We thought we knew what was best. That was not a defense, and it should not be taken as such. We thought we knew what was best, and so we entrapped ourselves in our hubris. We failed to realize the ways in which our choices were repeating the echoes of past mistakes.
It is folly to assume without remaining open to contrary evidence. When Veil and I decided to guide the world, we doomed it to a lack of onus for its own fate. I made the decision to prevent technology from reaching a point where we could destroy ourselves again, and in so doing I poisoned the waters with stagnation.
I obtained my understanding of what was good in the world by learning about it, by studying all its intricacies, and sharing ideas with the most brilliant and beautiful minds. When we grow together, we strengthen the foundation and climb higher, supporting future growth.
Do not fear knowledge, fear denial. Do not fear difference, fear stagnation. Do not fear perspective, fear complacency.
Seek to understand the world in which you live. Improve upon the foundations of the ages and build a better world for future generations. In some form or another, the afterlife is assured, for all of this continues regardless of your death. Whether your consciousness continues or not is irrelevant, for your body will become fertilizer.
Allow your actions to do the same.
Naxthul opened another of the small vaults on the wall and yelled triumphantly, grinning at the small cylinder in his hands. "Yes! This is exactly the one that I wanted!" he said.
Grim raised an eyebrow, surprised by this display of emotion from the demon. "And what is it?" He asked.
"Oh, you'll see soon enough," Naxthul replied. "As long as the system still works."
He circled back around the four pillars bearing the crystals until he reached one with a small, cylindrical slot carved into the stone. Sliding the cylinder into place, he stared expectantly at the crystals for several seconds, then frowned.
"I guess I'm going to have to do some repairs," Naxthul muttered.
"I could say that we don't have time for this, but…" Grim sighed and stared longingly at the pillars. "I have always wanted to see one of these in operation. Even if it had only been star charts."
"It's never just star charts," Naxthul replied. "There is nothing quite like knowing where you are and knowing how small you are in comparison to everything else. My people were astronomers, the first that I know of to have discovered all seven planets in this star system. The first to name stars that could not be seen with the naked eye. The Sendar continued that tradition after we were gone, and they have names for things my people have never seen, aside from in our own imaginations."
Grim studied Naxthul, seeing the way his eyes grew distant as he spoke about the past. It was genuine longing, for a simple time filled with wonder and dreams to explore. Grim could vaguely remember a time like that and had seen that look many times before in others. It was the look a child wore when thinking about possibilities or experiencing something new. It was the look an old man wore when remembering being young and in love.
For the very first time since learning about the Vhor, Grim didn't want to kill one. For the very first time, he saw Naxthul as alive, despite knowing that if he laid his hand on the demon, he would feel the difference in that life force. He would know that the demon did not belong in this world and would want to send him back to wherever he'd come from.
"Were you an astronomer?" Grim asked.
Naxthul nodded, and there was true pain in his eyes as he turned back to Grim. "I had just begun working at an observatory the day the world ended," he said. "Three months of studying the stars before that suddenly became unimportant. So many millennia have passed since then, and the stars are completely different now than they were then time. But I still remember my sky; I took comfort in it as the demons destroyed everything around me."
If Naxthul had been able to cry, Grim believed there would've been tears streaming down his face. It was one thing to simulate tear ducts, but quite another to simulate tears. Still, Grim felt the emotion behind those words and it touched something buried deep within him.
"And I wanted to learn about you, and for a while I took comfort in history," Grim said. "My world ended before the demons came, but only just."
"You are talking about the death of your father?" Naxthul asked.
Grim shook his head. "That's one, but not the first. First it was the death of my brother and my mother, long before my father's death. My world ended and was reborn time and time again before the demons arrived. Losing Prism was the worst of all of them, however, because as long as I had him, there was always something to return to."
"Memory is a two-edged sword," Naxthul replied. "Tell me what happened."
"After things fell apart with Odiran, I wandered the world, waiting to die," Grim said.
It had been two years since Grim had last seen anyone he knew on a personal level. Every now and then he came across a soldier who recognized him, having served on some battlefield alongside him, but Grim never acknowledged their greetings and left them assuming they'd made a mistake.
