I never knew the man who first named me. Whoever he was, it's lost to history now. My mother carried that secret to her grave, and the man who raised me until adolescence gave me a different name altogether. Names are strange things, and the weight we give to them is almost as important as the weight we give to anything else.
The name I use now was given to me by a man who understood reality in a way I have yet to master. He looked at two boys standing in the sun, powdered paint and liquid sweat running down our bodies, and chose to capture that image on the canvas of our flesh within the cage that became my name. Prism; where light and colors meet.
My lover asked me to write these words, and I have rarely been able to refuse him. He means too much to me to disappoint, for I feel responsible for a great share of the pain he has suffered in his life. I will never be as cynical as him, for I believe in the capacity for change even more than he does. I have seen the great momentum that even subtle differences can gather, for my life changed direction the moment that wise man named me something greater than my past.
This world is built upon layers of history, folded underneath each other like lava flows. If we dig into the past, we can see it arrayed before us in successive periods of cataclysmic change. But those changes happened more gradually than they appear in the cliff face.
Becoming something different requires only patience and acceptance of change. No mountain is formed in a single day, and no mountain is climbed in a single step. Whether one is building a mountain or reaching its peak is irrelevant, the method is the same.
Go forward and upward. Find the enlightenment of a wider view.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Complex emotions washed over Prism as the image faded from his mind. Under Ghayle's direction, he, and only he, had been allowed to view Grim's conversation with Naxthul. It was not for them to know, yet.
Prism wasn't sure he wanted to know, either, after what he had just seen and heard. Grim's recounting of his interactions with Odiran were surprising, to say the least. Of all the people Grim could have ended up with, Prism would've put Odiran thulu'Khant near the very bottom of the list.
He and Ghayle were still surrounded by the others, despite the current privacy of their connection, and he struggled to find the words to say that would avoid alerting the others to his mental state. After a moment, he said simply, "That was unexpected."
"Are you going to be okay?" Ghayle asked with concern. "Do you need a moment?"
Prism shook his head, not in answer to her question but to clear it. "Perhaps that would be best."
Veil was at his side in a second, guiding him back to a soft place to sit. "Are you all right?" She asked. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Prism looked up to see the worry in her eyes and forced a smile, though he was certain she would not accept the expression's validity. "I simply learned some things about Grim that I wish I hadn't, and it will take some time for me to come to terms with them. But I will, because I love him, and that will be enough."
Veil nodded, but sat down next to him anyway, wrapping her arm around him. "After the confessions we've all shared recently, I feel much closer to you. It's been a long time since I've held on to someone like this for physical comfort, other than you and Neredos by the stream, anyway. Hopefully, this will be better for both of us."
"I certainly don't mind," Prism replied, smiling a bit more genuinely now. "Though I do wish you were Grim. Not because I have any problems being near you, of course. But I ache to comfort him and I'm unable to."
"Perhaps then we should return our focus to the others," Dogo suggested. "With the battle looming in Pentalus, we're in for quite a show, I imagine. It might take your mind off Grim."
Ghayle nodded in satisfaction at that suggestion. "The present is unfolding as we speak, though time does function differently here. We will be able to watch both events as they occur, if you need breaks, Prism. There's no need to show you everything that happens between Grim and Naxthul all at once."
Prism looked to the others to make sure they agreed to this plan, then nodded. "I think that would probably be best for all of us."
"Then gather close," Ghayle replied. "It is time for the last battle of this Trial to unfold."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When Kirra, Styx, and Maxthane finally found a bed to share, all they did was sleep. It had been an exhausting week, not to mention day, and all three knew they would be facing a battle. Kirra had made several remarks about his willingness to explore physical relations with the two other young men, but he was glad that they did not take him up on it at this time.
He was ready to face some of his fears and insecurities, but this simply wasn't a proper time to do that. He was the first one to wake in the tangle of limbs and extract himself from the others, only an hour or two after they had lain down. By the time he was dressed in full armor again, however, the other two had stirred and were blinking sleep from their eyes.
Kirra let his gaze travel across the naked forms of both Styx and Maxthane. Both had managed to strike a balance between being both handsome and beautiful, though Styx was more of the former and Maxthane more of the latter. While Kirra remained fonder of Styx than he was of Maxthane, he had gained an appreciation for the young King of The Shade. That Maxthane was currently lacking one arm distorted that perception slightly, but only because Kirra had not yet grown accustomed to its absence.
