Cynical Faith

by Cynus

Chapter 19

Fear of death is among the most common fears in the world. It rests in the hearts of many, and manifests in diverse and subtle ways. Sometimes it is a fear of one's personal step into that great unknown, and sometimes it is a fear of loss for another about to make that journey.

We wonder what will happen, but we trick ourselves into believing that we will somehow know the answer before we experience it. Religions have crumbled to dust without ever having proof of the afterlife they propose, and some have reconciled themselves with nonexistence because lack of proof must mean there is nothing at all.

And yet we are here, alive, and able to ponder this question. We distract ourselves from it when it becomes too difficult to bear. We dedicate our entire lives to the pursuit of something tangible; because at least what we can hold offers us an anchor in the vast unknown sea.

These words are not meant to preach, or to stake any claim of truth. In the Order of the Mountain, I was taught mental anchors to replace material ones. People became the foundation of how I defined reality, and I structured my life upon principles of love and protection, rather than possession and control. Discipline was the mantra that guided my progression. If I could become as strong as the mountain, my life would serve as a landmark and a shelter for others.

But are my anchors any different than anyone else's? Is there a difference between worshiping the sun because you see it every day, and worshiping gold because you can hold it in your hands? Is there a difference between wanting to leave a legacy at any cost, and wanting to serve as a guidepost to building a harmonious society?

Every anchor to the present is rooted in the fear of death. We do not wish for this moment to end, this life to end, without some guarantee that something of us will linger on once we have left this place. Memory is a powerful motivator, and has constructed endless monuments to justify itself.

Though all anchors serve the same purpose, they do not bear the same results. The question of difference lies in the kind of world you wish to build. What do you wish to leave behind to prove that you were ever here?

I believe life reflects death as the opposite end of the wave. They are merely the different fluctuations of the only constant we can rely on; change will occur. It will create, and it will destroy, and it happens every instant whether we resist it or embrace it.

We do not know what happens when it pulls us beyond the gate. Whether we arrive somewhere else or disappear into nothingness is outside of our control. Life, on the other hand, is within our influence. Perhaps it is our greatest anchor of all, and the one we all share.

What shape will life take? How do we wish to be remembered, as individuals, societies, species, or even as a world? Each ecosystem is an entity unto itself; the collective will of its parts decides its fate.

What path will you choose?

~Prism, First of Grimfaeth

Flight had become Styx's greatest pleasure, and he loved to soar through the skies across the entire breadth of the world. It offered him views he never would've dreamed of, had he remained in the Shade his entire life, as he had once thought was his destiny.

Much had changed since the Battle for Pentalus, as the stories called it now. It was twenty years past, but many who had fought that day still spoke of how the armies of the world came together to defeat the demons. Of course, it took time for much of the world to even know that the battle had occurred, but it had brought unprecedented change in the lives of many. Ignoring those changes would've been impossible.

Even now, as Styx flew through the skies of modern Oligan, he could see the ripples of that day in the settlements he passed over. People were beginning to rebuild things lost to them ages ago, based upon the knowledge kept safe by Maxthane's family, and a dozen other vaults opened after the death of Neredos.

Most of these stashes of knowledge were small—with the thulu'Khant vault being by far the largest—but Maxthane's willingness to share his archive with others encouraged the guardians of those other stores of knowledge to do the same. Hount, abdicating title but retaining his position, had helped disseminate that knowledge throughout the continent and eventually over here to Oligan as well.

Styx had proudly assisted in that endeavor, remembering well the charge Prism had given him in his youth. The power to change the world rested in Styx's hands, and it was up to him to decide what kind of world he wanted to build. He'd taken an interest in engineering, finding the inner workings of machines fascinating. Now he traveled wherever his wings could take him, to teach others what he had learned.

At first, people had been suspicious of his intentions. Since he offered his knowledge freely, he eventually won most of them over, and the results were impressive. Technology the world over had advanced dramatically in the last two decades. It was nowhere near what it had been before the Demon War and the reign of Neredos, but already there were curious minds at work learning to apply that technology in new ways.

Not everything had worked out the way Styx had hoped, of course, but that was the nature of life. His frequent absence from his homeland had made it difficult to maintain his romance with Maxthane and Kirra, though they still revisited it on occasion when he was in the area. They remained his closest friends, but they had grown closer to each other still, surprising them both.

Kirra had eventually become Maxthane's official Captain of the Guard, shortly before their marriage. They maintained a residence in New Pentalus as well as the Shade, and worked closely with Styx's half-sister, Laris, who sat at the head of the Council, which loosely governed the region.

