Styx eyed the black water anxiously. Rumors held that there were things living beneath the surface that men were never meant to encounter, and he would prefer it remained that way. Every time the surface of the water bubbled, he had to stop himself from jumping back in terror, and he did not always succeed. Each time this happened Prism looked at him curiously, an eyebrow raised as he glanced between Styx and the water. Usually he simply shook his head and walked on, waving Styx to follow, but when Styx stumbled as he jumped away Prism laughed outright.
“I take it you don’t like water,” Prism said with a grin, not put off at all by the offended look on Styx’s face.
“What makes you say that?” Styx snapped back, but then glaring at the lake he explained, “I don’t like that water.”
“We are twenty feet back from the shore, Styx,” “Nothing is going to come out of there and get you.”
“Where are you from, Prism?” Styx asked with another glare, “Because I’ve spent my entire life here in The Shade, and I’ve got to tell you, there are things living in there that I have reason to be afraid of.”
“Where I’m from doesn’t really matter; fear is the same wherever you are,” Prism answered cryptically. “Have you ever actually seen the things reported to live in there?”
Styx stared at the water again, shaking his head in defiance of the monsters he knew lurked beneath the waves. “No, but I’ve heard the stories of those who have; fishermen who’ve lived their entire lives on these waters,” he admitted, shuddering at the thought. Looking back at Prism he explained, “The fish from this lake serve as the main food we eat down here, and they are ugly enough that I don’t doubt the fishermen’s claims.”
“The thing I’ve learned about fishermen in my life is that they like to tell wild tales,” Prism replied with a bemused smile. “I assume that the people pay a great deal for their catch?”
“Of course. When there is little food to be had, we pay what we have to,” Styx answered, not seeing the relevance of Prism’s question. With a shrug he added, “It’s the way of things.”
“And if the fisherman keep the people afraid of the water then the people will not know how easy it is to feed themselves,” Prism explained without smugness, “It’s the way of things.”
Styx’s eyes widened in surprise as the thought sunk in. He had never looked at it from that perspective, and he glanced back at the water in wonder. “You’re saying I shouldn’t be afraid?” He asked uncertainly.
“You can if you want to be. It’s very possible that the danger is real,” Prism conceded. “What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t let the fear control you,” Prism explained with a supportive smile, “We’ve made it this far without seeing more than bubbles in the water, but you act as if a monster is going to leap out and grab you at any moment.”
“One still could,” Styx countered, as the momentary distraction from the fear ended. It wasn’t enough to know that the monsters might not be real. The stories that he had always been told were real enough. His imagination would serve as his own damnation.
“If that happens then we’ll deal with it,” Prism replied firmly, “Otherwise . . .” He stopped abruptly and looked back the way they had come. Styx turned to look, thinking that Prism must have seen something in the darkness, but all he saw was the cave wall, the shoreline, and the black lake, with the backdrop of the distant lights from Salidar’s complex. Everything seemed still except the flicker of those lamps and a slight movement in the water.
But then Prism pushed Styx hard to the side, against the cave wall. He heard the sound of metal hitting metal, and looked back to see Prism standing where Styx had been, his arm raised as if he had deflected something with his bracer. As Styx watched, a series of knives came spinning through the darkness only to have those deflected by Prism as well.
“You might as well come out and face me,” Prism called out to the darkness, only to be greeted by silence. Another string of knives came hurtling toward him, and these were dealt with in the same manner as before. “I learned how to deflect knives as a child, and I’ve never forgotten,” Prism called again, “You won’t kill me that way. Come out and face me.”
A man slowly walked forward, a knife in each hand, and as he drew closer Styx easily recognized him. This was the man who had stood with Salidar and Maxthane as he entered the Underking’s complex, the assassin Fasha, who the entire Shade knew not to cross. Styx was certain they were going to die, but he stood tall to face his fate. If there was anything he had learned about his recent ordeal, it was that it was better to fight and die trying than to run away and be killed anyway. It was the honorable thing to do.