The tattoos on their skin excited Kirra in ways that would've bothered him a week earlier. Tattoos were extremely uncommon in the Everbright City where Kirra had grown up, but here in The Shade they were commonplace. He remembered well the first time he had seen all the tattoos on Styx's body, when they had bathed together shortly after their first meeting. Other patrons of the bathhouse had given them strange looks, but Kirra had ignored them as well as he could as he'd studied the giant eagle on Styx's back.
That eagle had turned out to be even more surprising in the end, for apparently it held a great deal of enchantment to it. It allowed Styx to shift his form and gain wings at the sacrifice of a bit of durability, though that had only added to Styx's attractiveness in Kirra's eyes.
Maxthane, on the other hand, hardly wore any clothing at all, and openly displayed his wide array of tattoos. This had originally been too much for Kirra, though he had grown to appreciate them. He'd also grown to appreciate Maxthane's strength of character, despite ruling a region which Kirra had long considered a ruthless place.
Many of his misconceptions had been challenged recently, and for that Kirra was grateful. He hoped it would one day lead to an even greater understanding of himself and allow him freedom from the chains he attached to his own soul. It would come in time, he knew, as long as he was willing to face the truth and accept it.
"You're already dressed," Styx observed. "Are we going somewhere?" He yawned as soon as the words left his mouth, and Maxthane snuggled up to his naked chest.
"He's just ready to go to war, as we all should be," Maxthane said sleepily. "Though I think we can spare a few more minutes."
"I can't help but wonder what's happening up in Pentalus. Have the demons moved? Has Lord Hount decided to attack them?" Kirra asked, shaking his head. "I think we abandoned Pentalus too quickly, because we had so many injured that we just wanted to get out of there, but I'm still a Knight. Whatever has happened recently to change my perspective on the world, I swore an oath to defend the world against demonic forces when I joined the Order of the Firmament, and I'm sure all the other Knights down here feel the same way."
"You have a point," Styx replied. "And the Resistance wasn't exactly happy about abandoning Pentalus, either. They knew it was the wisest course at the time, given the number of wounded we had, but I'm sure they'd be eager to help cleanse the city of the demons."
"If the demons make it through those above, it's only a matter of time before they come down here," Maxthane added, suddenly more alert as he pulled away from Styx.
Kirra nodded. "We have a responsibility to face them. Didn't Prism charge us with saving the world, Styx?"
Styx smiled fondly, though it was not without a hint of sadness. "Indeed, he did. And who living knows demons better than us? Maybe we should go collect Grim and get to work?"
Maxthane shook his head. "There's no time to try to find Grim. He's chasing after Fasha, though I'm sure once he's done, he'll join us. We should definitely see if Bradeth has any insight to offer us, though. Obviously, we won't be doing this alone."
"But do you really think Hount will listen to reason?" Styx asked. "He seemed pretty set on claiming the city as his own."
Kirra shrugged. "I imagine that depends on whether or not he has already tried attacking the demons. I don't care how well-trained his troops may be, they've never fought demons before, and they're going to take a lot of casualties."
Maxthane sighed again. "I'm afraid that's probably going to be true of all of our forces. Only a handful have faced demons, and I can only imagine how terrible it must've been when the demons were everywhere. So many people must've died before they learned how to fight them, and the best weapon we had against them is now destroyed."
"I do wish we had that golem right now," Kirra replied. "We could probably make short work of the demons that way."
Styx nodded and finally rose from the bed, looking for his clothing. "Regardless, we must work with what we have, and what we have is each other. Hopefully, it will be enough."
"It will be," Maxthane said. "We just have to bring all the factions together. I can speak for The Shade, of course, and altogether I could bring a thousand troops with ease. The standard citizens of The Shade are a tough lot as well, though they'll be harder to organize. If we keep them to their guilds, we can mobilize a thousand more. I'd like to avoid conscripting the citizens if I can help it, though I'd be willing to put out a call for volunteers."
"If you put it in writing, I can take your call to action to my aunt and bring the Inkblades on board. Madame Godani can then call the Shadow Council and organize the guilds," Styx suggested.
Maxthane nodded excitedly. "And I'll speak to Bradeth and Gobrak about what we can expect in terms of Elrok aid. Obviously, their numbers here are small, but I'd feel more confident having any number of Elroks on my side."
