Cynical Faith

Chapter 1

 

What is the price we pay for the future? It is a sacrifice of the present, built upon the hard lessons of the past. In order to create what can be, we must sacrifice what is. This is true in all aspects of our lives, even if what we create incorporates that which was into its new self. Such is the nature of life and its forces. What we consume is integrated into us and propels us forward.

I do not know if anyone will ever read these words. I'm not even certain why I'm writing them. Perhaps it's because none of those who came before me have tried this, and I do not believe in repeating lost causes. What sense is there in returning to the same mistakes that have cost us eons of development?

No, I watched the world fall apart in stagnant refusal to see a need for change. That change was forced upon all in the end. Though the trial forced us to return to an earlier starting point, it did not heal the wounds in our hearts. We were the same, for the change had not come from within us, but outside of us.

This is our story; not just mine, yours, or theirs, but all of ours. I will include as much as I can, until I believe I have covered what is important to take away from all of this. It is the least I can do for this world.

-Grimfaeth

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

After a short deliberation, Grim allowed Naxthul to lead him up the pillar from the Black Lake to the temple ruins above them. Ever since leaving Maxthane and the others, he had been on his guard, especially considering his present company. Standing in the open air of the island beside the remnants of a golem and the corpses of those who had died fighting it only made the place feel more ominous. Besides, he was eager to explore the temple above him anyway.

The wall before Grim was as mesmerizing as ever, for he saw it as much with his youth as with his centuries of experience. A large mural depicted the defeat of the legion of demons at the hand of Naxthul. In Grim's youth, he had been obsessed with the legend of Naxthul and the Sendar, the race of beings who had served him.

But he had learned over time that the world was not so simple as legends would have him believe. For Naxthul stood beside him now, staring at the same mural, his eyes bearing a weight of ages even greater than Grim's own. Grim had been disappointed to learn that the powerful being who had defeated the demons was now a demon himself. Were any legends true?

"We met once before, you know," Naxthul—who was known as Fasha by many living—said, drawing Grim's attention for a moment.

"We've met several times. What's your point?" Grim replied, only looking at Naxthul long enough to glare at him before returning his attention to the mural.

"No, I mean it was back at the gate," Naxthul said. "I was the one who pulled you out of that crevasse. I rescued you, because I believed you would help build a better world once the demons were defeated."

Grim chuckled at that. He remembered that day well, for much had changed since then, in the world and in his own life. It had been the beginning of the end, or so many had thought. The end was right around the corner now, but it had taken eight centuries to arrive. Grim was tired of the chase, and glad to have one of the last two remaining Vhor beside him. He would only have to hunt one more after this, assuming Naxthul was telling the truth.

Of course, Grim had made a habit of never trusting the word of the Vhor, no matter how much information they gave him. There was always a lie buried in the truth, waiting to claim any prey that took the bait. "Instead, you saved your greatest enemy," Grim said at last. "And I have never forgiven you for that."

"I do not view you as an enemy, Grimfaeth," Naxthul replied, and his tone was sincere enough that Grim almost believed it. "Far from it. I've been annoyed with you over these past few years, but not anymore. You are, I believe, this world's greatest hope."

"You speak of hope and then tell me I cannot fight in the last battle," Grim replied. He felt anger at hearing the words, but none of it entered his tone. There was no use in being angry at the demons, for anger's strength was a motivating one to action, and Grim had long ago committed to his path. He would see this through, whether he felt angry or not.

Naxthul shook his head, stepping so his back was to the mural and he was facing Grim somewhat to get his attention. "This is not the last battle, it is only the end of one war, and there are many more to come. War is as endless as existence, for it is simply consumption by another name. Life consumes to sustain life; it has always been this way, and it always will be."

"But does life have to consume itself?" Grim asked, meeting Naxthul's eyes.

"At some point, yes," Naxthul replied. "That is its nature. Life and death work in tandem to perpetuate the survival of some at the expense of others. It has always been this way, and always will be."