“You,” Prism said flatly, “It all makes sense now.”
“Does it?” Fasha replied flicking the knife in his hand into the air, letting it spin as he walked further forward and then catching it easily by the hilt again. “You were there, weren’t you?” He asked, keeping his gaze on Prism, “No matter, you’ll die just the same. I’ve never been beaten, and you’re not about to be the first, despite the tales they once told about you.”
“You’re Salidar’s right hand man, aren’t you?” Styx asked, drawing little more than a glance from Fasha, “Doesn’t he have a rule about escaping? Something along the lines of, if you escape you’ve earned your freedom?”
“Oh, the child thinks he can address me?” Fasha replied with a raised eyebrow, still looking at Prism. “You’re not even worthy of my attention,” he added, and then sent a knife hurtling in a direct path for Styx’s face. It stopped in midair an inch from his right eye, as Prism grabbed the hilt in mid-flight. Just as easily as he had caught the blade, he sent it back through the air toward Fasha, who caught it in a similar fashion.
“The boy’s life is important to you, is it?” Fasha said with an evil grin. “How interesting. I’ll just have to make sure he dies then.” Before Styx could blink, more knives came flying toward him. How Fasha had managed to stash so many on his person he didn’t know, but the barrage seemed endless. Prism was in front of him, deflecting each one in turn, though not all of them were handled effectively. Styx yelped in pain as a knife that had been knocked only slightly off course by Prism still made it past Prism to pierce Styx’s shoulder. Another one grazed his thigh, and he barely pulled back in time as a third planted into the ground where his foot had been.
All at once the barrage stopped as Fasha charged forward, attempting to take advantage of the distraction his knives had caused. With a kris blade in his hand leading the way, he aimed for Prism’s chest with deadly accuracy. Unlike when Prism had faced Jakkel, Fasha had speed on his side. Styx watched as the knife-point pierced Prism’s chest and screamed in horror as Prism fell to the ground.
The battle was far from over. Prism had taken the hit but caught Fasha’s hand before the kris had been plunged deeply, and with a quick twist of the assassin’s wrist, the kris fell to the ground. Maintaining his hold on Fasha’s wrist, he pulled his opponent down with him and maneuvered his way toward a pindown.
Fasha proved to be more slippery than Prism had expected, and even as Prism set the pin, the assassin started to slide from his grasp. Prism kept his grip on Fasha’s arm and knelt on it, snapping the bone, but Fasha showed no sign of pain. His arm slid away from Prism as if it were water, and then he rolled away from Prism and bounced back to his feet, and the kris blade flew through the air and back into his hand. He stabbed at Prism again and grazed Prism’s bicep as he tried to pull away. The sound of metal grating on metal resounded from the wall of the cavern as the cloth of Prism’s upper arm was cut to reveal a plate of silvery metal coating his upper arm.
Styx realized that Fasha’s back was now to him, and he drew his knife from his belt. Though it wasn’t a type of blade that was typically thrown, Styx knew his way around knives well enough to get it to fly true, and threw the blade into Fasha’s back just above where his kidneys should be. The assassin staggered under the blow but otherwise paid no attention to it. To Styx’s surprise Fasha stood up straight and kept his attention on Prism.
The knife Styx had thrown clattered to the ground, falling out of the wound. Styx was about to move and pick it up, but decided to grab one of the knives Fasha had thrown at them instead since they were closer. He reached for the one in his shoulder only to find that it was no longer there, though the wound was still dripping blood. Assuming it must have fallen out, he scanned the ground, only to find that this area too was free of the projectiles.
He didn’t have any more time to consider the strangeness of the occurrence as he realized how much trouble Prism was in. Prism and Fasha were locked in a grapple, and though Prism had control of their wrestling match, the sinister smile on Fasha’s face told Styx that it wouldn’t remain that way for long.
