Cynical Faith

Chapter 4

Grimfaeth asked me to carve these words into the stone, though that is not Elrok custom. We believe in teaching our lessons directly, but I understand his fear. What if there is no one to teach? What if the lessons do not continue?

While I believe the Elrok people will continue as long as the mountains, even mountains erode with time, and all their greatness fades along with the memory of their existence. One may find ripples of great oceans on the desert dunes and the bones of great whales many miles from the sea, wondering how such a thing could occur.

The world shifts on cataclysmic tides beyond the scope of our understanding, and changes at speeds we cannot adequately process. Sometimes those speeds are so fast we simply cannot track them, and sometimes they are so slow we do not have the eons to watch them unfold.

A sunrise has both the immediacy of cresting light and the slow development of changing colors. Like leaves in autumn, most are astounded by the results and do not take the time to appreciate the process of change.

There may come a time when no Elrok walks the surface of this world, when life fades from this rock entirely, and the sun goes dark to signal our oblivion. What ripples of our oceans will one find in the deserts we leave behind? When explorers find the carcass of our shattered world, will they wonder how it got there, or accept that it is and move on without another thought?

Welcome the light and watch the colors. Know that change comes in many forms, and each one has meaning in its own time.

       ~Telzath

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Kirra stood in the doorway of the room where Alsha lay, only mildly surprised to see her still asleep. She must truly be in pain indeed to be resting now, for Alsha rarely allowed herself rest when the world was in trouble. She was the strongest person Kirra had ever known, or at least, she was the strongest in all the ways that Kirra wished he could be.

He argued with the idea of waking her, wondering if he should seek out Commander Belthin instead, though he wasn't even certain if Belthin had made it down into The Shade. By Veil's order, Alsha was in command of the Everbright City's forces in Pentalus, but they were no longer in Pentalus. Perhaps it was time to allow someone else to lead, as Alsha clearly could not in her current state.

"She's doing better," Fenri said from behind Kirra.

Kirra turned to regard the other Knight curiously. "She still looks as bad as she did before. You told me she was doing well, last time we spoke, but she looks like hell."

"I'm so glad you feel that way, Kirra," Alsha said sleepily. She yawned as the last word left her mouth, then rolled over to face him. "You're looking stunning yourself. Practically glowing for the end of the world."

Kirra sighed and stepped into the room. Fenri followed him, and the two grabbed chairs from the side of the room and set them up next to Alsha's bed. Once they had settled, Kirra spoke, "We need to go back to Pentalus to help defeat the demons."

"Pentalus is Hount's now. He fought for it, he won it, and the demons are his to deal with," Alsha said, shrugging. "Why should I care what happens to them?"

"Because we are Knights of the Firmament," Kirra replied. "And we swore an oath to—"

"Fenri," Alsha said, ignoring Kirra, "I seem to remember Kirra saying he didn't want to be a Knight anymore. Don't you?"

Fenri winced, glancing at Kirra apologetically before replying, "I seem to remember hearing that, yes."

"Then do you think Kirra has a right to speak for what a Knight of the Firmament should do to honor their oath?" Alsha asked.

Kirra seethed as he perceived Alsha's dismissal. She wasn't going to listen to him, even though he had been certain that she would. Maybe he should've tried to find Belthin after all.

"I think that as a former Knight," Fenri said slowly, "he has more right to an opinion than most."

Alsha nodded, her lips pursed thoughtfully as she studied the two young men before her. "I see. And what do you think of his opinion?" She asked.

Clearly emboldened by Alsha's reaction so far, Fenri said, "I think he has a point. I think that we, of all people in this world, have a duty to fight the demons. It is who we are, and we should be the ones leading the charge."

Alsha nodded again, staring down at the covers beneath her clenched fists. When she looked up and met Fenri's gaze, her eyes were as sharp as daggers. "Then why is Kirra the one who came to me and suggested it? If you knew better, you should have come to me immediately and asked me what our plans were for joining the fight."

