The Creed of Humanity
Sunlight streamed into the tiny chapel through the stained glass windows placed high upon the walls. Purple, blue, green, and red painted glistening colors across the white marble floor. The statue of the Divine Dragon cast a dancing shadow on the mahogany wall behind it as the chapel's Flame flickered its ethereal light in and out of the stained glass rays shining throughout the nave.
Libra knelt at the pew placed closest to the Flame where its heat and the sunlight shined most intensely. He bowed his head before the Great Flame, clasping his hands before his breast in reverence. Villagers from a nearby town were strewn throughout the chapel, some kneeling at the pews, some prostrating themselves in the aisles. A few stood in the back, straddling the atrium and the nave as though hesitant to come closer.
He trained his eyes upon the dancing Flame and, for a moment, everything was exposed. A buzzing in his ear, a stomping in his chest. The air trembled and his soul screamed.
Can she hear it? He wondered. Can she see it? All Sacred Scripture and Ritual praised the Dragon for her love and her care. His abbot told him she could hear all prayers as long as one lifts it up to her in their heart. She will, as the Book of Coeus stated, take those prayers and carry them on her wings to the stars, where the gods who rule the universe abide.
But what if one never lifted up a prayer in his heart? What if the agony of an infectious wound was buried in the darkest recesses of a soul, never to be brought into the Flame's light? Will the gods, to whom all is revealed, ignore the injury? Will they let it fester until the pain envelopes the soul in impenetrable darkness?
Such philosophical questions do not become me, Libra thought.
So he bowed his head, allowing the heat of the Flame to quiet the screaming in his mind. He prayed, then. He lifted up prayers for the good of the world, the protection of the Shepherds, the peace for all nations, the work of the innocent, the healing of the sick, the mending of the brokenhearted, the release of prisoners, the feeding of the hungry, the clothing for the naked.
But not once, never once, for the ease of a life-long agony.
Libra left the church feeling the same way he did when he entered.
Libra swings his axe for the two hundredth time before changing his stance and working on a new stroke.
He threw himself in his training as whispers buzzed in the orbiting periphery of his mind.
"Please! Spare me!"
Ten…Eleven…Twelve…Thirteen… Libra's muscles flexed underneath his robes and sweat dripped down his brow and across his neck.
"I have children! A family! My wife waits for me at home!"
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to do that! I didn't mean—"
Libra cradled his stinging cheek with his hand as tears threatened to spill from his eyes.
"Stop it! You're WORTHLESS!"
Libra's axe slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor with a clang. Shaking, he reached down to pick up his weapon. He took a few breaths, in and out, slowly and deliberately, until his heart stopped pounding in his chest, and his head stopped swimming.
He went back to his exercises.
The Shepherds found themselves in a new village. Valm was a continent that mostly followed the Divine faith, but the faith manifested in a different way than it did in Ylisse. Libra did not mind it in the same way many of his superiors minded; different expressions of the same faith was not a precursor to disunity, rather, these unique manifestations revealed truths that the Ylissean culture often missed. The Valmese, for example, celebrated the female body in ways Ylisse found uncomfortable. Ritual dances had a taste of the erotic, adding hip swinging to the movements of clerical dancing. The Valmese believed celebrating such sexuality pleased the gods because it encouraged the act that allowed life to flourish and grow. The female body, according to the Valmese (and to many top tier Divine theologians), was the epitome of life; it is the warmth of the woman's womb that lovingly receives the child from the heavens and the milk of her breast is the ambrosia that sustains the child's life.
According to Divine theology, Arete the goddess of virtue, granted all females this life-giving gift under the orders of Aether, the Father of all, who understood the link between life and light. By granting humans the gift of sex, he freed humanity from the slavery of the gods. Humans no longer had to petition the gods for children; they could make children themselves. Access to life meant access to knowledge, wisdom, virtue, and goodness. And the link between all of that was the woman.
This was the message Libra preached to the villagers. The end of his sermon was met with enthusiasm; some villagers performed ritual dances before the Flame in honor of his message while some young men and women confessed their intentions of making the vows to clerical life. Needless to say, the village was warm and welcoming to the Shepherds due to Libra's influence as well as their dissatisfaction with Walhart's warmongering ways.
