I have often relied upon an old parable of an apple tree, one which grew in the temple grounds of the monastery where I learned to become myself. There are as many lessons to be learned from that single tree as there are fruits it has borne across all its seasons of life, and all the generations of apple trees which have sprouted from its seeds.
How much then can we learn from a single life? Are not our lives at least as complex as that of an apple tree? I believe there is no end to the number of lessons we can learn, if we are simply willing to pay attention.
Ideas take time to ripen. Trees take time to grow. Blossoms only arrive in the Spring, and each season changes the tree differently. Pay attention, and bear fruit. I will not waste words convincing you; this is more complex than that.
Would you like an apple?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A satisfied grunt drew Grim's attention to Naxthul. As he looked at the demon, Naxthul held up a small cylinder glowing with green light. He had just wrested it from a pile of metal and rock that had once been a golem until the ceiling had collapsed over it.
"Is that it?" Grim asked.
Naxthul nodded. "Yes, with this I can power the archive. Finally we're getting somewhere. I should be able to get it working in another hour."
"I do hope this was all worth it," Grim replied. "There've been too many setbacks, and I'm eager to be done with this."
"Are you saying you don't like my company?" Naxthul asked, giving Grim a grin.
Shaking his head, Grim pointed toward the exit from the room, not willing to entertain Naxthul's humor. Even though Grim was beginning to accept that Naxthul was not quite as evil as he had initially seemed, Grim's mission remained the same. He would kill Naxthul as soon as he had the answers to his questions.
They returned to the archive room, Naxthul leading, with Grim at one step behind and ready to strike at a moment's notice should Naxthul try to run. He didn't, though Grim refused to allow himself to think that it meant it wouldn't happen. The moment he let his guard down, Naxthul would surprise him, of that Grim was certain.
"Grim, I'm curious about something," Naxthul said as he returned to the control panel.
"And what is that?" Grim asked.
"I told you I was willing to tell you everything, and yet you rarely ask me a question," Naxthul said. "Why haven't you asked more?"
Grim considered that for only a moment before responding. "So far you've given up plenty of information just by talking. If I want to know what's going on, I do that best by listening to what is important to you."
"And what have you learned by me asking your questions?" Naxthul asked.
"That you are a curious being, and more specifically that you are curious about what manner of man I am," Grim replied. "I imagine if what you say about this Trial is true, then you're trying to determine if you've made the right decision about something. Perhaps about my role in it?"
"Indeed," Naxthul said.
"And what is your assessment?" Grim asked.
"If this had finished during the years while you were lost in obsession, I would've never considered you for this position. Single-mindedness does not help when one must consider many perspectives before making decisions. However, I'm not entirely convinced that you have lost your obsession," Naxthul replied.
Grim's eyebrows raised. "I never claimed to. My life has been a process of exchanging one obsession for another, never quite reaching my goals. Perhaps I am better now at incorporating other tasks, other points of view, but I now have a chance to complete the mission I began so long ago. Killing you will hopefully end that obsession. Though there is that other Vhor to worry about."
"Tagren?" Naxthul said. "As soon as this is over, he will hand himself over to the armies and allow them to kill him. He has no desire to continue this any longer than he must. We are all tired Grim. As tired as you, maybe more. I don't want to be here. I want to return to the other side of the gate, and only death will take me there. Tagren feels the same way, and I'm sure Ghayle does as well."
"Let's get on with this then, so that I can expedite your journey," Grim replied dryly.
Naxthul sighed and met Grim's gaze. "Why are you so eager to kill?"
"As you said, we are all tired," Grim said. "I tried to live a normal life, several times in fact. What did that get me? It brought me here, facing a demon I faced time and time again. The only way out is to break the cycle, and you are what stands in my way of doing so."
"Then perhaps there is hope for you yet, that you break free from obsession," Naxthul replied.
"My truest obsession is to end my obsession," Grim said. "To break free from the fate that binds me."
Naxthul nodded and returned to work on the control panel. "In that case, I think you will be a fine fit for the task ahead. However, I would like to know more, if you're willing to tell me."
Grim shrugged. "As I've already said, I don't care what you know, as I'm killing you anyway."
