Cynical Faith

Chapter 7

There are no more questions in this world than there are answers for them. Both are infinite, limited only by your imagination. Correct answers only exist for correct questions, and if one is unable to ask a question appropriately, one should expect diverse and potentially contradictory answers.

This is something I found difficult to accept at first, though over the centuries I've learned to see things from diverse perspectives as a result. I knew what it was to be a Fedain, and through Prism's sensations I had some idea of what was to be a Human. While I never lived inside a Gor's head, I counted several among my friends, and my final time with Ghayle was quite memorable. I loved an Elrok as deeply as I have ever loved another soul.

Perspectives. They are endless, each providing truth in a different light, from a different angle. The stars make patterns in the sky that help guide sailors, but if we were to approach them, we would find they are not connected in the straight lines we draw across our star maps. If we delve into the why of them, they become connected in other ways. Gravitational forces draw the universe together.

Does a moon choose to be captured by a planet? Does a planet choose to orbit around the star? Those orbits protect us from the dangers of hurtling through uncharted territory without warmth or stability, and yet… sometimes I wonder what that freedom must feel like. What would it be like to not be pulled by forces greater than myself, and to move on my own power through perspectives of my choosing?

But we are as trapped by our natures as we are by gravity. We can escape them, but it is difficult and dangerous. New perspectives change us dramatically, for we leave the comfort of our routine for the great unknown. Yet change is inevitable.

Will you change on your own terms, or wait for gravity to force it upon you?

       ~Grimfaeth

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Naxthul slammed the control panel shut with a snarl, startling Grim. "It's no use!" He said. "The damned power source just isn't enough. No juice for the circuitry, even though the projectors should be working fine."

"So you're saying you can't get it working?" Grim asked.

"Not unless there's something else around here we can scrounge up for it," Naxthul replied. "More importantly, something which works with the same systems."

"What about the golem below us?" Grim asked. "Maybe you can make use of that?"

Shaking his head, Naxthul replied, "No, I had to destroy its power source in order to bring it down. It's just a heap of metal right now, most of which would prove useless in this age. I don't think there's a forge fire hot enough to melt it, but maybe with magic someone could manage it."

"And there are no other systems we can use here?" Grim asked.

Smiling, Naxthul turned to Grim. "Well, that's unexpected. You want to experience it just as much as I want to show you, don't you? What a delightful turn of events."

"You said it yourself," Grim replied, "I can still kill you either way. I don't mind waiting until you show me what you mean to show me. Also, there is the allure of learning how to work a Sendar archive complete with all of its records…"

"There is that indeed," Naxthul said. He paused, his eyes lighting up. "There might be something. The golem isn't a bad idea after all. If there are any golems left here in the Temple itself, I might be able to scavenge from one of those."

"Maxthane brought one of the golems into Pentalus yesterday," Grim said.

Naxthul laughed in delight. "Splendid! Perhaps we can use that one?"

"It was destroyed when the Everbright City fell," Grim said. "But that doesn't mean that there won't be another one."

"Let's go find one!" Naxthul replied. "At the very least, we can see more of the Temple. There might be something in here we can use that I haven't thought of."

Gesturing toward the corridor, Grim said, "Lead the way, but don't get too far ahead. If you make me chase you at all, I promise I will kill you the instant I find you."

"Understood," Naxthul replied with a bow. "I'll even let you hold my hand if you wish." He extended his hand toward Grim, grinning.

"There is something I would like to know about you," Grim said, ignoring the offered hand and stepping to the corridor, nodding impatiently toward the exit for Naxthul to step around him.

As Naxthul walked past Grim, he said, "And what is that?"

"Why did the Sendar worship you?"

Naxthul's grin faded in an instant, and his eyes grew distant. "The answer to that lies with Khalis, not me. I had no wish to be worshiped by anyone, not my own people or his. However, when the demons invaded during my age, it was I who rescued Khalis from one dangerous situation after another. I think we might've been friends, Grim, had we all known each other during that time. You would've liked Khalis before he was compelled to complete the Trial."