"Agreed," Kirra said with a wide grin. "With Bradeth's help we managed to kill that demon in Port Salmus, and I'm sure she'll help us out a lot more in the coming battle."
"You can speak to the Knights, Kirra," Styx suggested. "Obviously, I know you can't speak for them, but I'm sure Lady Alsha will be willing to hear any suggestions you have. She can bring the remaining Knights to the discussion."
"I only wish there were more of us left," Kirra replied, sighing. "By last count, we lost at least two thirds of our numbers recently, between the demons and the attack by Lord Hount and his forces. Some are still missing, but we might have lost as many as ninety percent of the Order."
Styx placed a comforting hand on Kirra's shoulder and said, "Not to mention the explosion of the Everbright City. Most of Pentalus lies dead now, aside from those who made it down here with us and probably a few stragglers here and there. The Resistance won't be able to supply many forces either, but hopefully they'll be willing."
"Does that mean you'll talk to them?" Maxthane asked.
Styx nodded. "I might as well while I'm talking to my aunt. My mother is there, after all."
Maxthane winced at the use of the word 'mother' but remained silent. He momentarily avoided looking at Styx. Neither Styx nor Kirra had been able to prevent Maxthane from learning that Styx had killed Veil, Maxthane's mother, the day before. Maxthane hadn't known Veil for long and didn't consider her an important part of his life, but his emotions remained complicated on the subject. That Veil had deserved to die for her crimes was undeniable. But had Styx needed to be the one who killed her?
Still, it had not prevented Maxthane from loving Styx. They had cried in each other's embrace before they all fell asleep, and Kirra had done his best to comfort them both. These were strange times, filled with more complexity than any of them truly understood. It seemed better to love first and ask questions later. Now was the time for action.
"If we're all settled on the plan, then I'll go see Alsha now," Kirra said. "If you two ever get dressed," he added with a wry smile, "you can accomplish your tasks as well."
When he left the room, Styx and Maxthane were staring awkwardly at each other. The world could wait ten minutes for them to sort things out. Kirra was fine with that.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Well, that was an interesting thing for him to say…" Styx said, glancing at the doorway Kirra had exited a moment ago. Suddenly becoming aware of his nakedness, Styx resumed his search for his clothing, wondering why he had stopped in the first place.
Before he had gone too far, however, a pale hand gripped his shoulder and held him in place. He stopped, his pulse quickening from a summer shower to a downpour in a matter of seconds, blood pounding in his ears so hard he wondered if it was raining inside his skull.
"Styx, I think we need to talk," Maxthane said. He pushed lightly on Styx's shoulder, trying to get him to turn.
But all of Styx's insecurities returned in that moment. The distance he put between himself and others to protect his soul, because he had always felt too vulnerable for closeness. The fear he had to soar to great heights, for the last time he'd fallen he had fallen lower than he had ever fallen before, and he feared the depths as much as he loved the heights. Perhaps it was best to remain neutral, to resist both height and depth and remain level.
At one time, he had believed the opposite. It had been better to embrace the highs then, despite the guarantee of the lows, for one always ensured experiencing the other. That was enough to make the depths worth it.
But which was the proper course? Styx had little time to determine the answer to that question, for when he didn't turn around, Maxthane simply spoke again. "Why won't you face me?" He asked.
"Because I'm scared," Styx replied.
Maxthane's one arm wrapped around Styx, and he could suddenly feel Maxthane's chest against his naked back. They stayed like that for nearly a full minute, absorbing strength from contact with each other. After a moment, Maxthane said, "You don't have to be scared. Not of me. I forgive you for what happened, I just haven't been able to fully understand it yet. My feelings are complicated, but none of them involve hating you."
Styx sighed and finally turned around, looking Maxthane in the eye at last. They held each other's gaze for several seconds before Styx spoke. "But I killed your mother."
"And my father sold your mother to mine," Maxthane replied. "And then he imprisoned your father for years, preventing him from raising you and being in your life. I think most of what I'm feeling is guilt and shame for what my family has done to yours."
Styx's eyes widened in shock. "But that wasn't your fault. I can hold it against Salidar, if I want, but you are not responsible for his actions. In fact, all the great changes that have happened in your life recently happened because of you rebelling against your father. I would've died against that demon in your father's gladiator pit if you hadn't saved my life against his wishes. I'm very grateful you're not your father."
Maxthane pulled their chests together in a crushing hug, burying his face in the crook of Styx's neck. "I just wish so many terrible things hadn't happened to both of us. Kirra, too. To think that we're all orphans."
