The world felt white. Prism had never felt a color before, but he could think of it in no other terms. He floated through a sea of pure light, an intense wind whipping around him from everywhere and nowhere, pulling him toward the great unknown.
Death. He’d died. He knew it, could remember speaking to Styx in Pentalus, after facing Fasha in a burning building. He’d failed to protect anyone—not Styx, nor the people of Pentalus, nor Grim . . . Grim.
Prism ached for the loss of the man he loved. Grim would be freed from his demonic prison at some unknown time to find an alien world, as Prism had. It would not do. It just couldn’t end this way. He couldn’t let it happen!
But he could do nothing to stop it, except to wander through the white world, waiting for something different to happen. If this would be his eternity, it must be the hellish void the Ultakan priests insisted awaited those sinners who broke their divine vows. Prism had never thought himself a sinner, but the proof surrounded him.
A strong hand reached into the void, piercing an invisible wall and tearing through it like rotten fabric, grasping Prism by the front of his tunic and pulling him down, sucking him through the tear and into a world of green.
This world had more than simply color, as he landed on the grass in a beautiful garden. No, not a garden, but a forest in bloom. No one had cultivated this place; it was far too natural for that. It reminded him of someone, and he raised his eyes, instinctively searching for her. Sure enough, Ghayle stood before him, as regal and fearsome as ever.
She wore nothing but a simple skirt, seemingly woven from a thousand leaves of fall, with long slits in the side, allowing her legs full freedom of movement. Her ebony torso and supple breasts were exposed to the sweet-scented air, and veiny white lines throbbed across her skin, glowing with the same intensity as the white void from which she’d just pulled him. These veins pulsed with warmth, akin to the fierce heat of a summer’s day.
Ghayle’s flowing white hair shimmered like freshly fallen snow caught in breaking sunlight, and her green eyes blazed with the vibrancy of spring. Her long and slender fingers reached for Prism, cupping his chin with the gentleness of a queen examining her favorite pony.
“Welcome, Prism . . .” Ghayle said, her voice as strong as it had been a thousand years earlier.
“Ghayle . . .” Prism said, prostrating himself before her. “You saved my life.”
“Not exactly,” Ghayle said, stooping to lift Prism from his position of respect. “And you need not bow before me. Not anymore.”
“But you’re . . .” Prism began, but Ghayle put her fingers to his mouth to stop him, a sad smile crossing her lips.
“The avatar of the world?” Ghayle said, laughing. “Not for long, I’m afraid. Soon, I, too, will pass, and another will take my place.”
“What do you mean?” Prism asked. “And what do you mean you didn’t save me?”
“You’re still dead, Prism,” Ghayle said. “I used a great deal of energy to pull your spirit from the stream that leads to the afterlife. Unfortunately, for an undetermined amount of time, you’ll be my guest.”
Prism rose to a standing position, moving to brush his clothes free from dust, but finding it spotless. Even the blood that should’ve stained the torn cloth where Fasha had stabbed him was gone. Prism’s wounds, too, seemed to have faded away.
He felt whole, yet also insubstantial. Of course, he often felt insubstantial in the presence of this woman. In his youth, Ghayle had been a whisper of power, spoken of as ‘a dark goddess who ruled only the more primal Gor hidden in the forests’ depths. He hadn’t even known about Ghayle until a Gor friend made mention of her.
When he’d first learned she was real and not a mythical figure, his entire worldview came into question. She’d changed everything for him, healing wounds the demons had caused deep inside him.
“Unfortunate because you don’t want me here, or unfortunate because it is undetermined?” Prism asked, after his personal inspection.
“Always asking questions . . .” Ghayle said fondly, turned, and walked toward a narrow trail in the underbrush, motioning for Prism to follow her. He dutifully attended her, and they walked in silence for a moment before Ghayle continued. “I often thought you might be the One.”
“The One?” Prism asked.
“It’s time we discussed what’s really going on,” Ghayle said, stopping beside a mossy log and sitting, patting the spot next to her. He sat and gave her his undivided attention, as she added, “There’s something you need to know about the demons, and what happened eight centuries ago.”
She lifted her hand to Prism’s face, and her white veins pulsed with a brilliant flash, transporting Prism across the eons to another time and place.
Ceaseless wind assaulted the two figures on the mountain. Every mile travelled freed a few dozen more strands from Tagren’s carefully braided grey hair, but he dutifully brushed them back from his face and tucked them behind his ears. His hair was only a mild nuisance compared to the profound weight on his heart.