While Styx loved both his old friends, it was Dinae who held his heart now. Hount had introduced Styx to his niece shortly after the Battle of Pentalus, and a friendly rivalry had grown between them. They'd shared their first kiss after a drunken night of trying to prove who was better at throwing knives, when both of them had nearly lost an eye to the dangerous game.

Dinae didn't mind Styx's absences one bit, and she often encouraged him in leaving. She said she didn't want his bad influence around the kids, but she rarely spent much time raising them either. Hount and Alsha, who'd married each other after a secret courtship, took to their grandniece and grandnephew as if they were their own children. Styx didn't mind their presence in his life, and he was a dutiful father whenever he returned from his trips.

Life had certainly thrown him a thousand unexpected turns, but he was grateful for each one. He couldn't imagine it any differently now. The world was far from perfect, and conflicts still arose all throughout the settled lands. But they were being settled, and most people wanted peace. It was a blessed age to be alive.

A crackle of thunder sounded behind Styx, pulling him immediately from his thoughts. He hadn't been paying attention, and he cursed his lack of awareness. A dramatic shift in air pressure pebbled his skin, and the wind was picking up faster than he liked.

Glancing over his shoulder, he quickly saw why. A storm was right on top of him, and he was in grave danger. A bolt of lightning flashed too close for comfort, and Styx started planning his escape. Before he could even think of where to land, a gust of wind forced him backward, into the storm.

The next few minutes became a fierce battle against the winds, but Styx was not nearly as young as he once was, and it quickly became an uphill struggle as his weary muscles protested his movements. Eventually, the winds forced him into the clouds themselves, and he became disoriented. Fighting to stay in control, he searched for some means of escape, but found none.

His hairs stood on end, and a tingling sensation traveled through his body. A bright flash filled his vision, and he briefly became aware of falling. Then there was nothing, not even a sound, save for the distant call of the wind.

When he came to his senses again, the storm had passed, but he didn't understand his surroundings. There had been no fields of flowers nearby, nor trees of this size. Had the storm somehow carried him miles away?

He quickly became aware of two people standing over him, and then gasped as their familiar faces registered in his mind. Prism extended his hand to pull Styx to his feet, and Grim dusted him off from behind.

"That was quite the storm," Prism said, grinning, as he looked Styx over. "Are you feeling alright?"

"I must've hit my head when I…" Styx began, but then became acutely aware that he had returned to his normal form. His wings were gone and he'd returned to his normal height. "What's going on?" he asked.

"That, my dear Styx, is going to take some explaining," Grim said, placing a hand on Styx's shoulder. "Don't worry, we'll explain everything. Or, if you'd prefer, we could let your father do it. He's been aching to see you, though I'm sure he'd have preferred it to be later rather than sooner."

Reality struck Styx as surely as the lightning had. He was dead, or something close to it, anyway. "Is… what…" he said, not sure how to express the thoughts running through his head.

Prism put his arm around Styx's shoulder and guided him deeper into the garden. "Come on, we'll explain everything. It's been awhile since we've welcomed a new Chosen, but I'm sure you'll fit right in…"

Maxthane stood atop the tallest roof in New Pentalus, watching the sun set on the distant horizon. Sometimes, if he wasn't careful, he found his eyes searching the sky for some sign of Styx. His first love had disappeared twenty-one years earlier on a mission to Oligan and hadn't been seen since.

There was no chance that he'd simply decided to disappear. Styx had family here, a wife and two children whom he deeply loved. They were well into adulthood now, and they'd also accepted that their father had met a tragic end. But do they also sometimes watch the skies?

"There you are," said a tired voice from behind Maxthane. He turned and smiled, seeing Kirra descend the last of the steps to the roof. "I thought I'd find you here."

"I couldn't help it. The sky is beautiful this evening," Maxthane said, extending his hand to Kirra.

Kirra took his hand and held it gently. Though Kirra hadn't held a sword in nearly a decade, his hands had retained their callouses from the many climbs he made through the Shade. He'd taken to spelunking as if he'd been born to it, once he overcame his aversion to the Shadesight tattoo and officially embraced his new home.

But Maxthane loved the callouses, as much as he loved the man who had earned them. It signified a life lived to the fullest, and spoke of Kirra's adventurous soul. Maxthane sometimes wondered if Kirra would've chased after Styx had they not fallen so deeply in love. It would've been a good life for him, and Maxthane would've understood that decision.

He was glad for how things had worked out, however. If only there wasn't a piece of him missing, somewhere beyond that horizon.

"You're thinking about Styx, aren't you?" Kirra asked, and then kissed the side of Maxthane's neck. "I sometimes think I catch glimpses of him but it always turns out to be a bird."