Grim knew there was logic in that point, but he refused to give the demon any credit. He thought of the best argument he could and offered it. "What if we could sustain ourselves without the consumption of other life? I've seen many marvels in my lifetime, and I am unwilling to believe that neither science nor magic is incapable of solving that problem."

Naxthul sighed, then stepped toward one of the corridors leading from the room. "Come with me," he said, meeting Grim's eyes for a moment before turning back to the corridor.

Grim followed quickly and caught Naxthul's arm, then growled, "I have followed you long enough."

Naxthul chuckled. "Oh Grimfaeth, perhaps one day you'll learn to trust me."

Grim's grip tightened on Naxthul's arm. "The first time we met, you wore the face of one of my recently dead friends in order to mislead me. You've spent our entire acquaintance trying to earn my trust through false means. Why would I ever give it to you?" He asked.

Naxthul nodded in agreement. "Your reasoning is sound, but unless you intend to kill me without getting your answers, please follow me." With a sickening, slurping sound, Naxthul's arm detached from his body at the shoulder and remained in Grim's grasp. Grim dropped the limb in surprise. It slithered back to Naxthul as if it were a snake and was reabsorbed into Naxthul's leg. A new arm sprouted from Naxthul's vacant socket and he continued forward as if nothing had happened. "It is not far, only a few rooms down the hall."

With a resigned sigh, Grim followed Naxthul out of the room. True to his word in this instance, Naxthul led Grim past several archways until reaching one collapsed section of the temple complex. The underground temple had once been a grand, expansive place, but most of it now lay in ruins. The Sendar had lived here thousands of years ago and had built this place to honor Naxthul when he was still the guardian of the world.

As Grim considered that fact, he couldn't help but draw parallels between the physicality of the Temple of Naxthul and his own opinion of the person to whom it was dedicated. Time had treated neither well, and both were disappointing no matter the answers contained within.

Naxthul began poking at the rubble in one of the archways as if testing it. Grim was quickly losing patience with this, and after a moment he said, "The way is blocked."

Giving Grim a wry look, Naxthul's arm shifted form to that of a large claw. With this new appendage, he reached forward and took hold of one of the large stones blocking the way. As Grim watched, the appendage shifted further, finding points to brace within the rubble to add extra leverage. "Thankfully," Naxthul said, "getting leverage is easy for me. Stand back, and I'll clear the way shortly. At least, enough for us to get by."

With a nod of assent, Grim allowed Naxthul to continue the work. Grim was surprised by the strength of the demon, though he quickly reasoned that the ability to shift form allowed for a wide variety of complex biological structures. Naxthul simply brought all of these to bear on his task, creating whatever forms he needed to make the work easier.

In no time at all, the collapsed section of the tunnel was clear on one side, allowing them to pass single file down the corridor. Naxthul again took the lead, with Grim following silently behind, wondering what surprises were in store for him.

They arrived at a large chamber which took Grim's breath away at his first glance. He had seen drawings of such places in archaeological books, though he had managed to find very few on the subject since the demons had invaded the world. While they had destroyed much of the knowledge from ages past, they had not touched this place, for it had been beyond their notice.

Four broad but short pillars formed the corners of a perfect square in the center of the room, large enough to accomodate a crowd of fifty people inside. On top of each of these pillars sat a large, purple crystal seemingly melded into the stone beneath it. Facing the corners of the square were smaller, blue crystals like those used in eternal lamps such as the ones below them in The Shade. From the diagrams Grim had seen, he was certain these blue crystals were supposed to be used to illuminate the purple ones, and their only function were as light sources. The purple crystals, on the other hand, would project an image of light into the center of the square.

Grim had no idea how to activate it, and the one diagram he had seen referenced the only working one that had ever been found. That had been at a much smaller Sendar outpost, and the only thing it had projected were astronomy diagrams, and none contained information that was not already known. He wondered if this would be as disappointing as everything else in this place.

"Is this what I think it is?" Grim asked.