Occasionally a Fedain would recognize him as well, one who still remembered what it was like before the demons had come. These would usually do their best to run him out of town. Now the demons were gone, sealed away in the pillars by Neredos, it was time to return to proper Fedain conduct. Do no harm, to anyone.
And Grim had done harm beyond measure. Was he not the great demon slayer? Had he not fought and killed more than anyone? Grim knew all their thoughts, for he thought the same things, and they haunted him with every step he took.
He'd slammed into the bottom of the ocean of energy less than a week after betraying Odiran's trust. Now completely lacking in extra life force, he could no longer afford to avoid sleep indefinitely, yet he still avoided it as often as he could out of necessity. His dreams were even worse than he had imagined they would be. Whether he found sleep or avoided it, the result was the same; insanity.
So it became more difficult with each passing day to interact with those he saw along his travels. He tried begging for food when he was hungry. Most people turned him away in anger, but when he faced the pitying eyes of the generous, that turned his stomach and ruined his appetite entirely. He still ate whatever food they offered in a robotic manner, devoid of all emotion.
He was becoming more and more like that, forcing emotion away from him, like the sexual advances of a stranger who refused to take no for an answer. He didn't want to feel anything, though at times he simply could not prevent it. Suffering had come to stay, and dwelling on the emotional toll of that suffering only fueled the fire started by that unwanted guest in his heart.
Desperate to avoid anyone who reminded him of civilization, who urged him to feel, Grim headed for the fringes of society. Due to the Demon War, civilization only extended so far, though a lot of expansion had happened in the last five years. No one had built ships to return to Oligan, Lodan, or Incaria yet, as the majority of people still believed it was better to stick together for now. Much of what had been Ultaka before had been reclaimed, but with the total destruction of cities, only simple villages had been constructed so far.
Grim was heading through one of those villages, not bothering to stop and talk to anyone. It would do him little good except remind him of everything that he had lost, and he could no longer bear that pain. He was going to walk past this village and never look back, and hopefully find oblivion in the wilderness beyond.
"Grimfaeth, my friend, the years have not been good to you," a voice said from somewhere to his left. It sounded familiar, but Grim couldn't place it as he stared at the long, blond haired woman who'd made the remark. She had skin that sparkled just enough to hint at Fedain heritage, though he doubted she was a full-blood. That was peculiar, unless she was Lodani, but not peculiar enough for him to risk entertaining this conversation.
Grim raised an eyebrow and said, "I'm afraid you have me confused someone else." He started walking around her, but she stepped in his way again.
"You don't recognize me, do you?" The woman replied, chuckling. "I guess that helmet did its job after all."
Grim stopped dead, staring at the woman as he went over the cadence of her voice once again. "Yatha?" He asked incredulously.
The woman bowed low, sweeping her arms out wide in a theatrical display. When she rose, she met Grim's eyes and gave him a wink. "In the flesh," she said, grinning. "I always wondered what became of you and Prism after the war. I had intended to bring you both into my confidence about my true nature, but Prism disappeared after the battle, and I didn't want to hang around for too long and let someone find out."
"Find out what?" Grim asked.
"That I'm a Fedain, you idiot," Yatha said, clapping Grim on the shoulder. "The way the Fedain are acting now, you'd think killing demons was a bad thing. I bet you know all about that, though, don't you?"
"Your accent is different than it used to be," Grim said, realizing now why he hadn't recognized her voice. She didn't sound like an Incarian, which is what she had claimed to be during the war.
"That's because now I'm the Ultakan I was always supposed to be," Yatha said. "I pretended I was an Incarian so no one would think I was a Fedain. I was raised in Incaria, so it wasn't that hard to pull off. My father was a human, and he's the one who raised me on horses. I've managed to collect a bunch of retired mounts and I keep them on a ranch about a mile that way. You should come to visit if you have the time." She pointed down the road in the direction Grim had been walking.
"I'm not sure," Grim said. "I'm on my way out of town."
Yatha rolled her eyes. "Yes, and the only thing on the road before you reach the wilderness is my ranch. I live on the literal edge of society, Grim. Unless you're in search of leveled ruins, you'll find nothing out there but empty land."