"I know that feeling," Maxthane said, sighing heavily. "Dinae told me she watches every sunset just to be sure. She knows he's not coming back, but she says it's her chance to spend time with him."

"Maybe we should let them have their time then," Kirra said with a chuckle.

Maxthane snorted. "As if she ever cared about sharing him with us. She let him go where he needed to go, which was always the best thing to do for Styx."

Kirra nodded in agreement, and gave Maxthane's hand a squeeze. The silence stretched out between them, but it was not uncomfortable. They both loved the way the changing colors filled the sky. Soon, they knew, the sun would set on both their lives as well. Maybe they'd meet Styx again once they saw the other side.

"The Council cornered me again today," Kirra said after a while. "I don't want to ruin the moment, but they're curious if you've made a decision."

An involuntary sigh left Maxthane's lips. "And now you're curious too?"

Kirra shrugged. "It doesn't hurt to wonder."

"I suppose that's fair," Maxthane replied. He glanced at Kirra and smiled. "You can tell them that they can host the New Dawn Festival in the city this year. I still think a festival of lights should happen in the dark so it contrasts better, but… I guess I can give it up if it'll make the council happy."

"We can hold our own New Dawn Festival in The Shade," Kirra said, wiggling his now bushy eyebrows. "Just you and me."

"I'm not sure my old bones have the stamina for that," Maxthane said, grinning.

Kirra shrugged and said. "Well, we don't have to make love with our bodies. I'd be just as happy simply holding you in my arms and watching the sun rise in that skylight you had installed forty years ago."

Maxthane snorted, which quickly devolved into full laughter. For decades now, he'd referred to the great hole in the cavern ceiling of The Shade as a 'skylight', and his people had taken the name to heart. Maxthane hated the term, in truth, but Kirra had a way of taking the sting out of it. He always did that.

"Well, if New Pentalus is going to host the festival, they can handle the expense as well," Maxthane said. "Their festival, their fireworks."

"You know you're going to assist anyway," Kirra chided.

Maxthane shrugged. "Maybe I will, maybe I won't."

"Come on," Kirra said, laughing. "Let's go to bed. We're going to the country to visit Alsha in the morning. She's getting cranky in her old age."

"Look who's talking," Maxthane said, rolling his eyes. "I seem to remember that someone didn't want to get out of bed this morning."

Kirra growled but there was no anger in it. He simply kissed Maxthane until he stopped trying to protest. It didn't take long, Maxthane only protested for the fun of it these days.

They retired to their bedroom, both tired from the day. There was a weariness that had settled into Maxthane recently, and he was always more eager for sleep than he let on. It was growing more serious with time, but he assumed it was a simple byproduct of age.

As he curled into Kirra's arms that night, however, the weariness forced him into sleep faster than normal. It felt as if he'd taken too much to drink, and he struggled to stay awake for even a few minutes. He was vaguely aware of Kirra shaking him and saying something, but he was just too tired.

The weariness disappeared as if it had never been there at all, and Maxthane woke refreshed, if a bit disoriented. Someone was shaking him again, but far more gently. They were whispering his name as well, and he groggily turned onto his back and mumbled, "Kirra… let me sleep."

"Guess again," Styx said. "Kirra's not here yet, and I don't envy the day he has ahead of him."

Maxthane's eyes fluttered open and he stared up at Styx's beautiful face. "What…" he started to ask, but as he studied those familiar features, he realized they were a bit too similar to his memory. Styx hadn't aged a day since they'd last seen each other. Grim's face appeared next to Styx's, confirming Maxthane's suspicions. "I'm dead… aren't I?"

"Yes," Styx said, "But you're among friends. We have a lot to talk about."

"Is Kirra going to be okay?" Maxthane asked, feeling a sharp pang of worry. "He won't know what to do without me…"

"There's no need for that now, Max," Grim said. "Everyone has their time, and Kirra has lived long enough to understand that. You'll see him again before long, I imagine. There's an awful lot of work left for you to do together."

The caverns near The Shade felt so empty to Kirra now, but that was why he sought them out. It was a place where he could think, and remember the people who'd first brought him to these dark yet alluring spaces.

Five years had passed since the death of the last Shadow King, and the world had mourned his passing in complete solidarity. Maxthane thulu'Khant had earned a reputation unmatched by most rulers in recorded history, and Kirra had yet to find a single person who thought ill of his late husband.

It had been difficult at first, but Alsha had helped him through the early stages of his grief. She'd lost Hount just a year earlier, and she knew just what to do to keep Kirra from losing himself to his misery. It hadn't been easy, but she'd seen him through it, before her own passing.

