Maxthane looked up as his father stepped into his room. He had been mulling over his situation the whole day, hoping that he would have longer to decide how he would proceed, but the look on his father’s face told him that time had run out.
“Get ready to go, Max. It’s time to move into the final phase of the plan,” Salidar announced, confirming Maxthane’s fears. “Fasha has returned with news that Prism has escaped into the Everbright City and that Sabreeza’s guild has been compromised,” he explained, expressionless. “We have to move now or we will miss our opportunity.”
“No,” Maxthane answered firmly. He stood up straight and crossed his arms in defiance.
“No?” Salidar echoed without emotion.
“No,” Maxthane repeated, searching his father’s eyes for anything that would indicate what his father was thinking. “I know you want me to be behind this plan, but I’m not. I can’t be a part of it. If you want to free the demons, do it yourself.”
“You’re not the only one who has studied the rituals, Max. You know that I don’t need you. Is this really your decision?”
“I’m sorry, father. I know that you think this is the only way to get what you want, but, I can’t.”
“I don’t know what to say. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was disappointed, but I think I understand,” Salidar said with a sigh, surprising Maxthane by the admission. “You don’t think I can control them.”
“No. I don’t,” Maxthane replied with a shake of his head. “This is wrong, and you know it.”
“The ends justify the means,” Salidar replied with a shrug.
“Not to me they don’t,” Maxthane said. “Not in this case anyway. Someone told me recently that if you always see things that way then you end up without a soul.”
“Then perhaps I don’t have one,” Salidar replied with a chuckle, though his face resumed its more serious posture as he went on, “This is the dream that our family has had for centuries. I’m so close to it that I can taste it, Max. We are so close to tearing down Neredos once and for all, and winning freedom for The Shade.”
“Or entombing us when the hungry demons come to devour us while we’re trapped down here,” Maxthane said with a smirk.
“I don’t have your same lack of faith in my ability to control them,” Salidar replied with a scowl, but his expression returned to neutral as he continued, “We will start with only a few at first. We will only move forward when we are sure that everything is going according to plan.”
“I hope for the world’s sake that you’re right.”
“Max . . .” Salidar began as he met his son’s eyes. He seemed conflicted, though Maxthane knew it would be naïve of him to think that the conflict had anything to do with reservations about setting the demons free. “I hope when this is over we can get past this,” Salidar continued, “I’m willing to forgive your defiance, so long as you don’t stand in my way. This will all be done and over with quickly, and then you’ll see that everything worked out all right.”
“Father,” Maxthane pleaded, “Don’t do this.”
“Goodbye, Max,” Salidar replied, smiling sadly.
Maxthane shook his head and looked away. He walked over to the window and stared out at the city spread before his view. All of the people living in The Shade were reliant upon Salidar’s strange sense of order, and Maxthane knew that Salidar was going through with the plan in large part for the future of his people, but that didn’t make it any better. He hoped that his father would either fail, or succeed beyond expectations. Otherwise the entire cavern would become a tomb.
But that possibility was not enough to deter Salidar, and he regarded his son with a mixture of sadness and anger. He had hoped that Maxthane would come around, but in the end he had to move on, whether his son came with him or not. “Stay here, but join me if you change your mind,” Salidar said as he walked back to the door. “I would rather have you standing at my side, but I will respect your decision.”
And then he was gone. Maxthane knew in his heart that it might be the last time that he ever saw his father. Salidar hadn’t felt the pull of the demon on the blood pact. He did not know how strong the demons were, and he wouldn’t know until one of them was killing him. Maxthane threw himself down on his bed and yelled at the ceiling in frustration. There was nothing he could do.
Or maybe there was. He sat up as the thought occurred to him that there was still an angle to pursue that would allow him a chance to stop his father from bringing on the apocalypse. Even if he couldn’t persuade Salidar to listen, he knew more about the demons than almost anyone. The grimoire might have an answer, or at the very least it would help him protect the innocents whose lives would be lost should the demons be freed.
He rolled off of his bed and knelt beside the locked cabinet next to it. With hands shaking in trepidation, he opened the door and withdrew the leather-bound manual. Even though the book was ancient it appeared it was enchanted to withstand the ravages of time. Despite its marvelous condition Maxthane handled each page tenderly, not wanting to risk harm coming to the book. Whoever had written it had intended that it be available for millennia, though the dialect of ancient Gor that it was written in was now spoken by very few, and read by even fewer.