Grim held his tongue for a moment. How could he explain to her that emptiness was all that he sought? "I'm just looking to get out," he said at last, then turned away from her and started walking in a different direction.
Yatha sprinted to get ahead of him, then turned to face him again. "Oh no you don't, I've seen that look in people's eyes before, and you don't get to give me that look without giving me an explanation." Her eyes grew hard, her mouth contorting into a scowl. "You held the morale of every single soldier on your shoulders every single day you went into battle. Many of those soldiers bore that same look you are wearing now. Hopeless eyes do not become you, Grim. What would Prism think if he saw you like this?"
Shrinking backward at the mention of Prism's name, Grim couldn't answer. No words came, and even if they had, he wouldn't have had the strength to say them. Yatha noticed this immediately and pressed onward.
"It's Prism, isn't it?" Yatha said, her eyes wide with shock. "Something happened to him. You're out here because…" Then she did something Grim had not felt since he'd last seen Prism. Yatha wrapped her arms around Grim and held him tenderly, pulling him tight against her chest. "Oh, my friend, I have felt such a pain, and I know that there seems like no healing from it. But you are coming home with me, and we are going to get you fed."
Grim tried to pull away, or at least he told his muscles to do so but he remained frozen instead. He wanted to tell Yatha that he didn't need her pity, but the words wouldn't leave his tongue. He wanted to scream at her to leave him alone, but his chest felt too heavy to force the air out.
Instead, he allowed her to lead him down the road to her home, sit him down at her table, and put a large bowl of stew in front of him. He ate in shock and awoke naked and alone in a bed the next day with no memory of how he'd arrived there. But at least he hadn't remembered his dreams, either.
The following months kept Grim in a strange, almost catatonic haze. He remembered very little detail from that time, though slowly his mind began to return to a functional level. Yatha, and a man Grim did not know, would take turns cooking meals for him and helping him to bed. At one point, Yatha forced Grim into a large metal tub and scrubbed down his body and hair. He remembered the sound of children, and occasionally caught glimpses of two young kids no older than five glancing at him from doorways, but he did not remember them talking to him.
Eventually, however, Grim started to regain control of his senses. It came bit by bit, with him first noticing that he had been facing the sun a little too long, and he shied away from the bright light. The sound of thunder on the horizon drew his attention later that day, and he wondered how long it had been since he'd experienced a storm. It had been just the day before, but he had no recollection of experiencing it though he knew it had happened.
And then, when he was sitting beneath a large tree, he heard the children as if for the first time, laughing as they perched on a nearby fence, watching a group of horses pacing around inside the fenced area. He was a bit surer of their ages now as he studied them more closely. A boy and a girl, roughly four years old and likely twins by their similar appearance. Both had Yatha's blonde hair and a more subdued sparkle to their skin than their mother's. A short but broad man stood next to them, a thick salt and pepper beard hanging to his chest.
The man noticed Grim looking at them and smiled, nodding in greeting as he waved. Grim tentatively waved back, confused at what was happening. The man seemed familiar, though Grim was simultaneously sure he did not know the man. He could not recall a name or where he had seen the man before, though his stomach rumbled for a moment as if he was hungry.
After Grim's wave, the man's eyes lit up with excitement, and he turned toward the horses and shouted, "Yatha! Your friend is awake and he waved at me!"
Yatha moved as swiftly as she could through the horses without spooking them, then hopped the fence and shared a look with the man before turning to Grim. She smiled at Grim, and Grim returned the expression with only a touch of hesitation.
"How are you feeling, Grim?" Yatha asked.
Grim felt his stomach rumble again and said, "Hungry." He was surprised at how hoarse his voice sounded, as if he hadn't used it in a while. His mouth fell dry as well. "Thirsty," he added, "I need water."
"Quan, would you take the kids inside and get Grim some water?" Yatha asked, turning back to the large man standing next to her. "I'm gonna stay here with Grim, if that's all right."