"Why do you say that?" Grim asked. "Khalis is not exactly my favorite person."

"That's because you only ever knew him as a Vhor. We are only demons in this incarnation, but before… we were not unlike you and Prism," Naxthul said. "I was an astronomer turned soldier, and Khalis a mage with a death wish. When I became the avatar of the world, I learned magic much like Ghayle did. She was not a mage either, beforehand, I mean."

"I'm also not a mage," Grim said. "I'm still not sure how this all connects."

"I apologize, I was getting sidetracked," Naxthul replied. "Let's start walking, and I'll explain on the way."

He started down the corridor, pausing only a moment, to make sure Grim was following, before continuing his story. "Khalis lost everything in the days before our Trial. He had a family, both a wife and a husband, and was courting a second wife when explosions destroyed his home. They had six children as well, and everyone but Khalis died in that explosion. He picked himself out of the rubble, tried desperately to rescue every single one of them, and one by one he gave them their last rites."

An empathetic pain coated every single word that Naxthul said, triggering Grim's own memories of loss and sadness. He saw his mother, brother, sister, father, Prism, and Master Janlynd, and remembered what it was like to lose them. He couldn't imagine what it would've been like to lose them all in one day, for even in all his experience, he had never been hit by such a vicious tragedy as that.

"When Khalis finished the rites, he planned to finish himself off, but heard a voice crying out nearby," Naxthul continued. "When he found the little girl in the rubble, he knew he had to help her no matter his despair. He managed to free her, and learned that her family, too, had perished. He decided to take her to the nearest city, and though it belonged to my people, he hoped he would find refuge there."

"Didn't your people execute citizens in the streets?" Grim asked.

Naxthul nodded. "That was the very next day, in fact. Khalis hid in the countryside, near the observatory where I worked. Government patrols were everywhere, up until the cataclysm hit that signaled the true beginning of our Trial. I found Khalis first, and instead of turning him in, I protected him and gave him a place to hide with the girl."

"The girl joined other Sendar refugees a week later, when we escaped my country," Naxthul went on. "Khalis stayed with me. I didn't fully understand why, at the time, but I later learned it was because I gave him a sense of stability during crisis. He continued to want to die, risking himself time and time again to help others even when the odds were stacked against him. I couldn't let him die, so I went in with him. That kept him alive, because he would always make sure I made it out, and that meant I could pull him out with me."

"I can't deny that there's something of Prism and me in that," Grim replied. "Though it doesn't change the way that you and Khalis have harmed me. You know I will never forgive you, Naxthul. I won't forgive him either."

"I can understand that," Naxthul said. He glanced over his shoulder to meet Grim's eyes and held the gaze for just a moment. "I don't seek forgiveness, and I'm not apologizing. Everything we did to you and your world was deliberate, but I do want you to understand that we came from more humble beginnings. We were not always demons, or Chosen, or even the heroes we ended up being to our own people."

Grim shrugged. Naxthul's origins didn't really matter to Grim anymore. There wasn't enough justification anywhere for Grim to accept destroying the world in order to save it. Every life he had ever taken had only made Grim feel more disconnected from the world.

"But why did the Sendar worship you?" Grim asked.

"Khalis didn't die before the end of our Trial," Naxthul said. "I finished it, and then transcended to fill the role of my predecessor. I was allowed only brief visits with Khalis until his death, when he entered the ranks of the Chosen and became my First. While he was still alive, he spoke to his people about me and the other heroes, but there was so much reverence for me in his voice and manner that his people interpreted it as worship. When Khalis died, others continued the story, distorting it, making me into a God in their minds, and Khalis into a prophet. The religion formed around the stories, and I could not interfere."

"Why not?" Grim asked. "Why couldn't you stop them?"

"Our responsibility is to guide," Naxthul said. "We cannot tell them what to do, or how to do it. To use our position of power to change the minds of the masses would be irresponsible. How can societies grow if they are kept within the strict dogmas of their leaders? If I'd interfered with the religion, it would've only started a new one. They had to choose what to do with it on their own."

