Tragic Genius

by Cynus

Chapter 25

Detachment was the only way Veil survived her battle with the demons. They came, again and again, scrambling up the mountain path after Neredos and Revash. Only she and Prism stood in their way, and if Veil had tried to keep her thoughts fully engaged, she would've run for cover and never looked back.

Instead, she let go of her mind, relying purely on instinct. She did not move like a warrior, or with the fluid grace of a dancer, but her body still remembered how to move in a tense situation. Long nights spent in the hospital helping patients who arrived with life-threatening injuries had taught her how to weave around obstacles and people. Those times had also helped her hone her instincts, allowing her to know when someone needed her help.

Now that Prism knew that Grim was alive, he'd kept his head during the combat. Despite this, even his skill could not protect him completely from harm. For every time that Veil put her hands on a demon to slay it, she'd put them on Prism, to make sure he stayed alive.

The demons never seemed to stop coming. Those on the ground continued to fight them at the bottleneck in the trail, where Veil and Prism had retreated to. The flying demons moved past them, usually, heading for Revash and Neredos on their ascent. Veil and Prism could do nothing about those, and had to hope that their friends would be able to handle any demons that made it past their position.

Then, all at once, there were no demons at all. Veil stared at the carnage around her in surprise, wondering what could possibly have happened. There was no way they had managed to slay all of them. And the avalanche had only removed a quarter of the threat, if that.

"Where . . ." Prism started to ask, panting as he stood next to her, then pointed toward the horizon. "There!" he said, his tone showing deep concern.

The bulk of the demons were moving off, away from the valley. They were not staying to fight and protect whatever secret Mount Varun concealed. The only question was where they were headed.

"They must be going to join the war," Prism observed, as if he had heard her unspoken question. "I wonder why . . ." He shook his head as he let his words die.

"Why they're not staying to fight?" Veil asked, finishing the thought for him. "I was wondering the same thing."

Prism was still shaking his head, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. "It just doesn't make sense. We're still alive, and we're here. Why wouldn't they finish us off? We could've never stood against that! We didn't stand a chance!"

Veil stared wordlessly at the departing swarm. She didn't know what to say, as she didn't understand it either. Many of the actions of the past few weeks had made no sense at all; if the demons truly wanted them dead, they were making a poor show of it.

"Come on, Prism," Veil said after a while. "There were still some demons that passed us, and Revash and Neredos may still need our help. This isn't over yet, no matter what their agenda may be."

Which way was up? Grim tried remembering everything he had ever heard about being trapped in an avalanche. His education hadn't really covered that, and even though they'd fought in the mountains throughout the war, he'd only once witnessed an avalanche, and that was from a distance.

He tasted blood in his mouth and spat, spittle landing on the snow in front of him. I guess that way is down, he thought, then tried to turn around. By the time he had righted himself in the small pocket of snow, the internal cuts that had caused his bleeding had healed.

There was something very hot near him; an Ibrix demon, most likely. Grim idly considered whether an Ibrix demon needed to breathe or not, and then tried to calculate how long it would take for the typical heat produced by an Ibrix to melt its way out of the snow. He liked to run calculations of that nature, as they helped him focus whenever he needed to put his mind at ease.

This was surely one of those times. Grim did not like tight spaces, though he had learned to adjust to them. He knew he had to keep his calm, because if he didn't, he would suffocate long before the Ibrix demon melted its way to him.

He dug at the snow above him. It shifted and fell around him, and he did his best to force it towards his feet. Compacting the snow as well as he could, he repeated the process, constantly digging upward. The cold was numbing, especially to his muscles, still sore from dodging through the demons.

He took a moment and allowed the energy he had absorbed from killing demons to heal him slightly. He tried to keep as much of that energy in reserve as he could, as he never knew when he would need it in greater supply. Ever since Wayar had nearly killed him, Grim had been particularly cautious about using his energy unnecessarily. They had fought very few demons since then, relative to the rest of the war, but Grim had conserved what he had stolen, nonetheless. It was only practical.

After several minutes of digging, his fingers hit ice. It was a large chunk of heavily compacted material, and he could not dig through it. Frustrated, he dug around it, searching for its edge so that he could continue his ascent. At last, his fingers found a pocket of snow, and as he dug his hand into it, the fresh powder collapsed over him, burying him somewhat.

