Lonely Pride

by Cynus

Chapter 19

For the first time in eight hundred years, Neredos was dying. It was slow, like the erosion of a mountain, but he could feel the difference. The moment Ibrix died, his life force leaving this plane entirely, Neredos fully embraced the inevitable. He had been right to order the evacuation of the Everbright City.

But he still could not tell the people of his plans—not the Knights, and surely not the nobles. Not one of them would understand, and surely none of them would obey his orders if he told them his reasons. People do not like change. Neredos understood, perhaps better than any ever could, the follies of a stagnant existence.

And it was time to make it all right. It was time to bring an end to the demon war once and for all. Even without the evacuation complete, he had to move. He received reports all day of the approaching armies. They had not come to aid him, but to rebel. They came to put an end to the mad King. But they would be too late.

Dressed in his ancient gear, he moved into the basement of Central Command. It was one of very few buildings in the Everbright City which had a basement, though no one alive knew what it concealed outside of he and Veil. Most of the space was used for storage, but he had not come for this.

At the end of a long hall in the furthest corner of the basement, was a door. It was a door with no discernible lock or handle, just a solid piece of metal that fit almost seamlessly into the wall. Rumors of what lay beyond the door had spread throughout the centuries, and many a young and stupid initiate had tried to open it. None had ever succeeded, because none knew the truth of it.

Neredos had built this door himself, long before the Everbright City arrived at its present location. It was two feet thick and warded with so many runes that it would take a master mage to crack it, if they could even see the runes. All the runes were inscribed on the opposite side of the door, in a pattern Neredos had memorized, and repeated back to himself every single day, in case he ever needed to open the door again.

That day had now finally arrived, but he could not risk interference. The Grand Inquisitors had all demanded he take an escort with him during the evacuation process. Regardless of whether he wanted them or not, the escort came anyway. Two young soldiers, following his every footstep, watching his every move. They would report back to Isean, surely, should Neredos make any moves they would consider strange.

He did not have time to be concerned about that, and so he turned to face them. His sudden attention startled them, and both took a step back with alarm. He suppressed the urge to roll his eyes, and spoke with a firm voice, "the Everbright City must be evacuated as quickly as possible. We have no more time to waste, and all efforts must be sped up. All must abandon all possessions; force the nobles from their homes if you have to. All hands must aid in the evacuation, and that means the two of you as well. Go, and help in any way you can."

The elder of the two, a man with long, dark hair and a thin beard glanced to his companion before speaking. "Your Majesty, the Inquisitors ordered us to—"

"I do not care what they instructed, I am your King, and you will obey my orders now," Neredos replied. "If you do not, I will immediately discharge you from my service and you will end up in a cell when this is done."

The soldier hesitated, then bowed and backed away, taking his companion with him. Neredos waited until they were out of sight before turning his attention back to his destination. He moved forward swiftly, reaching the door in seconds and placing his gauntleted hand against it.

He felt for an almost imperceptible groove at chest height, then tracing it to the point where it intersected a vertical groove in the middle of the door. There he traced a single rune, an ancient and powerful symbol for division. The metal buckled and then unfolded as if it were made of paper, stretching away from Neredos in thin, vertical flaps, revealing and then lining the walls of a long hallway descending into darkness.

Neredos stepped into the hallway without delay, moving swiftly down, until the angle of the ceiling blocked the entrance from view. Here the unfolded door ended, and with a practiced hand Neredos reached for the corner of it and inscribed the rune for unity.

The metal folded back on itself, ascending the hallway to its origin point, reforming the door layer by layer. Neredos didn't plan to stay and watch it resume its shape, and turned to continue his descent. A surprised yelp from behind made him spin around in alarm, gauntlet raised and already casting a binding rune with light.

A vaguely familiar boy appeared in dim light. A youth unfamiliar enough that, even with Neredos' near perfect memory, it took him a moment to recognize the young man who had accompanied Prism. Styx, the Shade.

"What are you doing here, boy?" Neredos asked guardedly.

