Sleep escaped Maxthane. The last two days had been a crazy ride of emotions, and he couldn’t stop thinking about what he had been through. He sat up straight in his bed as he realized that it had been going on for longer than that. He had been troubled since they had freed the demon. What Styx had done was bring him to an understanding of what was bothering him.
Styx; there was another subject he couldn’t stop thinking about. He glanced toward his window, wondering what had become of the boy he loved. It had been nearly a full day since he had let Styx go, and Maxthane was sure that his father would have told him something by now if Styx had been caught or killed. No, he would have known. He would have felt it if Styx were dead. Even though he didn’t understand the connection they had, he was certain he would know if that event occurred.
There was a small possibility that his father wouldn’t have told him. Salidar had left in anger when they had last spoken, and, though there was no way to be sure without approaching him, Maxthane would not be surprised if his father was still angry with him, but he had to know what his father knew about Styx. He slid out of his bed and dressed, wrapping his dhoti around his waist and stepping into his worn leather boots.
He had always preferred to keep his style of dress simple to allow him easier access to his tattoos. Tattoo magic required a certain level of focus to activate, and users typically did so through a habitual action that helped them reach that focus. The action was usually something like touching the tattoo as he had seen Styx do, and Maxthane activated his own the same way. The loose clothing he wore allowed him to reach the tattoos on his legs easily.
Some of the other tattoos he had were always active, such as the ones on his back. Blood pacts such as the link he had established with the demon, were one of several types of passive tattoos. These granted their powers at all times but were far more complex to enchant and incurred a great deal more risk as well. Maxthane grimaced as he remembered the story he had heard of the man who had used fish blood in his tattoo to grant him the ability to breathe underwater. Even though it worked for a short time, the human body was never meant to behave in that way, and eventually he was found belly up in the water, bloated, his body unable to handle the stress.
Despite the risks, Maxthane had never had any reservations about inking his body with magic. He hadn’t even been worried about the blood pact itself when they had freed the demon. His reservations had been of a far different sort; what they were doing was wrong, and he had known it since the beginning. It was time to face that and do something about it.
He sighed as he turned toward the door of his bedroom. He had to face his father and explain his position. Maybe Salidar could be convinced that this was a bad idea, or maybe not, but he owed it to Styx and himself to try, not to mention the gladiators who had died facing the demon. While he had never been fond of the arena, he had also never thought of it from the perspective of the gladiators before. Styx had changed that. He didn’t feel guilty, but he did feel indirectly responsible for their deaths.
After leaving his chambers he made his way toward his father’s rooms. Before he had gone half the distance, he felt a tug on his blood pact with the demon. It was getting excited about something, though the pact wasn’t strong enough to allow him to know much more.
Suspicious of what that excitement could mean, Maxthane changed his direction and headed toward the arena. He quickened his pace as he came closer to the pit, the sound of cheering giving him a sense of urgency. There was a fight about to happen. Salidar hadn’t told him, probably because he knew how Maxthane would react.
When Maxthane reached the viewing area he made his way through the crowd of spectators toward Salidar’s usual spot. Each spectator grunted as he pushed past, but once they recognized him they kept their mouths shut and let him pass. It wasn’t long before he stood behind his father, who was looking down at the pit with a thoughtful expression. Before Maxthane interrupted his father he followed Salidar’s gaze down to the arena floor. Standing near the gladiator entrance was a single man; the Fedain who had helped save Styx’s life.
“What is going on?” Maxthane asked as he stepped up beside his father. Salidar turned at the sound, his eyes widened slightly. Then his face tensed briefly before his features softened altogether.
“I need more information about the demons before we proceed with the plan,” Salidar explained neutrally, turning back to look down at the arena. “This is the best method I have.”
“So, you’re still going through with it?” Maxthane asked as his anger began to rise. He glanced nervously at the nearby spectators, but realizing that they would be too focused on the fight to hear his words, said spitefully, “I think we’re making a terrible mistake.”