Naxthul moved forward, inspecting the pillars before moving to the far wall of the room where many rows of hand-sized vaults were set into the wall. Grim followed him and saw that there was writing on each of the vaults, in a language he had seen but the meaning of which had been lost to time. Naxthul opened one of the vaults and pulled out a long, crystal cylinder etched with symbols very similar to Gor runes. He frowned and returned it to the vault before moving on to another one.

"Assuming the system still runs," Naxthul said absently, "it is the last archive of the Sendar people. I'm sure you know all that there is to know about them."

"I know a thing or two," Grim replied with a shrug.

Looking up sharply, Naxthul chuckled softly as his surprise faded. He resumed his search and said, "You and I both know that you are this world's expert on the subject now. Aside from Ghayle and myself, anyway. I suppose Tagren also prevents you from holding that title, but the three of us hardly count. You still have choices to make, while we…" He sighed and continued, "we do not. We are bound by the Trial and committed to our paths."

"What do the Sendar have to do with anything?" Grim asked.

"If I can get this archive up and running, I hope to be able to show you. Until then, perhaps you can tell me how you grew so cynical and distrusting," Naxthul suggested.

"Why would I tell you anything?" Grim asked with a snort.

"What difference does it make if you're only going to kill me in the end?" Naxthul asked with an exasperated sigh.

Grim considered the point for a moment, then nodded. "Very well. I suppose there's no harm in conversation. My history is well known during the war, and I know you watched everything we did, so I won't bother going into those details. Instead, perhaps it's best to begin at the end, but we thought we had already saved the world."

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

"What do you mean 'no one can find Prism'?" Grim asked, his eyes blazing with a mixture of anger and surprise as he stared at the young messenger standing in his doorway.

The young woman gulped in fear, adding a quick jerk of a bow and steadying her breath before answering. "I'm sorry, Lord Grimfaeth, your sister simply said—"

"I don't care what she said, I want to know what happened to Prism!" Grim snapped. He was beginning to lose his patience with these messengers, who seemed to be all he could contact now that he had returned to the Everbright City. He hadn't yet tried to contact anyone on the Council, though he wondered if the Council still existed with all these whispers of "King Neredos" going around.

The young woman continued, her eyes as white as ever. "She said he was missing after the battle, but he was not found among the dead."

"He's missing!?" Grim roared. "This is unacceptable! Completely unacceptable!" If he were in a calmer frame of mind, he would've been surprised at his own volume, but his mind was as frantic as it had ever been. When he had decided to pursue the Vhor instead of fighting in the battle to seal the demons alongside Prism, he had expected Prism to come after him. When Prism had failed to arrive where they had arranged to meet, Grim had grown worried and returned to find out what had happened to his lover.

He needed answers now, before his mind grew too erratic to calm. He stormed past the messenger, leaving her offering frantic apologies in his wake. Pushing past servant and guard alike, Grim made his way to the council chambers, determined to get to the bottom of this issue. Most of the guards recognized him and stepped out of his way, and those that stood to challenge him rethought it after seeing the look in his eyes.

When he arrived at the council chambers, he didn't even bother to look at the guards, and simply reached for the handles of the doors. Throwing them open, he strode into the room and faced Neredos down the long council table.

"Has anyone tried searching for him?" Grim asked as all eyes turned toward him.

"Grim, we are in the middle of the meeting, and—" Neredos began, clearly annoyed by this outburst. Veil sat to one side of him, and Odiran to the other, and both regarded Grim with concern rather than annoyance.

"I don't care about your meeting, Neredos," Grim snapped. "I want to know where Prism is, and I want to know what you are doing to find him."

"What do you mean, Grim?" Veil asked. "We assumed he went to find you. In fact, I told the messenger—"

"He did not. And I do not feel him," Grim said, and then immediately was forced to suppress a sob. That was the first time he had admitted out loud that his link with Prism appeared to be gone. Not muted as it had been when Prism's tattoo was damaged at the gate. It was gone entirely, as if it had never existed.

"Perhaps he went in the wrong direction?" Maybe he's looking for you on the opposite side of the world. You weren't exactly keen on communicating with him before you left, preoccupied as you were with the Vhor."

