I had not thought to ever be reunited with my loved ones. A choice I made when I was still a young woman, sick and frail but full of spiritual devotion, seemed to put me on a different path. I left behind my husband and child and traveled into the wilderness, to seek some clarity for a world I did not understand.
There were expectations of me in the world, not from Kaeral, though he had the greatest grounds to expect me to take a different course. The expectations came from those who did not understand why a woman would abandon her family in the last days of her life. They did not understand that sometimes we cannot control what drives us forward.
My mother, who was also sick and frail at the time, greeted me in that wilderness. I walked amongst those I had considered gods and felt as if I had come home. I had gained meaning to a life which had often been devoid of it. They granted me shelter and gave me an opportunity to return to my family in a way I had not expected.
Sometimes, it is important to leave home in order to understand what home means. To venture into the wilderness is to commune with the gods, and to gain clarity from the natural forces. Had I not sought out Ghayle, I would've never become the guardian spirit to my bloodline. I would not have learned what it means to have purpose.
If you cannot see the point, climb the mountain. You will gain a different view.
"Good news!" Naxthul said, pulling away from the control panel. "I finally have the new power cell installed, and the archive should be working as soon as it receives a charge."
Grim nodded, unsure of what to say. He still hadn't spoken since his moment of vulnerability with Naxthul, when the demon had comforted him. A crack had begun to form in his normally solid resolve, and he wished for anything to distract him from the thoughts going through his mind.
Naxthul closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, a smile crossing his lips. "I have even better news, actually… It seems the demons have been defeated. Tagren and I are now the only ones left, but soon that will change too, won't it?" He chuckled softly and then met Grim's gaze. Startled at what he saw in Grim's eyes, he added, "Grim, you don't seem nearly as happy as I would expect."
Shaking his head, Grim looked away, unable to see the genuine emotion in Naxthul's eyes. "I didn't expect to feel this way, either."
"Are you having second thoughts?" Naxthul asked. "Because I assure you, I do want this to end as much as you do. Death would be a welcome release for me now."
Grim sighed, then turned to face Naxthul. "What happens to me after this is over?" He asked.
Naxthul smiled warmly and said, "You replace Ghayle, and the world goes on spinning. You guide the world as best as you can without doing the work for them, and you hope they do better than your generation did. Did you not have similar hopes for your children?"
"But…" Grim began, but his feelings were not organized enough for him to formulate his protest. He had worked so long towards the end, that he had not fully considered what would happen after it.
"We still have some time before the archive activates," Naxthul said. "I'm still curious about one thing from your past. You said you found a home with Telzath, and he made you forget about your obsession for a while. Why did you come back? And why did it take you this long to confront me when you knew exactly where I was?"
The question was both difficult to answer, and yet the easiest thing in the world. Grim knew the reason, but describing it to someone else was a different matter entirely. Nevertheless, if there was anyone who was going to understand the motivations for difficult decisions, it was Naxthul.
"When Telzath died…" Grim started, a lump forming in his throat. He forced it down and began again. "When Telzath died, I did not know what else to do. As his husband, by right of Elrok tradition, I became chief of the Clan of Lions, and therefore all the united clans. All my life, I've taken secondary positions of leadership, but I have never been the primary leader of a group of people. I was not the heir to my father's duchy, and I never commanded troops during the Demon War. I worked under Wayar, Veil, Neredos… Odiran called the shots when we pursued the Vhor, and it was Nages who oversaw the archive I protected. I may have helped start a cultural movement, but I took the first opportunity to abandon it and hunt down the last of your kind. I lived alongside Telzath at the height of Elrok society, but I never made any of the hard decisions that came with ruling."
"So you were looking for an escape from all that responsibility?" Naxthul asked.
Grim shook his head, not in disagreement but in uncertainty. "That is part of it, yes, but not all of it. It's not a fear of responsibility that motivated me, but the lack of worthiness. I am an evil being, who has committed great atrocities, all because of some misguided perception of what is the greater good. I know this in my heart, Naxthul. It is an eternal truth, one I cannot escape. When I use the power available to me to attempt to change the world, I destroy so much in the process…" He trailed off, knowing he was rambling and needing the time to organize his thoughts.