Libra was just finished playing with some tiny children who insisted upon grabbing his robes and playing with his staff when he heard the piercing laugh of a certain Plegian sorcerer.
"Nyahahahaha! You sure got 'em good, Libra!" The white-haired mage was nearly doubled over in mirth. He had to wipe some tears from his eyes before finishing his thoughts. "Thanks to you, the Shepherds are being treated to a feast!"
Libra raised a curious eyebrow at him, genuinely confused. "What do you mean I 'got 'em good'?"
Henry gave him a look that told Libra the answer should be obvious. His perpetual smile was still plastered onto his face, so wide that his eyes were nearly squinting as he cocked his head to the side. "That whole message about life and light and virtue and goodness and the gods! They ate it all up! They LOVED it! Nyahahaha!"
Libra nodded, not in agreement, but in understanding. "Ah, I see what you're saying, Henry. I hate to be the one to cut your mirth short, but the reason they enjoyed the message so much is because it spoke truth to them. It gave them hope in this dark time and gave them something, even if temporary, to continue living for. The goodness of humanity, the power of having a soul, our access to knowledge and wisdom that is so distinct from other creatures. Even shapeshifters like the Manakete and Taguel are invited into this truth. Having a soul means having the capacity for goodness as long as you celebrate the good things in life."
Henry's smile became a little more strained this time, his laughter a little more forced as he said, "The good things in life? Nyaha! Listen, Libra, there are not many good things in life. The only thing to look forward to IS death!"
Libra just smiled and shook his head. "There are many good things in life, Henry."
The mage's smile faltered and died in a rare bout of seriousness. "Like what?"
Henry laughed at that, his smile coming back to him. "You and I both know, Libra, that there is too much suffering in the world for that to mean anything."
Libra didn't know what to say because deep in his heart of hearts, in the place that he could never go, the young monk knew that Henry was right.
A Valmese soldier's body dropped lifeless to the ground a mere second earlier than his head. His axe was getting heavy. Libra wanted to put it down, but there was no chance to. An instant later, Libra buried his axe into another soldier.
Blood spilled onto the dirt.
"If we're all just going to die sooner or later, then why bother praying?"
Gaius's rolled his lollipop around his mouth, from one side of his tongue to the other. He grabbed the stick and, with a pop! took it out of his mouth. The orange-haired thief stared pointedly at Libra.
The priest picked himself up from his prostrated position on the floor before nodding his head in acknowledgement at Gaius, dusting the dirt from his robes. "It is because we are going to die sooner or later that we must pray."
"Why? It's not like there's anything after we die. There's just…nothing, right?"
"The Divine faith says that after we die, we meet the gods in their heavenly banquet. Depending on how we live our life, we will either join in their festivities or we will be forever shunned from the light."
But Gaius was not satisfied with that answer. "Come on, Padre. Don't give me a lazy answer like that. What do you think?"
Libra just sighed, facing Gaius completely. "That's not a lazy answer, Gaius. It is the answer. You just don't find it satisfactory."
Gaius shifted his weight from one foot to the other, sucking loudly on his lollipop. "You don't either."
Libra was silent for a long time. Was Gaius right? Did he really not believe in the eternal banquet? What of Sacred Scripture and its extensive literature on the palaces made of crystal and its roads lined with gold? It was always day, never night. Both sun and moon glowed together in harmony with the stars dancing its eternal waltz across a yellow-orange sky. The earth and all upon it sung a never-ending chorus of music. No hunger, no thirst, no poverty, or vice, or corruption, just an eternal festival celebrating creation in all its beauty and goodness and wonder.
He couldn't imagine it. Not one single part of it. Not even a glimpse.
When Libra spoke, he surprised himself. "I think that at the end of everything, it'll have to be better than here."
It scared him how much he believed that statement.
That was the number. Eight times he had been targeted and unable to counter. Eight times he might have dropped dead, if not for the vigilance of his fellow Shepherds.
Eight times the gods had to save him.
"You might lose your memories."
