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Cynus last won the day on October 29 2015

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    In the Matrix
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  1. Cynus

    Chapter 1

    I hope so too.
  2. Cynus

    Chapter 16

    "Do you understand yet, Prism?" Ghayle asked. "Understand what?" "Love," Ghayle stated. "That's what rules you. It is what has always ruled you." "Duty," Prism disagreed. "Duty ruled me. Duty stood in the way of love. I spent that time rationalizing every single decision by the will of the Order, instead of following my heart." "Duty is a form of love." "Spare me." Prism growled, tearing away from Ghayle again. "I gave up love for duty, we both know that. Just as Marhys did. You may think of her sacrifice as pure, but that is not how I see it." "She loved me," Ghayle replied. "She stayed for me. Out of love for her mother." "She abandoned her husband and child out of some need to be close to someone she thought was a deity. A woman sworn to protect the world, who then destroyed it," Prism said. "The one who gave up all her vows to consort with demons." "Interesting." "Oh no, drawing parallels again? Trying to show me how much I'm like you?" Prism asked. "Interesting." "Woman, you infuriate me!" Ghayle smiled slyly. "Interesting." "Is that all you have to say?" "What infuriates you is me making comparisons between us, no matter how valid or vague. To think that you, the stonehearted monk, filled with his duty, is driven to anger so easily." Ghayle laughed heartily and stood before Prism, a primal fire blazing behind her eyes as she stared deep into his soul. "What is the source of your anger, Prism? Is it not because you can't stand what you see? Why not? Duty, devotion, love . . . it comes back to love, again and again. What we do for that most fickle of emotions. Why we're driven to the brink of destruction out of the instinct to preserve what we care about." Prism bore it all with stoicism, refusing to let her goad him until she leaned in close, her lips inches from his own as she asked him once more, "Why are you so angry, Prism?" He tried to push her away from him with all his strength, though he might as well have tried to push over an oak tree. She stood her ground and Prism threw his hands in the air and stormed away from her for several paces before turning around. "I spent my entire life keeping my emotions in check, and seeing it played before me now, I have a right to feel, in death! I have a right to mourn the life I could have lived!" "You mourn the life you did live," Ghayle said. "You're not at peace with your choices." "Are you at peace with yours?" Prism asked. "Yes," Ghayle replied without hesitation. "I acted in accordance with the duty I felt toward the world. To preserve what I could of what I loved. I gave myself to the cycle, to death, so the world could be saved again. You did the same for Grim. You gave him everything you could." "No, I didn't. I owed it to him to keep my promises." "There is time yet for those promises." "Death prevents me from fulfilling them," Prism said. "Does it? Do you remember the contract you made with Selfaeth, to protect his son, even unto the sacrifice of your own life?" "I know where you're headed with this. Please don't make me relive it," Prism begged. "Prism, you have to understand." Ghayle gestured to the garden around them. "Death is not the end of everything. Ripples of our passing spread on throughout the ages." "A single storm is nothing to a mountain, the endless storms break it down to rubble," Prism recited. Ghayle bowed and said, "Valkean also once said, 'the mountain is forged from the collision of heat and pressure. A mountain is forged by the hammer and anvil of creation itself'. He knew the price you pay for wisdom is pain. And you once did too." "I hate you," Prism said. "I can live with that," Ghayle replied, and she reached for him again. Prism did not resist. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Prism entered Grim's room shortly after lunch, adjusting his robes nervously, dreading the coming conversation. A week had passed since they'd acquired the tattoos, and the connection had only grown. Along with the sensory benefits, issues had arisen as well. Finding Grim naked from the waist down as he dressed for the day, Prism almost turned around and left. Instead he walked to the balcony door and stared outside, waiting for Grim to finish. He sensed Grim's amusement, and blushed. "So . . . we have a problem," Prism said after a moment. "What?" Grim asked, joining Prism at the window and handing him a bottle of water. Prism nodded his thanks and took it, wondering for a split second how Grim had known he was thirsty. These new shared sensations would take some getting used to. "When you, um . . . you know . . . this morning?" Prism blushed, hoping his emotions would communicate the rest, because the mere thought of Grim masturbating had brought the memory back in full force. "Oh blood . . ." Grim said, clamping a hand over his horrified mouth, "you felt it?" Prism nodded. "Every second of it." "Uh-oh." "I had to take a cold shower to stop from giving in," Prism said. "That was the closest I've come to breaking my oaths since I arrived. Even worse than the first day." "That explains the chill I felt," Grim said, sighing in frustration. "That's not good. What are we going to do about it?" "I don't know . . ." Prism replied, taking a drink. "I don't want to ask you to stop but . . ." He shrugged, not sure what else to say. "I understand," Grim said. "That's going to take an adjustment. I didn't think it would be this intense." "At least we're not sharing thoughts, just emotions and sensory information," "Although, that would be appealing, too." "I noticed it was different when we were a little farther apart. It wasn't quite as intense. Maybe I could just go for a walk next time you need to do it?" Prism suggested. "We could try that," Grim said. "Or I could just try to exercise willpower. Though you know why I did it this morning, don't you?" "Why?" "I could feel you doing your morning stretches, and it was . . ." Grim shuddered, and arousal wash through his body, affecting Prism as well. "intoxicating. The way your muscles feel when they're moving. It was like being inside you." "That is not an appropriate image right now, Grim!" Prism scolded. Grim blanched at the admonition. "I'm sorry. I didn't even think about it." Prism couldn't help the thought from forming in his mind, and his tongue eagerly formed the words before he could stop it. "Well, in two years we'll get to know what being inside each other really feels like." "Prism!" Grim said, laughing even as his body responded to the image. Despite the dangerous territory he had strayed into, Prism still could not contain his thoughts, their mutual attraction resonating through their magical bond. "Won't that be something? Having sex with each—" The door to Grim's room burst open, and Sharis stormed inside. He locked the door and immediately moved to lock the other door which led to Prism's chamber before speaking. "Lord Grim. You need to turn on the broadcast immediately." "Sharis! What are you doing? You can't just—" Grim started. "Now, Lord Grim!" Sharis insisted, locking the door to Prism's chamber. "The broadcast." Grim stared at Sharis for a second longer before moving to his broadcast screen, turning it on and stepping back as an anxious newscaster addressed the viewer. "The insurgents have just made their demands of King Hashayne. He is to hand over control of the government to them or be removed by force. Several hostages have already been killed, but more remain in rebel custody. We have access to live surveillance footage from inside the Council of Lords." The image changed from the newscaster to the view of a large, tiered seating area over a wide floor. Flags bearing the colors and crest of the royal family, and smaller flags for each region in Ultaka, decorated the chairs and desks occupying the tiers. Several dozen Fedain—including Duke Selfaeth—knelt in a row on the bottom floor, while masked soldiers moved among them, all brandishing heat-rifles. "That's . . . Father's in there!" Grim said and pointed at the bandage wrapped around his father's head. "He's wounded." The newscaster continued to speak over the live surveillance feed. "The insurgents have stated they will kill one member of the nobility every five minutes until their demands are met. The military is moving to intervene but has not yet managed to penetrate the rebels' defenses." "This is bad. What are we going to do?" Sharis asked. "I'm worried there are more rebels here. What if they attack us?" "We're going to try and remain calm. That's all we can do," Prism said. "My Father's in there, Prism! He's about to be killed!" Grim insisted, pointing frantically at the screen. Duke Selfaeth rose to his feet, flagging down a soldier, his hands raised in surrender. Prism latched onto this image and said hopefully, "Maybe not. Look! He's asking to speak to the rebel leaders. Your father has the best reputation among the nobility. Maybe he can negotiate?" A soldier raised his rifle and pointed it at the Duke, and Duke Selfaeth dropped to the council floor, blood pooling beneath him. The feed darkened, and the stricken newscaster's face reappeared on the screen. Grim gasped loudly as a single, frightened sob shook him. Fear emanated from Grim through the link, and Prism forced himself to fight it as the newscaster spoke again. "W-we apologize for cutting the f-feed. Duke Selfaeth of Tehir has been shot in the chest and head. The insurgents have . . . the insurgents have opened fire on the remaining hostages!" "What!?" Grim shouted. As if in answer to Grim's volume, gunshots rang out in the distance. It took Prism a moment to realize the sound came from inside the palace and not from the screen. Shouting followed the shots, and Prism moved toward the door, putting his ear against it to determine all he could from the noise. "New reports coming in from all over the country, the military has turned against the monarchy," the newscaster announced, his hands shaking as he stared directly at the device recording him. "We've lost contact with our correspondents in Madrith and Chandir. Fighting has broken out in the streets of Xarin. I don't know how long we'll be able to broadcast, but we'll keep you informed as long as possible." "We need to get you out of here," Prism said, moving away from the door to Grim's wardrobe. He pulled out the two coils of chameleon rope from the bottom and walked toward the balcony doors. Grim and Sharis both remained frozen by the broadcast screen, even though it had already cut out. "Right now, Grim!" Grim turned toward him, his face unreadable though Prism sensed the shock and horror in him. "Veil," Grim said simply. "She'll be in my Father's study." Prism's promise to Duke Selfaeth to protect both his children blazed in his mind, and in honor of the Duke's death he could not ignore that responsibility now. He handed one rope to Grim and said, "I'll go get her. Barricade the door. Go out through the balcony as soon as you can, if you feel it's safe. I'll meet you in the garden." He slid the other coil of rope around his shoulder, approaching and unlocking the door. "Lock this as soon as I'm through. Be careful about letting anyone in. You can't tell who is loyal or not." "Is anyone loyal?" Sharis asked. "They must be, or there wouldn't be fighting in the palace," Prism said. "But we don't know how outnumbered they are." Grim still hadn't moved, and Prism shouted to get his attention. "Grim!" "What?" Prism used all his monk training to force his own emotions to calm, hoping it would feed back through the link between him and Grim. "Everything is going to be okay. I need you to work with me. Feel my heartbeat, draw on my senses. I'll get you through this." Grim nodded, reinforced by Prism's words and feelings as he moved toward the balcony. Sharis joined Prism at the door, preparing to lock it as soon as Prism stepped through. Prism listened to make sure no one was coming before opening the door and entering the hallway. The door closed after him as Sharis fulfilled his duty. Scraping of furniture moving across the hardwood immediately followed, and Prism left the door. In his time in the palace, Grim had given him a full tour on more than one occasion, and Prism carefully picked his way down the hallway, heading for the Duke's study on the floor above him. When he reached the spiral staircase leading both up and down, he came across his first set of corpses. Three soldiers and a Fedain servant lay across the steps. Prism glanced down, making sure no one lay in wait to come up after him, and caught glimpses of more servants' bodies strewn all the way to the ground floor. Many had tried to escape the carnage this way, and it appeared none had succeeded. This gave him hope the enemy would not discover him as they had already passed through here. He climbed quickly, but not so urgently as to sacrifice stealth, drawing as much on his upbringing as a thief as on his monk training. When he reached the next floor, only one obstacle lay between him and his goal. Two rebel soldiers, behind an impromptu barricade of a heavy table, fired into the open door of the Duke's study. The soldiers cowered behind the table as someone returned fire from within the room. Several other soldiers lay across the floor, all dead by Prism's best guess, but he couldn't tell which were rebels and which were loyal. All were the same in death; only the living concerned him now. He would have to kill at least one soldier. This would be his first time killing, though as soon as he agreed to become Grim's bodyguard he'd accepted the possibility. He couldn't handle two at once, however, and so one would have to die for him to only incapacitate the other. Descending the stairs again, he searched the soldiers' bodies for something he could use easily. He picked a sidearm, despite a complete lack of knowledge on how to use it, and took the belt knives of both soldiers as well. These would be his best bet, if he could close the distance between himself and the rebels. He tucked them into his sash. He returned to the landing, keeping the soldiers in his peripheral as he poked his head around the side to make sure no reinforcements were on their way. He slid forward, conscious of the weight of the coiled rope still around his shoulder, and the unusual weapons at his waist. His extra attention to detail kept him from making a sound as he approached. Thirty paces. Twenty-five. Twenty. One of the soldiers noticed him, and he'd run out of time. He acted on his training, overriding his natural fear, and dove forward closing ten paces in a roll and drawing a knife as he righted himself, dashing forward. Before the soldier could even turn his weapon, Prism was on him, driving a knife into the soldier's neck with deadly accuracy. The other rebel rose up, turning toward him and firing. The shot pierced Prism's shoulder and knocked him back, the virulent radioactive particles in the ammunition spreading through the wound. Prism grunted through the pain, preparing to tackle his opponent as a shot traveled through the doorway and entered the rebel's head, blasting through in a bright splatter of blood. Though Prism's shoulder ached, he could still move it, and the nanites in his blood worked to close the wound. He raised his hands in surrender to alert the soldiers through the door that he meant no harm. He risked their trust and moved around the barricade to the open door. The chair on this side of the desk had tipped over, and General Parrow's body lay on the floor, a bullet hole in the back of his head. Two soldiers popped their heads up from behind the Duke's desk. One soldier's eyes lit up with recognition—Captain Farr, one