Quan nodded and helped the children climb down from the fence before the four of them approached Grim together. Before they reached Grim, Quan and the kids—who each held one of his hands—turned in a different direction and walked toward the house. Yatha continued until she stood a few feet in front of Grim.
"What am I doing here?" Grim asked.
"What's the last thing you remember?" Yatha asked.
Grim shook his head, trying to find any memories at all. They were there, blurry and indistinct. He knew many things about his past, the images simply refused to come to mind. "The last thing I remember doing was… walking. I don't know where I was walking to, only that I was walking."
"Well, that's something," Yatha said, smiling encouragingly.
Grim stared at her in confusion. "I know that you are Yatha, but the Yatha I know never smiled and wasn't this friendly."
Yatha recoiled at the unexpected remark, then started laughing. "I suppose I can't expect you to have tact when you just came out of such a significant shock. I admit, I wasn't very nice as a soldier, but settling down and starting a family has a way of changing things. It's been five years, Grim. A lot can change for people in that amount of time."
Grim shook his head, not to refute her claim but because he was trying to remember what he had been doing for the past five years. He felt like there was something he was trying to accomplish. He had been following the Vhor! Yes, that was it! The demons, he had to stop the demons!
"Shouldn't we be going to battle?" Grim asked. "It's weird to see you without your armor on."
Yatha frowned at that, a question in her eyes. "Don't you remember? We defeated the demons. You weren't there, but Neredos sealed them all with magic. The demon war is over."
Grim stared blankly at Yatha. "But there are still demons alive, aren't there? Like Wayar?"
Yatha nodded in understanding. "Ah, I see what you mean now. You're talking about the Vhor. Yes, I'm sure a few of them are running around. For all we know, they were here long before the other demons arrived, and maybe they'll still be here when we're all dead. Either way, there's no reason to stop living our lives just because there's a few of them left in the world."
Grim didn't agree, but he didn't know how to communicate why. Instead he simply sighed and leaned back against the tree, closing his eyes. He opened them a second later when he heard a door shut nearby, and looked up to see Yatha's son running toward him with a small canteen. The boy handed the canteen to Grim, then shyly hid behind Yatha's leg.
"Thank you," Grim said, lifting the canteen toward the boy before drinking from it. The cool liquid slid down his throat, revitalizing him while also establishing just how parched he'd been. He was only able to take a small drink before it was too hard to swallow.
"Is that better?" Yatha asked.
Grim nodded. "I'm getting there."
"That's all we can ask for," Yatha said. "Now if I know Quan, he'll have already started dinner by the time we get inside. Let me help you up and get you into the house, and then I have to finish up with the horses."
"I think I can make my own way," Grim said, rising to his feet. "Especially if your son is going to lead me," he added, looking at the young boy. "I'm afraid I don't know his name."
"Kae," Yatha said, "could you help your uncle Grim inside?" The little boy nodded, and though still shy, he stepped around his mother's leg and met Grim's eyes.
Grim raised an eyebrow at that, then turned to Yatha. "Uncle?"
"I told the kids that you're my half-brother," Yatha said. "Since they are so close as siblings and always helping each other out, it was something easy for them to relate to while we've been taking care of you for these past few months."
"And what did you tell Quan?" Grim asked. As Yatha's eyes narrowed defensively, Grim hastened to add, "I'm only asking so I know if there's anything I should or should not say. I don't care who knows things anymore."
"I told him everything," Yatha replied. "Everything I know about you, which is probably more than you realize I know about you."
Grim nodded, then returned his attention to Kae. "I'm ready to go inside now, if you can take me."
Kae nodded and held his hand out to Grim. Grim smiled and took the offered hand, then grinned at Yatha before allowing the little boy to lead him toward the house.
The twins, Kae and Jin, played in one of the adjoining rooms while Grim took a seat at the dining room table. The kitchen and the dining room were connected, and Quan stood over a pot of bubbling broth and vegetables, stirring occasionally.
"It's good to see you up and about," Quan said, glancing back at Grim for a moment and smiling. "Yatha's been worried sick about you for months, but she knew you'd pull through. I'd say you're the first person I've ever seen her treat as well as she treats those horses. You should be honored."
"I'm grateful, that's for sure," Grim said. "To both of you."