Styx kept his hands at his side, regarding Neredos with a disarming smile. "I'm sorry to sneak up on you, King Neredos," he said, chuckling. "Lady Veil seemed to think you might need someone to watch your back and thought Prism's friend would be the best choice."

"Veil thought that, did she?" Neredos asked, his eyes narrowing. "And you'll protect me from what? No one knows we're in here."

Styx shrugged and replied, "That may be true, but what about the demons? I hear one was loosed earlier today."

"And killed," Neredos said. "The demon threat is over."

"There could be others freed," Styx said. "Wouldn't you rather have someone here to help you? Look, I realize I'm obviously not much of a warrior, but I have fought demons before. Wouldn't you rather have someone who can keep his head if things get bad in here?"

Neredos stared at Styx, his mind working through several possibilities. He could simply leave Styx here, or he could send Styx back outside. The former could lead to Styx's death, though it wouldn't guarantee it. The latter would risk giving the soldiers access to this place. Neither was appealing to Neredos.

That left him with only one other option. He could take Styx with him, and by doing so risk his entire plan. But did he have reason to distrust a friend of Prism's? Had Prism ever proven disloyal?

"You can come with me, but you will stay where I can see you," Neredos said, lowering his hand. "I need to make sure you don't mess with anything down here. There is a lot of sensitive equipment around us."

Styx nodded and walked forward, stepping around Neredos. "Just tell me where to go, and I'll stay in front of you."

Neredos sighed and pointed down the hallway. "Straight down. We're headed to the heart of the Everbright City. I'll be moving it away from Pentalus."

Styx stumbled at this strange statement. "Moving it? How? Isn't it built on the clouds?"

Neredos chuckled despite himself. "No, it was built long before it found its home here. Now, hurry, there's not a lot of time to waste."

"Max, what is this place?" Kirra asked, staring at the grand mosaic in front of them. It depicted a battle between all manner of demonic creatures against humans, Fedain, Gor, Elroks, and winged humanoids he had never seen before. A river ran through the battlefield, sweeping over the demons and driving them back.

"Grim called it 'The Temple of Naxthul', though I really don't know much more about it," Maxthane replied, regarding the mosaic with equal curiosity. He pointed to a leather-winged creature with long black horns and added, "I believe that is supposed to be Naxthul, however."

"You're right," Gobrak said, reaching reverently toward the mosaic. He paused an inch away from it, his eyes traveling up to the wall to the ceiling. "This is an ancient place, spoken of in our most cherished histories. From a time when the Sendar were still alive, during the Cataclysm. They were blamed for starting it all, even though that wasn't the truth."

"The Cataclysm? You mean the Demon War?" Maxthane asked.

"No . . . and, I suppose, yes," Gobrak replied with a rumbling chuckle. "Demons have come to this world many times, if the histories are to be believed. The world is broken and re-forged by their coming."

"Then who is Naxthul?" Kirra asked. "And why did they build a temple for him?"

"He was a great hero who stopped the demons. Not in the Demon War, nor the Cataclysm, but in the time before. It was said he finished the demons in one decisive battle by burying them under the rushing waters of a great river he diverted," Gobrak explained. "The Sendar went on to revere him as a god, though he belonged to a more ancient people than they, one which is long dead in the records of the world. Even the Elrok memories do not remember them well."

Kirra looked back at the image of the horned, winged figure and shuddered. "I've never seen anything like him. He looks like a demon himself."

"If you'd never met or heard of an Elrok, what would you think of our stony appearance? Would you fear us?" Gobrak asked, regarding Kirra curiously. "If you'd never heard or met a Gor, but you came across a shifter-mage who could bend the elements to her will, would you fear all Gor because of her?"

Kirra considered the point for a moment and sighed. "Perhaps, because of limited experience."

"Perhaps," Gobrak conceded with a nod, "but you would be wrong to judge a race by their appearance or the actions of a representative. One does not speak for all, ever, even in the rare times when one is given the power to do so."

