Prism and Grim walked into the training grounds for the first time since Prism's failed execution. Master Vinh had requested their presence at the apple tree before they left the Temple. Despite the dark memories they shared about the location, they'd reluctantly agreed to the Master's terms.
When they reached the tree, Master Vinh sat among the branches, leaning against the trunk. He had an apple in his hand, but it remained unbitten as he rolled it between his fingers. When he saw them, he smiled and tucked the apple into the fold of his robes before sliding to the ground.
He bowed low in greeting. "Prism, Grim, thank you for seeing me."
"Of course, Master Vinh." Both young men returned the gesture. "Though I wish you'd chosen a different location."
Master Vinh smirked, turning his back on them and putting his hand against the tree. "The apple tree is the only place I could choose. For both of you."
"Why?" Grim asked.
Master Vinh looked into the branches as he walked a slow circle around the tree. His feet easily avoided the roots jutting out from the ground, as if he knew exactly where to step. "You know, there are a thousand different parables I could draw from this single tree. Surely more. I've meditated beneath and within this tree more times than I can count over my tenure here." He completed the circuit and rapped his hand against the trunk several times. "There are as many lessons to learn from it as there are leaves on its branches, and they renew every spring." He turned toward to face them. "I understand you're leaving."
"That's right," Prism said. "We're going north. Kaeral left this morning. He wanted to stop by Kobinaru first, to convince one of his friends to join us in the North. We intend to meet up with him on the road and travel together. He thinks we could find a home among his people, though it may take some time for them to trust us."
"I don't believe that will be your path," Master Vinh said. "At least, not in the end."
"There are many different lessons, but I will give you three as a parting gift." He grinned and pointed at Prism. "One is for you." He pointed at Grim with his opposite hand. "One is for you." He opened his hands and extended them out wide. "And one is for both of you."
"Please," Prism said, "teach us."
Master Vinh chuckled and began another circuit of the tree. This time he skipped and danced over the roots, keeping eye contact with Prism as often as possible. "Prism, you came to me as a boy who wanted order. Your life was chaotic, without structure. You spent your childhood fighting to survive through nefarious means, because you'd been raised that way." He paused abruptly, raised on one leg, assuming a delicate pose of perfect balance. "Here at this tree, you learned there were different paths. But today the lesson is different."
He jumped for the branch above him with precision. Despite it being too high for the average person to catch, Master Vinh's hands just reached it, and he pulled himself onto the branch. Both Prism and Grim recognized the branch from their current position. It was the same one the would-be executioners had draped the rope over. "Because of recent events, you view this tree as an enemy, a symbol of the crime committed against you," Master Vinh said, pointing at the roots beneath him. In the dirt next to one of the roots, two deep furrows drew Prism's attention. "But I notice things others do not. You dug in your heels, you caught yourself on the roots and hung on. When you faced death, you found the sturdiest place to cling and made sure to weather through it to the end. The same tree whose branch may have served to end your life, saved you with its roots."
Master Vinh tossed the apple from his robe to Prism. "So, too, do the roots of your soul matter, Prism. Do not neglect the spirited boy who brought you here. Do not neglect your roots in chaos to serve the branch of law. Both will keep you safe, if kept in balance."
Prism inspected the apple in his hand, noting it was under ripe, and saw it as a metaphor for his own experience. "Thank you, Master Vinh."
"You were my favorite student," Master Vinh said with a wide grin. "Do you know the day I felt I'd truly reached you?"
"When you faced the Masters and told them of your relationship with Grim."
"Because I no longer lived in deceit," Prism said.
"Because you no longer lived in deceit," Master Vinh confirmed. "I've always detested liars."
Prism bowed to his mentor. "I will always strive to honor that, Master Vinh."
Master Vinh turned his attention to Grim. Who shifted uncomfortably under the Master's piercing gaze. "Grim. You can't take your eyes off it, can you?"
"No," Grim said, glancing from the Master's eyes to where a streak of red still marred the training grounds beneath him. Vinh stood on the exact spot the black-bearded victim of Grim's murder had stood. "No, I'll keep it with me forever. I'll always see the blood."
Master Vinh nodded, gesturing to the tree behind him. "Do you know why this tree is here? It's nearly eighty-years-old, but the Masters have used the story since the tree first sprouted from the ground." He extended his arms again, as if conjuring an image from the past with dramatic flair. "This was once a pen for pigs, before we sourced our meat from the local farmers. A certain lazy initiate would come by here during his free time. He would always steal fruit from the kitchens, not only apples, but those were his favorite. He'd toss the remains to the hogs and let them dispose of the evidence."
Master Vinh slowly circled around them, stepping just as surely as he had around the tree. "Eventually the pigs were sold off, and the pen stood empty except for a single pig too old to sell. The once lazy initiate had become a Master by then, but he would still come by the pen every day and give his apple core to the old hog. One day, he left his core behind, but the hog had already died." Master Vinh paused in front of Grim again and reached as if to touch Grim's face, but left his hand hovering a short distance away.
He continued with a serious tone. "The core rotted, and the seeds nested in the fertile ground of the pig pen. Eventually, a seed sprouted into the tree, and the Master tended to it in honor of the pig he'd known and loved."
"What are you trying to tell me, Master Vinh?" Grim asked.
