Styx landed gracefully upon the rooftop, making hardly a sound at all. His glide hadn’t taken him far enough to get out of Salidar’s palatial complex, and the real test of his abilities was about to begin as he tried to avoid the guards to escape.
He crouched and moved as quickly as he could toward the edge of the roof before peering over the side, searching for any sign of movement below him. Salidar’s men were among the best at stealth that the Shade had to offer, but Styx didn’t have to see them to know that they might be there. If he looked for the patches of shadow that offered the best vantage points, he could work on the assumption that there was someone there, waiting to catch him.
Styx was sure that Maxthane wouldn’t call the guards on him, but that didn’t mean his absence would go unnoticed for long. Salidar’s power was dependent upon having as much information as possible, and he would check on his son in time and find that Styx had escaped. Styx turned his gaze back to Maxthane’s small window set in the side of the cavern wall, where lamplight still flickered and showed that someone lived there. Styx wondered what story Maxthane would tell; if he would lie to his father or tell the truth. Maxthane had risked a great deal in letting him go, and Styx wouldn’t blame him for lying about how Styx had escaped.
There was more to Maxthane than Styx had originally admitted, and he hoped that he would be able to make good on his unheard promise to return. He had never felt connected to someone before, but their last kiss still lingered on his lips. Whatever strange circumstances had brought them together, Styx couldn’t put the feeling of Max’s skin out of his mind.
Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he returned his focus to the task at hand. He could do nothing for Max until he escaped. He surveyed the shadows a second time to be certain of his route, and was about to move forward when a hand reached from behind to cover his mouth, while a knife was put against his ribs.
“Don’t make a sound, all right?” Styx recognized the man’s voice but couldn’t place it. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I had to make sure you wouldn’t react when you saw me. I’m going to put my knife away and let you go.”
Styx nodded and the man released him. He turned slowly, not wanting to make any sudden moves lest he find the knife returning to his ribcage, and took a good look at the man that had managed to sneak up on him. It was the man who had helped Grim save him from the poison; Prism, if Styx remembered correctly.
“Are you going to turn me in?” Styx asked, keeping his voice at a whisper. He shifted his stance, preparing to run if Prism answered in the affirmative. Prism was not a Shade; his accent, and the lack of the Shadesight tattoo made that easy to determine, but he was walking freely in Salidar’s complex, and that was cause enough for suspicion.
“Do you think I work for Salidar?” Prism whispered with a raised eyebrow. Shrugging, he drew his knife again, and Styx almost ran until the man flipped the knife over and handed it to him, hilt first. “Here, if we’re going to escape, you might need a weapon.”
“We’re going to escape?” Styx asked, taking the knife cautiously, “You’re a prisoner as well?”
“Salidar calls me a ‘guest’,” Prism replied with a smile. He waved for Styx to follow him as he headed toward the other side of the rooftop.
“Hang on,” Styx said, catching up to Prism. He extended the knife back toward its owner as he insisted, “I work alone. And I intend to escape alone. I can’t have anyone else dragging me down.”
“Do you believe in blood debts, Styx?” Prism asked, ignoring the knife, “And repaying the people who save your life?”
“I suppose I do owe you,” Styx admitted. “What exactly do you want from me?”
“Before I came across you I was going to have to attempt an escape blind,” Prism explained. “I’m not from here, and my eyes are not accustomed to the darkness. You, on the other hand, walk as if this terrain is your home. I need a guide if I’m going to make it out of here without having to kill people, and I don’t like killing needlessly.”
“So you want me to risk my neck to save you?” Styx asked. He glanced toward the outer wall of the complex and his intended escape route and then back to Prism.
“No. You don’t owe a blood debt to me. I didn’t save your life, Grim did.” With a smile that said it didn’t matter to him which way Styx decided, he explained, “I just so happen to be on my way to free him right now. If you have any honor, you’ll join me and repay your debt.”
Without waiting for a reply, Prism peered over the edge of the rooftop and then jumped down to the shadowed passageway between the structures. Styx took a quick look over his shoulder, hesitating as he considered abandoning Prism, and then his conscience got the better of him. He did owe a great deal to Grim. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves and then turned back to where Prism was moving through the darkness and jumped down to join him, hoping he wouldn’t regret it.
