We've got at least one mongoose, too."

Dogo blinked in surprise. "Who?" he asked skeptically.

"That's me, Dogo," Drake said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Though how Rega knows I can resist poison, I'd love to know."

Rega raised his hands in surrender as if he expected Drake to attack him over the knowledge. "I wasn't involved, Drake, I just heard about it. Remember Falba of the Shadowsteps?"

"Of course," Drake said with a snort. "He had the biggest grudge on me for sleeping with his daughter Juvine. The old bastard couldn't get it through his head that she wasn't going to let him use her body for political reasons."

"He tried to poison you seven different times," Rega said dryly. "He spent nearly half his guild's coffers trying to kill you. He defaulted on a loan from Salidar, and the whole story came out during his interrogation." Rega finished with a grin, revealing just how much he'd enjoyed drawing the truth from the former guild leader of the Shadowsteps, the notorious assassin guild.

Drake returned Rega's grin, pleased at the memory of Falba's downfall. The Shadowsteps had fallen from favor after Falba had, which led to the rise of Madame Godani and the Inkblades'. Styx didn't know if Drake had continued his relationship with this Juvine or not, but he doubted it mattered much to Drake. Sex had little to do with anything in The Shade, it was just something people did. Power and influence, on the other hand, were far more important commodities.

"Does that mean you'll make the climb?" Dogo asked, dropping his hand on Drake's shoulder and causing the grin to disappear.

"Works for me. This demon can fly though, right?" Drake asked.

"It'll be difficult for a creature its size to get airborne in here, but it might do it in slight bursts when it has room," Dogo confirmed with a nod. "It could be dangerous, but so is fighting this beast at all."

Drake chuckled and clasped Dogo's opposite arm. "Right, wasn't worried, just planning."

"Good man," Dogo said. They shared a determined nod and released each other's arms.

Drake pursed his lips thoughtfully and glanced back at the rest of their group. "Either Lyrae or Chanda could climb as well. I say 'either' because one is a mongoose and the other is not. Not even I can tell the difference, and I think I know them better than pretty much anyone."

"We might not have a lot of time to set up our ambush once we get in there," Dogo said. "We'll pick the spot as soon as we arrive, and I'll leave the three of you to figure out the ambush with half of Rega's force on the ground. Rega, Styx, and I will coordinate how to get the demon there with the rest of Rega's soldiers funneling it toward the trap."

"It's as good a plan as any," Rega replied, then bowed slightly and turned on his heel as he added, "I'll instruct my fighters."

Drake turned as well and said, "I'll speak with Lyrae and Chanda."

After they departed, Dogo eyed Styx thoughtfully and said softly, "Styx, you might have to take point."

"Me?" Styx said in alarm. "How . . . why?"

"I'd do it myself if I thought my body capable, but it's not," Dogo said, then coughed as if to accentuate that last point. It took nearly a full minute for his coughing to subside, and when he straightened he had spatters of blood on his hand. He wiped it on his pants before continuing as if nothing was wrong. "You're fast, and I know you can hit angles the others can't. You might have to get creative with that hawk of yours, or . . ." he trailed off, his eyes filled with uncertainty.

Styx wondered how the man could be so unconcerned about his obvious illness but be bothered by telling him something. "Or?" he asked expectantly.

"Or you can use the eagle on your back," Dogo said, locking gazes with Styx.

Styx's body immediately tensed. The exertion from the climb had drawn out a great deal of his sweat, and the momentary respite had allowed his body time to recover, but now his whole body felt damp once again. He shook his head forcefully, his skin crawling with fear and his limbs shaking with rage. "No," he said in a whisper as intense as a scream. "How did you even know about that?"

"Your aunt tells me everything about you," Dogo said, wincing at the intensity in Styx's eyes. "I know about you getting the tattoo, and how you almost died when you used it the first time."

"The only time," Styx corrected. "It doesn't work properly."

