Cynical Faith

Chapter 17

During my youth, I received an extensive education in a wide variety of subjects. My father believed it was important to expose me to many different disciplines, to prepare me for the tasks I would face later in life. He had anticipated being there for much longer, to guide me and help me unlock my potential, but unfortunately that was not the case.

Still, he introduced me to magic. He taught me about respect, and the integrity required of a king. I was forced to fill his shoes at an early age, but it was his preparation which allowed me to accomplish this. More so, it filled me with a desire to understand the world in which I lived, so that I could turn it to my advantage.

My father wished for a level of control over his surroundings which I did not share, though I understand the legacy that generated his perspective. Had I not sought out some education on my own, from sources other than my father, perhaps I would've gained this trait as well.

It was Styx who first opened my eyes to a perspective other than my father's. Pure infatuation guided that education, but it opened the door to greater truths nonetheless. Freeing him when he was at my mercy was my first honest step toward becoming my true self.

Grim taught me how to be a Fedain, and that my need to respect life was an inherent trait of my nature. Freeing him happened the moment I decided I would never turn against my true self again, no matter what my father's vision for me was.

Throughout my life, I have been accused of being too trusting of outsiders. Whether those were outside my social class, my belief system, or an enemy who had once tried to kill me, each has surprised me with new knowledge, and greater perspective. Seeing the world through the eyes of another person or culture has only enlightened my own understanding.

Trust in your nature, but trust also in your ability to rediscover yourself through outside perspectives.

       ~Maxthane thulu'Khant

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Something pricked the hairs on Grim's skin, like an electric field being activated somewhere nearby. It had been a long time since he had felt something of that nature, as he had long grown accustomed to the lack of any technology capable of producing such a sensation. It made him slightly uncomfortable, yet nostalgic for the world of his youth.

"I think it must be charged now," Grim said, raising his arm and showing the hairs standing up. "I can feel the energy in the air."

With a grin, Naxthul clapped Grim on the arm and gestured towards the center of the room. As Grim turned toward the pedestals, he noticed that each of the crystals were beginning to glow with a very soft light.

"Hopefully, there won't be any more problems, and we can get to the good part," Naxthul said.

Grim nodded, waiting for Naxthul to explain the next step. Instead of saying anything, Naxthul simply approach one of the pedestals and placed his hand against the side. The glow of the crystals intensified, though it was directed to the center space between the four pedestals.

What mechanism directed the light, Grim could not understand; it was some technology beyond anything he had ever seen or experienced. The light emitted from the crystals bent at impossible angles, converging in the space between to create a three-dimensional image of a vast sea of stars.

"Is this one of the star charts the Sendar are famous for?" Grim asked. He approached the image, awestruck by the beauty of it. It was almost as if he were staring into the night sky. No, as if he was floating beside it. He reached out to touch the image, and it distorted only slightly, breaking the spell.

"There are images which you can step inside, but this is not one of them," Naxthul said. "I'm not sure there is one in this entire archive, for this place is older than most of the archives destroyed during the Cataclysm, and its technology somewhat simpler."

"This… is simple?" Grim asked, eyes wide with wonder. "This is unlike anything I have ever seen."

"As you know, I was an astronomer. Studying the stars awakened something deep within my soul, a longing to understand the mysteries of the universe," Naxthul said. His voice carried the weight of ages, as if, like the light of the stars in the sky, it had traveled eons to reach this moment. A moment of clarity, small and perfect in an otherwise dark expanse. "When Khalis told his people of my love for the stars, and the ways in which the space beyond our world filled me with wonder, they pursued the subject with intense devotion."

Naxthul touched something on the pillar, and the image spun slowly, offering a panoramic view of nearby space, revealing an unfathomable amount of stars. A large sphere came into view, its sheer magnitude when put against the backdrop of stars allowing it to dominate their presence. Grim gasped as he realized it was the moon, so big and bright that he could see so many details he had never seen before.

"How is this image possible?" Grim asked.

Laughing softly, Naxthul adjusted the image again, and it focused on the moon entirely, magnifying the image and offering even greater detail than before. "I could attempt to dazzle you with science, but that is not the point of this, and you know it. I could spend all day explaining how a telescope like this one worked in its day, but we both know you wouldn't understand it anyway. You're a historian; you've always favored the scientific study of people, not machines. Telling you how this image is possible would do nothing to offer you the meaning you crave."

