It felt surreal to be entering The Shade again so soon, and to be doing so through the main entrance instead of sneaking in. While Maxthane had expected things to be different now that his father was dead, he still thought of the grand cavern as his home, but for some reason it didn’t feel familiar to him anymore as he stepped onto the staircase that would lead him down into the depths. It felt like he was entering a whole new world.
His stomach fluttered and he felt as if he were going to be sick as he took his first step down the grand staircase. He was entering a whole new world, and things would never be the same. Though he had discussed the matter to some degree with Captain Rega, he hadn’t felt the loss of his father so deeply until he entered the realm that Salidar had ruled.
Even the Elroks who had been tasked to guard the entrance regarded him with concern as he staggered to the wall, supporting himself with an outstretched hand. He waved away the soldiers who came to offer their assistance to him, knowing that to accept their offer would show them his weakness. He had to be strong now, no matter what. That was what it meant to be a king.
He calmed his fluttering stomach and straightened, turning back to the men with his face composed and his eyes showing confidence. It would be a long walk down, but he could no longer allow Rega to be his support. It was time to show his soldiers that he was prepared to be their leader.
“Men, we have injured among us,” Maxthane proclaimed. “We will return to the palace as quickly as possible, that they may get the attention that they require, but we will also keep a pace that will prevent further injury.” Turning to Rega he ordered, “Captain Rega, you and I will take point together, so that the whole Shade will know that we have returned. Let us return home with our heads held high. We may not have won the day, but we fought our best, and that is all I could ask of any of you.”
The soldiers saluted and quickly organized themselves into some semblance of ranks, with the able-bodied supporting those who were less fortunate. Several of the injured were carried on makeshift stretchers that had been formed out of scraps of cloth and spear hafts. Once all was organized, Maxthane moved slowly to the front with Rega and started down the staircase again.
Rega did not attempt to engage him in conversation, and for that Maxthane was glad. He wanted some time to sort out his thoughts, and he was sure that he would be unable to keep the fatigue from showing in his voice if he were forced to speak. Walking was still a chore since he had exhausted himself so completely, but he would not show that to his men. As he had ordered them to do, he held his head high and walked with determination toward the future that awaited him
The procession was silent, and he wondered if his soldiers were likewise reflecting on the events of the day. All of them had seen friends die, or at the least found that they were not among the survivors. The people of Pentalus misunderstood those who lived in The Shade. Shades were seen as little more than vagabonds and criminals, but that didn’t make them any less human. They cared for those that surrounded them, even if the ways they showed it were often different. Shades had every bit as much capacity for love and loyalty as those living in the lighted world above.
In the distance he could see the shaft of light that marked where the Ibrix demon had broken through the ceiling of the cavern. The light travelled all the way to where the rubble from the collapse lay piled on the cavern floor. Homes had once stood in that spot, but any who had been in them were now surely dead. Though the dead were unlikely to be anyone of renown in The Shade, the loss of their lives would be felt in the community. Death may have been common in The Shade, but catastrophes were not.
He made a mental note to send men out to those boulders to search for the bodies of the dead. They needed to be remembered, and it would serve him well to make sure that his people knew that he was the one who remembered them. Perhaps there was still a way to turn this tragedy into a way to strengthen his position.
A low growl escaped his lips at the thought. Here he was trying to turn a tragedy into a political maneuver, and that wasn’t like him at all. The people needed to be remembered, and that was it. How the people thought of him afterword was irrelevant. Life was sacred, and he needed to know the names of the dead. Grim had taught him that. He clung to the thought like a lifeline in the sea of confusion that threatened to drown him at any second. He would not forget the sanctity of life. He would not become his father. The ends did not justify the means, and no amount of political gain would tempt him enough that he would give up his soul.
He quickened his pace, gritting his teeth against the exhaustion. The soldiers behind him followed suit, and the troop soon arrived at the marketplace, which would lead them straight to the Underking’s palace. Those who stood offering their wares in their decrepit stalls watched the procession in silence. Maxthane could feel their eyes upon him. They couldn’t have known yet that Salidar had fallen, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were judging him; evaluating him as their new king.
His first instinct was to get out of there as soon as possible, to increase their pace even further, but he knew that he would just be running from his responsibility. His father would have met their stares with stoic regality, keeping himself composed and refusing to let the people see that their stares mattered, but Maxthane was not his father. He had to react in a way that suited his nature. Turning to look at the crowd, he forced a warm smile onto his face and moved it from person to person as they walked by. Each person who saw his face reacted with surprise, and some even smiled back.
The smiles distracted him from his exhaustion, and before he knew it they were leaving the marketplace behind as they strode across the bridge. The Elroks who stood on the other side regarded Maxthane curiously. He understood why, for they had seen him leave the complex less than a day before and in the company of the gladiators. Thankfully they did nothing more than stare at him until he passed by. On the other hand, the human guards who stood in front of the gate had other ideas.
“Prince Maxthane!” One of the guards shouted in surprise. Maxthane recognized him as one of the men whom he had personally helped to incapacitate during their escape. His name was Krythe, and had been left in command of the complex while Rega was absent.