From his outside perspective, Styx saw the reason behind the smile before Prism did. As Fasha pulled back suddenly, his kris blade flicked from one hand to the other. It happened fast enough that Styx couldn’t be sure, but it seemed as if it hadn’t been tossed at all, but rather had been drawn to the other hand as if being pulled by a magnet. Though Prism still had Fasha mostly at his mercy, the hand that now held the blade was in the perfect position to strike at Prism’s exposed ribs. With a cry of triumph, Fasha stabbed forward, piercing cloth and flesh and plunging the blade as deeply as he could.
The blade only buried itself halfway into Prism’s side before Prism regained control of the situation. Adrenaline was keeping him moving, and with a quick twist he went rolling with the assassin, down the shoreline and into the dark waters of the Black Lake.
They continued to splash about in the water, allowing Styx to keep track of their location, and he watched as their movements took them progressively further from the shore. Then the splashing became less apparent as they sank beneath the surface of the water.
“Prism!” Styx shouted as they disappeared, horrified at what he had just witnessed. For a moment he debated jumping into the water to save his friend, but one look at the dark waves and he couldn’t do it. Not even the potential loss of a friend could motivate him enough to break the surface of the menacing liquid. He paced the shore, watching for any sign of either of the combatants and wringing his hands in frustration.
Prism rose to the surface first, and, despite the weight of the metal armor pieces he wore, swam quickly toward the shore. Fasha broke to the surface next, but then immediately disappeared again, as if he was being pulled back down. As Prism climbed onto the shore, Fasha surfaced again, but this time when he was pulled back down, Styx swore he saw a large tentacle wrapped around his torso before he disappeared from sight. Styx gasped and looked away, unable to watch what was happening.
“Looks like you were right,” Prism said quickly as he walked back up to Styx, “There was something in the water. Let’s keep moving before he catches up to us.” Without another word he clapped Styx on the shoulder quickly and then began jogging down the shore. Styx cast one more nervous glance toward the water, and the ominous bubbles still rising to the surface before running after Prism as fast as he could. When he caught up to Prism it took all of his willpower to slow down and match his pace, and he was happy to find that Prism sensed his urgency and increased his own speed.
Styx stopped to catch his breath a while later and looked at Prism with confusion and a bit of terror. Prism wasn’t breathing heavily at all, and even with the blood that stained his clothing from the open wound on his side he seemed to be perfectly fine. “You said, ‘before he catches up to us’,” Styx accused between gasps for air, “What were you talking about? How would he survive that?”
“I don’t think he’s done yet,” Prism admitted with a shake of his head, “Trust me, that man is a survivor. He’s been through much worse.”
“I can’t imagine much worse than that,” Styx replied, glancing nervously back at the water. There was no sign of anything stirring, but that didn’t stop the shudder that travelled down his spine.
“Imagine it or not, it’s the truth,” Prism insisted, and then gestured for Styx to start moving again as he said, “Now come on, we need to hurry. Look, we’re almost at those lights. Are those the docks?”
“Judging from where we are,” Styx said as he prepared himself to run again, “I would say yes.”
“And after that we can start heading up, right?” Prism asked, for the first time showing a hint of worry.
“Unfortunately, since Salidar already sent one of his men after us, he’s very aware that we’ve escaped. He’ll have men watching the market and the exits to the surface,” Styx explained, shaking his head, “We can’t escape quickly. We’ll have to sneak out.”
“That’s not an option, Styx,” Prism insisted firmly, “We need to get out now. That man back there will find us if we tarry too long; I guarantee it.”
“Okay, then we need to find someone who can get us out,” Styx suggested, “That’s the only option we have if we want to go quickly.”
“Are you thinking about someone in particular?” Prism asked, the urgency still evident in his voice.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Styx replied with a grim expression, “Madame Godani’s guild hall is not far from the docks. If we sneak our way in, then she might be able to help us get out.”