of Veil's usual bodyguards. "Master Prism!" he shouted, standing and bowing in greeting. "It's good to see a friendly face." Veil and the other soldier, a young man with dark hair, skin, and eyes, stood as well. Prism addressed Veil, "I've come to get you out. Grim and Sharis are in his room. They barricaded the door and will join us in the gardens." "How are we going to get out?" Veil asked. Prism slid the rope from his shoulder and lifted it to show her. Showing her leadership abilities, she instantly said, "Let's do it. We can use the balcony in the next room over." Prism nodded and led the way, walking into the next room down the hall. It was the Duke's sitting room, complete with a fireplace and balcony access. The soldiers and Veil followed him in, and one of the soldiers locked the door. Both soldiers moved a piece of furniture to block the entrance while Prism headed straight for the balcony to attach the cable. Veil followed Prism, and soon the two soldiers joined them at the balcony. "Master Prism should go down first to scout out the bottom," Captain Farr suggested. "We'll come down last and make sure no one gets in." "Thank you," Veil said, bowing gracefully to both of soldiers as Prism swung over the balcony and descended to the gardens. He slid most of the way and only walked against the wall for the last few feet, causing rope burns on his hands. These, too, healed slowly from the nanites in his system. His shoulder was already only sore, its condition improving by the moment. Veil joined him in the gardens and spoke quietly to Prism as they waited for her bodyguards to descend. "I was meeting with General Parrow when fighting broke out. He tried to kill me but one of my guards stepped in before he managed it. Do you know what's happening?" "I do, but we need to focus on getting out of here, first. Then I'll explain," Prism replied. "Okay." Prism glanced anxiously around the garden. It appeared deserted from his current position, but they were beneath the back wall of the palace, while Grim's room was on the east wing. He could still sense Grim's approximate location through the link. As soon as the two soldiers reached the ground, Prism moved in Grim's direction. When they rounded the corner, Sharis waved them over to some large hedges. "Master Prism! Over here!" The group headed straight for them, Prism leading with the soldiers bringing up the flank. "Good, you made it down all right," Prism said, smiling encouragingly at Grim. Grim did not respond, instead staring at Prism, as if in shock. With a grimace, Prism turned to the others and said, "We have to get over the wall somehow." "We can't get out through the main gate. Rebels have already taken over that position to block any attempted escapes," Captain Farr said. "It was the last thing we heard before we stopped being able to trust communications." "Unfortunately, both ropes are in use," Prism said, glancing to Grim's nearby balcony. "I didn't think to figure out how to bring them with us. Someone would have to be up there to take that one down." He sighed and said, "I'll climb back up and get it, then find some other way out." "No, you're more likely to be targeted than either of us," Captain Farr replied. "I'll go up, then I'll join the rebels temporarily until I can make it to safety." Prism nodded, glad to have another voice of reason to help him make decisions. "Understood." Veil placed her hand on Captain Farr's arm. "Be careful, Captain Farr." Captain Farr grinned at her. "I will. Don't worry, I'll be back and harassing you about safety in no time." Prism followed Captain Farr to Grim's balcony and waited for the soldier to climb up and untie the rope. As Prism collected and wrapped it around his shoulder again, loud banging emanated from Grim's bedchamber. Captain Farr walked into the bedroom, disappearing from Prism's view. "They're not in here! Check the kitchens! We've got to catch that Pale bastard," he shouted. "Why was this room barricaded? Aren't you Veil's personal bodyguard?" a loud voice replied. Five shots rang out, followed by several seconds of silence. The same voice said, "Check the gardens. Grim has escaped." Prism sneaked back to the hedges as quickly as he could and said, "Come on, let's go. They're coming for us." They headed straight for the outer wall, finding a spot where the hedges grew thick enough to obscure them from view to both east and west. Prism tied a slipknot into the cable and hooked one of the wall spikes with it. Before he could suggest Grim or Veil go first, the soldier spoke. "Master Prism, please go up first to make sure no one is waiting on the other side." Prism nodded. "Right." He ascended and peered over the side. From this vantage point, several groups of soldiers moved through the area, two of which were engaged in combat in the plaza before the palace gate. Unable to determine which group was loyal and which was not, he scouted for other options to escape into the city. "Okay, now Lady Veil, then Lord Grim, then Sharis. I'll bring up the rear," the soldier suggested from below him. Veil, Grim, and Sharis all climbed the rope, perching on the wall while the soldier climbed. As Prism scouted ahead, Veil kept her eyes on the palace gardens. "Time's up. We have to jump right now," she said after a moment. "There are soldiers coming." "What? It's too high!" Sharis replied. "You'll heal," Veil said, then pushed him off the wall toward the street. She jumped after him, Grim joining her a moment later in numb silence. Prism helped the soldier climb the last foot to the top and they jumped together. Though Prism rolled to absorb the fall and came up mostly unscathed, the soldier injured his ankle as he collided with the pavement. Veil immediately saw to his wounds, kneeling beside him and touching his injured flesh. Within seconds, the soldier could stand, and the group looked to Prism to lead them on. "They're coming. We have to get out of here, now!" Sharis said. It was all the encouragement Prism needed, and he turned toward one of the many alleyways near them. His first instinct led him toward the place where he'd once disembarked a streetcar with Kaeral for his clandestine meeting with Grim. He wracked his brain for a plan and hoped Grim, in his numbness, wouldn't feed off the frantic thoughts flowing through Prism's mind. Rounding a corner brought them face to face with a group of humans dressed not in uniforms, but in their everyday clothes. A dozen men and women stood before them, all holding makeshift weapons. Their eyes burned with the rage of an oppressed populace getting their first chance at freedom, and they instantly recognized the three Fedain under Prism's protection. "Well, what do we have here?" one of the men said, pulling his large bat from his shoulder and swinging it into his palm as he stepped up to Prism. His companions circled around Prism and his group, cutting off their escape. "A couple of escaped nobles. Just the people we were looking for. We saw the soldiers move in on the palace and couldn't help ourselves. It's time to show you Pales what we think of your rule." Three others appeared at the end of the alleyway behind the group, all dressed in hooded jackets as they came to join their fellows. They'd attracted attention, and the longer they spent here, the less chance they had of getting out alive. "You're not coming anywhere near them," the soldier said dangerously as he joined Prism, staring down the apparent leader. "You're just two men, and you're going to stop all of us?" the leader replied. "Count again," a familiar voice said. One of the three newcomers stepped forward, a keen, curved sword in his hand. Kaeral Elrhanadan had come to their aid. He cut down the leader from behind, severing his spine easily with the sharp blade. He took up a defensive stance over the corpse, flicking his wrist and spraying the dead man's blood across the nearest members of the group. The other two who'd accompanied Kaeral threw improvised incendiary bottles into the group, coating several in fiery alcohol. Sufficiently intimidated, the remaining members of the group fled from the powerful allies. "Don't look so shocked, Prism," Kaeral said, sheathing his sword and turning to face his friend. "Did you really think I'd abandon you?" "Kaeral! What are you doing here?" Prism asked. "Saving you, obviously," Kaeral replied dryly, then looked at Sharis, Grim, and Veil. "Hey, you Fedain need a wardrobe change. You're lighting up the whole damn city. I might not have even needed that spell to find you at the rate you're going." He slipped out of his jacket and handed it to Grim, while one of his friends—who resembled Kaeral's uncle-in-law, Tala—handed his jacket to Veil. The third, who turned out to be Tala's son, handed his jacket to Sharis, who refused to take it even while the two nobles slipped into their gear. "I will not wear the garment of a human on my—" Sharis started, but Kaeral cut him off. "Then stay here! You're either going in disguise or you're not coming with us." "You cannot speak to a priest like that. I am—" "Dead, if you don't shut up!" Kaeral said. "Now, put on the jacket, or I'll kill you myself." "Do as he says, Sharis," Veil ordered. "We don't have all day." As Sharis grumbled and put the jacket on over his priest robes, Kaeral placed his hand on Prism's shoulder and said, "Come on, Tala commandeered a streetcar a minute ago. The quicker we get there, the better." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ They reached Tala with little issue, managing to stay out of sight of any patrols by keeping to the alleys. As soon as they climbed aboard the large vehicle, Tala sped off into the city. Only then did Prism address the convenience of Kaeral's arrival. "What made you come to the palace?" He asked as they sat together in one of the large seats. "Tala has contacts in the military and learned about the coup. I know you keep one of Grim's hairs in your sash, so I took a note and slipped in one of my own some time ago—don't ask where it came from. I used my connection to that hair for a locator spell, and I was coming to warn you and hoped to get you and your lover out before it happened, but we didn't make it in time. You saved me the trouble of sneaking into the palace, I guess," Kaeral said. "We caught the report of the Duke's death while we were on our way, and we were close to the palace when we heard you'd escaped, so we—" "Father's dead!?" Veil shouted from several seats behind them. "She didn't know?" Kaeral asked. "I'm sorry, Lady Veil, that I was the one to tell you." Veil nodded and looked down, absorbing the news in silence as tears welled in her eyes. Prism grimaced and glanced at Grim. Nothing but apathy emanated from his lover. "I was going to tell her after this, so she would be able to focus on getting to safety," Prism said. "If I'd known, I wouldn't have said anything," Kaeral whispered, "but it looks like she's doing fine, all things considered. It's Grim I'd worry about." "I am worried about him," Prism said, glancing again at Grim. "I can feel him." "You can feel him?" Prism lowered his voice even further. "We're familiars now." "You dirty monk," Kaeral said, slapping Prism with the back of his hand. Prism winced and did not reciprocate, and Kaeral hastened to apologize for his behavior. "This isn't the time for that, is it? I'm sorry, Prism, despite the circumstances, it's good to see you. I'm just glad to see you made it out alive." "We haven't made it yet, nephew," Tala said from the driver's seat. He pointed ahead at the road. A battle raged in the distance, military against military. Bodies lined the street, and in this rich sector, most were Fedain. "Go west now. It'll be a bit of a staggered route to the docks, but we should try to avoid the military entirely. We can't trust that they will be on our side," Kaeral said. Tala glanced at Kaeral as he turned down the next western route available. "We can't fit all these people and everyone else on the boat, nephew," he said. Kaeral shrugged as if this was a non-issue. "Then we'll steal a second one." Tala grinned, and Prism placed himself in their hands. These people were used to evading the law, and they had the skills to do it. With other capable people on his side, he could relax just a little now, and he refocused his emotions, to send comfort Grim's way. The streetcar tore down the city streets, avoiding roadblocks and patrols alike as Tala drove them to the docks. He pulled in at a specific pier, finding a small group of people waiting for him, including his two wives and Kaeral's son. Tala opened the door as he parked alongside them, leaving the engine running. His wives came aboard, and the eldest one spoke for the group. "Tala! There's a blockade. No one is getting out by ship." "Damn!" Tala said. "Everybody aboard then. We'll figure something out." "Go north," Prism suggested. "We need to go through the north gate." "You want to try and fight through a military checkpoint?" Kaeral asked incredulously. "I don't think we'll have to; the captain of that post is sympathetic to the nobility. Just drive north," Prism said. "Can we trust 'im?" Tala asked. Kaeral clapped Tala on the shoulder and said, "Definitely. Prism's instincts are as sharp as anyone's. North it is." As soon as Tala's family and their group came aboard, the streetcar was full. The weight of responsibility settled over Prism again. He'd brought his charges this far, but now he had even more to look out for. Did he have it in him to save them all? But then again, he didn't have to. Kaeral, Tala, the yet unknown soldier who'd protected Veil—they and others in the streetcar had proven themselves already capable. They were all in this together, and they would find a way through. He had to believe that. The streetcar screeched to a stop just short of the open north gate, and Tala pointed to the military barricades now facing against the city instead of the outer wall. "Look, the military is 'olding the point against its own citizens." A small group of people approached the gate, and after a brief interaction with the soldiers, they headed past the blockade and out of the city. "No, they're letting them escape. Come on. Let's go. Trust me on this," Prism said. The streetcar approached slowly and stopped as a soldier raised his hand. Prism recognized Captain Tson's familiar face and poked his head out the vehicle before it came to a complete stop. "Captain Tson!" He said. "Master Prism! Let them approach!" Captain Tson shouted, waving to his soldiers to lower their weapons. He stared through the windows of the vehicle at Veil and Grim, his eyes lighting up. "Lady Veil and Lord Grim! They're safe!" Prism nodded and said, "We need to get to the Temple. They'll protect us there. We'll be taking the streetcar with us." "That's a good idea," Captain Tson said. "We're working out a strategy to get to the hospital; hopefully we can rescue some of the doctors. We're trying to get as many Fedain out of the city as possible, as they're the most in danger." "Good luck," Prism said. "You too." Captain Tson glanced through the gate, toward the Temple of the Mountain standing in prominent view. Several crowds of people walked along the road between the city and the temple. "The monks have already opened their doors to refugees, but you might have to work your way through some crowds." "We can get inside," Kaeral said. "It's nothing I haven't done before." "Come to the temple, once you've saved as many as you can," Prism said. Captain Tson shook his head, but he smiled confidently at Prism. "My duty is to this city. I can't abandon it, no matter what the cost, even if I must haunt its streets. I'll see you again, honorable monk, in this life, or another." Prism nodded solemnly. "May it be in this one, Captain. We'll take our leave now, but please take care not to haunt these streets just yet."
  3. Cynus