Kirra and Fenri both leaned back in surprise at the anger in Alsha's voice. Before either could respond, Alsha turned to Kirra and smiled warmly. "I apologize for that little display, Kirra. I appreciate your words, and I will always value your opinion. I just had to teach my second in command a lesson about speaking his mind when he knows the proper course. Thank you for helping me do that."

Dumbfounded, Kirra nodded numbly, sharing an incredulous look with Fenri. Again, Alsha broke the silence between them. "I assume there is more nuance to this suggestion than simply calling for us to ride to battle. As if we even have any eagles left to ride…"

"Yes," Kirra said, clearing his throat awkwardly. "Maxthane is saying that—"

"King Maxthane," Alsha corrected. When both Fenri and Kirra regarded her with surprise, she continued. "There are only two reasons why we never afforded Salidar the title of 'King', and both are irrelevant now. We did not consider the legitimacy of The Shade as an autonomous region, and the Shadow King's title existed in direct opposition to King Neredos and his rule. There is no longer a King Neredos, and with the fall of the Everbright City and the destruction of Pentalus, The Shade is the only autonomous region left here." She grinned and added, "Not to mention that King Maxthane thulu'Khant has graciously allowed us refugees to stay in his kingdom despite the years of conflict between us."

"But Maxthane is my friend," Kirra said slowly.

Alsha leaned back and considered that point before responding. "That's true enough, but if this meeting is to have any sort of official weight, I'd prefer if you used his title all the same. The same goes double for you, Fenri. We recognize Maxthane as King now, especially while in his realm. You will be the one to communicate that to our remaining soldiers."

Fenri saluted, and Alsha waved for Kirra to continue. With a nod of assent, Kirra said, "Maxthane believes he can mobilize a few thousand troops between his own soldiers and the guilds. He also plans to put out a general call for volunteers, to all Shade citizens, though I'm sure the demons will not sit still forever above us while we wait for volunteers to arrive."

"Likely not," Fenri agreed.

Alsha sighed but nodded. "Indeed, though a few thousand might just be able to do it. There are only somewhere around a hundred demons, but if we factor in how many Knights we lost per demon during the last assault, we could use a few more thousand for me to even think we have a chance."

"Styx will be speaking with the Pentalus resistance, or what's left of it," Kirra offered. "And Maxthane all but guaranteed that we will have some Elrok support."

"A handful of Elroks and a ragtag group of largely inexperienced street thugs," Alsha replied dryly. "Not really the few more thousand I was hoping for."

Kirra was about to mention Lord Hount when Fenri beat him to it. "We could always try to ally ourselves with the rebels."

"When I spoke to Hount, he wasn't particularly reasonable," Alsha said icily. "He would've executed the both of us, and every other officer he could've gotten his hands on, if we'd surrendered."

"I think, given what has happened, that perhaps his feelings have changed somewhat," Kirra said, nodding appreciatively to Fenri. "With their numbers, we might just be able to pull this off."

Alsha looked between Kirra and Fenri, then sighed and said, "I suppose there is no harm in trying. I only hope we won't be wasting our breath. Sometimes allies and enemies can switch roles in a heartbeat under the right conditions."

"So you'll join the assault?" Kirra asked.

Alsha did not immediately reply, and when she did, her voice was firm but quiet. "I will not be able to fight; my body is too badly damaged, unless you're hiding a Fedain, I won't be well enough in time to do anything. I would only be a burden on the army as a soldier, but if you'll allow me to lead, I can direct our forces in battle. And I'd even be willing to meet with Hount again."

"I am hiding a Fedain, actually," Kirra replied. "Maxthane, er, King Maxthane, might just be able to help you."

"He was helping heal people down here when we arrived, wasn't he?" Fenri asked.

Kirra nodded. "That's right, and I'm sure he can get you in working order. How's that arm, Fenri? It's a good thing Veil got to it before—"

"Before your lover stabbed her in the back?" Fenri said, his eyes narrowing.

"He had good reason," Kirra said without conviction. Before either Fenri or Alsha responded to that copout, Kirra went on, "Okay, so maybe his reason seems a bit of an overreaction, but it's not entirely his fault."

