Tragic Genius

by Cynus

Chapter 15

"That was the same disease that killed me, wasn't it?" Dogo asked, pulling away from the group, disrupting the shared vision.

"And which I healed in your son," Veil replied, her tone neutral, though her eyes dared Dogo to make something of her words.

Dogo held her gaze for several moments, his eyes hard, and his expression just as stony as Veil's. "I suppose you did, but—"

"If you're about to start another argument, please spare the rest of us!" Neredos interrupted, rolling his eyes. He looked at Prism and added, "Can't we simply agree to get along for now? I thought we'd moved past this."

Dogo scoffed twice before Neredos finished speaking. "From the man who waged war against The Shade and was content to malign its citizens on account of an ancient rebellion?" he asked incredulously.

"I thought we were reaching an understanding, Dogo," Prism said. "I thought you were trying to wrap your head around all this."

Dogo shook his head, sighing deeply as he stared at the ground. When he looked up, some measure of calm had returned to him, but his glare remained nearly as fierce as before. "I'm not fond of being judged for my intolerant behavior by the likes of Neredos. His policies have always been divisive in nature."

"You don't know your history half as well as you think," Veil said.

"Is that so?" Dogo asked.

"It is," Prism confirmed.

"Why waste words when we can simply show him?" Ghayle asked, reaching out to indicate once more that the others should join her in viewing another memory.

"I admit there was some divisiveness in the beginning as well as the end, Dogo," Neredo said, then laid his hand across Ghayle's. "But, Ghayle is right. Perhaps it's better to show you."

The Gor and Human citizens of the Everbright City had formed an uneasy alliance. They had worked together to forge a functioning and beautiful city, complete with many wonders and feats of engineering, leaving Neredos impressed at the combined ingenuity of magic and science. He'd always believed them to be the perfect marriage of concepts, and knew Alazyn would have been proud of what their joint invention had become.

It had been nearly two years now since the demon invasion commenced, and yet Neredos and his people thrived. They were protected from several of the demon breeds outright, and between the ranged weapons at the city's disposal and the eagle riders, aerial threats were easily dealt with. The city could also offer support to any who chose to live around the city rather than inside of it, easily deploying troops at a moment's notice.

And it seemed people were flocking to the Everbright City from all around the world. Most of its Human citizens had come from Oligan or Lodan, though it was beginning to attract people from Ultaka as well. Word of a haven had spread throughout the world, but unfortunately that word created a problem on its own. There were too many people to take care of, and the problem was only going to get worse.

While initially the Gor had been resistant to sharing resources with the Humans who had come to their lands, as Neredos continued to work with them, they had become far more hospitable. Now the tides were shifting again as more and more refugees poured into the area. There were simply too many mouths to feed, and there was not enough to feed them.

Neredos had considered several options, but none of them were particularly appealing. He didn't want to leave the safety of the Gor forests but, without going in search of a place with greater resources, his people would starve within the next few months. It was this subject which had brought him, and all the other powerful figures in the area ,to the table this morning. Once again they'd weigh the odds of success on each front.

"We have to return to Oligan!" Dreok said, pounding his fist against the table. "It's the only option that makes sense. We know the terrain, and we know what we'd be up against if our people resist us. There's nothing else to be done."

Neredos held his tongue but regarded the man curiously. Dreok had become more and more agitated of late, as if the demon conflict and command of the military personnel were wearing him down. It was almost as if he'd become a completely different person ever since returning from a scouting mission a few months earlier, alone. Neredos assumed the failure of that mission had been the trigger of Dreok's degradation more than anything else, and he'd simply wasted away as a result.

"With all due respect, Dreok, you don't know what you'll be facing," said Shavel Drinfaghentil, the Gor chief who now served as the representative of the combined tribes in the area. He was tall for a Gor, nearly half a foot taller than Neredos, a feat which was rare even amongst Humans, much less the slightly shorter Gor. He was broad in the shoulder as well, almost as if somewhere down his bloodline he had a bit of Elrok blood. "Not only have the demons nearly completely overrun Oligan, your military may still want your blood. We've seen your skyships come against us, and they are powerful indeed. How many demons do they rip apart before they fall?"