“Don’t be alarmed, Krythe,” Maxthane explained with an upraised hand, “there was a reason for my actions, and all will be explained in time.” Without waiting to see if Krythe accepted his words, Maxthane turned back to Rega and instructed, “Captain Rega, please get everyone settled.”
“As you command, my King,” Captain Rega replied loudly enough to be heard clearly by the human guards, motioning for the gates to be opened to allow all to enter. The guards visibly relaxed as Rega obeyed Maxthane’s order and they opened the gates quickly, allowing the entire procession to enter without any further delay. Once inside, the soldiers made haste to get the injured to beds where they could rest and have their wounds tended to.
“King?” Krythe asked in confusion. He looked Maxthane up and down before turning to Rega with a quizzical expression. “Captain, what’s going on?”
“My father was killed during the attack on Pentalus,” Maxthane explained before Rega could even open his mouth. He could hear gasps coming from behind him and paused until the news set in. “The plan failed and we were forced to withdraw.”
“Unfortunately it’s true,” Rega jumped in, drawing the attention of the skeptical crowd. “I saw King Salidar’s body with my own eyes. Our king has died and with him the rebellion has died as well.” With a faint smile toward Maxthane, he added, “At least for now.”
“How did he die?” Krythe asked with an unreadable expression.
“We were all betrayed by Fasha,” Maxthane explained patiently. “I had learned that Fasha was manipulating events and went to inform my father, but I was too late. That’s why I escaped from here as I did.” He hoped that they would accept the answer, even though it was technically a lie. He hadn’t known of Fasha’s intent to betray his father until he had experienced it firsthand.
“And the gladiators?” Krythe asked skeptically. “Why did you free them?”
“Am I to understand that you did not have orders to keep me locked away?” Maxthane asked with a hint of anger. “I needed men if I was to free myself and go to my father’s side, and none of you would have gone against my father’s word over mine. I needed them, and by freeing them they pledged their loyalty to me,” he added dismissively, as if the point was no longer relevant. He met Krythe’s eyes and said with as much bravado as he could muster, “I would ask that you do the same.”
“And you shall have it,” Rega declared as he stepped up beside Maxthane, meeting the eyes of the soldiers who stood before them. “I have already pledged to the service of King Maxthane, who else will join me?”
Cries rose up from the ranks as the soldiers declared their loyalty, and even Krythe joined the chorus. But there was something in the soldier’s eyes that told Maxthane that the man was not yet convinced, and a quick survey of the crowd told him that Krythe was not alone in his skepticism. For the moment it wouldn’t matter. With Captain Rega’s support the dust had already begun to settle, and with any luck he would win Krythe over before the soldier decided to stir things up.
The Knights continued to flood the sky, forming a network to protect the city should any more demons made their presence known. Kirra knew that they would be disappointed, and no more demons would appear for them to test their mettle against. The cost had been great, but they had driven Salidar back. It was over; they had won.
He stared down at Prism’s body. It almost seemed fitting that he should find his resting place here, amongst the ruins of a demon’s slaughter, after having helped to vanquish the beast. A true hero’s death, and there was no hero more deserving than Prism, the legendary monk who had earned his place in the history books of long ago and now would grace their pages yet again.
“Where do we go from here?” Kirra asked as he approached Styx, who was still staring at the carnage around them with a blank expression.
“I have no idea,” Styx replied without hesitation. He turned back to look Kirra in the eye as he shook his head and amended his previous statement, “Other than what Prism asked of me.”
“What do you mean?” Kirra asked in confusion, gesturing to the new pillar that stood where Ibrix had been imprisoned again. “It looks to me as if the threat is over. We’ve won.”
“Something tells me that we’re not done yet,” Styx replied with a humorless smile. “Prism was adamant about what he told me as he died,” Styx explained, “He told me to ‘free’ Grim, whatever that means, and he told me to search out Ghayle.”
“Who’s Grim?” Kirra asked. He considered repeating the question but replacing the name with ‘Ghayle’ this time but decided that it would be better to keep it to one question at a time.
“He’s an acquaintance,” Styx replied simply. “I didn’t know him well, but he saved my life once.” He smiled at the memory of Grim despite their current setting, and then shook his head to clear away the nostalgic haze, before he went on, “Dogo said that he was up here with the gladiators, but I don’t see him anywhere. For that matter, I don’t see any of the gladiators at all,” He observed as he squinted at the bodies around them, “Unless they’re amongst the dead.”
“So, what is your plan then?”
“I guess I’ll find Dogo and ask him if he’s heard from Grim,” Styx replied thoughtfully. “I have a suspicion that he’ll have already returned to The Shade now that the dust has settled. He wouldn’t want to stay up here in the aftermath. The Knights know that it was Shades who freed the demons in the first place, and they aren’t going to wait to find out if the gladiators were working with Salidar, or not,” he explained dryly. “It’s not safe for any of us here, not even me. I’ll be headed down there myself, I think.”
“To return to your Prince?” Kirra asked with a touch of bitterness.
