Cynical Faith

by Cynus

Chapter 18

From the moment I was born, I was free, but not every freedom I enjoyed was an advantage. I was free from the expectations of my mother and father, as neither could raise me. Many times I have observed that parents often wish their children to live lives which closely match their own while somehow avoiding their mistakes. I did not have such pressures upon me, nor did I gain the benefit of their wisdom and experience.

My aunt took on the role of my parent, but her expectations were of a different sort. She did not expect me to become anything other than myself, and she believed in my ability to do so. It was only when I gave up on my greatest passion that she and I clashed over the path my life would take. She had always been a great believer in the power of the individual. In the Shade, a person could only rely fully on themselves, no matter how much temporary support they had from others.

I only learned half the lesson from her, because I thought I craved the freedom above everything. From my perspective, my home became a prison of thought; the arguments between us became like chains struggling to contain my will. I left, unwilling to listen to any thoughts other than my own, for hadn't that been the point of my education?

My time in solitude in the upper reaches of the Shade gave me the greatest physical freedom I had ever enjoyed, but my mental prison only grew more confining the longer I stayed away from others. I had lost a deeper perspective Madame Godani had tried to teach me. No matter how temporary the connections with others may be, individuals benefited from the guild as much as the guild benefited from the individuals within it.

When I was captured, I was forced to rely on others despite my misgivings. I found strength and honor amongst the gladiators, who welcomed me into captivity by giving me the tools I needed to survive. But I had to play my part, to pull my weight just as they did, if I expected to be counted among their number.

I fought and nearly died, and good men died saving me. Prism and Grim worked together to pull me from the brink of death, and I found myself in another cell. To my surprise, when I begged for freedom, my jailer let me go.

I had every intention of running, of returning to the solitary confinement of my voluntary isolation from society. But Prism gave me a choice, to take a different path, and my decision changed the course of history. Not just my history was changed, but that of the entire world. Though my role was small, though every step of the way was filled with fear, I became a small but important cog in a vast and complex machine.

And I became better for it. Many of the new friends I made along the way died before the end of the Trial, but however temporary my association with them, each contributed to my survival. We accomplished great things by working together, individuals who chose singularly to combine their will toward a greater cause.

Every moment provides a choice. Some are frightening, confining, or liberating. The power for great change of yourself and the world lies in facing these choices with the courage to step outside yourself. We are all bound to the cycle of life and death; trust others to understand your fear of that cycle and guide you to the freedom beyond it.

We have all been there before, and we will all be there again. Join us, and let us join with you. We will find the answers together, if we choose to seek them.

~Styx Godani

Prism followed Janlynd down the forest path as Ghayle had directed him to do. She had been tightlipped about what they would find at the end of the trail, and had excused herself to handle another matter. Given the events of the past few hours, Prism had his theories about Ghayle's departure.

Likely, she had gone to greet Grim. They all had borne witness to Grim's decision, and the subsequent end of Tagren and Naxthul. But then the image had dissipated, and Ghayle had told them that Janlynd would take them deeper into the dreamworld.

Prism could feel the excitement of the others behind him, though none of them spoke. He wondered if they all had the same thoughts on their minds as he did. If he had to guess, the group was headed to meet the rest of the Chosen, and they would likely find many familiar faces when they arrived.

Sure enough, as they rounded a bend in the forest, Janlynd stepped aside and gestured into an open space. It was a city square, one Prism thought he recognized from a distant memory, but couldn't quite place. Several dozen people were gathered there, talking excitedly amongst themselves.

A wide grin spread across Prism's face as the people turned toward him. He recognized several; indeed, the majority of them really, though some had been more acquaintances than friends when he'd known them. Several, however, had been etched into his memory with great care and diligence, to last through the ages. Master Vinh nodded in approval before biting into an apple. Morga's stony face brightened, and he released a throaty laugh of welcome.