Her voice was dead, her expression even more so. But that was to be expected because the only time she ever showed emotion was when a certain Ylissean tactician (Libra swore Robin looked more Plegian than Ylisse, but if his higher-ups were going to remark on it, then Libra wouldn't either) was involved. Libra was glad of her lack of concern. She was numb, just like him. At least she was honest.
"I don't mind."
She chuckled darkly at the prospect of an experiment. If Libra was any other man, he would have shuddered in fear, but Libra was past that. He was long past that.
"Well then, I'll be ready by the end of this week. See you then."
Libra woke up with a start. His sheets and his person was drenched in sweat and his heart was pounding rapidly in his body. His breath was coming short, as though his lungs couldn't receive air and his throat was constricting oxygen from entering his body. His whole body was shaking, trembling, and tears threatened to fall from his eyes.
His long, blonde hair fell over his shoulder and hid his face as he bowed his head and tried desperately to remember that it was only a dream.
Teaching Olivia the Divine Ritual Dance was probably the best and worst thing that has happened to him for a long time. She was a beautiful young woman and her movements held a grace that could only be gifted upon her by the gods. Basilio was right; this woman was a treasure and should be treated as such.
He had never seen the Dance be performed by a professional and watching it performed by a woman as kind and sensitive as Olivia was probably just as much of a curse as it was a blessing.
And a curse it was. When she held the last pose of the dance, Libra was so overcome by emotion that he collapsed to the ground and cried for a very long time. Olivia was frantic at first, but eventually just decided on rubbing his back as he cried desperately into the earth.
He didn't know how long he cried, but by the time he had lifted his head the sun was setting and Olivia was sitting down next to him, concern in her rose-colored eyes. Her delicate hand was still placed upon his shoulder when Libra swiped an arm across his face, chuckling a little.
"I apologize, Olivia. For some reason, I was overcome with emotion. Your performance was beautiful."
The shy girl blushed deeply at his compliment and stuttered a reply, "I-it's because you explained each movement so well. I really felt like I was worshipping as I was dancing! I've never felt that way before. It was…an intense experience, to say the least."
The priest smiled gently at the timid girl. "I thank you, Olivia. I'm glad you were able to get something out of it."
He was about to get up when Olivia started to speak again. "A-actually, if I might say something…"
Libra paused and looked at her expectantly. She blushed under his scrutiny but continued. "When you dance the Ritual, your movements are very…sorrowful. Although the dance is meant to give praise and thanks to Naga and the gods, there is a heaviness about you when you perform it, almost as though there is something else you are trying to lift to the gods that's not praise or thanks, yet you cannot quite do it."
He stared at her, dumbfounded, unable to think of what to say. "Olivia, I…" he couldn't finish.
She bit her lip in embarrassment. "I'm sorry! I'm probably prying a lot, but it's just that I couldn't stop thinking about it throughout the entire time I was practicing the dance! And as I was showing you the dance, I couldn't help but think about the way you looked…" She squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm so sorry, I probably sound so creepy!"
He couldn't help it, a few tears slipped down his cheeks. His voice cracked when he tried to speak. "O-oliv…a… You… I-I…"
He bowed his head and wept once more, because for the first time in his life, it felt like someone else had tried to lift his burden, but couldn't.
The pain was indescribable.
His axe was getting heavier, even though he was getting stronger. The strokes were faster, the hits were harder. He could kill twice as many people in one hour than since before he became a Shepherd. He can carry axes that were nearly as large as Lissa herself without batting an eye.
Libra rested his axe on his shoulder as soon as he saw the Valmese commander topple over and die and Robin gave the signal that the battle was over. The monk looked around him, first at his comrades, who were all safe. No casualties.
Then, he looked at the bodies upon the floor.
Light streamed into the tent through the gaps in stitching. Points of light peppered the stuffy room as shadows seemed to dance and retreat away from them. Books, tomes, and various other objects were strewn across the floor so that Libra had a hard time discerning where he should place his foot. The tent flap closed naturally behind him as he stepped through the threshold. The darkness of the tent was an intense contrast to the light from outside, so it took a while for his eyes to adjust.
Searching, he called, "Tharja?"
"I'm here," said the deadpan voice. There was a rustle behind a pile of books in the corner before a dark figure emerged and stepped toward where a particularly large beam of light shone through.