“You don’t sound pleased with that plan of action,” Prism said with a touch of uncertainty, “What is the problem with approaching this Madame Godani?”
“She’s my mother.” Though it looked like Prism wanted more of an answer, Styx remained silent. As far as he was concerned, the matter was closed. Despite his reservations about returning to his childhood home, it was the only way out. If that was what it took to survive, he was willing to sacrifice his pride.
They reached the docks a few minutes later, keeping out of sight of the lamps that lit up the rickety wooden planks, and the ships that were moored there. There weren’t many people about, and those that were had their focus on other tasks than watching the shore. They were either preparing to launch their fishing vessels, or had just returned, and were busy cleaning and preparing their catches for market. For Styx and Prism, who both had experience in stealth, avoiding the fishermen was an easy task.
The dark streets of the Lower Shade were a different story. At numerous points they had to dodge out of the way of someone carrying a torch, and hide behind a barrel or a crate, or sometimes run back the way they came. It took them much longer to get through the streets than Prism would have liked, and Styx could feel Prism’s frustration as they pushed forward, though his mind was more concerned with other matters.
Styx remained focused on the large pillar they were moving toward. It shone bright in the darkness, with nearly every window lit up with lamplight. They weren’t the cheap type of lamps that have to be fed with oil. These lamps were much like the ones that had decorated Salidar’s halls. They cast a permanent glow upon the surrounding terrain, and were a symbol of wealth. It was a distinction well deserved, for no one in The Shade, save Salidar, was wealthier than the woman who ran the complex at the base of the pillar. Madame Godani was a woman who made sure everyone knew exactly how much power and influence she had, and the enchanters’ lamps were merely an expression of that.
Within half an hour, they had reached the base of the pillar. Styx ignored the large door at the front of the complex, and turned his attention to the upper levels. There was a door hidden away from all the other entrances, which only guild members used. It wasn’t exactly a secret that no one in the Shade knew about, but only someone who knew how to find it could reach it. Having spent his entire childhood in the complex, he knew exactly where it was but what he didn’t know was who would be guarding it. Regardless, if he wanted to get into the guildhall he would have to risk that whoever it was would turn out to be an old friend, and not an old rival.
Styx motioned upward and started his climb. There were secret handholds built into the walls and he climbed them with ease. He was halfway up before he realized Prism might not have been able to follow his movements and was potentially stuck closer to the bottom. A quick glance down showed that he needn’t have worried. Prism was right below him and smiled encouragingly as Styx resumed his climb.
They quickly reached a small platform that led to a narrow passageway, completely hidden in the shadows. Styx waited for Prism to climb onto the platform before squeezing through the tight space, knowing realizing it might be hard to find if Prism didn’t get a good view of where he went. As soon as he was inside, he wasn’t surprised in the slightest to feel a blade pressed up against his neck, though that didn’t stop his breath from catching in his throat.
“Well look who it is. The prodigal son returning to the guild hall,” the blade’s wielder said. The middle-aged man’s head was shaved, and the eye-patch that covered his left eye was painted to show an eye of red fire, which served as a perfect contrast to the right eye, which was the same bright blue it had always been. Styx knew the man well; it was Drake Iskari, a veteran member of the guild, and one of the members who had trained Styx when he was a boy. He was also one who had sometimes envied the favored position that Styx had with Madame Godani. This was something he hadn’t planned for; a person who was both friend and rival. Drake seemed equally surprised at seeing Styx as he added, “I never thought I’d see your face again kid.”
“Well it’s here for now,” Styx replied casually, doing his best to ignore the blade that was still against his throat, “but you won’t have to see my face for long, Drake. Let us in, I need to see Madame Godani.”
“What makes you think that she’ll see you?” Drake asked with a grin, though his smile did little to reassure Styx. “You didn’t exactly part on good terms,” he reminded Styx as the expression became a smirk.
