Lonely Pride

by Cynus

Chapter 27

Veil healed Drake the moment he was laid before her. She left his missing arm alone, knowing Grim's words to Maxthane to be perfectly true. To artificially heal a missing limb meant creating something alien to its owner. It could turn against its master; could fail at the worst time.

Sometimes it was better to accept loss. Sometimes . . . she glanced upward, staring at the hole leading to Pentalus. Loss. Everything she had built was now gone, and it itched like a missing limb, phantom pains of all the memories she had created in that city.

She ignored every offer of thanks Drake gave her, too consumed by her pain to give him more than automatic nods. Eventually, he gave up and moved away, joining Maxthane and Grim to give them a quick report of everything that had happened with his own demon hunt.

Demons. The world would soon know them again, would need someone to help them fight. Yes, down here they faced the evil residue of a Quay, but the above city lay in ashes, and if Neredos died before killing all the demons . . .

"Bradeth, please take me to the surface," Veil said abruptly, stopping all the conversation around her.

"Aren't you going to stay and help heal the plague?" Maxthane asked. "Didn't you insist that—"

Veil interrupted him with an upraised hand, her eyes flashing with annoyance. "The people in Pentalus need my help. There are thousands of wounded up there."

"And thousands of sick down here," Grim said, rising to Maxthane's defense. "Are these people less in your eyes?"

"Of course not," Veil scoffed. "But their need is also less immediate."

"Grim . . ." Fasha interjected from his sitting position just behind Grim and Maxthane. Drake eyed him warily as he continued. "You should let her go. One above and one below. If you divide your forces, you'll be more effective."

"Why should I listen to you?" Grim asked.

"You believed me about not running. Why should this be any different?" Fasha replied with a casual shrug.

"You swore you wouldn't run. As far as I'm concerned, you've sworn nothing of the sort about helping these people," Grim replied. "Why would you care which survivors of your campaigns we help?"

"I've done everything for these people," Fasha said with a puzzling smile. His eyes remained on Grim, but Veil felt as if he were somehow watching her, giving her the permission to feel as she did. It was a strange comfort from a demon, whether she'd worked with him before or not.

But Grim only grew more suspicious by Fasha's cryptic words. "You are a demon. Your agenda is to destroy and consume."

"Grim," Fasha said with a dry chuckle. "The war is ending. My demons are dying. Neredos is killing them. I can feel their numbers fading. This is almost over."

"You act as if you want it to end," Grim said, frowning with a question in his eyes.

"Grim . . . it is ending. You don't understand, but you will soon," Fasha replied.

As if in response to his statement, a tremor moved through the cavern. It was less intense than the ones before, but the walls still shook and several more boulders crashed from above. It sounded like thunder, but the sky remained as clear as before.

"What was that?" Drake asked.

"Another explosion from above us," Maxthane said.

"What does that mean?" Drake asked. "Are we under attack? Is it just an earthquake? I felt some shaking earlier."

"No . . ." Fasha said, staring upward. Not through the hole, Veil realized, but straight up, his gaze seeming to pierce the rock above him. "Neredos is dead," he whispered with disbelief.

"How do you know?" Grim asked.

Fasha looked back at him and stated with surprising plainness, "The last of the demons are free."

"No . . ." Grim said, turning his gaze skyward. "It can't be. The people up there aren't prepared for so many demons at once. We have to help them." He started moving, toward the grand staircase, Veil realized, when a tentacle reached out to grab him.

"Grim. Don't," Fasha said, tugging him backward.

"What are you talking about?" Grim said, breaking free from the tentacles grasp with a snarl.

"Don't," Fasha insisted. "You are not to be their savior. You've done enough. Let Veil go."

"I do not have to listen to the likes of you," Grim spat, eyes flashing with anger.

"No, but you want to kill me, don't you?" Fasha said. "Which is your more important mission?" He rolled backward, shifting as he came to his feet, large wings spreading behind him. The rest of his body soon followed suit, transforming to the form of a large bird flitting just out of reach.

"You swore on Khalis!" Grim roared.

"An oath of love is strong, but some oaths are stronger still," Fasha replied, keeping his gaze on Grim. Bradeth took up her bow and quickly let fly an arrow. Fasha merely morphed around the missile, as it passed through his body and continued freely into the darkness beyond. He continued addressing Grim, ignoring Bradeth entirely. "Meet me at the island if you want your last battle, Grim. Do not go to Pentalus. One above, one below."