"It's been a month since anyone has seen a skyship," grumbled Chief Valdrek, the representative of the Elrok Clan of the Sandsnake. He and his people were one of the oddities of the Everbright City, making it clear to Neredos that they were only planning on staying as long as the demons kept coming. They would not keep residence in a Human city for any other reason, despite Neredos' warm hospitality. The Sandsnake Clan were one of three Elrok tribes to have come north, and all three had echoed the same sentiment.

"That doesn't mean they don't have them," Shavel countered. "By going into Oligan, we could risk attack from Human and demon alike. Humans aren't much more trustworthy than an Ibrix or an Aika."

Those names still sounded foreign to Neredos, even though the Gor had explained them to him in detail. They were the names of ancient gods, ones whom the Gor, Humans, Fedain, and Elroks had worshipped in ages past. While apparently most had forgotten the names of those gods, the Gor had retained them in their oral traditions and chose to use them to refer to the demons. Neredos did not know why, but the names had caught on amongst his soldiers, and that was good enough for him. If it helped them communicate about the threat, then it didn't matter what names they used.

"We can always go to Ultaka," said the Fedain representative, a young woman named Zalifrae. She was the youngest in the room, several years Neredos' junior, but she had a fierceness to her eyes behind her usual smiling demeanor. There were not many people from Ultaka in the Everbright City yet, and fewer Fedain still, but they had elected Zalifrae as their leader. Neredos was certain she was either some minor noblewoman or at least had managed to convince those who'd elected her that she was. "I'm not saying we can expect them to be receptive, but rumor has it that you were working on an alliance with Ultaka before the demons arrived. That must count for something, doesn't it?"

"Or we can make the even longer trek to either Lodan or Incaria, and pick up whatever supplies and survivors we can along the way," Valdrek said. "We have a duty to see this through together. All peoples, from all lands."

This was a curious suggestion considering its source, Neredos thought. Though when he saw Dreok nodding in agreement, he wondered if it wasn't the wisest course after all. Elrok wisdom was legendary, especially in matters of survival. Despite this, Neredos couldn't help but wonder what they would do with those survivors they gathered along the way. If they met people but did not find resources, their problems would only grow.

The representatives gathered around the table began to argue, and Neredos put them out of his mind as he thought about the problem. There were no easy solutions, and every second they spent arguing about it only shortened the amount of time they had left to deal with the problem. No, the decision simply had to be made, and if they couldn't agree in council, someone would have to make it for them.

"We go first to Oligan," Neredos heard himself say. The room quieted as many pairs of eyes turned toward him. He met them each in turn before responding. "It is closest, and as Dreok pointed out, we do already have a home terrain advantage. We will leave half our force here, to protect the Gor lands, and take the rest with us along with the Everbright City."

"Do you think it's wise to move the fortress?" Shavel asked.

Neredos nodded. "We need food and other supplies, and the best chance we have of transporting those resources is to use the city. We can take the labor force necessary to transport the goods, and still have room for plenty in the cargo holds."

"But are you sure the forces you leave behind will be adequate to defend us here," Shavel asked, revealing his true concern. "The city offers us protection, and our citizens would do much better with it here."

"Don't you listen, Gor?" Valdrek asked with a growl. "We have to be able to transport supplies. Otherwise we can't feed anyone."

Shavel glared at the Elrok. "We fed our people just fine until you all came here seeking refuge. If you leave us, then what good is the alliance to us? We fed you and gave you shelter in our lands in exchange for protection, Neredos," Shavel said, returning his gaze to Neredos. "If you do not stay to protect us, we have no use for working with you."

Neredos suppressed the urge to sigh. He had expected some resistance from the Gor as soon as he made his decision, but this was a firmer stance than he'd expected Shavel to take. "We will return, Shavel. And, as I stated, we will leave forces behind to protect you and your people."

"If you wish, I can personally guarantee that every Ultakan can stay behind to help, noble Gor," Zalifrae said, smiling warmly at Shavel. "I have no wish to send any of us into Oligan, no matter how good the prospects are of finding supplies. While Neredos himself may face rejection by his own people, there hasn't been a Fedain willing to set foot in Oligan, for a century at least."