Naxthul placed a comforting hand on Grim's shoulder. "I understand. That you consider yourself evil is interesting, as I know few who would consider you that way. Though perhaps the leader of the demon army is not the right person to be telling you that."
"They don't know the truth," Grim replied. "They do not know the weight of my sins."
"Sin is a burden we give ourselves, and others cannot decide it for us. The weight of the world rests upon your shoulders because you choose to bear it, not because anyone else has placed it upon you," Naxthul said.
Glancing sharply at Naxthul, Grim replied, "And yet it is you who has determined that I will replace Ghayle? There seems to be a hole in your argument."
Naxthul shook his head solemnly and said, "No. Your choices are what led you here. You determined this course ages ago, and continued it until you arrived here, questioning the universe and your role in it, and willingly carrying the weight you say you do not want. I believe you are the best choice to become the next Guardian of this world, but it is not a compulsion. I will find someone else, or if Tagren and I both die before then, Ghayle will be forced to choose, only because no one else can. I want it to be you, for I've met no one else who understands the nature of the problem to the depth that you do."
"I don't want it," Grim said.
"You didn't want to hunt the Vhor down for eight hundred years either. You didn't want to fight in the Demon War. You didn't want to kill the man who held your lover's life in his hands," Naxthul said. "And yet you did it anyway. You did it because you believed it was necessary, though you never stopped hoping for a world in which it would not be necessary."
"But why is it necessary?" Grim asked.
Naxthul sighed, but nodded in understanding. "That has always been the question, Grim. When the time comes for you to call the Trial, you will question the morality of that decision with every breath, but slowly you will come to see how it can be justified. The world would've died if we had not cured it of the cancer which threatened it. I knew it when my time came. Ghayle knew it, as did my predecessor and all the guardians before him."
"What if I find another way?" Grim asked.
"Then you will be the fortunate one," Naxthul replied with a smile. "I know two truths about you. You are the most tenacious soul I've ever met. If there's a way to save the world without the Trial, you'll find it, and you'll exhaust every possibility you can imagine. But, I also know you're a man who faces undeniable truths and accepts them. If it came time to choose that final option, you would climb that mountain just as Ghayle did."
Grim shook his head. "I will find another way. This cannot be the only answer."
"Grim…" Naxthul said softly, "that's precisely why I believe you must be the one. I'm not trying to discourage you, I'm only telling you why we did what we did, to show you that we'd exhausted every option we saw. I hope you find another way. I hope you're the last Guardian this world needs, the one who finally makes his children understand the need to care for this world once and for all."
"My children…" Grim said. "I suppose they would become like that to me, wouldn't they?"
"Lead them. Guide them. Do everything you can, and hope that they make better choices in the generations before them," Naxthul replied. "That is the only thing a parent can do. You cannot choose for them, you can only provide them with the tools to build a better life for themselves than you had."
"I felt closer to Telzath's children than I did to my own," Grim said. "There was love in our family, which I did not feel when I lived with Talane. Oh, I wanted my children to succeed, do not misunderstand…" He paused, as if daring Naxthul to challenge the claim, then continued. "But I had never wanted that life. I wanted to settle down with someone I loved; at first, that was Prism, and once I lost him I didn't know what to do with myself. When I gained that life with Telzath, I thought my life would be complete."
"And then instead of growing old together, Telzath grew old and you did not, and you were left wondering what the point was of all that time you spent building something that was destined to die," Naxthul said.
"I couldn't live in that place anymore," Grim replied. "Seeing his children, being around his people… It was a new level of pain unlike anything I had experienced before, short of the delirium I felt upon losing Prism."
"And so you returned to where you felt safe, which was hunting me," Naxthul said.
"And as long as you were alive, I still had a purpose," Grim explained. "So I sat in that cell with those gladiators for years. I made myself useful, telling myself I was simply waiting for you to unveil your master plan. Then I would disrupt it and finish this once and for all."
Naxthul chuckled. "And instead of that, you allowed me to lead Salidar to disaster. It truly is a pity that he died. I wonder what would've happened had we not freed Prism?"
"Did you know he was in that pillar?" Grim asked.
"Do you think I would have freed him, if that were the case?" Naxthul asked with a wry smile.
"Likely not," Grim replied.