    Chapter 15

    That does seem intensely pleasurable.
  4. Cynus

    Chapter 15

    I finally finished that for the first time recently. But in that world, too, there are drawbacks when one of them dies. The warders typically go mad and the aes sedai end up emotionally traumatized for a long time after.
  5. Cynus

    Chapter 15

    The follies of youth, my friend. I'll speak more in response to your second comment. I'm glad you enjoyed it! There is certainly a sense of romance to it. Nor should you apologize. I see both sides of this equation, but my two youths did not at the time they decided to go through with this. We often fail to think things through when we're young and in love, especially when we think there's no way we can be together in the way we want. It's a balance to be sure. To approach it cautiously would be advised, but it is up to the individual to decide which set of consequences they desire. If I'd been in their position, would I have? I think the answer is yes. I put a lot of myself into Prism, and there's a lot of one of my past loves in Grim. I don't even know if I would've hesitated as much as Prism did, though I would know I was getting into something which would potentially wreck me emotionally.
  6. Cynus

    Chapter 14

    I'm glad! It was a scene I had in mind since the beginning. This makes me very happy to read. I was really nervous about trying this format of story-telling when I decided to take this path, but I'm glad it's working. Thank you for this!
  7. Cynus

    Chapter 12

    Such is life, eh? I really appreciate the speculation, it makes me happy that you're delving into it this deeply. There is a distinct difference between Kirra and Maxthane, of course, being that Kirra is from a long line of Elrhanadan's and Maxthane is Veil's son directly. I do know who is Styx's ancestor, but I don't know what point I may or may not confirm it. Marhys is definitely the Elrhanadan sword. The important thing is the specific wording of the binding. She's bound for the duration of The Trial, to ensure that her line survives to the end of the Demon war. Ghayle was not planning on the demon war lasting as long as it did, but unexpected circumstances led to it being prolonged for eight centuries. What price would a mother not be willing to pay to ensure her children survived a terrible trial? Khalis is remorseless, but why? This is the question I hope people are asking.
  8. Cynus

    Chapter 15

    "How could you?" Prism asked, pulling away from Ghayle. "How could I what?" Ghayle asked. "My life should show you how much love remained in the world, how much goodness remained." Prism growled and walked away, throwing his hands in the air. "How could you destroy that?" "Why were purities harvested in Kobinaru? What is so special about that place?" Ghayle replied. Prism stared at her, but inevitably shook his head. "I don't know. Ego says because we were there, but we were just kids. Clearly it's not because of us." "Both you and Grim contributed, Grim more than you, clearly." "I'd surmised Khalis' interest in him contributed, but I didn't dare think it." Prism's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Now that you've confirmed my suspicions, it makes me even angrier." "You know where it began. You started him down that path, to become the purity of stillness." Ghayle stared at him. "If not for your reticence, it would've never happened." Prism shuddered as if withstanding the harshest winter chill. "I'm not ready to relive that night. Can we not?" "Of course." Ghayle bowed her head in acknowledgement. "It takes time to absorb it all. In the interim, I will attempt to explain about the purities, and hope you will understand." "Please, enlighten me." "Kobinaru was unique in many ways. Oligan and Ultaka—the two most powerful nations—were corrupt, and in either nation, pure thoughts were rare and fleeting. Purities were more common in the other lands and peoples, but the issue with the purities is that they needed to be performed in spite of the corruption." Ghayle let Prism process the thought for a few seconds before she continued. "Janlynd martyred herself against Fedain apathy. Marhys had a child despite the illness in her body, and she gave herself freely to the cycle of life and death, despite offers to heal that same illness. Neredos challenged the will of his ruler who sought to subjugate or destroy the world in a mad grab for power. Civine and Palas used their psychic connection in an attempt to stop Oligan's agenda by spilling its secrets. Grim—" Prism raised his hand to stall her. "No, thank you. I don't need to be reminded right now. I understand the examples." Ghayle nodded, skipping to her next point. "In Kobinaru, the corruption seeped from every corner just as it did across the breadth of Ultaka, but there were differences. Distinct ones." "Such as?" Ghayle smiled fondly as she replied, "Selfaeth, who never stopped fighting for his citizens, both Fedain and Human alike. Though never becoming completely pure himself, his policies helped create the climate for change, even if it eventually came to naught. The Order of the Mountain, who fought for purity as they understood it in all their days. Some did better than others, but under Grandmaster Valkean, the Order stood as a monolith against the corruption spreading through humanity. Veillynn, who followed Janlynd's legacy and finished the development of the vaccine, something which could have virtually wiped disease from the world had she time to implement it." "I'm one of the few who benefited from it," Prism observed. "Indeed," Ghayle said. "And that is also why you can't see the truth yet. You lived in an island of good surrounded by a sea of evil. You are fueled by nostalgia for your youthful love, the lessons learned by careful masters, and the care of the good people who surrounded you, all while the edges of your world crumbled. Love rules you and keeps you from seeing the hate." Prism shook his head. "I don't know what you're talking about. I've always seen the evil in the world. I've always been a part of it." Ghayle raised her hand to Prism's face again. "Then let me show you and erase your denial with your own memories." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Prism couldn't keep his eyes from Grim during their travel to the hospital in Kobinaru. So many possibilities swirled through his head. The future lay just around the corner now, only a couple years until they could fully express their affection. Grim, for his part, didn't return as many of Prism's glances. Though glad for Prism's reduced sentence and the possibility which awaited them, he had other concerns. The drive through the city took them past a hundred different reasons to worry about the state of the world. Graffiti adorned many of the buildings now, most pointing out the evils of the Fedain regime. Unrest continued to spread through Ultaka, and hate crimes committed against the Fedain people increased in regularity every week. As their cavalcade passed through the poorer sections of the city, the people watched it go with either indifference or outright hatred. Their eyes weighed on Grim with every mile. He hated himself for sympathizing but couldn't help it. His people's unrest brought back the image of Master Jan on the steps of the Council Chambers. The closer they came to the center of the city, the angrier the people became. Several groups protested in front of each government building, or businesses owned by Fedain. The military interceded in these places, forming a blockade of muscle and gun, but tension filled the soldiers' eyes as well. How many of them were ready to turn against the government? How long before the status quo shifted against the Fedain? When they arrived at the hospital, the largest mob of protestors yet had gathered outside. They held signs decrying Fedain intervention in human lives, and others which claimed the Fedain were only trying to control them. Grim sickened with each person they passed until they disappeared into the parking garage beneath the hospital. "This is getting worse and worse," he muttered when the vehicle came to a stop and the two soldiers in the front seats stepped out. "What is?" Prism asked. Grim didn't immediately answer, perplexed that Prism had managed to miss the signs around them. They walked from the vehicle together, approaching the large doors which would lead them inside the hospital's research center. Dr. Balindae waited for them beside the doors; Grim's security detail had contacted him pending their arrival. His gaunt features made him appear malnourished, and his thinning hair didn't help his appearance at all, but he wore a polite smile as they approached. "Did you see the protestors?" Grim asked after a moment. "I'm surprised they haven't become violent yet." The doctor responded before Prism could. "They still remember Master Janlynd's death, Lord Grimfaeth. Becoming violent in the face of her memory would be improper. I'm Dr. Bal, and you must be Master Prism." "That's why I'm here, actually," Prism said. "Master Jan was a friend, though I only knew her for a short amount of time. Once I heard the vaccine was her work, I wanted to honor her." "The Order is welcome here," Dr. Bal said with a bow. "Hopefully with enough monks willing to undergo the procedure, the people will trust it." "Do the people know about it?" Grim asked. "I wasn't aware it had been announced." "Unfortunately, yes," Dr. Bal replied, sighing as he held the door open for Grim and Prism. They stepped inside and started down the corridor as Dr. Bal continued his explanation. "We wanted to announce it after the successful trials were completed, but some of those who participated in our earlier trials violated the non-disclosure agreement. It's already been demonized by most of the human community leaders." Grim's face scrunched in confusion. "Why? It's for their benefit, isn't it?" Dr. Bal grimaced at the question. "The most common accusation I've heard is 'they're not content to rule our lives, now they wish to rule our bodies, too'." "But that's not even . . ." Grim shook his head, flustered by the statement, "that doesn't make sense!" "Regardless of whether it makes sense or not, that's the reality of it," Dr. Bal replied. He turned down another hall and gestured for them to follow him. "Your sister has tried to find a way to market it to the masses, to cleanse the negative image it has already acquired. So far, the monks are the best she's come up with. So, thank you for being here, Master Prism." He smiled appreciatively at Prism and stopped in front of a door, opening it for his guests. "It's my pleasure," Prism replied, stepping into the room. Grim followed him, and they both took stock of their surroundings. Cabinets lined the upper walls, and an examination bed occupied the center of the room while a chair rested against each wall. Grim sat in a chair while Prism leaned against the bed and addressed Dr. Bal. "I'm ready to begin whenever you are." "It's a really simple procedure," Dr. Bal said as he let the door close behind him. "We'll just take some blood samples first to determine your blood type, then find the best match for you among our Fedain donors and inject their modified blood cells into you." "Doctor, if we're a proper match, would you be able to use my blood cells?" Grim asked. "I . . ." Dr. Bal gave Grim a strange look, "suppose so. I'm sure it's none of my business, Lord Grimfaeth, but why?" "Prism is my personal bodyguard, Doctor. Perhaps it is a bit sentimental of me, but I have come to value his place in my life, and if I may be the one who safeguards his protection as he does mine, then I would feel much better with the world," Grim replied. "Very well," Dr. Bal said. "Since there are only a few donors at this time, finding yours won't be too difficult. If it's a match, I'll make sure we give the right ones to Master Prism." Dr. Bal opened a cabinet and withdrew gloves, a syringe, and several vials, before directing Prism to sit on the examination table. He took bandaging material from another cabinet and joined Prism at the table. He filled three vials with Prism's blood and applied the bandage to Prism's arm, then excused himself to go perform the blood tests. Prism waited until the doctor was long gone before speaking to Grim. "I thought Fedain didn't care about relationships between members of the same gender." Grim raised an eyebrow. "They don't." "The doctor seemed like a friend of yours. I'm surprised you didn't tell him the truth about us," Prism said. "I did. You protect me, and I want to protect you. As far as our relationship goes, there are worse things than homosexual relationships in a Fedain's eyes." Grim met Prism's gaze, hoping to communicate his love. "Because I'm human," Prism said with a smirk. "Because you're human." Grim sighed. "But I wouldn't worry about it. I don't mind who knows once you're free of your sentence. The whole world can know about us then. I just don't want to jeopardize our being together in the meantime." Prism smiled. "Sounds reasonable to me." They spoke of mundane things while waiting for Dr. Bal to return. Despite this casual moment with Prism, the unease persisted in Grim's mind. He doubted one monk's example would ever be enough to satisfy the people's need for answers. Prism's willingness to participate in the program wouldn't solve anything, even if it convinced more people to try the vaccine. The general populace already distrusted any words which came from a Fedain mouth. It would all eventually collapse, and no amount of benevolence from the few Fedain who had cared would make a difference. Something bad was coming, a great upheaval which would destroy the world Grim knew. The future Prism saw as full of hope now filled Grim with nothing but dread. But at least they would be together. Grim hoped that would be enough. Dr. Bal eventually returned, carrying another syringe in his hands, filled with a dark liquid. "Sorry to keep you waiting. It took a moment to verify your blood type. You're a match with Lord Grimfaeth after all." He approached Prism and raised the syringe, showing it to Prism. "It's just a simple injection, and then the Fedain nanites will be in your system." "Then by all means, give it to me," Prism said. Grim watched it unfold, glad that, no matter what happened to him, at least Prism would always have a part of him. When the world ended, at least they'd both survive in him. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Prism stared at the open doors to Grim's balcony with great skepticism. Grim had insisted this had to happen now, in the middle of the night. Prism doubted they would manage sneaking out of the palace, much less getting back inside. He wasn't wearing his robes anymore, instead borrowing clothing from Grim more appropriate to clandestine activities. All black and made for cool weather, in the spring temperatures it was perfectly comfortable. But he couldn't stop himself from sweating from nervousness; a monk of the Order shouldn't sneak around. He rationalized it as part of his duties to protect Grim. If Grim insisted on putting himself in danger, it was Prism's duty to accompany him. Still, he made his misgivings known. "I don't like the idea of us sneaking out of the palace at night." Grim dug through his wardrobe, glancing up briefly to give Prism a scathing look. "It's been awhile. I need to stretch my legs. Besides, this is something you'll like." "But what if we're caught?" Prism crossed his arms and stood his ground. He'd already lost this argument three times, but until they left the room, he still had a chance of convincing Grim to change his mind. "We won't be," Grim insisted. "Without the rains, climbing over the wall is easy. Have you ever seen one of these?" he straightened from his wardrobe, a large coil of cable in his hand. It resembled glass, its transparency allowing it to camouflage itself against Grim's body. "It's completely transparent," Prism said, taking the end of the rope. He pulled at it and bent it, surprised by its tensile strength and flexibility. "Strong, too." "These are called 'chameleon ropes' and are used in theater and acrobat performances at the Kobinaru Grand Theater. I used to regularly attend performances when I was younger, and since I'm part of the nobility, getting backstage was easy." Grim grinned as he headed to the balcony. He tied one end of the cable to a post in the balcony railing next to the palace wall, then fed the rope's length through the hole. He went back to the wardrobe to grab another chameleon rope and wrapped it around his shoulder. "How'd you get out with the rope?" Prism asked. "Why? Do you think I stole it?" Grim asked, his eyes filled with a mischievous glint. "Thinking maybe we're both thieves after all?" Prism shook his head and replied, "Knowing what I do about your father, he would've never let you have something like this. He'd know its purpose." "Veil took it for me with Father's approval," Grim said. "She said she wanted to use it to decorate her room with hanging ornaments. It wasn't the best lie, but she sold it well. After a month, she told Father she wanted to change her style, and did something different without ever having used it. Both cables have been mine ever since." "You're crafty as ever," Prism said. "Well then, down we go," Grim replied. "Don't worry, Prism. My craftiness will guide us. Grab the lights, will you?" Prism sighed and turned off the lights in Grim's room before joining Grim on the balcony. Grim grinned in the dim light washing over them from the city and swung over the edge of the balcony, taking the rope in his hands. He slid onto it, then walked against the wall of the palace, descending to the gardens below. With no more time to protest, Prism followed Grim's example with ease to join him in the gardens. Once there, he let Grim lead him to the palace wall, waiting for Grim to tie a slipknot in the cable and toss it up around one of the spikes adorning the top of the wall. He shimmied up the cable then perched at the top, waiting for Prism to join him. Once they both sat atop the wall, Grim pulled up the rope and dropped it off the other side before descending to the street below. Prism joined him a moment later, and they hurried into the night, leaving the nearly invisible cable attached to the wall. Prism waited until they'd traveled a few blocks away before asking Grim for details on their destination, hoping this time Grim would answer. "Where are we going, anyway? You've been tight-lipped about it since we left the hospital." "So, I may not have stolen the rope, but . . ." Grim pulled a small vial and showed it to Prism. "I did steal this." "What is that?" Prism asked. "It's your blood," Grim said. "Do you remember when I said I needed to pee? I sneaked into the lab and took one of your samples." Prism raised an eyebrow. "Why?" "Well . . ." Grim sighed, making sure no one else was in earshot. "I won't do this if you say 'no', but I really want to get a tattoo with it. There's an old Gor tattooist in the Old City who could make us each other's familiars." Prism staggered back from the weight of that idea. "I'd be able to feel you at all times, sense things you sense, and our lifeforce would be connected?" Grim nodded. "That's the idea." "Then of course I want to do it." "Yes!" Grim shouted, clamping both hands over his mouth as a light turned on in a building above them. At the end of the street, a patrol of soldiers moved in their direction, and Grim darted into an alley with Prism hot on his heels. "Oh blood, I need to contain myself," Grim whispered once the soldiers passed their position. While Kobinaru had no official curfew, the less attention they attracted, the better. "It's okay," Prism said. "I'm excited about it, too, but . . ." He hesitated. "What?" "I won't be able to do it." Prism sighed. "What? Why?" "Doesn't a tattooist have to touch me?" "Blood! You're right!" Grim growled in frustration. "Maybe we could figure out some way to stop that?" "Or maybe . . ." "What?" "Maybe it's not . . . not so bad." Prism smiled as an idea came to him. Grim shook his head and said, "Prism, you can't break your oaths. You said so yourself." "It wouldn't be breaking my oaths at all." "How do you figure? Didn't you just say it would?" Prism nodded, but then explained, "My monk duties currently include protecting you with my life. Being able to sense you at all times is consistent with those duties." "Are you sure?" Grim asked, biting his lip. "No. I'm not, but . . ." Prism shook his head, firming his resolve as he met Grim's eyes. "I want to do this. If I'm rationalizing it in some way just to make it happen, I'll be damned for it, but I'm not going to let it stop me this time." "Okay," Grim said after a moment. "Then let's get going. It'll be difficult to get it all done in one night, but that's all the time we have. We need to catch a streetcar." Nearly an hour later, they'd passed from the rich, predominantly Fedain-populated sector and entered the old part of the city within the wall. Humans dominated this neighborhood, known simply by the bland title 'The Old City', but the people regarded it as the toughest part of town. Uneasy as ever about their current location, Prism kept a wary eye on everyone moving down the streets, after they left the streetcar. Grim kept his hood around his face at all times, keeping his heritage hidden, but Prism wouldn't take any chances and stared down anyone who came close to them. Grim led him to a back alley, lit by only a single green light illuminating a doorway at the back of the narrow passage. Without any hesitation, Grim approached the door and knocked. Prism couldn't decide whether to protect Grim's back or front and ended up standing at his side. A light clicked on behind the door, a soft glow emanating from the crack at the bottom. The door opened a crack at first, and then all the way, forcing them to adjust to the light differential. A middle-aged Gor leaned in the doorway, smoking. Wild and matted black hair framed his face, and his bright yellow eyes regarded them in a stupor as they adjusted to the dim light. "Huh . . . what have we here? A human and a Fedain . . ." he took a drag on his pipe and blew out a puff of smoke, then his eyes lit up in recognition. "Not just any Fedain, I've seen ya on the broadcasts. You're the Duke's son, ain't ya?" "Maybe we shouldn't do this," Prism said, turning to Grim. "Ya got money, rich boy?" the Gor asked. "Yes," Grim replied. "Are you Zaalf Terbrinix?" "That's right, and don't worry, human, I won't be telling anyone ya came to me. All my clients are secret," Zaalf replied. "What can I do for ya two?" "Can we come inside?" Grim asked. "I'd rather not discuss this out in the open." "Come in, yeah," Zaalf said, pushing the door open for Prism to take it. Grim led the way inside and Prism followed. Zaalf took up the rear, closing the door and locking it. "Sorry about the mess. What with the troubles, ain't had much business lately. No one has the time or money." He led them down a hallway filled with clutter. Most were just odds and ends, some scrap metal here, old papers there, but it gave Prism the impression Zaalf didn't get out much and preferred to live among his collections. At the end of the hallway was a small workshop filled with strange and unfamiliar tools. A barber's chair sat in the center of the room, a box sitting inside it. Zaalf moved the box to the floor and rescued two stools from other boxes of junk, indicating Prism and Grim could take whichever seats they wanted. Grim sat in the barber chair while Prism took a stool. "We'd like to get matching tattoos using special inks. I need this to be incorporated into my tattoo," Grim said, handing the vial of Prism's blood to Zaalf. "And I need you to take some blood from me for him to get a tattoo as well. Obviously, as a Fedain I'm not worried about infection, so feel free to use whatever needle you have." "Ya wanna be familiars?" Zaalf asked, catching on to the nature of the request. "Ya two are lovers then? My, ain't ya two a peculiar couple! A human and a Fedain! Now I've seen everything." "Can you do it? They say you specialize in spirit tattoos, but can you make us familiars?" Grim asked. "Yep. It's pricey, though. It's illegal, ya know," Zaalf said. "Doin' it is a risk." Grim pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and handed them to Zaalf. "Will this be enough?" Zaalf counted the wad and smirked. "For one." "Good," Grim said, pulling a second wad of cash from his opposite pocket. "Here's twice as much with a little extra. I want this done as quickly as you can while still doing it correctly." "I'll take your blood first," Zaalf said. "The enchantin' has to be done before I can do the tattooin'." Grim nodded. "I assume you have a syringe?" Zaalf grinned. "Yep. And I'll even use a clean one for such a high payin' customer. Let me go get it." As soon as he left, Prism rounded on Grim and said. "Are you crazy? This guy looks like he just crawled out of a drug den." "So?" Grim said. "You're going to trust him to stick needles into you? To perform magic on you?" Prism asked. Grim nodded. "Yep. Why wouldn't I?" "He's bloody crazy!" Prism said. Footsteps alerted Prism to Zaalf's return, and he stopped talking. He forgot to account for Zaalf's Gor hearing, however, and Zaalf fixed him with an amused look. "Human, you're the one fucking a Fedain. Ya realize ya'd be executed for your pleasure? At least I can make a livin' with mine." "Come on, Prism," Grim said. "It's not like we have any need to worry about getting infected. I'm a Fedain and you've got nanites now. We can heal from anything he does." "Ya tried the Fedain juice, eh?" Zaalf said, regarding Prism with a critical eye. "The humans are sayin' that'll mind control ya. Are ya sure you're not the crazy one?" he laughed and turned to Grim, lifting a syringe. "Are ya ready for me to take your blood?" Grim nodded and grunted in pain as the needle entered his arm. Zaalf found the vein with the precision of a medical professional, drawing out a full syringe of dark blood. Before he even turned away, the wound closed on Grim's skin. Zaalf took the blood and knelt on the ground. He produced a bowl from somewhere beneath the piles of clutter and took a piece of chalk from his pocket. Drawing a few runes in a circle onto the cement floor, he then placed the bowl in the center. He poured Prism's blood into the bowl, then fished a bottle of white tattooing ink from another pile of junk and added it to the blood. With his hand over the runes, Zaalf chanted low and steady, and the contents of the bowl glowed with a blue light. A moment later, the glow subsided and Zaalf grinned at Prism. "Crazy helps the magic, human, and that's why ya came to me. I'm the best ink mage in Kobi." He turned to Grim next and said, "Where do ya want it?" "I want mine on my inner thigh. It's the best place for me to keep it concealed," Grim replied. Prism followed Grim's lead at last. "I agree with that. Same for me when you get to mine." Zaalf nodded, raising the ink and showing it to Grim and Prism. "I matched the ink I have with your skin tone. It won't be invisible, but it'll be hard to see. I can do the same for you, human." "Won't the blood color it?" Prism asked. "Only until your body absorbs it," Zaalf said. "Then only the ink will remain, but the connection will be full. This'll be like nothin' ya've ever felt. Ya' better be sure ya love each other." "We're sure," Grim said. Prism nodded. "We are. Let's do this. No more excuses." The whole process took four painful hours, but between Grim's natural healing and the nanites flowing through Prism's blood, the tattoos didn't even hurt as they walked away from the alley. Silence overtook them as they waited for the streetcar, and they basked in the foreign yet familiar feeling which settled over them. Prism felt the air on Grim's skin, could sense the teasing way the air pressure raised the small hairs on his neck and arms. If he stopped to listen long enough, two heartbeats thrummed through his body instead of one. The longer he listened, the more in sync those pulses became. "I can already feel you," Prism whispered in awe. "Thank you for this." "It's like dancing without touching," Grim replied. The streetcar approached, and Prism met Grim's eyes. His love for the Fedain echoed through Grim's entire being. "Let's go home," Prism said. "I love it when you call it that," Grim replied. Prism could taste the words as if they'd left his own tongue, and he kissed the them as they lingered in the night air. The kiss settled like a snowflake on Grim's tongue, imperceptible but for an instant before it melted and became a part of him.
  9. Cynus