"I'm afraid, despite my appearance, I wasn't a soldier during the war. I may be strong, but killing things is difficult for me," Quan said. "Don't get me wrong, I had to fight a few times during the war, and I did what needed doing, but I was a civilian. I helped run supplies between the battle camps. I've seen my fair share of wounded soldiers; wounded both in their bodies and their minds. I always wished there was something I could do for them, and I'm glad this time I could."
Grim nodded, then realized that Quan wasn't facing him and likely hadn't seen the gesture. "I truly appreciate it, though I still don't know much about what I put you through."
"You didn't put us through trouble," Quan replied, waving his freehand dismissively without looking at Grim. "It's no trouble to help a soul in need. That's what family is for."
"Yatha said she told you everything, so you know that I'm not really her brother, don't you?" Grim asked.
Quan turned and gave Grim a level look. "The two of you fought for the same cause, and I served it too. You're her brother and mine, and don't you forget it. We've got history to prove it, everyone left in this world worked together, fought together, and lived together. If that doesn't make us family, I don't know what does. The same was true before borders became meaningless, and it'll be true even if the wars we fought with each other start up again. You better not let Yatha hear you say that you're not really her brother, because that's not how she feels."
"I don't understand," Grim said. "I don't understand how you both can be so kind to me. After all the things I did…"
"Last I checked, you're a hero," Quan replied. "And nothing you've ever done in my presence has indicated otherwise, and nothing Yatha has told me you've done has, either. You can either embrace that there are good people in this world who want to help you, or you can keep feeling sorry for yourself and wallow in your misery a little while longer. I personally think you've done quite enough wallowing, given that you're responding now."
Taking another sip from the canteen, Grim considered the words. He wasn't ready to call himself a hero, and he doubted he ever would be. The memories were returning to him, bit by bit, specifically regarding the actions he had taken since Prism's disappearance. Grim had been lost to an obsession for five years, that didn't seem much like hero behavior to him.
"Well, regardless of everything, I am ready to get back to work," Grim said. "I'd like a chance to repay your hospitality somehow, if you have anything that needs doing around here."
Quan turned to Grim again, smiling warmly. "There ain't nothing to repay, but I will take your help if you're offering it anyway," Quan replied. "There's quite a bit of work out here, to keep the land running. You should probably take it easy for the next little while, until you are used to moving your muscles again, but I think I can give you a few tasks to get you back into the swing of things."
Grim shrugged. "I'm a Fedain, so my muscles bounce back pretty quickly. You can feel free to give me something a bit more physically taxing than you might give someone else in similar condition," he said.
"I know all about that Fedain healing," Quan replied, waving his hand at the notion. "I married one, after all. It's not your physical health I'm worried about, it's making sure you know where you are and what you're doing. It's not good to come out of a headspace like where you were and start acting like there was never anything wrong. Take a few days to adjust, do some light work, and make sure of yourself before taking on more."
Unable to deny the logic of Quan's reasoning, Grim replied, "All right then, I'll do whatever light work you give me. But if I say I am ready for more, you give me more, okay?"
"You got it," Quan replied. "I think the first thing I'm going to do, though, is send you into town tomorrow."
"Town? What town?" Grim asked. "I don't remember any town, although I'm still a bit hazy, so maybe I just haven't remembered it yet."
Quan chuckled and said, "Yatha said you're from Kobinaru, right?" He turned and waited for Grim to nod before continuing. "Yeah, I'm sure our little settlement does not seem like a town to you, then. A village, maybe, but we're still growing. I imagine in a decade we'll be downright bustling. But there is a man in town—or the village—I'd like you to see. He's an old historian who managed to save a few books during the war. He said he'd let me borrow an agricultural engineering manual; I found a few spare engine parts and I used to be good at building mechanical things. I'm hoping I can manage to construct a tractor, to make everyone's lives a little bit easier around here."
"What do you plan on using for a fuel source?" Grim asked. "We don't exactly have the infrastructure we used to have. And Neredos doesn't seem that intent on returning things to the way they were."
"Well, his law hasn't reached out this far, just yet," Quan replied. "And, with any luck, he'll leave us alone."