Libra greeted her when she revealed herself, but she didn't return the favor. "Are you ready?" she asked simply.
The young monk thought his heart should be beating rapidly. He thought he should feel nervous or scared or even a little disgusted. Wasn't following through with this experiment just a sign of his weakness? Libra almost laughed at that thought. Weakness? Libra had always known he was weak.
"I'm ready," he said without hesitation.
Tharja cleared out a space on the floor where Libra and she could comfortably sit across from each other. The raven-haired sorceress opened a well-worn book to a page that was covered in little scribbles and notes. She held the book in one hand and extended the other toward him to place her pale fingers upon his brow. Libra closed his eyes at the touch of her cool fingertips.
A silence. Then, "Alright. Here goes, priest."
The mage began to whisper the ancient language of magic. Similar to the anima and healing spells most mages practiced, but different in its subtlety. Libra opened his eyes when he heard the objects in the room shudder, slightly at first, then more frantically. Tharja herself began to chant faster, a dark aura emanating from her skin. Her dark eyes turned an iridescent blue and her stare became intense as she seemed look past his calm eyes and into something past it.
Something was moving inside him. Something prodding and gentle, but invasive. It was moving toward a place he desperately did not want to be touched.
Libra's breath came in rapid pants and sweat beaded at his brow and slid slowly down the side of his face. His body began to tremble and a prayer came unbidden to his lips.
Almost as if in harmony with Tharja's chanting, he began to chant himself, the ancient lullaby of the monastery. "Naga, we hear. Naga, we see. Naga, we open ourselves to you. We implore your help. Humbly we seek your intercession, as we approach the valley of shadows and death. Be it the gods' will to inflict this pain upon us, we pray for your comfort. Do not abandon us, Divine One. Hold fast to the strings of our hearts and…"
Tharja let out a loud gasp and immediately jumped back, away from him. Libra immediately moved in alarm, wondering if he had hurt her somehow.
"Tharja, what is it?"
The dark mage just stared at the priest for what seemed like an eternity when she shook her head briefly and said with her usual deadpan voice. "Nothing, priest. I cast the hex. Did it work?"
Libra sighed in relief for a bit, thanking Naga for Tharja's safety, before answering her question. "No, I feel no difference and I still have my memories."
Tharja nodded before moving so she could sit more properly upon the floor. "I see. Guess it didn't work. That means I still have much to improve on."
Libra didn't have much knowledge on the dark arts, but he knew Tharja was definitely a powerful and talented mage in her own right. "There's always room for improvement, Tharja, but maybe the problem is not you. Maybe it is me?"
But the Plegian mage shook her head with conviction. "No, it wasn't you. Although…"
"Although…?" he prompted.
Tharja let out a chuckle. "Who knew you, a priest of the Divine faith, would hold such darkness within your heart?" Her chuckled turned into a smirk. "It's really quite ironic."
Libra didn't say anything. He had nothing to say.
Her smirk turned into a frown. "It is ironic, but… That darkness was really…terrible."
Libra sighed. "I hoped to hide that from you. I hoped the hex would work before you saw it."
She chuckled once again. The priest felt a little taken aback by her mood swings, but thought nothing of it. Most likely a side effect from dabbling in the dark arts, he figured.
"If I could just tap into even a little bit of that darkness, I could perform some truly intense hexes." She smiled darkly at him. "I'm interested."
He felt hesitation—fear. She was poking and prodding deep into the place where he would not allow even the gods to go.
But what else could he do? Where else could he go?
"Alright. You may continue to experiment on me."
He could not watch Olivia's dance anymore, although she performed it many times, with or without an audience. Every time he watched her, memories unbidden plagued his thoughts and the stomping in his chest increased tenfold.
In the meantime, Libra continued to go to the chapel every day to pray for the good of the world, the protection of the Shepherds, the peace for all nations, the work of the innocent, the healing of the sick, the mending of the brokenhearted, the release of prisoners, the feeding of the hungry, the clothing for the naked.
To pray for anything, everything that didn't hurt.
Libra didn't know why it was Tharja. He could have gone to his abbott. He could have gone to Robin. He could have gone to any of the other more stable, less dangerous Shepherds.