“Good terms or no, I need to see her,” Styx insisted, and then in his cockiest voice he declared, “Try and stop me if you have to, Drake, but I’m going in.”
As it always had, bravado quickly won over the veteran thief. With a chuckle Drake pulled the thin blade away from Styx’s throat and sheathed it. “All right kid,” Drake said, gesturing for Styx to step further inside, “Come in, but you’re going to wait just inside for a minute so I can have a message sent down to her. You’re not going any further inside until I’m sure she wants you here. You can’t blame me for not wanting to cross her.”
“No, I can’t,” Styx agreed grimly. “Your plan sounds good to me I suppose. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be.”
“Understood,” Drake replied with a nod, knowing well that Styx was speaking the truth. “You know it’s probably a good thing that I was the one on duty tonight. Someone else might not have even spoken to you.”
“I guess I’m just lucky,” Styx replied with a grin, which earned another chuckle from Drake. The veteran turned away and walked a few feet down the corridor. He busied himself in front of a contraption of pulleys and ropes, which had a small canister attached to one end of the rope. He penned a quick message on a piece of parchment and then knocked three times on the wall to have the canister and its cargo descend through a small hole in the floor. Another thief would be waiting below to collect the message and deliver it. Styx knew how the system worked, though he had rarely been put on this duty, or the other since, he had reached adolescence. He had been far too important to Madame Godani’s designs for her to waste him on such menial tasks.
While Drake was busy with the message, Prism squeezed his way quietly into the room. Prism hadn’t made a sound but there wasn’t an ounce of surprise in Drake’s face as he turned back around and made note of him. “So, who is your friend? I’ve never seen him before.”
“This is Prism,” Styx replied easily, “And of course you’ve never seen him. You know as well as I do that he’s not from The Shade.”
“True,” Drake agreed, “He doesn’t move like one of us. Where’d you find him?”
Before either Styx could answer, a powerful female voice spoke up from the darkness behind Drake. “He escaped from Salidar’s fortress, just as Styx did.” The source of the voice stepped into the darkness a moment later, a woman in her late forties, dressed in a tight-fitting black and red dress that accentuated her slim figure. Her greying brown hair was cut short and intricately styled, but the makeup and earrings she wore were simple, and served to complement her features rather than distract from them. “Hello, son. I must say that I’m surprised to see you,” Madame Godani said with a blank expression, “If I recall correctly, you said that you would never come back. That didn’t last long.”
“Hello, Madame Godani,” Styx said formally, dropping his eyes, “It’s good to see you too.”
“Now, give me one reason why I shouldn’t turn you over to Salidar?” she asked, her eyes flashing with annoyance. Turning her gaze toward Prism she went on, “He’s not hunting you, but the dark one on the other hand . . .”
“Something terrible will happen if you turn me in, Madame Godani,” Prism said in his own defense, interrupting her. His action only caused her to glare at him dangerously, but undeterred he went on, “Not to me, but to the world. If you do not help us reach the surface, then you will be helping to start the apocalypse.”
“Styx, how do you always end up with the crazy ones?” Madame Godani asked, but instead of waiting for an answer she addressed Prism with a tight smile, “Still, I’m impressed by your ability to speak your mind. Such bold claims are rarely made in my presence. Who are you, stranger?”
“No one worthy of mention,” Prism replied cryptically, “At the moment I am a messenger, trying to stop the end of the world.”
“That’s very vague,” Madame Godani said patiently, though her eyes betrayed that she was already tired of the game. “Maybe you could elaborate?”
“Elaborating would put your lives in danger if Salidar ever found out that you spoke to me,” Prism explained with a shake of his head.
“Why? Because he might find out that I know he’s planning to free the demons?” Madame Godani replied nonchalantly, and for the first time since Styx met Prism, the man was completely caught off guard. “Don’t look so surprised,” she scolded him, “we thieves pride ourselves on information. I’ve known for quite some time what his game was.”