"The Sendar . . . they're these people, right?" Maxthane asked, pointing at the bird-winged humanoids fighting alongside the others.

"Yes. You know of them?" Gobrak asked with surprise.

"They are briefly mentioned in the grimoire," Maxthane said, nodding. "Very briefly, though it's said one of the Vhor took the appearance of one."

"Khalis," Gobrak said, saying the name with unexpected reverence. "He is mentioned in our stories as well. Naxthul's beloved. Little more is known about him."

"What do you know of the Cataclysm?" Kirra asked.

Gobrak turned to Kirra and replied, "During the Cataclysm, Ghayle and her companions fought the demons with magic and cunning. She led them to the middle of a dry forest and set it all ablaze. It earned her a venerable place in the histories, as it did for many of her companions. Many say she and the others are still alive, affecting the world in ways we do not see."

"You want us to believe there are immortals we can't see?" Maxthane asked skeptically. "Magic is one thing, but gods are quite another."

"Not 'can't'," Gobrak said with a grunt of annoyance. "We 'do not' see. There is an important difference. It is a matter of will, and a matter of openness. But I could preach of faith to you all day and never convince you to have any. You'd have to choose to consider the existence of things beyond your understanding. I cannot force you."

"Ghayle is still alive, according to Bradeth," Kirra said. He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword, idly stroking the pommel. "And . . . I believe her."

"So, maybe she can help us with this?" Maxthane asked hopefully. "Prism told Styx to look for her, so maybe she can help us end the demons once and for all?"

"No. She last made a major appearance during the Demon War and has since only been spoken of in whispers," Gobrak replied. "She can do very little for us. We must help ourselves, as it is always up to mortals to do."

"That's why we came here, isn't it? To see if there's anything we can use before we track down Bradeth?" Kirra said.

"Yes, and we should get to it," Maxthane said, nodding as he turned to the three that Madame Godani had sent with them, standing near the entrance to the temple. "You three . . . I know Madame Godani asked you to watch our backs, but I want you to go up to Pentalus and find out what's going on."

"How do we get there?" Lorran asked.

"Here, let me sketch you a quick map. Gobrak, do you have that message from Bradeth still?" Maxthane asked. "And something to draw with?"

Gobrak quickly retrieved the necessary items from his pack and handed them to Maxthane, who set to work drawing a map to Dogo's house in Pentalus, on the back of Bradeth's message. Although he had only been there once, it was recent enough that he could remember the route, and it didn't take him long to draw it out for Lorran and the others.

He handed it to them and directed them to go, then looked toward the other exit from this room and said to Kirra and Gobrak, "Let's go this way."

"Do you really think there's something we can use in here?" Kirra asked, as he allowed Maxthane to take the lead. The tight tunnels they walked through felt even more confining than the rest of The Shade, and he shivered at the thought of how much earth remained above them.

Gobrak didn't seem affected by the confining space at all. He walked with a purpose, his longer stride exerting less effort and giving him time to look around. He eyed the architectural grace of the columns and archways with an approving eye. "The Sendar built this temple with knowledge greater than anyone has had before them or since. If even a fragment of their technology persists, it could benefit us," he said after a moment.

Kirra nodded and remained silent as they continued forward. Maxthane didn't seem inclined toward conversation, either, so the group moved forward without speaking at all. The ancient worked stone around them spoke enough for all of them, telling of the presence of its builders, but holding fast their secrets. The sacredness of this place filled their minds with anticipation as they moved forward.

They passed by several collapsed passageways while heading steadily upward. After a while, Maxthane considered turning the group around, thinking the presence of so much ruin showed little promise for them to find anything useful. But he persevered, determined to reach the end of the hallway at least.

The hallway ended at a gigantic stone door, set into a groove in the floor. It was open just a crack, and a large chamber seemed just on the other side. Maxthane attempted to push open the door, but it didn't move a hair. Before he could give up, Kirra and Gobrak lent their strength, and the stone groaned in protest but began to slide. After three synchronized pushes, the door slid all the way clear, revealing the chamber.