Grim nodded. "I suppose it is enough for me to know that the image was possible, and that someone thought it important enough to capture it."

"There was a point in my people's history where we longed to visit the moon, and we even accomplished it a few times before our era ended," Naxthul said. "It happened in my childhood and inspired me to explore. Before that, we weren't even sure it was possible. But we looked up at the moon and dreamed, wondering what it would be like to walk upon its surface. I imagine every explorer feels a similar pull toward horizons they have yet to reach. Those who wish to reach beyond the boundaries of their current experience are always searching for the unknown, the impossible."

"It is not just enough to capture the image," Naxthul continued. "One must experience what the image captures. We traveled to the outside so that we can know it intrinsically, but there is something more important than that. There is a perspective unique to the outsider, and that is the ability to look back at where they came from."

The image shifted once again. This time it disappeared entirely, and when it reemerged, a different sphere filled the space between the pedestals. A blue orb, with wisps of white clouds, continents of green and brown, half buried in the dark with lights shining to mark the cities full of people living their lives without any thought for the view from above.

Grim gasped in astonishment, and he walked around the projected image, amazed that he could see all sides of the world at once. As if he were a giant in space, as big as the moon and orbiting the planet at an impossible pace. There was no conceivable way to have taken this image, and yet here it was. It was a marvel to behold, a glimpse at the world which Grim had never dreamed he'd have the chance to see. All the people he had ever loved, known, or even heard of had all lived within the confines of this image.

"How…?" He began, but stopped, knowing Naxthul had already said he wouldn't explain. It didn't matter anyway, for the weight of the image was explanation enough. This was a view of all things past, present, and future of which Grim had ever considered as important.

"It was a composite image, a simultaneous recording from various satellites compiled together to form one experience," Naxthul explained, surprising Grim. "Let that serve as a metaphor as well, for only by viewing an object from all points of view can you gain an understanding of it. To understand the world you come from, you must leave it behind. To understand what the world means, you must experience its totality."

"If the leaders of my people had been able to see this perspective, perhaps they wouldn't have been so eager to fight pointless wars," Grim replied, still mesmerized by the sight before him.

"Perhaps," Naxthul said, "but some view this image and still see the lines they draw upon their maps. Unless you truly view the world as a whole, and forget the fragmentation of nations, races, species… Unless you appreciate the ecosystem, and recognize the necessity of its function for the life of all things which exist within it, you will forever lose the point of all of it. You cannot guide the world without knowing what the world is. It is one thing, comprised of many things, and must be kept whole in order to serve its function."

Grim understood it then. He knew what Naxthul was trying to say, though Grim wanted to deny it. But this perspective would not allow him to. He hated the words, but he had faced the truth and knew it for what it was.

"So in order to protect the whole, sometimes the parts must suffer when they have grown out of balance," Grim said, sighing in resignation. "The Trial is meant to restore that balance, no matter what the cost."

"And, if you are willing to be the one who oversees that balance, you will know the whole of this world on a level you cannot currently fathom," Naxthul replied. "You will know every living thing as if it is an extension of yourself. You will feel the ocean currents tugging on every fish swimming in the waters, the breeze on every blade of grass, and hear the voices of every child crying for love and understanding. You will know them, for they will become your body. You will know when you are sick, and the limits of your ability to heal that sickness."

"And, when you climb that mountain, you will not do it alone, for you will carry the weight of the world with you," a voice said from the entryway, drawing Grim's attention. Grim recognized the man who stood there; he was one of those who had helped him gain entrance to the Pentalus Resistance the day before.

"Tagren," Naxthul said with a wide grin, "why are you still wearing that face? We are among friends here. There's no reason to hide your true self anymore."

The man smiled, and his face shifted to a middle-aged man with graying blonde hair. Tagren approach Naxthul and wrapped him in a tight embrace. As they parted, they held onto each other for a moment, maintaining each other's gaze.

"It is been a long time since we've seen each other in person," Tagren said. "When you reactivated our link, I was grateful to feel your presence again, Naxthul."

"Who are you?" Grim asked.