He could now see sunlight glittering off the ice wall next to, and above him. It filled him with warmth, but then a new reality hit. He was between two large pieces of jagged ice that formed a fissure. He tried to climb, but his fingers slipped on the slick surface. The edge of the fissure above him was too far out of reach for him to jump. He was stuck.

The reality of Grim's claustrophobia began to concern him. The walls of ice were far too close and confining, now that he no longer had a means of escaping his prison. He'd been made for movement and had always needed to stretch and have room to dance. If he could not figure his way out soon, panic would set in, and then there would be no telling what would happen.

Another idea came to him, and he reached out to Prism. He doubted his lover would be able to come to him anytime soon, as he was likely still involved with the demons and helping Neredos. Nevertheless, if Prism knew that he was alive, eventually Grim would be rescued, as long as Prism stayed alive. That was something, at least, to hold the panic at bay.

When he reached into the bond, however, it felt different than it had before. It was dull, subdued, like a distant light in the fog. He knew Prism was alive, but the last time he had felt this far away they had been many miles apart, which had only happened a few times throughout the course of the war. How could Prism have gone so far away in such a short time?

But at least Prism was alive, that was something positive to focus on. Grim had to hope that Prism would also realize the same. Maybe it was simply the magic suppressing field around Mount Varun that had interfered with their bond. Perhaps, Grim thought, but that did little to serve him now.

"Are you alive in there?" It was a familiar voice. Nijal, perhaps? The snow muffled the sound somewhat, distorting it, but as he looked up, he could see the outline of someone standing above him.

"Yes, I'm down here!" Grim shouted. "I can't get a grip on this ice, though. Do you have any rope or something to help me climb out of here?"

A large branch appeared at the top of the hole, just out of reach. Grim did his best to dig his heels into the ice beneath him, preparing to jump. "I hope you have a solid grip, because you're going to have to bear all my weight for a second before I get hold of the top of the wall."

"I'm braced; go for it," his would-be rescuer replied.

Deciding to trust those words, Grim jumped up between the two chunks of ice. His fingers wrapped around the branch and held on tight. With surprising strength, his rescuer started to pull, and Grim braced himself against the wall, using it to aid his ascent. Within a few seconds, he had hold of the lip at the top of the fissure, and let go of the branch to pull himself out.

He found Nijal waiting for him, but only Nijal. How had she managed to pull him out on her own? She had never seemed particularly strong, and the lack of bracing marks in the snow only added to the question.

"Where are the others?" Grim asked. "Did they make it to the mountain?"

"I'm not sure," Nijal replied. "But we should try to find them."

Grim looked around, his eyes adjusting to the light. Sometime while he'd been buried under the snow, the clouds cleared away, and sunlight illuminated everything. He became increasingly aware of how quiet it was. There was no movement at all, and he couldn't see a demon anywhere except for the few broken forms he could see poking out of the snow.

"Where are the demons?" Grim asked. "We couldn't have possibly caught them all with the avalanches. I doubt we even caught a quarter of them, and most of the flying ones should've escaped entirely."

Nijal shrugged, her face showing similar confusion. "I don't know. When I pulled myself out, I—"

Grim closed the distance between them in a second, placing his hand on Nijal's, expecting one of two outcomes. Either he would thank her for rescuing him, leaving his suspicions unfounded, or . . .

He snarled, trying to maintain his grip as he sought to destroy the Vhor in his grasp. The feeling of the malleable life force beneath his fingers was unmistakable. He had felt the same when he destroyed the Vhor impersonating Morga, and it filled Grim with indomitable rage.

But, unlike then, this Vhor was not held between two Fedain at once. It deftly slipped from Grim's grasp, morphing its body into ooze—despite the damage Grim was inflicting upon it—and slipping between Grim's fingers like water. The Vhor then slithered backwards across the snow like a side-winding snake, easily staying out of Grim's grasp even as the Fedain pursued it.

Grim, realizing the futility of his efforts to catch the Vhor, stopped to strategize. He took stock of his surroundings, trying to figure out some way to maneuver the Vhor into a trap. But there was only scattered debris nearby, and a mountain slope now far out of reach.