Master Vinh dropped his hand and resumed his circuit. "One of my dearest friends in the world recently died. Master Janlynd killed herself on the steps of the Council Chamber, as I'm sure you recall." He paused as Grim stiffened at the memory. "We discussed the Fedain ability to heal at great length, and I once asked her if she could possibly make those abilities work in reverse. I'm certain that's how she did it. Bodies don't simply explode like that."
"No, they do not," Grim replied.
Master Vinh continued with a curt nod. "I could look at this in a number of ways, I could blame myself for thinking I'd planted the idea in her mind, and that led her to suicide. I could blame the society she condemned, for giving her reason to do it. Or, I could certainly blame her for choosing to go through with it." He chuckled dryly and added, "Perhaps, I could even blame whatever forces which created us, for giving her the power to do it in the first place." His eyes watered, and his expression turned serious, and for the first time since Prism met him, Master Vinh looked on the verge of losing control of his emotions. "I don't know if you figured it out on your own, or if you learned something from her death, but I can't help but be reminded of her martyrdom by your sacrifice."
Grim recoiled from the strange statement. "My sacrifice?"
"You sacrificed everything you knew to save another," Master Vinh said. "Like the student giving the apple core to the pig, you've spent your life in tradition. When the reason for that tradition dies, what happens next? Do you curse the pig for dying, do you curse your tradition for attaching you to it? Or do you celebrate what has happened as a result, the predictable consequences of unintended fate? You've discarded the apple core into fertile ground. You're walking a path few Fedain have followed in a thousand years. Don't neglect the tree because you mourn the pig; nurture it, and help it bear fruit."
"I'm not sure I understand," Grim said, shaking his head sadly.
"You will," Master Vinh replied, and to Grim's surprise, the Master reached out and touched his cheek, stroking it as a father might to a son. "Prism will help you."
"And the final lesson?" Prism asked, touched by the Master's gesture.
Master Vinh walked back to the tree and beckoned them forward, as soon as the two youths stood beneath the branches, he kicked the tree as hard as he could. Unripe apple after unripe apple fell from the tree. Prism shielded Grim's head with his hands while Grim tried to do the same for Prism. Both failed more than they succeeded and came away with sore spots all over their heads and arms.
"Watch out for each other," Master Vinh said, "Have each other's backs, and never forget this: even the simplest pleasures in life can harm you if you let them."
Prism sighed, basking in the memory of his mentor before speaking to Ghayle. "I never saw Master Vinh again. I'm told he died on the Southern lines three years later, pierced through the chest by three Aika quills."
Ghayle nodded, placing a comforting hand on Prism's shoulder. "He fought valiantly. Every monk of the Order did. Including you."
Prism shook his head. "I only held an honorary title. I swore the first three oaths to Grandmaster Jovun before the battle of Cherrim Pass."
"Yes. I witnessed that moment," Ghayle said fondly.
"You did?" Prism asked with surprise.
"I was invisible to your eyes, but you've always been one of my favorites." Ghayle laughed, the beautiful sound ringing melodically through the garden. "You respectfully told Jovun that you wished to serve the Order but could not in good conscience swear the fourth oath."
"He afforded me the honorable rank of Master," Prism replied. "Who would've thought I'd end up leading so many monks? Who would've thought I'd die a Grandmaster?"
"You and Grim didn't take to life in the Dorram well. It was inevitable that you'd both rise to greatness."
Prism nodded, remembering those first days well. "It bothered him that people were dying, and we weren't doing anything about it. We helped out in the north first, then headed south."
"Where you truly made a name for yourself," Ghayle observed.
"Among demons and men alike. 'The Dark Monk'." Prism laughed heartily at that. "Sixteen years fighting a battle of attrition against an endless enemy. Did you expect it would take that long?"
"A year is little more than a blink in my eyes. It took as long as it needed to, for the races to band together as one and begin to push back." Ghayle sighed deeply and added, "Sixteen years is much shorter than eight centuries."
Prism considered that point briefly before responding. "Was it worth it in the end? Do you still stand by your choice?"
"To summon the demons?" Ghayle asked. Prism nodded, and she said, "It was necessary."
"Everything you showed me, all those memories . . . I'm still convinced there was enough good left in the world to save it," Prism said
"As am I," Ghayle replied.
Prism knew Ghayle meant she'd loved the world enough to save it through the Trial, but he couldn't agree with her. "I don't think I could ever condone your decision."
"I don't need you to," Ghayle said. "My goal was never to seek your agreement, only your understanding."
"And what should I understand?" Prism asked.
"That to save the world, I believed this was the best course of action. Regardless of your feelings on my choice, I need you to understand why I made the decision." Ghayle gave him time to think about her words before she continued. "When the post keeps moving farther and farther away from you, do you keep jumping, or do you take the only path left to you?"
"I understand, Ghayle, but I still would've jumped," Prism said. "My fingers almost caught the edge every time, and I could always jump again."
"Eventually, I couldn't," Ghayle said. "Eventually, the world moved the post too far."
Prism smiled sadly and replied, "I would've jumped anyway."
"And that's why you've been Chosen," Ghayle said, placing her hand against his cheek, caressing it as a mother to her son. "The fate of the world will always rest in the hands of those willing to take action against impossible odds."
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