And then he turned in the air and disappeared into the darkness, flying toward the Black Lake. Grim followed immediately after, rushing, without any care for the obstacles he'd face along the way. Before anyone could react, he was gone.

"Grim!" Maxthane shouted, taking a step after him but stopping there. In the distance he saw a flash of light but couldn't determine its source. For a moment he thought he saw Grim's dashing form illuminated by the glow, but he was gone as the darkness returned.

"What do we do now?" Drake asked. "Wasn't Grim going to help you heal people?"

"The people above still need us," Veil said. "Injury often kills quicker than sickness, and I'm going to help them."

"So, you would abandon my people after all?" Maxthane asked, turning to her. "It was you who wanted to come down here. It was you who wanted to help. Now that you're here, you want to go before helping anyone."

"I will teach you how to heal them, and then leave it up to you," Veil offered. "I have already helped you with the poisoned stream, after all."

"That's the best you can do?" Maxthane asked, keeping his face neutral.

Veil bristled at the look in his eyes, but her gaze traveled upward again. "You have your priorities, Maxthane, and I have mine," she said at length. "I swore oaths to protect the people above, and they must be seen to."

Maxthane waved his hand dismissively and half-turned away. "Grim already told me what needed to be done. If you won't stay, then leave. I have no use for you."

Veil felt a sudden pang of regret. How could she make him understand? "Son . . ." she began, hoping the familial tone would soften him.

"You have no right to call me that," Maxthane snapped, rounding on her once more. "You never did. Leave, Veil. May our paths never cross again."

Veil nodded, wishing she could do something to take away the pain in Maxthane's eyes. But it was the pain of a son learning his mother was not whom he thought. She had experienced a similar pain herself, and no Fedain healing could fix that problem. Even if she tried to change his mental state, the result would be a lie.

And it would change nothing for her. She owed nothing to The Shade. Despite her role in freeing the demon who had poisoned the water supply, the world was larger than the thieves and scoundrels who lived here, and decent people needed her. "I'm sorry," she said, knowing it would fall on deaf ears. She couldn't put enough conviction behind it to even fool herself.

"Chief Bradeth, please take her away from me," Maxthane said, meeting the Elrok's eyes. "I'll consider it a personal favor."

Veil felt the Elrok's thorny gaze settle on her. "As you wish, King Maxthane. I'll return when I'm done and see if there's any way I can help you."

As soon as Veil and Bradeth were gone, Maxthane turned to Drake, the only one still standing with him near the stream. Two of his soldiers waited a short distance away, but far enough to remain out of earshot. The commander of the unit Fasha had led here had insisted that Maxthane retain an escort.

Maxthane cast a look toward them, then said in a dark tone, "Drake . . . do you have any family?"

"Aside from the Inkblades?" Drake replied. "No. And, judging from what I just saw, maybe I'm lucky."

Maxthane grimaced at the statement but couldn't help but agree. "Are you loyal to me, Drake?"

"Of course, my King. Though you know I'm loyal to Madame Godani first," Drake said with a reserved grin. "But as far as I know, she supports you completely."

"Guild before King," Maxthane replied with a forced smile. "Don't worry, I won't hold it against you. I have a favor to ask, however."

Drake nodded. "Anything. Just name it."

"I want you to come with me and guard my back," Maxthane said, casting another wary glance at the soldiers below. "I'm not sure how many of my soldiers I can trust completely. Until a moment ago, they were loyal to Krythe."

Drake bowed his head slightly to the right. It was different than a nod and carried the same weight in The Shade as a kneel. "Of course, King Maxthane. I am yours to command until further notice."

Maxthane gripped Drake's shoulder and nodded appreciatively. He turned and walked toward the soldiers, Drake following close behind. "Take me to the where we've gathered the sick," Maxthane ordered as soon as they arrived.

The soldiers nodded and led him into the streets of the Lower Shade. They took their time leading him to the gathering place, a large square near the base of one of the large pillars supporting the roof of the cavern. Hundreds of people filled the space, and more were coming by the minute.