Naxthul gave Grim's shoulder a gentle squeeze, then changed the subject. "The Trial has come to an end, and the decision must be made. You have a bit of time yet, but don't hold out on me for too long, please?"
"Let me see what you have to show me, and then I will give you my answer," Grim said.
"A reasonable request, and one I'm happy to support," Naxthul said. "Soon, you'll have all the answers I'm able to give you. I hope it will be enough to convince you."
"Telzath…" Prism said, still stunned from what he had witnessed. He was beginning to grow dizzy from switching between watching the battle unfold, and following the discussion between Naxthul and Grim. But there was one thing he needed to say, before he forgot about it. "Thank you for taking care of him. Thank you for being there for him."
Telzath wrapped Prism in a tight embrace and said, "Had you not saved him from the darkness of his childhood, I would not have been able to save him later. It is I who should be thanking you, for helping Grim find reason to live when the world was at its darkest."
"I agree with that," Veil said, extending her arms as if asking to join the embrace. Prism nodded, and she encircled as much of him and Telzath as she could as she continued. "Thank you both for being there for my brother, when I could not."
"Not to intrude on such a somber moment, but what happens now?" Neredos asked. "If the battle is over, doesn't that mean it's time for us to assume our duties, and for you to move on, Ghayle?"
"Are you in a particular rush to get rid of me, Neredos?" Ghayle replied, but her smile showed the lighthearted nature of that statement. She was relieved, and a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
"I'm only trying to gain my bearings," Neredos said. "I don't know if there's something we're supposed to do, which I may have missed the explanation for."
"I'm sure she'll explain to us, as soon as the dust has settled," Dogo said. "Look at her. She needs time to collect herself. You may have been doing this for eight hundred years, and me significantly less than that, but I can recognize the look of someone who has finished a seemingly impossible task. I think she's been looking forward to this for millennia."
"Right you are, Dogo," Ghayle said. "And yes, I only need a moment to take this in. Besides, there are still two demons left, and the Trial does not end until both of them have passed beyond the veil."
Janlynd approached Prism, Telzath, and Veil, taking each of them in with a smile. "I think it's time we all took a little break, considering what we've been through, and considering what's to come. Regardless of what Ghayle has in store for us now, something tells me we're about to be very busy."
Prism nodded and smiled back, placing a hand on Janlynd's arm in thanks. He looked past her and noticed the stones surrounding them as if for the first time. He'd taken them in before, noting the different symbols which adorned them, but he had not considered their true significance.
"Telzath, is this the place where Grim confronted that Vhor and lost his leg?" he asked.
"Yes, or rather the representation of the place here in the dream world," Telzath replied. "This is an ancient site of my people, predating even our oral history. We are not even certain that we built it, or if we simply found it and made it our own. Our clans were formed from these stones; each one given the name based upon the animals depicted here."
Ghayle nodded solemnly. "This place is older than my knowledge as well. Perhaps Naxthul has some knowledge of who built it, though I do not know. There are many sites buried in the past, many of which have lost their meaning to anyone still living."
"Had I known the significance of the Temple of Naxthul when I discovered it, I don't know how that would change my perception of it," Dogo said. "Knowing it as a mysterious ruin gave it a different kind of weight, a spiritual significance left open to my own interpretation. Just as the Elrok clans made use of these stones, building upon an ancient past to forge their future."
"How long do you think it will be before the peoples of the world forget what happened here?" Neredos interjected. "Even in this age, and despite the constant reminders of the Everbright City and the pillars that kept the demons imprisoned within Pentalus, people forgot the reality of the demons."
"Despite the great cataclysm, which once destroyed most of the world when the Sendar ushered in the Trial of my youth, it was considered but a myth spoken of by Elroks and the Gor in the age you came from, Neredos," Ghayle replied. "People always forget eventually. The further you move away from history, the easier it is to repeat it. If all things happen in cycles, then the furthest away you can become from one event is the moment you start turning back toward it."
"Then I was even more wrong than I thought," Neredos said. "Remembering what happened would've been better. I hope my mistake will not lead us back toward disaster anytime soon."
Veil chuckled at that. "I believe that's what we're here for. We know what it takes to fight for the world, and we know the mistakes of the past. Now it's up to us to make sure the world knows it too."
