Tragic Genius

by Cynus

Chapter 21

"I realize it's not all that pertinent, but was Odiran thulu'Khant really a Fedain?" Neredos asked. "To my knowledge, it was never confirmed."

"He was. Half, anyway," Ghayle replied. "Both of his parents were half-bloods. That was common among the Lodani Fedain."

"So, the Lodani healing rituals he refused to teach me?" Neredos asked.

"Some of them are real, but usually it was showmanship so that he could use his powers," Ghayle said. "It was not unlike what I did with Kixhan. A distraction good enough to keep people from asking questions."

"That explains why I was never able to duplicate it," Neredos said, shaking his head. "No matter how many times I tried."

"It's ironic that he saved your life, considering how he later wanted to destroy it," Prism observed.

Neredos pursed his lips in thought, then replied, "Odiran was always pragmatic. It's one of the traits Salidar shared with him, which is probably why Salidar was able to set things in motion to bring about the end of my reign. Odiran would've pulled it off, were it not for the whole immortality thing."

"I wasn't around to see that, so I don't really know how it played out. Salidar wasn't exactly keen on telling me, either, when he freed me from the pillar. I think telling him I was your friend ruined the chances of him trusting me," Prism replied with a grin.

"Salidar was a better man than most," Dogo said, and Telzath nodded silently beside him.

"I agree with that," Veil said. "Wholeheartedly, actually."

All eyes but Ghayle's turned toward Veil with surprise, but she didn't meet any of them. Not sure what to say to her, Prism turned to Dogo instead and said, "That's an interesting claim, Dogo, considering from my understanding you used to be one of his gladiators."

Dogo gave him a sidelong glance and said, "That was a very complicated situation, and I ask you not to judge it, when you don't know what happened."

"I was the true culprit in Dogo's misfortune, Prism, not Salidar," Veil said. "It's true that Salidar had his gladiators, but he was largely a fair and honorable ruler to his people."

"And what of his desire to unseat Neredos?" Prism asked.

Veil shrugged and avoided Neredos' gaze as she said, "Neredos was an unfit ruler."

"Knowing what I know now, I can't disagree with that," Neredos said, sighing.

"You're usually not so quick to judge, Prism. Why are you so eager to believe Salidar an evil man?" Telzath asked. It was the first time he had spoken in a while, and Prism turned toward him with surprise.

Prism took a moment to consider his feelings and then said, "Perhaps because I saw so much of Odiran in him. And perhaps because I still have not forgiven the Vhor for what happened. Considering Salidar's association with Fasha—or Naxthul, as I suppose I should call him now—I have a hard time seeing Salidar as being anything but evil."

"For what happened to whom?" Telzath asked.

"He means Grim," Veil said.

"Things didn't have to work out the way they did. He lost so much of himself when he was sent down his dark path," Prism added, looking down at the ground as he lost himself in thought.

"He wasn't the only one," Veil said. "We all paid our prices during those last few years."

Without proper mounts, the journey to the southern edge of civilization—if it could even still be called such—took several weeks. The group had to dodge around the patrols of their allies, which extended the time, but at least they knew where those patrols would be.

They were now five days South of the southern battle lines and making good time, now that they were only watching for demons. Veil was pleased with this, as they would soon reach the Bay of Tebris and make a choice of whether to cross the water or skirt around it. Either decision would put them into the Dobraeg, and that much closer to their eventual destination.

As soon as they crested the next hill, however, Veil's heart fell. She knew the spot well, though it looked nothing like it had when she had last been here. Before them was a flat plain, and in the middle of the grasslands was a field of hewn stones, all large and imposing. They had once been the walls and ancient structures of Khadrun. It had been less than a decade since the city was destroyed, though the state of the ruins made it appear much longer.

No trace of wood remained, no steel or iron. All had been destroyed by the demons when they'd taken the city and killed all those inside. Tellen Farr had died defending this city. Did his bones lay beneath the stones, or had the demons destroyed those too?

"We would do well to make camp amongst those stones," Morga said. "They'll give us shelter from the elements, and a place to remain hidden should any demon patrols pass by in the night."

Bile rose in the back of Veil's throat, and she resisted the urge to protest. She knew the truth of Morga's words, even if she didn't want to accept them. There wasn't better shelter for miles, and the straightest path to the Bay lay across those plains.

"Have we reached Khadrun already?" Prism asked. "I thought we were another day out, at least."

"No, that's it all right," Grim said. "A monument to why we're out here. It's almost artful, the way it makes you feel like the war has been going on much longer than it has."

"I could do with a lot less of this kind of art in the world," Neredos said. "We should do everything we can to make sure that this doesn't happen again."

