Cynical Faith

Chapter 13

Tradition holds the key to understanding where one came from, but it cannot be allowed to dictate where one will go. In my lifetime I faced challenges my people had not encountered for thousands of years, and I was forced to adapt. Had I buried myself in tradition, I do not know if my people would've survived.

And yet, there was much to gain from the old ways. They held us together, giving us a foundation upon which to build. One should not abandon tradition simply because it is tradition, any more than one should follow it for that same reason. All people must learn to balance the lessons of the past with the necessary adaptation to the future.

I do not believe my people are capable of accepting change without great need to do so. Had the demons not invaded the entire world—if they had left the Elroks alone—we would not have come to the aid of the others. We were content to live in our mountains, to run across our tundra, to occupy our perceived place in the natural order without any regard to what fate befell the others.

That was a mistake, and one my people have repeated for centuries since. That tradition kept us mired in a disregard for all others. We often spoke of how the world works as a giant interconnected web of all life, but we saw the Humans, the Fedain, and even the Gor, as outside that web.

I wonder how the world might've been different if we had been willing to work with them from the beginning? If we had been willing to adapt to their changes, and change them in turn—with the strength of our tradition—would we have found the balance necessary to keep the demons from our lands?

Perhaps. Or perhaps we would've changed too much. The balance of the present is the only gauge upon which we can truly rely when determining what is right and good. This is the lesson my people must teach the world, and may the stones always remember it.

       ~Morga

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

"Did you feel that?" Grim asked, glancing toward the entryway of the chamber. He could've sworn he had felt a brief gust of wind, though that should've been impossible in their current location.

Naxthul gave Grim a confused glance. "Feel what?" He asked.

Grim shook his head, a touch bewildered. "It was as if… Maybe it's just this place. Maybe the ghosts of these halls have been awakened by the battle above."

"Do you believe in ghosts, Grim?" Naxthul asked.

Grim raised an eyebrow as he replied, "Don't you? I mean, you are one, in a sense."

"I suppose I can understand you interpreting things that way," Naxthul said, "though I don't particularly feel like a ghost. I'm not sure that I could claim to believe in them either."

"Then what happens to us when we die?" Grim asked.

Chuckling, Naxthul shook his head and said, "Oh no, I can't give you the answer to that mystery. I'm afraid that's entirely out of the question. You'll have to find out when you get there, just like everyone else."

"But we do go somewhere," Grim said.

"Are you really pressing for an answer to the one question I just said I wouldn't answer?" Naxthul asked. "I thought you knew me better than that."

Grim raised his hand to quell further protest. "I'm only asking for generalizations here. I don't have any desire for you to describe it to me, or to give me any great secrets about the afterlife. I have never cared where I go when I die, I'm simply trying to explain my position better, and knowing that we go somewhere would help me do so."

"In that case…" Naxthul paused, meeting Grim's eyes and searching them for several seconds. "Yes, we go somewhere. Yes, I came from there. In fact, all the demons did except for the demon generals. They are the spirits of the dead brought back, or at least the life force of the dead, given form again by the cosmic forces of The Trial."

"Are they without memory then?" Grim asked.

Naxthul shrugged. "I'm honestly not sure, as I've never been one of them. I can sense them, can feel things that they feel, but only to a point. I do not know what it is like to be them. Perhaps they have their memories, and perhaps they do not. The Vhor retained their memories however, which may be the reason why we command the rest of the forces."

"You call them spirits of the dead, but you don't consider them ghosts?" Grim said. "That seems like flawed logic to me."

"I don't consider them ghosts, because they never stopped existing," Naxthul replied. "Death is just a doorway to another state of being. I don't believe spirits linger after death, because all beings are compelled to step through that doorway."

"But what about the remnants they leave behind?" Grim asked.

Naxthul arched a curious eyebrow. "I'm not sure I understand."