Chuckling softly, Naxthul replied, "Tell me about this normal life that you led."
"First, I'll have to tell you about Neredos," Grim said. "One thing led to the other, and I don't believe my path will make sense without proper context."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It took Grim several months to get up to the Everbright City, though not for lack of trying. Ever since Odiran's attempt to assassinate Neredos, the city had been closed off to all but aerial travel, with the exception of a lift that would temporarily be dropped to transport goods and people one day a week.
At first, Grim had tried to gain transport on the lift without revealing his identity. He gave them a false name and told them he simply wished to visit the city. If he was going to face Veil and Neredos, he didn't want them to know he was coming. It was better to catch them by surprise if he wanted them off balance.
However, he quickly learned that if one did not have a good reason to go to the Everbright City, the Knights who guarded the lift had no interest in helping someone attain passage.
After two weeks of trying to convince them, Grim revealed his true identity. Of course, this was regarded with incredulity and derision. Not one of them believed that he was who he said he was. Grim, the Demon Slayer, had died long ago, or so everyone said. After all, he'd disappeared shortly after the war and it had been roughly forty-five years since the war had ended.
Besides, if Grim was who he said he was, he would look much older than he did. Perhaps he was a relative of someone important, but not one that they'd ever heard of. None of these Knights had even been alive during the war, and the only tales they'd heard gave them no reason to believe anyone but Neredos and Veil were immortal.
Grim tried for two more weeks to get the lift crews to take his story seriously, then searched for other options. He'd considered simply killing the Knights guarding the lift, and operating the mechanism himself, but it required at least two people to use properly. He would've had to fight his way into the Everbright City after that as well, and that was not the message he wanted to send to Neredos and Veil. Not yet, anyway.
Still determined to reach Neredos, Grim tried a different tactic. He carefully monitored the patrols of Knights on their eagles as they flew over Pentalus. Many of the eagles which Neredos had originally secured in the early days of the Demon War had successfully bred over the decades; the sky was full of them.
Eventually he tracked the patrol to where it landed in Pentalus, then waited until he found a rider who had separated from the group with his eagle. Pulling up his hood to obscure his features, Grim stalked the rider, then ambushed him, putting his hand over the Knight's mouth.
"Listen carefully," Grim said, sucking a small amount of life force from the Knight to cause him to whimper in pain through Grim's fingers, "I am White Death, and you are going to fly me up to that city. If you do not, I will kill you and your entire troop. If you cry out when I release my hand, I will kill you and your entire troop. If you do anything at all to alert the others to my presence… I believe we understand each other. Nod if you agree."
The Knight nodded and Grim released him. Turning to face Grim, the Knight said, "You're a Fedain!"
"Not anymore," Grim said. "Now, we're going to hop on your eagle, and you're not going to say anything else. Get me to the city, without detection."
"Are you going to kill someone there?" The Knight asked.
Grim's hand snapped forward and clutched the Knight's throat. "I told you, you're not going to say anything else."
The Knight nodded again, and Grim unclenched his hand. As soon as he dropped his hand, however, the Knight reached for his sword and opened his mouth. Snarling, Grim returned his grip to the Knight's throat with lightning speed and drained the life force from him.
Grim stared at the aged corpse at his feet, wondering what he was supposed to do now. He had no idea how to fly an eagle, and he wondered if all the other Knights would react the same way as this one had. Telling them he was White Death had been unwise, for if the Knights had any honor at all, they would keep him from reaching the city even at the cost of their own lives.
"You know, you could've just asked for assistance," said a voice from behind him. He turned to see Talane thulu'Khant standing nearby and watching him with an amused smile.
"How do you keep managing to sneak up on me?" Grim asked.
Talane lifted the cuff of her left pant leg and revealed the stylized tattoo of a cat. "Father taught us a lot of his tricks, but Lodani spirit tattoos are my favorite. The applications for them seem to be endless, if you're inventive enough with the enchantment. I can move quieter than anyone else you have ever met—a useful skill where I live."
Grim nodded. Talane's answer hadn't really mattered, though at least it had satisfied his curiosity. "Define assistance," he said. "Can you get me to the city?"
