Cynical Faith

Chapter 11

You can learn a great deal from the choices people make. It always amazed me how much you can learn about a person just by the liquor they choose to drink. Some don't drink at all, and you can learn a lot from that too.

And you can often be wrong, and that's just because of the choices you make. Judgment is a choice; our assumptions about a person's character speak volumes about our own. This is why I decided early on that hatred had no place in my heart. It's a foolish emotion, even when directed toward the enemy. What is hatred but a mixture of anger and fear? What can it do that those two emotions cannot?

Anger, when directed, can serve to change the world. Fear can keep you safe from things not meant for you to experience, and, when overcome, it changes the self. But when the two emotions combine to create hatred, and anger motivates fear or fear motivates anger, all you can do is destroy. Anger loses its world-changing focus, and prevents the fear from being overcome. We lose ourselves and the world in hatred, so why do so many of us live there?

My people wanted me to hate. They wanted me to hate Humans, for they were either too stupid to rise against their Fedain masters in Ultaka, or they were warmongering imperialists in Oligan. They wanted me to hate the Fedain, for pretending to be gods and enslaving others. My war leader once asked me to kill a Human child on a raid, because she had discovered our camp. It was my first raid and my last, for I refused to kill her, and was exiled from my people because of it.

I found a home with people who were not mine by blood or race. Though they lived in the societies that my people had considered evil, they were people just like me trying to figure out why the world had so much hate. Together, despite war and ruin, we found the answer.

Love is what directs the energy of anger toward acts of good. Love is what allows one to overcome fears. I have a family full of mixed bloodlines, and I love them all. I only wish everyone wanted to be a part of that.

~Kaeral

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

The ceiling shook above Grim's head, and he looked up with concern. Naxthul's eyes also turned upward, but he showed little of the same worry. "The battle has begun, and soon the last of the demons will be gone. They are losing, as they were always meant to. Nobak has already fallen, and I'm sure the other generals will follow him soon."

"Did you know the demon generals well?" Grim asked.

Naxthul shrugged. "I had my eye on them during Ghayle's Trial, though only two of them were ones I chose myself to guide the world. Tagren made the decision for the others."

"Not Ghayle?" Grim said with some surprise.

"It has never been done that way," Naxthul replied. "It is better that someone else selects the team, for that ensures a greater representation of ideals. Not all who qualify are Chosen, though all Chosen must qualify."

"Does that mean you had a hand in who will be the next Chosen?" Grim asked.

Naxthul shook his head and said, "No. Only in who will lead them. It goes in stages, for though I chose for Ghayle, I will not choose for you. Khalis and my predecessor chose for me, and Ghayle and your First will choose for you."

"I wonder who will be there then, and if they are those I would've chosen," Grim replied. "I'm not sure I would've chosen anyone. To inflict agelessness upon a person without their consent seems a rather cruel judgment."

"You understand already," Naxthul said. "That's a good thing."

Grim raised an eyebrow. "Understand what?"

"All the pitfalls of being an immortal; I suppose you have lived a long time already, so it does make sense," Naxthul replied.

"Even as a child, I thought it was strange that some people wanted to live forever," Grim said.

"Is that because you always wanted to die, or because you knew that immortality was a burden?" Naxthul asked.

Grim stared at Naxthul as if he had just revealed a secret of the universe. He had never thought of things in those terms, though now his mind whirled with the possibilities. "I suppose it is a little bit of both?" He said, still questioning his own feelings on the matter. "As a young child, I understood what it was to be alive, but after both my brother and mother died, I started to lose sight of that. Even when I was desperately trying to recapture the vibrancy of youth, exploring all the wonders in the world around me, there was a part of me that wanted it all to end. Facing death so early, I came to understand the inevitability of death. It is natural to die when the time comes, and unnatural to avoid it."

"But it is also unnatural to seek it," Naxthul countered. "And you cannot tell me that you never dreamed of ending it all on your own."

"That has nothing to do with this!" Grim said with a snarl.

If Naxthul felt threatened by Grim's tone, he didn't show it. "It has everything to do with this, Grim. Within the next few hours, you will assume the mantle of the avatar of this world, and become its guiding force. How can I trust all life in this world to a being who wants to end his own?"