Searching through the pages took hours. Even though he had skimmed through the book several times he had only focused on the passages that were pertinent to his father’s designs. There was a great deal more to the book, including the history of the demon war itself, which he had never taken the time to read through. Now he pored over these sections, determined to find anything that would serve to help them defeat the demons.
As Maxthane searched the history his eyes widened in surprise. One fact stood out above all others, and before he did anything else he had to obtain a confirmation. Tucking the tome gingerly under his arm, he stepped out of the room and quickly made his way to the dungeons.
Dodging the guards proved to be easier than he had expected. It appeared that his father had already left for the surface, and had taken most of his men with him. There remained only the minimal numbers necessary to keep the complex protected, and those that had been left behind were not Salidar’s most skilled either. In a matter of minutes he stood before the iron door that barred him from speaking to the gladiators, with a single guard leaning against the wall beside it.
Maxthane remained out of sight, watching the guard closely. The guard appeared bored, as if he would rather be doing anything else. It was not the most desirable post in the complex, sitting alone amongst the cages of ferocious beasts, and the smell was less than pleasant.
The smell. An idea struck Maxthane as he reached under his dhoti and activated the tattoo on his upper thigh. This particular design resembled a kind of poisonous flower, and had been infused with certain pheromones that were normally intoxicating to human males. His father had recommended the tattoo when he was young, saying the he would never know when it might come in handy to be able to seduce a man. He had never used it, but it seemed that in this case his father might be right.
He waited until the pheromones permeated the room and the guard started sniffing, breathing them in. Maxthane took a deep breath and stepped into view, making sure to walk in a way that accentuated his figure. The guard took note of him immediately, and it wasn’t difficult to tell that he was aroused though the guard remained as composed as he could. Maxthane was the prince, and even if he seemed attractive at the moment there was no way the guard would risk Salidar’s wrath by doing anything to the boy.
“Prince Maxthane. What can I do for you?” The guard asked nervously.
As soon as Maxthane noticed the guard’s hesitation, he knew that he had to step up his game. He reached out with his hand to touch the guard’s face. The guard instinctively blocked the hand, but there was little energy in it. Now that Maxthane was in close proximity the pheromones were even more potent and increasing by the second. When Maxthane reached forward a second time there was no resistance at all, and the guard accepted Maxthane’s touch on his face with an involuntary shudder.
Maxthane stroked the guard’s cheek with a seductive smile while the guard moaned in sensual bliss. “Now that my father’s gone,” Maxthane cooed, leaning forward as if he were going to kiss the man, “We can finally be together.”
He didn’t even know the guard’s name or if there was any history of him having a thing for men, but it seemed to be working. The guard reached forward tentatively and placed his hands on Maxthane’s shoulders. Unable to contain himself, he rubbed Maxthane’s bare skin, lost in the sensation of the smooth, toned flesh. He leaned forward and inhaled deeply, sucking in even more of the potent aroma.
It was time to end the charade. With as much force as he could manage, he kneed the guard in the groin. The guard doubled over in agony, his arousal only amplifying the pain. Maxthane stepped to the side and let the man fall to the floor with tears streaming down his face. Knowing that he had to incapacitate the guard completely if he wanted to proceed unmolested, Maxthane removed the pair of shackles that hung from the guard’s belt and pulled his hands behind his back. He dragged the crying man to the nearest empty cage and shackled him to the bars and only then did he reach down and deactivate the tattoo. He mouthed an apology to the guard and then stepped away.
He returned to the door and removed the locking bars before flinging it open, only to be greeted by the surprised look of several gladiators. Before they could question what was going on Maxthane asked for Grim. The gladiators roused Grim from his slumber, and the Fedain rose from his position against the wall and moved to greet Maxthane with a smile. Maxthane beckoned him outside and then closed the door again.
“Maxthane,” Grim said in a pleasant tone, though his face showed confusion as he asked, “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“You were there, weren’t you?” Maxthane accused.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to give me more to go on than that,” Grim said with a chuckle.
“You fought in the Demon War,” Maxthane clarified, “alongside Prism.”
“What an interesting thought,” Grim replied with incredulity. “Where in the world did you get that idea?”