"None above, two below," Naxthul replied with a light chuckle. "The last of the Vhor are here to receive your judgment, Grimfaeth son of Selfaeth. The last Duke of Ultaka, the former Chief of the Clan of Lions, husband, father, and slayer of demons. You have one more decision to make as a mortal. Will you complete the Trial, or must our search continue?"

The words hung heavy in the air. If Grim squinted hard enough, he was sure he could see them orbiting around the world displayed before him. The thought drew his attention to the planet again, demanding all his focus on the question at hand.

For eight hundred years, he had walked the breadth of that world. He had watched nations dissolve, had witnessed great destruction both natural and manufactured by conscious beings. Death and pain had walked openly beside him, and great love had guided him toward deeper understanding.

Every memory haunting him lived upon the surface of the world he had come to love. Their roots stretched into the bedrock of his soul, and branched out into the sky to grant him the breath of purpose. In some rudimentary way, he had already understood the world the way Naxthul had described it. He'd felt the wind in the grasslands, had been guided by ocean currents as deep as life itself.

This was his home, and it bore the imprint of all his travels. But there was so much more to learn about it, and a million intricate pathways remained to be explored within it. The world held the key to limitless potential, if it simply had the proper guidance to attain it. If it simply had the freedom to grow under the hands of a careful gardener.

"Prism promised me that after the war, we'd settle down in some small corner of the world and live a simple life," Grim said. "Part of me always longed for that simplicity, to escape all the complex decisions which threatened to overwhelm our busy minds."

He paused, circling the image one more time, taking it all in. Nodding to himself, he went on, "But it doesn't get much simpler than this, does it? For all its complexity, it's all a matter of perspective. There is one world; one to balance, to protect, to share, and to live upon. Until we come to understand the simple truth, we will never be able to progress beyond it. The ecosystem thrives when all components work in harmony to maintain it."

Grim turned to face Naxthul, searching one final time for any sign of deception in his eyes. Finding none, Grim made his decision. "I will accept the task you've given me. I will give myself to this world as its guardian, and act as an intermediary between it and the peoples who live upon it. This is the simplest answer of all, and the only path I can take. It is not because I lack a choice, but because I already made up my mind about the kind of life I wished to live, long before I reached this room."

Naxthul closed his eyes, releasing a heavy sigh of relief as Tagren smiled encouragingly. "Grim, for all the headache you've caused me over the years, I am grateful you have not added to it today. You have a lifetime of infinite wonder before you, but it will not be without hardship. I believe you will be equal to the task, that you will face every obstacle with wisdom and ingenuity, just as you have while chasing me all these years."

"He's certainly made an impression on the locals already," Tagren said with a chuckle. "That's worth quite a bit on its own, in my opinion. Few know who you actually are, of course, but that'll keep them from mythologizing you too much. At least for now."

"Is that something I'll have to worry about?" Grim asked, feeling only a sliver of worry at the thought.

"Depends on how much you decide to interfere," Naxthul replied with a shrug. "The more knowledge of your new position that you gain, the more you'll be able to interact with the world. Curiosity about what you can accomplish within the boundaries of your role can get you into trouble, if you appear to the wrong sort of people. How do you think religions form? Gods walking in the flesh, telling them secrets of the universe they aren't ready to understand…" he trailed off, shaking his head ruefully. "You'll make the mistake at least once, despite your best intentions. Your Chosen will probably do it a few times, too."

"But I thought I wasn't allowed to interfere," Grim said slowly.

"You'll find the lines are blurrier than words can adequately depict," Tagren said, sighing heavily. "Why do you think Ghayle was so well-known among the Gor?"

Naxthul groaned at that, earning him a sharp look from Tagren. "It's easy to lose sight of the big picture, if you don't keep it in mind," he said, pointedly ignoring Tagren. "Don't lose yourself to obsession, Grim. Leave it in the past, and you'll do fine. You have a new purpose now, one which requires a constant evaluation of the situation at hand."

"And, you can work with the others to maintain perspective," Tagren offered. "The Chosen will be there to assist you, and your First most of all."

Grim tried to soak it all in, wondering at the responsibility he had just undertaken. Was he truly up to the task, or would he fail as Naxthul and Ghayle had? He shook his head forcefully. This wasn't the time to lose himself to cynicism. He needed to put faith in his ability, and trust in those he'd have to help him.