An enemy was upon him the second he was on the ground, a guard with a bow drawn and pointed in his direction who had failed to notice Prism’s movements. The guard opened his mouth to call out to his fellow guards when Prism appeared behind him, cutting off his air supply with a chokehold. The archer crumpled to the ground instantly, unconscious, and Styx turned to give Prism an appreciative nod. Prism didn’t waste any more time with the body, and he smiled and nodded back to Styx before waving him forward. Styx hurried after Prism but glanced down at the guard as he rushed past, realizing that he now owed Prism as much as he owed Grim.
They reached a door a short time later, and Prism leaned against it with his ear. Prism nodded and then opened the door slowly before heading down a narrow flight of stairs on the other side. At the bottom of the staircase was a room that Styx recognized. Caged animals stirred as Prism and Styx stepped into the large dungeon that led to the gladiators’ prison. Prism motioned for Styx to stop as he nodded toward the lone guard who stood at the side of the ironbound door. It was Jakkel, in his beetle likeness, lazily tapping his sword against the wall.
“You lost, mate?” Jakkel asked, noticing them right away. He squinted through the slits of his helmet, his vision obscured much more by the metal than by the darkness. Styx was sure that Jakkel was a Shade, and therefore was guaranteed to have the ability to see as well in the dark as Styx could. Though Jakkel’s position didn’t change, he stopped tapping his sword as his eyes fell upon Styx. “Hey, I know you. You’re that kid they threw in earlier today. Did you come to rejoin your friends?”
Prism stayed motionless, keeping his eyes on Jakkel while the guard stayed where he was. Styx looked between them, waiting for one of them to make the next move until Jakkel interrupted the silence. “I suppose not. So, you’re insane then. Come and try me. You’ll regret it.”
Prism dashed toward Jakkel quicker than Styx could follow with his eyes, much less his feet. As he neared Jakkel’s position he leapt into the air, aiming a kick toward Jakkel’s helmeted head. Jakkel barely managed to get his sword in position in time to deflect the attack, forcing Prism to adjust and kick off of the flat of the blade, rebounding in a perfect backflip. He landed in a ready stance and beckoned Jakkel toward him.
Jakkel didn’t need to be invited twice. With a sinister laugh he charged toward Prism, sword leveled at Prism’s midsection. Much faster than the armored warrior, Prism stepped to the side at the last second and dropped to the ground, rolling past Jakkel and coming up behind him. Before Jakkel could turn around, Prism was already standing and delivering a side-kick to Jakkel’s back. The kick connected solidly and sent Jakkel sprawling forward from both the momentum of the kick with what was left of Jakkel’s own charge.
Jakkel landed hard against the floor at Styx’s feet, and Styx jumped back to avoid the collision before dashing back into range with his knife in hand. He pulled up short as Jakkel rose to one knee and glared at him, promising instant death at the end of his sword if Styx were to come any closer. Styx glanced past to see that Prism was in the process of removing the first of the three lock bars that held shut the door to the gladiators’ cell.
Prism was reaching for the second lock bar by the time that Jakkel was on his feet again, turning his attention away from Styx and back to Prism, leaving his back exposed to Styx. Styx stepped forward, seeking an opening in Jakkel’s armor only to find that Jakkel had anticipated the maneuver and spun around to backhand Styx across his cheek with a gauntleted hand. Pain shot through Styx’s face as he fell to the ground several feet away, momentarily dazed by the strike.
Styx reached up to his cheek as Jakkel glanced at him with a sneer and said, “Wait your turn, kid. I’ll kill you after I kill your friend.” The loud clang of metal on stone as Prism discarded the second lock bar brought Jakkel’s attention back to Prism as he prepared his footwork for another charge.
Before Jakkel started his charge, Prism turned and began walking calmly toward with him. Jakkel shifted his feet back to a more stable stance and gripped his sword in both hands as he waited for Prism to come to him. Prism’s arms were at his sides, leaving his torso open to attack if Jakkel pressed forward, but Jakkel waited until Prism was within range and then thrust forward with remarkable speed. Prism stepped to the side and then in, fluidly moving to the side of the sword and catching Jakkel’s extended arm.