“I read about you, in here,” Maxthane explained, showing Grim the book. “You’re one of the most powerful demon slayers of all time if not the most powerful one. It’s no wonder that you killed that demon so easily.”
“Where did you get that book?” Grim whispered with wide eyes.
“My father procured it in the Braeg,” Maxthane answered simply. He didn’t know much more than that himself, but Salidar had told him that it had been found in a small mountainous country. “The ritual we used to free the demon came from here. I was reading through the history when I came across your name alongside Prism’s.”
“So you do know the truth,” Grim mused. With a sad smile and a helpless shake of his head he went on, “I suppose there is no sense in denying it. What do you want of me then?”
“I’m here to free you, Grim,” Maxthane explained with a determined nod. “You and everyone else.”
“By all means then. Lead the way.”
“Before we leave, I have one more question.”
“Please, ask away.”
“Would you be able to defeat the demons should they be released again?” Maxthane asked with hope in his eyes. “I have in here the ritual that was used to seal them in the first place, but I don’t know if that will be good enough.”
“That’s a tough question,” Grim replied as he whistled through his teeth. “All I can say is that I will do everything in my power to assist. Prism should already be on his way to Neredos, and the King should also be able to lend his assistance.” With an encouraging smile he added, “If anyone will know how to defeat the demons after they are freed, it will be him.”
“That’s all I needed to hear,” Maxthane replied with a grin.
“What is your plan now?”
“With my father’s forces otherwise occupied, we should be able to reach the surface without too much trouble,” Maxthane explained with a shrug. Gesturing to the guard shackled to the cage he added, “He has already been incapacitated, but I don’t know where to go from this point.”
Grim smiled as he looked at the guard who seemed to still be regaining his senses. “Let’s get out of here,” he said as he opened the door to the gladiators’ cell. All of them were now awake, and looked to the Fedain expectantly. Grim waved them forward, and they moved as one, not needing any other cue. One of the gladiators moved to the shackled guard and forcefully removed his weapon belt, then proceeded to put it on.
Little more was spoken as Maxthane led them out of the complex. Occasionally he would stop and indicate that a guard should be waiting ahead of them. He would then step out and distract the guard, only to have the gladiators come up after and incapacitate them and take their weapons.
The only problem in the escape arose when they reached the bridge, and met the Elroks still standing stoically at attention. Their attention was on the bridge itself, and they paid no heed to the complex behind them, but that didn’t mean they would be easy to bypass. The Elroks listened exclusively to Salidar, and Maxthane’s orders would carry no weight with them; he didn’t even speak their language.
But he didn’t have to. While Maxthane and the gladiators deliberated about how to get past the Elroks, Grim was already on the move toward them. The Elroks turned around and growled, drawing the group’s attention to Grim’s actions. Maxthane was about to call out to Grim in alarm, but then realized that he would give away the position of the group if he did so. Instead he would be forced to watch as Grim made yet another sacrifice for his cause.
What happened instead shocked everyone who observed it. The Elroks brandished their weapons as they prepared to kill the small man who stood before them, but then Grim began to speak in their language. He spoke the guttural tongue with proficiency and the Elroks stepped back in surprise, eyeing one another before returning a respectful eye toward the Fedain.
Grim then pulled down on the collar of his shirt, showing them his chest. Whatever he revealed to them it caused the Elroks to bow in respect and lower their weapons. The Fedain turned back to where the gladiators stood, hidden by the wall, and waved them forward. The Elroks watched silently as the group moved past them, warily walking onto the bridge and away from the complex until only Maxthane and Grim remained on the complex’s side of the chasm.
Grim said a few more words and then bowed formally. He waited until the Elroks mimicked the action before gesturing for Maxthane to go ahead of him on the bridge. Maxthane nodded in his astonishment and hurried across, with the Fedain close behind.
When they reached the other side, Maxthane was about to ask what Grim had done, when they realized that the entire group had stopped ahead of them. They were talking quietly but excitedly with someone who stood amongst them. Sharing a look of curiosity, Maxthane and Grim walked forward until the man noticed their approach and took a step toward them.
“Grim, Prince Maxthane. Might I have a word with you?”
“Dogo?” They replied in unison, showing equal amounts of surprise.
“Please, come to Madame Godani’s guild hall,” Dogo said with a grin. “We have much to discuss.”
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