"It will, though," Grim said. "Whether by demonic armies or our own self-destructive tendencies, this will happen again. Though there's no sense in dwelling on the inevitable when we have a task to accomplish now. I agree with Morga; we should camp there."

Veil was the last one down the slope, watching the others make their way toward the ruins and wishing she could go in a different direction. She hated watching Grim most of all. He stepped so lightly, seemingly unaffected by the emotional weight of the graveyard they were fast approaching.

She wondered how Prism dealt with it; the constant cynicism and jaded worldview. Grim had always been such a lighthearted and friendly boy before Seldorym died, and even during his years of moroseness and teenage angst he'd maintained a love for the world and its peoples. Now, Veil thought, the only thing Grim seemed to love was Prism, her, and fighting this war.

She worried about her brother in ways that she had not since she tried to cure his depression. He had changed over the years, and he was changing still. It was almost as if the demons he fought were infecting his soul, justifying their existence in his mind. Would there come a day when Grim would side with the demons against everyone else?

These thoughts continue to plague her as they crossed the plain and reached the ruins. She heard laughter and stared dumbfounded at Grim and Prism sharing a joke with Morga. How could they desecrate the memory of this place? How could they laugh in a place that brought her only tears?

As they set camp between two large boulders that had once been part of the inner wall of Khadrun, Veil continued to keep to herself and observe the others. The Gor were in an argument about who could throw a knife more accurately, and they were setting up a small range nearby for them to test their claims. Grim and Prism had moved their bedrolls a short distance away, mostly out of sight from the others. They appeared to be in the middle of foreplay beneath their blankets.

Morga and his niece stood atop the boulders on either side of camp, watching the darkness for signs of demons. At least they were not treating this journey or this place with a lack of solemnity. But Veil was close to neither of them, and she didn't trust that either felt the way she did. Veil wanted sobriety, for the others to acknowledge the pain seeped intp the ruins around them without distracting themselves with games or sex. She wanted this place to matter.

"Here, you should eat something," Neredos said, sliding into place beside her. He handed her a piece of dried meat and another of fruit. "You look like you're going to be sick. It's because of the ruins, isn't it?"

Veil nodded, glad she had at least one person she could rely on to put her mind at ease. "I don't like being here. I think . . . I wish we'd kept going instead of staying."

"This is where your husband died, isn't it?" Neredos asked.

"Not my husband, but my lover, yes," Veil replied. "We could've never been married, at least not while I was leading the war effort. At the time, there was still too much bad blood between Human and Fedain. The rebellion had just ended, and we were still fighting some of the rebels. If I wanted to gather people to my cause, it couldn't be known that I had a human lover."

Neredos nodded. "I see. I think it's interesting the way the war has blurred the lines between what is considered proper and what is not for most people. I think if your relationship had been public, it would've brought us closer together."

"Perhaps," Veil said. "But that hardly matters now, does it?"

"When this is all over, you and I should stick together, I think," Neredos said. "We can rebuild society in a way that prevents these things from happening. We'll allow people to love more freely and encourage people to work together for a common good."

"So you don't share my brother's worldview?" Veil asked.

Neredos shook his head. "While I see his point, I have always believed in our ability to do better than we did in the past. The reason why I built the Everbright City was to bring people together. I wanted to show people the wonders that could be constructed if we simply put our minds to them and convince people that the wars were unnecessary. I believed that could unite the world in peace through technology."

"And now?" Veil asked. "Has the war changed your perspective?"

"Well, I don't think technology works," Neredos said. "I'm no longer naïve enough to think that just because we can create things to make our lives better it doesn't mean we'll use them that way. The technologies I created were used by my government to wage war. Sometimes even against their own people in the mining revolts just before the demon invasion."

"So, what do you think the answer is?" Veil asked.

"I think we need symbols, like Khadrun, to remind us of the prices paid by those in the past. I think we need monuments to our folly, and to teach the lessons that we've learned over the past eleven years." Neredos sighed, staring off into the darkness. It took Veil a moment to realize that his gaze had drifted over to Grim and Prism, now fully in the throes of their lovemaking. "Sometimes what people need is an escape, whether through drink, sex, or any other vice you can name. I think those escapes are good in the short term, but they don't solve the problems. You need both vice and vision to achieve peace in proper balance."

"I need to find some way to heal you," Veil said, resting her head against Neredos' arm. "I need to find some way of keeping that beautiful mind of yours intact. You're the only one who doesn't make me feel alone, and I don't mean that in some romantic way. I love you, my friend, and I hope you know that I will always stay with you. No matter what happens."