"So instead you waited for millennia to pass, for the religion to fester, for their problems to grow out of control, and then decided the time for them to sort it out on their own had passed," Grim said. "So you put them on trial for their crimes, even though you could have ended it by simply revealing that you were not their God."

Naxthul shook his head. "There were many elements within their society who opposed that religious dogma; people who challenged the church or the government. Those elements were eliminated, and no one stood up to replace them for fear of even greater reprisals. It soon became apparent that the dogma at play was not about faith, but control. Nothing I could've said would've eliminated that philosophy of control, for they were too blinded by the superiority they felt over others. Religion was just an excuse. It isn't always, but for them it was."

"There had to have been something more," Grim said.

Naxthul chuckled dryly. "How much you must question reality, Grim… How many paths have you walked and still been left wanting? I must admit, I'm a bit surprised you and Odiran did not become reacquainted, considering how convinced you both were that there was another answer."

"You don't know?" Grim asked, genuinely surprised.

"Know what?" Naxthul replied.

It was Grim's turn to laugh without mirth, disturbing Naxthul enough that he stopped walking and faced Grim directly. Waving Naxthul onward, Grim said, "Don't worry, I'll tell you. There's more secrets between us than any mortal could ever hope to acquire, but this one does surprise me nonetheless."

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Nearly all sense of self had fled from Grim over the years since he left the small village where he'd lived with Yatha. He couldn't even remember the name of it anymore; an oddity for him, as his memory had served him well in the past. Less important details had faded with time, and the names of locations seemed the least important of all.

He barely remembered the name of Yatha's daughter, Jin, and could only manage it because she reminded him of her brother, Kae. Kae stood out for other reasons, as the boy's face had become the fuel to fire Grim's latest obsession. If no one else would oppose the Knights of the Firmament, Grim would need to.

He stayed in the shadows for twenty more years, concealing his identity wherever he went. No one knew him as 'Grim' any longer, though the Knights had another name for him. They called him 'White Death'. Everywhere the Inquisition went, Grim tracked them if he was nearby, stalking every move they made. Whenever innocents stood between the Knights and their mission, Grim would intercede, sending the Knights to their death.

Neredos sent assassins, and Grim disposed of those as well. Far more swiftly, for that matter, as Grim didn't have to bother with the hunting of them. He wondered at times if Neredos and Veil knew he was the one killing their Knights, but the answer was irrelevant. He would kill the Knights anyway.

Somewhere in his mind, he determined that the Knights had to be working for the Vhor. Who else would be so intent on destroying all progress in society? Who else would go to such lengths to suppress the truth, knowledge, and so viciously oppress others? Surely not Neredos, unless he had gone mad. Surely not Veil, unless she had lost all her sanity, or had been replaced by the Vhor herself.

And so he killed, telling himself the Knights were no better than the demons. They surely destroyed just as many lives, and all while wearing the masks of normal people. Even if they were not the Vhor, the tactics and the results were the same, and they all deserved to die. They needed to be banished, pushed back through the gate, never to return to the world again.

He stayed clear of Pentalus, as the citizens there were sympathetic to the Knights. They were eager to sell out their own neighbors to curry favor with Neredos and his aristocracy. How had the people fallen so far in such a short time? Had they already forgotten the state of the world before the demons came?

It was a snowy day a hundred miles north of the Dobraeg when things started to change. He had just killed a trio of Knights and stood over their decrepit corpses. He didn't need to steal their life force, even though he was now pushing seventy-five years old. By all appearances, he was still in his mid-30s, though he was only beginning to understand why.

All the years of reconstructing his body in the middle of combat, and out of it, had given him unique control over his own cells. He no longer aged, no longer felt the bite of sickness and rarely even changes in temperature. He was so far beyond what the Fedain had believed themselves capable of, that he wasn't sure he still was a Fedain.

He was White Death. That was all that mattered, and all that would ever matter. Usually, that was all that mattered to those who saw him as well. When he killed, onlookers ran away, not willing to stick around long enough to find out if they would be next.

This time, however, a young woman remained behind, casually leaning in the doorway of a nearby house. She was no older than her mid-twenties and had a face that triggered something in Grim's memory, though he couldn't determine what it was.