“What are you talking about?” Styx interrupted, looking at Madame Godani as if she had lost her mind, “That’s insane!”
“Styx, really?” She replied with a raised eyebrow, “You faced a demon in the arena and you’re having a hard time believing that’s what is happening?” With a shake of her head and a tired smile she added, “I always thought you were more perceptive than that.”
“So that’s what it was,” Styx said, reliving the fight in his mind. He saw the demon’s horrific visage and shook himself to try and clear it from his thoughts. It didn’t work, and he found himself stroking his arms where the demon had pierced his flesh, shuddering at the memory.
“Yes,” Prism said, answering Styx, but then he turned back to Madame Godani and went on forcefully, “And there will be more of them if Salidar gets what he wants. I don’t know what his endgame is, but he is planning on freeing all of them. We can’t let that happen!”
“And why should I care?” She replied with a shrug, “So the demons will be freed and destroy Pentalus. So what? The people in that city have never done anything for me. The entire reason that the Shade exists is because those above can’t tolerate those with different opinions.” Her eyes narrowed in disgust as she added, “If you ask me, they could use a lesson in humility, and perhaps having some demons destroy their pretty little lives will show them that humility.”
“You can’t mean that,” Prism replied in disbelief and a bit of anger. “If the demons are released, do you think they will suddenly stop killing when they’ve finished with Pentalus? For someone who prides herself on information, you sure didn’t think that through.”
“Watch your tongue,” she replied angrily, her eyes promising death, “You may be strong, but I can guarantee you I can have you killed, and the reward from Salidar will be more than enough to cover the cost of the men I lose.”
“The truth is far too important to remain silent,” Prism said defiantly, “If I have to kill my way up to the city then I will, though I would prefer to not do so.”
“You have courage, I’ll give you that,” Madame Godani insisted, allowing the insult to slide, “Now, tell me a reason to help you that will actually interest me.”
“You are a survivor. I can tell from the way you speak, and how you are against the idea of opposing Salidar,” Prism began, drawing another raised eyebrow from Madame Godani, “How long will you survive if the demons come here? Salidar can’t control them, I promise you that. You and everyone in your guild will die, before they even know what hits them.”
“So you’re saying that I have a choice between dying at Salidar’s hands now, once he finds out that I’ve let you go, that is, and dying in a demon invasion?” Madame Godani asked, her face showing how unimpressed she was by the thought. She laughed, drawing an angry frown from Prism and then answered, “I will take my chances with the demons. Salidar won’t succeed.”
“How can you be so sure of that?” Prism asked, annoyed by her surety.
“I’ve learned that the Knights of the Firmament already know that a demon has been freed. They will be ready for Salidar when he makes his move,” she explained, as if it were the most obvious fact in the world, “The petty rebellion of the Underking will be crushed, just as it has been every time before. He may manage to free a demon or two, but the whole set of them? No, he’ll be dead long before he manages to come even close.”
“Perhaps you are right,” Prism conceded with a shrug, though his glare told her that he didn’t believe it for a second, “but you do not understand the gravity of the situation. There are more powers at work here than just Salidar.”
Madame Godani was about to reply with another laugh when Styx finally spoke again. “Do it for me,” he said quietly, and everyone else looked at him in stunned silence.
“What?” Madame Godani asked incredulously, “I don’t owe you anything, Styx. Why would I do it for you?”
“Madame Godani,” Styx said formally, looking into her eyes as he slowly rubbed his arms, remembering the demon claws piercing his flesh. With his voice pleading from the depth of his heart he insisted again, “Please. Do it for me.”
She stared at him for what seemed like an eternity to the other two men in the room, but to Styx it was the closest he had been to her in years. It felt as if she were looking into the depths of his soul as she looked deep into his eyes. To his surprise and delight, she nodded slowly and whispered, “Very well. I’ll help you. May I live to regret it.”
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