"But how do we do that?" Prism asked. "We cannot give them the answers directly. To do so violates the conditions of the Trial, as I understand it. People must be allowed to learn for themselves, for if we told them the truth, would they even understand it? Would they accept it? People do not want to believe that they are wrong, often even when they are proven so."
"Good, good," Ghayle said. "You are all asking good questions and validating my decision in choosing all of you. I believe you are a good match for the task ahead, and perhaps, even as Naxthul said to Grim, perhaps you will be the fortunate ones who find a different way. Perhaps the Trials end here, and the world can finally know peace until it knows death."
"Until it knows death?" Prism asked.
Ghayle nodded. "Eventually, the sun will set for a final time, for nothing is immortal. All lives will eventually end, even this world's life."
"Then what is all this for?" Prism asked, sharing a concerned look with all the others.
"For now, and for later, until one becomes the other, and we know the truth beyond it all," Ghayle replied. "If that sounds cryptic, it's because it is. We cannot know what lies beyond our senses, until our senses reach beyond their current limits. The same is true with life and death, with change and purpose… what is it all for? It's for you, for me, for all of us. An unending search for truth and understanding in a limitless existence."
"I don't know that I'm prepared for that," Neredos admitted. "I lived for over eight hundred years and it drove me mad. Continual existence sounds exhausting."
"I'm afraid you don't have a choice," Ghayle said.
"Because you chose for us?" Veil asked.
"No, it is not because you are Chosen, it is because that is the nature of reality," Ghayle replied. "I do not know how much of consciousness is retained after we die, if any. Naxthul, Khalis, and the others came back from beyond, seemingly the same as I remembered them, but I do not know what form they took when they arrived on the other side of the gate. Yet I know that the matter that makes up our body is preserved; it changes, becomes one with the environment, but it persists, nonetheless."
"I believe all of us are eternal, in some respect or another," Ghayle continued, meeting the eyes of each of them in turn. "Perhaps we are merely ghosts of memory, ripples of action like Grim described. Or perhaps we remain thinking beings, capable of exploring into endless horizons. Perhaps we are recycled, our spirits returning into the animals, into new forms and incarnations. Regardless, we persist, in some way or another. You don't have a choice; the future takes you as you are and changes you with every step it takes."
"So what happens now?" Neredos asked again. "Where is the future taking us?"
Ghayle laughed, the melodious sound full of release and true exultation. "I suppose I've had enough time to take it in, and I'll answer the question as well as I can." She nodded to herself, inhaled deeply, and explained, "First, there are many decisions which have to be made. The most pertinent being the one that belongs to Grim. He must decide if he is willing to wear the mantle, though Naxthul and I both believe that the path has already chosen him. It is unlikely he will deny it, despite whatever misgivings he has voiced."
Prism and Telzath shared a look before the former said, "I agree with that assessment. Grim will choose whatever option he believes is best for the world, and I doubt he'll see much good in any of the other options available."
"Yes, that is my reasoning as well," Ghayle replied. "But there are other important decisions to be made as well, and those are completely outside our direct sphere of influence. The aftermath of the Trial is the most crucial point for the peoples of the world. They must decide what they will do now that the demons have been vanquished. This was the step which Neredos interrupted by choosing to imprison the demons instead. He and Veil decided for the world, by creating a situation where the peoples of the world could accept no other path but to follow them."
"And what do you think will happen?" Prism asked.
Ghayle shrugged helplessly and said, "We can only wait and see. After that, you can decide how you wish to guide them."
"What tools do we have available for that?" Neredos asked. "If we cannot interfere directly, what else is there?"
"Dreams," Telzath interjected, gesturing around the clearing. "Visions. Impressions on the mind, and mirages on the wind. We speak as gods have always spoken, through the natural forces and the secret whisperings of the soul."
"Won't that leave too much to interpretation?" Veil asked. "How will they be able to make the right decision if they don't understand?"
Prism smiled, for in his mind he pictured an apple tree on a distant hill, and remembered the many lessons he had learned under its shade. "It's always a matter of interpretation, Veil. No matter how precise the data, there is always more to learn. It is more important to teach a person how to think than what to think."
"And that," Ghayle said, smiling fondly at Prism, "is what happens next."
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