    Chapter 14

    "The bond between you was special," Ghayle said, pulling away to let Prism recover for a moment. "I think your relationship was one of the purest I've ever seen, across all the time I've guided this world. I wonder if Khalis ever considered the two of you for the Purity of Connection." "That's a frightening thought," Prism said, shuddering more from the thought of injury to Grim than his own potential peril. As thoughts of his own death crossed his mind, however, he added, "A poetic death, though, I suppose." "Not all the purities died," Ghayle said. "Neredos wasn't killed for his act of pure Movement. Marhys died of her wounds, but only because she refused to be healed. Janlynd's blood was harvested after her death, as were the brains of the twins. Well, one of them was, anyway . . ." "But Khalis would've killed Marhys," Prism said. "He showed no concern for her. He was a demon." "It was not his duty to show concern for her," Ghayle said. "His duty was to fulfill the ritual to begin the Trial." Prism's eyes narrowed. "Your trial was a massacre." "Trials are necessary for development and education," Ghayle said. "Whether a trial of the body or a trial of the mind, they teach us things about ourselves we've forgotten. Was it not true of you?" ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ The ride to the temple was bumpy as ever, but Prism didn't mind it one bit. With Grim by his side, no obstacle seemed insurmountable, and a simple bump in the road was as insignificant as a gnat buzzing around his head. It might be annoying for a moment, but it would not affect him in the long run. The last month had flown by. Grim and Prism trained every day, and Prism at least hadn't felt the slightest temptation. Despite his profound attraction to the Fedain, he could maintain complete control now, believing firmly in the connection between them. One day he would be able to show his love in other ways. But he remained anxious about the day ahead. His first quarterly evaluation awaited him at the top of the hill, the one thing which could pull him away from Grim. This, too, made the bumps in the road insignificant. Though at least he had something to distract him, and he stared at the vehicle ahead of them, which Lady Veil occupied on her own mission to the Temple. "Why is your sister coming with us?" Prism asked at last, glancing at Grim for a moment. "Isn't this just for my evaluation?" "That's why you and I are here. It seems she has a personal request for the Order," Grim replied, shrugging. "I have a guess as to what it is, but she didn't tell me, and I neglected to ask. I don't think she planned on coming here the same day we were, but it just worked out that way." "Why do you think she's here, then?" Prism asked. Grim reasoned through the question before responding. "She's paid a few visits to the hospital recently, the one near the Council Chambers in Kobinaru. I'd bet the vaccine has met with promising results recently, and they want to test it." "They want to test drugs on monks? That seems like something they wouldn't really support," Prism said. "Usually they are very careful about what they put in their bodies." "Oh, on the contrary, the Order has been involved with this vaccine for a long time. Master Janlynd was paramount in developing the vaccine in the first place," Grim explained. Prism noted the sadness on Grim's features and placed his hand next to Grim's. Grim smiled, basking in the proximity. "She was a powerful woman," Prism observed with a fond smile. "That she was," Grim replied. He changed the subject to the one Prism avoided. "Are you nervous about this evaluation?" "Should I be? Are you going to testify against me?" Prism asked, denying the anxiety with humor. "Of course," Grim said. "We all know how good you are at keeping your oaths." He laughed and moved his hand closer to Prism's, leaving barely any air between them at all. Static electricity generated by the movement arced out at Prism, shocking them both. "Indeed," Prism said, nursing his hand from the shock, with a surprised glance. They shared a look and wore matching smiles as Prism addressed the seriousness of the situation. "Hopefully I can answer all their questions." "I'm sure you'll be fine," Grim said. "Despite the odds, your integrity should never be in question. I'm sure they'll see where you belong." "And where is that?" Prism asked, his eyes dancing with delight. Grim grinned wide and replied, "Obviously you belong in a palace, thief from the country that you are." The vehicle carrying Veil reached the gates, and they creaked open to allow her entry. "The gates are opening," Prism said. "I guess we're about to find out if you're right." "I will be. I have a good feeling about today," Grim said as their vehicle followed Veil's inside. Before they came to a complete stop, and were allowed to exit the vehicle, Veil had already left her vehicle and headed inside the Temple, escorted by several monks. Only one person who stopped to meet Prism and Grim had a familiar face—Master Vinh. "Master Prism, welcome back," Master Vinh said, bowing to his former student. Prism bowed a little lower than his master and said, "Master Vinh, I didn't expect you to greet me." As Prism straightened, Master Vinh's gaze took in all of Prism, sweeping up and down, then glanced over at Grim. "Why wouldn't I? You may be a Junior Master now, but you are still my pupil until the end of your sentence, or the end of mine." "I wasn't aware you were serving a sentence, Master Vinh," Grim said with surprise. "He means his death, Lord Grimfaeth," Prism said formally. Self-conscious now, standing before his mentor instilled the need to be less casual. Grim regarded him curiously, but still Prism continued in his more professional tone, "It's a joke among the monks. Every monk is a pardon with a lifetime sentence." "Ah, I see," Grim said, his eyes showing amusement and confusion. "I also came on official business, Master Prism," Master Vinh said, "Lady Veillynn has asked to speak to the masters. The senior masters have decided to hear her first, before they meet with you, so you will need to wait until they are ready." "Of course, Master Vinh," Prism said, bowing again in acceptance. "Will you be attending us during that time?" "No, I have another student's education to see to," Master Vinh said dryly. He noted Prism's surprise and explained, "While I do not normally take students, the influx of initiates has made it impossible for me to avoid those duties." He sighed in exasperation, but his usual knowing smile spread across his face once more. "But it is good to see you, Master Prism. You seem to be doing well." "The honor is mine, Master Vinh," Prism replied. Master Vinh glanced between Prism and Grim again and said appraisingly, "Yes. I can see that. If you'll excuse me." Master Vinh left, and Prism gestured toward the western grounds before stepping in that direction. Grim followed until they reached a shady spot beneath a large maple tree and sat together. "What was that, with Master Vinh?" Grim asked. "I assume he wanted to check on me. He's a very perceptive man, and I'll bet he wanted to see if he could detect any deceit in me," Prism said. "Hopefully he did not." "I meant the 'Lord Grimfaeth' nonsense," Grim said with an amused grin. "I'm sure he didn't detect anything at all, with the way you acted like we were master and servant!" Prism turned a horror-stricken face to Grim. "I just wanted to make sure I maintained the proper protocol. I didn't mean to offend you." "Has being in the palace made you into some stuffy court clerk or something?" Grim asked, laughing. This only confused Prism more, but Grim was quick to explain, "You're not a servant, you're my friend, and officially you're a personal attendant. Sharis calls me Lord Grim, and he's a prim and proper sort. You shouldn't even call me Lord, but I guess if you want to in public that's okay." "I don't want them to think anything," Prism said. Grim's bright eyes showed Prism the futility of hiding from his emotions. "You're overcompensating," Grim said, "and it's adorable." "I suppose I am," Prism said, avoiding Grim's gaze. "Sorry, Grim." "Oh, now you have to call me Grimfaeth. I actually kind of like it when you say it," Grim replied. "Okay, Grimfaeth," Prism said. Grim shook his head and said, "Never mind, it sounds too much like my dad. Let's go back to Grim." "As fickle as ever, huh?" "Shut up," Grim said, sticking his tongue out. "Bastard." "Speaking of bastards, we should see where Kaeral is. I'd like for you to officially meet him," Prism said, fluidly rising to his feet. Grim joined him just as gracefully and nodded, showing his excitement with a wide grin. "Sounds great, lead the way." They walked into the Temple, down the hall to the room Kaeral had used since he and Prism first arrived. Prism opened the door without announcing his presence or waiting for an invitation, as such rules of privacy had never existed between him and his friend before. He found two initiates in the room, one with fair skin and freckles shaving fresh, red stubble from his scalp, and the other with skin even darker than Prism's, caught in a state of undress. Two bedrolls occupied the space now, and a third was rolled up in the corner. Extra bedrolls were not normally left in initiate's rooms; they expected another occupant soon. "Excuse me, where is Kaeral Elrhanadan?" Prism asked as the initiates regarded him with suspicion. Neither were familiar to Prism, though that meant little considering the three months he'd spent away from the Temple. "I'm sorry, who?" the undressed one asked as he reached for his robe. "The Gor initiate. These were his rooms," Prism said. "I've had these rooms for a few weeks now, but I'm told the previous resident ran away and didn't return," the shaving initiate replied. "Oh . . . thank you. I'm sorry for disturbing you," Prism said, closing the door and turning to Grim, who had watched in awkward silence as the scene unfolded. They returned to their shady spot beneath the tree, neither wanting to converse until they had privacy. Grim spoke as soon as they reached the shadows. "Your friend is gone?" "Yes . . ." Prism said, glancing farther down the yard in the direction of a small crack beneath the wall. It wasn't large enough for even a child to fit through, but Kaeral had used it time and time again through his spirit tattoos. He'd use the same opening to return every night, but something had kept him from coming back a few weeks ago. Prism hoped his friend was safe, and not dead in an alley somewhere. "I guess he's probably taking care of his son now. He probably planned his escape for after making it to probation." "It's a shame I couldn't meet him," Grim said. "He seems important to you." Prism nodded, unable to keep his unease from showing. "He is. Was, I guess. I wonder if I'll ever see him again now?" Before Grim could respond, an initiate came running to them. Prism sized up the slender young man in an instant. He was a troublemaker, and had received extra duties attending to the Masters as punishment for breaking a rule. The boy's blue eyes sparked with defiance, even as he bowed and breathlessly addressed Prism, "Master Prism, Lord Grimfaeth, thank you for waiting. The Masters will see you now." "Thank you," Prism replied. "Will you be taking us there, or should we go on our own?" "What do I care?" the boy replied. His eyes widened, aware of his disrespect. But Prism could only smile. He saw so much of himself in the boy's eyes. "Thank you, we'll go on our own. Who is your mentor?" "Master Vinh," the boy replied. "Please, don't tell him what I just said! He rides me hard enough as it is." Prism bowed and replied, "You'll learn to see things differently." Grim took a step toward the Temple, beckoning Prism forward. "Let's get this over with, shall we?" Prism smiled and took the lead. As anxious as he was, he'd already come a long way, and this was nothing more than another bump in the road. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Though only five masters faced Prism and Grim directly, seven occupied the meeting hall. Grandmaster Valkean knelt to the side. Despite his position as head of the Order, he could not sit on the evaluation council for Prism, having recommended him for the assignment. Master Vinh knelt on the opposite side of the room, facing Valkean. A low writing desk sat before him, paper, inkwell, and fountain pen sitting on its surface. Prism tried to avoid looking at either Master Vinh or Valkean, instead staring straight ahead at the council. Grim knelt a foot away, facing the council at their request. Master Jovun began the hearing by reading from a page in front of him. "This is an evaluation hearing for Junior Master Prism, surname unknown. He is being evaluated regarding his position as representative of the Order of the Mountain at the personal court of Duke Selfaeth of Tehir, and as training partner and attendant to Lord Grimfaeth of Tehir, who is representing himself today in these proceedings. Grandmaster Valkean will preside over this hearing, and I, Jovun Belgard will conduct this hearing. Master Vinhkroludar as mentor to Junior Master Prism will stand as witness if the need arises and will fulfill the duties of scribe." "So witnessed," the other four masters on the council said. Master Vinh and Grandmaster Valkean remained silent. "Master Prism, thank you for arriving promptly. We apologize for the delay in these proceedings, as other official business kept us from keeping our original timetable," Master Jovun said, lowering the page and smiling politely at Prism. "Be that as it may, we are here to evaluate your performance and status, and would like to hear from you first." Prism inclined his head and said, "I will answer any question presented to me to the best of my ability, Master Jovun." Master Jovun accepted Prism's declaration with a nod and asked, "Have you maintained your commitment to the first oath? Have you upheld the sanctity of the Mountain in all your dealings?" "I have done so to the best of my ability, Master Jovun," Prism replied. One Master grunted, another snorted, and Master Jovun clarified, "Could you explain what that means to me, Master Prism?" Prism's pulse quickened. This would not be as simple and straightforward as he'd expected it to be. While trying to determine what the Masters wanted, he gave the most thorough answer he could manage. "I have presented myself as a monk of the Order and acted according to the oaths I have sworn at all times, ensuring that I serve as an example of the Order's training, discipline, and spiritual purity." Master Jovun nodded, turned to Grim, and asked, "Lord Grimfaeth, as a former student of the Temple and current employer of Master Prism, how do you feel he has performed in accordance with this oath?" Grim surprised Prism by being far more prepared, or at least better equipped to think on his feet. "I have never had reason to question Prism's commitment to the Order. He maintains integrity and moral purity