Prism stepped forward again as he simultaneously crouched down and twisted underneath Jakkel’s arm and then twisted that arm behind Jakkel’s back, causing him to pitch forward with what was left of his momentum. Prism released his grip on Jakkel and let him fall forward, though he slid his hand down to snatch the sword from Jakkel’s grasp in the process. Prism tossed the sword to the side and then crouched down by Jakkel’s side and reached for his arm, preparing to pin him.
As Prism reached out, Jakkel rolled onto his back and raised his foot, revealing a row of nasty spikes along the bottom of his boot before kicking out toward Prism’s exposed side. Prism rolled backward and out of the way, but the maneuver bought Jakkel enough time to regain his footing and pick up his sword. He was snarling as he faced Prism again, but there was a glint in his eye that said that he was enjoying himself. “You’re really good, I admit it. You might even win,” Jakkel conceded. “But I’m not out of tricks yet.”
Jakkel drove forward, attacking in a flurry of tight thrusts that kept his arms close to his body, giving Prism no opportunity to grab him again. None of the strikes came close to hitting Prism’s quick form either, and Jakkel’s expression turned from one of determination to one of frustration and then desperation. Jakkel stabbed forward once more, but pulled back at the last second and swung up with his gauntleted hand, catching Prism in the face. Styx heard the sound of metal on metal as Jakkel’s fist collided with Prism’s cheek, and Prism was hardly staggered by the blow. He rolled with the punch and caught Jakkel’s arm, giving him an opening to strike at Jakkel’s armored torso.
Prism pummeled Jakkel’s stomach and chest with a quick series of punches that were strong enough to dent the armor, and followed it up with one quick side-kick that struck Jakkel squarely in the center of his chest. Jakkel flew backward and crashed into one of the cages, his sword falling to the ground beside him. The large cat inside, a variety of tiger with a black base coat and white stripes, seemed less than pleased to have its cage shaken. It growled and readied itself to pounce on Jakkel as he lay against the bars of the cage.
The cat never pounced, and as Jakkel rose to his feet he declared, “Hah, it’s not over yet!” With a snarl he reached up to the pin holding the cage closed and opened the door. The snarling cat eagerly took the offered escape route and then took up a defensive position in front of Jakkel. Jakkel smiled in triumph and commanded the cat, “Get the dark one, Tiba!” The cat was eager to please its master and charged toward Prism and pounced, its snarling jaws aimed directly for Prism’s throat. Prism met the cat’s jaws with his arm bracer as the cat bore him to the ground.
Styx watched in horror as Prism wrestled with the cat, but his terror doubled as Jakkel turned his murderous eyes toward him. With a sinister grin, Jakkel moved toward Styx after reaching down to retrieve his sword. Though his feet urged him to run, Styx forced himself to stay after glancing at Prism. If he abandoned Prism now then Prism was sure to be killed. Styx couldn’t allow that; he owed the man his life.
“You honestly think you can take me on, kid?” Jakkel cackled, stopping just a few feet in front of him, “Your friend over there may have what it takes, but I’ve already seen how you fight. You did a pretty well against that demon, I admit, but you can’t even think straight while you’re facing death, can you?”
Styx glanced at Prism again. The cat seemed to be doing all it could to rake Prism’s torso to pieces as its claws shredded the cloth and leather that protected Prism’s flesh. Prism punched at the cat’s face repeatedly, causing blood to splatter across the dungeon floor, though Styx couldn’t tell how much belonged to the cat and how much was Prism’s.
“Are you gonna stand there, or are you going to fight me?” Styx growled, ignoring the man’s attempt to unnerve him. He shifted his feet, rising up on the balls of his feet as he prepared to spring away when Jakkel came at him. As his feet shifted he also changed his grip on the knife in his hands, preparing to throw it if he found an effective opening.
“I admit, you’ve got some fight in ya, but it’s nothing against my skill. Are you prepared to die?” Jakkel slashed at Styx’s neck as he finished his sentence, and Styx ducked low and then sprang to the side before moving backward toward the stairs. Another slash caused Styx to move another step back, and a quick glance over his shoulder told him that he was quickly running out of space.
“You can’t run forever, kid,” Jakkel taunted as Styx dodged backward again, “Even if you dodge me all day, eventually the other guards are gonna come looking down here. You’re not going to escape, and you might as well surrender.”