Shavel considered her for a moment, then returned his gaze to Neredos. "In the interest of peace in these troubled times, I will let you leave here without incident, Neredos. However, I cannot spare any Gor warriors to accompany you on your foolish quest. They are needed here, to protect our people."

Neredos nodded, conceding the point. He knew he had little chance of arguing otherwise, despite the help the Gor could bring to the mission. He would have to function with fewer eagle riders, and fewer warriors competent in hand-to-hand combat, but he could make do with Elrok support. Dreok's men would do their duty as well. He was certain he could also convince the Lodani and Incarians among them to join on the mission. Neither group was particularly fond of living amongst the Gor.

However, there was one point where he could not completely give in to Shavel's demands. "I must ask that you give those who have worked with me on the city the choice of joining me. They are competent mages, and they know the systems of the city. If I were to fall, they could help Dreok bring the city to safety."

Shavel's face clouded over at this request, but after a moment he sighed and replied, "It is done as you request. I cannot deny that you have been useful during your time here, and, as I must grudgingly admit about our Elrok companion, there is wisdom in maintaining alliances in this troubled time. You may have those Gor who wish to stay with you, and we will not compel them by any means to remain with us."

"Then it's settled," Neredos said, nodding in appreciation as he rose to his feet. "We leave for Oligan in three days, as soon as we can properly evacuate those who wish to stay here. Three days to prepare your forces for what lies ahead."

Neredos held true to his word. By the three-day mark after the meeting, he brought the engines of the Everbright City roaring to life and departed the Gor lands. His eyes were set westward and southward, to the heart of his homeland, and whatever dangers it contained.

He found it strange that they only encountered demons once before reaching Oligan's border. It was a brief battle, resulting in the death of only a hundred men and women, and twice the number of demons. Once they crossed into Oligan, however, the death toll began to climb.

It seemed every few hours they encountered another group of demons bent on their destruction. While only having to worry about three demon breeds that could fly, they encountered enough of these that Neredos' forces began to wilt from weariness and loss of morale. By the time they'd reached the ruins of Thalom, the number of dead had barely reached two hundred, but by the time they reached the capital, Neredos had lost several thousand of his troops.

Unfortunately, that was not the worst of the setbacks he faced. With each passing day, his own mood grew grimmer at the devastation they passed, and that despair was reflected in his troops tenfold. As nearly all his soldiers were Oligan natives, the absolute destruction of their homeland weighed heavily on their minds.

As they'd passed over Thalom, they could still see the stone walls of the university, though the rest of the buildings had been burned away entirely. In the cities farther to the south, there was nothing but ash. Even where great buildings of stone and steel had once stood, they had collapsed to nothing but rubble, with no stretch of frame remaining erect.

Neredos began to wonder if they would find any survivors at all, much less supplies, in the wake of all the ruin. To his surprise, however, Dreok and Valdrek both seemed to maintain high spirits. Sometimes Neredos would glance their way and find them smiling, laughing to each other as if they shared some hidden joke no one else would understand.

It was beginning to grow disconcerting.

Neredos wondered if Dreok's wife had noticed any difference in the man's behavior and considered going to her to ask. She was pregnant with Dreok's second child, the first having been born shortly after the start of the war, and Neredos didn't want to bother her. Yet despite this, as Neredos' suspicion grew, the urge to find out the truth about Dreok led him to the door of their chambers, several times.

Instead, Neredos always walked away without knocking. It was better for him not to press an issue he knew nothing about, as long as Dreok wasn't causing any direct damage. Still, Neredos worried. Worried and watched, knowing something was coming, which would shake his faith in the world even further.

He glanced at Dreok as they stood at the edge of the city, waiting for a report from one of the eagle riders who had flown ahead to scout their advance. Most of this mission relied on patience more than anything else, it seemed. Patience and no results.

"What do you advise if the scout reports no sign of survivors or food, Dreok?" Neredos asked.