"Are you sure I would even accept that mantle?" Grim asked.

"As if you would reject it," Naxthul said with a snort. "You've always been far too convinced that you're the only one who can save this world. That's why you keep sticking around, why you fight off your suicidal urges. Well it's not going to be enough this time, Grim, you're going to have to find another reason. Because this isn't about you, even though you're a major player in this great game. This is about everything, and everyone."

"I have always considered everyone," Grim replied icily.

Naxthul shook his head. "Not in the way I mean. Not in the way you need to. You've always done everything yourself; made all the sacrifices, taken all the dangerous missions, and pursued your obsessions with a singular vision which ignored the visions of any other near you. Oh yes, you are motivated by the fate of the world, but you are no different from Odiran or Neredos if you think that only your version of the future could ever be valid."

Grim considered that for several seconds, hating the logic he heard in it. He knew Naxthul was right, though he wasn't about to admit that. Instead, he latched onto the one thing he felt he could defend with any degree of validity. "I didn't always pursue those obsessions, and there were times where I deviated from them entirely."

"How so?" Naxthul asked skeptically.

"There was a time when the world was almost free of demons, and I did everything I could to live in it," Grim replied. "After Talane's death, I traveled the world and studied everything I could. I was the first Fedain to set foot in Oligan in centuries. I went there before any humans returned by nearly two hundred years, though the Elroks and the Gor beat me to it."

"What made you return to this side of the ocean?" Naxthul asked. "If you'd stayed there, you could have had a life free of all this obsession."

"There is a boredom inherent in immortality," Grim said dryly. "There is only so much one can learn of a culture before it is time to experience something different. It was good for me, but I missed being among my own people, and the humans too. As much as I wish Neredos and Veil hadn't made the decisions they did, I still enjoy some of the trappings of human and Fedain life. Those were things the Elroks and Gor couldn't offer me."

Naxthul raised an eyebrow. "Such as? You don't seem particularly materialistic. You don't seek creature comforts, and you spent years in a cell just to be near me and learn my plots."

"Both the Gor and the Elroks have very spiritual cultures. It is wonderful for a mind seeking clarity when every problem in the world weighs on your shoulders," Grim said thoughtfully. He continued after a moment of consideration, nodding to himself. "For the most part, however, you will rarely find the imagination among them that is required to provide new solutions to old problems. There are exceptions, of course, but usually a Gor or Elrok who thinks outside of their tradition will be regarded as too different to be trusted. No matter how useful an innovation may be, it will bring change to how society functions, and that is potentially dangerous to a spiritual people. So much of their society relies on their assumption of how the universe works, that upsetting that balance could bring everything crashing down."

"That is an interesting observation," Naxthul replied. "I can see your reasoning, though I don't believe it is universally sound."

"Of course not," Grim said.

"And I suppose you did acknowledge exceptions," Naxthul added, chuckling. "But I'm not certain the advantages of innovation outweigh the disadvantages of a culture that forgets spirituality."

Grim shrugged. "All worldviews are subject to the limitations of their perspectives. If one cannot consider the other side of an issue, one is bound to make mistakes."

"Therein lies the pitfalls of obsession, does it not?" Naxthul asked.

Sighing, Grim met Naxthul's eyes and said, "You're returning to the same topic, forcing me to address it. Very well, I'll give you what you desire. There are nearly four centuries of history that you disregard, Naxthul. Though I do not deny my shortcomings, I will not allow you to deny the times I have overcome them."

"But you just ended up back on the same path," Naxthul countered.

Grim's eyes narrowed as he spat back, "That is only because you brought me back to it. Don't you remember, Naxthul?"

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Four hundred and fifty-two years after Neredos sealed the demons away, Grim returned to the lands of his youth, having spent several centuries on the other continent. The only reason he knew the exact year—for he had long since stopped caring about the passage of time—was because the world now reckoned time according to that event. It was one of several changes Grim had to grow accustomed to.