Grim shook his head. "That's pretty risky. I've encountered a few of his 'Knights' over the last few years, and I've seen them burn down libraries that managed to survive the war, in the name of his cause. The crazy bastard really does seem to think that rebuilding the world will bring back the demons."
"All the more reason for us to prove him wrong," Quan replied. "So, if you're willing to go get that book for me tomorrow, we can get started on that."
Despite the sigh that escaped his lips, Grim couldn't help but smile. It felt good to have a plan, even if it was just a simple rebellion. He remembered doing that as a child, and the thought only widened his grin. Maybe life didn't have to be so bad, after all.
"Aha!" Naxthul shouted triumphantly, interrupting Grim's story. Smiling apologetically, Naxthul gestured at the wall where he had just managed to open a hidden panel in the stone. "I finally found the control box, and hopefully I can get this thing to work."
"It's a shame that demons can't do magic," Grim said. "I imagine some of the mages I've known would be pretty useful right now."
Naxthul gave Grim a slightly perturbed look. "I'm more familiar with these systems than any modern mage would be. And the Sendar rarely used magic, relying more on circuitry than anything else. Not unlike Neredos, however, they did blend magic in with their technology, but that was mainly in construction and not in operation. If magic was required to make the archive work, I wouldn't have even brought you here. I was never any good at it."
"I'm still not entirely certain why you did," Grim replied.
"Because there are things this archive can show you about the way the world was when I unleashed the demons upon it," Naxthul said. "And showing you is far better than telling you. I think your love of history will thank you for being patient."
Grim shrugged and said, "as long as you don't try to run, I have all the time in the world. Even if the others fail to kill the demons, I'm certain once I finish with you, I could go and destroy the rest. That's all this is about, isn't it? You say the last demon must fall before this can end."
"Indeed," Naxthul replied sourly. "I realize you have every right to want my death, but I don't think I'll ever get used to how casual you are about it."
"You are a demon, and I slay demons," Grim replied, "what sense is there in getting worked up about that?"
Naxthul conceded the point with a nod. "I suppose there's plenty of truth in that, though I wasn't always a demon. I know you don't believe it, but I came here to save the world, not destroy it."
"You and the demons came and killed nearly everyone," Grim said tiredly.
Naxthul turned away from the control panel and met Grim's eyes. "I said we came here to save the world, not the people on it. The Trial happens to determine if a species, or multiple species, have grown out of control and are putting the ecosystem of the planet in danger. If they cannot learn to work in harmony with the world, they cannot be allowed to destroy it."
"And what of education?" Grim asked. "Why not simply teach people to be in harmony with the world instead of forcing their hand?"
Naxthul rolled his eyes. "Neredos, one of the most learned men of your age, ordered his Knights to burn books instead of instructing people to read them. Sometimes knowledge can blind us, even when the truth is right in front of our faces. Do you know how long I resisted calling upon The Trial five thousand years ago, when I was the guardian of this world? I nearly allowed the Sendar to subjugate all life underneath them because I was waiting for them to make the right choice. They would've destroyed the planet in order to control it, and no amount of education would've changed their minds. It comes down to a choice; is one willing to admit that there may be a better path than the one they are following? Dogma makes people believe they can fly even after they stepped off the edge of the cliff."
"And what of your own dogma, Naxthul?" Grim asked. "You say it was the only way. How do you know?"
Naxthul was silent for a moment before responding. "You may be right, Grim. I don't believe I hold all the answers, but I do believe I tried everything I could think of before bringing the demons into the world. It was the last resort, as it was for Ghayle."
"It still sounds like an excuse to me," Grim said.
Naxthul shrugged. "I wish I had an answer for you, but you weren't there. You do not yet understand what it is like to watch the world stand on the brink of death, knowing you are the only one who can stop it if you're simply willing to wipe out the infestation."
"Is that how you saw us?" Grim asked with a snarl. "An infestation!?"
"No," Naxthul replied, shaking his head sadly. "I saw you as stars, falling toward the world like raining fire, when you should have simply remained in the sky and shined like beacons in the dark for all the world to see."
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