"Oh, you won't get me quite as easily as you managed to get Wayar or Morga," the Vhor said, chuckling as he shifted form, briefly appearing as Wayar and then as Morga, until finally settling on a male Fedain visage that Grim did not recognize. "On that note, I do wish you'd stop killing my friends."

"Demons don't have friends," Grim said flatly.

The Vhor sighed and said, "You understand very little, Grimfaeth."

"Who are you? What are you?"

"I am the one who leads this army. That is all you need know for now," the Vhor replied with a flourish of a bow. "As for what I am, that is something you already know. I'm a Vhor, and I'm first amongst the Vhor. I believe, from what little I know of your history, that you once knew my friend Khalis."

Grim's face darkened at the mention of the other demon's name. He remembered Khalis well. That demon had once castrated him, claiming it was for some higher purpose. Grim believed that had been the start of everything, the moment the world broke. "I will kill you," he growled.

"You can try. But for that you'd have to catch me. A bit of a flaw in your Fedain murder tactics, wouldn't you agree?" The Vhor replied, chuckling. "But there's no reason to make this personal, no matter what you did to Khalis."

"You taunt me," Grim said, "and you expect me not to take this personal?"

"I do taunt you, and perhaps that is unfair of me," the Vhor replied, shrugging. "But the question is, why do I go through the trouble when I could just kill you?"

"You can try. But for that you'd have to catch me. A bit of a flaw in your Vhor murder tactics, wouldn't you agree?" Grim said with a snarl.

"We've reached an impasse then," the Vhor replied, smirking. "Unfortunate."

"Why have you come here?" Grim asked testily.

"My dear boy . . . you ask entirely the wrong questions. If I wanted you to know, I would've already told you. Instead, perhaps you should ask why I saved you?" The Vhor replied.

Without hesitation, Grim said, "Why did you save me?"

The Vhor recoiled, surprise etched into his features. "Interesting . . . I'd have thought you'd forgo that question, since I led you into it."

"You're more likely to give me information if I play your game," Grim replied.

"Game?" The Vhor asked, grinning. "Oh, this is hardly a game."

"Answer the question then."

"I saved you, because I want you to live," the Vhor replied simply.

Grim's face twitched at the barely contained rage within him. "Why are you here?" he asked.

"To save you," the Vhor said.

Grim spat on the snow at his feet. "You bore me, demon."

"And you entertain me. But I'm afraid I can't stay. I have demons to command, and humans to kill," the Vhor replied, glancing toward Mount Varun. "One human in particular, actually."

"What are you—" Grim started, but something slammed into the back of his head, rendering him unconscious. Instead of answers, he received only darkness.

Neredos hoped Revash was okay. He hadn't seen her in nearly an hour, not since he crested the last ridge. As the better climber, she had been ahead of him at first, establishing the path for both of them. By following her movements as exactly as he could, he had climbed this mountain faster than he had ever climbed a mountain before. Revash was a true testament to her Elrok heritage and proved every legend about them to be correct.

But then the demons had come upon them, and the dynamic between them changed. Neredos had crested a rise and a hatchet whizzed past him, catching a Quay demon in the throat. A series of head-sized boulders follow the hatchet, each one smashing into a new demon.

Neredos had paused, turning around to draw runes in the air, when he realized that magic did not work here. Instead, he stared dumbly at the demons for a moment until Revash had shouted for him to continue without her. She must have held them off, for not a single demon had followed Neredos' path.

Every so often he would gaze over his shoulder, seeking some sign of either his friends or the demons. The valley seemed almost empty, other than the debris left over from the avalanche. It was too quiet, almost somber, like walking through a cemetery.

That feeling did not sit well with him, but at least there did not appear to be any enemies. In some ways, that reality only added to his anxiety. Whatever fate awaited him at the top of the mountain could be far worse than a valley full of demons. How would he face one of the Vhor without his magic?

These thoughts weighed on him as he climbed, but still he made his ascent without any hesitation in his steps. He would do what had to be done, as he always had, and as he always would. He would do it for Alazyn, and for the world that she had loved. The world they had always wanted to explore together, though they'd never had the opportunity.

Though he might walk into death itself at the end of this climb, he could do nothing else.