Dreok turned to Neredos with a grin, his eyes touched with a hint of madness. "What else is there to say, Neredos? We move onward, of course. Onward until we find what we're looking for. I still believe our best chance is in Oligan, especially if we can find the grain stores in the South."

"As if we have any reason to believe that they didn't burn those too," Neredos replied dryly. "We have encountered nothing but ruin."

"Not true, Neredos," Dreok replied, shaking his head. "We've passed over forest and grassland, both unspoiled. Clearly the demons only have interest in destroying us and our civilization, not the wildlands."

Neredos considered that point for a moment, wondering why he had not thought of it himself. It was true that while cities had burned, it didn't seem that the forest had it all. Perhaps there was some method to Dreok's madness after all. "What do you think it means?"

Valdrek's low voice from behind Neredos joined the conversation. "Well, for one thing, it means that if we can find some grazing wild cattle, we might be able to feed ourselves for a while. We spent all this time looking for your civilized food sources and ignoring the possibility of wilder ones."

Dreok chuckled at that, though Neredos did not see where the humor came in. "Neredos, you're being far too negative. We're finally free from those blasted Gor lands, and we've come home. Oligan is ours for the taking, and we could set up anywhere, plant farms beneath the city, grow our own food. How can you not see the potential in this wide-open land?"

Neredos stared at Dreok with open-mouthed astonishment. "How can you not see the devastation? Not three days ago, you were in a far fouler mood than me. Yet here you stand, flying over a place where millions upon millions of our countrymen have died, and all you see is potential!?"

"I believe our fortune is about to turn, my friend," Dreok said, putting a hand on Neredos' shoulder. Neredos shook it off immediately, stepping back. Dreok's grin didn't falter in the slightest. "What's wrong, Neredos?"

Neredos' eyes narrowed. He accessed a hundred different runes through his helmet that he could draw with his gauntlet at a moment's notice to defend himself from whoever stood before him. "You keep using my name is if you're afraid you'll forget it, Dreok. Tell me, why is that?"

At last there was a falter in Dreok's expression, the grin disappearing for a flash before it returned, though now Neredos could see the truth in Dreok's eyes. They were practically lifeless, devoid of all emotion. "I have stood by you through everything, Neredos. I was there for you when your wife died. I rebelled against Oligan for you. How could you question my loyalty now?"

"Show me the first rune I ever taught you," Neredos said. "Show me, and I will believe your identity."

Dreok's gaze flickered briefly to Valdrek, but the Elrok did not move at all. Whatever support Dreok had hoped to gain from the chief, it would not be forthcoming. Instead, Dreok simply chuckled and said, "it's a simple rune for heat transference, as I recall. If you have a bit of paper so that I can draw it, perhaps I—"

"Simply draw it in the air with your finger," Neredos suggested. "Or perhaps if you don't remember it, I can draw it for you, and then you can use it."

Dreok's grin was gone entirely now, replaced with a pensive frown. "I'm not sure I currently have the mental purity to—"

Before he finished the sentence, Neredos drew three quick runes in the air using his gauntlet, then focused into them with the full might of his will. Strands of solid air reached out and wrapped around Dreok's form, binding his arms and legs and then tethering him to the ground.

"I'm warning you, Dreok," Neredos said, "do not test my patience further. There is something the matter with you, and I aim to find out what it is. You have not been the same in months. Tell me why."

"Perhaps it would be better if we interrogated him elsewhere," Valdrek suggested. "This hardly seems like the proper location for such business."

Neredos didn't spare a glance for Valdrek. "No, I'm doing this now," he said, taking a step toward Dreok. He quickly drew a rune in the air in solidified light. "This the rune for heat transference. This is the rune I taught you first. Do you recognize it?"

"Yes, of course, Neredos," Dreok replied, nodding emphatically.

Neredos' heart sank. He let the rune dissipate, shaking his head. "I invented this rune myself a year after I began teaching you magic. You've lied to me, and about something Dreok would absolutely know. Who are you? What is going on?"

Dreok blinked once, then shifted in a flash of motion. His arms and legs drew into his body as his body elongated, becoming an amorphous ooze. This new form easily evaded the bindings Neredos had made in the air, and the being who once seemed to be Dreok quickly moved toward the edge of the city, regaining its form.