"As I recall, it worked perfectly, you just didn't understand how to use it. It is your aunt's finest work, or so she claims, and I have no doubt it is functional."

"As you said, I nearly died," Styx replied as forcefully as ever. "How many times have I leapt from the Upper Shade and survived by gliding safely to the bottom? I lost count before I was five. But the second I tried to fly, to do something other than glide, it was the most terrifying fall of my life. I had to overcome a fear of heights. Me. The one who has loved heights more than anything else my entire life. If I hadn't gotten lucky and slowed down by grazing that wall, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Haven't you flown on the back of a giant eagle since then?" Dogo asked. "You mentioned that when you told me about Kirra."

"Yes . . ." Styx said slowly, failing to see Dogo's point.

Dogo shrugged. "So, you should understand flight better now," he said calmly. "You should understand more of the difference between flying and gliding. You will do better, you will succeed."

Styx shook his head skeptically. "I won't be able to wear armor. If that thing bites me—"

"Armor won't do you any good against this thing anyway," Dogo replied. "Trust me, you're better off without the weight. Styx . . ." he paused, putting a gentle hand on Styx's shoulder. Reaching out with the other, he stroked Styx's hair back from his face and locked their gazes. "Son. I know you can do this. I have observed your capabilities more than you know, and I believe in you. You have always wanted to fly. This is your opportunity to do so."

Styx's lip quivered, moisture pooling in his eyes. He was afraid, deeply afraid of what would happen here if he failed, but he fed on the pride he saw in Dogo's—no, his father's—eyes. Finding courage from somewhere deep within, he said, "Help me out of my armor. I'll do it."

The small army entered the chamber quietly, picking their way carefully to avoid splashing in the stream or kicking loose rocks. Whatever sound their footfalls made was drowned out by the rush of the waterfall nearby, cascading down a steep incline only slightly taller than Drake's head.

Drake grinned at the waterfall. He'd always loved the natural beauty of water dancing over rocks. The way it glistened in the soft green light filled his soul with wonder. If he'd been born in Pentalus, he would've been a painter and not an assassin. As it was, he'd taken the time to paint his own eyepatch, though that had as much to do with magic as art.

Few knew the properties of the flaming eye he wore over his empty socket. There was a hidden rune circle, barely perceptible in a slightly different shade of orange than the background. He'd learned the runes from one of the few Gor who had ever lived in The Shade, the old spymaster Lohndrafadar, and they enhanced the sight of his good eye to make up for the loss of the other.

Lohn had left The Shade over a decade earlier, but he had brought Drake under his wing long ago. Drake had learned almost as much from Lohn as he had from Madame Godani, and it had earned him a dangerous, if rarely spoken of, reputation. No one knew stealth better than Drake, but it was not all about hiding in shadows. Sometimes stealth meant hiding inside an enemy's notice, holding back just enough truth to compromise the enemy.

He did not view Dogo or Rega as enemies, but he remained cautious all the same. Caution was an important trade for any Shade, a complementary attribute to the all-too-common ambition. For Drake, caution had kept him high in the ranks of the Inkblades without risking becoming a target for the other guilds. Falba had been an exception to the rule. Drake didn't allow for the same exception twice.

Falba had certainly not been the only one to try to poison him in the past. Ambition had led lesser guild members to attempt to create a vacancy in the Inkblades over the years. Poison was a common method of assassination in The Shade, and it was wise to have precautions in place. An outsider might wonder why everyone didn't get the proper tattoo to safeguard against it. Mongoose blood was expensive, especially since it required the blood of several different breeds to make a truly potent safeguard, not to mention a hundred different ingredients used in common antidotes. Drake had spent the bulk of his savings on the tattoo, and he preferred to keep that knowledge hidden.

He contemplated killing Rega and Dogo when this was done. If a potential enemy knew your strengths, they could turn that knowledge to their own gain. Both were his allies now, but . . . Styx. He'd have to kill Styx too. That thought turned Drake's stomach. Despite some jealousy over the years, Drake had always had a soft spot for the young thief. He was the way to Madame Godani's heart, and a good boy in his own right.