As he passed through a series of boulders, he arrived at a flat area; a giant slab of rock laying nearly level on the mountain slope. Immediately before him sat a human man, dressed in the simple leathers of a hunter. Despite the chill wind that graced the mountaintop, the man wore no cloak or coat. His eyes held the appearance of ageless wisdom, though his face was youthful, and there was only a bit of grey in his otherwise golden blonde hair.

Behind the man lay a corpse; a skeleton, really. Whatever flesh had belonged to its owner, it had been stripped away over the years it had lain there. The bones were blackened, as if they had been burned or rotted. In the center of the skeleton's chest was a spike of shining metal.

Magic emanated from the body, strong enough that Neredos could almost see it, but only as substantially as catching movement out of the corner of one's eye. The magic went off in six directions, sparking memories of primal energies buried somewhere in Neredos' soul. Destruction. Connection. Movement. Stillness. Cyclicity. Form. All six concepts danced within Neredos' head, leaving him momentarily dazed.

"You must be Neredos. I was told to expect you," the sitting man said.

"Who are you?" Neredos replied as he returned to his senses.

"My name is Tagren," the man replied.

"That name is unfamiliar to me," Neredos said cautiously. "Are you the leader of the Vhor?"

"I am First," Tagren replied, smiling warmly. "That should be enough."

"Are you here to stop me?" Neredos asked.

Tagren raised an eyebrow. "Stop you from what?"

"From closing the gate," Neredos replied.

"I'm here to guard the gate," Tagren said, shrugging.

"Your accent is thick. I don't recognize it," Neredos observed, trying to decide what to make of this strange individual. "All the other Vhor adopted our accents."

Tagren extended his shrug and said, "They were and are impersonating others. I am not."

So this man was a Vhor, Neredos thought. Or at least, that's what the words seemed to imply to Neredos. He would have to step lightly here, to ensure his own safety.

"Will you let me pass?" Neredos asked.


Neredos struggled at the immediacy of the answer. Whatever this was, it was not a game to Tagren. "So, I'm going to have to kill you," Neredos said slowly.

"Do you have a means of doing so?" Tagren asked.

Neredos shook his head after a moment. "No."

"You admit your shortcomings freely. Interesting. Few would be willing to do so in such a situation as this," Tagren replied, his smile widening.

Neredos stared at him, still off-balance and unsure of how to proceed. "I get the sense that you are not like the others," he said neutrally.

Tagren conceded the point with a nod. "Indeed, I am not."

"But you lead them," Neredos stated.

"I am First," Tagren replied, "that is enough."

"What happens now? We were told you were waiting for us. Am I supposed to pass some sort of test?" Neredos asked.

Tagren rose fluidly to his feet. The move happened so quickly that Neredos involuntarily took a step backward. But Tagren made no aggressive moves, and simply asked, "Who are you, Neredos? What manner of man will cross the world to save others? What manner of man would face the mightiest demons by himself?"

Neredos pondered those questions for a moment. This was not what he'd expected at all, upon reaching the gate and facing the leader of the Vhor. He had expected a fight, or at least a trap. But this? Neredos shook his head to clear away the excess thoughts.

Just because there wasn't a fight yet, didn't mean there wouldn't be one. Just because he hadn't seen the trap, didn't mean there wasn't one. Neredos retained both those facts in the back of his mind but focused on the present instead. Whatever was happening now was the most important thing, and if he paid attention, he could spot potential traps and enemies.

And so, he decided to answer the question as honestly as he could, since he'd yet to see any reason to treat Tagren as his enemy. "I am one who simply sees the threads of life and wishes to unite them in peace."

Tagren regarded him with a bemused smirk, then chuckled softly. He struggled to find the words as he said, "How . . . cryptic . . . you remind me of someone."

"What is the purpose of all of this? Why have you killed so many people?" Neredos asked, risking a more daring question on account of the apparent joviality of his host.

"I have not killed anyone, not for many thousands of years," Tagren said, his laughter fading though his smile remained.

"Your armies then."

"They are not my armies," Tagren replied. And then his smile faded, and the barest hint of anguish appeared in Tagren's eyes. Neredos recognized the emotion, as he had felt it himself. It was what Neredos felt often, when he thought about the state of the world, or the heartbreak of losing Alazyn. For the first time, Neredos was certain that this Vhor could feel genuine human emotion.