Tagren worried about Ghayle more with every step up the mountain. Each passing century had grown increasingly more difficult for her, and in the last decade her pain had escalated. Yet she ascended with determination, despite grimacing with every step.
Whenever she would pause to rest, Tagren would spare a moment to glance out across the vast wilderness surrounding them. They were in the heart of the Dobrag, one of few remaining stretches of untapped natural beauty. Only the Gor and occasional Elroks visited this remote region, especially now in midwinter.
Ice and snow on the mountain slopes above gave reason enough to avoid the place. Avalanches were common in the Dobrag, just as violent blizzards ripped through the forests and tundra below the great mountains. Only a fool would venture this far into such a treacherous landscape.
A fool or a god.
Ghayle let out a pained sigh, signaling she needed rest again. Tagren dashed to her side, supporting her arm as he lowered her to a large boulder. He stood vigilant with complete devotion and adoration. She’d only grown more beautiful over the millennia they’d spent together. Her physical appearance had remained the same, though her eyes had accumulated more wisdom than any mortal could hope to acquire in their short life spans.
Her sharp mind captivated him when they’d first met nearly four thousand years earlier, at the banks of the sacred river. She’d been a young woman then, and he was nothing more than an apprentice fisherman who’d traveled too far downstream. She was a Gor, and he a human, and somehow the fates had allowed them to find eternity together despite prejudices between their peoples. He’d put much more stock in faith since then, even when it led him here.
“It won’t be much farther,” Ghayle said quietly, glancing up the slopes. “The air is starting to thin a bit, making it more difficult.”
Tagren grimaced and followed her eyes upward. “We should’ve brought more attendants. I am still willing to carry you the rest of the way, if you’d only—”
She interrupted him with a gentle laugh sounding of twinkling chimes on the wind, taking the sting from her words as she replied, “we’ve already had this conversation, my love. Until the time is right, only the Chosen may know. And I must reach the spot on my own. To do less would feel . . . inadequate.”
The Chosen. They were scattered all through the world, and could not help Ghayle’s pain now, though they could’ve come if Ghayle had permitted him to contact them first. Any of them could’ve made the journey with ease, and she would have had support.
No . . . he knew better than that. She didn’t want their support, he did. He didn’t want to watch her suffer alone, because seeing Ghayle in pain only made him worry.
“I just want you to be all right,” Tagren said, barely containing his emotions. He’d shed tears over her condition again and again, not willing to face reality. This day had always been inevitable, but the responsibility of his role weighed on him. If only he didn’t have to face it alone.
Thankfully, Ghayle didn’t fault him for his selfishness. She loved him no matter how much he dreaded his own responsibility. “I know you do. I’ll be all right as soon as this is over, I’m sure of it. Shall we climb again?”
Tagren nodded and helped her to her feet, frustrated as she resumed her climb over the boulders. He followed in silence, keeping his eyes on the trail ahead, wary for any potential dangers.
Ghayle only slid once, and Tagren caught her in his strong arms before setting her down again. Without even a word, she turned back to the climb, driven by some primal instinct Tagren couldn’t hope to understand.
They arrived at a small, level area; a huge slab of pale rock jutting from the mountain like a shelf. As soon as Ghayle set foot on it, she sighed in relief, wiping her brow and turning to Tagren with tired eyes. “We’ve arrived,” she said.
“What, here?” Tagren asked, glancing around skeptically. “No offense intended, my dear, but this looks like nothing.”
Ghayle shook her head and replied. “This is the spot. I’m sure of it. It’s time to begin the ritual.” Without another word, she stripped the thick coat from her shoulders and discarded it to the side, and her shirt soon joined it. She shivered in the cool air.
Until recently, Ghayle had seemed immune to the elements and could’ve walked up this mountain naked without feeling the chill once. Tagren still had that blessing and hated the evils of the world for robbing Ghayle of it.
Before long, Ghayle had stripped off all her clothing and discarded it to the side, as if she would never need it again. She lay naked in the center of the rock, her breasts pointing toward the sky, and stared expectantly at Tagren.
Tagren sighed, slipping off his pack and opening it, finding the pair of tools inside—a mallet and a long, metal stake. He took out both, testing the mallet’s weight before setting it aside, then considered the stake. It was made of pure Azramel, a metal resembling silver but as strong as steel. While the ritual only called for a pure metal and not a specific type, Azramel was sacred to the Gor people, and had been for most of their history. The finest Gor weapons were forged of it and given only to its bravest warriors.