“Kirra . . .” Styx began, looking Kirra in the eye as he tried to search for the right words to combat the hurt tone in the knight’s voice. “No. I won’t deny that Maxthane has something to do with it, but I want you to come with me.” Styx shook his head as he continued more firmly, “No, I need you to come with me. I can’t do this alone. Hell, I’m not even sure I can do this at all, but Prism was right, I have to try. It’s almost like his death meant he passed the responsibility on to me, and maybe it was fate that he dragged me along this whole time, but I have to do something.”
“I don’t think I have a place in The Shade any more than you do up here, Styx,” Kirra replied.
“Look around us,” Styx said, gesturing to the ruined plaza. “Look at the destruction that was caused by one single demon. We can’t let this happen again, and I intend to make sure that it doesn’t.” He met Kirra’s eyes again as he added, “I’m going to need your help, and your support.”
Kirra stared back at the blue eyes which now seemed so deep, so filled with purpose, when before they had carried nothing but the aching desire to survive. He looked away, ashamed by the lustful thoughts that rolled about in his mind. There was a depth in Styx that he had never seen before, and he wondered if Styx had ever realized it in himself. He was wrong to think that Styx had any intentions other than what he had already revealed.
He scanned the plaza as Styx had directed, and the carnage that littered the area. There would be no denying that this tragedy had occurred, or the necessity to prevent it from happening again. His personal feelings aside, he needed to see this through, but that didn’t mean his pride would let him make it easy for Styx. “I suppose Prism did ask me to stay with you, regardless of what happened,” Kirra said with a dramatic sigh. “All right, let’s go. But once we find out that everything is going to be all right I’m going to return to Lady Alsha and make my report.”
“I guess that will have to do,” Styx replied with a tight smile. Touching Kirra’s arm lightly he gestured ahead of them and said, “Come on, the faster we get down there, the better.”
“What about Prism’s body?” Kirra asked, looking down at Prism.
“What about it?” Styx replied, “The dead are of no use to us.” Without another word he began to walk away, glancing over his shoulder only once to see if Kirra was following.
Kirra glanced one more time at Prism’s body before following Styx. While he wasn’t sure he agreed with the idea of leaving Prism behind, Styx was right that the faster they moved forward the sooner everything would be resolved. He trotted to catch up to Styx and walk by his side, though once he saw Styx’s path he began to question his friend’s sanity. Styx was walking directly to the edge of the large hole that had been smashed into the courtyard, which seemed to lead to an endless abyss of darkness.
“Wait,” Kirra said hesitantly, “Don’t tell me we’re going down that way?”
“It’s the fastest route,” Styx replied with a shrug. “Don’t you trust me?”
Inhaling deeply, Kirra nodded and followed Styx until they stood at the edge. Styx looked at him and smiled, reaching up to brush his cheek before wrapping his arms around Kirra, pulling him into the void as he jumped off the edge.
Kirra screamed as they fell into the darkness, until he realized how slowly they were falling. Styx seemed to be guiding them as they fell, in complete control of their descent, and Kirra began to relax into Styx’s embrace. Styx was grateful Kirra was lighter than Prism, and it didn’t tax the limits of his magic at all, and he relaxed along with Kirra.
They continued to fall for several minutes until they eventually came to rest softly on a ledge deep within the cavern. Kirra landed first, with Styx landing on top of him. Styx’s hair was lit by the distant point of light above them, which showed their point of entry. The light made Styx seem to glow, and Kirra could not take his eyes off of the beautiful sight above him. If he hadn’t already developed feelings for Styx, he would have fallen in love all over again.
“Kirra,” Styx said softly, his eyes conflicted.
“Yes?” Kirra replied breathlessly, overcome by the presence of the boy above him.
“Thanks for coming with me,” Styx said with a smile, and the conflict in his eyes died away. For a brief moment Kirra wondered what it had been about, but then Styx surprised him by locking their lips together with a deep and passionate kiss. Every doubt in Kirra’s mind melted away as he responded, pulling Styx down onto him.
Every emotion that Styx had kept bottled up over the past few days came to the forefront and became channeled into his passion. He ground himself into Kirra, aggressively exploring every inch of him that he could reach with his hands or mouth. He needed an escape from the pain, the sorrow, the death that had surrounded him, and he searched for it within the flesh of the Knight whom he had come to love.
Kirra was no more restrained, and he found himself tearing at Styx’s clothes, uncovering every point he could to make contact with Styx’s smooth skin. As Styx attacked his neck with kisses, Kirra responded by running his hands down Styx’s back and neck, tracing every curve of his muscles and reveling in the feeling of the flesh he had longed to touch. Only moments before, Kirra had doubted that he would ever know how it felt to have Styx in his arms, and this entire scene seemed so surreal he was sure he was dreaming.
As their lips met again in another kiss of passion, Kirra was assured it was not a dream. Kirra grabbed the back of Styx’s head and kept him locked in the kiss, refusing to let Styx’s mouth roam anywhere else while he reached with his other hand to rip away the shirt that kept him from Styx’s torso. As the cloth was torn away the sound of tearing fabric echoed off the nearby walls. Kirra moved both of his hands to Styx’s now exposed chest and pushed up with his back, rolling them both over so that he was now on top.
