Chapter 60: The Hermit

This was the second time Renault had stirred from unconsciousness upon a friendly stranger's bed. When he woke up in Arcadia, however, he was most comfortable. Right now, by contrast, his back hurt devilishly. In fact, as he opened his eyes (no longer as blurry and unfocused) just a crack and raised his body, he realized he had been sleeping not on a bed but on nothing more than a thin blanket on a hard floor.

He coughed and raised himself up further, so that he was sitting, and opened his eyes completely. Another difference between this place (wherever it was) and Arcadia—it wasn't as well lit. It seemed to be late in the afternoon, but Renault could discern that only through the golden beams of sunlight wafting through the two small, rectangular windows on his right and left side and the open door in front of him. It was enough to give him a clear view of his surroundings.

The third difference between this unexpected lodging and his previous one: It was far meaner and much more humble. Renault's little cottage in Arcadia had been small, but it had still been somewhat larger than where he was right now. The windows in this dwelling were much smaller, barely more than slits, and certainly lacking sills or panes. The walls were drab grey; constructed not out of pleasant, soft-colored adobe but blocks of stone, making it seem slightly like a dungeon cell. It was laid out in a somewhat similar fashion to a normal cottage, though, with a few differences. There was a hearth for cooking and warmth in the center of the room, but the room itself was circular rather than rectangular. There were a pair of wooden chairs and a small wooden table on one side of the hearth, along with a small bookshelf on the other end. Finally, just behind Renault's bed there was a stairwell leading up. He could only wonder what waited on the second floor of whatever this building was.

However, he would first find out who owned it.

"Hoy! Finally awake, are you?"

Renault quickly turned to look at the doorway in front of him, beyond the hearth. Someone was standing there, now: The same person who'd greeted him just before he'd blacked out.

Renault's vision was no longer blurry, and now that he could see the man clearly, he realized why his voice reminded him of Braddock. This person looked just a bit like his dearly departed friend, albeit only vaguely. They both had long blue hair and eyes, though that was really the only similarity. This fellow was actually an inch or two shorter than Renault, and he looked much older; he was at least fifty. He was indeed dressed in a modest, uncomfortable-looking cassock similar to those favored by certain Eliminean monks but colored black rather than brown, and now Renault could see a rosary draped around his neck. His hair came down to the middle of his back and was stringy and unkempt. There were also streaks of gray which seemed as if they'd grow exponentially over the next few years. He wasn't much swarthier than Renault, but his skin was tanned, leathery, and tough, as if he'd worked in the sun for much of his life. His physique made it seem as if he did, for despite his age he didn't appear frail, weak, or slight; he was only somewhat less muscular than Renault. There were also a few wrinkles beginning to creep across the skin of his hands and what Renault could see of his face. He couldn't see much, because most of it was covered by a scraggly blue beard. It wasn't as large and grey as that of Athos, though, coming down just far enough to cover his neck.

The man's eyes…those were his most striking feature. One of them (his right) was clear and blue, locked on to Renault as his broad mouth turned up slightly in a small, quizzical almost-smile. Renault could see intelligence there, and while his gaze did not seem unkind, it wasn't exactly friendly or accepting either. His other eye, however, seemed somewhat clouded, as if there was a greyish fog around its pupil. Renault got the impression the man could not see well out of it, if at all.

"Pah," the man grumbled, "Let me guess, you're thirsty? You're in luck, stranger. Just got some water from the river, pure and clean as you could want it." He raised his right hand, and Renault could see he was carrying a large wooden bucket. He tramped over to the table, set it down, picked up the two small metal cups and dunked them in the water. He brought one up to his lips, gulping down its contents quickly and then offering a deep sigh of satisfaction. Then he put it down and walked up to Renault, still carrying the other full cup. He stood over the mercenary and held it out to him, smiling reassuringly. That smile looked forced, however, as if he was trying to mask just a bit of irritation.

Renault looked at him suspiciously and sullenly. This man did not seem malicious, nor did he exude the sort of magical power that Athos and Nergal had, but there seemed to be no reason to trust him just yet.

"Oh, by the Saint!" The man's smile disappeared and he rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me you think I'm tryin' to poison you or some stupidity like that. I don't like playin' host under the best of circumstances, and I like it even less when I've got an ungrateful guest. If I meant you ill I wouldn't have carried you in here and let you rest. Now, you want to drink or not? I wouldn't mind another swig myself, so…"

"…Alright." That was the first word Renault had spoken since Bramimond had kicked him out of the Shrine, and it wasn't exactly sincere, either. Renault wasn't thirsty—he hadn't been thirsty (or hungry) in centuries. Even so, his body still seemed strange; still somewhat weakened, somehow—and there was a sensation in his throat that seemed like it might have been parched, at least if his very dim recollections of such feelings were accurate. Ingesting food or drink couldn't hurt him any more than it helped. There was no point alienating whoever this man was or making him suspicious, at least not yet. Thus, after a moment's more hesitation, Renault accepted his host's generosity. He took the cup and drank it all down in one gulp. It indeed made him feel a little better, thankfully. He then handed it back to his benefactor without a word.

The man apparently wasn't pleased. "Well? Aren't you forgetting something?"