"Except for me," Styx replied. "My mother is still alive, after all. Though I do wish I'd known sooner that my father was as well. I'd have liked to get to know Dogo more."
"When this is over, and we can finally start rebuilding the world, we'll build a place where fewer children have to grow up without their parents," Maxthane said, pulling away and smiling at Styx.
Styx returned the smile with a wide grin. "That sounds like a great plan. We're going to be building this world together, huh?"
"Well, we'll be building it with anyone who wants to help," Maxthane replied smoothly. "However, I'd like to think that you and Kirra will be by my side during the rebuilding. I'd make you both Kings, if I could."
"Was that you threatening to marry me?" Styx said, laughing despite his word choice.
"I would never force that on you, so early in our relationship," Maxthane said with a snicker. "I value your freedom way too much."
Styx considered that statement for a moment, then nodded. "It's true, you did free me within an hour of making me your personal slave. But, maybe one day I'll be open to the idea of being tethered to you by the law rather than a chain. But I think we have some more demons to kill, first."
"Agreed," Maxthane said.
"I only wish Prism was still here," Styx said. "It would be great to have some ancient wisdom right now. Or Grim, Veil, Neredos… Anyone from that time. Any artifact from that time, even, would probably help us."
"Artifact…" Maxthane echoed, his eyes widening. "Wait a minute, that's something I hadn't thought about. It might just help us out!"
"What might?" Styx asked.
Maxthane danced away, quickly locating his dhoti and stepping into it. When Styx still hadn't moved, Maxthane pointed across the room to where Styx's clothes were located and said, "Dress quickly! I have something to show you, and it just might be the turn of fortune we need."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Maxthane led Styx to the deepest level of the Shadow King's palatial complex. On their way down, Maxthane stopped by a storeroom to pick up a lantern. Lanterns were particularly uncommon in The Shade, as every native acquired a shadesight tattoo while still young. Usually this was placed near the eye, as was the case with both Styx and Maxthane, and allowed the Shades to see in the dark. Occasionally, however, visitors to The Shade would require guidance, and so prominent guilds kept lanterns for such situations.
The reason why Maxthane needed one now was unconnected to that typical reason. He watched Styx closely as they descended, noting the look of curiosity in Styx's eyes whenever they fell upon the lantern. Maxthane remained tightlipped about the lantern's purpose, however, until they were alone on the lowest level and standing a few feet back from a dead end.
"Are you lost?" Styx asked. "I'd hope not, considering this is your home."
"Have a little faith in me, will you?" Maxthane replied, rolling his eyes. "You're about to see something really fascinating, I promise."
"Right now, all I see is rock," Styx said. "If there's something to see here, show me."
Maxthane sighed and pointed at the floor where a strange symbol shaped like a stylized flame was engraved into the stone. Surrounding the flame engraving were a series of other symbols, most of which Styx was certain he had never seen before, equally spaced as they formed a ring except for one position where a symbol was missing.
"What are these?" Styx asked, pointing at the symbols. "Those aren't Gor, but I have seen a few of them before."
"Lodani Ulchreft," Maxthane replied proudly. "The lost human art of magic. Not entirely lost, but those of Lodani heritage who know it also protect it. I imagine there's less than a thousand people in the world who know the full syllabary, but I happen to be one of them. The thulu'Khant family has passed it down through the generations."
"The lost human art of magic?" Styx asked. "Come to think of it, I think my aunt has used a few of those as well in her ink work."
"Then I'm sure she has a bit of Lodani blood in her, as most Lodani know some of the symbols," Maxthane said. "Also, they were most commonly used in tattoo magic, which persisted where the rest of Ulchreft did not. Unfortunately, I know very little of the magic itself outside of the tattooing, but there is a trick or two that has been passed down. And, because I know all the symbols, if I ever had a teacher, I could pick it up quickly."
"So, what is this one specifically?" Styx asked.
Maxthane grinned and lit the lantern. A soft light washed over the symbols, revealing that the etched symbols had been painted by some dark, reddish-brown substance. "This is a lock, and my blood is the key. Each generation of Shadow King and their heirs have added their blood to these symbols, connecting us across the centuries. It also means I can do this." Maxthane drew a knife and cut into his palm, then with fingers slick with blood, he drew a symbol in the open space in the ring surrounding the flame engraving. Then, uttering a chant in ancient Lodani, Maxthane put his hand to the ring of symbols.