Kirra began to explore Styx more thoroughly, pinning Styx with his hands while he kissed down Styx’s neck until he reached his chest. Styx moaned as Kirra added to his ministrations with his tongue, Styx’s mind exploding with the sensation from Kirra’s passion.
Kirra was lost in the moment. This was a fulfillment of everything he had ever dreamed of, and he couldn’t think of a more perfect person to experience it with. It took him several seconds to realize that Styx was calling for him to stop, and when he did he pulled back and stared at Styx with confusion.
“I hate to be a mood killer,” Styx said with a smile, “but we’re on the edge of a cliff. We should probably continue this later.”
Glancing to the side Kirra saw that Styx was right. They were less than a foot from rolling off the ledge they had landed on. He chuckled as he turned back to Styx and said, “I guess we got carried away, didn’t we.”
Styx pulled him down for another quick kiss and replied, “It’s all right. I think we both needed that. I have to come clean with you though.”
“What do you mean?” Kirra asked cautiously.
“About Maxthane,” Styx explained with a sigh. “The truth is, Kirra, I have feelings for both of you.”
“Then why are you toying with me?” Kirra replied angrily.
“I’m not,” Styx replied and then growled in frustration. He motioned that he wanted to sit up and Kirra moved to accommodate him. The mood was already dead anyway. “Kirra,” Styx began again, “I have a proposition for you.”
“And what would that be?” Kirra asked in exasperation.
“Get to know Maxthane,” Styx replied evenly. “You’re viewing this as a competition, and it doesn’t have to be.”
“What are you implying?” Kirra returned, confused by the suggestion.
“I’m in love with you, Kirra, I knew that from the first time I looked into your eyes,” Styx explained with a wry smile. “The thing is, the same is true with Maxthane. I want you both, I need you both, and I intend to have both of you. You might as well try to get used to the idea.”
Kirra stared at Styx, dumbfounded by the suggestion. Styx looked at him with a mischievous grin and then stood, extending his hand down to Kirra to help him to his feet. It took Kirra a moment to take the offered hand and allow Styx to pull him up. When he did he simply stared at Styx, an unreadable expression on his face.
Styx wasn’t looking back. Instead he was staring at the tattered remains of the shirt that lay discarded on the rocks beside them. Glancing back at Kirra he said with a happy chuckle, “Now you’ve destroyed two of my shirts. Next time you could just ask me to take it off.”
It was exactly the right thing to say to break up the awkwardness of the situation, and despite his confused feelings about what Styx had just said, Kirra couldn’t suppress his hearty laugh at the remark. “Next time?” he echoed and then shook his head helplessly, unable to remove the smile that now crossed his face. “I suppose I can try to get used to that idea. You’re incredible, you know that?”
“I’ve been called worse,” Styx replied with a shrug. “Come on, I want you to meet my mother.”
It took the better part of an hour to get the wounded settled and to gather the best healers The Shade had to offer. Maxthane intended to help with the healing as soon as he was rested and bore the entire delay with as much patience as he could, but by the time everyone was settled most of his energy was spent. He excused himself and began the slow climb to his chambers.
Rega saw how exhausted Maxthane had become and excused himself as well, to accompany him and make sure he arrived safely to his rooms. Maxthane was more than glad to have Rega’s support, and as soon as the two of them were out of sight of everyone else he leaned on Rega’s arm for support. He continued to lean on Rega until they reached Maxthane’s chambers and he opened the door to step inside. Rega stopped at the entrance but only after Maxthane waved him forward did he follow him into his room.
“I’m worried, Rega,” Maxthane admitted with a sigh, as he sat down on the edge of his bed, motioning for Rega to take a seat in the wooden chair that sat before his writing desk. “I didn’t like the look in Krythe’s eyes. I get the feeling that he doesn’t believe our story of what happened to my father.”
“It won’t matter,” Rega replied with a supportive smile. “Trust me, my King, Krythe will come around. We are close, he and I, and eventually he’ll approach me about the issue privately,” he explained as he patted Maxthane’s arm, before turning toward the offered chair and sitting down. “When he hears my full account of what happened on the surface, he’ll change.”
“But what if he doesn’t?” Maxthane asked. “He’s not the only one who showed dissent today.”
“Did they not publicly accept you when I called on them to?” Rega asked with a raised eyebrow. “What more do you require?”
“I’m not sure,” Maxthane replied sullenly. “I don’t know if I’m actually ready for this.”
“King Maxthane,” Rega began, “I doubt very few people are ready to be King when the responsibility is thrust upon them. Maybe we could do something to settle your mind.” When Maxthane turned toward him with a curious expression Rega continued, “Have you heard of the Rites of the Shadow King? It’s an outdated ritual, but my grandfather told me tales of it.”
“Of course,” Maxthane replied with a nod. “It’s how Kings officially succeeded each other for generations here in The Shade. We haven’t done it that way for over a century. Why do you bring it up now?”
“We could unite all of The Shade behind you if we invoke the Rites,” Rega explained. “We’ll send out messengers to the guild masters and bring them to us for the official ceremony. Considering what has happened, I’m sure the Council of Guilds would want to seek unity in this troubled time.”