"We'll reach the end of this, Veil. We'll see it through and will save them all. Everyone who wants to be saved, anyway," Neredos replied. He lifted his arm and stretched it around Veil's shoulders. This was the first time he had ever done anything like this. Though Veil felt nothing but friendship for Neredos, she wanted to collapse into his arms and never let go.

"But how much of us will remain to be saved?" Veil murmured.

"Don't you mean 'how many'?" Neredos asked.

Veil stared into the darkness, barely able to make out Grim's form. "No, I definitely mean 'how much'."

A small pebble jostled Prism awake. It still surprised him what some people could do with magic, though he didn't know why he hadn't learned that lesson yet. The pebble had been marked with an Elrok symbol by Revash, Morga's niece, and when it struck its target it bounced in place several times. It had almost enough force to cause bruising, but it certainly did its purpose at waking people up without words.

A silent rousting meant only one thing; demons. Prism pulled away from Grim, quickly making sure all his clothing and armor was in place after their lovemaking from before their rest. Grim was struck by a pebble a second later, and he bolted upright with the fluid grace of a cat.

Several grunts sounded through the camp as the others awoke to Revash's signal. Prism was already on his feet and clambering up the boulder toward Morga's position, as it was the nearest vantage point. Grim was right behind him, and together they joined the stoic Elrok as he looked toward the southern horizon.

"Where are they?" Prism whispered.

Grim pointed toward the horizon, his eyesight at night was far superior to Prism's own. Prism followed Grim's finger but could see nothing but grass waving in the breeze and wisps of clouds in the sky. If there were demons in the distance, they were outside of human sight.

But Prism trusted his companions. He had fought alongside them both for many years and knew their strengths. Morga's eyesight was better than any other's in the group, and if he and Revash had spotted demons, there were demons.

"Since I can't see them, I'm going to go see what Neredos wants to do," Prism said. Before he could slide back down the boulder, Grim caught his arm.

"It doesn't look like there are too many," he said.

Morga confirmed that with a nod. "And I'm not sure they've spotted us, which could mean that they'll pass by without incident. My recommendation is that we only fight them if we have to."

"I agree with that," Grim said, "though I recommend we prepare an ambush just in case."

Prism nodded and returned down the boulder, heading toward Neredos. He passed by Veil who was gathering up provisions in the center of camp and gave her a reassuring nod, though with the partial cloud cover, Prism wasn't certain she was even looking at him. It was too dark to tell.

As he joined Neredos at Revash's position, he found one of the Gor had joined the Elrok as well. Nijal, judging by the shape. He could just make out the outline of her breasts in the shadows. Neredos and Revash were conversing in quiet tones that Prism could barely hear as he arrived.

". . . And I think they're headed in a different direction," Revash said. "But we should still be wary in case they change course."

"I agree, and you were right to wake us," Neredos said, "how far are we into the first watch?"

"It's been about an hour by your human reckoning," Revash replied.

"Neredos, I checked in with Morga," Prism said, joining the conversation. He quickly relayed the recommendations from Grim and Morga, then waited as Neredos mulled over the information.

Before Neredos responded, Nijal joined the conversation. "If the numbers are so few, then perhaps we should simply dispatch them to be safe. If they're on patrol, they could double back at any time and catch us from behind."

"That is a good point," Neredos said, nodding.

"However," Prism said, "unless you want to take time to hide the bodies, we'd also be leaving a trail behind us."

Neredos growled in frustration. "Every decision has consequence, I suppose." He turned to Revash again and said, "You're sure they're headed in a different direction?"

"They're headed east, at the moment," Revash replied. "My guess is that they are heading to join up with a larger group."

"The fighting has been thickest on our southeastern front, recently," Prism said, "so that would be consistent."

Neredos hesitated for just a moment and said, "Then we move south and west, passing behind them. We'll keep Revash and Morga checking periodically to make sure the demons don't change direction. Once we reach the southern edge of Khadrun, we'll wait until the demons have completely passed. Then, we'll cross the plains into the crags above the Bay, or we'll set camp if we still have time to sleep."

"You could try to sleep more now, if you wish," Revash said. "The night is still young, and no one has had much rest yet."

"I don't think that's an option," Neredos said. "Who would be able to sleep with the demons nearby? It's better that we make use of our time and cover more ground."

"If that's your final answer, I will relay that to Veil, Morga, and Grim," Prism said.

"And I'll go tell the other Gor," Nijal said.

After receiving Neredos's confirmation, Prism crossed the camp again, pausing only briefly to let Veil know of the plan. She nodded once but otherwise did not respond, simply returning to packing up camp. She'd expected this turn of events, or at least had anticipated that they might need to leave in a hurry. The only thing not packed up were the bedrolls, and she instantly moved to one of those and began rolling it as Prism left her.