The room was huge, with three sets of large, double doors lining both the left and right walls. On the far side was an alcove filled with shelves, most of which stood empty. Two of the sets of doors stood open, revealing large, empty alcoves. Another on the far side of the room was broken, though they could not yet see inside.

"What is this chamber?" Kirra asked as the group entered the room.

"I don't know . . . it's . . ." Maxthane paused as they moved far enough to see past the broken doors. The stone above the alcove had collapsed, but a metal humanoid shape lay buried in the rubble. "Is that a golem?"

"Maybe there's more of them . . ." Kirra reasoned, pointing at one of the closed doors. "In there."

"Do you think each of these has one?" Maxthane asked with wonder.

"This is dangerous. We should leave," Kirra said, shaking his head.

"They don't appear to be alive. That one, at least, seems damaged beyond repair," Gobrak said, nodding to the buried golem.

"The one on the island is broken, too, but that didn't stop it from killing all those people," Kirra said, then added in alarm, "Max, what are you doing?"

Maxthane had crossed almost all the way to the alcove with the shelves, his hand reaching for a device sitting on one of them. It was a small arm bracer made of a shiny blue metal and covered in runes. He picked it up and inspected it, then slid it onto his arm.

"Acting on instinct," he said. "Something I've been trying to do more."

"You should leave it alone. We need to—" Kirra stopped as Maxthane pressed one of the runes on the bracer. One of the pairs of closed doors slowly groaned open, revealing an undamaged golem. At first it appeared deactivated, its head aimed downward, shoulders hunched. Several heartbeats later, it raised its head and a green light glowed from the central eye-like plate in its face.

Its limbs twitched and spasmed, and then it rose up fully. With a thundering stride, it moved forward, coming straight toward Maxthane. Kirra drew his sword, facing the golem as he shouted, "Max, run!"

"I'll try to distract it, you get the King out!" Gobrak said, drawing an arrow and letting it fly at the golem's face. The golem turned to face Maxthane fully just as the arrow collided with the side of its head, leaving a deep scratch but ricocheting off toward the wall.

Maxthane remained where he was, and Kirra doubled back toward him, his eye on the golem. "Max!" he shouted, but Maxthane continued to ignore him.

The golem moved forward, its lumbering stride covering the distance before Kirra could get between it and Maxthane. It stopped short, ten feet away from Maxthane, and stood perfectly still. For several tense heartbeats, no one spoke.

"I . . . weird," Maxthane breathed after a moment, shaking his head with wonder as he took a step toward the golem. "It's like it's inside my head."

Kirra eyed Maxthane skeptically while keeping the golem in his peripheral. "It's what?" he asked. "You mean it's intelligent?"

Maxthane shook his head. "It's not an intelligence, exactly. But I can feel it through this device on my arm. It's connected to me. It wants me to command it."

"Try a command then," Gobrak suggested as he warily joined them.

Maxthane nodded and concentrated. The golem raised its right arm, causing Kirra to return his focus to it as Gobrak nocked a second arrow. They both relaxed as Maxthane let out a cheer of success.

"Maybe you could do this to the one below, so we can stop it from killing people?" Gobrak asked, putting away his arrow.

"Or you could use it to stop Krythe . . ." Kirra suggested, sheathing his sword with a sigh.

Maxthane put up a hand to stop them. "We have more important things to worry about first. For all we know, Bradeth is above us right now fighting a demon. We need to get to the surface."

"So, what? We'll just take it through those halls and hope it can fit?" Kirra said with a snort. He started as the golem suddenly moved, turning around and walking toward the center of the room. "Wait, what is it doing?"

"I don't know. I told it to go to the surface. Let's follow it," Maxthane suggested. Even as the words left his mouth, the golem stopped in the center of the room, and its eye began to glow twice as fiercely. The grating sound of metal on stone resonated through the chamber as two concentric rings of green lights appeared on the floor surrounding the golem. The inner circle started to rise, a circular portion of the floor lifting the golem toward the ceiling. Maxthane rushed toward the circle and climbed up the edge, shouting to his companions, "Get on, hurry!"