“Very well, I’ll follow your wisdom,” Maxthane agreed with a sigh. “I don’t know if I’ll be up to the task, but I’m willing to give it a shot. Anything to try to calm my nerves.” Rega smiled at him in a manner that almost seemed paternal, and brought emotions back to Maxthane he had been repressing since his father’s death. “Father,” he whispered, looking away from Rega and fighting back tears as he replayed his father’s final moments in his mind. “Why did you have to leave me with this mess?”
“It’s going to work out, Maxthane,” Rega said, rising to lay a comforting hand on Maxthane’s bare shoulder. Rega’s calloused fingers somehow felt soft against his skin as he gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze before turning to go. “I’ll go prepare the messengers right now.”
“Before you go,” Maxthane said, stopping Rega immediately. “I have one more favor to ask.”
“What is it, my king?”
“There is one guild I would like you to visit personally,” Maxthane answered with a sudden smile. The thought of seeing Styx again had stopped his tears almost immediately. “I need you to go to the Inkblades and request Madame Godani’s presence yourself, as well as that of her son.”
“Hey, where are you? I can’t see a thing down here?” Kirra stumbled through the darkness, following the nearly silent footfalls of Styx. He was unable to see more than his hand in front of his face, and that only when he put it between his eyes and the distant flickering torches. If he didn’t have his Gor heritage to help him hear he doubted he would have been able to keep up at all.
“Dammit, you’re right!” Styx replied, and Kirra heard the sound of Styx returning to his side. “You just about walked off a ledge,” Styx continued with amusement. “Come on, give me your hand. I’ll lead you.”
Kirra held his hand out and Styx grasped it immediately. Styx clearly didn’t have a problem seeing in the dark, and as he pulled Kirra along it became even more apparent. Their pace quickened as Kirra learned to trust in Styx’s steps, and before long they entered the more populated section of The Shade.
Styx kept them out of sight, staying in the areas where the shadows were thickest as they moved from alleyway to alleyway. Kirra wondered who Styx was so worried about noticing them, but then he realized that it was probably him who Styx was concerned with. Kirra was still wearing his armor, and even without it there would be no doubt he was not a Shade. He decided that just as he trusted Styx to guide him through the darkness, he would have to trust the knowledge Styx had about this unfamiliar territory.
Before long they came to a massive structure at the base of a large pillar. Kirra had been brought up in the Everbright City, which was known for its impressive architecture, but there was a certain elegance to how this structure was laid out. That fact seemed unimportant when compared with another detail; the entire building was bathed in light, and for the first time since they had arrived in The Shade he didn’t feel completely lost.
The structure had one large door on the side that Kirra expected Styx to lead him to, but instead he was pulled toward the only section of wall completely covered in shadows. Styx turned to him and smiled, “Follow my climb as well as you can. I’ll use my foot to show you where the hand holds are,” Styx said and then released Kirra’s hand and started up the wall, holding onto hidden handholds that Kirra couldn’t quite make out.
Kirra was able to follow Styx most of the way up until he disappeared from sight as he scrambled up onto a ledge and called back down to him, “You’re doing well, just a couple more feet.”
Kirra allowed the words to spur him on and climbed up onto the platform that awaited him. Styx helped him up and to his feet, and only then did he realize just how tiring the climb had been. “That’s brutal,” he said between breaths, “why didn’t we just enter through the front door?”
“Quit nagging,” Styx replied with a smile. “Let’s go in.”
‘In’ turned out to be a hidden hallway that was a very tight fit. Kirra was surprised it could be considered an entrance at all until he stepped through the narrow space and into a well lit room, where a middle-aged man with a painted eye patch stood to greet them.
“Styx?” Drake said in surprise, and then a grin spread across his face. “Whoa, you’re back! What the devil are you doing here? I didn’t expect to see you in The Shade for quite some time, and yet you’re back two days later!”
“Listen, Drake,” Styx said quickly, ignoring Drake’s enthusiasm, “have you heard from Dogo? I need to see him as soon as I can.”
“Dogo? What would he be doing here?” Drake asked in confusion. “He left yesterday in the company of Prince Maxthane and the gladiators he freed from his father,” he explained when Styx’s face showed his disappointment. “They were going to the surface to try to stop the demons. I would have thought that you’d be there with them, considering how your companion was speaking.”
“We met up briefly, but then we were separated,” Styx replied. “I thought he would be here by now.”
“Styx?” Madame Godani spoke up from the doorway that led further into the complex. She stepped into the light, and Kirra was immediately overcome by her beauty. He had never had a woman affect him in any way before, but for some reason this one did. Looking from Styx to Madame Godani, he suddenly knew why. She resembled Styx in many ways, and it was obvious to Kirra that they were blood related. “What in the world!?” Madame Godani asked, glancing between Kirra and Styx, “You brought a Knight with you?”
“Madame Godani,” Styx addressed her patiently, “this is Kirra, and he’s a friend.”
“Humph. Sure he is,” Madame Godani replied dryly, crossing her arms over her chest, “And I’m a noblewoman from the Everbright City!”
Making every effort to sound serious in the face of such a ridiculous statement Kirra interjected, “Oh? Which house?”