Torches were being lit as well. Despite the lack of need most Shade residents had for light, many still appreciated and used it whenever there were large gatherings such as this. It helped put people at ease to see a face illuminated by a soft glow, rather than the shadowy images of Shadesight.

Many voices murmured an astonished greeting at seeing Maxthane, but it was a man at the far side of the square who attracted his attention first. He moved from person to person, crouching down and placing his hand against their exposed flesh. Whenever he rose from his crouches, the people he touched stopped coughing, reinvigorated by his ministrations.

Maxthane made his way immediately to Grim's side. Before Maxthane could say anything at all, Grim said quietly, "I hope you'll forgive me for starting without you."

"Grim! You came back!" Maxthane said, glad to see the familiar face.

"Fasha did exactly what he said he would. I watched him fly toward the island. You can still see him if you look that way," Grim said, pointing in the distance. The square they currently occupied was on a slight rise before descending toward the shores of the Black Lake. While the island itself was difficult to make out, a periodic flash of light emanated from it. "See those flashes of light?"

"What is that?" Maxthane asked.

"He transformed into a giant firebug while he was flying away from me. He's signaling me, taunting me," Grim explained. "But once I knew he was stopping there . . . I decided to come back here and help you. It will take me time to charter a boat, anyway."

"Maybe the golem will take care of him," Maxthane said with a snarl.

"Something tells me that won't happen," Grim said, sighing.

Maxthane echoed the sentiment with a sigh of his own. "Well, I'll have a boat take you there when we're done, if that'll suit you."

Grim nodded appreciatively, then pulled Maxthane back from the wall of people, to the nearest open space in the square. Drake started to follow but held back at a brief shake of Maxthane's head. Whispering, Grim asked, "Where're Veil and Bradeth?"

"They left for Pentalus," Maxthane explained in a similar hush. "Veil insisted, and I told her to leave. Why are we talking quietly?"

"I didn't want to mention her name where too many can hear. I'm sure there's plenty of bad blood for her down here. There was a time when she valued life over station. Her reputation here is well deserved," Grim replied dryly. He sighed and glanced around at the people surrounding them. "No matter, we can do the work ourselves, though I would've liked to see Veil again before she died."

"What do you mean?" Maxthane asked, eyes widening.

"By returning to Pentalus, she's almost guaranteed to run into the Dark Mother and her retainers. They'll execute her, and probably before she has a chance of healing anyone," Grim explained.

"But . . . why? Because of her working with Fasha?" Maxthane asked.

"She worked with Fasha?" Grim asked with surprise.

"You didn't know?"

"No . . ." Grim replied, shaking his head and wearing a dubious expression. "I knew about . . . about Styx's mother, but not about Fasha. So, she's the one who gave you all the information you needed for your rebellion?"

"That's right," Maxthane said. "What was that about Styx's mother?"

"She deserves death even more than I thought," Grim muttered, his eyes growing distant. He shook his head as if to clear his senses and added, "What would father think, sister?"

"Grim . . ." Maxthane began, then continued in a softer tone, "Uncle . . . what about Styx's mother?"

"Your father traded Styx's mother, Nal Maya Godani, for the rights to Veil's womb," Grim explained. Maxthane's body went rigid, and a pang of nausea threatened to overwhelm him. Grim placed a comforting hand on Maxthane's arm and went on, "Before you start blaming yourself for things outside your control, I tell you this because I'm rather certain Styx knows already, and I feel you should be prepared in case he addresses it with you. I doubt Salidar knew he was sentencing a woman to death for nothing but his personal gains. He was ambitious, and I disagreed with almost everything he did, but he wouldn't do something like that."

"Still . . . how will I ever make it up to him?" Maxthane asked, suppressing the urge to retch.

Grim smiled reassuringly and replied, "Why don't you find out if he even holds it against you first?"

"If he's even alive," Maxthane said.

"Have faith in him. He's a survivor, that one," Grim replied, giving Maxthane's arm a comforting squeeze before letting go. "Now . . . I believe your people are waiting for their King. Save your strength and focus for that."

"I know you already explained, but will you show me what to do?" Maxthane asked.

"For my favorite nephew?" Grim asked, his eyes twinkling. "Of course."

Bradeth wanted to throw Veil as far from her as she could, but she managed to contain the urge. Having the woman's arms around her neck was bad enough, but Veil's attempts at conversation made it even worse.