Gobrak and Kirra wasted no time in joining Maxthane, scrambling up just before the circular platform rose too high to reach. Above them the stone groaned, and a small stone fell from the ceiling. Glancing upward, Kirra saw another ring of lights, surrounding an opening. He could see dirt and the bottom of cobblestones.

"Take shelter between its legs, the ceiling is collapsing!" he shouted as more dirt and small stones fell away. He and his companions barely made it to shelter under the golem before they reached the opening in the ceiling. The golems massive hands formed a wedge, piercing the cobblestones as the platform pushed it through. Most parted to the side, but some fell around the golem's legs, narrowly missing the trio.

They passed through the opening in a cloud of choking dust. When the dust finally settled enough for them to see, they found themselves in the middle of a small street, surrounded by a crowd of nervous people. The crowd took one look at the golem and its companions and dispersed, running as fast and as far as possible, screaming for the city watch.

"Are we . . .?" Gobrak started to ask.

"Pentalus," Kirra agreed, pointing at the pillars of grey fog he could see in the distance.

"What do we do now?" Gobrak asked, turning to Maxthane.

Despite the chaos around them, Maxthane's expression was pure calm and determination. He looked down the street, getting his bearings. He knew where the Pillar of Ibrix should be, and it wasn't there. "Find Bradeth, rescue Grim if needs be, and make sure we all survive."

"Bradeth, what have you done?" Grim asked with an incredulous stare. He wasn't the least bothered by his nakedness, despite this public venue. The only reason he ever cared for modesty was to keep his tattoos hidden, and that was no longer a problem here. The ones who could track him from those tattoos had already found him.

Bradeth had the gall to look confused as she replied, "I rescued you, Chief."

"Fletcher . . ." Grim said, eyeing the tribal marks on her shoulders. He nodded in approval as he approached her, looking her up and down. She let him walk all the way around her and examine the new marks she'd acquired since they'd last spoken. "You're a Fletcher now. Your father would be proud of you and what you've accomplished."

"You are also my father, your marriage made us blood, and I have come to speak to you as a daughter," Bradeth said when Grim finally stopped in front of her again.

"It looks like that conversation might have to wait. Your friends are here," Grim said, pointing toward the Knights, some of who were still landing. They continued to eye the circle of Elroks with extreme caution, just as did the contingent of the city watch, from across the plaza.

"Do you think they'll attack immediately?" Bradeth asked with a snort, glancing at both groups of humans before returning her attention to Grim. "We have time."

"I suppose we do," Grim said with another chuckle. He smiled at Bradeth. It had been years since he'd last seen her, and she'd grown into a mighty warrior. She bore the markings of one twice her age. If the humans facing them now knew anything about Elrok warrior tattoos, they would have brought twice as many troops to face her, and it still might not be enough. "How long have I been in there?"

"Roughly a week, give or take a day," Bradeth replied.

Grim nodded. "Good. Then perhaps I haven't lost too much time. What do you have to say to me then?"

"I demand that you assume your responsibilities and lead our people," Bradeth replied.

"I can't," Grim said with a heavy sigh. He'd expected this. "I made an oath, which supersedes my oath to your father. I cannot rest as long as a demon remains alive and free."

Bradeth placed a hand on Grim's shoulder. For such a public display of affection from a Fletcher to a Chief, it showed great humility for Bradeth. Grim nearly wept at the desperation in Bradeth's eyes as she said, "If you speak of Fasha, Maxthane imprisoned him in The Shade."

"Maxthane!? So, he lives, then . . ." Grim said, reaching up to take her hand. He held it gently with both of his, feeling the contours of her callused fingers. Despite the opinion the other races had of the Elroks as brutish, they were a physically affectionate people, gentle in every way. He'd loved the way Telzath had taken his hand, had comforted him in ways no one had in centuries. "And that is good to hear. Is . . . is Prism alive?" Grim asked hesitantly, meeting Bradeth's eyes and holding her gaze, demanding that she be direct.