Styx and Drake stared at him as if he had lost his mind, but then looked at Madame Godani in surprise when she started laughing. “I like him,” she said, winking at Styx. Turning back to Kirra she said, “Very well, you can stay, but why are you here? Does this have anything to do with the sunlight that is now threatening to destroy our quaint little home?”
“No,” Styx replied, drawing her attention back to him. “Remember those demons that Prism tried to warn you about? One of them did that.” With a smug expression he added, “I guess The Shade wasn’t safe after all, now was it?”
“Don’t get snippy with me, child,” Madame Godani scolded, eyeing Styx dangerously. “You’ve made your point. Now, is that why you came?”
“No, I came seeking Dogo,” Styx replied, dropping his smugness. “He has information I need.”
“Does he now?” She asked with mock disbelief. “Why did you come here for that? I do not normally have dealings with the Watchdog.”
“Spare me your dodging words, Godani,” Styx growled in response, “I know who the highest bidder was.”
For the briefest of moments Madame Godani looked shocked by the implication, but she quickly regained her composure. “Very well. The truth of the matter is that I was wondering where he was myself,” she admitted. “He was due back by now, unless he died in the process.”
“Let’s hope that isn’t the case,” Styx replied, as the blood drained from his face.
“Perhaps I could be of assistance in that regard?” a gruff voice said from the darkness of the entrance. Rega stepped around the corner with his hands raised in a sign of peace.
“Albran Rega,” Madame Godani said with a slight smile and Rega bowed to her with dramatic flair. “What an interesting surprise. To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“King Maxthane thulu’Khant would like to request the attendance of your regalness, Fau Shae Godani, and your ward, Styx,” Rega explained. “Maxthane is to be officially crowned within the hour, as per the Rites of the Shadow King.”
Styx was surprised at the news. He had never heard of an official coronation of The Underking, and had never heard of the title ‘Shadow King’ either. If Madame Godani shared his surprise she did not show it. Without any hesitation she asked, “Am I to serve as first witness to the coronation?”
“Indeed, Madame Godani. You lead the Council of Guilds do you not?” He asked with a smile, but then narrowed his eyes dangerously. “Or has there been a change in leadership that the King was not kept informed of.”
“No there has not,” Madame Godani replied firmly. “Why do you request the attendance of Styx?”
“I’m told that he already knows the answer, Madame Godani,” Rega answered with a shrug. “King Maxthane did not give me the authority to say any more on the subject.”
“As loyal as ever,” Madame Godani muttered with a smile. “Very well, I shall prepare at once.”
“Captain Rega,” Styx interjected before Madame Godani could turn to leave. “I will be bringing Kirra with me as well.”
“A Knight of the Firmament? Are you out of your mind?” Rega looked from Styx to Kirra and then back to Styx again, his eyes wide at the suggestion. “I don’t care if he killed that demon today, I’m afraid I can’t allow him to enter the complex.”
“Then you won’t have my attendance,” Styx replied, crossing his arms over his chest defiantly.
“That is not acceptable,” Rega growled, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Let the Knight come, Albran,” Madame Godani said, laying a hand on Kirra’s shoulder as she addressed the captain. “He’s harmless.”
“No,” Rega replied with a firm shake of his head.
“Then you will not have my attendance either,” Madame Godani said as she crossed her own arms over her chest, mimicking Styx’s position perfectly with the same look of defiance in her eyes.
Rega growled and released his grip on his sword hilt. “Very well,” he said after a pause, “but I will be watching your every move, Knight.”
Kirra was completely out of his depth as he joined Madame Godani’s small procession on its way toward the Underking’s complex. While Styx had led him through the shadows of the back alleys to avoid notice, Godani and her entourage were walking openly in the lighted streets, and he suddenly felt very vulnerable. He could feel the eyes of the people on him, despite the heavy cloak that now covered his armor. Somehow they knew that he didn’t belong among them, and he agreed with them whole-heartedly.
As they passed over the bridge he took in the sight of the towering Elroks that guarded it. He had never seen an Elrok before, but he had heard tales of their ferocity throughout his childhood. Stories meant to scare a child into obeying, and he was certain, now that he saw their hulking forms, that the stories must have been based in fact, and he was glad when the Elroks paid no heed to their passing. The Shade was becoming more frightening by the minute, and he had been here less than a day. This was the world that Styx belonged to, but he didn’t think he’d ever become comfortable living in this place. It was too alien.
Styx reached out and took Kirra’s hand in his own, giving it a firm squeeze. Kirra looked to Styx in surprise, to see him smiling supportively. The look in Styx’s eyes melted away all of Kirra’s concerns, and the love he saw there filled him with the determination to see this through. He squeezed Styx’s hand back and then let it go, nodding to show his appreciation for the gesture.
They stepped through the gates and into the courtyard, where Captain Rega greeted them. With a gruff voice he explained that Styx and Kirra were to be brought to Maxthane’s chambers, while Madame Godani and her entourage joined the representatives from the other guilds. They followed Rega in silence as he led them through the complex, both sensing that Rega was in a foul mood concerning their presence.