“Calm down, Max,” Salidar replied coolly. He gestured toward the pit as he explained. “I’m doing this because of what you said earlier. You’re right that the plan is dangerous. This fight will tell me more, and the more knowledge I have, the better prepared I will be to deal with the demons once we free them.”
“And one single man against a demon is going to give you the answers you’re looking for?” Maxthane asked boldly. “You’re sending him to die,” he accused, “and you know it.”
“They are my men to send to die, Maxthane,” Salidar replied with a dangerous glare, “They broke my laws, and I am punishing them. Besides, do you realize who is down there?” He gestured down at the arena as he explained, “Grim, the Fedain. He’s the man who killed Jakkel. I need to make an example of those who kill the guards. We can’t be having that.”
“Jakkel deserved death much more than that man does,” Maxthane muttered, but it was still loud enough for his father to hear.
“You might be right about that,” Salidar admitted, smiling despite Maxthane’s insubordination. “But Grim is also the person most likely to survive in a battle against the demon,” Salidar reminded his son, “You’ve seen time and time again how he kills. We need to see if he can do the same to a demon.”
“This is horrible!” Maxthane replied, but before he could say anything else, he felt the excitement of the demon spike. It wasn’t hard to realize why as he saw the wall containing it slide open and the beast stepped into the arena with a roar. It glared at the Fedain standing placidly before it, and charged toward Grim without any more hesitation, its horns in line with Grim’s chest.
Grim waited until the last minute to dodge out of the way. To the crowd’s astonishment and delight, he took the least expected opening, and rolled in a tight ball between its legs, a movement that seemed impossible to the spectators eager for action. Rising up behind the demon, Grim laid his hand on the demon’s back for only a moment, but the demon howled in pain and turned on him with eyes blazing.
Fury fueling its every move, the demon began a ferocious chain of sweeping attacks with its claws, but Grim managed to stay just outside of reach. Each swipe was met with a fluid movement that made it seem as if the Fedain were dancing. Every step Grim took was deliberate, and his face showed a focus unmatched by any warrior Maxthane had ever seen.
Every so often, Grim would manage to lay his hand on the demon’s flesh and the demon would roar in agony. The longer the contact was maintained the louder the beast would howl. The crowd would roar in turn, reaching a volume that was almost enough to drown out the sound of the demon.
It was different for Maxthane than it was for all the other spectators. As the demon was struck he felt a tremor through the blood pact, as if it were threatening to break. While he couldn’t feel the demon’s pain itself, he knew that only one thing was supposed to cause a termination of a blood pact without destroying the magic itself, and that was death.
“If you feel that strongly about this,” Salidar said at length, drawing little more than a quick glance from Maxthane, “Hold the demon back like you did last time. Defy my will that Grim face the demon, and see what happens.”
Despite the potential threat in his father’s words, Maxthane decided to make the attempt suggested. He reached through the pact and forced his will on the demon, commanding it to back away. To his horror the command did little more than to cause the demon to shake its head as it resisted the order. It growled and looked up at Maxthane, but then returned its attention to its dangerous foe. The demon thrust forward with its clawed arm and Grim slid fluidly to his knees to duck it before reaching up and wrapping his hands around the demon’s arm.
“I can’t!” Maxthane admitted, as he tried to regain control of the pact, “It’s too powerful.” The demon tried to rip its arm away, only to find Grim holding on firmly. Only when the demon reached with its other arm to pry Grim off did he let go, revealing gaping wounds on the demon’s arm. The crowd cheered as the wounds began to drip dark blood, but the demon came back with even greater ferocity. Maxthane felt something that surprised him from the blood pact as the demon roared at Grim. No longer was the demon dominated purely by rage, but desperation now guided its attacks. It was afraid.
“You’re just saying that because you want to prove that we can’t control them,” Salidar accused.
“No!” Maxthane protested, but was forced to stop as he gasped instead as the demon lowered its head and tried to gore Grim. The horns connected solidly with Grim, and he was lifted into the air before being thrown hard against the arena wall, followed by a tremendous roar from the beast.