"I may not have communicated that to you, but Prism knew exactly where I was. And the Vhor should be our most pressing concern, Neredos. They're still out there, and they still want to destroy the world," Grim replied coldly. "For the moment, I would like to know how you lost my lover in your fool's errand of drawing the demons together instead of simply hunting them down."

"You are out of order, Grim," one of the council members said. It was a woman, but Grim's attention was on Neredos, and he didn't bother to identify the woman with even a glance. She continued anyway, as if Grim were an unruly child. "You will not speak to the leader of the new world that way."

Neredos shot the woman a look and said, "Thank you, but I can handle myself." Turning his attention to Grim, he went on, "Grim, I don't know where Prism is, and I'm sorry that we can't help you. If you'd like to speak to some of the soldiers and see if they will help you in your search, I'm sure we can spare some from the work crews to—"

Frowning in disgust, Grim said, "Spare me, Neredos, I have my own resources. We both know you're too concerned with building whatever this 'new world' is to give time for your friends. When I return with Prism, we're going to have a long talk."

Anger fueling him now, Grim turned on his heel and left the room as swiftly as he had entered. He felt the eyes of the guards on his back as they closed the doors after him, but he didn't give a second thought to them. He had work to do.

He returned to his chambers where he had stored his things and began packing. On his way to the Everbright City, he had already looked for Prism at every strategic stop along the way. He'd only taken a cursory scan of the surroundings, however, trusting in the bond between him and Prism to lead to their reunion. Now he was resolved to be ten times as thorough, until he found either Prism or his corpse.

Just as he was about to sling his pack over his shoulder, there was a knock at the door. Hoping it would be a message from one of the other inquiries he had sent out, telling him that Prism had been found alive and well, he eagerly opened the door. His face fell as soon as he saw Odiran thulu'Khant standing on the other side, posed with all the formal rigidity of a pallbearer.

"What do you want, Odiran?" Grim said tiredly, letting go of the door and turning his back on Odiran. He returned to his pack and adjusted the straps, ready to pull it on at any moment and leave the room.

Odiran stepped inside the room and closed the door behind him. "I want to help you. You and Prism were both valuable in ending this war, and the way Neredos treated you is . . . improper."

Grim shook his head and turned to face Odiran. "I have no patience for your political schemes, Odiran. If you think to turn me against Neredos for your own gain, think again. I'm not concerned who's king over this world, I'm only concerned with saving it."

Odiran bit his lip indecisively, a peculiar action for him, as he rarely displayed his emotion. "And I'm only concerned with making sure that you find the help you need. No strings attached, I promise."

"What aid can you offer me?" Grim asked, already too annoyed with this conversation to notice the subtle deviation from Odiran's typical behavior.

"Not every group is loyal to Neredos," Odiran replied, "and whatever soldiers he promised he could spare, he would likely abandon the search prematurely. You want answers, and I have a network of people who listen and relay messages to me. I have prevented many assassination plots over the course of the war, probably more than you would think possible."

Grim remembered the assassination plots he had discovered in the military reports during the war. This recalled his theory on Odiran's true nature as a Fedain instead of the human he pretended to be. Odiran had poisoned himself several times during those pseudo-assassinations and come away without showing any signs of it. "And how many did you plan?" Grim asked.

Odiran shrugged. "Only enough to test the system."

It was subtle, but Grim picked up on the slightly guarded tone behind Odiran's words. He studied Odiran's gaze critically, and with a touch of awe he said, "You know already, don't you? You know that I'm aware of your identity."

A tiny flash of fear entered Odiran's eyes. If Grim hadn't been watching closely, he never would've seen it. "The new Chief of Lions Revash told me about your theory," Odiran said, "A fascinating thought, really."

"Your lack of denial speaks volumes, Odiran. So, you're a Fedain. Does that mean you're helping me out of some strange Fedain solidarity?" Grim asked, smirking.