Grim nodded thoughtfully, tapping his finger against his lips as he paced for several moments before responding. "When a person dies, their impact upon the world remains. It fades slowly, first from those who barely knew them, until eventually either everyone forgets, or those who know them best die as well. Yet still, the effects of those lives continue in small ripples that carry forward until all energy is eventually dispersed. I carry the energy of countless ripples within me, from my parents, my siblings, lovers, friends, fellow soldiers… I could go on for days and still be naming people who have affected me. People who haunt me… are they not ghosts? Are they not the remnants of lives no longer being lived, which still somehow persist?"

"I suppose they are ghosts, after a fashion," Naxthul replied. "Depending on how loosely you choose to define the word."

"Something moves on, yet something remains," Grim said. "Do we live in our memory, or does memory live in us?"

Naxthul stared at Grim, his eyes wide. After a moment, he exhaled slowly and said, "I think you have a wondrous journey ahead of you, once you reach the other side of that question."

"Do you know the answer?" Grim asked.

"I know an answer, but whether it's the right one remains to be seen," Naxthul said. "I think… I think I can give you some of an answer, once I get this archive working. I believe I just about have the power cell installed, but then it will need to charge."

"How long will that take?" Grim asked. Naxthul gave him an annoyed look, and Grim shook his head and said, "I'm not being impatient, I simply wanted to know."

"That's the way of questions, isn't it?" Naxthul replied, chuckling softly. "I'm not sure. Anywhere from a few minutes to an hour? How about you tell me how you ended up finding the last of my Vhor?"

"Other than Tagren you mean?" Grim asked dryly.

"Indeed," Naxthul said, laughing. "There was always one more…"

"It seems that is true in love as well," Grim replied. "For I found both uncertainty and the unknown when I went searching under my greatest obsession."

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

 

For nearly two and a half centuries, Grim hunted the last of the Vhor. His obsession had shifted, for he no longer felt it as a compulsion, but simply as a necessary step for him to reach the end. The end of what, he was not certain, for he did not know if slaying the last of the demons would allow him to die, but at least it would allow him to stop.

Unfortunately, the last two Vhor of which he was aware were particularly elusive. They laid false trails for him, starting minor rebellions before moving on as quickly as they had come. They knew he was out there, hunting them, and they were not about to make any mistakes.

In the end, it was luck that led Grim to one of his prey. He had decided to journey to the Elrok clans living in the mountains east of what had once been Ultaka. He needed clarity, a type of clarity he had only found while studying with the Elrok shamans across the sea in Oligan. He did not know if these other clans would serve his purposes the same way, but he was feeling disheartened and needed whatever help he could get.

As luck would have it, the clans had gathered in a single spot to celebrate a fortuitous development. Chief Telzath of the Clan of Lions had united the clans beneath him. Even the Elrok clans across the sea had sent representatives for this momentous occasion. They, too, acknowledged his rule, for they saw the good in him, as many others did.

Telzath had united the Elroks through wisdom and shared resources, not through strength, as other chiefs had attempted throughout the eons. He had established new order, which worked within the bounds of old tradition, allowing for a clarity of leadership unmatched in all the peoples of the world. It was a time of community, something Grim had longed for over the years but found lacking in the settlements he had traveled through. It was also a time for spiritual renewal, for the prosperity this new arrangement had brought to the Elrok clans had lightened the hearts of nearly all in attendance.

Grim was welcomed among them, for he knew their customs and was able to demonstrate respect at a level that the Elroks admired. They were grateful for his consideration of their ways and accepted him into their midst without hesitation or fanfare. He preferred it that way, glad simply to be among friends and required no special attention.

If he'd received any special attention, things might not have worked out the same way. For on the first night of the festival, word spread throughout the camp that Chief Telzath had fallen gravely ill. Grim heard about the sickness and knew instantly what it meant; the symptoms were familiar and belonged to a poison unmatched by anything except that of the Quay.