When Prism returned to the top of the boulder with Grim, however, he found Morga absent. Grim's eyes remained on the southern horizon, and confusion seeped through the bond. "Where did Morga go?" Prism asked.

"He thought he saw movement," Grim replied. "Possibly just an animal. He shot at it—which of course means he hit it—and he went to investigate."

"Why did he go alone?" Prism asked. "There could be anything out there."

Grim shrugged. "I can still see him if it makes you feel better. There's enough light for me. I'd know if he ran into any trouble," he said. "Besides, someone needs to keep an eye on the demons."

Prism decided to keep from mentioning that Revash was doing that just fine from her vantage point and tried to bury the sourness he felt. Of course, that was impossible with bond between him and Grim, and he felt Grim's sigh more than heard it.

Prism had also been noticing certain changes in his lover over the past decade. Grim was too eager to take risks, always rushing into battle or dangerous situations without care of his own survival. Prism knew Grim's emotions rather well, and some of Grim's justifications for these actions left Prism wanting. Sometimes he felt it was sheer recklessness, sometimes it was extreme confidence in his own ability, and sometimes Grim was simply willing to die.

Letting Morga go off on his own was one of the first, with a little bit of the second. But Grim's desire to go on this crazy quest had been part of the third. He hadn't truly cared whether anyone had agreed to go with him—though Prism's presence on the journey was a guarantee from the beginning— but at Prism's insistence he had brought it up in council instead of simply leaving. Grim had intended to go to the gate on his own and either die or solve the problem, but preferably both.

"You can stop that, you know," Grim said suddenly, drawing Prism from his thoughts.

"Stop what?" Prism asked.

"You can stop worrying about me," Grim replied, his eyes remaining fixed on the darkness. "Did you forget that I can sense your emotions, or are you just playing dumb?"

Prism sighed and said, "I just don't like how dark your thoughts have become lately."

"You wanted me to accept that killing that man was the right thing to do," Grim said. "You wanted me to accept the very first murder I committed, to be at peace with it. It's been twelve years now, and I can still remember exactly how it felt. Since then I've killed so many demons I've lost count. Every single time I kill one, I hope, for just a moment, that it'll be the one that redeems me. That allows me to let go of killing something natural. I keep hoping that saving people will make it all worthwhile."

"You have done more for our people than almost any—" Prism began, but Grim cut him off with a raised hand.

"I don't dispute that. I never would, but my motives are as selfish as ever. You wanted me to accept, and so I have. I am a murderer, and murder to save people doesn't make any difference," Grim replied. "It does not erase the fact that I have taken a life, and that I cannot restore it. I have taken the choice from another, made him incapable of choosing any more, beyond that point. Killing a man is the same as enslaving him, except that it's a bondage they can never escape."

"I didn't want you to accept the murder," Prism replied quietly. "I just wanted you to love yourself, and to know that you are worthy of that love."

Grim chuckled. It was a sad sound, though there was a hint of mirth to it; a challenge to the melancholy of life. "I love you, Prism. I have loved you since the moment we met, and I have never stopped. If a thousand men came to kill you tomorrow, I would kill them all first, without hesitation. It wouldn't matter if you'd committed crimes against them worthy of death, because inevitably I am a selfish being, incapable of letting harm come to my most precious love. What does that make me? How can I love someone so selfish?"

"It's not selfish to protect others who cannot protect themselves," Prism replied forcefully.

Instead of responding to Prism's statement, Grim pointed forward and said, "Morga is returning. He's coming in quick, so maybe he has something for us."

Even as he finished speaking, Morga bounded up the edge of the boulder and landed in front of Prism. Instead of greeting them, he continued forward, waving for them to follow. Together they descended to the camp, where Neredos was helping Veil with the last two bedrolls.

"What is it, Morga?" Neredos asked as the Elrok chief slowed and stopped.

Morga lifted an arrow. "Make a flame so we can see," he said.

Neredos summoned a flame and raised it to the arrow. Both head and shaft glistened with a dark liquid in the light. "What is it? Blood? Did you shoot something?"

"That isn't blood," Morga replied. "I shot at what looked like a deer. I thought that we might be able to cook it to feed us for the next while. I was certain I'd hit it dead in the heart, but it sprinted off. I went after it, but when I found my arrow . . ." he trailed off, staring at the missile in his hand. "When I found it, there wasn't a scent of blood at all, and the tracks I found a short while later . . . they didn't belong to a deer, or any other animal native to this area."

"What are you thinking?" Neredos asked.

"The Vhor," Grim said. "It has to be."

Neredos' face paled in the dim firelight. "Pack up and get moving!" he shouted, letting the light fade. "We make for the crags and kill everything in our way. Move!"

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