By the time they reached Maxthane’s chambers Rega appeared to have calmed down. With an unreadable expression Rega knocked on Maxthane’s door, an excited Maxthane immediately opened it. Styx was immediately blown away by the boy’s appearance. Instead of the simple dhoti that Maxthane normally wore around his waist, he was dressed in formal black leather armor, cut in the same style as his father’s had always been. It looked as if it had never been worn. A sweet scent of perfume teased his nostrils as well, and the clean look to Maxthane’s hair indicated that he had bathed in preparation for this event as well.
“Styx!” Maxthane said excitedly, gesturing for them to enter his chambers. He then turned his attention to Kirra and said, “And Kirra as well!? I’m surprised to see that you ventured down into The Shade.”
“I came with Styx,” Kirra replied defensively. “No other reason.”
“Is there something I should know?” Maxthane asked Styx with a raised eyebrow as his smile faltered a little.
“Yes there is, but don’t be put off by Kirra’s defensive nature,” Styx replied with a grin, “He’s simply warming up to the idea rather slowly.”
“What idea?” Maxthane asked, but instead of a vocal answer Styx stepped up to him and kissed him passionately, pulling Maxthane toward him and wrapping him into a tight embrace. The action lasted for only a few seconds, but to Maxthane it felt like an eternity of bliss. He felt a loss when Styx pulled away, and the loss turned to shock as Styx then turned and kissed Kirra just as passionately. Kirra was no less surprised by the open display of affection, but when Maxthane started giggling Kirra turned to stare at him in disbelief. Kirra’s expression caused Maxthane to laugh even louder until Captain Rega poked his head into the room to see what was causing the ruckus. Upon seeing that Maxthane was all right, Rega closed the door silently and left them alone again.
“I’m afraid I have a confession to make, Max,” Styx said, as soon as Maxthane’s laughter had subsided. “I’m in love with both of you, and you can either accept that or you can be the one to give me up.”
“Styx,” Maxthane replied with a pleasant smile, “we’re Shades. Since when have we followed conventional rules? I don’t care if you’re in love with Kirra as long as I get you too.”
“See, Kirra?” Styx said as he pulled Kirra close to him. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Besides,” Maxthane replied with a seductive smile as he looked Kirra up and down, “You’re a good looking guy yourself. Maybe we can work this out?”
Kirra wasn’t so sure. He had never imagined that this would be how things turned out, but if it meant that he’d have a shot at Styx he’d be willing to give it a try. He smiled weakly at Maxthane and was about to say that he’d make the attempt when Rega poked his head into the room and said, “It’s time, my King.”
“Well then, I guess we’ll come back to this later,” Maxthane said with a sigh. With a nervous smile he touched first Styx’s arm and then reached out and touched Kirra’s. “I’m so glad you’re here, both of you. Let’s get this over with.”
They walked back toward the courtyard at a brisk pace, leaving little opportunity for conversation, but it did give Kirra some time with his thoughts. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. Maxthane did seem all right, and maybe it would all work out. Only time would tell, but he was determined to see it through.
They entered the courtyard, which held far more people than it had when they had first arrived. Many were soldiers dressed in black leather, and Kirra and Styx were directed to stand amongst these while Maxthane left them to join an arc of thirteen wooden chairs, twelve of which were occupied, that had been set up in a half circle on a raised platform. In the center of the arc was a table that had been set with a silver chalice beside a folded, white cloth. Maxthane went straight to the empty chair and sat down, generating excited murmurs from the watching crowd.
The courtyard went silent as Madame Godani stood from her place in the arc. She hadn’t needed to say a word at all, or even gesture to get their attention. Her presence seemed to permeate throughout the crowd, in such a way that everyone present knew it was her turn to act. The other guild heads watched solemnly from their seats as she withdrew a thin stiletto from her belt and sliced it across her palm, causing her blood to flow from the wound and into the silver chalice beneath it.
“With my blood, I, Fau Shae Godani, stand as witness to the Shadow King, and name Maxthane thulu’Khant as the one true successor to Salidar thulu’Khant,” She declared to the room. “May the mixing of our blood signify the unity of The Shade.” She then wiped the stiletto on the white cloth beside the chalice and stepped away, returning to her seat.
One by one the other guild heads rose and followed her example, each one slicing their palms with their own blades and then repeating her declaration. Maxthane seemed to grow in strength each time the words were spoken, as if they were reassuring him that he had the will of the people behind him. There were others in the room who seemed to need reassurance as well, and they too saw the change come over Maxthane. By the time the twelfth and final guild head had finished the ritual, there did not seem to be a single person who had any doubt that Maxthane was right for the job.
As the final guild head retook his seat, Maxthane stood and addressed the crowd, the perfect image of regal form and poise. Kirra was drawn into the scene, seeing Maxthane in a new light. His doubts about Maxthane’s character began to fade as he saw the boy—no, the man—who stood before him, composed and noble and incredibly beautiful. He felt himself begin to fall in love with the image just a little as Maxthane began to speak with the voice of a king. “My people,” Maxthane began, scanning over the crowd to show that he included every person there. “It is with deep regret that I must stand before you now, alone, without the presence of my father beside me. As you know, my father led us in a noble attempt to free The Shade from the tyranny of Neredos. Tragically, my father was betrayed by one of his own men, Fasha.”