The world had come to see Neredos as a sort of God. They knew he was not all-powerful, yet his immortality had granted him a significant amount of reverence among the people. That he was also mad was not known by many, as his insanity was kept from the people by his highest officials.

Veil had also garnered a great deal of respect, for similar reasons, though Grim knew there must be some other means by which she had maintained her immortality than the official story. It was said that Neredos granted her some of his power so that she might continue to live. Perhaps even Neredos believed that story, though Grim would never be convinced.

That Neredos could draw on an almost infinite well of power to sustain himself could not be denied, but Grim had touched Neredos once, and he knew where that well ended. Veil could not have tapped it any more than Grim could have, and so she was sustaining herself through some other means.

Grim had determined where his own agelessness had come from and doubted Veil had managed the same. Over the countless battles Grim had waged against the demons, he had reconstructed his own body so many times that it now repaired damage on an instinctive level. Veil had never undergone such destruction, and had only been forced to fight demons on several occasions.

It was possible that her ability to heal others had simply extended to herself, though Grim did not believe this option either. It was one thing to cure a disease and quite another to have a body that refused to die. Veil was truly a gifted healer, and likely the only one other than Grim who still knew how to heal certain ailments, but Grim doubted she could heal herself to such a capacity.

All the options remaining did not sit well with Grim. They all required stealing life force, and there was only one way to do that. Veil had to be killing people to extend her own life, though how no one had noticed over the centuries was another mystery entirely. Nevertheless, it was reason for Grim to keep his distance from his sister.

She wouldn't have wanted to hear from him anyway. They had very little to say to each other anymore, after so many years of traveling different paths. Grim didn't understand her or her methods, and this time among the Gor and the Elrok clans in Oligan had only reinforced that divide. There was nothing to be accomplished by them meeting, just rehashing old arguments neither of them could win.

But as soon as Grim returned to the land which had been Ultaka, he felt a longing for home. Knowing his sister would not be able to satisfy that longing, he traveled to Kobinaru, or rather, where it had once stood. There was nothing left of the grand city, for the cataclysmic changes heralding the demons' arrival had eventually swallowed it up. Nevertheless, much of the geography remained the same, and a small town had been built on the same shores.

Assuming a false name, Grim settled in this town for a time, eager to live a normal life to the best of his ability. He knew he would have to move on eventually, or face questions about his age, but he hoped that would take a long time.

Despite keeping a low profile, he couldn't help but become enmeshed in the world around him. Things were so different now than they had been in his youth, and the last time he had been on this side of the ocean. The world had forgotten so much, though there was a sense of beauty in the simple lives most led now. There was less busyness; less concern with time except as it pertained to fishing and planting seasons. People no longer thought of demons, and most didn't even believe that demons had once invaded.

Grim knew better, but he saw no reason to shatter their illusions. He told an occasional story, but he framed it as a story rather than the truth. Now that the Inquisition had ended, it seemed the world had finally settled down. Grim was content to let it settle, even though there were still problems.

Lives were simpler, but they were also harder in a way, for many of the technologies that had once saved people from death and harm were now gone. Old diseases had returned, ones the Fedain had all but cured. Medical science had done wonders for the Humans of Ultaka, but with the culling of the Fedain population prior to the demon invasion, much of that knowledge had not been passed on.

The world had regressed a thousand years, and at times Grim wept for the loss of all that knowledge. Occasionally, he wondered if Neredos and Veil even realized the great impact their decisions had made, and if the world would ever regain what they had lost. Despite the wars, which had been fought for centuries before Grim was even born, Grim had never believed technology itself to be responsible. The fault lay in the decisions of those using it, and their desire for control.

So Grim endeavored to change just that. Slowly, his stories changed in tone, and he sought greater opportunities to tell them. He spoke of far off lands, of Gor legends and the Elrok oral histories. He taught metaphor and philosophy, hoping to change the mind of the serpent rather than behead it. The problem, Grim believed, was that people simply didn't know how to adapt to new situations.

As he taught, he gained a following. Students came from all over the region to learn, and he established a small school on a nearby hill, under the shade of several apple trees. Eventually, he entrusted the school to one of his students and moved on.