Grim rushed to the Chief's tent to offer his services, knowing that even with his haste, he might still be too late. When he arrived, the Vhor poison had nearly killed Telzath, and only the Elrok's stubbornness had allowed him to hold on to a shred of life. The shamans had done all they could to slow the poison, but their magics were not enough. The chief, who had brought such prosperity to his people, would be dead within minutes.

But Grim knew the poison well, and in the eyes of the watching Elroks, a miracle occurred. Grim gave of himself to bring Telzath back from the brink of death, and soon the Chief rose from his bed. Grim, though delighted he had been able to save a life, wasted no time in asking what had happened.

Chief Telzath informed Grim that his longtime advisor, an Elrok Fletcher, had been trying to convince him to lead the combined clans against King Neredos in war. Telzath had refused, and the Fletcher had suddenly changed form before Telzath's eyes, striking him with gnashing teeth that weakened Telzath in seconds. Telzath had been too delirious to explain what had happened to the shamans who came to check on him.

The shamans in attendance then explained that the Fletcher in question had told them that an assassin from the Everbright City had entered the tent and poisoned Telzath. Since the Fletcher whom the Vhor had impersonated was regarded as a person of unmatched integrity, the shamans trusted his word and had called the Council to discuss the matter.

The Council was still in session, and Grim requested that he be allowed to confront the Fletcher before the assembled shamans and clan leaders. They agreed to help him, though Telzath remained behind, to prevent the Vhor from learning that he had been found out.

Grim walked into the large circle of stones where the Council was being held, two shamans following him, and ready to act as soon as Grim gave them the signal by moving on the Vhor. Their chief had ordered them to trust Grim explicitly in this matter, for Telzath was a descendent of Morga and knew well the machinations of the Vhor.

The Vhor addressed the council with his back to the entrance of the circle of stones, speaking dramatically about the evils of King Neredos and how his reign must be ended. Grim slowly parted the crowd, keeping his eye on his quarry, ready to sprint toward him at a moment's notice should the Vhor move suddenly.

Grim knew he would not have the chance to explain his actions to the Council before making his move. As soon as he saw his opportunity to quickly close the distance between him and the Vhor, he took it. One of the shamans in the Council noticed Grim's movement and pointed directly at him shouting, "There is the assassin!"

The Vhor, alerted now to Grim's presence, turned to face him. Recognition immediately crossed his expression, and fear filled his eyes. Nevertheless, he tried to maintain his identity and joined the chorus of angry and surprised voices. "That's him! Get him!"

Grim felt the crowd turn on him, those nearby reaching out to grab him or kill him. The two shamans who had followed him from Telzath's tent were ready to play their part, and both used whatever magic they had to keep the other Elroks from catching Grim. The ground heaved and broke around Grim, but he kept his balance better than the Elroks did.

The Vhor knew his doom was upon him if he did not act, and he shifted form in the chaos. His arm elongated, becoming almost like a tentacle except it ended in a scythe-like blade of bone. Snarling, he lashed out at Grim, catching the dancing Fedain in midair as he leapt to avoid the tremors.

Searing pain as intense as anything Grim had ever experienced drove him to the stone. He tried to stand, but soon realized he was lacking one of his legs. It lay several feet from him, still twitching in a pool of blood. The Vhor poison burned through Grim's veins, and he struggled to repair it and stop the bleeding, while his focus remained on the Vhor ahead of him.

The Vhor was on the move, and Grim had no hope of catching him now. Just as Grim had been evaded centuries ago, he would lose his chance again. He succumbed to the pain, his world growing black despite the noise and fire that now surrounded him.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

 

Grim awoke in a puddle of sweat, a fever still racing through him. The poison was gone, or at least gone enough that he could finish it off in seconds as soon as he had enough energy. His surroundings did not feel familiar at first, but he glanced to the side to see Chief Telzath staring at him curiously. He was in the chief's tent, laying in his bedding no less.