"Are you sure this is the best way up?" Veil asked. Even though Bradeth couldn't see her face, she could feel the disdainful look of battled fear behind her.

Bradeth took a moment to glance down into the darkness. She'd taken Veil straight to the cavern wall, far below the grand staircase. In order to reach the staircase the normal way, they would have had to traverse most of the Lower Shade. But Bradeth didn't have the patience for that.

Instead, she'd carved a few Elrok symbols with Gor runes into the rockface and performed a spell, reaching all the way up the cavern wall with her will. Stone rungs had erupted from the wall, forming a ladder for Bradeth to climb. Veil had balked at the thought of Bradeth carrying her, but Bradeth had simply waited for Veil's tirade to end, and then started up.

"We have a lot of ground to cover. Trust me, there's nothing like straight up for an Elrok. It's much faster than walking to the stairs," Bradeth replied, hoping that by finally answering a question she'd get Veil to stop talking.

"I've never witnessed magic like this. Of course, I've spent very little time amongst your people," Veil said neutrally.

"You should've gotten out more," Bradeth said with a snort. "Perhaps if you'd come to know the people in the world you wouldn't have become such a coldhearted witch."

"I could kill you right now, you know," Veil said.

Bradeth snorted. "You'd be killing yourself. If you think I couldn't make you fall to your death in the process, you haven't thought this through."

"Still, there's no reason to be rude," Veil replied.

"After all this, you still don't get it, do you?" Bradeth said incredulously, pausing briefly on the wall to collect her thoughts. Her hand twitched, wanting to reach up and unhook Veil's arms and drop her into the darkness.

"Get what?" Veil asked.

"You are not righteous. You are not divine. Your people worship an illusion," Bradeth said, "For some reason they see in you a savior, who was never there." She resumed her climb, increasing her speed slightly. The sooner she was rid of Veil, the better.

"I did everything for my people," Veil insisted after a moment.

Bradeth grunted, climbing up several more rungs before replying. "Yes, for your people. Not everyone. Not for the world. For the people you saw as beneficial to you. The world suffered while you catered to your nobles and your Knights. Even the citizens of Pentalus eventually suffered the effects of your neglect."

"You don't know what you're talking about," Veil said. "You don't know the position I was in."

"I know there's a rebellion going on above us, and that this rebellion is directly responsible for the state of Pentalus," Bradeth replied. "I'm sure part of why you insisted on going up there now is the guilt you feel."

"You don't know that," Veil growled. "We don't know what brought the Everbright City down."

"Avoid the truth all you want, Veil. You will not escape the consequences of your actions, and that is good enough for me," Bradeth replied. "Though I must say, your guilt is definitely wearing you ragged. Your reputation marks you as someone cool and collected at all times, but all I see is a disillusioned woman trying to hold onto scraps of power."

Veil barked a laugh. "If you hate me so much, why are you helping me?'

"Because King Maxthane of The Shade asked me to, and he is an ally and friend," Bradeth replied without hesitation. "Because your brother is my father, and my former chief, and I owe him my life several times over. He would want me to help you. He saved you from your fate once, after all."

"You don't know—"

"Stop telling me what I don't know," Bradeth interrupted. "You believe yourself superior to everyone. You believe your perspective gives you authority over the rest of us, just because you've lived eight hundred years. But you've spent those centuries in comfort, in youth, in opulence. You are not worthy to call yourself mortal, and only a mortal has the right to determine the fate of mortals."

"Yet you follow my brother," Veil replied, her tone implying an accusation.

"Grimfaeth is mortal. He's known it his whole life. You do not know him," Bradeth said angrily. She wanted to scream, wanted to challenge Veil to a battle to the death for comparing herself to Grim.

"And now you're the one assuming another's knowledge," Veil said.

Bradeth nearly let go of the wall to end the conversation, but instead she took a deep breath, cooling her anger a few degrees before responding. "Everything is an argument for you. Are you incapable of accepting responsibility for your actions?"

"How about we stop talking about—" Veil began, but Bradeth felt a vibration in the stone above them and cut her off with a hiss.

"Shush . . . there's someone above us," Bradeth said quietly.

"What?" Veil whispered.