Talane glanced at the eagle, then back at Grim. "I've ridden one once. I can't guarantee we won't fall to our deaths, but I do know the basics. We stole one a few years ago, but the Knights managed to get it back. We'd hoped to breed a lot more of them."
"A better plan than anything I've had," Grim admitted. "Let's go."
Grinning, Talane sauntered past Grim, as if she wanted him to watch her move. Grim ignored the suggestive moves of her hips, keeping his eyes glued to her head. She sighed, clearly disappointed, then calmly approached the eagle. Before she touched the animal, she brushed a tattoo on her wrist, and the eagle accepted her as if she was familiar.
"Come closer, slowly," Talane said. "It will have to get used to you before it accepts you as a rider."
"What did you do to it?" Grim asked.
"Oh, it likes my smell," Talane replied, chuckling softly. "If I gave you all my secrets, Grim, what more would I have to interest you with?"
"Let's just get to the city, shall we?" Grim said, then approached the eagle. He carefully put his hand against the eagle's flesh, sensing its emotions. It was agitated, clearly aware that its rider wasn't feeling well, and wondering at this strange person's presence. Nevertheless, Grim sought for any pain and tiredness the eagle was feeling and relieved it by giving it life force. The eagle was pleased and decided that Grim was clearly a friend. In a moment, it was pressing its head into Grim's hand, asking to be petted.
"You are not the only one with secrets," Grim said. "Now, take me up there."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Getting to the city proved to be easier than either Grim or Talane had expected. The eagle was well-trained and made up for Talane's inexperience as a rider. Although the sky was filled with Knights, no one looked at them twice. What was one more eagle in the sky when there were already so many, and who else but a Knight would be on an eagle anyway?
Grim left Talane near the edge of the city, then made his way through the somewhat familiar streets. Much had changed since he had last been in the Everbright City, as many of the old military buildings had been torn down and replaced with new structures. He had heard that the Everbright City was beautiful, and now his eyes confirmed it.
Grim had never been to Oligan, but he had seen many pictures, especially of their ancient ruins. His interest in archaeology had exposed him to such wonders. This felt like an ancient city, as if Neredos had specifically constructed it to radiate with the strength of ages.
Talane had given him a rough mental map of the area, saying she had been here once before. Neredos lived in a walled palace near the edge of the city, and that was the most likely place for Grim to find him. Veil, on the other hand, lived in the pretentiously titled 'Oracle's enclave', somewhat near the center.
He decided to find Neredos first, and took the quickest route possible to the palace. A few guards lined the walls and each entryway, not many, but they would serve as a barrier to most. Grim was not most people, and upon facing his latest obstacle, he decided it was time for a brazen approach.
He moved as close as he could manage to the guards outside the open main gate, without them growing suspicious of his intentions. Pausing momentarily, he darted forward, directly at the guards. They lowered their weapons as he drew near, surprise etched on their faces. He dodged around their spears as best he could, though two blades cut him as he passed.
Such superficial wounds didn't matter, and Grim healed them shortly after he passed through the gates themselves. Cries of alarm rose up all around him, and he had a dozen guards on his tail before he had gone a few steps inside. Again, this didn't matter. Whether he managed to make it to Neredos or not was irrelevant, for if he was arrested now, surely he could speak to someone important at least. Craziness had its virtues.
But he dodged and weaved through the palace, listening as well as he could whenever a new guard position joined the chase. Both their words and behaviors told him where he needed to go to find Neredos, for he was the one they most wanted to protect.
When he finally reached sight of Neredos' bedroom, the whole palace was looking for him. But he rushed past the final three guards anyway, confusing them with his recklessness. He couldn't make it to the door, however, and dove through a nearby window instead. His agility afforded him the means of climbing to the roof before the guards reached him.
From there, it was a simple matter of navigating across the roof to the balcony outside Neredos' window. He landed and kept moving, darting through the curtains until he was picked up by flowing air and slammed into the wall.
"Grim?" Neredos asked, his eyes wide with disbelief as he stepped forward and released the magic holding Grim against the wall. "Are you really here? How is that possible?"
"I've been living in the country," Grim said, "but I decided to come to the city today."
"How are you alive? How does it look as if you have not aged a day?" Neredos said, approaching Grim with wonder.