He intended to gather more stories, to learn and understand as much as he could about the way the world worked. To Grim, the demons had never truly left the world. He knew they remained within the pillars, and that Neredos felt them still. The stagnation of the world lay in that problem, and until the demons were overcome, they would continue to manifest in the hearts of those who lived under Neredos' shadow.

For the first time in centuries, Grim paid attention to all the subtle workings of society, and therein found his obsession once again. People told stories, and several of them wove together in such a way that the resulting tapestry formed a picture Grim could not ignore. There was a shape shifter in the south; the Vhor were still alive and active, and they were trying to free the demons.

It was just a rumor heard in a lonely tavern, but Grim latched onto it with everything he had. While it was possible the rumor was nothing but a local legend, Grim knew the Vhor could not be allowed to act unchecked. He wanted to purge the demons from society, and as long as there were demons actively working against him, he could not complete that work.

As he investigated the rumor, he only unearthed more. There were plots layered in plots, some of which had existed for centuries. The Vhor had been busy, establishing a hundred seeds of rebellion throughout Neredos' empire.

Grim's need to stop the Vhor switched on as if it had never been off, and he began a long and arduous hunt. It took him several years to track down the Vhor at the center of the web of plots, but eventually found him in a small village controlled by one of Neredos' vassals.

The Vhor wore the guise of a local fisherman when Grim came upon him. He'd been spreading false stories that the catches were coming up short, and that it was hard to make a living selling his few fish in Pentalus. It all tied back to Neredos in a way that the local fishermen could relate to, though it seemed such a minor thing.

But there was discontent in this region, for the Vhor had been playing upon minor grievances for a long time. Each one added up, like raindrops forming a flood. If they were not stopped, eventually the people would rise against Neredos. As much as Grim disagreed with his former friend, he could not run the risk that this rebellion would lead to the demons being released upon the world once again.

Grim stalked the Vhor, staying to the shadows and eavesdropping on all conversations he could manage. From one such conversation, he learned something that changed the course of his life forever.

As he stood outside the window of the hut where the Vhor lived, another man entered the dwelling. It was a man Grim had seen before, a merchant from another town who came by once a week to visit his old friend the fisherman.

"How are the roads?" The fisherman asked.

"Muddy and hard to travel for most," the merchant replied grimly. "Thankfully, as long as no one is around, they're not as difficult for me."

"If you're just going to change your form, then why not just fly here?" The fisherman asked.

Grim's breath caught in his throat. He had come here tracking one Vhor, but it appeared that he had found two. He was certain he could handle two at once, but there could be greater advantage in eavesdropping. Perhaps even an indication as to where their leader would be.

"You know that Nax doesn't like us shifting whenever we want," the merchant said. "Don't tell me you've become sloppy."

"There are only three of us left active," the fisherman replied. "If we shift, it'll all just be taken as fanciful tales. Easily explained by a shift in scenery. Isn't that what we were commanded to do anyway? We're supposed to be going everywhere, convincing everyone to rise against Neredos."

"And what happens if Neredos learns that we are still out here?" the merchant asked.

The fishermen gave a derisive snort. "As if the mad King has any interest in anything beyond that floating city of his. Who else even remembers who the Vhor are? Neredos and Veil are the only ones left, and they can't be bothered chasing rumors."

"All the same, you need to be careful," the merchant replied.

"I just don't see any reason for it," the fisherman said. "If the people learned there were still demons among them, wouldn't that shed doubt on Neredos' reign?"

"But those are not our orders," the merchant said.

The fisherman sighed. "I will obey his will, and I'll be more careful. It's not as if he couldn't kill me whenever he wanted to if I got out of line."

"As if," the merchant said with a snort. "With so few of us left, he wouldn't dare remove one of his last few assets. He'd probably bring you in for questioning though, and I doubt you'd like what he would do to you."

"He's grown harder recently, hasn't he?" The fisherman said.

"How many years has it been without Khalis?" The merchant asked. "We're all eager to finish this. I'm sick of hiding in the shadows just as much as you are, but we have to trust the plan."

"It would be easier if we could simply kill Neredos," the fisherman replied.

"That's Nax's job," the merchant replied. "You let him worry about how to end the King."