Glancing ahead, he saw that Styx had just completed the climb to reach the top of the waterfall. Water had sprayed across his now bare back and shoulders, had wetted his hair and made it all shine in the soft light of the lichens. His eagle tattoo sat prominently between his shoulder blades, a masterwork spirit tattoo the likes of which The Shade had never seen before. Not only was Styx beautiful himself, but he bore the exquisite art of Drake's most cherished mentor, Fau Shae Godani. How could he ever contemplate putting a blade in that boy just to protect himself?

He'd never wanted to bed Styx. As beautiful as the boy was, Drake had always preferred women, but men were nice to look at. Men were works of art in their own way, and he would not destroy beauty if he didn't have to. Dogo, Rega, and Styx . . . they would all be allowed to live. He would trust them.

But not with everything. They didn't need to know all his tricks. That would be between him and the demon, should he need them. Subconsciously he brushed the swirling red pattern on the back of his hand. He felt a tingle of excitement as his body shifted ever so slightly, then he deactivated it again just as quickly and returned to normal. If it came to it, the demon would die before it ever knew whom it had come against.

Composing himself, he approached the rocks beside the waterfall and made his climb. He greeted the others at the top and nodded in determination. "I'll go on ahead and scout out a spot to make the ambush."

"Wait," Rega said cautiously. "We should all go at once. If you alert the demon—"

"Drake is the quietest man in the entire Shade, Captain Rega," Styx interjected. He shifted uncomfortably as all gazes swiveled toward him. Crossing his arms over his naked chest, he added quickly, "If anyone should be scouting, it's him, and if not him, it should be me."

"You're rather confident in yourself," Rega said with a snort.

Dogo chuckled softly and placed a hand on Rega's arm. "Calm yourself, old friend. Styx is right in this case. Drake was trained by Lohn and courted Juvine, remember? Drake trained Styx in stealth, as I recall. If you had a former Shadowsteps member in your guard, I'd be willing to give some credit to your doubts, but they're both better than me, and I'm better than you or any of your soldiers."

"Lyrae will come with me and watch my back," Drake offered. "Chanda can tell you if we run into trouble."

"Are you sure it won't be the other way around? How can you trust those two?" Rega asked, eyeing the masked twins skeptically as they climbed one after the other to the top of the waterfall.

"It doesn't matter. It works the same way no matter which one comes with me," Drake replied with a smirk. "The one who goes with me is the mongoose, and we'll find the ambush point. The one who stays behind will be able to direct your forces to it through their link. If we get into position before the rest of you come traipsing through and making a racket, we'll be much better off, don't you think?"

Rega grunted in response and Dogo nodded with respect. "That's a good plan," the latter offered with a grin. "Styx and I will move in after a good fifteen minutes. We'll be getting an eye on the demon and holding back near the entrance until we have our tactics firmly sorted. Then we'll bring up our half of Rega's troops while we send the rest your way with . . ." he glanced at the twins as if trying to tell them apart, "Chanda."

"Then it's settled," Drake said, turning to the twins. "You two know the plan. It's time to get started on phase one of our mission. Are you ready?"

Instead of answering vocally, the pair gave matching nods and one stepped forward. Drake grinned at her and stepped past the others, leading the way quietly past the next turn and into the great chamber. Death awaited him there. Whether his own or the demon's, he didn't know, but he would meet it with caution.

And ambition. No Shade was immune to ambition's call. Drake's grin widened at the possibilities. His reputation would soon become more dangerous than ever.

Styx wished he could appreciate the grand beauty before him, but his stomach tied itself in too many knots to allow him the peace he needed. The graceful columns, stalagmites, and stalactites filled him with dread, not wonder, despite the way they bathed everything in green and purple light. Most of the floor seemed covered in water, though enough threading paths of stone crossed through the glistening pools that one wouldn't have to wade often to cross from one edge to the other.