“See? It’s stronger than it was before. I can’t control it, and that man is going to die for your experiment!” Maxthane cried loud enough to draw a few glances from some of the nearby spectators, but Salidar’s reaction was the one that silenced him. With a forceful backhand, the Underking struck his son with enough force to make him collapse to his knees.
“You will watch your tone with me, Maxthane.” Salidar warned as his son stared up at him in disbelief. “I tire of your protests, and I can no longer abide your open defiance. These are my prisoners, and I will do with them what I will.”
The Underking’s face showed no emotion, and Maxthane’s mirrored his. It was as if Salidar hitting him had placed a wall between them. Both knew their relationship as it had been was now over. Neither knew how to handle the situation, and so they simply stared at each other, until finally Salidar chose to look away, though before he did Maxthane caught a glimmer of something in his eye that almost made him want to forgive his father; regret. “It makes no difference,” Salidar said simply, “It doesn’t look like the demon is going to survive this.”
As Maxthane followed his father’s gaze back to the arena, a horrific sight awaited him. The demon appeared to be falling apart, its flesh disintegrating under Grim’s touch. It continued to swing at the dancing Fedain, but each successive movement was more sluggish than the last; the strikes came nowhere near their mark. Maxthane noted that the demon’s eyes had been melted away, and he realized that Grim had taken the hit from the horns on purpose in order to blind the beast with his touch. Grim’s tactics were proving to be more impressive the longer he remained in action.
The demon lunged forward with one more desperate strike, its claws aimed at Grim’s chest. Grim stepped smoothly around the claws, moving inward and placing his hand on the demon’s chest. It howled in primal agony as its chest began to melt away, black blood falling all over Grim in a torrent, as he remained composed and kept his contact with the demon’s flesh. Within a few seconds the howl was cut short as the demon collapsed to the arena floor, no longer moving.
Maxthane knew it was dead. He could no longer sense it, and it was almost as if the demon had never been bonded to him. The tattoo on his shoulder became inactive as he felt its magic fade away. There was only one emotion he could define that he felt about the experience; relief.
“You’re wrong, father. It does make a difference,” Maxthane said quietly, staring at the mutilated corpse of the demon as he remembered his inability to force his will upon the beast. “If I couldn’t control him, what makes you think we can control the others?”
Salidar glanced back at him, his face once again unreadable. He turned to walk away, and Maxthane feared that his father would leave without saying another word to him. To his relief Salidar stopped after walking only a few steps and said, over his shoulder, “Get some rest, Maxthane. I’m done talking about this.”
Though the words still showed that their opinion on the matter differed greatly, it was all Maxthane needed to hear for the time being. He had feared that this argument would tear them apart entirely. As long as his father was still willing to talk to him he knew that there was a chance they could be reconciled, even if that wouldn’t be possible for a while.
The crowd began to disperse after cheering on Grim’s victory. The fight had been exactly what they had hoped for; they had seen death without any risk to their own lives. The spectators were what he detested most about the arena. They spent their coin to watch men and beasts fight to the death, for no reason other than their own entertainment. Those who delighted in the death of others had no place among the living as far as he was concerned.
Unable to stand the sight of the people around him, Maxthane returned his attention to the pit. Grim was staring down at the demon with an unreadable expression but his posture showed determination. He too seemed to disregard the crowd, though Maxthane couldn’t tell if it was for a similar reason. There was something about Grim that Maxthane found intriguing on an instinctual level, and even when the guards came to take Grim back to the gladiator’s prison he couldn’t put Grim out of his mind.
The cleanup crew came in next. These were also prisoners of Salidar, but their crimes had been less than those of the gladiators. They were treated as servants for the most part, but one of their less desirable duties was to clean the arena after matches. Normally he did not envy their tasks, but this time his curiosity got the better of him. As they began to poke at the corpse of the demon, Maxthane made his way from the viewing deck to the arena floor as quickly as he could.