"What…?" Grim began hoarsely, then stretched toward the water skin he could see beside him. He had never felt this weak in his life, and he collapsed without his fingers even coming close to the water.

Telzath picked up the skin and held it to Grim's lips, allowing him to drink slowly to prevent coughing. When Grim had had his fill, Telzath pulled the skin away and reached for a bowl filled with warm broth. He held a spoonful of it to Grim's mouth, refusing to take it away until Grim had taken the broth.

"I wasn't aware Fedain could even be sick," Telzath said in the common tongue. "You are full of surprises, traveler."

"What happened to the assassin?" Grim asked, each word a struggle.

Telzath considered Grim's face for several seconds before responding. "It is not good for you to be concerned about him, when you are not well enough to be concerned about anyone but yourself. You must eat, rest, and then ask about assassins."

Grim growled weakly, then tried to struggle to a sitting position. Something felt wrong in how he was moving, and he finally looked down. His leg was missing, though his innate healing had already closed the wound. It was still red and sore, and hurt more than Grim would've expected.

"I will be fine," Grim insisted. "I only need time, and it seems that even an injury as grievous as what I suffered is not enough to steal that from me. Please, tell me what happened."

Telzath sighed and put the bowl of broth aside. "Very well, I can hardly deny the simple wishes of the man who saved my life. They captured the Vhor and executed him, using fire as in the old stories. Of course, the pair who went with you told the council to use flame as you directed, though there were still some sore feelings about how they acted, and they were mostly ignored. Thankfully, it appears my people's stories have deep roots in their hearts, and they trusted fire anyway."

"So, he's dead?" Grim asked. "You are certain of this?"

"You may view the place where the remnants of his evil stay in the stone, if you wish," Telzath said. "But not until you are ready to move. And I will make that determination, not you. If we move you now, your wound may reopen."

Grim dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. "My body has already taken care of healing me this far, and I'm certain a little movement will not—"

"You had lost so much blood your heart had almost nothing to pump," Telzath interrupted with a snort. "I know young warriors like you, headstrong and full of self-sacrifice because they believe themselves immortal. You nearly died, and only the skills of the same shamans who stabilized me kept you from death."

Grim chuckled, then nodded toward the bowl of broth. If he was going to heal himself, he needed more energy, and food was the best source of that now. Telzath picked up the bowl and held another spoonful to Grim's lips. Annoyed that he was not trusted to feed himself, Grim considered refusing the spoonful, but soon realized that would only keep him in bed longer.

After he swallowed the broth, he said, "If you knew how old I was, you would not call me young. And if you knew my story, you would not think me mortal."

"We are as young as we act; as young and as foolish," Telzath countered, his eyes narrowing. "And, whether you like it or not, you are definitely mortal. I have been here for a full day, watching over you, hoping you would not die before I had the opportunity to thank you properly. I assure you, whatever you have survived, you are not immortal."

For a moment, Grim felt as if he was being chastised by his father. He opened his mouth to protest, annoyed that someone over seven hundred years younger than him would dare to think of him that way. But he then realized there was no condescension in Telzath's tone, only the admonition of a healer to his patient. Concern guided every word, not ego.

Grim finished the broth without saying another word. When he was done, he was able to force the rest of the poison from his body. He still felt weak, and his missing leg still gave him pause, but he knew he would be able to repair that in time. As he considered Telzath, he realized the Elrok Chief was more than happy to give him the time he needed.

Days passed, and Grim received care as if he was a man of great importance. His simple meals became more elaborate each time, and Grim was grateful when Telzath stopped feeding him directly. They shared stories of triumph and pain, laughed together, and even cried together. Grim could not remember the last time he had done either of those with any degree of sincerity, but Telzath had a way of putting him at ease.