Odiran shifted uncomfortably, something he had never before done in Grim's presence. "Something like that," he replied.

"No…" Grim said, reality dawning on him so purely he was momentarily overcome by it. "You can't help yourself, can you? You have to help me?"

"Do you want the help or not?" Odiran asked. There was anger in his words, but it was losing to something else. A profound infatuation that sought to overcome everything else Odiran felt.

"You are so in love with me right now that you would do anything I asked. How strange a predicament that must be for you!" Grim said, shaking his head in wonder.

"Do not test the limits of my biology, Grim," Odiran growled, his anger mounting for a moment, "for I am not as Fedain as you. It might take willpower to resist you, but I have more of that than anyone else alive, and enough ambition to put it to use."

"You know that if you help me, I won't be relieving any of that pressure that you feel. Your infatuation will go unsatisfied. I do not return your feelings, and I never will," Grim said firmly. "Being half Fedain, those urges hit you later in life than they would if you were a full blood. Of course, all our data on half-bloods is several centuries old."

"In Lodan, ours is not. Our sexual maturity is unaffected, as humans and Fedain mature at the same rate physically, but the Fedain hormonal maturation is a different matter. For some it triggers in our adolescence, and for some it happens a decade, or sometimes even two, later. For the lucky ones, it never triggers at all. But I am now fully functioning and… By the shadows, why am I telling you this?" Odiran growled, looking away and biting back another string of curses related to shadows and secrets. He took a deep breath and met Grim's eyes again. "If I help you, at least the emotion will abate for a while, and it will be a lot less trying on my emotions than killing you would be."

"And easier, as well," Grim replied dryly. "You would find killing me very difficult indeed."

"That thought also crossed my mind," Odiran replied, his eyes widening at his own candor. He had never been this forthcoming about anything in Grim's experience, and by all appearances, Odiran was doing his best to keep his secrets to himself and simply failing.

But because of that, Grim trusted Odiran more than he ever had before, though it still wasn't much. Nevertheless, it was enough to entertain the offer Odiran was making. "And these listeners of yours, you have them everywhere?" Grim asked. "I hear there are people already beginning to settle in some of the outlying regions."

"I have them everywhere, and I can put them to use looking for the Vhor as well," Odiran replied with a touch of eagerness. "I know you've been looking for them, and I'd love to help."

"I can always ask Ghayle for assistance," Grim said. "Why do I need you when I have her?"

"She and Kixhan have already left. No one has seen them. It's almost as if they were never even here," Odiran said.

Grim grimaced at that, wondering if this was another of Odiran's ruses. "What you're saying is I'm out of options except for you."

"You can always go back to Neredos," Odiran replied with a helpless shrug. Now that he had all but admitted to having feelings for Grim, he was making little effort to hide his emotions. His eagerness and fear were both on display, and he feared Grim's rejection most of all.

And as Grim quickly weighed his options, he realized that taking Odiran's offer made the most sense. "Very well," he said at last "I suppose it's better to work with the evil I know. Neredos has his hands full, after all."

Odiran sighed in relief. "Thank you, Grim. I feel better already."

"But you will give me the whole truth, Odiran. You will tell me everything you know, and everything you learn about Prism or the Vhor," Grim said, catching Odiran's gaze and holding it to communicate the sincerity of his words.

"I promise," Odiran replied. His eyes were so lacking deception, Grim almost believed it.

But it was enough for Grim, so he gestured to an open chair and then moved his pack away from the other one. "Then let's begin," he said as Odiran took a seat across from him. "I told Prism I would meet him in the Dorram, at an outpost we had guarded during the war…"

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Sleep had fled from Grim long ago. He had a seemingly endless pool of life force he had acquired during the war. Seemingly endless only by perception, for Grim knew there was a bottom to this ocean floor, and he would reach it at some point. He would sleep then. Until then, he would simply repair his body through that energy.