Soft, mournful musical notes accompanied each of Tagren's words as if it were a symphony playing a graveyard dirge for mice. That anguish was real, deep, and bled from Tagren's soul like wet ink on parchment. "Perhaps, at the beginning, they were my armies after a fashion. Yes, they were certainly my friends. But the army is made as much from the bones of your dead as it is from mine. We are connected in this, you see. The whole world is connected in this."

"I don't understand," Neredos said, and then realized he was crying. He did not know why and decided to blame his madness.

"You will," Tagren said, then turned around, waving Neredos forward. His next words carried every bit as much weight as the ones before, though now instead of anguish, there was nothing but reverence. "Tread lightly, King Neredos. You walk on hallowed ground."

Neredos stepped onto the flat shelf of rock, following Tagren toward the body with the stake impaled through its chest. Tagren stood back a few feet and gestured toward the body, indicating that Neredos should continue. As Neredos stood over the skeleton, he became even more aware of how much power was emanating from it. Whoever this person had been, they must've been very powerful indeed.

"This is the gate?" Neredos asked, though his eyes answered the question for him. He followed the six nearly imperceptible streams of magic as they radiated away from the body. One pooled nearby, and the other five continued off into the distance, creating fissures of energy in the sky that seemed out of phase with Neredos and his reality. Perhaps those fissures had once had physical manifestations and appeared as tears in reality, but now they were only visible to Neredos because of his experience with magic.

"I do not know how to close it, so do not ask. I am here to observe, not interfere," Tagren said.

"Why?" Neredos asked, shaking his head. "I still don't understand. Grim, no!" As Neredos looked up from the body, he saw Grim moving quickly across the rock toward them. He reached Tagren in a second, and placed his hand against the exposed flesh of his arm.

"The demon threat will soon end, heralded by your blood," Grim said forcefully.

Tagren convulsed for a moment, and then just before he stopped moving entirely, he said, "Taebra to vanith, Naxthul. Agovi na Ghayle?"

"Yuthan, Tagren," Grim whispered back.

And then Tagren's body collapsed into a puddle of thick liquid, soaking the clothes he had been wearing. That, in and of itself, seemed unusual to Neredos, as most of the Vhor had not worn clothing except when necessary. But the sight of Grim was stranger still. How had this man managed to not only escape the demons below, but reach him here so quickly?

But Neredos did not want to take the time to think about that, not with the problems he faced now. "You shouldn't have killed him. He was providing me with answers," he said angrily.

"He was the leader of the demons," Grim replied neutrally.

"What did he say?" Neredos asked. "I didn't recognize the language, but you answered him."

Grim shook his head. "It's an ancient language. I barely understood a word at all. I'm not even sure what I said was correct."

Alarms sounded in Neredos' mind. Grim was behaving strangely, and nothing about him felt right. Neredos hoped it was just paranoia sparked by the recent incident with Morga, but he wasn't sure he could trust the man standing next to him. "How did you make it up here? Did you find the others?"

Grim shook his head and frowned, glancing toward the path that Neredos had taken up the mountain. He looked as if he was searching for someone, but then turned back to Neredos and said, "Not yet. Don't you have a gate to close?"

"You're right. I suppose I should get to that," Neredos said cautiously. He still didn't trust Grim completely, but the mission remained paramount. "I wonder who this was?"

Grim didn't answer, and Neredos did his best to put the Fedain out of his mind. He kept only a tiny sliver of his awareness focused on tracking the Fedain's position, and when Grim moved back and out of his peripheral view, Neredos lost him entirely.

He decided it wasn't important enough to focus on now, and instead knelt at the side of the skeleton. Nothing about this made any sense. He could see no runes, no symbols of any kind. If such things had been used in this magic, they had been inscribed so small as to be beyond his human sight. He doubted that was the case, and assumed instead that this might be magic beyond the skill of even Kixhan and Ghayle. Someone must've done this by strength of will alone. But then how could he break it?

He reached for the stake, but hesitated. It couldn't be that simple, could it? he wondered. How could a spell so intricate be designed to come undone by the removal of a single pin? If that were the case, this would not require a mage to break at all, and anyone could do it if they simply reached the mountain.