But the most welcome sight among them was a young Gor man with bright eyes and a mischievous grin, who rushed toward Prism with outstretched arms. Prism welcomed Kaeral's embrace like he was returning home, and was grateful to feel his dear friend's warmth once again, even in this world of dreams.

"It has been ages, Prism!" Kaeral said, burying his head in Prism's neck as he struggled to pull him even closer in the embrace. "I thought you'd never arrive!"

"It has been longer for you than it has for me," Prism replied, "but I am no less happy to see you because of it. I've missed you, my dear friend. Is Marhys here yet?"

"Marhys?" Kaeral asked with surprise, pulling away to look Prism in the eye. "What do you mean? What do you know, Prism?"

Prism chuckled softly and said, "A bit too much, and not nearly enough to keep me out of trouble. I suspect we'll be seeing her, though. She's been keeping your family safe, same as always."

"Sounds like we have a lot of stories to tell," Kaeral said, his wide grin never faltering. "And from what Ghayle has told us, there will be plenty of time to tell them."

Prism nodded in agreement and glanced around, wondering if he'd see Morga or Vinh approaching, but both seemed content to wait their turns. Veil and Neredos had already begun mingling with the others, greeting some of their old friends with smiles and laughter. Even Dogo and Telzath, who knew none of these people, had moved into the crowd together and were introducing themselves.

"I feel like I know this place," Prism said.

"You should," Kaeral replied. "Since Janlynd was the first one to arrive here all those centuries ago, she's the one who set the gathering place. It's the grand square in Kobinaru, or at least it was."

"The only times I ever visited the grand square, I was either running from soldiers or hiding from the rain with you," Prism said, chuckling. "But it's good to be in a familiar place with familiar people, though I haven't minded the company I've kept recently."

"Come on, let's go catch up with some of the others. It'll be nice to have someone else around for Vinhkroludar to pick on," Kaeral said, turning so he could slide his arm around Prism's shoulder and guide him forward.

Prism grinned and let Kaeral lead him. It was good to be in the company of so many friends again, and it filled him with hope for the task ahead. Each of the people in this place had been a hero once, who'd chosen to fight the great fight for the sake of the world.

He stopped for a moment, amused by the thought. It was not Ghayle who had decided they belonged here, but their own decisions, made at a time when decisive action was required. If these were the Chosen, they had chosen themselves for this task long before it was offered to them.

There were none better to guide the world than those assembled here, and Prism now knew it in his heart. The day might come when he would feel otherwise, but it was not today. Today, the world would see the dawning of a new age.

Bright light surrounded Grim on all sides, as if he floated in a sea of white. Ahead of him, the light split in two, as if a great curtain had been parted. He stepped through the crack and found himself in the middle of a beautiful garden.

Something was strange about this place, as if it was slightly insubstantial. It reminded him of how it had felt to touch the projected image in the Temple of Naxthul, though there seemed no edge to this simulation, if indeed it was one.

The bright light behind him disappeared as the rift closed, and he was left in this perplexing place without any idea how or why he had arrived. A single trail led away from the garden, into a lightly shadowed forest. He heard voices coming from farther down the path, and he headed toward them, in search of answers.

He walked for what felt like hours. Though the forest was not thick at all, he couldn't seem to catch up to the voices or even catch a glimpse of whom they belonged to. The path twisted back at significant angles several times, yet somehow it never intersected itself. He was constantly moving forward at least, but to where?

After a while, he decided to stop walking forward and wait for some other sign of what to do. This was not what he had expected to find after killing Naxthul and ending the Trial. If this was the afterlife, it matched no description he had ever heard in any religious text, and he had studied many over the course of his life. This felt more like a dream, although a particularly lucid one.

He decided to treat it as such and altered his perspective. If this was a dream, and he the dreamer, then it was within his capability to control it if he exerted enough will. Eager to find the voices which had led him through the woods, he closed his eyes and focused, trying to draw himself closer to them.