He had so many trustworthy people around him. It didn't have to be Tharja.
But it was Tharja, anyway.
The gods had a sense of humor.
After taking a moment to ensure Libra was ready, she placed her hands over his brow, much in the same manner she did the last time they experimented.
Her smile was dark when she said, "This is going to be painful."
But Libra was beyond pain, he thought. Nothing could be worse than—
"You're just a fuckin' little piece of shit, you know that?"
Broken glass scattered across the floor and some of it embedded in his skin. His hands had the most shards. His hands had the most blood.
"Can't believe you got caught."
He was ten years old.
"Don't worry, Libra. I'll protect you."
"I won't let anything bad happen to you."
"Come here, Libra. Come sit on my lap. I'll make all the bad things go away."
HE'S LYING HE'S LYING HE'S LYING HE—
"Did you see their bodies?"
"No, but Martin did. He was one of the people who had to clear 'em out of the house. He told me that the bodies were in bad shape. Stabbed over and over again, limbs almost completely cut off."
"And, what, you think it was the kid?"
"Have you seen his eyes? I know it was the kid."
"Hey, I love you."
"Shut up. No you don't."
Libra turned away from him. Maki was supposed to be his friend, but she revealed her true self when she let Libra take the fall.
"We were supposed to steal the damn case together," Libra hissed back.
Arms encircled his waist and Libra couldn't handle it anymore. "I love you," Maki whispered. The words pierced him and he was gone.
Shut up. You don't.
Hunger gnawed at his stomach. It's been nearly two months since the last time any sort of food had passed his mouth.
His breath was short, rapid. He was feverish and his body wasn't listening to him anymore. His head was swimming. Was this what dying felt like?
Something nudged at his sleeve. In a last desperate attempt, Libra swiped at it. He didn't expect to catch anything, but a squirming something warm was securely in his hand. The rat struggled with all its might in his hold, but Libra was desperate. Desperate and sad and pained and dying.
He brought the squealing animal to his trembling lips.
"You deserve to die."
"No one will ever love you, Libra. No one."
He tore at his chest, screaming inside and out. "Let me die," he sobbed to the skies.
The memories swirled in his mind like fragments of dreams. All of it, she saw them, one by one. The pain, the sadness.
When the onslaught of memories stopped, the one left sobbing wasn't Libra, but Tharja. Her breath came in hiccups and glistening tears left trails upon her pale skin. Libra saw the look of sadness on her face for one second before she moved her trembling hands from his brow to his eyes so he wouldn't see her cry.
Libra felt numb. There was nothing. Just like his screaming to the skies, waiting for a response, waiting for a hand, waiting for…anything. There was nothing, just a sobbing mage and a broken priest.
When her sobbing slowed, Libra removed her hands from his eyes and looked at her. She looked awful. Her pale skin was tinged with red from her crying. Her eyes were bloodshot and her hair was a mess. She got up, then, unable to speak and left the tent.
Libra sat there for who knows how long.
When Libra went to the chapel, he prayed for all the same things. Nothing was different. When he trained, Libra upped his exercise warm-ups to three hundred and fifty strokes per stance. Last battle, Libra counted three times the gods had to save him. All of these were improvements, he told himself. He still prayed for the world, and he was getting stronger. He didn't have to get saved as often as he used to.
Things were looking up.
But there was a tiny voice in the back of his mind that seemed to whisper to him from the very Flame he prayed in front of. A voice that had been silenced for so long, yet persistent in its lifelong existence. It's wrong, the voice whispered into his soul.
A week passed and for once, she came to his tent.
She barged in as if she owned the place and since it was Tharja, maybe that was what she actually thought. Libra didn't really mind the intrusion; he was just re-reading the Sacred Letters to Penia and Plutus. He placed the book upon his lap and turned toward the dark mage. Seeing her, in all her dark personage, the memories came flooding back. The memories she saw. The memories she lived. A burning something stung at his throat. He swallowed it down and waited patiently.
"I don't know how you managed to survive with such a burden." Her statement was a question. Two weeks ago, Libra would not have known that, but now…now that she had been inside his soul, he thinks he can understand her a little better.