Alsha pointedly avoided returning Fenri's gaze as she said, "When a person commits murder, Kirra, one normally does not blame the victim, in polite society, until after a full investigation. Also, it should be inspected from all angles, to determine the full nature of the killer's guilt. One would think a former Knight would know that."

"Wasn't Kirra speaking as a Knight earlier?" Fenri asked innocently, as if it were rehearsed that way.

"Indeed he was," Alsha nodded sagely. "One would think a former Knight would know better than to sleep with a known killer the night of the murder and assume that his Knight friends wouldn't want some answers in the morning. Don't you think, Fenri?"

"Very excellent analysis, Lady Alsha. I think, that as Knights of the Firmament, we should arrest that former Knight and hold him for questioning," Fenri said, and a low growl escaped his lips.

Alsha put a hand on Fenri's arm and stared directly into Kirra's eyes, holding his gaze for several heartbeats. She released Fenri's arm, and relaxed. "We have no jurisdiction in King Maxthane's realm. Kirra has already resigned his commission with me, and there are no laws of The Shade that clearly define the extraction of fugitives. We would have to ask King Maxthane for permission to arrest a fugitive in his kingdom."

"I think we can drop the act now, Lady Alsha," Fenri said. "I think Kirra gets the picture."

Kirra nodded, looking between his two friends. "You need to understand something," he said slowly, openly showing his hands and moving slowly, he reached for his sword belt. Fenri's hand lurched to his hilt, and only Alsha's steadying hand stopped him from drawing.

"I'm just going to give you my sword for a moment, Alsha," Kirra said, undoing his belt and lightly tossing sword and scabbard to the bed. "Just, touch the hilt and you'll understand. It wasn't just Styx, and this is my first and only witness whom I need to prove that."

Alsha raised skeptical eyebrow but did as he directed and touched the hilt of the sword. As soon as she did, the spirit of Marhys—Kirra's ancient ancestor who haunted the sword—spoke into Alsha's mind. "Hello, Lady Alsha. I'm glad to finally meet you."

Dropping the sword with a surprised yelp, Alsha turned to Kirra and asked, "What was that!?"

Fenri was torn between killing Kirra on the spot or waiting for him to answer the question. He settled on the latter, as Alsha calmed down.

"That, would be a talking sword," Kirra said. "One of my ancestors, and she was around during the Demon War. She knew Veil personally and—"

"You mean that rumor was true?" Fenri asked, regarding Kirra with an open-mouthed stare. Alsha stared at Fenri with confusion as he continued. "There was a rumor in the barracks right after Kirra joined the Order that he had a talking sword. Someone said that was the reason why High Inquisitor Grembal decided to raise you, so he could steal your sword. Everyone just thought it was some weird legend that people told about his family heirloom. Obviously, the sword was real, but that talking thing…"

"Can't I just… speak?" Marhys said, drawing surprised looks from all three people in the room.

Kirra stared at the sword, his eyes wide with shock. "Since when can you speak this loudly?"

"Always could, but prefer not to, since speaking like this draws attention, and it's best to not draw attention to the thing you're trying to protect," Marhys replied. "Regardless, it is a pleasure to meet both of you, Lady Alsha and Knight Fenri."

"It is a pleasure to meet you as well," Lady Alsha said formally. "Now, I believe Kirra said he was calling you as a witness to the murder of Veil."

Marhys' reply was immediate. "Not only witness, but the culprit. And before you ask why you should blame the weapon and not the wielder in this case, please simply allow me to answer it for you. Styx's desire was not to kill Veil, but simply to stop her from touching his mother. The poor boy's emotions at the time were so disorganized, he didn't even know what he was doing. I, on the other hand, can take advantage of such a situation to settle old debts."

"Old debts?" Alsha asked.

"Indeed," Marhys said. "I am from a time now very foreign to you. So much was changing all the time, it was difficult to keep up. For a lot of people, it was impossible to keep up, because the rulers simply didn't care about the commoners. And so the changes continued to mount, and those who did the bulk of the work had the least amount of capability to adjust to the change. The gap between the elite and the common widened exponentially, and problems arose everywhere."

"And what does this have to do with Veil?" Alsha asked.