He had to be as brave as those warriors now, in honor of his wife and the sacrifice she made for the good of the world. With grim determination, he took the mallet in his other hand and walked toward Ghayle, kneeling beside her before hesitating again.
“And I’m just supposed to stake you?” He whined. He’d meant it as a simple question, but his emotions overrode him. In all their years together, the thought of harming Ghayle had never crossed his mind.
“Yes, my heart, Tagren,” Ghayle said, reaching out with a weak hand and placing it against his thigh. She smiled even as tears formed in her eyes. “Don’t get squeamish now.”
“But . . . what happens to you?” Tagren asked.
“That is irrelevant,” Ghayle replied. “Since the birth of the world, the Trial has guided the children back to the proper path. The children have lost their way, and they must be punished.”
“Punished . . .” Tagren repeated. Memories of the world of his youth flooded back to him from long before this madness ever began. “As we were punished,” he surmised.
“Yes. In our arrogance,” Ghayle said, nodding once as she maintained eye contact with him. “It’s time, Tagren.”
Tagren sobbed even as he positioned the stake over Ghayle’s heart. With shaking hands, he summoned the strength to fulfil her command. “Very well. Forgive me, my dear.”
“My dearest love, I know you would never wish to harm me. If my hand could do the deed, it would be done, but it must be yours,” Ghayle said softly, her words the gentle caress of a lover. He understood the tears in her eyes then. She didn’t cry from fear, but from empathy—Tagren’s anguish was her own.
This gave Tagren the resolve needed to complete his task. He raised the mallet and said, “I understand.”
The mallet descended with the full weight of his mighty arms. Ghayle did not cry out, merely sucking in her breath as the stake pierced her beating heart. It continued to beat even as the stake penetrated all the way through her body and into the ground, entering the rock with a resounding crack.
The weight of the world had already numbed her to such a physically-focused pain. Her divine heart accepted the pure metal as an extension of itself, pulsing around it and pumping Ghayle’s dark blood out and along the surface of the stake. It dripped beneath her and spread across the rockface in tiny, almost imperceptible rivulets, appearing like vast river deltas spreading in six directions. Tagren stepped clear to view the process.
All but one rivulet continued past the surface of the rock, aligning with five distant peaks, as if being drawn to those mountains. The sixth, however, aimed toward the peak of their current mountain, flowing uphill without regard to gravity and pooling at the edge of the shelf in a perfect circle.
It continued to grow impossibly, as if Ghayle had a limitless supply of blood. The blood bubbled, rising high from the surface. Several bubbles merged into one, growing more gigantic with each passing second, taking on a towering egg-like shape before bursting.
A featureless, man-shaped being made from the dark blood itself stood in place of the blood-egg. It stepped toward Ghayle, kneeling beside her to touch her face. Ghayle did not respond, but Tagren could not keep silent any longer.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
The form turned toward him, rising. “Do you not recognize me?” Features emerged from the blood as it folded back in on itself; the hawk-like nose, bright emerald eyes in sunken sockets, and the stiff but gossamer golden hair flowing back from light-grey skin all revealed him to be a Sendar. If that hadn’t been enough for Tagren, the blood continued to flow backward, forming broad, white-feathered wings strong enough to keep the naked, beautiful man aloft.
Tagren dropped to one knee, his head bowed in complete reverence to a presence from a long-absent past. “My Lord Khalis . . .” he whispered. “Forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive, my son,” Khalis said, stepping forward from Ghayle’s side to stand before Tagren. He motioned for Tagren to rise and said, “I am the herald, for the Shadowtide will soon rise, birthed from the womb he created.”
“Lord Naxthul will return?” Tagren asked with surprising eagerness.
“Yes, my son,” Khalis replied, “but only you, Ghayle, and the Chosen may know of this. You must keep your sacred vows and never betray them until the new Chosen have made themselves known.”
“What will happen to Ghayle?” Tagren asked.
“She will inevitably take her place in the cycle, as all of us will,” Khalis said, his eyes showing nothing but empathy. “But she will be in less pain when we have finished our task.”
Tagren nodded. He’d expected such an answer. “What happens next? How do I help her?”
“We must find the catalyst for the womb,” Khalis said, glancing at Ghayle with pity. “Only then can we unleash The Trial and begin the choosing.”