"And who will teach me what to do?" he asked.

"Much of it, you'll have to learn on your own. It's the only way, really," Naxthul replied with a sigh. "But Ghayle will give you your initial instruction. This will be her final act as guardian, to pass the mantle onto you and make sure you're ready for it."

Grim nodded. He had assumed as much. This was exciting and frightening all at once, but one glance at the image of the world floating next to him reminded him of the importance of it all. This was the right course, no matter what obstacles lay ahead.

"It's time we went on our way then, don't you think?" Tagren said, drawing Grim's attention once again. The words brought a renewed somberness to the room, the weight of the world coming crashing down upon them all.

Naxthul nodded, and placed his arm around Tagren's shoulders. "My friend, I will follow you into the great beyond soon, and Ghayle will follow me before long. Soon we'll all be reunited, and I can show you the mysteries I've uncovered on the other side of the gate."

"I'm sure Khalis will be happy to see you, my dear friend," Tagren said, returning Naxthul's one armed embrace. They held each other for several seconds, until Tagren cleared his throat awkwardly and asked, "How do we do this?"

"I could release you myself, if that is your wish," Naxthul said, his expression showing a complex mix of emotions. "Or, I'm sure Grim would oblige."

Tagren shook his head. "And ask a Fedain to murder me? Even the demon slayer doesn't perform executions without damage to his soul."

"You watched Aika die, didn't you?" Naxthul said, his features softening. The meaning of the question was lost on Grim, but it brought a pained expression to Tagren's face, and he nodded emphatically. "You're right…" Naxthul said, letting out a gentle laugh which rang hollow in Grim's ears, the melodic sound filled with sadness and pain. "Be at peace, my brother."

Naxthul turned to hug Tagren fully, and Tagren closed his eyes to welcome the embrace. His body went rigid as if in pain, but a smile formed on Tagren's lips, nonetheless. A few seconds later, Tagren's body crumbled to dust and ooze at Naxthul's feet.

"It is done," Naxthul whispered, his eyes filled with sorrow. "I wish… I wish I hadn't had to do that."

"You can kill the demons yourself?" Grim asked, then winced as he realized the inappropriate timing of his question.

If Naxthul minded, he didn't show it. He even smiled as he met Grim's eyes again. "Only the other Vhor. They are an extension of me on a more intimate level than the other demons were."

"I see," Grim said, unsure how else to respond.

Naxthul sensed Grim's uncertainty and nodded to himself in understanding. "Are you having second thoughts again?" he asked.

"Not about accepting the responsibility, no," Grim said, glancing at the image of the world again. "But killing you…?"

"You have to," Naxthul replied with a helpless shrug. "It's the last step. It's the end of the cycle, and the beginning of the next. There's only one way to set the balance right, and that's by sending me back to the other side and allowing Ghayle to move on once she's done teaching you."

"I know, but…" Grim shook his head. "I never thought I'd feel guilty about killing you."

"If it helps, I killed your lover," Naxthul replied.

"I was never one for revenge, only justice," Grim said, holding Naxthul's gaze.

"If you can't kill me for you, kill me for the world," Naxthul said, laughing. "That's your job now."

Grim nodded and took a step forward, then hesitated again. "Could I make one last request before you go?"

"What is it?" Naxthul asked.

"Tell me why you hugged me," Grim said.

Naxthul's eyes widened, and he let out a surprised chuckle. "Because you needed it. Because I once stood on the precipice of the unknown, and gazed into an abyss of unfathomable mystery, and feared I might lose myself once I jumped into it. It's best to have an anchor when you contemplate the great sea of black, gravity that holds you close to home and reminds you that the world wants you here. You lose nothing but the past when you step into the future, but that makes it no less frightening."

"Grant me one last anchor then," Grim said, extending his arms wide and inviting Naxthul in, "and I will send you to the other side not as an enemy, but as one who understands."

"We are quite alike, you know," Naxthul said with an amused smile, and he stepped into Grim's embrace.

"Yes, I'm beginning to see that," Grim said, reaching into Naxthul's body and disrupting the life force within it. As Naxthul stiffened in Grim's arms, the world shimmered around them both. "Be at peace, your duty done, demon. I release you from this world."

The room stood empty save for the world, still spinning in the dark.

 

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