"Veil was a leader among the Fedain, a member of the aristocracy. I hold her and her people accountable for the quality of life we, the common folk, experienced," Marhys replied. "I have wanted to take revenge for that for so long, to hold one of them accountable, so when the opportunity presented itself, I took it."

Alsha and Fenri shared a skeptical look, then Alsha said, "And so you killed her. You, and not Styx."

"All Styx did was allow me access to her, and he couldn't have known I was going to kill her," Marhys replied. "That boy is no warrior, and yet my blade pierced Veil's heart with perfect accuracy. Do you think he simply managed that by accident?"

"You've both seen Styx in combat," Kirra added. "He might be physically fit, and somewhat capable of defending himself, but you know he'd have to get lucky to find Veil's heart by guessing."

Alsha considered the point before responding. "I suppose there is some sense of logic in that, and we do have a confession. How then do we bring a sword to justice? It hardly seems like we have a lot of options."

"The penalty for murder is death, is it not?" Marhys asked.

"It is," Alsha confirmed.

"Then allow me to assist in destroying the demons. That will end my time in this form," Marhys replied. Kirra gasped, unaware until now that Marhys could be destroyed at all, much less the condition for doing so. Before he could ask her anything, however, she continued. "My purpose was to ensure that my bloodline continued until the end of the demons. Please allow me to fulfill that purpose and defend Kirra to the end."

Before responding, Alsha regarded Kirra curiously. "I suppose there is some precedent for delaying judgment in times of war. It has never been done for murder, but since I have no High Inquisitors to question my decision, I believe I can agree to those terms."

"I am grateful for your decision, Lady Alsha," Marhys replied. "You have always been a good friend to Kirra."

"As Marhys has always been good to me," Kirra said, meeting Alsha's eyes. "She is the only family I have by blood, and I'm sorry I've kept her secret from you for this long."

Alsha nodded. "I understand your reasons, and your precautions, and I'm grateful that you were willing to trust me. I suppose, in light of this testimony, Fenri and I can give Styx some leeway in this matter. Though, if we discover any of this to be untrue…" She glanced down at the sword then back up at Kirra. "If any of this is untrue, know that you will face justice as well. Please don't make me do that, Kirra. I consider you family."

"And I consider you family as well," Kirra replied, smiling. "I swear to you that all of this is true."

"Next time, I'd appreciate it if you didn't leave us hanging so long," Fenri said. "But I'm glad that I don't have to arrest you. I also count you among my brothers, Kirra. We may not have known each other very long, but it has been an honor serving with you."

Alsha picked up where Fenri left off. "I hope you know that you're going to have to stop pretending you're a Knight, now that you've resigned your commission," she paused and reached out to take Kirra's hand. "But you can speak to us as friends at any time, and we will help you as if you were one of our own."

"You guys are going to make me cry," Marhys said.

The three non-sword people in the room stared at the sword with surprise. "Are you telling me you can cry now, too?" Kirra asked. "How is that possible?"

"Well, I can't make tears, but…" Marhys faked a sob. "I still have emotions, you know."

"I still can't believe the rumor is true," Fenri said.

Kirra smirked at that. "Not quite all of it. Grembal wasn't after my family heirloom. He wanted something else."

"Kirra," Alsha said, "you don't have to do this."

Kirra shook his head and smiled weakly at Fenri before addressing Alsha. "No, I think I do. If Kinar Grembal is still alive, it's time he was brought to justice. To do that, I'm going to need the Order's help. Besides, Fenri is my brother. I'm sure he will hold my secrets in confidence."

"You have my word," Fenri said. "On my honor and my life."

"I don't have any doubt of that," Kirra replied. "How about I tell you while Alsha gets ready to go? She has already heard this story." He paused for them to nod in agreement, then went on, "Grembal is not the man everyone thinks he is, for he has a dark secret, a predilection for boys like me…"

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Bradeth's eyes were closed when Maxthane arrived at the rooftop where she meditated. She could hear him still, feeling the subtle vibrations through the stone with finely-tuned senses. She was a Fletcher, or had been until she became the Chief, and Fletchers trained their senses far beyond what a normal person was capable of.