at all times. Despite living in the palace, he lives an austere life, only taking what he needs to survive." Master Jovun smiled and returned his attention to Prism, apparently satisfied with the answer. "Master Prism, have you maintained your commitment to the second oath? Have you protected the innocent, the helpless, and resorted to violence only to the magnitude necessary?" "The only violence I have committed has been in the spirit of training with Lord Grim," Prism replied. Despite his struggle understanding the first oath, he had internalized this one long ago. "I have had little opportunity to defend the innocent or the helpless, but I have remained vigilant for any occurrences in which it may be necessary." "Lord Grimfaeth? How do you feel Prism has fulfilled his commitment to the second oath?" Master Jovun asked. Grim smiled and replied, "I have nothing to add to Prism's statement. He is a nonviolent person by nature, worthy of serving in a Fedain house, and his service to the second oath has been exemplary." Prism fought to keep from smiling at Grim's glowing praise, but Master Jovun's next question brought him crashing back to reality. "Master Prism, have you maintained your commitment to the third oath? Have you stood as an example to the community, a pillar of strength, and a steadfast obstacle in the path of impurity?" "I . . ." Prism began and glanced at Master Vinh, sensing his mentor's critical eye. "I'm afraid I do not know if I have fulfilled this oath. Despite my service to the Duke and his son, I have spent little time in the public eye, and have not had much opportunity to be an example. The only impurity I have found to combat has been my own, as a flawed human who has as many doubts as any other." "Honest answers are appreciated here, Master Prism, but you have been part of a community, even if only a community of two," Master Jovun replied, and Prism sighed in relief as the master continued. "You have interacted regularly with Lord Grimfaeth, and so, we will turn the question to him." "Master Prism has never wavered in this, Master Jovun," Grim replied. "When I have needed counsel, Master Prism listened and responded with wisdom at all times. At the risk of being anecdotal, there was a time when I was unsettled, because of my father's leaving several months ago. Prism suggested I train my body to take my mind off the uncontrollable future, and he has proven multiple times that the pursuit of physical and mental purity can serve as a guard against unwanted thoughts." "Thank you for your candor, Lord Grimfaeth," Master Jovun replied, bowing. Murmurs of assent traveled through the other Masters, and Prism uttered a silent prayer of thanks to the cosmos on behalf of his lover. Master Jovun asked, "Master Prism, have you maintained your commitment to the fourth oath? Have you maintained physical purity, forgone the carnal pleasures of the flesh, and avoided contact with all beings except in accordance with your service to the Mountain?" "I have, Master Jovun," Prism replied, as confident in this oath as ever. "The only times I have willfully touched another have been during training sessions with Lord Grim, and only in accordance with training. I have forgone all carnal pleasures, though I have not managed to completely contain my thoughts." "Lord Grimfaeth?" Master Jovun asked. "I have not forgone the carnal . . ." Grim began, then clutched both hands to his mouth, stifling what he'd been about to say. He blushed furiously and prostrated himself before the council. "Excuse me, Masters . . . for a moment, I forgot who was being evaluated here. I am truly embarrassed and beg your forgiveness." Several chuckles came from the council as Prism suppressed a grin. "Of course, Lord Grimfaeth," Master Jovun said with obvious mirth. Grim regained his composure with surprising swiftness and gave his stately answer without a hint of his previous embarrassment. "To the best of my knowledge, Master Prism has never broken this oath. In fact, we have spoken about the difficulty of this oath in the past, and from those exchanges I have learned to contain my own carnal pleasures with greater success. Despite whatever thoughts Prism may have to the contrary, I believe his purity to be unquestionable." "Thank you, Lord Grimfaeth," Master Jovun replied. "Do any of the Masters have questions regarding the four oaths?" he asked the council. None answered in the affirmative, and so Master Jovun spoke again. "Do the masters believe Master Prism to be in accordance with the oaths, based upon the testimony presented?" Each of the Masters on the council bowed to Prism, Master Jovun bowing last. When he straightened, he addressed the room. "Then this council approves Master Prism's continued service to Lord Grimfaeth." "So witnessed," the Masters replied. Prism bowed in response, but Master Jovun had not finished. "But we do have additional questions." "I understand, Master Jovun. Thank you, Masters," Prism said as he returned to the upright kneeling position. "Lord Grimfaeth, Grandmaster Valkean has presented us with testimony from Captain Tson of the Ultakan Military, who was present at the time of Master Prism's arrest," Master Jovun said. "Master Prism was accused of threatening your noble personage, and yet you requested him to be your training partner. Out of respect to your station, we did not inquire after this at Master Prism's initial assignment, but recent developments have given us reason to address it now. Are you prepared to testify to events leading up to and including Prism's arrest?" Prism fought the urge to look at Grim, though he ached to witness the reaction to that question. Grim's answer was as stately as ever as he said, "If it is in the spirit of truth, of course." "Captain Tson's official report indicated that Master Prism held a weapon to your throat and declared you his hostage, is that true?" Master Jovun asked. "Yes," Grim replied. "Yet Grandmaster Valkean's statement of the same event concludes that you implied you were never in any danger from Master Prism, and that it was, in fact, an act on Master Prism's part. Would you validate that testimony, and do you have any evidence to support it?" Master Jovun asked. "I stand by my testimony that Prism never meant me any harm," Grim said evenly. "As you may know, Fedain can sense emotions through physical touch. It's not terribly specific, mostly impressions, but Prism's only motivation was fear, not violence. He hoped to escape, not hurt me." "Does this mean you believe the charge against Master Prism to be invalid?" Master Jovun asked. Grim nodded. "That is correct, Master Jovun." "Grandmaster Valkean has recently presented an amended statement from Captain Tson regarding Prism's arrest, indicating the validity of the charge to be in question," Master Jovun said. "Acting upon our authority as an Ultakan court, we will officially remove the charge from Master Prism's sentence, finding the question of Master Prism's guilt consistent with recent testimony. Master Prism's sentence is hereby reduced by ten years." "So witnessed." "What?" Prism blurted. He immediately followed his outburst with a prostration. "I'm sorry for my outburst, Masters. Thank you. I am humbled by this change of events." "Captain Tson, as the arresting officer, has also suggested that, if this council finds your performance consistent with the oaths of the Order, we may reduce your remaining sentence owed to the city regarding the charge of resisting arrest. He has suggested the sentence be reduced to two years, the minimum sentence for that crime," Master Jovun explained. Prism's eyes lit up with hope, but Master Jovun hadn't finished yet. "However, this council does not agree. While we believe your conduct is deserving of reward, we would like to see further development from you. We will, however, follow Captain Tson's suggestion in spirit and reduce your sentence on that charge by half." He picked up the paper again. "Your total sentence will hereby be reduced to six years and six months, of which you have already served one year and two months." "So witnessed." Prism had never been more relieved in his life. Blissful excitement soaked deep into his bones, and he fought the urge to rise and dance at the news. To his surprise, Grim spoke up. "Master Jovun, may I address the court?" Master Jovun nodded. "Lord Grimfaeth, you have the floor." "I understand three years of Prism's sentence are the result of monetary restitution owed to the people of his home village. While the Temple has already refunded the people of Choballa, I would like to make restitution for this refund from my personal treasury in a form of donation to the temple, in the hopes of reducing Master Prism's sentence." "That is a perplexing suggestion, Lord Grimfaeth, and highly irregular. Why would you wish to do that?" "Master Prism has proven his integrity and worth to me, and I hope to retain his services as my personal bodyguard after his sentence is over, with full pay and position." Grim smiled at Prism, who couldn't help but meet his lover's eyes and communicate his silent thanks. "To be quite honest, Masters, I don't want to lose his service. Since I know he'll be subject to quarterly reviews and may at any time be recalled to the Temple during his sentence, I would prefer any potential gaps in Prism's service to be minimal and avoided entirely if possible." Prism turned back to the council as Master Jovun spoke again. "Masters, all those in favor of reducing Master Prism's sentence by three years, contingent upon Lord Grimfaeth's donation?" With some hesitation, the council members bowed in turn to Grim, showing their acceptance. Master Jovun smiled at Grim and Prism in turn before declaring, "Junior Master Prism's sentence is hereby reduced by three years. Your total sentence is reduced to three years and six months, of which you have already served one year and two months." "So witnessed." The chorus of the Masters resonated through Prism's whole body. He'd hoped for a reduced sentence, but this was beyond anything he could've dreamed. He'd prepared for twenty years, but it would only be two years until he could be with Grim always. He prostrated himself again, preparing to thank the masters when Master Jovun addressed him again. "Before you leave us, we have one more item to address. It pertains not to your service or sentencing, but rather a request we received from Lady Veillynn this morning." "Please, I would be honored to help her in any way." "This is not a duty, but a request, Master Prism. Please wait until you've heard the terms before you accept." "I'm sorry, Master Jovun." "The Central Hospital is requesting human subjects for the trials of a new vaccine," Master Jovun explained. "Master Janlynd was instrumental in developing this vaccine, and Lady Veillynn requested in Master Janlynd's honor that the monks of the Order participate, if they desire. The vaccine is meant to boost the natural healing of the human body. In the Order of the Mountain's pursuit of physical perfection, some feel this vaccine is consistent with our ethics, while others contend it is inconsistent. We are still deciding on the Order's official standpoint, but we have decided to allow monks to participate, based upon their own understanding of the Order's tenants. If you would like to participate in the program, please contact Doctor Balindae, at Central Hospital." "Should I report my participation to the Order?" Prism asked. "Yes, but you need not do so before your next evaluation," Master Jovun said. "If there are no other questions, this hearing is adjourned." "So witnessed." The chorus prostrated themselves. Prism mirrored their action and said, "Thank you, Masters." "Master Prism," Master Jovun said, "continue to serve with distinction." Prism's emotions danced as he left the Temple, Grim walking in stunned silence behind him. Both were too shocked to speak about the dramatically reduced sentencing; they instead enjoyed the prospect of a future now much closer than before. Master Vinh caught them before they summoned Grim's driver, and Prism bowed low to him in greeting. "Master Vinh, I'd expected you to question me during my hearing." "There was no need. I can see the honor in you now." Master Vinh gestured toward the same tree Prism and Grim had sat beneath before the hearing. Master Vinh did not speak again until they stood beneath its shade. "You've upheld the oaths, despite your predicament." "My . . ." Prism started to question the statement but read Master Vinh's knowing smile. Sickening dread washed over him. "You know." Master Vinh grinned wide, a toothy smile brighter than anything Prism had ever seen from the eccentric master. "A platinum hair wrapped around your finger, which you later wove into your robe. Lord Grimfaeth requests a training partner, who is of age and size to himself, during a time when you are the only one who matches that description. Your physical interactions with Kaeral Elrhanadan during the eleven months of your Temple residency." He glanced between Grim and Prism, snickering like a madman. "I know." "Are you going to tell the other Masters?" Prism asked. Master Vinh shook his head. "If I believed you guilty of breaking your oaths, I would. There are no oaths against love, Master Prism, and I believe your testimony. Every word spoken by the two of you indicated the deep bond you share, and yet I sensed no deceit on your behalf from either of you. I'm certain it can't be easy on you to keep the fourth oath, but I have no doubt you've honored it, at least as far as you understand it." "How did I ever think I could keep things from you?" Prism asked, glancing at Grim with horrified wonder. "There's a reason I don't usually take students, Master Prism," Master Vinh replied. "I hate being lied to, yet they all try. Every lie is like swallowing a peach pit; as it goes down you wonder why you ever thought it was a good idea." Prism grinned. "Do all of your lessons involve fruit?" "Enjoy your apples, Master Prism," Master Vinh said and winked at Grim. "Continue to remain worthy of them, and you'll be free to have as many as you want before you know it." He walked away, laughing loud enough to draw attention from everyone else in the nearby grounds. Only when he disappeared into the prayer gardens did Grim whisper, "That man is scary." "You have no idea." Prism sighed in relief and turned a bright smile on Grim. "Two years and four months. That's not nineteen, nor nine, either." Grim returned the smile with equal warmth. "You're right about that. We should celebrate." "I know just the thing. How about we go to the Central Hospital?" Grim's eyes widened in surprise and said, "Just what I was thinking!" But Prism caught a hint of color in Grim's cheeks and could read Grim's real feelings as if they were his own. "No, it wasn't, but I think if we went home now, my oaths would be more in jeopardy than ever." "You're probably right. But I think I know another way to celebrate." "How?" Grim smiled slyly. "I'm going to get a tattoo."
  10. Cynus