That wound was still fresh. Alsha had passed in the winter, but family had surrounded her; each had a chance to see her before she left the world. More than one Fedain had offered to prolong her life, but she'd refused them all. None of them could stop the sands of time from moving, after all, and Alsha wasn't one to run from the inevitable.

So Kirra climbed through the tunnels as a form of pilgrimage, seeking the clarity of solitude as he communed with the ghosts living on in his memories. So much had happened since his days of love-filled youth, and he needed the space to process it at times.

The Shade had passed into the capable hands of Drake's children. Madame Godani had named him her successor, after Styx's disappearance. He wouldn't have wanted the title anyway, and Drake was a better Guildmaster than most. He'd rule The Shade with as much care as he did the Inkblades. Kirra had no doubt of that.

Kirra had the honor of naming a successor to Maxthane's organization as well. As no one other than a thulu'Khant had ever led the Shadow King's guild, Maxthane's unexpected death had caused a great deal of confusion. That Kirra should act as regent was unquestioned, but who would rule once he was gone?

The answer had been unexpected to many, but they'd had five years to grow accustomed to the idea. The late Chief Bradeth's youngest daughter, Vantess, had been apprenticed to Maxthane for over a decade. She knew the guild inside and out and was more than capable of keeping order. Just like that, the first Elrok Guildmaster had been appointed.

Kirra had even given her his sword. It no longer bore Marhys' spirit, but he still considered it a vital part of his legacy. Vantess was the closest thing he'd ever had to a daughter, and she was a capable fighter. He was glad the sword would remain a cherished heirloom, and hoped the stories belonging to it would be passed down as well. Judging by the Elrok oral tradition, there was no doubt in Kirra's mind that there would be songs sung of the sword's deeds, and for centuries to come.

He placed his hand into a crack and pulled himself farther up the wall, then smiled as light struck him. This chamber was full of glowing lichens, and provided a natural beauty unlike anything Kirra had seen on the surface.

It had been forty-six years since the fall of the Everbright City, and the world above was progressing in beautiful ways. There were still problems, of course, but they had a way of working themselves out. Still, as cities grew and technology expanded, natural beauty suffered. He was glad there were still untouched places such as this where he could escape.

There weren't many left who remembered the demons anymore. To everyone's surprise, the bones of the demons had turned to dust not long after the battle. There simply wasn't any sign that they'd ever been there at all, outside of the stories, anyway. Many in the younger generations weren't sure how much of their grandparents' stories were true, or if there was more embellishment than fact in their tales.

As long as they continued to strive for peace, Kirra didn't mind what they believed. There was too much beauty in the world to waste time thinking about demons anyway. That thought rested well within him as he studied the lichens and let them draw him into their glow.

He started moving again sometime later, wondering if he should head back before he went too far. It had grown increasingly more difficult for him to travel so far into the caves, but his longing for solitude had compelled him to keep coming back.

Before he'd taken more than a few steps, he felt a sharp pain in his arm, and glanced down in alarm, wondering if he'd brushed up against the corrosive form of the lichen. There was nothing there, but his pulse kept racing all the same. The pain remained and increased, then spread to his chest.

As he collapsed to the cavern floor, his last view was of the lichen before him. At least this is a pretty place to die, he thought, then closed his eyes and embraced his final rest.

His eyes shot open as he heard a chorus of voices he recognized but hadn't heard in years. Styx, Maxthane, and Alsha all stood near, and Grim stood some distance away as if giving him room to adjust.

Kirra didn't need an adjustment at all. He knew what had happened, though these garden-like surroundings were unexpected. One by one, he embraced his friends and cried tears of joy into their shoulders. Only when he was finished did he ask the question on his mind.

"So, this is where we go when we die?"

Styx and Maxthane shared a knowing look, and then each took one of his arms and led him toward the forest path. "Well, there's something you should know before you make too many assumptions. This is more like a halfway point, and we have work to do…"

Prism watched Kirra leave with the other boys and then approached the clearing, nodding in greeting to Alsha before settling down next to Grim. "That's the last one, isn't it?" he asked.

Grim nodded. "No more Chosen to gather. We'll give him a chance to settle in, and then let him tell his story to the others and learn all of theirs. Same as we did for Alsha."

"I'm still not quite there, but at least you're all here to help me," Alsha said with a grin. "But I would really like to know what you have in store for us."

"Don't worry," Grim replied, "I'll explain everything as soon as Kirra's ready. It won't be long now."

"Do you think the world will understand?" Prism asked.

Grim sighed. There was trouble brewing in the world already, and it worried him to no end. Nevertheless, no matter how cynical he wished to be about it, he had faith in the foundation the others had laid.

"Whether they understand or not is irrelevant to the task," he said, meeting Prism's gaze. "We must try anyway. What else is there?"

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