"No," Bradeth replied solemnly.

Grim stiffened, but the news didn't faze him as much as he had expected it might. He had already mourned Prism for eight centuries. Seeing him again had been little more than a dream, and one Grim had known in his heart would end before they had a chance to make it reality. A single tear rolling down his cheek, a remnant of a river that had once nearly drowned him in its torrent.

Bradeth moved on, refusing to let Grim dwell on his thoughts. "But that does not cancel your responsibility to your people."

"I cannot until I've confirmed Fasha's death, Bradeth," Grim said firmly. "His death, not his imprisonment."

Bradeth tore her hand from Grim's grasp and glared at him. "What other excuses will you give? How many times will you run while your people suffer without proper leadership?"

Grim took the accusations with quiet resignation, nodding to each word. When Bradeth finished he simply sighed and said, "I'm sorry. I cannot do anything else."

"You can abdicate," Bradeth said quietly. "That will always be an option."

"I promised Telzath I wouldn't," Grim replied immediately. He held her gaze, trying to impart the seriousness of those words. He'd sworn an oath to Telzath that he would never abdicate. After all the promises made to Prism that had fallen to naught, he could not do the same to Telzath. How many people would he love and betray in his long, miserable existence? "Twice now, you ask me to break oaths. You would have me betray your father?"

"If you will not return, and you will not abdicate, then I have only one option left," Bradeth said resolutely. She pulled an arrow from her quiver and held it before her in both hands. "I challenge you to the right of succession, before these witnesses of the tribes." She snapped the arrow and dropped it at his feet, her eyes blazing with anger and pain.

"Bradeth . . ." Grim breathed, his eyes widening. This beautiful daughter of his second great love did not know what she was demanding of him. Would he really have to kill her? Could he even do so? Those questions echoed in his mind as he touched her arm again. "Think about what you're doing, please."

Her gaze softened, but the edge to her voice remained as sharp as ever. "I also took oaths to protect my people. If that means killing you, I'll do what needs to be done."

Shouting from the Knights directed their attention. A single city guardsman had approached and relayed a message to the Knights' commander. "A demon! There is another demon to the north!"

Before the commander could even respond, another runner approached from the opposite direction. He saluted quickly and said, "Armies are approaching from the south and west, commander. They're seizing the garrisons!"

"Could we resume this later, Bradeth?" Grim said, letting go of her arm. "If you wish a challenge . . ." he paused, then looked down at his feet, shame filling him, "I will give you one."

Bradeth stiffened. "I cannot allow you to live if you will not fulfill your responsibilities. I cannot give you the chance to run again. This must end now."

As Grim thought of his response, the Knight commander stepped away from her group and approached the line of Elroks, two attendants at her side with weapons drawn. The commander looked over the Elrok ranks, a question in her eyes. "Who leads among you?" she asked. "Let us parlay, before the world ends while we stand here!"

"Who leads among us?" Bradeth asked, meeting Grim's eyes with determination.

Grim paused, searching her gaze. He knew what she wanted, which path she hoped he would take. It was inevitable. With a resigned nod, he turned to face the Knights' commander and spoke formally. "I am Grimfaeth, of the Clan of Lions. I am brother to Lady Veil and friend of King Neredos. During the recent battle I was imprisoned with the demon and was freed by my loyal subjects," he took in the Elroks with his gaze. All eyes were on him, and he took a moment to signal to lower their weapons. They complied as Grim returned his attention to the commander. "We apologize for the scare, and any trouble we have caused you, but we ask to withdraw in peace, or help you face the demon to the north."

"How do I know you are who you say you are?" the Knight replied, eyeing Grim skeptically. "You are a naked Fedain leading Elroks? Preposterous."

"They answer to me," Grim replied. With a wave of his hand, the Elroks gathered to him, standing behind him. "We have given you an option for peace. You are facing armies; do you truly wish to engage in conflict on three fronts?" he asked.