"I said stop talking . . ." Bradeth replied. The vibrations continued, growing more intense. The feeling of many footsteps moving together. "I can feel them. There's a large group coming down the grand staircase."

"From Pentalus?" Veil asked.


"Then let's hurry and catch up with them. They might have answers we need," Veil said.

"Hold on. I'll have to speed this up to intercept them," Bradeth replied, then prepared herself mentally for the task ahead.

"You weren't already going at full speed?" Veil asked in the same accusing tone as before.

"I was conserving energy," Bradeth replied with a grin. "But now, hopefully I can get rid of you sooner. That will give me all the energy I need."

The rubble-strewn streets of Pentalus were difficult for Styx to navigate, but thankfully he didn't have to take the lead of the group heading for the nearest access point to The Shade. As luck would have it, they were closest to the main entrance leading them to the grand staircase, which would make it easier for them to make it down with the wounded.

Styx had volunteered to carry the front half of the litter bearing Kirra, while another man had taken up the back end. At Kirra's urging, Styx had found clothing and dressed for the trip down, though the simple sandals he'd managed to find for footwear were not to his liking. He had already stubbed his toe twice on loose rubble.

A growling from the side made him pull up short, and everyone near him joined in the search for the source of the noise. A large, quilled cat with yellow fur sprang onto the one remaining wall of a nearby ruined house. It looked at them, its mouth curled into a snarl, then bounded off in a different direction without attacking.

"That was a smaller version of the demon I killed during Salidar's siege," Kirra said when they all could breathe again. Styx spared him a glance and saw him gripping the hilt of his sword laying next to him in the litter. "I wonder why it didn't attack us. Do you really think we'll be okay?"

"I don't know," Styx said. "I hope so. That wasn't the first demon to move on without attacking us."

"You should leave me behind," Kirra said. "I'm dead weight. Get yourselves out. You're too exposed out here."

"Don't talk like that," Styx replied with annoyance. "You're one of the ones who can't walk, so you get to go first. The perks of being wounded. We just have to get you to Grim or Veil. You said they're both in The Shade, right? "

"But . . ." Kirra said, "How are we going to save everyone?"

"We are lucky that the demons appear disoriented," Fenri said, coming up on them from behind. With his one injured arm he couldn't help carry any of the wounded, but he still had a pack of supplies over his shoulder. He eyed the rubble and shuddered. "Or maybe they're searching the rubble for easy pickings."

"That's a bit morbid, don't you think?" Styx asked.

Fenri glared at him. "My home was just destroyed and the demons I was charged to keep contained are loose on the world again. Forgive me if I'm not exactly chipper."

"I understand. I'm sorry," Styx said. He pointed ahead to where a few men and women stood at the remains of a brewery. The brewery was owned by the thulu'Khant family, though a Pentalus resident had his name attached to all the paperwork. The building had guarded the entrance to The Shade for centuries. "Look, we've made it to the entrance to The Shade. The advance scouts have already cleared away the rubble. We'll be safe in no time."

"Do you really think the demons won't follow us?" Kirra asked worriedly.

"They don't seem to be doing much of anything. Look," Styx said, nodding ahead of them. They'd just come around a bend in the road and could see across the crater that had formed during the initial explosion of the Everbright City.

"It's like they're . . . gathering," Fenri said. "Waiting for something."

Styx frowned at the assessment but could not deny the truth of it. Even as he watched, the cat from before picked its way across the rubble and into the crater. Several demons flew overhead as well, a mixture of Aika, Quay, and Ibrix demons, all angling toward the center of the crater.

Dozens of demons had already assembled there, centered around five large demons. The paired Aika were curled up against each other, the cat now lying in the arms of its scaled winged counterpart. The large-clawed hulking form of a Goden demon stood next to them, bringing Styx memories of his brief time as Salidar's prisoner when he'd fought a nearly identical but much smaller version of the same demon. Next to the Goden was a demon Styx had not yet seen, its body covered in ridged, bony plates. Flying over their heads was a winged serpent like the one Styx had faced the day before, though far larger. They must be the remaining demon generals gathering their forces.

"But what are they gathering for?" Kirra asked.

"I don't know, but we should take the opportunity to get out of here while we still can," Styx said. "Maybe they're just trying to figure out what to do about Lord Hount? His forces are still surrounding the city, after all."