“Hold up!” He called out to the crew as they pulled out their saws to cut the demon to more manageable pieces. The intent was to move the dead in as few pieces as possible, but with something this large they would have no choice but to cut it down before they threw the parts into the Black Lake. The monsters that lived there had fed well off of the corpses Salidar and his ancestors had sent their way. It was an easy way to dispose of the bodies, as gruesome as it was. Maxthane was not in a rush to let the evidence of this particular battle disappear.
The servants stopped what they were doing and waited for Maxthane to order them to do otherwise. They knew that to obstruct Maxthane’s will was as good as opposing Salidar himself. The cleanup crew always kept themselves in line, for they knew if they disobeyed then their peers would soon be taking their bodies from the arena floor and throwing them to the dark waters.
Maxthane examined the corpse carefully, making sure to not touch any of the vile liquids seeping from its open wounds. Though he was horrified as he looked at the carnage he also found it fascinating. He could not fathom what kind of power would be capable of causing such an effect, but he intended to find out. This was the first demon he had ever seen, and it had killed two men effortlessly a day before and had only being stopped by his own force of will. It had then resisted his will, which was something that Maxthane had thought impossible. Now a single man had stopped it. If the demons were to be stopped once they were freed, he needed all the knowledge he could acquire on how to defeat them.
Despite knowing that his father would not approve, Maxthane made his way to the large iron doors that led to the gladiators’ cell. As there was no longer a fight in progress these doors were no longer barred, as they had been minutes before. That didn’t mean they were not still heavy, and he had to exert himself to pull the doors open. As soon as it was wide enough for him to fit through he stepped inside, surprising the guard on duty on the other side.
“Prince Maxthane,” the guard stammered, “what are you doing down here?”
“I want to speak to one of the gladiators,” Maxthane explained after catching his breath. “Would you mind bringing him here?”
“Which one? Does your father know about this?”
“Would I be here if he didn’t?” Maxthane snapped, and the guard immediately bowed in apology. Maxthane continued in his haughtiest voice, pleased that his bluff appeared to have succeeded, “He sent me down here. Now bring me the Fedain. We need to ask him how he managed to kill the demon today.”
“As you wish,” the guard replied with a salute. He turned and called down to the next guard post down the hall. “Hey, Cobin, bring up the Fedain. The prince is here to see him.”
The order was met by a snort of disbelief, but when the first guard repeated the call it was greeted by a swift agreement, and a minute later another guard appeared leading a clean and composed Grim, bound in shackles. The guards shared a look of confusion about the meeting but they were not about to question the prince again.
“Chain him up there and then you may go,” Maxthane ordered quickly, gesturing toward a heavy ring set in the door itself.
“Go?” the first guard asked, glancing at the other guard for an answer before looking back to Maxthane. “Go where?”
“I don’t care,” Maxthane replied coldly, “but come back for him in fifteen minutes. That’s all I’ll need.”
“As you wish,” the guards replied in unison. They shackled Grim to the door and saluted, before moving back down the passageway toward the other gladiators.
Maxthane watched them go, and waited until they would be out of earshot before he turned to Grim. He was at a loss as to where to begin, but Grim did not seem to have any compulsion against starting the conversation on his own.
“Prince Maxthane,” Grim addressed him formally. With what appeared to be genuine concern he observed, “You are not looking very well. Are you ill?”
“No. Well, perhaps,” Maxthane admitted, surprising himself at how easy it was to speak to Grim. “I don’t feel well, it’s true, but I don’t think it’s because I’m sick.”
“Then what can I do for you?” Grim asked with a polite smile. Even though it seemed the expression was forced, Maxthane somehow knew that it wasn’t because Grim found speaking with him unpleasant. “I’m a healer, and nothing more. Am I to heal another young man for you?”
“No, though I truly appreciate you doing so yesterday,” Maxthane replied with a cautious smile, “I have to ask you something else.”
“I will endeavor to answer if I can,” Grim offered, inclining his head in a nod.
“How did you do it?”
“How did you kill that demon? It wasn’t the same as the others I’ve seen you kill,” he explained, shuddering as the sight of the demon’s melted carcass came to mind. “The others you aged somehow, but this . . . this was even more disturbing.”