Bradeth stepped to his shoulder and added her voice in support. "We have not harmed any of your citizens, and the demon is dead. Let us leave."

The Knight stared at the two of them, eyes wide. She twitched as if she wanted to look to her attendants for their opinion, but her pride in her position kept her from seeking counsel. After a moment, she nodded and said, "Leave Pentalus as quickly as possible. I will not have an Elrok war party roaming the streets." Without hesitation, she turned her back on the Elroks and spoke to her troops. "We are going to investigate the second demon sighting. Move out!"

As quickly as she'd spoken, the Knights returned to their eagles and left. Grim watched them go, wondering if he, too, might find some way to escape conflict. He felt Bradeth's presence as his shoulder still, could sense the question in her eyes as she watched him. With a heavy sigh, he turned to face her.

"You acted as our chief," she observed.

"I am the chief, am I not?" Grim replied with a sad smile.

Bradeth nodded and grinned. Placing a hand on his shoulder, she said, "Let's go see this other 'demon'. Maybe we can help?"

Grim shook his head and said formally, "The challenge has been made."

"What?" Bradeth asked in surprise.

"You challenged me," Grim replied. He saw the astonished yet respectful looks of the Elroks behind them and continued, sure of the path he must take. "I believe all in attendance will agree that I must answer your challenge. You must kill me, or I must kill you. That is how this ends."

Bradeth's eyes widened as she protested, "Chief Grimfaeth, I—"

Grim placed his hand against her chest, tracing the tribal mark of a lion there. "You may no longer call me that," he whispered, then continued more strongly, "I officially declare Fletcher Bradeth as my heir and abdicate my leadership. I concede that the challenge has been fought and won by her, and that I have been proven unfit to rule in Telzath's honor. I am dead to all Elroks."

"But . . . your oath to father!" Bradeth said.

"How many oaths have I made over the years, Bradeth?" Grim replied, laughing helplessly. "As a child I promised in the church of my youth that I would do no harm to another. That and every oath I've made since have all been broken. What is one more? The man I love . . ." he trailed off with a frustrated sigh. The men he'd loved had all moved on to the realms beyond. Did he truly owe oaths to dead men, no matter how much they lived on in him? "Telzath would have understood. I tried to tell myself that, but . . . I suppose I needed his daughter to show up and threaten to kill me first, following Elrok tradition as stubbornly as he avoided it."

Bradeth touched the hand against her chest and held it there, her voice quivering. "F-father . . ."

Grim forced a smile and fought back a sob. He chuckled, fresh tears wetting his cheeks as he said quietly, "By giving up my position as chief in this manner, I am no longer considered to be Telzath's husband, Bradeth. You don't need to call me that."

"Father," Bradeth continued as if he hadn't spoken, "Your pain is mine. Your honor is mine. I remember when you held me on your knee, though I was almost as large as you then. My mother would've loved you."

"Love . . ." Grim nearly spat the word, "love has always put me in these positions."

"May it always do so," Bradeth said warmly. Still holding his hand, she spoke loudly, allowing all Elroks to hear her proclaim, "You will always be an ally to our people. I adopt you into my family, and name you kin. Let it be known that Grimfaeth, son of Selfaeth, former husband to Chief Telzath, is welcome in all tribes as kin to the line of Bradeth, Chief of Lions." She embraced him, drawing him tight against her, weeping as his head came against her chest.

"Thank you," Grim said softly, embracing her just as warmly. They held it for a moment longer before they finally parted. Grim wiped the tears from his cheek with the back of his hand and said, "Now, how about I find some clothes and we check out this demon?"

Bradeth nodded to the Knights flying overhead. They shouted and flew to a nearby street, circling over something obscured by the nearby buildings. The ground shook as something moved toward the plaza. "I think it's coming our way, actually," Bradeth observed.

"What is that!?" one of the Elroks shouted in alarm.

"That . . ." Grim said with a grin, "is a golem."

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