"Grim," said the woman. "It must be you; you're exactly as my father described."

Grim opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. How long had it been since he had spoken to another person? He couldn't remember. That wasn't important. But he did recognize his own name, as foreign as it sounded now, and that deserved a response of some sort.

"Who?" he asked.

"Don't play dumb with me, I already know who you are," the woman said, rolling her eyes. "Please don't waste my time, it's been awful enough trying to track you down."

Grim shook his head. "No, who is your father?"

The woman nodded, smiling. "I was hoping you would notice the resemblance, though I suppose it is to be expected. From what I understand, you and my father did not part on good terms."

Grim turned to go. If she wasn't going to answer his questions, he had no reason to stay. There were more important things to do than talk to strange women who demanded he respect their time without giving the same in return.

"My name is Talane thulu'Khant," the woman said, "the youngest daughter of Odiran thulu'Khant, and I'm a messenger."

Stopping dead, Grim turned toward her and asked, "Why?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Talane said with a grin.

Grim shook his head. "Your father wishes me dead."

"Not any longer," Talane replied. "He is the one who is dying, though he wishes to have one final meeting with you, if you are willing to see him."

Grim repeated his earlier question. "Why?"

"You have opposed Neredos more than anyone other than my father," Talane said. "He believes you will be the one to undo him in the future, at the rate that you're going. He says he has important knowledge to pass on to you, and he won't give it to anyone else. It's about the Vhor."

This piqued Grim's interest immediately. "What do you know about the Vhor?" he asked.

"Absolutely nothing, except what history my father has taught me. Almost no one speaks of them anymore, though he made sure we knew they were dangerous," Talane replied. "and he says you're the only one who can stop them."

"I will meet with your father," Grim said.

Talane smiled and nodded behind her. "Come with me, and I'll get you there much faster than your feet will. I have fresh horses."

Talane attempted to engage Grim in conversation as they journeyed north toward Pentalus, though she gave up entirely after the second day. He barely offered her more than a few words in response to any of her questions and gave no answer at all to anything personal. Grim wasn't interested in speaking to just anyone. Until he knew more about what Odiran thulu'Khant wanted, it seemed irresponsible to talk about the Vhor. This could easily be a plot the Vhor had orchestrated to trap him, though he had already touched Talane once to be sure. She was mostly human, with just a touch of Fedain blood.

Though most of the Knights were human as well. Grim couldn't be too careful. The Vhor's agents could be hiding anywhere. Anyone could wear a mask to hide their true intentions, after all.

The descent into The Shade was unlike anything Grim had ever experienced. He'd heard tales of beautiful, glowing lichens that lit the way in the grand cavern, but there were very few now. He had to rely on the dim, flickering light of Talane's torch. She didn't appear to need it, and Grim wasn't sure how she managed that trick.

With Talane's guidance, however, they soon reached Odiran's palatial complex and crossed a bridge guarded by Elrok sentinels. Grim had heard that several of the Elrok clans still worked closely with Odiran, even now. That such an alliance had remained intact without the Demon War to hold it together surprised Grim. Perhaps there was some honor in Odiran thulu'Khant after all.

Instead of traveling to a throne room as Grim had expected, Talane led him through twisting corridors until they arrived at a small room near the back of the complex. Grim noted the complete lack of stairs between the bridge and this chamber, and when he was led inside the room he understood why.

Odiran rose on shaky legs, stooped over a cane held in a trembling hand. He wore every day of his seventy odd years openly, his hair white and his skin wrinkled and leathery. He fixed Grim with a quizzical stare as he entered with Talane.

"It's true, then," Odiran said with a raspy voice, "you've barely aged a day. Tell me, is your secret the same as Neredos' and Veil's?"

"What do you want from me, Odiran?" Grim asked.

"I want you to see, Grim," Odiran replied. "I want you to see the world and what has become of it. What all the machinations of well-intended fools has led us to."

"You speak of Neredos?" Grim said. "I'm well aware of his folly."