Until she became the Chief. She was still adjusting to that fact, and all the ramifications of it. When she had set out to find Grim and bring him home, she had hoped that he would assume his rightful place rather than abdicate to her. Nevertheless, she would perform her duty to her people and lead them to the best of her ability. The fate of the world was at stake, after all.

Far above her, through the hole in the ceiling of the cavern, an owl flew. The owl was her familiar, Parril, and through him her senses were even greater than they were otherwise. She could see through his eyes if she concentrated hard enough, for the Familiar bond between them had been constructed to allow such access. She had been surprised to learn that humans and Gor typically did not construct their Familiar bonds in the same way. It seemed more efficient to be able to share thoughts and sensation across great distance.

It also gave her an advantage, especially where scouting was required. Maxthane thulu'Khant had asked her to maintain watch over the demons in Pentalus. The death of King Neredos had freed them from their prisons in the pillars throughout the city. So far, all they had done was gather. They were waiting for something, though what, Bradeth had not yet determined.

"Are you coming for a status report?" Bradeth asked without opening her eyes.

"Yes, though I'm hoping you'll be able to tell me about more than just demons," Maxthane said.

Bradeth opened her eyes and turned toward him. "Oh? Do I sense the formation of a plan?"

"Something like that," Maxthane replied. "But just the very beginning of one. I just sent out a few messengers, to pull the leaders of the various factions at our disposal in for a meeting. I sent Kirra to inquire about the Knights of the Firmament, and Styx will take care of organizing the guilds and the Pentalus Resistance. I decided to come to you personally."

"You wish to ask of the leader of the Elrok clans to join you in battle?" Bradeth asked with an amused chuckle. "I'll try to avoid being insulted that you didn't consider my assistance a given. Every Elrok with me knows that we will be going to battle above as soon as you give the order. Gobrak is already educating some of them on the finer points of demonic combat."

"I intended no insult, and you're right, I should've known you'd be ready to fight the demons," Maxthane said.

Bradeth nodded. "We would've acted soon anyway, even without your order. But I knew you would organize your forces and face the demons; you are a noble man, King Maxthane, and you certainly would not leave the world in jeopardy. This is the time for all leaders in the world to band together, as it was during the Demon War. The Elrok people will always come to the aid of others in times of cataclysm."

"It surprises me how many misconceptions there are about your people," Maxthane replied. "I am amazed that more people do not sing your praises."

Bradeth shook her head. "We do not seek praise for performing our duties to the world. We seek to live honorably, to live worthy of respect, but praise is a human concept. In our society, compliments are rare, even between lovers. We tell a person what they do well and what they do poorly in the same breath, so that one knows both their value to the clan and the ways in which we can progress together."

"That is an interesting point of view," Maxthane said. "I wonder if such a thing would ever work down here."

"Perhaps, but humans would have to learn how to welcome change, first," Bradeth replied. "Instead, they either resist it, or wield it like a weapon."

"Speaking of changes," Maxthane said, "how are our demon friends doing?"

Bradeth reached across her bond with Parril and looked through her owl's eyes. "They remain where they were before; still gathered, still waiting."

"And what of the forces surrounding the city?" Maxthane asked.

Bradeth turned Parril around to get a better look. "It seems they've remained camped outside Pentalus, as if they are afraid to enter it. Not that I blame them, considering the explosions of yesterday and the demons."

"And how large are their forces?"

"By my estimation, no more than a few thousand," Bradeth said. "The southern forces appear worse off than the northern. Lord Hount and his men were inside Pentalus when the Everbright City fell, and it seems he took quite a few casualties."

"Well, with his help, hopefully we will be strong enough to handle the battle ahead," Maxthane said.

"Allying yourself with him is a wise choice," Bradeth replied. "He is a capable commander, from what I've seen and heard so far. Who do you intend to send as messenger to open up diplomacy?"

"I thought of sending Commander Krythe, actually," Maxthane replied with a wry smile. "He's been itching to get back into my favor ever since he found out I was telling the truth about my father and Fasha. I'm sure giving him such an important assignment would ensure it's done properly."