"I didn't survive," he stated simply. He looked so calm. He wanted to laugh. He was anything but calm. His hands trembled around the manuscript in his grip.
"You became a man of the cloth," she retorted. "You found the faith and dedicated your life to bringing others hope."
"I am a hypocrite."
"You held on to the one thing that gave you something to believe in. That's not hypocrisy. That's humanity."
Libra wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. He wanted to be angry and to tell her leave, to tell her to stop peering into his heart. But she already had.
"I saw everything," she said, quietly, looking at the ground. "I know what lies in the dark depths of your heart." She looked back up at him and Libra almost flinched under her glare. "And what lies there is not as terrible as you think."
She left, then. She left, leaving him in the dark. Leaving him alone.
Except he wasn't.
"Oh! Y-yes, Libra?"
"Might you dance with me?"
That morning, they danced the Divine Ritual together as the sun slowly crept up the sky. The dew on the grass sparkled as light cast away the shadows of the night. As dawn greeted them in the morning chill, they danced. Their hands and feet painted the majesty of creation, the gratitude for life, the sorrow for sins; but most of all, they sketched the affections of love, of giving and receiving, of sacrifice and restoration. And when they lifted their hands to the sky as a symbol of their willingness to give all this and more to the gods, Libra felt something in his chest; something he had not felt since the day he made his vows. It was warm and pulsing and growing.
It was his heart.
Libra lifted himself up from his prostrated position and greeted the thief as he dusted himself off.
"What can I do for you, Gaius?"
"What you said last time, about praying for my safety and praying for the death of strangers. I've been thinking a lot about it."
Libra waited patiently as the orange-haired man trailed off. The thief scratched the back of his head before reaching for the stash of lollipops he leaves in his pocket. His hand stopped just as it was about to creep into the pocket to pull it out. His hand dropped.
"When…when we kill, do we send them into oblivion? Or do we send them to the banquet in heaven?"
Libra closed his eyes and recited, "Oh, that the earth can receive the glories of heaven, but naught can one glimpse be achieved. For high above at the banquet of the stars, we see nothing but shallow lights, not even a shadow of the truth."
The monk opened his eyes and saw the confusion on Gaius's face.
"What…what does that mean?"
"It means that we don't know."
The thief scoffed. "So, what? Praying and gods and life and death? Does that mean nothing? Do we just lounge around and waste our time kneeling in front of fires, hoping for the best? If there's nothing at the end of this, then what's the point of anything?"
Libra's heart went out to him. Gaius was so conflicted, and to be completely honest, Libra was, too. The monk wanted to give him a straight answer, but the truth was…
"I can't answer that for you, Gaius." The thief just gawked at him. Libra smiled wanly, compassion in his eyes. "I'm sorry I can't give you a better response."
"I thought priests were supposed to know everything," the orange-haired man said, muttering darkly.
Libra moved to kneel on the floor, feeling as though the conversation was soon ending. "We are naught but human, priests or laymen alike. No one knows everything, not even I. We simply…live our lives holding on to the things that give us hope, and pray that grants our lives meaning."
"Prayer. Always going back to prayer." The thief sounded bitter. And honestly, Libra could understand why.
"Yes, Gaius. Always going back to prayer." Libra cast one last glance at Gaius. "If you will excuse me, I have not yet finished my morning ritual."
About five minutes later, Libra sensed a presence beside him and a soft voice saying, "O gods, I don't know if you even exist, but I hope I can live just one more day. If I don't, I guess that's okay, too. But one more day would be nice."
One more day… Libra thought. Yes, one more day would indeed be nice.
The next battle, Libra counted ten times that he had to be saved. This was the worst count yet. He felt as though he should be discouraged, calling on the gods and their flightiness to save him over and over again.
But he did not feel discouraged. In fact, he felt much better, because this time he actually paid attention. The first time, he was saved by Robin. The second time, it was Panne. The third time, Gaius. The fourth time, Frederick. The fifth, Tharja. And then it was Gregor. After that, Henry, Nowi, Lissa and finally, Cordelia.
Ten times, he was saved. By his friends, or by the gods, he didn't know. But in the end, what was the difference?
As long as he got to live just one more day, Libra thought that was enough.