“No, thank you,” Styx replied, breathing heavily. Jakkel was relentless in his assault, and Styx was quickly losing stamina in the face of the swinging and thrusting blade, especially considering that he was still feeling the effects of dehydration. He wasn’t sure what would happen first, running out of room or running out of adrenaline. Either way, he was going to die unless he could come up with a different plan.
“Suit yourself,” Jakkel replied with a snarl and hacked downward with his sword. Styx dodged to his right, only to find Jakkel’s sword thrusting toward his stomach as he fell for the feint. Styx dropped to the ground in desperation to get out of the way of the sword. Grinning in triumph, Jakkel readjusted his thrust and aimed down at his prone target.
With one last desperate burst of speed, Styx rolled away from the strike. Though it didn’t pierce his flesh, it punctured the leather membrane of his gliding armor, pinning him in place. The pin halted his momentum, leaving him in line for another strike, and Jakkel quickly pulled back to stab at him again. Styx kicked out with his foot, and through sheer luck he managed to hit the inside of Jakkel’s knee hard enough to bring Jakkel crashing down on top of him.
The heavy weight of Jakkel and his armor falling onto his chest knocked the breath out of him. By the time Styx recovered he knew that he was dead. He lashed out with his knife but Jakkel pinned his arm down with one hand and sneered at Styx as he raised his other gauntleted hand to smash it into Styx’s face. Styx closed his eyes and braced himself for the impact, but it never came. He heard the sound of metal on metal, and felt Jakkel’s weight slip off of him.
His eyes shot open and he looked up into Prism’s eyes, which were filled with concern. Prism extended his hand to help him up, and Styx took it eagerly, allowing Prism to pull him to his feet. Only then did Styx look for Jakkel and found him lying motionless on the floor, unconscious or dead.
Styx spared a glance in the direction of the cat, and gasped when he saw the bloody mess that Prism had made of its face. He wasn’t sure if the cat was still alive, but if it did manage to survive, it would likely never fully heal from its wounds. They had won the fight, and the only thing that stood in the way of freeing Grim was the large iron door, still locked by a single lock bar.
Prism was already moving toward the door, and with little effort he removed the final bar and flung it wide. The room was just as bright as it had been when Styx had been there hours before, and many of the gladiators were talking quietly amongst themselves while several of their number slept. Grim was standing and speaking with a small group and looked over when the door swung open. His eyes widened as he recognized Prism standing in the doorway.
“Grim?” Prism asked as he stepped into the room and his eyes adjusted to the light. “Grim, let’s go!”
“Prism! What are you doing here?” Grim replied, his surprise not diminishing at all. He glanced past Prism and noticed Styx coming through the doorway as well, “Styx? You’re escaping?”
“Yes, and we’re taking you with us,” Styx replied quickly, stepping around Prism and into the room. Remembering that the guards they had dispatched could wake up at any moment, he added an urgent plea, “Now come on. Let’s go.”
“I’m sorry, Prism, Styx, but no,” Grim replied. “I can’t. Not unless you have a plan for getting all of us out at any rate. I can’t leave them.”
“You told me ‘he’ was here,” Prism replied carefully, locking eyes with Grim. “We need to get you to safety.”
“No. What I need to do is see this through, Prism,” Grim replied coldly, but his features softened as he explained. “I don’t believe he’s aware of my identity. I’m safe here, and I need to keep these people safe. With Kutos and Hurr dead someone has to lead these people or they’ll all die in the pit.”
The gladiators around Grim looked to him in a mixture of concern and gratitude, though a few of them looked eager. The door was open after all, and that meant an opportunity to escape for some of them. Styx picked up on their eagerness and suggested, “What if we all escape together?”
“Not an option, Styx,” Grim replied grimly, “I’m afraid that such a large group will be noticed too quickly, and most of us will die in the process. No, save yourselves, and let me worry about them. I can keep them alive, I’m sure of it.”
To Styx’s surprise, he found the rest of the room nodding. For whatever reason, they trusted Grim’s words and judgment. Even though the door was open, none of them were going to take the opportunity without his consent. Kutos hadn’t been lying when he said that there was a structure to how things worked amongst the gladiators, and it was apparent that Grim was the new person in charge.