"Dreok! Stand down!" Chief Valdrek said, drawing his bow and nocking an arrow. The shapeshifting being did not slow at all, and Valdrek let fly, a thick arrow hitting dead center in the middle of its back. The arrow slowed as if passing through a wall of water, but otherwise seem to have no effect at all on Dreok. "My arrow passed straight through!"

"He won't get away so easily," Neredos said, sprinting after Dreok as he summoned several runes to mind. The heat transference rune was still fresh, and he drew this first, pulling on as much energy as he could from the surrounding air and what he could spare within his own body. Then he directed that heat with a rune to control the air, whipping that heat into a flamelike energy.

Wielding that energy like a whip, Neredos lashed out at the retreating shape shifter. The heat struck the shapeshifter and swirled around it, wrapping it in the lapping flames. The shapeshifter screamed as the fire consumed it.

"Neredos, no!" Valdrek shouted, true concern evident in his voice. But whatever his protest, it was far too late for Neredos to stop now. The being's entire body was nothing but ash in seconds from the intense heat.

"What was that? I've heard tales of some shapeshifter in the halls of The Order of the Mountain in Ultaka near the beginning of the war, but that . . ." Neredos shuddered as he thought of the way the being's body had shifted. "What was it?"

He hadn't been expecting an answer from Valdrek, and was surprised when the Elrok said quietly, "I believe the Gor have named them the Vhor."

"Unknown. Or perhaps 'unknowable'?" Neredos asked, testing the word on his tongue. He saw the almost distraught expression on the Elrok's face, and quickly reviewed his memories of what had just happened. "You knew the fire would kill him," Neredos accused.

Valdrek seemed startled to be spoken to, and he blinked twice before responding. "Yes. My clan encountered one in the early days of the war."

"You killed it?" Neredos asked.

"Of course," Valdrek replied after only a brief hesitation. "They are demons, are they not?" Then he smiled weakly. It was a familiar smile, one that Dreok had worn only a minute earlier.

Neredos took a step toward the Elrok, already reaching back toward the rune he'd summoned to channel heat. He closed the distance between them, ready to act a moment's notice. "You must understand my suspicion, Valdrek. You've been working closely with Dreok these past few days."

Valdrek dropped his grin, his hand clutching at the bow as if unsure if he should draw against Neredos. "Yes, of course. I simply viewed his lightened spirits regarding our mission to be refreshing among all this Human fatalism."

"You'll understand if I want to test you, don't you?" Neredos asked, then raised his hand, channeling heat into a small flame that rested above his palm.

"Test me, Neredos?" Valdrek asked, his eyes flickering down to the flame in Neredos' hand.

Neredos moved forward, channeling the flame as he had a moment earlier with Dreok. A tentacle-like appendage sprouted from Valdrek's side, weaving past Neredos' gathering flame to wrap around his neck. The tentacle put tremendous pressure on Neredo's windpipe and throat, and he was thrown forcefully backward.

He landed hard against the platform, the breath knocked from him. Before he could summon what little strength he had left, the tentacle rose above him, the appendage now thick and ridged with spikes like a mace. That mace descending toward his face was the last thing Neredos saw before the world faded to black.

"Neredos?" a familiar yet unrecognized voice said. "Neredos, are you okay?"

Neredos opened his eyes into a dark room. Everything was blurry, and his head spun with pain. He reached up to where he remembered being struck. The spot was tender, but dry except for sweat. When he looked at his hand, he was surprised to find it unbloodied.

"Where am I?" Neredos asked.

"You're in your council chamber. It was closer than your rooms," the voice explained. It was a female voice. Quallys? Dreok's second? As she continued speaking, her identity was confirmed. "You're lucky it was just a weak blow to the head. Enough to knock you unconscious but not kill you."

"Chief Valdrek?" Neredos asked, closing his eyes in an attempt to clear the fogginess and pain.

"The scout returned just as the Chief attacked you," Quallys said. "Then Valdrek shifted form and dove off the edge of the city, or so the scout reported. We're holding him for questioning until we hear your side of the story."