Footsteps sounded in the hall, and a trio of guards rushed into the room. One of them spoke. "King Neredos, step away from him! This man has infiltrated the palace and—"
"This man is one of my dearest friends in the world," Neredos said. "You would be wise to mind your tone near him."
The guard stepped back, stunned by this response. He gave a sidelong glance at Grim before returning to Neredos and bowing. "As you say, my King, however…"
"However nothing," Neredos said. "If there are any problems with him, I will sort them out myself."
"It was very difficult to get into the city," Grim said, drawing Neredos' attention. "No one believed me when I told them my identity."
"I'm sure even if you had aged, they would have been cautious," Neredos replied, nodding. He turned back to the guards and said, "This is Grimfaeth, the Demon Slayer, brother to the Oracle."
The guards stared at Grim open mouthed. They exchanged looks with each other, then each bowed to Grim before bowing to Neredos again before retreating from the room. Their excited whispers were heard going all the way down the hall.
"I apologize for the way you must've been treated on your way in here," Neredos said. "There is some worry about assassins, and—"
Grim interrupted Neredos with a sharp, "And what makes you think I'm not here to kill you?"
Neredos regarded Grim curiously. "Even if you were, I doubt you could."
"Aren't you concerned I might be one of the Vhor?" Grim asked.
"They've tried to kill me before," Neredos said, shrugging. "Their poison no longer affects me. Oh, it stings a bit, but I regenerate faster than a Fedain, probably even you."
"The Vhor have tried to kill you?" Grim asked with surprise. "I was beginning to think you might've been working with them."
Mad laughter filled the room as Neredos said, "Why would I ever do that? I'm not even convinced the Vhor are still alive, as it has been many years since they've come my way. I'm certain they stopped trying to kill me, at least on their own."
"Then how do you explain your actions?" Grim asked.
Neredos raised an eyebrow. "My actions?"
"Are you aware of how many people have been dying under your rule?" Grim said.
"No," Neredos replied, "I handle very little of the day-to-day processes around here. Mostly I just govern the city, and whenever the Knights must make a difficult decision, they come to me for input. They have assured me, however, that they continue to carry out their mission."
"Your mission is to exterminate innocent villagers who simply wish to protect books?" Grim asked.
"I gave no such directive," Neredos said. "I simply wish to prevent the world from returning to what we had before. Do you not remember, Grim? War on every horizon, terrible devices—some of which I developed myself—being used to control or threaten others. Your people practically enslaved your human citizens, and in my nation the military ran everything. We can't allow the world to become like that again, and so I'm doing my best to keep it from happening."
"I have personally watched good men die simply for defending a library of a few hundred books," Grim replied. "I resent the implication that a life is so worthless, and that the destruction of knowledge is worth more."
"They were never supposed to kill anyone," Neredos said. He met Grim's gaze and said even more firmly, "They were supposed to arrest and penalize only. I'm sure it must be an isolated case."
Grim gaped at Neredos. There was something different in his friend's eyes, a madness which had not been there before. Was this the result of being tied to the demons frozen in the pillars beneath them? "It is not, and perhaps you should take some time to find out what your Knights have been doing while you have avoided the day-to-day management of them."
Neredos waved his hand dismissively at that notion. "Veil is the one who works closely with the leaders of the Knights of the Firmament these days. Do you really think she would give such orders?"
"Perhaps I should see her and find out, since I've been met with nothing but a dead end here," Grim said, his mouth tightening as his eyes narrowed. "You do not look well, Neredos. Have you been sleeping well?"
Neredos' eyes widened, and he turned away, his shoulders tensing. "I haven't slept in years. Do you have any idea what that's like?"
In fact, Grim did understand. "I do, and I know it destroys you. I know every waking minute you have feels like you're getting closer to hitting the wall of a great abyss, and any second your time is going to run out and you'll crash as if you had never slept before."
"What happened to us, Grim?" Neredos asked after a moment of silence. "What have we become?"
Grim paused, knowing that his answer wouldn't change anything. He still had another option, one which he did not desire, but needed to explore anyway. He approached Neredos and placed a hand on his shoulder, close enough to his neck where he could touch exposed skin. He meant the gesture to be comforting to Neredos, though it was anything but. As soon as he touched Neredos' skin, he attempted to drain the life force from him.