“Are you sure about this?” Prism asked in concern, “I don’t know if you’ll get a second chance to escape.”
“I’m sure,” Grim replied firmly, “This is too important. I’ve taken too many lives to not save one when I can.” He shook his head and sighed, but then, with resolve strong in his eyes, he added, “Besides, being this close to him might mean I can end this. You know I may be the only one who can.”
“What about Veil?” Prism asked, “Is she still alive?”
“She’s changed, Prism,” Grim answered with another head shake, “All of us who survived have changed, except you. You’ll find out when you get out of here. Speaking of which, you should really get going before you run into problems.”
“Very well,” Prism replied with a nod, “I’ll leave, but I hope to see you again, my brother.”
“We will,” Grim agreed with a sad smile, “At some point or another. No one lives forever.”
Styx caught a glint of steel out of the corner of his eye moving through the doorway. Jakkel stepped through, his sword leading the way and aimed straight for Prism’s back and Styx shouted in warning, “Prism, watch out!”
Prism heard the shout and stepped to the side, spinning around to face Jakkel. Grim instantly dodged in the opposite direction to avoid the strike and then quickly stepped into Jakkel and slid his hand up Jakkel’s helmet and onto his cheek.
Jakkel began to convulse, and the sword dropped from his grasp and clattered to the ground. Styx gasped as the guard’s skin began to pale and wrinkle, and his hair turned a ghastly white. In seconds his body crumpled to the ground, now an elderly man. Styx turned his horrified gaze back to Grim who was no longer smiling, and instead was staring down at Jakkel with profound sadness as he lowered his hand to his side. Silence covered the room as the gladiators watched him solemnly. They had seen him do this before, and Styx knew this was what he had to do every time he was forced to kill in the arena. There was no wonder that it bothered him. It was horrific.
“Will I ever repay my debts to you Grim?” Prism asked in astonishment as he rested a hand on Grim’s shoulder, staring at Jakkel’s decrepit corpse in wonder, “Thank you. Stay safe.”
“You know better than to thank me for killing someone, Prism!” Grim snapped like lightning. Prism reeled back at the admonishment and lowered his eyes in shame. Grim softened his voice as he added, “Get out of here and stay alive. The world needs you now more than it did before.”
Prism looked back to Grim’s face and nodded before patting Grim on the shoulder. He smiled apologetically but then stepped back through the doorway without offering another word. Then he paused and turned back to look at Grim one last time. He covered the distance between them and wrapped Grim up in an embrace that Grim did not reciprocate. When Prism let Grim go he whispered softly, “I have a promise to keep to you, but it seems the war isn’t over yet. I’ll be back for you, Grim.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Grim replied with a blank expression. “Now go. We’ll meet again soon enough.” Prism nodded slowly and turned again toward the doorway. He didn’t look back as he stepped through and retraced their steps toward the staircase that led out of the room. Styx moved to follow but held back as Grim laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Styx. Thank you for coming for me,” Grim said, the sad smile once again on his face. “I don’t know what persuaded you to come with Prism, but you’ve proven yourself honorable today.”
Styx responded with a simple nod and followed Prism from the room. They left the door open, and Styx wondered if Prism had done so intentionally so that the gladiators could still escape if they chose to. Styx realized that it didn’t make a difference. Grim had no intention of escaping, and from what he had witnessed moments before, he had more than enough capability of protecting the rest of the gladiators.
They made their way back up the staircase, retracing their route step for step. As they passed the archer, Prism heard a moan that said that he was starting to stir, and with a quick kick the man was unconscious again. Styx wondered what was going through Prism’s mind as they scaled the wall of the nearby structure, bringing them back up to the rooftops. Prism’s face was stoic, and his movements did little to suggest that his thoughts were focused on anything other than the task of their escape, but Styx could tell that leaving Grim behind was bothering Prism more than he was showing.
“All right, I could tell when I stopped you up here that you already had a plan in mind,” Prism said quietly as they reached the point where they had first met on the rooftops. “Tell me what it was.”
“I don’t know if you can take that route,” Styx answered. “I had planned on gliding from rooftop to rooftop, and then when we reached the wall by the Black Lake, I intended to glide down to the shore.”