The room teemed with life. Not only were the moths fluttering everywhere and fish swimming in the pools, but Kallen birds feasted on the moths at every turn. The blue and white cave-dwelling swallows hunted through sound, though they were not blind and likely hunted equally by sight here. Styx eyed the birds with longing, and unconsciously flexed his shoulders. Soon. Soon, he would have a chance to feel like them again.

Something moved in the distance. It wasn't the first time Styx had caught sight of the demon stalking through the columns. Whether it was hunting for fish, birds, or humans, he didn't know, but it definitely was stalking something. It moved with deadly grace, iridescent scales glittering in the soft glow of the lichens. It didn't have room to make full use of its feathered wings, but it used them for slight hops every now and then as it made its way through the room.

It was almost time. Dogo had already left with Rega and the others, taking up positions on either side of an archway made from two natural columns. Drake perched near the top of one of those columns, crossbow in hand as he waited for the demon to be driven through the arch. One of the twins perched opposite him, no obvious weapon drawn that he could see. A small group of soldiers crouched behind nearby columns and stalagmites. As soon as the demon doubled back on Drake, they would come out to complete the ambush.

Styx could barely make out Dogo, Rega, and their forces. They moved slowly through the water-filled cavern, remaining behind cover as often as possible. They would be the harrying force, to drive the demon toward the arch with enough ferocity that it would have no choice but to retreat for cover. They were almost in position on the other side of the chamber, and as soon as Dogo raised his hand in signal, Styx would have to move.

His task was the most dangerous. He would be the lure, to bring the demon from the far side of the chamber and into the ambush. He had to be swifter than it, smarter than it, and avoid giving any indication of the ambush. If Styx failed to reach the ambush location, the others would have to come up with a new plan on the fly. He would do everything he could to prevent that from happening.

Dogo raised his hand from the middle of the chamber, and Styx's breath caught in his throat. Fear. It clutched his heart for an instant, the hesitation of all the years he'd spent hiding, all the time he'd run from his responsibilities. All the time he'd spent hiding from himself and his fear of failure.

Dogo trusted him to do this, and that would have to be enough. He would do it for his father. Everything had led him to this moment, from his early years learning stealth and thievery from his aunt, to his brief tutelage under Prism, he had learned how to survive honorably, and he owed it to his father to give this his all.

Styx reached deep within himself, finding a focus he'd not reached in two years. Back tattoos usually had to be activated without touching them, considering the inconvenience of their placement. Though no spirit tattoos strictly required touch activation, the focus required to activate one by thought alone was immense, and other emotions only got in the way. The fear simmering in Styx warred with the necessary focus, and he tried to force it away, but instead it sucked at him, pulling like a black void.

Like the waters of the Black Lake, a shimmering abyss with hidden dangers, with tentacles writhing beneath the surface and eager to grab him. He had walked the shores of that lake not long ago, had seen the beasts grab at Prism and Fasha and . . . and Prism had escaped. Prism had survived that moment, had forged ahead with determination and honor.

Styx took a deep breath and focused on the image of the monk. Focused on the charge he'd been given at Prism's death. The fate of the world rested equally on Styx's shoulders as it did on anyone's, and he had to do his part. He had to.

Determination met fear head on like the bow of a ship breaking water. The fear was there, but it became a surface on which to travel, not a barrier to his passage. He could move across it, move toward his goal on the far shore. The depths would not claim him or those who relied on him.

As he reached again into the eagle tattoo spread across his back, he felt his body change in subtle ways. His bones shifted, losing some of their mass, hollowing as matter was redistributed through him toward his shoulder blades. Pain shuddered through him as his back contorted, new shoots of hollow bone springing out and reaching backward. Branching farther, leathery skin and muscle spread across the bony frame, and fine feathers sprouted from the skin, growing steadily until they became the brown and black flight feathers of a massive eagle. Within a minute, Styx had grown a mighty pair of wings by redistributing his body mass. The rest of him felt nearly half as heavy as before—light enough to fly.