Grim was certain he knew how to transfer energy more efficiently than any Fedain he had ever heard of. It had started with that kill of one of the humans attempting to execute Prism, but his ability had grown tremendously once he killed his first demon. Each successive demon had taught him more, and those which had wounded him had taught him twice. He could transfer life force to or from another being in seconds, and repair his body just as fast.

As long as the reserves held out. As long as he had the energy. That was key to everything, and he'd reach the bottom soon. He knew it was there, just beyond his sight. He'd hit it soon enough, and he wondered if freefall through life force would be more like traveling through air or water. Would he collide with such great momentum that he died in sweet, ignorant oblivion, or sink slowly into the sediment of reconstituted death? The speed at which one traveled determined swiftness of arrival, though often in such a case one prefers to arrive late. Grim did not prefer that. He welcomed blissful oblivion now, just as soon as he reached the bottom.

But that was not yet. He had time, yet. But he was running out, and running into madness. And in every day that he could not find Prism, and the Vhor remained active, it seemed like all he could do was latch on to that prismatic light in the darkness and hold on tight to life to pull him through. Without it he'd have nothing.

But he was running out.

He had killed five Vhor in the past three years, all which Odiran had specifically directed him to. Odiran thulu'Khant's system of listeners had proven extremely effective at rooting out the demons. Odiran was certain there were only a few left, as he'd managed to track them by their coordination with each other and the disruptive ripples that took place in society as a result. If they continued like this, it would only be a matter of time before they found those remaining.

But then why couldn't Odiran find Prism? That had been the question on Grim's mind the entire time, because if Odiran was as effective at finding beings as he clearly was, then there should've at least been some scrap of knowledge about Prism's whereabouts. But there was nothing; the only relief Grim had was that Prism had not yet turned up dead.

Of course, Grim had a theory about that. It was a theory that had been whispered to him by the last Vhor he had killed, though the doubt had already existed in Grim's heart. That Vhor had accused Grim of working with the man who had murdered Prism. Had Odiran killed Prism and buried the evidence? He was certainly ambitious enough, and there was the matter of his infatuation with Grim.

That suspicion had only grown during Grim's return trip to Pentalus, the new name for the settlement being built in the ruins of Kalle. The name meant "pillars" in Lodani, and had been suggested by Odiran, who had become the first mayor of the city. Some still referred to him as the Shadow King, or the Under King, for he only led beneath the shadow of the Everbright City. King Neredos ruled everything else, and his Knights of the Firmament were maintaining that order rather well.

Still displeased by their relative positions, Odiran often expressed counterpoints to Neredos' decrees even in public council. However, for the most part, Odiran seemed to work well with Neredos on the surface. But Grim could not trust that this was not a ploy to put Neredos in a vulnerable position. There was just too much suspicion, and too many fingers pointed Odiran's way, for Grim to discount them entirely.

And it was time to drop all the façades.

Odiran had built his home over the entrance to the large cavern beneath the city. It was a modest dwelling, not nearly as large as the palace Grim would've expected him to build, though there were whispers that Odiran had begun building such a place in the cavern below.

He had worked closely with the Elroks as well, using his connection to Revash to ally himself with many of the clans and recruit their stonemasons, to help him carve out dwellings in the walls and pillars of the cavern, without risking the structural integrity of the place. A thriving community was beginning to form in the cavern, for those who found no place in the Everbright City or Pentalus seemed quite comfortable in the cavern.

Grim had yet to see any of it, for he had been too busy chasing down Vhor to investigate what was being called 'The Shade'. He'd heard that the glowing lichens in the cavern were some of the most beautiful things anyone had ever seen, but he did not have a mind for beauty anymore. Only his mission. Only Prism and the Vhor remained.

Grim was admitted into Odiran's chamber as if he were family. The guards never stopped him, searched him, or even touched him. Odiran had told them that Grim was to be trusted above all others. In Grim's mind, that only seem to add to the ploy.

"Grim! It's so good to see you!" Odiran said excitedly. For three years he had slowly shown more and more emotion to Grim, though for the most part he kept his usual reserved formality in public. He approached Grim with a smile and bright eyes but did not touch him. "It has been a few months since you last stopped by. Unfortunately, I still have no news on Prism, but I hope the information I gave you on that Vhor was good?"