Neredos recoiled in an instant, staring at Grim with eyes blazing like fire. During that instant, Grim had stolen energy, but Neredos' body had restored itself immediately. "What have you become, Grim?" Neredos asked. "You cannot kill me so easily. I am greater than anything you have faced before."
"Then you are a demon, and perhaps so am I," Grim said, lowering his hands. "If we are worse than they, and we cannot die, then we have become as corrupt as their essence. I will leave you to it, because I know already that I cannot kill you. I won't try again, but I will oppose you. For as long as you'll allow your Knights to kill people who do not deserve death, I will stand as their defender."
"Then perhaps I should be the one killing you," Neredos said.
Grim shrugged. "You can try, but I imagine it will be just as futile. I will see to Veil."
"Please do not kill her, Grim," Neredos said, looking away again. "I do not know what has made you so cold, but she is your sister and my dearest friend. I would be lost without her, and this entire endeavor would fail without her. She is the one who keeps me sane, and I cannot afford to fully lose myself to madness."
Grim nodded and left. There was nothing more to say.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Despite the guards positioned all throughout the enclave, Grim found it much easier to make it to Veil's office. Some things never changed, or at least changed very little over time. As soon as he confirmed that Veil lived at the Oracle's enclave, he knew what to look for.
All their lives they had sneaked into and out of various locations, and Veil had built her home with escape routes. There were hidden places to climb on the outer walls, small alcoves to hide in along several of the corridors. Though he saw many of the guards, none of them saw him.
When Veil returned to her office, she found Grim waiting for her, sitting in her chair. She dropped the stack of papers in her hands with a start, and they fluttered everywhere through the room. "How…?" She asked.
Grim stared at her, taking in her own youthful appearance. She had not aged a day either since he had last seen her, and he wondered how she'd accomplished that. "I could say the same of you. How about I just tell you that I consumed enough demon blood over those years that it's still keeping me going," he said with a smirk. "You may have killed a few demons toward the end, but I'd be surprised if that had been enough to sustain you for this long."
Veil closed the door softly behind her, and took a seat in the chair in front of her desk. She studied Grim's face curiously, then said, "Neredos lets me siphon off a bit of energy every now and then. It's enough to keep me youthful."
Grim chuckled. "So we are both liars then; I suppose that's to be expected. How about this, I won't tell you how I managed it if you don't tell me how you did? If you're willing to confess, perhaps I will be as well."
Veil glared at him. "If there was anything to confess, I—"
"It doesn't matter, Veil," Grim said, waving the thought away. "I haven't seen you in over forty years, and yet it seems I don't have to worry about picking up where we left off. You're still the same, as am I, so let's just pretend all that time didn't happen."
"Where have you been?" Veil asked.
"In the country, watching Knights murder my friends for building a tractor," Grim replied. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"
Veil remained silent, and Grim continued. "Neredos tells me that you're the one commanding the Knights these days, and I have an issue with how you've been managing things. You're just like any Ultakan noble now, letting others do your dirty work. We've come so far, haven't we?"
"And you're just as much of an arrogant prick as you've always been," Veil said testily. She growled, her fists clenched as she maintained Grim's gaze with an iron glare. "After forty years, you come back to criticize me? You don't embrace me, even greet me, you just want to tell me what I've been doing wrong!?"
Grim laughed openly at that. "I'm sorry let me start over again. Hello Veil, would you like a hug? Now that that's out of the way, why have you been killing people?"
If Grim had realized his hypocrisy then, he might've changed tactics. In his mind, however, the people he had killed had deserved it on account of their actions. Even the man he had killed before taking the eagle had deserved it, because he had been in the way. Grim could justify all his murders, for obsession has a way of corrupting perspective.
"Because this is larger than me, and larger than you," Veil replied. "Since the end of the war I have been trying to keep this world alive and thriving. I believe in Neredos and his vision, and I have a means of carrying it out. Shouldn't that be enough?"
Grim snorted. "It's always about the fate of the world, isn't it?" he asked. Shaking his head, he continued a bit more softly. "Veil, your Knights have been killing people for standing in the middle of the street and not moving when asked. That can't continue. If it does, I promise you, you will not keep the world alive and thriving, you will have a rebellion within a generation or two. Your world will crumble to dust just as it did before the demons arrived."