When he opened his eyes again, he stood in a small clearing, two women sitting ahead of him. One Grim recognized outright; Gayle, her presence as strong as ever, glanced his way and nodded in greeting. She embraced the woman at her side and whispered something to her before they parted.

The other woman was familiar, but only in the way that her face resembled that of others Grim had known. He could see some of Kirra in her features, but far more of Kaeral's son Villar. She was an Elrhanadan for sure, but her exact identity remained a mystery. Briefly looking Grim's way, she smiled politely at him then rose from her position and departed down another path.

"Welcome to the world of dreams, Grimfaeth," Gayle said, rising gracefully. "I trust you have many questions, and I will do my best to answer all of them."

"Who was that just now?" Grim asked.

"That's right, you never met her when she wore that form," Ghayle replied with a soft laugh. "That was Marhys Elrhanadan, who arrived here mere seconds before you. I guided her, but allowed you to find your own way. You'll need to have an understanding of this place, as you will be spending much of your time here."

"Is this where you lived when you were not walking among us?" Grim asked. He looked around the clearing, still feeling the insubstantiality of it, though the effect had dulled somewhat as he'd grown accustomed to it. "It is a strange place."

"You have been here many times before, as have all those who dream," Ghayle replied. "Its inhabitants and locations shift constantly, though the former far more often than the latter. It is a world which resides beside the other, and reachable only by altered consciousness. You, by accepting the responsibility of guiding the world, have permanently altered your consciousness to allow you free access."

Grim nodded slowly as he processed the information. Despite the strangeness of the place, he did not mind it. In some ways, he was certain he could explore creation here. It would serve to teach him many things, if he opened his mind to it.

"How do you feel?" Ghayle asked.

"As if I'm about to take a journey I can never return from, but to a place I have always wanted to visit," Grim replied. "I apologize for being cryptic, as I'm sure you would prefer a straight answer, but it is all still new and overwhelming."

"Emotion is difficult to define when we are not under pressure. I can hardly expect you to describe your feelings in only a few simple words," Ghayle said gently. "As much as we like to give names to the things we feel, those names are never complex enough to adequately describe the truth. What is the nature of love? It means a different thing to you than it does to me, and the same can be said of happiness, sadness, anger, or even fear. But I know how I feel when I'm about to begin a journey, even one I have been waiting for, and I'm feeling much the same thing."

"I'm certain Tagren is very excited to see you," Grim said.

Ghayle chuckled at that. "It has been centuries since I've held him. Hopefully it will be many more centuries before he and I part ways again."

"Do you believe there is an end to the afterlife?" Grim asked with surprise.

"I do not believe there is an end to existence, if that's what you ask," Ghayle said. "But I do believe that change is unavoidable, and an inherent quality of that existence. I do not know what lies beyond the gate, but I'm certain it will change me in ways I cannot yet understand."

"Such is the nature of journeys," Grim said.

"Indeed," Ghayle replied. "Sit with me a while and let me tell you of the world I know. I will prepare you for the journey as well as I can, though you will walk the path without me and find your own way."

Grim bowed his head in acceptance of Ghayle's invitation, and together they spoke of change and balance. She imparted her eons of wisdom and knowledge, and gave him what she could of the knowledge from ages before her. They spoke for days, but time became irrelevant as Grim's understanding grew. When the conversation ended, he was ready to take the final step.

"Thank you for your service, your guidance, and your wisdom," Grim said, once Ghayle had finished. Her eyes were tired, though still she lingered to be sure he would be all right without her. But it was time to let her go. "I do not know that I will make the same choices you did, but I will remember the ones you made, and allow them to guide me."

"I hope you do not make the same choices," Ghayle said, patting Grim's arm. "Though we may be condemned to repeat history, the paths we take to arrive at our destinations are always different. If you made the same choices, we might not progress at all. I gave you my wisdom not so that you may become me, but so that you may do better than me. When the same problems arise in the world, try a new approach. It might have the same result, or it might not. Either way, I trust that the world is in good hands. Not only yours, but those who await you deeper in this forest."