Grim kept his face neutral, studying Odiran's gaze as he searched for the truth in those eyes. "I killed him, but he didn't have the information I was looking for," he said quietly. His suspicion surged as he remembered the Vhor's parting accusation. Was Odiran playing him?

"We'll find them, both the Vhor and Prism. If we have to investigate each person individually, we'll find—" Odiran's words were cut short by Grim's lips pressed against his. Grim put as much urgency into the kiss as he could. When he pulled away for breath, he studied Odiran's face again. "That was unexpected," Odiran said breathlessly.

"Stop talking, Odiran," Grim said, reaching up to tenderly stroke Odiran's cheek. "For three years, all you've done is talk, it's time to put some of your words into action." He kissed Odiran again, just as forcefully as before.

"What about Prism?" Odiran asked before kissing back. They kissed several more times before Odiran started pressing forward, eagerly pulling Grim against him.

"Prism is never coming back; you and I both know that," Grim said, the words sounding hollow in his ears.

Odiran pulled back, shaking his head. "You shouldn't give up your search. Just because you haven't found him yet—"

Cutting him off with another kiss, Grim said, "I thought I told you to stop talking."

Grim guided Odiran back to his bed, disconnecting himself from the reality of the moment. He put Prism out of his mind, allowing his natural impulses to take over. Sex hadn't existed in his life for three years, but his body still wanted it. It craved the stimulation like a dog craves meat, and even if it had to gnaw on bones to get a taste of it, it would do so.

Determined hands pushed Odiran to the bedding then went to work on his clothing. Madness filled Grim as he feverishly stripped Odiran down to nothing. He paid no mind to the beauty of Odiran's perfectly sculpted form, nor wondered about the many interesting tattoos decorating his skin that had previously remained hidden from all others in the world. This was not about that.

Odiran attempted to reach for Grim's clothes and strip him in turn, but Grim pushed his hands away. Instead, Grim allowed his hands to trace every sensitive area on Odiran's body as only a Fedain could. Using just a brush of life force, Grim transferred it to Odiran's nerves, stimulating them just enough to bring them to ecstasy.

"Tell me, Odiran, have you ever been with another Fedain?" Grim asked as Odiran moaned with pleasure, his back arching and hips thrusting toward Grim.

"No…" Odiran said shakily, barely managing to force the word out.

"Is it everything you thought it would be?" Grim asked as he placed his hands near Odiran's groin, sliding along his inner thigh and teasing the skin around his throbbing cock.

Odiran's hands clutched the bedding with a white-knuckled grip, overwhelmed by the sensations coursing through him. Grim took the opportunity to switch gears in his methods and began delving into Odiran's emotions, searching them for answers. Beyond the waves of ecstasy were all the complexities of Odiran's mind; ambition, vengeance, loyalty, curiosity, and a complete lack of trust of anyone but himself.

Grim latched onto this last one and delved deeper, seeking the root of it as he continued to stimulate Odiran's body with everything he had. "Does your body finally feel as complete as that infernal mind of yours?" He said seductively, his voice sounding alien in his own ears.

"Yes! By the shadows, yes!" Odiran screamed as the new wave of stimulation washed over him. Grim pushed further into that distrust as Odiran's body vibrated beneath his fingers, knowing that Odiran was keeping something back from him. It was maddening not to know the nature of that secret. Odiran had to know where Prism was. He had to!

"Do you still believe I should abandon my search for Prism?" Grim asked, sending his strongest wave of stimulation yet.

Odiran batted at Grim's hands. Something had changed in his emotions, a wall forming between the ecstasy and everything else. "S-stop…" He stammered.

"Tell me how you really feel!" Grim growled, sending even more energy through his fingers.

"Stop!" Odiran roared, surging with willpower as he forced Grim's hands away from him and rolled out of reach. He came up standing, assuming a defensive posture. His naked body was slick with sweat, his eyes darting suspiciously.