The grinding sound of shifting stone echoed through the hall, and the flame symbol in the center of the ring began to change. Though it had initially appeared as an etching, it now started to rise as if it were embossed instead, until parts of the symbol protruded a full foot from the floor. Maxthane carefully set the lantern down, adjusting its position several times until he found the angle he was looking for, then move toward the wall where the shadow of the symbol was being cast on the wall.
As he pressed on certain portions of the stone that lay in the shadow of the symbol, he heard several small clicks as they sank into the wall, then stepped back in triumph as he pressed the last one. A louder grinding sound filled the hallway, and at the very end the wall slid open, revealing a corridor where moments before had been a dead end.
Styx stared in amazement, and Maxthane gave him a quick kiss to bring him out of it. "Follow me, and you'll see something amazing."
Maxthane led Styx down the corridor to a stone staircase that led them even deeper, to a much wider space. The air in this chamber was stale, as if it had not been touched by the outside world in many years. Bookshelves made of stone lined every wall, with even more freestanding in the room. Several large metal chests sat in another section of the room. There were a couple of small tables and benches, also made of stone.
"What is this place?" Styx asked.
"A vault of lost knowledge, and a few artifacts," Maxthane replied, grinning in satisfaction at the awe on Styx's face. "I don't know if the artifacts will be of any use, as most of them are not weapons, or defensive in nature, but there might be something we can use against the demons."
"I don't understand," Styx said, shaking his head. "What use is a library that you never visit?"
Maxthane nodded in understanding. "I asked that question of my father several years ago, actually. He said that Odiran thulu'Khant, the first Shadow King and my ancestor, gave a directive to his son, which continued for generations. The knowledge in here was to be used when the Everbright City fell and Neredos along with it, and the people of The Shade were able to move freely into the surface world once again. I've looked through the library, and even spent a lot of time here when I was a child. A lot of the things in here I don't really understand, because they are engineering schematics, agricultural manuals, that sort of thing. Knowledge that would be used to make a far more technologically advanced society than what we currently have above. A lot of it is useless down in The Shade, but would allow us to build a better world on the surface."
"Then why aren't we using it on the surface?" Styx asked.
"Because in the years after the Demon War, Neredos did everything he could to suppress certain technologies from returning, even at the expense of quality of life," Maxthane replied. "I don't know what his motives were, and he may have even had good intentions, but stopping that suppression from happening was the main reason Odiran rebelled in the first place. Or, at least that was what he said publicly."
"But wouldn't your family have still tried to use some of these secrets to gain allies up above?" Styx said.
Maxthane shook his head. "It wouldn't have mattered. If Neredos had caught wind of it, he would've sent Knights to deal with it. That's why they're called 'Inquisitors', you know. They find forbidden knowledge and remove those who have it. All this knowledge would've done, until now, was kill the people who had it."
"Well, I hardly think we have the time to search through an entire archive before we fight demons," Styx replied. "What's down here that you think might help us out with our current problem?"
Waving Styx forward, Maxthane approached one of the chests and opened it. Inside were a wide variety of objects, most of which were completely alien in purpose. Maxthane went straight to one corner of the chest, rummaging past a few objects until drawing out a largish metal box. He took it to one of the tables and set it down, then opened it. Inside were a dozen rectangular devices, each with a small rectangular display and buttons.
"These were communication devices in use before the Demon War, though they had not reached widespread use by then, and I don't know how so many of them fell into Odiran's possession. They run on a power source foreign to me, but because we kept them in such conditions, most of them still work from the last time I tried to use them a few years ago. They work for short range communication, no more than a few miles, though some of these books indicate that they used to have a system for communicating across much greater distances."
"And with these, we might just be able to coordinate an attack from several angles," Styx surmised, nodding in understanding.
Maxthane grinned, glad that Styx had seen his plan. "Indeed. My father had considered using them in later stages of our plan to seize control of the Everbright City. Since releasing the demons went so poorly, we never got around to it."
"This time," Styx replied, "the demons are already free. I think it's a great idea. Now let's go get us some allies and teach them how to work these things right after you teach me."
"The first step is turning one on," Maxthane replied, laughing as he handed Styx one of the devices. "Then we'll play with them for a bit for you to get the hang of it. After that, we'll be ready to go."
"Perfect," Styx replied. "Those demons will never know what hit them."
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