"Would you like to see them before you go?" Grim asked, sensing Ghayle's impending departure.

She shook her head, though she glanced toward the path Marhys had taken not all that long ago, and a wave of uncertainty passed over Ghayle's features. When she returned her eyes to Grim's, they were wet and full of so many emotions Grim couldn't possibly decipher them all.

"You know, that request… the one you asked of Naxthul?" She said, her voice breaking with a sob. "You asked him to tell you that you'd never forget. Well, you might lose a detail or two, maybe even forget a face or a name, but when you reach the threshold and look back… so much comes back to you, you almost wonder if you really lived it all. Could you have really done so much? Once you stop trying to count it, time seems immeasurable."

Grim closed his eyes and basked in the emotion passing between them, internalizing it; memorizing it. When he opened his eyes again, he smiled at Ghayle and asked, "Will I ever see you again?"

"When the world breaks you asunder, I will return to piece you back together," Ghayle said, placing her hand over Grim's chest. "You are my son, and the generations which follow after you will be my descendants. I will return for your sake and theirs, should there come a time that you have need of it."

"I will miss you then," Grim said, chuckling. "For I will find another way."

"Take care of my children, Grimfaeth," Ghayle said. "Help them realize their potential."

Grim nodded, then pulled Ghayle into an embrace. "Are you ready?" He asked.

"Yes," came Ghayle's simple reply. Then she was gone, transported by her own will to the other side of the gate, and the great mystery which awaited her.

Grim felt the transfer of awareness immediately, starting as a trickle but quickly becoming a great flood. He felt the rocks, the water, the trees and the grass. The small things living in the harshest places came next, then all the simple organisms living in their complex webs branched out in seemingly infinite layers as they connected with each other. The world came alive in Grim's mind, and he breathed in time with the mighty storms which traveled the skies.

As the sensation finally equalized, he rose on legs that felt as heavy as mountains and left to join the others.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Chosen sensed Grim's awakening as soon as it occurred, as each one felt his presence in their minds. He knew each of them now, as intimately as they knew themselves. Uncertain looks passed between those assembled in the world of dreams; they had expected this, but what would happen now?

Prism did not share their concern, and certainly not for having Grim present in his mind. It was a familiar sensation, though one he had not felt in quite some time. It was not unlike the bond they had shared during most of their years together, and it brought him a welcome sense of peace.

It also signaled Grim's imminent arrival, and Prism was the first to approach the trailhead from which Grim would soon emerge to meet them. The others gathered behind him, even those who had not been told were somehow able to intuit that Prism was First among them.

Telzath stood just behind Prism, and he laid one of his huge hands on Prism's shoulder to offer a gentle reminder of his support. Prism was grateful for the love shared between them; it was familial and comforting, and a reminder that they were all in this together.

Grim stepped from the trees, his gaze sweeping over all assembled, before settling on Prism. Though he spoke to them all, his eyes never left Prism's face.

"It is good to see you here, and I know some of you still feel unprepared for the task ahead, but know that I'm with you and will guide you when you feel inadequate," Grim said, his tone peaceful, and his expression soft.

"The future is uncertain, but it is not our task to know it, only to prepare the world for the challenges it may face," he continued. "Together, we will learn from the past to guide the present. We are not gods, or even higher beings than those we are here to protect. They are us, and we are them. The beginning of our task is simple; learn from each other. Better ourselves, so that we can help others. This is my first directive. You may now begin."

The Chosen offered no argument, as there was none to give. They sensed Grim's intentions in their mind, and they had come here to follow his guidance. It was Prism who took the lead from Grim's directive, for Ghayle had already shown him how to guide memory in this place.

He approached Grim and embraced him, feeling great love between them. Then he turned to face the others and said, "I was born in a place called the Dorram, in the nation of Ultaka. My mother did the best she could to give me a life, but sometimes, things don't work out as planned…"

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