“What would you have me do?” Tagren asked.
“For now, you need do nothing save watch over your love. It is my duty as herald to perform the rest,” Khalis replied solemnly. “As it will one day be your duty, Tagren.”
“Though in this state I am nearly indestructible, there remain ways for me to be killed. Should I fail, it will be up to you to prepare the catalyst, and so I will educate you,” Khalis said. “The Trial represents the six purities: Destruction, Connection, Movement, Stillness, Cyclicity, and Form. To open the womb, we must first find adequate representations of these purities. I do not yet know which form these representations will take, if it will be one object or many, but I must find them, and they must be accepted by Naxthul as proper.”
“You speak as if you’ve prepared for this your whole life,” Tagren said.
“No, only all of yours,” Khalis replied with a small smile. “This is the way of things, Tagren. Whenever the world has failed to remain pure, we come to purify it and herald in a new age. This is the way.”
Tagren hung his head, ashamed that after all this time of guiding the world, his people had lost their way and needed to be purged. He loved the races of the world, no matter their faults, just as Ghayle always had. Some medicines caused pain, even as they treated the illness threatening to destroy the body. “May our children forgive us,” he whispered.
Khalis placed a hand on Tagren’s shoulder and said, “It is not your responsibility to seek forgiveness. It is your responsibility to ensure the protection of this world. Do not forget who you are, Tagren. You are First. You are her First.” He pointed at Ghayle, and Tagren nodded, understanding his duty.
“What’s it like, Lord Khalis?” Tagren asked. “The World Beyond?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you that, Tagren. It would remove the mystery,” Khalis said, chuckling. “You’ll be there soon enough, you know. My son, you are about to embark on the greatest adventure of your life, even greater than the past few millennia have been for you.”
“I’ve missed you, my Lord,” Tagren said.
“I know,” Khalis said, nodding. “I’ve watched you. And I know how hard it has been to watch what has become of our home. It’s time, my son, and I need you to listen carefully.”
“Tell me what I must do,” Tagren insisted.
“When I return with the items I need, we will need to mix them with sacred blood to create the potion,” Khalis explained. “I will need you to summon the Chosen here. We cannot perform this rite until enough living Chosen are present.”
Tagren nodded. It would take time to gather them all, but he would act immediately, as soon as Khalis left. “How long will you be gone?”
“As long as it takes,” Khalis replied.
“I will summon the others, then watch and await your return.”
“It’s been so long, my son,” Khalis said, moving his hand from Tagren’s shoulder to pat his cheek. “All will be well again.”
Tagren felt a wave of emotion pass through him and glanced at Ghayle. “Is she in pain? Can I do anything for her?”
“No more than before,” Khalis replied, “And only completing the ritual will help her.”
“Then you should hurry, Lord Khalis,” Tagren replied, his voice threatening to shake. “Please, fly like the wind. I need her to be all right.”
Prism ripped away from Ghayle, unable to bear the sight any longer. He had felt everything Tagren felt, every doubt, and every ounce of faith. Each had sickened him in its own way, the doubts from Tagren’s self-loathing, while the faith made Prism sick all on its own.
Khalis . . . he remembered that demon on an intimate level—the first of the Vhor, the one who began everything. Prism shuddered at the thought of Khalis. How could Ghayle be the one who’d summoned him? The one who allowed the demon invasion of Prism’s world.
“You sent him?” Prism said, his eyes fierce as he faced Ghayle. “You . . . you started all of this?”
“Prism . . . I gave you that vision so you would understand,” Ghayle said with a sigh.
“I don’t understand, how can I?” Prism said. “You killed everyone. Everyone! All the people I ever loved. All the . . .” He shuddered again, the weight of his own soul at war with Tagren’s sense of duty. Everything he thought he knew about the world felt wrong.
“Not all. Many still live even now, defying the odds,” Ghayle said. “Neredos, Grim, Veil? All still alive.”
“Many more do not,” Prism growled. “Far too many. All that death. The blood on your hands.”
“We had to rebuild. Do you not remember the state of the world back then?” Ghayle asked. “If the world had been allowed to continue along that destructive path, there would be no world left at all.”
“And that’s an excuse to murder everyone?” Prism asked.
“Prism . . .” Ghayle said, standing and raising her hand toward him. “Let me show you the state of the world in those days.”
Reluctantly at first, Prism let her touch his skin again, and he followed the white light back to a time when he hardly knew his own name.
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