Veil sighed and said, "I know there have been problems. It has been difficult to find those willing to do the work who are not also violent, controlling people. Nevertheless, I do know that you're right."
"So you'll stop them?" Grim asked. "You'll stop ruining the lives of your citizens?"
"I will do my best to ensure fairness, as Father would've wanted," Veil replied. She nodded resolutely and added, "It's good to see you. I wish you had come back sooner."
"You should've seen to it without me," Grim replied.
"Perhaps," Veil said, her lips thinning. "But we have done some good. Have you not seen our beautiful cities? Both Pentalus and the Everbright City are full of happy people, living well."
Grim rolled his eyes. "And what about those living elsewhere?"
"If they comply with the laws, they can live well also," Veil replied.
Grim shook his head and rose to his feet. "You have no intention of changing your tactics, you're just telling me what I want to hear. It's like you've always done, Veil. I'm not certain you have a sincere bone left in you. You claim to care about what Father would've wanted, but he would die of grief if he saw what we both became."
"If this world is not to your liking, Grim, then leave it," Veil said, her eyes growing hard.
Grim chuckled, but there wasn't an ounce of humor in it. "At least this trip was good for something. I don't think there's anything worth saving anymore. Goodbye Veil. May your long life bring you the misery you crave."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Any luck with your mission?" Talane asked when Grim returned to her.
Grim shook his head and looked back toward the center of the city. "There was nothing to be gained by coming here. Your father was wrong. Even if I managed to kill them both, I'd just be left with the same result. The world is full of people who justify their actions through subjective morality. Some of them would rise to power regardless. If it can happen to Neredos and Veil, it could happen to anyone."
"Sounds like you could use a little distraction from all those depressing thoughts," Talane said. "How about you and I find some quiet place to get lost in each other instead of this world?"
Grim shrugged. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered anymore. He just wanted this to be over, for his body to let him die. Perhaps Janlynd had been right after all, and the only way to make a point was to give everything of yourself.
He glanced at Talane. She had a spark in her eyes, a bit of life and fire. Maybe he could do something with that. Maybe she could help them burn down the world.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Why did you stop?" Naxthul asked.
"I don't want to talk about Talane," Grim replied. "That is a part of my life better left buried."
Naxthul sighed and turned to Grim. "Sounds more like it's something you still need to process. Besides," he added with a grin, "you're just going to kill me anyway."
Grim nodded thoughtfully. "You do have a point there."
"What happened with Talane?" Naxthul asked.
"We ran off into the country together, and had a lot of sex," Grim replied. "She bore two sets of twins, grew old, and died."
Naxthul's eyes widened in surprise. "I wasn't aware you had children."
Grim shook his head. "They're long dead now. I lost track of whether I have any living descendants. I never loved Talane, and I can't even say for certain if I loved my children. I watched them grow old and die as well, and then my grandchildren… You can only do it for so long before you have to detach yourself from them emotionally. I only checked in on them for a few centuries before I decided it wasn't worth it. None of my descendants know who I am, and I don't know who any of them are."
"I can understand that sentiment," Naxthul replied. "Khalis and I never had children, but several of our Chosen did. As the ages wore on, it was difficult for them to see themselves and their descendants in quite the same way they had with their direct children."
"In my case, it was somewhat difficult for me to see myself in them to begin with," Grim replied with a shrug. "At least, I couldn't see myself in them, anymore than I could with the average person anyway. We all bear commonalities, have similar wants, desires, and needs, though all our approaches differ. Perhaps, in a way, all the people of the world are now my family, and so those I'm related to by blood no longer stand out as special."
Naxthul nodded and said, "Then I believe I am not so worried about you after all. Believing all to be your family is better than believing none to be, when you are to be representing them."
"Could not the opposite be true?" Grim asked.
"How do you figure?" Naxthul replied.
"If the Trial perpetuates in endless cycles, then wouldn't it be easier to bring death and destruction upon the world if you didn't care about people?" Grim asked.
Naxthul shook his head. "Without caring, why would you do anything at all?"
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