"Thank you for the healing. Do I have you to thank for that?" Neredos asked. "The head wound, I mean."

"Actually, no. That would be me," said another voice. This one was deeper, most likely masculine, and had a certain tonal quality that reminded him of someone, though he wasn't sure who.

"Who are you?" Neredos asked, opening his eyes and looking toward the source of the second voice. His vision was still slightly blurry, but he could make out some of the face's features. Despite this, he couldn't quite determine the speaker's identity. "Wait . . . I know your face. You're very familiar to me."

"My name is Odiran thulu'Khant, the third," the speaker said, stepping closer. Neredos' vision focused even more, and he could see the resemblance to his former associate. "You knew my father," Odiran continued. "Served with him until his death, or so I'm told."

"You're so young," Neredos observed. By his best guess, the boy wasn't yet twenty, though Odiran II had also appeared young considering how old his namesake must be.

"Just nineteen, sir," Odiran replied with a nod. "But despite my age, I lead a group of survivors who took refuge in the Tabrax sea caves. There are nearly one hundred thousand of us. It originally started with my youth militia group. Our adult officers died early in the war and I received command two and a half years ago."

"And how did you come to be here?" Neredos asked, struggling to a sitting position. He realized then than he was laying atop the council table, propped up, with his own folded cloak as a pillow.

"The scout brought him to see us," Quallys said, glaring at Odiran.

"I also witnessed the Elrok's attack, but it seems they don't trust me, either," Odiran replied with a shrug.

Neredos nodded and immediately regretted the gesture. He then waved to Quallys and said, "It's true that the Chief attacked me. Both reports are correct."

"Then we'll see to the scout's release at once," Quallys said, then gestured toward the door, indicating that Odiran should follow her out of the room.

"Might I have an audience with you alone, Neredos?" Odiran asked.

Neredos nodded and turned to Quallys. "It's all right. You can leave us."

"Are you certain?" Quallys asked, casting a wary eye over Odiran.

"Yes," Neredos replied. "I'm sure."

In truth he doubted the sincerity of his claim. Odiran was, after all, the son of a man whose death Neredos felt responsible for. But by that same token, Neredos couldn't help but feel that he owed Odiran an audience on account of his father, and that outweighed any need Neredos felt for security.

"Thank you for trusting me," Odiran said, walking to the other side of the room where a candle was burning low. The city had access to electricity through its reactors, but Neredos preferred that they not rely on it. There were reasons to keep the city's capabilities known to only a few, and especially away from someone who had just claimed to lead one hundred thousand people. They could take the city for their own without too much difficulty against the ten thousand Neredos had with him. He would have to thank Quallys later for following protocol with Odiran.

"I should warn you that there may be more of those shapeshifters hiding in your camp," Odiran continued, picking up the candle and holding it so Neredos could see. "I know there's one in mine, though I cannot discern their identity. To prove I am not the one . . ." he held his hand directly over the flame, long enough that it would burn anyone, then removed it.

"A wise precaution. Bring the candle here and I'll do the same," Neredos said, waving Odiran forward.

"There's no need," Odiran said, setting the candle down. "You bleed just fine, and that's just as good a test as fire. You should also know that I saved your life. Those shapeshifters produce a poison so virulent it can kill a man in minutes if left unchecked. That Elrok didn't just crack your skull, he made sure you'd die."

"How did you cure me then?" Neredos asked, eyes widening. There was mention of a mysterious poison that seemed to seep through demon-touched communities. Was this it?

"A bit of Lodani magic," Odiran replied. "My father raised me to pursue the family craft, and he even taught me a little of what you taught him about Gor magic. As I recall, there's not much Gor healing out there that's strong enough to handle anything too serious, but Lodani know more about herbs than most, and how to increase their potency through magic. You're lucky I carry my herb pouch with me everywhere. It hasn't done anything for those winged serpents though. That illness is beyond my abilities."

"You're very well-spoken for a man your age," Neredos said.

"I take after my father, and I know of your accomplishments as well, so I wonder why you're surprised," Odiran replied with a wry chuckle. "My father always spoke highly of you, and I idolized you when I was younger." His smile faded as his eyes tightened. "Of course, that changed after you abandoned your people."