"Talane, leave us," Odiran said. "Grim will not harm me, and if he does, it makes little difference now. We are just a couple of old fools talking, and you don't need to hear us prattling on."

"Father, I'd like to stay," Talane said.

Odiran shook his head and rapped his cane firmly on the floor, wagging a finger at her. "Oh no you don't. You have magic studies to attend to with your older sister. You haven't been here in several months, and it's time you returned to learning what it is to be a thulu'Khant."

"Yes, Father," Talane said, bowing low. "My apologies, I only wished to express my interest in your conversation. It is not so often that I'm able to meet such interesting people as Grim."

"Perhaps when we're done, you can see if Grim will entertain you with a tale or two," Odiran replied. "Now give your father a hug and return to your studies."

Talane approached Odiran and gently wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close. Stooped as he was, he seemed shorter than her, though Grim remembered when Odiran had stood taller than him by several inches. He patted her back several times and let her go. Talane left the room, leaving them alone.

"Are you going to tell me what this is really about?" Grim asked, once the door had closed behind Talane. "Talane mentioned the Vhor."

"Indeed," Odiran said, staring at the closed door. "That girl is far too inquisitive for her own good, and it might get her in trouble someday. But we know all about that kind of trouble, don't we, Grim?"

"Tell me why I'm here. Why are you wasting my time?" Grim asked.

Odiran sighed and sat down on the edge of his bed, resting the cane between his legs. "Perhaps because I was hoping there was some kindness left in you, that the Grim I once fell in love with was still there. Maybe I wanted to reminisce with an old friend; I don't have any of those left, you know. Revash was the only one who didn't abandon me when the Council dissolved and I rebelled, and she died eight years ago. Did you even know?"

Grim shook his head. He hadn't kept track of anyone, though with some of them living in the public view, he'd known of a few of their deaths and that both Neredos and Veil were still living. But Revash was news to him, and he doubted he would've ever heard about it if someone didn't take the time to tell him directly.

"Maybe you're the same as all the others then," Odiran said. "Maybe you're not concerned, and you're just killing because you forgot how to do anything else."

"I kill because the Knights deserve killing," Grim said. "They're working for the Vhor."

Odiran gave Grim a wide-eyed stare then laughed incredulously. "You really think so? That's why you've been killing? By the shadows, you haven't changed at all!" The laughter soon devolved into a coughing fit, and it took several minutes for Odiran to recover.

"If not the Vhor, then who?" Grim asked.

Odiran sighed heavily, the weight of old arguments resting in that breath. "Neredos and his madness are all that are at fault there. It was Neredos who ordered the dismantling of all technologies, the suppression of magic, and a return to simplicity." He spat the last word as a curse, his eyes growing hard. "Everyone was so concerned with the demons that they never bothered to think of how the world should look once the demons were gone."

"You believe Neredos is capable of this evil?" Grim asked. "And why should I trust you in this? You hated Neredos most of all."

"Do you want to know how I ended up in this sorry state?" Odiran asked, gesturing with his cane. "I'm half Fedain, a fact only you know, unless you told Neredos and Veil. I should be able to heal myself of such infirmities."

"Often, the ability to heal fades with age," Grim said.

Odiran nodded, then looked Grim up and down. "This doesn't appear to always be the case."

"I am different," Grim replied, unwilling to offer any additional information.

"Be that as it may, my condition is a gift from Neredos," Odiran said. "After the rebellion failed, I tried one last desperate move. I tried to kill Neredos myself, sneaking into his bedchamber at night and hoping to find him asleep. Instead he was pacing, ranting in madness. I saw my chance and ambushed him, I sent a blade covered with twelve different poisons straight into his heart, propelled by magic with unerring accuracy. It sunk right into his chest, he gasped in pain, then tore the dagger out and dropped it at his feet. The wound closed before my eyes, and Neredos laughed at me."

"Do you think Neredos is one of the Vhor?" Grim asked.

Odiran shook his head. "Nothing so mundane as that. He is something worse somehow; a demon of his own making. Not unlike you, I suppose."