"Maybe," Kirra muttered.

"That's not it," said a deep voice from their right. An Elrok vaulted over a low wall, bow in hand, and landed next to them. Styx didn't recognize him, and set the litter down abruptly, preparing to defend Kirra as best he could, but the Elrok simply spoke to his companions. "Hello, friend Kirra, Knight Fenri."

"Fletcher Gobrak! You're alive!" Kirra said, then groaned as his exuberance pulled on his injuries.

"Yes, and about half the Elroks as well," Gobrak replied. "We've been pulling people out of the rubble on the far side of the city as best as we can. We sent them out to the west."

"Fletcher Gobrak, this is Styx," Kirra said, nodding to his lover. "Why didn't you rendezvous with us sooner?"

"We've been busy. But we ran into one of your search parties and decided to make our way here a short time ago," Gobrak replied with a smile, then turned his attention to the crater. "But the demons . . . they're waiting for their leader."

"Their leader?" Fenri asked. "Do they even have the ability to be led?"

"The Vhor," Gobrak explained. The word pulled painfully on Styx's memories as he recalled the day he and Prism had escaped The Shade. Prism had explained all about the Vhor and their role in commanding the demon forces. Gobrak continued, though he briefly met Styx's eyes and saw the recognition there first. "There's one still alive, and until he commands them to act, they will do nothing."

"Either way, we're going down, and we're doing it now," Styx said. "The sooner we make it to safety, the sooner we can regroup and figure out what to do about the demons."

"Lead on, Shade," Fenri said.

"Please, allow us to help carry some of the wounded," Gobrak said.

"I'd appreciate that," Styx said warmly. "But Kirra's mine."

"I understand," Gobrak replied, nodding in approval. "We'll fill in where we can, and I'll take up the rear on Kirra's litter."

"Are you injured, Gobrak?" Kirra asked when Gobrak relieved the man in the rear.

"I fared well. Far better than you, Kirra," Gobrak replied. "Rest, we'll speak soon."

Their conversation with Gobrak had stalled them enough for some of the others to catch up. The Godani twins were now in the lead, walking past Styx and nodding in greeting. Styx smiled at his aunt and mother and followed immediately after them.

They descended into the cellar of the brewery, then down toward the antechamber leading to the grand staircase. A contingent of soldiers dressed in the black leathers of the thulu'Khant's forces blocked the passageway, their leader immediately raising her voice as Madame Godani stepped into the room. "Who is there?"

"We've come from Pentalus. We seek shelter in The Shade," Nal Maya said, speaking before anyone else could.

"We're under orders from Commander Krythe to—" the soldier continued, but Madame Godani silenced her with a glare.

"You will let us through."

"Madame Godani," the soldier said, finding courage from somewhere, "you are under arrest for—"

More people were entering the cellar by the second, some drawing weapons as they sensed the mood in the room. Nal Maya held up a hand to stall them while Madame Godani continued to address the soldier. "You cannot arrest all of us. If the Underking wishes to arrest me, he can find me at my guildhall. Let us pass."

The soldier maintained her glare for a few long seconds before finally sighing and waving the group forward. "Very well."

Madame Godani nodded in approval and waved for Styx and Gobrak to lead the way with Kirra's litter. Fenri maintained step beside them as they walked past the soldiers. Styx tensed as he felt the stares from the black-leathered warriors. He wondered if he would find a blade in his back before he made it all the way through.

To his relief, they passed without incident, and arrived at the top of the grand staircase. Styx continued down, leading the entire group into the darkness. It felt odd to be returning home this way, but at least they were alive.

They'd descended nearly halfway to the Lower Shade when Styx heard someone grunting with effort ahead of them. "There's someone coming," he said setting the litter down and turning to Kirra.

"Styx?" a familiar voice said from ahead of them.

"Veil?" Styx said with surprise as he turned to find the Fedain standing before him, climbing up from the edge of the staircase. An Elrok face soon followed.

"Bradeth?" Kirra and Gobrak said in unison.

"Kirra? Gobrak?" Bradeth said, eyeing them both with surprise.

"By the blood, you're in a state, aren't you? Here, let me help," Veil said, approaching Kirra's litter. She immediately placed her hands on Kirra's exposed chest, letting her healing energies work their magic. Styx resisted the urge to stop her, knowing Kirra needed her help, but he couldn't help the feelings of betrayal that surfaced as he watched them.