Taking a deep breath, Neredos gripped the metal stake and pulled. The result was not as dramatic as he had expected. The streams of energy simply stopped flowing, and the fissures they led to closed, their final remnants dissipating like mist. The metal in his hand, which had felt strong and sturdy when he'd withdrawn it, crumbled into dust that blew away in the mountain breeze. Only the skeleton remained, black as ever, and an unsettlingly morbid reminder of the death the gate had caused.

Neredos shook his head as if waking from a dream. "It is done," he said breathlessly. "We should get out of here." There was no reply, and he looked up to search for his friend. He was nowhere to be seen. "Grim?" He called out, but all that answered was the breeze.

Prism climbed the mountain with heavy steps, each one longing to be made in the other direction. He hoped he would find Grim alive when this was all done. At least he could feel Grim, no matter how faintly. That gave him the strength to keep hiking higher, even if it still felt wrong to leave the valley.

He'd lost track of how long they'd been climbing, as he'd allowed Veil to lead the way and set the pace. Recently, they had come across a number of demon corpses, though there was yet to be any sign of his friends. When he heard shouting off to the side, it brought him from his thoughts.

"Prism, Veil! Over here!"

Veil and Prism turned together and saw Revash lying on the rock some distance from the path. Veil rushed toward her, Prism close behind. "Revash, you made it!" Veil said.

Revash shifted on the rock, then grimaced. The broken shaft of an Aika quill jutted from her left leg, and her right arm was broken with the bone jutting out. Scrapes and cuts covered most of her body, with one large gash along her right shoulder. "I'm alive, for now," she said. "Though I'd appreciate your touch, Veil."

"Of course," Veil said, crouching to put her hands on Revash's flesh. "Oh my, they did a number on you, didn't they?" She asked. "Prism, I'm going to need you to remove that quill for me. It's wedged in too deep for me to remove on my own."

Prism took hold of the quill, bracing himself and waiting for Veil's signal. Veil nodded, and Prism pulled while Revash hissed in pain. The wound closed almost immediately after that, and Prism discarded the quill while Revash resumed breathing normally.

"I never had my uncle's skill with a bow, but I wish I'd had one today. Killing them was not easy," Revash said after a moment.

"But you survived," Veil said, moving to Revash's other side and looking at the broken bone. "Somehow . . ." She said incredulously.

"After fighting several, they simply stopped coming," Revash replied. "The last thing I did was strangle an Aika that picked me up. The fall is what broke my arm. I'm sure you'll find its corpse somewhere. I've a mind to skin that one."

"We had the same experience with the demons leaving. It's almost like they had accepted our presence and no longer saw us as a threat," Prism observed. Veil continued healing the gashes as the words left his mouth, and after a few seconds, Revash was able to stand.

"Should we ascend or descend?" Veil asked.

"Well, let's test something," Revash said. She drew one of her pebbles inscribed with a symbol and tossed it to Prism. He caught it, and his arm drooped as if he had caught a much larger rock. The magic was working again. "I'd say Neredos has done his job," Revash said with a grin.

"Then I'm going to go look for Grim and Nijal," Prism replied, tossing the pebble back to her. While the news that magic had been restored to the area gave him some hope, the fact that it did nothing to his marginal connection with Grim was disconcerting. "If there are no demons here, and the mission is complete, I have no reason to stay."

"We'll descend as well," Veil said. "I'm sure that now magic is restored here, Neredos will be along soon enough, and by a much faster means than walking. If he doesn't join us, we'll go back up for him once we've located the others."

Prism nodded, accepting her logic, and started back down the trail. Revash and Veil talked as they traveled, but Prism remained silent. Every so often, he would feel the bond between him and Grim strengthen, though only by small amounts. He hoped it was a sign that the bond could be restored to its full strength, in time.

He was still having so much difficulty reading the bond, that when he saw Grim appear ahead of him, ascending the trail, he was caught completely off guard. "Grim!" Prism shouted as his lover rushed up to meet him.

"Prism. I'm so glad you're all right," Grim said, embracing him warmly. "What happened? Has Neredos completed his mission?"

"We think so," Veil said, looking to Revash for confirmation. The Elrok nodded.

"Then why does our connection feel so . . . subdued?" Grim asked, looking at Prism with a puzzled frown.