    Chapter 13

    "I can see why she had that effect on you. She was a remarkable woman. I'd not realized you were the one who put her into that sword," Prism said. "Kirra doesn't have the faintest clue what treasure he possesses." "I promised to protect her children to the end. Unfortunately, their family has a tendency to die young," Ghayle said, sighing. "Despite my best efforts, their line is far too reckless." "Reckless and pious blood mixed together. Zealots of their own natures," Prism said, chuckling at recent memories. "It's amazing how I can see Kirra's ancient ancestors in him now. Styx is a lucky man." "It's interesting, isn't it?" Ghayle asked. "How people can still be considered lucky when demons walk the world. How love can still rule in the face of total destruction?" "Yes. It's interesting, but not surprising," Prism replied. "There was always good in the world. There are always people worth saving, and people who can rise up and change things. Even against overwhelming odds." Ghayle smiled. "Exactly." Prism shook his head. "You and I speak of two different things. I'm saying the world could've been saved. You tried to destroy it." "I had to, to remind the world of its greatness," Ghayle said. "Had to . . ." Prism mused. "Because it's all a cycle? Because you're compelled by history?" "No. Because history eventually repeats itself," Ghayle said, "if you wait long enough." Prism smirked. "I never cared much for history." Ghayle laughed, her eyes dancing as she reached back into Prism's memories. "That's not entirely true, is it?" ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Prism and Grim walked into Grim's rooms and collapsed on opposite ends of a short couch. Shirtless and sweaty, they kept only a foot of distance between them as they collected themselves after their long spar. "That was a good session," Grim said between gasps for air. Sparring had relieved him in many ways, especially the last quarter, which Prism was quick to point out. "Yes, you made it most of the way through our allotted time before you ran away to take care of your . . ." Prism glanced at Grim's crotch and grinned, "problem." Grim grunted and stuck out his tongue at Prism before responding to the teasing. "Hey, just because you're able to resist so easily, you stonehearted bastard." Prism laughed. "I like it when you get mean," he said, his voice low and sultry, "It's so un-Fedain." Despite the flirtatious nature of the teasing, this remark hit home more than Grim liked, and he replied before he thought through his response, "Yeah, but my biology isn't. You know the reason I have a hard time is because you're essentially a drug to my system, right?" Prism sighed and nodded. "Yes. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have teased you." "I know," Grim said leaning his head back and letting out a long exhalation to vent his frustration. "We keep getting at each other, don't we?" "It's probably just something we started in the hopes it would make it easier to resist," Prism said. "Has it been working for you?" Grim asked, snickering at the unlikely thought. "No. It's actually having the opposite effect," Prism admitted, joining in on Grim's laughter, "but the longer we're together, the better I'm getting at resisting you overall." "I know what you mean," Grim said. "Maybe when the rest of your sentence is up, I won't even want to have sex with you anymore." Prism snorted. "That's absurd, and you know it." "You're right, we're going to make love every day. Probably multiple times," Grim replied. Both laughed heartily at that. There was no use resisting reality, and they'd learned to be positive about their situation. Of course, in Grim's mind, that only meant Prism smiled more often, which meant he had more fuel for his fantasies, both during their training sessions and long after. Now, at least, he was too tired for either. "I'm glad we can laugh about it now," Prism said. "It's been tense for a while." "You're telling me!" Grim exclaimed. "During some of those early nights I considered moving my furniture in front of the door between our rooms, so even if tempted, I wouldn't visit you at night." "Did you ever?" Prism asked, grinning. "I did." Grim laughed and stood, walking toward the cupboard and cooling cabinet in the corner. "Would you like something refreshing to drink?" "Only water, please," Prism replied, standing as well and walking to an open spot. Stretching now in his customary post-workout routine, he waited for Grim to return with a glass bottle before speaking again. "You should be joining me, you know." Grim looked Prism up and down, his eyes flashing as he set the bottle on a nearby table. "Can't I just watch?" Prism chuckled and continued stretching. Grim watched shamelessly for a minute, but as soon as his body reacted, his mistake became apparent. Embarrassed, he took a place next to Prism and mimicked the stretches, hoping it would take his mind off running somewhere private to address his arousal. To his surprise, it did, and Grim couldn't be happier. For all the jokes they made, Grim wanted to match Prism's dedication. Not because he saw anything wrong with masturbation, but because it was unfair to Prism that only one of them could release their sexual tension. Grim appreciated Prism's sacrifice and wanted to repay it to the best of his ability. After ten minutes, Prism stopped stretching. Grim continued without him, finishing the routine with the stretches Prism had started with, and Prism nodded in approval before walking away. He didn't watch him and fantasize, as Grim had at the beginning. Initially, Grim felt cheated, but he silenced this quickly. There was nothing Prism wanted more than to watch—nothing but the opportunity to remain with Grim, anyway. Prism explored Grim's room instead. He'd done so many times, always finding something new to ask Grim about. It endeared Prism to Grim even more and was one of many reasons they'd managed to transcend their physical attraction over the past two months. "What's this?" Prism asked when Grim had finished his stretches. He walked toward the low table beside the large doors leading out to the balcony, joining Prism. It was a dark-grey mask made of a thin and flexible material, meant to cover the entire head with small holes for the mouth and eyes. Two large, black horns extended from the back of the mask, curling back slightly like the horns of an ibex. On closer inspection, the mask had detailed scales painted in black ink across its entire surface. "Oh! My father sent that to me a few days ago. He sent gifts to both Veil and me for Bright Days," Grim said. He smiled sadly and added, "It's a shame he couldn't come home." "You're missing him a lot right now," Prism observed, matching Grim's smile with empathetic eyes. "You don't get to spend any time with Veil, either." "No, my family is more distant than ever, though at least I still have them," Grim replied, taking the mask from Prism. He raised it to his face but didn't slip it over his head. "And at least I know they're thinking about me." "So, what is it?" Prism asked. Grim lowered the mask and handed it back to Prism. "It's a ritual mask—a replica, actually—belonging to the Sendar people. Have you ever heard of them?" "No," Prism said, setting the mask back on the table. "Tell me about them." Grim nodded back toward the couch and Prism followed him. They gathered the bottles of water along the way, and both resumed their previous lounging positions. Once they'd settled, Grim spoke. "They're distant genetic cousins of the Fedain, actually, though they had several distinct differences. They retained a great deal of their avian heritage, long after their ancestors became primates. Large feathered wings allowed them to fly, and they were likely the inspiration behind the angels of Oligan's dominant religion, Siphali." "Could they manipulate lifeforce like Fedain do?" Prism asked. "We don't know. Since they went extinct several thousand years ago, it's difficult to know from the few biological samples we have. Most are skeletons, and only one natural mummy has ever been discovered," Grim replied. "Even that wasn't able to offer conclusive evidence either way." "What's with the horns?" Prism asked. He yawned and rested his head against the couch. "Those aren't very birdlike." "The Sendar people worshipped a god known as Naxthul, whom the mask represents. It's believed he belonged to another ancient race discovered in the fossil record, here in Ultaka. Like the Sendar, they had wings and could theoretically fly, though their wings were most likely tough and leathery, and they had large horns extending from the back of their skulls. From the fossils we believe they were reptilian, though a rare warm-blooded species, and . . ." Grim paused as Prism yawned again. "I'm boring you, aren't I?" "No," Prism said. "No, I'm sorry if it came across that way. I admit that I'm falling asleep, but it's more because your voice puts me at ease, and I love listening to you talk so much that I just want to curl up and let your words inspire my dreams." "That's a lovely thought," Grim said, smiling fondly. "Well, if it's dreams you're after, I'll take a different approach. See, even though we don't know a lot about their biology, we know quite a bit about their culture, or think we do, anyway." "What does that mean?" Prism asked. "Most of it comes to us from the Elroks, whose oral tradition has preserved not only the myths of their own people for thousands of years, but also the myths of those around them. They had territorial disputes with the Sendar long ago, but also had a great deal of trade with them," Grim explained. "Some of it seems fantastical, but I'm sure even with your disinterest in history, you at least know of the Cataclysm?" "When massive earthquakes shook the entire world, volcanoes erupted constantly, tidal waves swept over the land, demons walked the surface, killing everything in sight, unleashed from the pit of hell itself . . ." Prism said with a grin, "that Cataclysm?" "Yeah, that's the one," Grim replied, laughing. "Even though it's mentioned as fact in the history of several societies as recently as a thousand years ago, most people don't believe it happened." Prism raised an eyebrow and said, "But you do?" Grim shook his head and replied, "I have no idea, but I believe something must have happened to make the different peoples of the world record the event. The Elroks definitely believe it happened." He wet his mouth before continuing. "They accuse the Sendar of triggering the Cataclysm. Apparently, the Sendar created massive beings out of metal and energy and attempted to subject the entire world under their rule. The Cataclysm then followed, as if the world itself protested the damage the Sendar's golems caused." "Golems. I've heard that word before," Prism said. "Not connected to myth though." "There's a company trying to develop robotics which uses that name," Grim replied, nodding. "Their robots are entirely harmless and not particularly useful yet, but their development is promising." He smiled slyly and added, "The Sendar's golems were different. They used magic like the Gor do." "Like the Gor do?" Prism guffawed. Grim regarded him strangely and Prism said, "What about the Fedain?" Grim stared at Prism in confusion. "What about us?" "The Fedain use magic, too, if you call what the Gor do 'magic'," Prism replied. Grim shook his head in bewilderment. "What are you talking about?" "Do you remember my friend Kaeral?" Prism asked. "You only met him briefly, that night we . . ." he waited for the words to trigger Grim's memory. To go further would risk arousal. "Yes, I remember him. He's a bit hazy with all the other details, of course," Grim replied, suppressing a giggle. "Of course," Prism said, grinning at Grim's contained laughter. "Kaeral uses Gor magic. He's not an expert or powerful magus in any way, but he gave me a brief course on it—not enough for me to actually use it, but enough to understand how it works." "Enlighten me," Grim said, leaning forward to show his interest. "You mean you don't know?" Prism asked, his eyes dancing. "I finally know something you don't? Maybe I should hold onto it because I doubt that will ever happen again." Grim growled in annoyance. "Come on, tell me!" "Okay," Prism sighed dramatically, pausing long enough to get another growl from Grim before he said, "Fedain are able to use their own lifeforce to encourage the lifeforce in others, correct? That's my understanding of things." "Right. It's energy transference," Grim said. "All we really do is encourage the natural healing process to speed up or reinforce it. We replicate our bodies' natural healing abilities in others. In fact, we're currently trying to develop a way to use our cells to give those healing properties to others—I even donated some of my blood for development once I learned about it." "Well, when the Gor manipulate elements, they use their own body as a medium to transfer energy from one place to another," Prism explained. "Kaeral once transferred heat from the ocean to warm our bodies, using his body to connect from the water to the buoy we rested on." "What's with the runes then?" Grim asked. "Why draw them if it's not mystical." "They're not actually important, supposedly, they just help the Gor focus. I'm told it takes a particularly strong mind for a human to accomplish it even with the added focus of the runes, though. The 'right kind of mind' is how Kaeral put it," Prism replied. "But most Gor grow up learning the process through drawing the runes, so they can't do it otherwise because it doesn't feel right and disrupts their will." "That's so fascinating," Grim said, pulling back and resting against the couch to absorb the information. He nodded as he dissected it all, as he said, "Transferring energy through a third party . . . I never would've thought about it that way. I wonder if that's how spirit tattoos and familiars work, too?" "I know something about spirit tattoos," Prism offered. Grim smiled, which was all the encouragement Prism needed to continue. "Some people use them in the Dorram, though it's falling out of style as people embrace modern ways of thinking. Killing animals and using their lifeforce to alter your own physical state is something most people think is . . . improper." "As a Fedain, I do too," Grim said. But he hastened to add, "Though as someone who likes to study other cultures, I still find it morbidly fascinating. Kaeral had spirit tattoos on his ears, didn't he, as I recall?" "Yeah, and he uses them to sneak out of the Temple," Prism replied. "His allow him to collapse his body somewhat, and he can fit through spaces most people wouldn't be able to." Grim paled as much as his already light skin allowed. "That's just creepy." "Speaking as a thief, I think it's useful," Prism said. "Former thief," Grim amended. Prism chuckled and replied, "I don't know about that. Seems I'm still sneaking into places I shouldn't. I mean, I'm living in a palace and I'm a poor boy from the country!" "Oh, you belong here," Grim said. "This is home for you." "You're amazing," Prism said, "I love you." "I love you, too," Grim said, sighing in contentment. They stared at each other for several seconds, basking in the warm words exchanged between them. Contentment gave way to lust, however, and Grim turned away, blushing at how close he'd come to jumping across the couch and compromising Prism's oaths. "So . . ." Prism said, coughing awkwardly as he straightened his posture, conscious now of imaginary eyes watching his every move, "what's a familiar? I don't know that term." Grim, glad of an opportunity to avoid talking about what just happened, eagerly answered the question. "It doesn't really happen anymore here in Ultaka, since it is actually a Fedain tradition, and the Blood Church put a stop to it centuries ago. But I know the Gor still practice it, regularly even, and some Fedain still do it in secret." "Why is it forbidden?" Prism asked. "Technically there is a small bit of harm involved, so the church feels it is anti-pacifistic," Grim replied. "Usually it occurs when someone wants to bond with their animals—pets, that sort of thing. They tattoo themselves in a specific way with the animal's blood, after it has passed through an ancient ritual supposedly passed down from ancient Gor sorcerers. Though now I wonder how important the ritual actually is if the Gor runes don't really matter." "Who knows? Maybe I'll ask Kaeral if I get a chance to see him again," Prism suggested, shrugging. "What's the result of the ritual?" "The bonded pair shares lifeforce and some senses, depending on the strength of the ritual," Grim explained. "The animal also receives greater intelligence, unless it's an already particularly intelligent animal which participates. Since the ritual can be done between two Fedain, two humans, two Gor, two Elroks, or any combination of them, intelligence isn't always a factor." "Fascinating," Prism said. "Does that mean they can feel each other, from a distance?" "That's right," Grim said. "If both participants get the tattoo, it's even stronger." "Feeling each other from a distance . . ." Prism mused. He stood, his lips pursed as he paced in front of the couch. "Using a third party as a medium . . ." he muttered and smiled slyly at Grim. "I'm just not allowed to touch you or engage in carnal pleasures. Is love carnal?" Grim shrugged. "It can be." "Is it inherently?" Prism asked. "Is our love carnal?" "Sometimes," Grim said. "Some moments, it's nothing but." "Is this moment carnal?" Prism asked. "No. I don't think so," Grim said after a moment, "If anything, I'm daydreaming about long nights spent in conversation with you, not about sex right now." "Then if I kissed you right now, it would only be breaking my oath not to touch you, right?" Prism confirmed. "It wouldn't break my oath to avoid carnal pleasures." "I suppose, but that doesn't fix the problem," Grim said. Prism left him in the dark for a few seconds more, darting over to the table by the balcony and retrieving the mask of Naxthul. He returned with it and handed it to Grim. "It's not much, but at least you can feel me through it." Grim held the mask, staring at Prism with bewildered smile. "Put it on!" Prism insisted. Grim shrugged and slipped the mask over his head, staring at Prism through the eye slits as he waited for something to happen. To his surprise, Prism leaned in and kissed the cheek of the mask, pressing in firmly so Grim could feel the pressure, could sense him just out of reach. Tenderly, Prism cupped the cheeks of the mask, lifting Grim's face so he could kiss Grim's forehead next. Once again, Grim felt the pressure, the intense connection of the moment through the nearly insubstantial cloth. Lust fled from him, and only the desire for tactile connection remained, the desire to feel Prism and let Prism feel him. It differed from the physical contact they had during training, because no pretense existed here. Only them, and the thin wall separating them, a physical representation of the vows keeping them apart. Grim slipped the mask from his head and put it over Prism's, then proceeded to kiss both his lover's cheeks through the mask. He followed up the cheeks with the forehead, and pulled away, staring into Prism's eyes as he wore Naxthul's face. Prism removed the mask, resuming his connection with Grim's gaze as he laid it gently on the couch. Only love existed between them then. Whether nine or nineteen years they'd have to wait, nothing could keep them apart. Only air separated them, and they could feel each other no matter the distance. "Kaeral was wrong," Grim whispered. The moment was too sacred to speak loudly. "About what?" Prism asked. Grim smiled, reaching as if to touch Prism, but keeping his hand poised in the air, an inch away from his skin. "You do have the right mind for magic," he said. Prism mirrored the gesture, and they held the pose as they communicated silently, their eyes dancing when their bodies could not. Neither knew the time when they parted, but Prism eventually pulled away, placing the mask back in its place before turning back to his lover. "Good night, Grim," he said, his eyes every bit as loving as before. "I'll see you in the morning."
  11. Cynus