When Veil pulled away, Kirra tested his arm and then leg, smiling in appreciation. "Thank you, Oracle."

Veil smiled and turned toward Fenri, placing her hand on his arm. "I'll take care of you, too."

Fenri shifted his arm a moment later, testing the movements of his fingers. "Thank you," he said with awe. "I was worried it would never be the same again, but it feels as good as new."

"What's happening?" Madame Godani said from farther down the line. Styx could see her coming to investigate what had stalled their progress.

Fenri, who was closest to the approaching woman, called back to her. "The Lady Veil has come back. She's come back to—"

"Kill her," Madame Godani interrupted, passing the last person between her and Veil and fixing the Fedain with an icy glare.

"What?" Fenri said with surprise. Styx glanced at Kirra and saw a similarly confused expression on his face.

"Kill her now," Madame Godani said to no one in particular, her eyes remaining fixed on Veil, murderous rage burning intensely within them.

"Madame Godani?" Kirra asked with alarm, struggling to his feet. "What is the meaning of this?"

"She deserves a trial, aunt," Styx said, surprising himself with the words. "And if she's willing to heal the injured beforehand, we should let her." He didn't completely disagree with his aunt's sentiment, but he also saw the logic of keeping Veil alive to help the wounded. She could face justice later.

"Many with us would refuse that help," Madame Godani replied. "Many of us would rather she never touched a soul again."

"You are Nal Maya's sister, aren't you?" Veil asked, eyes widening with recognition. "I suppose you have every right to hate me. I only wish to heal the injured. Please, let me help."

"She just healed me. What is all this about?" Kirra asked.

Styx glanced his way and replied, "Veil destroyed my mother's life and sent me to kill Neredos."

"You tried to kill Neredos?" Kirra replied his eyes widening with shock and horror. "Are you responsible for the demons being released then?"

"Do not be angry with him, Kirra," Veil said. "I made him do it, though if I'd known who his mother was I wouldn't have made the mistake. Your mother had a sliver of Fedain heritage, which means you do as well. I assume you were able to break out of your compulsion to kill Neredos?" she asked, giving Styx a forced smile. Styx did not return it. With a heavy sigh, Veil returned her attention to Madame Godani. "I admit to my crimes. I will submit to your judgment willingly, after I've healed those in need."

"Don't you understand, Veil? No one wants your help," Bradeth said. "It's like I said before, you don't understand the people you claim to serve."

Before Veil could respond to Bradeth's accusation, Nal Maya stepped into view from behind Madame Godani. She fixed Veil with an icy stare. "You . . ."

"Nal Maya. You're looking well," Veil said.

"No thanks to you," Nal Maya replied.

Veil took a step forward, her hand raised as if to touch Nal Maya. "Please, let me—"

Styx acted on impulse, seeing his mother tense at the thought of Veil touching her. Remembering the way Veil had invaded his mind, had compelled him to kill for her. Knowing the darkness she had admitted to, and knowing it had to end.

He reached into Kirra's litter, drawing his sword with one swift movement and closed the distance on Veil, driving the sword through her back and into her heart. It cut her words into ribbons, as blood spluttered from her mouth.

Bitch, Kirra's sword whispered in Styx's mind. She, too, was glad to have been the end of Veil. Styx held the sword in place, knowing Veil would be trying to heal herself from even this mortal wound.

"You won't touch my mother again," Styx said quietly.

"You'll never understand . . ." Veil sputtered, dropping to her knees. Styx crouched with her, her last words coming out in a whisper of agony. "What I did . . . I did it for . . ." she collapsed completely, sliding from the sword and landing in the quickly spreading puddle of her own blood.

"You killed her," Kirra said, coming up and placing his hand on Styx's. The sword fell from Styx's grasp as he came to realize what he'd just done, his muscles weak and trembling.

"I . . . I had to," Styx muttered.

"Come on, Styx," Kirra said, wrapping Styx in an embrace. "Let's get you home."

"Yes . . . home . . ." Styx mumbled, but his eyes remained fixed on the corpse of the woman before him. The woman he'd killed, who had done so much good and so much evil. If only he knew which it was that he had just done by ending her.

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