"I was injured," Prism said, pointing to the hole that had been burned through his clothes where his tattoo had once been. "I think something is wrong with the enchantment now."

"That can happen with Familiar bonds," Grim said, frowning. "We'll have to ask Zaalf if he'd be willing to—"

"Look! There he is!" Revash shouted, interrupting him. She pointed to the sky, where Neredos was flying toward them. They waited for him to land nearby and approach, and Veil embraced him directly.

"Neredos! You've done it!" She said excitedly.

"The gate . . ." Neredos said, shaking his head dumbly. "I don't understand it. Nothing makes sense, but yes. It's closed." He turned to Grim and gave him a quizzical frown. "Why didn't you wait for me? I spent fifteen minutes looking for you, then decided to take to the air. Then I saw you all down here . . ."

"Wait for you?" Grim asked, raising an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"You . . ." Neredos began, then the blood drained from his face. "That wasn't you up there with me, was it?"

"I just made it here, looking for the rest of you," Grim replied, his frown deepening.

"So, who was . . .?" Neredos glanced back up the mountain, his words failing him.

"I spoke to the leader of the Vhor. He told me that they want me alive. I assume the same applies to the rest of us. It's the only reason we survived today," Grim said.

"I spoke to their leader as well. He was very cryptic, but I got that message clearly enough. He called himself 'Tagren'," Neredos replied.

"That name is familiar . . ." Grim said thoughtfully. "Is it . . .?" He started to ask, then shook his head. "No. I don't know for sure. It's an ancient name; from the Cataclysm, I think."

"Perhaps all the doomsayers were correct, and the Cataclysm is connected to our own plight?" Veil suggested.

"Then have we averted it? Is the new Cataclysm over?" Revash asked.

"The demons traveled north," Prism observed. "Whether the gate is closed or not, we should return to our lands and aid our people."

"What's to stop them from opening a new gate?" Veil asked. "What if this just happens again as soon as we leave?"

"You didn't feel what I felt. I don't think they can do it again. Whatever sacrifices they made to make it happen the first time, I don't think it's possible now," Neredos replied.

"What was it all for?" Grim asked, his eyes narrowing. "Why did they go to all this trouble, only to abandon it now?"

"I don't know. But hopefully we'll find out before the end," Neredos replied, nodding in agreement with Grim's sentiment.

"The Vhor are still out there. We should find them and get our answers," Grim said with a snarl.

"They don't seem keen on answering our questions," Prism observed. "Judging by how things went with Wayar, and with the two of you today."

Neredos nodded, but then looked toward the valley. "Either way, it's time we made our way back. Let's finish this and send the rest of the demons back to whatever realm spawned them."

"That was Naxthul who spoke to me with Grim's face at the gate, wasn't it?" Neredos asked Ghayle as the memory faded.

"Yes," Ghayle replied. "And he was the one who spoke to Grim as well."

"What was Tagren's purpose then?" Neredos asked.

"To approve of you," Ghayle replied. "He would've only let someone he deemed worthy approach my body. Naxthul wanted his opinion."

"Why did Naxthul kill him?" Prism asked.

"He didn't kill Tagren. He just made it look like he had, for your benefit," Ghayle replied.

"Tagren survived?" Neredos asked with surprise. His astonishment was reflected in the eyes of both Veil and Prism.

"Yes. Though for a long time, I did not know whether he still lived," Ghayle replied somberly.

"Aren't you connected to everyone?" Prism asked.

"All except him," Ghayle said, her eyes brimming with sadness. "Naxthul disconnected him from the rest of us shortly after the demons were sealed by Neredos. It was a necessary precaution. A backup plan should Naxthul fail. Naxthul didn't want Tagren to be tracked by coordinating his work with the others, because that would tip Grim off during his hunt."

"How did you show me Tagren's memories?" Prism asked.

"Because Naxthul restored the connection a short time ago, knowing the end was near," Ghayle replied, smiling.

Neredos considered her for a moment and asked, "What did they say to each other?"

"Tagren told Naxthul that he approved of you, then asked if he could go to me," Ghayle replied. "Naxthul said that the end was coming soon. He was wrong, unfortunately. But, regarding endings, there is one more thing to watch in the past before we see the present unfold. Gather close."

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