Styx flexed his wings. They were as much as part of him as his arms and legs now, though they still felt awkward. He would be like a toddler taking his first steps if he tried to use them. Except . . . no, he had tried to use them once before, and though it had been shaky, the wings had worked. He had made a mistake that nearly cost him his life, but he was already risking his life here. This was a place where he needed every advantage. These wings would guide him through the chamber, keep him ahead of the demon whose much larger wings were of little use amongst the columns and stalagmites. This time, his wings would save his life.

He tested them, feeling the different ways they moved as they caught the air currents circulating through the room. The way the air teased at certain feathers differently than others, the way the positioning of the wings altered the way the air bent around them, both became natural as he let his body lead the way. It was now or never, and with a determined breath, he ran up the nearest rise of stone and jumped into the air.

Two instincts warred within him. His hand twitched toward the hawk on his cheek to slow his fall, but he fought it down as the wings caught the air and he glided forward. He banked right, wobbling slightly at the unfamiliar movement, and landed on a nearby crest of stone, landing on shaky legs. But he landed safely, and his first short flight had succeeded.

For the next few minutes, he practiced short flights, keeping behind a cluster of columns to avoid catching the demon's interest from across the chamber. With each successful landing he grew more confident. He tried longer flights and more complicated maneuvers. All his training with his gliding leathers came to fruition. The principles were much the same, but instead of adjusting the leather, his wings adjusted almost instantly.

In no time at all, he felt as if he could fly circles around the small birds above. He laughed softly, wondering why he'd ever thought to keep this gift hidden. Fear melted away and was replaced with . . . he glanced toward the demon and his blood ran cold. No, the fear was there, but confidence held it back with a firm gaze. If he could dance circles around the cave birds, could he out fly a demon?

It was time to find out. Leaping away from the stones, he took to the air. Powerful wings beating, he rose to the ceiling, darting between stalactites as he made his way carefully through the chamber toward the demon's position. He couldn't afford to let the demon know he was coming until he was most of the way there. While he might be able to lead the demon into the ambush that way, it wasn't worth the risk.

When Styx made it halfway across the chamber, he finally had his first good view of the demon, and the fear slammed back into him like a waterfall. It had the slender, flexible body of a snake, with four legs tipped with vicious burrowing claws. Iridescent feathered wings sprouted from its back, contrasting with the color-mottled scales shimmering in the dull light of the room. A maw of vicious teeth dipped into the water, snatching at darting fish. Its head came up in a frustrated snarl. Styx imagined the demon growling at its missed catch, and the sound made him want to hide away forever.

Again he forced the fear away and flitted carefully forward, dodging past more stalactites on his way to his position. He kept an eye on the demon as he glided between the stones, making sure it never looked up. He didn't know how good its senses were. Could it hear him? Likely not, he reasoned, judging by the sound of water and fluttering of birds filling the room. Could it smell him?

The demon seemed more reptilian than anything, and he knew very little about reptiles and their senses. But . . . Styx spared a brief look at Dogo's position. If the demon caught scent of a human, Styx wouldn't be the one it came after anyway. There were closer targets—easier, and so close now. The demon was less than fifty feet away, at Styx's estimation.

And coming closer.

Styx's pulse raced as he saw the demon's path change, slinking against the ground as it began stalking toward Dogo's position. A black, forked tongue flicked from its mouth, and its eyes narrowed into hungry slits. It could smell alright, and it could soon have the tasty flesh it sought.

Styx couldn't let that happen. He dove toward the demon, wings pumping at first to drive him onward, then catching a current that propelled him forward. An almost inhuman screech escaped Styx's mouth as he neared the demon. Wide eyes turned toward him and then narrowed again before sharp claws dug into the stone and propelled the demon forward.

Banking as he neared the beast, Styx felt the fear threatening to invade his mind again. He ignored it as adrenaline took its place, and strangely a smile settled onto his face. The chase was on.

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