"You never had any intention of helping me find him, did you? Did you!?" Grim screamed, his eyes blazing with fury.

"This was…" Odiran dropped his hands as he momentarily stared at Grim in stunned silence, "manipulation? You were doing that because…" He swayed on his feet, took a step back, and shook his head as if to clear it. "I should've known it was too good to be true."

"You already know what happened to Prism, and you've kept it from me," Grim said icily, his eyes never leaving Odiran's face. "You killed him, didn't you?"

"I don't know what happened to him," Odiran replied after a moment. His breathing slowly returned to normal, and when he spoke there was a tinge of bewildered anger to each of his words. "You know, when we started this three years ago, I made a commitment that I had never made before. I promised to tell you everything. Are you aware of how much I love secrets, Grim? They are my favorite thing in the world, and I was willing to sacrifice them for you. And this… this is how you repay my commitment…" He sighed, and for the space of three breaths between them, they were the only two people who existed in the whole world. It was a moment of perfect stillness, unlike anything Grim had ever experienced before. When Odiran spoke again, the spell broke, and reality came flooding back in. "Apparently, there is a cure for Fedain infatuation after all. All it takes is broken trust."

"You never had my trust to begin with," Grim replied.

"I told you everything I know. But I won't help you any longer. To think that I would have even put aside revenge for you…" Odiran said, shaking his head again. "What was I thinking?"

Grim's suspicion started to fade along with his anger as he searched Odiran's eyes. There was no deceit there that Grim could see. There was nothing but the truth. "You really don't know?"

"I really don't," Odiran replied quietly.

"Then what were you hiding from me?" Grim asked, dumbfounded that he could be so wrong. "I could sense you holding something back in your emotions when I touched you."

"That I was truly in love with you. I held it back to protect myself from reality, knowing you would never be in love with me," Odiran replied, then shrugged as if it did not matter. He reached for his clothes and began to dress himself, avoiding Grim's gaze entirely. "Don't worry… that's gone now. Leave before I have you killed."

Grim staggered as if he had just finished off an entire bottle of wine. The haze of confusion settled into his mind, drawing his thoughts down a thousand paths he had never considered before. He had to fix this somehow. "Odiran, I—"

"Leave," Odiran said, pausing just long enough to glance at Grim. The look in his eyes communicated everything, again without deceit. Odiran would never help him again, and if he ever saw Grim, he would kill him on the spot if he was able. But there was no hatred there, only the indifference one felt when exterminating an insect that was no longer of consequence.

Grim left.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

"I see the look in your eye, Fasha, and you can spare me your attempt at empathy. I know you don't have it in you," Grim snarled at Naxthul when he finished recounting his tale.

"I must admit, I'm a bit surprised you're willing to tell me so much," Naxthul replied.

Grim shrugged. "What does it matter? I've confessed these sins several times over the years, twice to lovers and once to an old monk I met on the road. I do not care if the world knows my sins, why would I care about telling you?"

Naxthul conceded the point with a nod and replied, "I, too, have lost a lover to this war, Grim. Whether you believe it or not, I know all the ways that love can make one drunk, including the madness of loss. Eight centuries since Khalis died, and still I long for him."

"I suppose in a way we're even," Grim said indifferently. "I killed your lover, and you killed mine."

"I admit I killed yours in revenge," Naxthul said.

"Likewise," Grim replied.

Naxthul sighed heavily and said, "Odiran thulu'Khant was a complicated man. He was our best chance of mounting a rebellion against Neredos, but not while you were in the picture. I suppose while we're confessing our sins, I should inform you that we manipulated you into breaking his trust."

"I reasoned that out years later. Together, we were too effective at killing you, and you had to break our alliance," Grim replied. "Do you know the worst part?"

"Tell me," Naxthul said, meeting Grim's gaze and holding it.

"The moment I learned he had never lied to me, I fell in love with him," Grim replied so quietly it was almost a whisper. "By then it was too late. Somehow, it always seems it's too late for me."

 

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