"I abandoned a war we were fighting unnecessarily," Neredos corrected.

"It hardly matters now, doesn't it?" Odiran said after a moment, shrugging. "But I do have one more question for you, if you don't mind me asking."

Neredos nodded. "Very well."

"How did my father die? I know he died the day you tried to assassinate President Caliphar. They found his broken body on the street," Odiran said, meeting Neredos' gaze. His eyes were hard, but his face was otherwise emotionless as he asked, "I need to know, did you kill him?"

Neredos suppressed a shiver under that unnerving gaze. "You're as cold as your father," he said after a moment.

"Did you kill him?" Odiran pressed.

Neredos considered Odiran for a moment before answering and then made his decision based on the look in Odiran's eyes. "I caused his death. He died trying to capture me, but his death was an accident. He fell from the roof while I was escaping," he explained. "I do hold myself responsible, however. He would not have died had he not been chasing me, after all."

Odiran stood motionless for a moment, neither his eyes nor his expression betraying a hint of his true feelings. But then he began to nod, almost imperceptibly at first, followed by a couple firm ones. Odiran spoke, his voice as cold as his outward calm. "A lesser man would've lied to me. It's good to know you're the man of integrity you've always claimed to be."

Neredos blinked in surprise, then accepted Odiran's words with a humble bow of his head. "You are an unexpected find, Odiran," he said at last.

Odiran shook his head and put his hand up to stall Neredos. "Do not misunderstand me, Neredos. I will not forgive you for my father's death, nor your betrayal of our country, but I will work with you. I have enough stores of food to last a year, scavenged from every corner of the country. We've harvested every field left wild, and every storeroom between the southland and the north."

"So, there's nothing to be had here?" Neredos asked, disappointed. His vision started to blur again as a headache threatened to overwhelm him.

"We can give you shelter and feed you," Odiran said, smiling politely. "This war is on all our heads. Until it's over, we're all on the same side. But there is something you should know."

"What's that?"

"We have a fleet of ships hidden in those caves. Some of the old military craft, and hundreds of fishing vessels. The old wooden ones, that the Lodani still swear by." Odiran paused, looking for confirmation in Neredos' eyes.

"Why are you telling me this?" Neredos asked.

"My people—who include all that's left of the Lodani as far as I can tell—plan to move across the ocean to Ultaka," Odiran explained. "They say there's a stronger resistance there, and we think we'll be better off with numbers, provided we can find a way to protect our food sources, anyway."

"I have to say I'm impressed," Neredos said. "You've done quite well for such a young man."

Odiran chuckled at that, and Neredos was pleased to hear a bit of warmth in it. "Don't be. I may be the leader, but it's because I have twelve other community leaders who all help me, all much older than me and much more experienced. Don't think of me as just a figurehead," he hastened to add, "I'm capable, but we work together. That's what will win this war in the end."

"When do you plan on leaving?" Neredos asked, rising fully up from the council table. His head swayed a bit, but he managed to maintain his balance without falling back down.

"We were going to wait for the end of the storm season. That's two months away," Odiran said.

Neredos nodded, thought over the details for a moment, then asked, "Would you like aerial support?"

"I was hoping you'd offer," Odiran replied, grinning. He wasn't as cold as his father after all, Neredos realized as he studied the man's smile. It was natural on his face, even if it did make him seem five years younger. Perhaps that was why Odiran had adopted his father's reserved manner? To make him seem older in the eyes of his people? Maybe there was hope for this boy.

Enough hope that Neredos decided it was worth it to test his luck and he said, "I need to send some of that food back North to the Gor lands."

"That can be arranged," Odiran replied. "Especially if you can spare the soldiers to guard it in transit.

"We have ourselves an arrangement," Neredos said, extending his hand to Odiran.

The younger man clasped his arm and shook twice, firmly. "I look forward to working with you, Neredos." As they released each other, Neredos met Odiran's eyes again, and a shiver traveled down his spine. No, this boy was beyond hope. He was just as damaged as his father, just better at hiding it.

Neredos would have to keep a wary eye indeed.

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