“We must move on from this tragedy, and arise anew,” Maxthane continued, his voice rising just a touch, but it was enough for those who heard him to feel the power in the words that came next. “We will survive, as we have always survived. We are The Shade, and we are as eternal as the shadows that surround us,” he raised his hands triumphantly, drawing a loud cheer from the crowd. “As your King, I pledge to do all that is within my power to ensure that survival.”
Cheering ensued for several moments until Madame Godani stood and walked to Maxthane’s side. With her own regal poise she addressed the gathering again. “I, Fau Shae Godani, do bear witness to this Coronation. Stand tall, King Maxthane, and follow in the greatness that has come before you. Lead the Legion of Shadows with honor.”
The cheering resumed, and Kirra almost felt like joining along. Where there had been doubt there was now clarity, and he could see the path before him opening wide to new possibilities. It only took one look at Styx to know that the boy he loved felt the same way. They would move on together, and face whatever else would come their way.
Styx took Kirra’s hand and then directed his gaze back to Maxthane, who was looking at both of them with a wide smile. He nodded to them, but then returned to leading the crowd in their cheers. Styx inclined his head and grinned, and then directed Kirra’s gaze toward a distant spot of light in the cavern ceiling.
“Not long ago you brought me to your home,” Styx whispered in Kirra’s ear as they gazed at the broken ceiling, “a fugitive with nowhere else to go. You broke down barriers for me, and fought for me, and I love you for every second of it, but that’s not what I love you for the most.”
Kirra turned to him with a look of curiosity as Styx continued, “Today you trusted me as I led you to my home, a home for fugitives like myself. You trusted me, a thief; a boy who never knew what trust really was.”
“Styx . . .” Kirra began, but, at a loss for words he settled on the next best thing and kissed him instead. The kiss lasted for only a second, but it was enough, and when they parted both were sure of the level of love that they felt for each other.
“Hey, let me in on some of that action!” they turned at the sound of Maxthane’s voice to see him standing with his arms crossed beside them, a slightly annoyed look on his face. Kirra shrugged and surprised himself by pulling Maxthane into a kiss that lasted just as long as the one he had just shared with Styx.
“Well that was a surprise,” Maxthane said as they pulled apart. “What made you change your mind?”
Kirra shrugged as he said, “Every adventure has to start somewhere. I figured it would sound better when the storytellers speak of how a Knight of the Firmament kissed the Underking on his Coronation Day.”
“The plan shouldn’t have failed. Everything was in its proper place! How could it fall apart like that?” Fasha glared at the woman on the other side of the fluidic barrier. Veil was some distance away, but through the devices that each of them had, they could communicate as if they stood face to face.
“What?” She replied, keeping her expression composed as she looked back at him. “Are you angry with me? I don’t see how you could be. I did everything you asked of me.”
“You’re not angry?” he asked incredulously. “This has to end, and you know it. Nothing else matters.” He sighed and then took several deep breaths to calm himself before going on. “We’ve both lived for far too long, and we agreed that this was the only way out.”
“Have the years not taught you that some things take time?” She returned with a hint of amusement. “You were born ageless; I would think that you would have a surplus of patience.”
“Even an immortal’s patience can wear thin, you hag,” he retorted with a snort, annoyed by her observation.
“Ageless I may be, but hag I am not,” she replied, though she showed no anger at the insult. “This was not all for naught though, was it? I was informed that Grim was sealed away with the Ibrix.” With a disarming smile she added, “At least that will be one less enemy to deal with.”
“You make an excellent point,” he conceded with a grin, though the smile fell as he observed, “Prism also fell, though he was quite the nuisance. I daresay we would have succeeded in this matter had he not been freed.”
“Perhaps I should not have spared his life,” she replied with a touch of regret.
“Ahhhh!” he said with a grin, though it was certainly not a happy topic, “So it is your fault?”
“I didn’t say that,” she returned with a glare. He had finally managed to goad her into showing her anger, and that was a victory in itself. “Do you think that Neredos would have trusted my word if I said that I could not heal Prism?” She asked with a dramatic wave of her hand. “He would have been on to us in a heartbeat. You wouldn’t have freed a single one.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he admitted with a sigh. “So what now then?”
She rested her hand on her chin as she stared at some distant point, lost in thought. “Wait until you can convince the soldiers to strike again. Free some more. I’m told that at least one got away, maybe you could twist that to your advantage.”
“Perhaps . . .” He said, not liking the prospects that sat before them. “I will think on this more. I will contact you again in a week’s time.”
“Understood. Fasha . . .” She said, stopping him before he could turn off the device that kept their communications open.
“Yes, Veil?” Fasha replied, removing his hand from the dial.
“Please don’t kill my son,” Veil said simply, pleading with her eyes.
“I can’t make any promises,” Fasha replied, showing his regret with his eyes. “Maxthane got in the way today, and I’m surprised he survived. If he gets in the way again, I’ll have to. We can’t afford any more nuisances.”
“Fasha,” Veil said dangerously, “Don’t.”
With another sigh Fasha whispered, “As you wish.”
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