Bradeth gave Maxthane an incredulous look. "I'm a bit surprised you're giving him a second chance at all. What merit of his allows you to overlook his betrayal?"

"Loyalty is a funny thing in The Shade," Maxthane replied. "My father had Krythe's loyalty, but I had never earned it. Position is not enough here; one must prove their strength before they earn respect."

"Among my people," Bradeth said, "one does not gain position without proving strength first."

"Perhaps my people could benefit from some of that as well," Maxthane said. He smiled and continued with his original point. "However, in my case, I was an inexperienced prince becoming an even more inexperienced King. Most of my soldiers had no proof that their king had died, and when Fasha arrived wearing his face, it was easy for them to doubt me. Krythe did not betray me; instead, he was trying to avoid betraying my father."

"But now you have his loyalty?" Bradeth asked.

Maxthane's smile widened. "Definitely. That I control his fate now is more than enough to ensure that. I'm well within my rights to demote or even kill him, and he knows that I will do one or the other if he fails me again. So far, I may have used a softer hand than my father did, but they still remember the way I once chanted with delight while watching gladiators kill each other. A healthy fear of death is often all one needs to ensure loyalty."

"But you wouldn't actually kill him," Bradeth said. "It's not in your nature."

Maxthane shook his head. "No, it isn't. But until that's common knowledge, I can use their assumptions to make some changes down here. I think it's time The Shade became a little more hospitable; maybe put in a skylight to brighten the place up."

Bradeth chuckled and glanced at the hole in the cavern ceiling. "It's an honor working with you, King Maxthane."

"The honor is mine, Chief Bradeth," Maxthane said, bowing formally. "My forces will be leaving within the next few hours, and we will rendezvous at the top of the cavern, with all the allies willing to fight alongside us."

"My forces will be waiting," Bradeth said. "And I will ascend beside you."

"So that we show a unified leadership to our mutual forces," Maxthane said in understanding.

Bradeth laughed. "Humans are strange. Of course our leadership is unified; we are allies against a common enemy." Still struggling not to snicker, she added, "The reason I'll ascend with you, is because I will continue scouting above through Parril's eyes and can keep you updated."

Maxthane blushed, then nodded. "I am grateful for your alliance, Chief Bradeth."

"May it become a lasting friendship, King Maxthane," Bradeth said, laughing loudly again. "Someone as entertaining as you might even become my brother one day."

"We are already cousins," Maxthane replied pointedly. "You as Grim's adopted child, and me as his nephew."

Bradeth grinned widely at that. "I had not considered that, Maxthane. From this point forward, let there be no titles between us. And let our peoples be united as family, for as long as our bloodlines rule."

"It is agreed," Maxthane said. "If only we had time for a feast."

"We will feast on demon blood and sing the song of battle," Bradeth said. "We can fill our bellies later, after the dance of arrows."

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

While the Knights of the Firmament had been given refuge inside the Shadow King's palace, the Pentalus Resistance had moved primarily into the Inkblades' Guildhall and the surrounding area. Some of them already knew the landscape, as some members of the Pentalus Resistance had been former Shades.

As Styx made his way to the Guildhall, he briefly considered why the Resistance had not tried to work with Salidar to overthrow Neredos. It didn't take him long to reach two conclusions. First, the Resistance had no interest in having any king whatsoever. They were not eager to trade Neredos' rule for Salidar's. Secondly, Styx's mother led the Resistance, and she not only hated Salidar for what he had done to her, but also knew of his dealings with Veil, whom the Resistance had opposed most of all.

For a moment, Styx thought about how things would've been different if he'd known his mother and her story. He doubted he would've ever allowed himself to fall in love with Salidar's son, had he grown-up knowing the truth. He'd have likely never stolen from Salidar, either, though he may have grown up with more dangerous designs instead. Would Maxthane have still loved me if I'd tried to kill his father? Styx wondered.

Instead, he had been given the opportunity to know Maxthane in a different context, and over a short time their feelings already ran deep. He didn't know if the future would keep them together, or, for that matter, what the inclusion of Kirra would affect, but Styx knew that for the moment he was happy. Having Maxthane would be enough, for now that was what they both needed and wanted.