As Grim learned to walk with a crutch, it was Telzath who stood by his side and kept him from falling. He did not trust Grim's recovery to anyone else, despite the many offers made by those who thought their chief could be doing other things. Telzath waved them all away and ordered them to stop asking. Eventually, there were no more offers to help.

In the ensuing months, Grim was able to re-grow his leg, though it took some time to relearn how to use it. Again, Telzath was there for every step of the process. Guiding and supporting, but never preventing Grim from doing things on his own. Instead, he encouraged him to stretch and attain new goals in his recovery.

They would often hike in the surrounding territory, with Telzath leading Grim to a hundred dazzling mountain views. It was on one such journey that they shared their first kiss under a beautiful sunset, and made love for the first time that night without any trepidation. For the first time since Grim had held Prism in his arms, the world was beginning to make sense again.

Their love only grew from there, giving foundation to Grim and depth to Telzath. Both gained what they had needed, and the bond between them became as strong as any either had shared with others before. At first, the clans rejected the idea of Telzath marrying a non-Elrok, but Telzath was known for the unconventional and would stop at nothing to have Grim for his husband.

Telzath's children were the first to accept Grim, and soon the clans followed suit. Their love was legendary, and a dozen new legends with a hundred variations spread through all the Elrok clans, of Telzath's union with an immortal from an ancient age.

But Grim didn't see it that way. Not anymore. Telzath had changed that, had returned Grim to a perspective that embraced life as a temporary and transient thing. He learned to love every moment, to dance once again to a rhythm other than death.

For the first time since the demons had invaded the world, Grim gave no thought to the Vhor. He was at peace.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

 

"Why did you stop?" Naxthul asked. "I was enjoying hearing about your period of happiness. It's a refreshing change from all the darkness you went through."

Grim sighed and turned away, repressing the urge to pace. "It's a painful thing to think about. It was still so recent, and I still feel the loss of Telzath so strongly. When he died…" Grim shook his head. "There is a reason I believe in ghosts, Naxthul. They come to us in memory, in tradition, and in the stories of those who went before us and who intermingled with our own stories. Telzath may not be the only ghost in my past, but he is the one most recently dead, who haunts me every day."

"What of Prism?" Naxthul asked.

Grim considered that for a moment, his eyes growing distant. "In a way, Prism's ghost was put to rest the moment I lost that leg. I had carried around a link to him, however futile it was, for all those centuries. That was the leg that bore the mark connecting us, and suddenly it was gone. Seeing Prism again was… jarring, and though I recognized his ghost—no matter what flesh he wore, he was a ghost to me then—he felt out of place."

"I believe it is always that way with ghosts," Naxthul replied.

"The ghosts you don't believe in?" Grim asked, giving Naxthul a sidelong glance.

Naxthul shrugged. "I'm using your terminology. You referred to memories as ghosts, specifically the memories of people. You could let those memories haunt you forever, and indeed I have let the same happen to me in the past, but the moment you confront someone who you thought was lost, you realize it's different. They are different, you are different, and you realize the ghost is just a fragment of the past still lingering."

"I don't want to forget those I loved," Grim said, surprised at the vulnerable admission escaping his lips. Tears welled in his eyes, but he could not look away as he met Naxthul's gaze. "I don't want to forget them. Their ghosts have kept me going all this time. Please tell me I won't lose them."

Naxthul left the control panel and rose to meet Grim. To both their surprise, Naxthul wrapped his arms around Grim and held him tightly. He could not cry, but Grim could somehow feel the emotion in the gesture. Against everything in his nature, Grim let go of the emotions he was holding and wept into Naxthul's shoulder.

When they parted, Grim didn't know what to do with himself. His greatest enemy had shown him compassion in his time of need. Had he truly been so wrong about all of this?

Naxthul returned to the control panel, not bothering to comment further on the situation. Grim was grateful for a reprieve in this confusing moment and stood awkwardly fidgeting several feet away. What was the world coming to, that Grim should suddenly feel uncertain about killing a demon?

 

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