“You found it disturbing? Then why did you watch?” Grim asked, his smile faltering. He shook his head and the smile returned as he said, “I’m sorry, I know you want answers, but I would rather know the context of the question if you are willing to provide one. What brings you to ask this question?”
“I’m not certain,” Maxthane admitted as he looked away, staring at the wall as if searching it for the answer to his inner turmoil. “I did not enjoy watching it, and to be honest I’ve never enjoyed watching the fights. I don’t delight in blood sport.” He turned back to meet Grim’s eyes again as he went on, “From the expression you gave at the end of your last match, I don’t believe you care much for it either. To answer your question as well as I can though, I suppose I watch because I can’t look away.”
“Neither can I,” Grim confessed with a grimace, and seeing Maxthane’s confusion he went on to explain, “As much as I despise it, I’ve lived a life that draws me to violence. I can’t seem to escape it no matter what I do. I imagine that you feel similarly trapped in your own life.”
Confusion turned to surprise as Maxthane stammered, “How? How did you know?”
“When you’ve lived as long as I have, reading people becomes second nature,” Grim replied casually, his smile back again. Maxthane realized then that Grim defaulted to smiling when he had no other emotion to show. It had a calming effect on him, and for a moment he was lost in the pleasant expression.
“So you’re finding that your father’s path is not your own?” Grim asked a moment later, drawing him out of his stupor.
“It seems that way,” Maxthane admitted, wincing as he put his hand up to his cheek. He hadn’t realized it before, but mention of Salidar brought back the sting of where his father had struck him. “We’re growing further apart every time we talk,” he conceded quietly enough that it was almost a whisper. “Or at least it feels that way.”
“No two people travel the same path, Prince Maxthane,” Grim replied with a shake of his head, “Your father’s path was never yours, despite that both of you once thought it was.”
“But you didn’t come to hear the philosophical ramblings of a gladiator, now did you?” Grim went on as Maxthane stared at him curiously, considering his words. “You’re probably not even sure why you came, though you did ask me a question that I have yet to answer. You want to know what I did to that demon.”
“Yes, please,” Maxthane said with a nod. “I felt it die. I was blood-pacted to it.”
“Then I must apologize if you felt anything that would cause you grief,” Grim replied with another grimace. “I know that it must be an unpleasant feeling, even though I’ve never felt it myself.”
“But what did you do?” Maxthane asked again, driving at the question he thought he wanted answered.
“I broke it down to its base parts, or at least I began to,” Grim explained with a shrug. “It died long before I would have completed the process.”
“Everything that lives is made up of small particles that are bound together by a force that not even the greatest Fedain healers completely understand,” Grim continued as if the interruption had never occurred. “Even the demons which never show signs of age are built of the same things as you and I. I simply asked these base particles to release each other, and so the demon began to fall apart.”
“Fascinating,” Maxthane replied with a sense of awe. “Oddly enough, knowing that I no longer find it horrifying.”
“That’s too bad.”
“What?” Maxthane asked in genuine surprise. “You would prefer if I were afraid of you?”
“No. I care little for what the world thinks of me. If I did care I would have died long ago,” Grim replied cryptically. “What is unfortunate is that you do not find my ability to kill horrifying,” Grim explained as his smile turned to one of sadness. His eyes betrayed an even deeper sorrow, as if a part of him had died in order to bring the smile to his lips. “I think it’s the most atrocious attribute a person can have. Perhaps your path is closer to your father’s than I thought.”
“Wait, I don’t understand what you mean.”
“All life is sacred, Maxthane, and it is a sad thing whenever we must end it, regardless of what that life belongs to. Whether it is man, beast, or even demon, killing another being causes you to lose a part of yourself,” Grim explained patiently. After giving Maxthane a moment to digest the thought he added, “Have you ever killed?”
“No,” Maxthane answered. Thinking about it a moment longer he clarified, “Not directly, at any rate. I feel partially responsible for the deaths of Kutos and the other man yesterday, because of my blood pact with the demon. I’ve never done the deed myself.”