"What we really need is magic," the fisherman said. "But Neredos has made it that much more difficult to find competent mages as well."

As the two Vhor began discussing the state of the world as opposed to their plans on how to change it, Grim returned to formulating his plan on how to dispatch them. He'd learned a great deal that he hadn't expected, and he was feeling a greater commitment to his past obsession than he had in centuries.

He now knew how many Vhor were left, and exactly what their plans were. Whoever this 'Nax' was, Grim would hunt him down and kill him too, as soon as he was able to dispose of these two minions. That, Grim did not have to wait for.

Grim vaulted the windowsill and dashed toward the nearest of the Vhor, the merchant. Both of the demons were completely surprised to see him, and Grim closed the distance between them before either could react. He placed his hand on the merchant's arm just as they started to move.

Before he could finish the job, however, a tentacle from the fisherman wrapped around his neck and pulled him backwards. Grim spun with the momentum, letting the tentacle pull him and ignoring how it cut off his air supply. He could kill the Vhor long before it managed to suffocate him, especially since the contact between the tentacle and his neck allowed him to inflict damage.

He sent his thoughts through the flesh of his neck, reaching into the flesh of the Vhor while he melted away the appendage as he had done to so many demons before. He snapped forward with his hand, reaching for the fisherman's throat as he landed. The fisherman's eyes were wide with shock, and he barely managed one stuttered word.

"No!" The fisherman growled. Grim initially thought it was a denial of the situation, but as the door to the hut opened, his perspective shifted. Instead of attacking him from behind, the merchant had abandoned his comrade and run off into the night. As Grim glanced backward through the swinging portal, he saw the Vhor shift form into that of a bird. Grim would never catch him now.

Growling in frustration, Grim returned his full attention to the Vhor in his grasp. "He won't escape me for long," he said. "Soon all of you will be dead."

"No matter how many of us you hunt down, there will always be one more," the fisherman replied. "We thought you were dead. It appears we all make mistakes."

"You're not even trying to fight for your life?" Grim asked.

The Vhor shrugged. "What good would it do me? You are the Demon Slayer, and I know I have no hope of escaping you before you kill me, nor hope of killing you."

"You know who I am?" Grim asked with surprise.

The fisherman chuckled. "Of course. We all remember your face. You will not escape our notice again, Grimfaeth."

"Your fellows, perhaps not, but your notice ends now," Grim said. With that he finished the process he had begun on the tentacle, stealing all the energy the Vhor had to offer. When he was done, there was nothing but a puddle where the fisherman had stood.

Grim didn't bother waiting around to clean up or answer questions of the villagers. He'd seen the direction the bird had flown, and that was where he would begin his next search. It was time to end this.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

"You didn't have to get involved," Naxthul protested. "You could've stayed in that grove of apple trees, teaching people, preparing the world for what came next. You didn't have to find us. You didn't have to interfere."

"How could I not?" Grim asked. "You and your demons were responsible for destroying the world I'd loved. How could I have possibly allowed you to continue to act, knowing what you were capable of?"

Naxthul sighed. "I understand your point of view, and I suppose it's even to be expected. After all, the entire purpose of the Trial is to force people to either act or die. It did its job, even if it did set us back several centuries."

"Did you really expect to stir up enough trouble to handle Neredos?" Grim asked.

"If we could destabilize his power, even a little bit, we could've grown the resources necessary to ensure his downfall," Naxthul replied. "I had no hope of killing him, but I had hopes that I could find someone capable and convince them to do it. The more people upset with how he was ruling, the greater my chances were of doing that."

"Well, it seems you got your wish," Grim said, looking upward as the ceiling shook once again. "Neredos is dead, though I don't know who killed him."

"He was killing the demons as he died. If he'd managed to kill them all before that happened, there wouldn't even be a battle happening above us right now," Naxthul said.

"And then we wouldn't be having this lovely conversation," Grim replied dryly. "I would've already killed you."

Naxthul shrugged. "But at least it would be over, until it comes again."

"You are still certain I will one day bring demons back into this world," Grim said. "I assure you, I will never make that mistake."

 

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