Grim ignored the insult and said, "Then he must be killed."

"I know of no way to do it," Odiran replied. "As I fled from him, I stole the grimoire—the one Ghayle gave him— and I made it to the edge of the Everbright City before he caught me. The lifts were still in operation then, and I hoped to ride one down to make my escape. Instead, Neredos lifted me from my feet on waves of air and tossed me off the side, sending me to my death."

Grim's eyes widened in shock. "How did you survive?"

"I don't know," Odiran said, shaking his head. "Back in Oligan, there were tales of pilots who survived ejecting from their aircraft and surviving even when their safety chutes didn't open. It's rare, and in my case it broke nearly every bone in my body, but I survived."

"Unfortunately, your Fedain physiology wasn't enough to stitch you back together in the right way," Grim said, nodding in understanding. "Sometimes serious injuries work that way with us. If you'd like, I could try to heal you."

Odiran recoiled at the thought. "I'd rather die like this then allow you to touch me again, Grim. I have not forgiven you, but I did wish to leave you with something before I left this world."

"And what is that?" Grim asked.

"The truth," Odiran replied.

Grim raised a quizzical eyebrow. "The truth about what?"

"Ever since I recovered from that fall, I've been working with the Vhor," Odiran said. "And that's why I know they're not working with the Knights of the Firmament."

Grim took an angry step forward, but stopped. He had been about to kill an old man who was dying soon anyway, and even in his obsession, such a thought did not sit well with him. "Why would you do such a thing?" Grim asked. "We hunted them together!"

"Ah, finally some real emotion from you," Odiran said with a light chuckle. "It took you long enough. You decided you didn't want to kill me, huh? I suppose that's worth something."

"Why?" Grim asked again. "They are responsible for everything!"

"Not the world as it is now," Odiran said, shaking his head. "That was Neredos, that was all of us. We reconstructed the world using all the old rules; how can we be surprised that there is oppression? How can we be surprised that only a few are controlling the masses? No one wants to think anymore, Grim. Everyone wants to live, but don't want to make the hard choices."

"Are there Vhor here now?" Grim asked.

Odiran shook his head. "No, because I knew that you would not understand. I just want you to see, Grim. You may be the only one who can end Neredos, and you need to understand who the real enemies are."

"What about the grimoire?" Grim asked. "Do you still have it?"

"I dropped it as I fell, and wherever it is now, I have not been able to find it," Odiran replied. "But it doesn't matter; it was a long shot anyway."

"What would you have me do?" Grim asked.

Odiran chuckled. "Are you taking my final request on my deathbed?"

"You're asking me to kill one of my oldest friends," Grim replied.

"No, I'm asking you to save the world," Odiran said. "How you do it is entirely up to you. Convince Neredos to stop, kill him, find some way to interrupt his rule, I don't care. Just. End. This."

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

"I never knew that Odiran met with you," Naxthul said, his eyes wide. "He stopped working with us toward the end of his life and had enough precautions in place, to prevent us from returning during the lives of his children."

"He never told me what the nature of the work was that he did with you," Grim replied. "I assume, knowing what I know now, that it was focused on killing Neredos."

"There were only four of us left then, including myself and Tagren," Naxthul replied. "We needed all the assistance we could get, and Odiran was a blessing. A blessing we did not repeat until Salidar, for he was the only one with enough ambition to oppose Neredos after Odiran."

"I left Odiran to die after that. It happened less than a week later, I believe," Grim said.

Naxthul nodded. "Toward the end, he really did want the world to be better. I wonder if Ghayle chose him without my knowledge? He'd qualify now."

"Regardless, I suppose I can see what you meant about control now," Grim said. "I myself was blinded by my obsession, and Neredos surely was. Perhaps none of us should rule."

"I agree with that completely," Naxthul said.

"Then what is my role supposed to be?" Grim asked.

Naxthul smiled. "As I've already said, to guide the world, and act as an intermediary on its behalf." Before Grim could respond, Naxthul gestured ahead of them to a wide door. "Also, we've arrived. Let's see if there's anything we can make use of in the golem room."

 

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