“That other man’s name was Hurr,” Grim said firmly. He waited for Maxthane to acknowledge the fact with a nod before he continued, “You should know the name of everyone you kill, if you can. But I suppose you didn’t actually kill him, so maybe it doesn’t matter as much.” With a shrug he altered the subject slightly, “I advise against killing anything if you can help it. You will know the instant you are forced to kill that you have done something irreversible.”
“But what if I have to kill to survive?”
“Then I suppose you have to ask yourself if the ends justify the means,” Grim replied flatly.
“That’s what my father always says. He calls it the family motto.”
“It’s a personal choice, Maxthane,” Grim replied with another shrug, “But I don’t believe anyone can follow that philosophy in every aspect of their life and still have a soul. From my own experience though, you will sometimes come across something that means enough to you that you’ll do anything to achieve it. Is it wrong to pursue that?” He seemed to be asking the question of himself as much as he was of Maxthane. He shook his head a moment later and said, “I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong. You will have to make that choice on your own.”
“I have something that seems important to me, but I don’t know how to achieve it,” Maxthane confessed, once again looking away. “Perhaps I’m not open to the necessary means. I don’t want to hurt anyone, especially my father. He may not be the best man, but he’s the only one I’ve ever been close to in my life.”
“What about Styx?”
The question drew Maxthane’s surprised eyes back to Grim. “You know of him?” He asked in wonder, but then he remembered who he was talking to and went on sheepishly, “Yes, of course you do. He was down here before he faced the arena. And you saved his life.”
“And I saw him before he left,” Grim elaborated with his default smile back on his face. “He escaped with Prism after they attempted to free me.”
“You had a shot at freedom and you didn’t take it?” Maxthane asked incredulously.
“No. I have a duty to the other gladiators,” Grim replied with a sigh. “Someone has to protect them, even if it means I have to keep killing.”
“But they escaped—I let Styx go,” Maxthane said, abruptly shifting the subject. He didn’t know why it felt like the moment to bring up that piece of information, but it slipped out before he could stop it.
“Why?” Grim asked. He didn’t appear to be surprised by the news, but he seemed genuinely curious about the answer.
He didn’t know how to answer the question, but it didn’t seem to matter. He took a deep breath and the words seemed to flow out on their own. “I couldn’t keep him caged. It would have broken his spirit. He is free, and he is meant to stay that way.” With a shrug he met Grim’s eyes and explained, “I couldn’t let that part of him die.”
“It appears I was wrong about you,” Grim replied with a warm smile. This time, Maxthane knew that he had earned it somehow, and as he regarded the Fedain with confusion Grim explained, “You do have respect for life. Maxthane, for whatever reason you sought me out, I’m glad that you did. I need to tell you something.”
“You are not your father, and you never will be.”
Not knowing what else to say, Maxthane kept his response simple. “Thank you, Grim.”
Grim inclined his head, accepting the thanks before he looked at Maxthane with amusement. “You know, love is perhaps the greatest way to judge if the ends do justify the means.”
“What do you mean?” Maxthane asked.
“You love Styx, and that’s why you let him go. Believe me, I understand,” Grim said with a chuckle. “The first time I ever killed it was for the one I loved. I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten the return I desired.”
Maxthane paused before replying cautiously, “How did you know I loved Styx?”
Grim shrugged and explained, “Fedain love differently than humans do, and perhaps it gives us more insight. We can fall in love with a person the instant we lay eyes on them, as if we sense something in their soul that tells us we’re meant to be together.”
“Interesting,” Maxthane replied thoughtfully. “I’ll have to think about that and come to you if I have any questions.”
“I think you have a lot more than that to think about,” Grim said with patient finality. “Is there anything else I can answer for you before you leave?”
“No, you’re right. I need to think about all of this,” Maxthane agreed with a nod. “Would you mind if I visit you again?”
“Not to point it out or anything,” Grim replied with a quiet chuckle as he shook the shackle that held him bound to the door, “but I’m not exactly going anywhere.”
“We’ll see, Grim,” Maxthane whispered, “We’ll see.”
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