When Styx arrived at the Guildhall, he climbed in through the secret entrance, then immediately called upon his mother and his aunt to meet him. Once they had assembled, he proudly presented Maxthane's call to arms to his mother, glad to be the bearer of something so important.

Madame Godani surveyed the parchment and nodded accordingly. "I will disseminate this to the guilds as soon as we're done here. Are there any other orders to relay from King Maxthane?" She asked Styx.

"Only to reinforce that additional instruction will be given as soon as the forces assemble at the top of the cavern, and that all volunteers who arrive before we go to battle will be welcomed into our armies," Styx explained.

"Then if we're done, I will send this out," Madame Godani replied. "I will be back in a moment." With that she left the room, leaving Styx's mother, Nal Maya, alone with him.

"You hardly needed me for that meeting," Nal Maya said. "Why exactly am I here?"

Styx sighed. He was far more nervous about this conversation than he had been about the other. There were many layers of complexity to the situation with his mother, and he had to navigate them carefully. "I was hoping you would be willing to commit the Resistance forces to battle the demons."

Nal Maya exhaled slowly, avoiding Styx's gaze. "You frustrate me, son. First you say you will not kill Veil, and then you kill her once it no longer matters. Then you convince me to leave Pentalus, the home I love, and give it to Lord Hount, and now you expect me to fight for a city I can no longer have?"

"To save the world, yes," Styx replied. "Your forces deserve the chance to choose for themselves, at least."

Nal Maya shook her head. "I will not be part of this. You can speak to Laris, or even Kimbler if you want, but I will not compel my people to fight for the city they just lost."

Styx opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again without saying anything. He understood his mother's point of view, and he knew any words he had to say would just be a waste of breath. Instead, he stepped back into the hallway and asked someone to find Laris and bring her to the meeting.

By the time Laris arrived, Madame Godani had also returned. After Laris was seated, Styx addressed her directly, "Laris, we are about to return to Pentalus to help fight the demons. I, and King Maxthane, would like the Resistance to join us."

"And what did mother have to say about this?" Laris asked, glancing at Nal Maya.

Nal Maya waved her question away. "It is your decision, Laris. I remove myself from this matter and leave you in full authority."

"She believes that fighting for Pentalus will be too much to ask of those who just lost their home," Styx said. "And though I know you may agree with her, I hope that I can ask you to at least allow your people to make their own decisions."

"I do agree with her," Laris said. "And I see no reason why I would bother any of my people with this."

"Then perhaps Kimbler could help me," Styx said, sighing.

"He's not here," Laris said. "I doubt he'd help you anyway, but he's still gathering survivors up above and sending them down here. If you want to waste your breath on him, be my guest."

Styx shook his head. "Why are you so against this? If we fail against the demons above, this will be the first place they come. If you can't do it for Pentalus, then do it for The Shade. They're coming for us anyway."

"Our scouts have said that they're just standing there," Laris replied with a snort. "I think you're worried about nothing. Surely your forces will be fine without ours."

"Does the fate of the world truly mean nothing to you?" Styx asked with a growl.

"It did before our world was destroyed," Nal Maya said.

Styx opened his mouth to protest again, but Madame Godani beat him to it. "I remember watching a man say such stirring words within these halls."

"Prism?" Styx asked.

"That wasn't the man I was thinking of, but I suppose you remind me of Prism as well," Madame Godani said. "I was thinking of your father. For all Dogo's roughness and vendettas, he believed in building a better world. It's no wonder he lived both here and in Pentalus; he lived at the center of whatever he wished to understand."

"You are right," Nal Maya said. "I had not thought about that. The day I fell in love with him was right here. His Incarian accent was much thicker back then, and he filled us with stories of the outside world. He was the first one to ever convince me that I could be something other than a Shade."

"If you can't do it for Pentalus or The Shade, sister," Madame Godani said, "do it for the world that Dogo loved."

"Laris," Nal Maya said after barely a pause, "spread the word. We are reclaiming Pentalus; we'll settle the score with Hount afterwards."

 

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