    Chapter 12

    Ghayle sensed her coming from a thousand miles away, each step the woman took brought additional strength to Ghayle. She felt the purity emanating from the woman, shining like a beacon through a sea of dark fog. As the distance closed between them, Ghayle found herself growing more and more eager. Whoever this mortal was, she had a strength unparalleled among Ghayle's children. Faith propelled the woman forward, despite a corrupting sickness which had spread through her body. In time, the woman reached the mountain itself, and began to climb. Only then did the others take note of her, though they did not sense her purity as Ghayle did. They simply tracked her, unaware of the role she would play. "Tagren, there's a Gor climbing the mountain," Goden said as he reached the shelf. "At least, she smells like a Gor. Something seems off about her." "What?" Tagren asked with alarm. "Why?" "I don't know. I didn't stop to ask her," Goden replied dryly. "I just thought you should know. "Is she alone?" Tagren asked. Even as Goden nodded in response, Aika closed her eyes and reached out with her lifeforce to seek the woman. "Yes, and struggling," she confirmed. "She's very weak. I can sense it even from here." "She's no concern of ours right now," Ibrix said. "Not unless she comes here." "But it is rather curious, don't you think? What would a mortal be doing here? The Spring thaw has barely begun. She must be nearly frozen to death," Goden observed. "She's ill. A wasting sickness of some sort," Aika said, opening her eyes at last. "I can't tell how extensive until I touch her, but I'm certain I could heal it." "We can't afford to care about her unless she makes the climb," Tagren said. "Do you not remember we are sworn to secrecy? We'll have to determine what that means regarding an intruder. We may have to kill her to protect Ghayle and the ritual." "That's a strange statement, coming from you," Goden observed. "Aren't you the one who is always trying to protect life?" Tagren shook his head. "Not this time. This time, I am committed to the ritual, to Ghayle, and to Khalis' orders. No one may interfere with this. No one may know about this." "But that doesn't mean we have to kill her," Quay said, joining the conversation at last. She stepped up to Tagren, her hands resting on her hips. "Your problem is that you never acquired the full godly perspective, Tagren. We know how to keep secrets while showing the truth. It's part of what we do. Khalis' instructions were clear, and it's you who is muddying them. The only thing Khalis said we could not reveal was Lord Naxthul's return. Seems to me we can simply omit that bit." "For once Quay speaks wisdom," Nobak said. "Makes a lot of sense to me. You worry too much, Tagren." Tagren sighed but trusted his companions' opinion on the matter. Yet he kept the dagger in his boot in his mind's eye. He would draw it if needed, and end the woman if instinct told him to do so. Ghayle felt it all, wishing she could reach out to Tagren and console him, but she had not yet drawn enough strength from the woman to speak. Each step the woman took, however, brought Ghayle one step closer to escaping her nightmares, if only for a moment. The Chosen waited, using the abilities afforded them as extensions of Ghayle's godhood to remain invisible from mortal sight. They stood to witness the young woman's arrival as she climbed past the last boulder, her frail form collapsing to the shelf in exhaustion and awe as she took in the sight of Ghayle splayed across the rock. "Ghayle?" the woman said, her voice hoarse from exhaustion. "I've made it . . ." she gasped, trying to stand and walk toward her goddess, but she stumbled and fell to her knees again. Continuing forward at a crawl, she closed the distance, taking Ghayle's hand in hers. "You're here, but . . . what is happening? What is this?" she reached toward the metal stake in Ghayle's heart her eyes filled with horrified wonder. "Don't . . .!" Tagren said, making himself visible as he dashed toward the woman, catching her arm and holding it steady in the air, poised over the stake. "Don't touch that." The woman tried to pull her arm away, her eyes wide with fright. At this proximity, Ghayle could feel the woman's pulse as keenly as her own, and her heart thundered in her chest. She finally calmed as Tagren let her go, and she moved several feet away, clutching at her wrist. "Who are you?" the woman asked. "My name is Tagren," Tagren said tersely. The woman's eyes widened in astonishment. "Tagren? As in . . . Thalgruen?" "Yes . . . that is what the Gor call me in recent times," Tagren replied. "You're real?" The woman asked. "And this is really Ghayle . . ." Instead of answering her question, Tagren asked one of his own. "Who are you?" "Marhys. Marhys Elrhanadan," the woman replied. "That's a Northern Gor name," Quay said, stepping into the visible realm. "What are you doing here in the South?" "My husband is of the Northern tribes, but my home is here," Marhys replied. "I came, as a new mother, seeking the Mother of All. Who are you?" "Quay." "Quay . . ." Marhys shook her head. "Your name is also familiar to me, but I can't remember why. Have I stumbled upon the home of the gods?" "Home?" Quay laughed. "No . . . none of us would choose to live here, except maybe the brothers." She nodded toward the Elrok brothers as they made themselves known to Marhys. "What is going on here?" Marhys asked. "We cannot tell you. You should not be here," Tagren said urgently. Drawing on Marhys' purity, Ghayle forced a sound to escape her long disused throat. "Let . . . her . . . stay." "Ghayle!" Tagren said, forgetting Marhys to turn toward his lover. He took her hand and stared lovingly into her eyes, glad for some response from her at last. Ghayle spared him all the time she could, squeezing his hand weakly before turning to Marhys. "Come here, Marhys," she said. "Let me feel your touch." "Ghayle . . ." Marhys said as she resumed her position by Ghayle's side, taking her other hand. "I am humbled by your invitation." "There is something wrong. You're ill. You've come a long way despite your sickness," Ghayle stated more than asked. She could sense everything about Marhys now, from her broken body to her faithful soul. "Yes," Marhys replied. "And you've been with child recently," Ghayle said. "You said you are a new mother? You've come for the ancient rite?" "Yes," Marhys answered. Ghayle smiled, her first in over a year. "No one has sought me so diligently in centuries. What drove you here?" "The world has lost its way, my people have forgotten their heritage, both the Gor and Incarian no longer honor their ancient traditions," Marhys explained, her eyes filling with tears even as a hopeful smile graced her face. "My mother died in childbirth, but my father taught me her ways, filled my head with stories about Gor traditions. He called them myths and folklore, but after he died I went searching for meaning, and found it in those ancient stories." "And that led you here, guided by instinct," Ghayle observed. She squeezed Marhys' hand as strongly as she could and said, "You are welcome here, Marhys." Tears rolled down Marhys' cheeks as she said, "Is there anything I can do for you? I can sense your pain, Mother." "You have already lessened my pain, simply by seeking me," Ghayle replied. "I must reward you for that. Traditionally, a reward of safety and protection for your family is in order." "I only ask to serve you, as daughters have served mothers and mothers have served daughters since the dawn of time," Marhys said bowing her head humbly as she lifted Ghayle's hand and held it tightly to her breast. "I freely give the gift of protection to your family, Daughter," Ghayle said. "You are pure of heart, and your child deserves a chance to live in this world. Your line will continue, through the end of this Trial the world endures." "Trial, Mother?" Marhys asked. "You will be among the Chosen, I can sense that in you, but I cannot tell you yet," Ghayle replied. "You will become an extension of me in this world, lingering on for as long as I persist. I will reward you with a great boon for your lineage, oh Warrior of the Wilds." She looked away from Marhys' long enough to call out, "Ibrix!" Ibrix assumed his place next to Tagren, placing a calming hand on his old friend's shoulder even as he looked at Ghayle. "Yes, Ghayle?" "Did you bring your tools with you?" Ghayle asked. "Of course, Ghayle," Ibrix replied. "Find the purest Azramel, and make the finest blade you've ever made," Ghayle said. "Nobak," she called out next. The Elrok approached Ghayle and stood at her feet. "Bind her blood and soul to the blade, that she may live on in it when her body fails her. Bind my blood to the blade, that her soul may entwine with mine," Ghayle said. "We will abide your will, Ghayle," Nobak said, placing his hands before him, left hand fingers curled into his right palm as he bowed toward her. "Aye, that we will," Ibrix said, nodding to Nobak. "Come on, stoneface, let's get to work. Where can I find some Azramel around here?" "The head of the hammer which drove the stake into Ghayle should suffice," Tagren offered. "The haft is made from Ebrani, so it should work for the hilt of the blade as well. You'll find it among my belongings." "Aye, you've an eye for quality if I've ever seen one, Tagren," Ibrix said. He nodded to Ghayle and added with a sad smile, "I'll set to work right away." "Anything to make Ghayle happy," Tagren said neutrally. "Tagren," Ghayle said. "I'd like you to take care of Marhys. I will not be able to speak to her for much longer. Even with the strength I can draw from her purity, I am slipping back into the pain." "I understand," Tagren replied. "Is there anything I can do for you?" "Nothing you have not done already, dear one," Ghayle said fondly. "I wish I could stay and speak with you a while longer." Tagren's eyes welled up with tears as he said, "We will have time beyond the gate together, when the Trial ends." "Yes," Ghayle agreed. "For eternity beyond the gate." She let him go, and regarded Marhys one more time with the gaze of a mother staring at her newborn babe. "Daughter, go with Tagren, he will see to your comfort." And then Ghayle let go, succumbing once more to the corruption which surrounded her. She remained able to listen, able to experience the world through her Chosen who surrounded her. Tagren helped Marhys to her feet and guided her away from the shelf of rock, intending to follow Ghayle's words to the letter. As they passed Aika, the Fedain made herself known to Marhys by first allowing her cat to manifest, then coming up behind it, stroking the beast's head. "You have need of healing. I can sense great sickness in you. Let me preserve you," she said. "No, thank you," Marhys replied. "I will die at my appointed time. I have no wish to interfere with the death of my body." Aika's eyes widened for a moment, but she nodded, smiled peacefully, and said, "Very well." "Are you . . . Aika?" Marhys' asked. "That's correct," Aika said with surprise. "Kaeral speaks of you at times. We've exchanged many stories of our tribes. He once compared my beauty to yours," Marhys said. She blushed and bowed. "I see now he was mistaken, for you are far more beautiful than me." "What a charming young woman," Quay said as she joined them. "Is she trying to sleep with a god?" "I don't claim that lofty title, Quay. I prefer to remain Chosen, not god," Aika said. "And Ibrix . . ." Marhys said cautiously, "is he not . . . Hundrog, the blacksmith?" "You know your gods. That's rare these days," Quay said. "Chosen," Aika corrected. "Not in her mind," Quay said, biting her lip as she looked over Marhys again. "Look at her, all venerating and cute." "You're not sleeping with her, Quay," Aika said, groaning. "Stop trying." The two continued to argue as Tagren used the opportunity to lead Marhys away. Now that Ghayle had accepted her, he was far less anxious about her presence, and wished to show her his best hospitality. "May I get you something to eat or drink?" he asked once they'd moved far enough away from Quay and Aika to speak over their bickering. "Yes, I'm feeling weak," Marhys said. "I am no longer able to endure long trips without rest or sustenance as I could in my youth." "You made it all the way up this mountain, you must be exhausted," Tagren observed, changing course to take her toward his personal camp on the mountainside. "I am dying," Marhys said, chuckling. "It comes with the territory." Tagren smirked at that and said, "No wonder Ghayle likes you. You see humor in death." Marhys shrugged and replied, "I was taught my whole life that death is a cycle. I believe I'll live again, either in this world or some other." "I share your belief, though most do not anymore," Tagren said. They reached his tent, and he set her on a boulder as he fished around for a wineskin. It would wet her throat at least until he could get her some water from the stream a mile below them. "Your courage is admirable." "Life, too, is a cycle, full of as many mountains and valleys as any great journey. The view from low places differs from the high places, but each can be appreciated for its distinct beauty," Marhys said. "That's an unusual bit of wisdom," Tagren said, smiling in approval, as Marhys took a drink. "From my husband," Marhys explained. "He learned it from the Order of the Mountain." "A wise man to learn from wise men," Tagren said. "Who are you, Thalgruen?" Marhys asked, regarding him quizzically. "You are close to Ghayle, and keep company with gods, but the only mention of you in the myths are that you are a companion to Ghayle." "She protects my identity, because I never wished to be worshipped or venerated," Tagren said, sighing. "Though I, too, am among the immortals who serve Ghayle. I am her husband." "Tell me about her," Marhys requested. "What would you like to know?" Marhys' eyes lit up with at the potential of that question. "Everything." ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Tagren sat at the edge of the rock, keeping an eye on Ghayle but less worried than usual. Marhys sat next to Ghayle, content to spend her remaining waking hours next to her goddess and hold her hand, offering Ghayle some comfort in the misery she endured. At least Ghayle had someone other than him, who was willing to watch over her, who would put Ghayle's needs above her own at all times. Though his companions among the Chosen had lessened his anxieties some, it was Marhys who made him feel less alone. The flutter of wings drew his attention westward, to Khalis' familiar form in the sky. He stood to greet the god properly, bowing as Khalis landed and shifted back to his Sendar form. "Khalis, you're back." Tagren said, when Khalis lifted him from his bow. Khalis smiled, but then his eyes immediately turned toward Ghayle and Marhys as he said, "Strange . . . to find such purity here." "What?" Tagren asked. "What do you mean?" Khalis pointed to Marhys' and said, "Her. She will suffice. Her essence will contribute, in the name of Cyclicity." He took a step toward her, his fingers elongating into cruelly sharp claws. "I need to cut something out of her." "She's with Ghayle," Tagren said, catching Khalis' arm and stopping his approach. "May she keep her for a little while longer? Ghayle is waiting for Ibrix and Nobak to complete a sacred ritual on her behalf." "I am compelled to seek the purities, and I cannot stave off the urge for long," Khalis said, retracting his claws though his eyes remained on the woman. "Marhys has honored ancient traditions to come to us, Khalis," Tagren said. "She deserves to be honored in turn." Khalis sighed and turned toward Tagren again at last. "While we wait, I have two more ingredients to deliver to you. Both came to me in Oligan. Spittle of a rebel, the purity of movement." He opened a slit in his skin and drew from it a crumpled rag, stashed within a bottle. Tagren took the bottle and raised it toward the sun, eyeing it with curiosity. "Interesting." "And the cerebrum of twin psychics, the purity of connection," Khalis said, opening a slit on the other side of his body and withdrawing a jar, filled with two human brains. As soon as Tagren took the large jar, Tagren turned back toward Marhys' and asked, "May I take her now?" "Khalis . . ." Tagren said. "Wait, please?" Khalis growled and said, "I've been across this whole world. Purity is a fleeting thing. If I do not harvest it when I come across it, I am often too late, and it becomes corrupted by the state of the world." Ghayle sensed something inching toward her but could not determine its source. This puzzled her, for Tagren argued with Khalis about Marhys' fate and yet neither made any move to approach her. Had a change had occurred in the gate? Had the ritual neared completion? The presence felt as unknowable as Khalis, as alien as any force beyond the veil of life. "Mother!" Marhys said sharply, squeezing her hand with sudden pressure as her pulse quickened in fear. "Mother, something is inside of me!" And Ghayle could feel it through her, something sliding in from below, a tentacle slicing and pulling as it ripped Marhys open and took out what it desired. Marhys collapsed against Ghayle's chest as the tentacle receded, returning to its master. Ghayle feared for her daughter, as Marhys bled from her groin, her strength and lifeforce fading quickly. Ghayle could not speak, and Marhys' willingness to die at her appointed time kept her from crying out for help. And then she felt Tagren's horror, and switched a part of her mind to him as Khalis lifted a bloodied tentacle extending from the base of his morphic body, two extracted ovaries hanging from its clutches. "The purity of Cyclicity," Khalis said, dropping the ovaries into Tagren's hand. "Only two ingredients remain. Await my return, and we will perform the ritual." He shifted into a bird and flew away, leaving Tagren dumbstruck and disgusted as he slipped the ovaries into the jar with the brains. It took him only a moment to process what had happened, and he glanced over at Marhys', who had collapsed over Ghayle's chest, blood pooling on the stone beneath her. "Aika!" Tagren shouted as he rushed to Marhys' side. "Aika, I need you!" "Do not . . . heal me," Marhys said. "I will take my place in the cycle." Aika rushed forward on the back of her cat, dismounting as she approached Tagren's position. "This isn't good, Tagren. She'll be dead in minutes with this much bleeding. What happened?" "Khalis," Tagren said bitterly. "Apparently he needed something from her and refused to wait. Why aren't you healing her?" "I know her mind on this, Tagren," Aika said. "It is against my vows to heal an unwilling subject." "But Ghayle needs her!" Tagren insisted. Ghayle summoned all her strength to catch Tagren's arm and say, "No. The blood. Keep the blood." Tagren and Aika shared a look, and both called to the shaman. "Nobak! We need you!" In the final moments of Marhys' life, she lay in the presence of gods, and could not be happier for a life spent in service to her truest self. Though it would not be the end for her, Ghayle still wept through her nightmares for the loss of her most precious daughter.
  12. Cynus

    Chapter 11

    I'm excited for you to find out the path these boys take. They might surprise you, they might not. Grim's older brother was first in line for the throne. Prism's line about being a thief corresponds to some of the words he said to Styx in Shadow Honor, too. You'll find out on Saturday. thanks!
  13. Cynus

    Chapter 10

    Yay! Right? And Prism is really into being honorable now, so will he try to live up to that decision, or will he risk everything for love? Selfaeth's already on edge. What happens now that he can't trust anyone? Where will Khalis go next?
  14. Cynus

    Chapter 9

    If mine is any indication, this is close to an absolute truth... Selfaeth is someone I wasn't intending to love. I meant to make him horrible, an absolutely dreadful man on every level. he surprised me when he did a 180 as far as his kids were concerned, and it humbled me a bit. I love it when my children resist my attempts to control them. I probably haven't sold the idea too well within the writing, but the Fedain are unaware that their healing can work in reverse. Maybe at one point before they became so pacifistic, it was different.
  15. Cynus

    Chapter 11

    I am planning on responding to comments today. I apologize for taking so long. I've been beyond depressed these past few weeks, up until a couple of days ago, anyway. But I'm doing better now, so hopefully I'll find the energy.

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