“Let’s try it anyway. I’m sure I can jump most of the gaps between the buildings, even if I have to take it a bit slower to ensure I can make it,” Prism replied, looking over the suggested route with a nod, “If not, I’ll make do. The Black Lake is that shadowy area over there without any lights, I’m assuming?”
“That’s the one,” Styx agreed. “Are you ready to move forward?”
“That’s the only way to move, Styx,” Prism answered with a grin. He took a few steps back, then quickly ran the small distance to the edge of the rooftop, then pushed off with his powerful legs to propel his body forward. He cleared the gap easily and landed smoothly, He turned around and gestured for Styx to follow. With a smile and a nod, Styx took his own running start and joined him. They continued the process as they crossed the complex, coming ever closer to the Black Lake and avoiding the attention of the guards. The guards were watching for people breaking into the complex, and not focused on those trying to escape. They only encountered one gap that was difficult to clear, and Styx was surprised to find that he was the one who barely caught the edge, only to have Prism quickly pull him up.
As they reached the wall of the complex that overlooked the lake, they noted that the guards on the wall were further apart in this section. Styx wasn’t surprised at the lack of personnel, as the only way in or out was the precipitous drop to the narrow shore beside the lake. It was easy for them to find an opportunity to jump and glide over to the wall without being noticed, and to quickly drop down to the rocky shore below. Styx glided down through the use of his hawk tattoo, while Prism slid down the wall, slowing his descent until he hit the ground and rolled to avoid injury.
They kept silent as they moved, not wanting to risk the chance that they would be discovered by anyone, even though they had already made it a fair distance. Now that they were free, Styx had the opportunity to think about what had happened. He ran through the whole day, from his heist, to the fight in the arena, but then stopped as he thought of Maxthane. He looked back toward the window on the cavern wall that still held a spot of flickering lamp light, and was momentarily overcome by a feeling of longing. He shook his head in an attempt to put it out of his mind and moved on to think about their escape, and what Grim had said.
It was then that Prism decided to break the silence between them. “Something bothering you, Styx?” he asked. “We’re free, but you don’t look pleased.”
“I don’t understand what Grim meant,” Styx replied, surprising himself by answering honestly, “I’ve always been told that there is no such thing as honor among thieves, and I’ve been a thief my whole life. Honor is never something I’ve considered before.”
Prism laughed, and Styx looked at him in confusion. “Sometimes we get trapped in clichés when we’re trying to understand the world,” Prism explained with a knowing smile.
“What do you mean?” Styx asked.
“Honor . . .” Prism began, pausing as he searched for a means to explain his thoughts. “What is honor exactly? Respecting your fellows? Fulfilling oaths and debts? Being worthy of respect? The Order I belonged to, which has surely disappeared by now, taught that all life is worthy of respect, and all life deserves to be honored. You are born with honor, Styx, but retaining it depends on how you live your life.”
“So I suppose Grim’s wrong then,” Styx said with a shrug, “I’ve never given a second thought for anyone other than myself since I was a kid.”
“I didn’t say he was wrong,” Prism replied firmly. “If being a thief makes you dishonorable, then none of us has any honor at all. We are all thieves, Styx, from the moment we take our first breath. The world belongs to everyone, and simply by trying to survive in it, we all end up taking for ourselves things that belong to someone else. Being a thief does not mean you do not have honor.”
Styx was silent as he digested the information. He realized others had treated him honorably the whole day, from the time that Dogo had told him that his best chance was escaping, to Maxthane letting him go. And he would never be able to forget the honorable Kutos and what he had done for him, not to mention Grim who had proven most honorable of all, with his intent to protect the other prisoners.
“What are you planning on doing when we reach the surface?” Prism asked a few moments later, drawing Styx out of his introspection.
“I don’t know,” Styx replied. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
“You are welcome to come with me,” Prism suggested cautiously, “I have to reach King Neredos.”
“I suppose we’ll see what happens when we get to the top then,” Styx replied with a shrug, “I may simply try to leave the city far behind.”
“The way you keep glancing over your shoulder,” Prism observed, “I don’t think you can stay away for long.”
Styx smiled sadly at the thought. He hadn’t realized he had done it so many times, but he caught himself once again staring at the spot of light in the cavern wall. “No, perhaps you’re right,” Styx admitted, but with a grim nod he added, “Either way, for now my path lies upward.”
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