Renault blinked. "Eh?"

"I told you I don't like ungrateful guests. Never learned any manners, boy? How about a thank-you? And while we're at it, how about an introduction? You've been sleepin' in my bed and enjoying my hospitality and I don't even know your name!"

Renault felt his face twisting into a grimace, and he was about to release an angry retort, but then his gaze passed over the man's good eye. Again, he was reminded of Braddock…and how his best friend would have been so utterly horrified by everything he had done for the past two centuries. This caused another wave of despair to roll over Renault, as strong as it had been when Braddock had first died. He could not even summon the energy to be angry or sarcastic. He merely nodded, mumbled, "Sorry," and looked down.

This seemed to perplex his host. "Aye, that's a little better, but you could've sounded a bit more enthusiastic. I can barely hear you! And I'm still waitin' for that thank-you!"

Renault didn't look up. "Thanks," he mumbled.

Now his host seemed more exasperated than placated. "Lord, what's wrong with you?! Haven't you noticed you're lookin' at the floor rather than me? What, is something the matter? Not injured, are you?" Now he seemed a little more concerned. "You didn't seem to be when I dragged you in here, but maybe I should've checked you more thoroughly. Let's see…" He knelt down to get a better look at his guest (Renault made no response, and barely even noticed), examined him for a moment, then stood up and shook his head.

"That's an injury, all right. Injury of the heart, eh? You're grieving, lad. That's grief if I ever saw it. Not seen an expression like that on a man's face in years." He sighed. "Well, stranger, I don't know who you are, much less how in the world you found your way here, but I don't think I'll get any answers from you in this state. At least you don't look like a threat, and Elimine did say those who mourn are blessed…" He sighed again and stood up. "You can stay here for a while, 'least until you pull yourself together. Hope that won't be too long, though…this place definitely isn't suited for guests, and neither am I."

With a shrug, Renault's benefactor turned away and resumed his normal schedule, seemingly paying no more mind to his most unexpected (and unusual) visitor. He walked away from Renault, heading for the front door. Before he went back outside, though, he paused for one moment, then looked back at his guest, an unreadable expression on his bearded face.

"My name's Varek," he said. "I'll wait till you've pulled yourself together to ask yours. But when you do, just remember to call me Varek."

He then strode out his door, leaving Renault alone.

-x-

Renault had started dreaming again.

Perhaps "dreaming" wasn't the right word for it—'reminiscing' might have been more accurate. Before, when Renault closed his eyes, he would always see visions of Braddock, walking through that blazing battlefield with that sad expression on his face. Tonight's dream also involved Braddock. But this time, it seemed to be based on the past rather than some fantasy battlescape. As he slept, Renault saw snatches of his past life floating up through his consciousness. Memories of not only Braddock but his other friends, like Keitha and Kelitha, his enemies, like Trunicht and Cypher, and his family, like his mother and his father, who had died so very long ago…

Indeed, it seemed as if he had been hit by something more than grief. Bramimond must have done something to his memories. They kept floating back up, as clear as if he'd experienced every moment of his life literally yesterday.

He saw his mother's face, smiling at him as he ate a meal as a child, and that same face, looking sad and uncaring as he first left to become a mercenary…

His father reading a book with him, and his father coughing up blood on his deathbed…

He heard malicious laughter as Trunicht murdered Kelitha, and a scream of pain as he drove his sword through the Black Knight's chest…

But more than anyone else, he heard and saw Braddock.

Nobles are such assholes. Am I right, or am I right?

"Braddock…"

Renault…don't fall in love with violence, alright?

"Blessed Creator, Lord of all heaven and earth, I give praise and thanks to you as a new day dawns."

It's an old Lycian warrior's custom. Each man cuts his own hand, and then shakes hands with his fellow soldiers, the ones he considers brothers.

"Braddock…"

Renault…I want you to find…

"Blessed Elimine, speaker of the Lord's wisdom and His most favored emissary, I commemorate your sacrifices as a new day dawns."

I want you to find…

"Braddock…"

Another way to live…

Renault furrowed his brow, Braddock's last words echoing through his mind and his lips repeating his friend's name as he awoke. Yet, for some reason, those were not the only things he was hearing. There was another man's voice—similar to Braddock's, but not the same. And it was repeating the dry words of an old prayer, over and over again. This was what had roused Renault from his slumber.

Varek was sitting on the stone floor across from Renault, wearing the same dull black cassock as he'd been yesterday. His eyes were closed as he rocked back and forth, chanting that prayer over and over again. His hands, even though they were wizened and old, threaded through the beads of his rosary with a Swordmaster's dexterity, counting each prayer swiftly as he finished it.

"Blessed Creator, Lord of all heaven and earth, I give praise and thanks to you as a new day dawns. Blessed Elimine, speaker of the Lord's wisdom and His most favored emissary, I commemorate your sacrifices as a new day dawns."

"Ugh," Renault grumbled, raising a hand to massage his temples. He had heard a similar prayer the night before, he recalled. In fact, it had been the only notable event from yesterday. He had been too consumed with grief, sorrow, and shame to do anything at all after Varek had left him. He'd simply sat on the old blanket, looking at nothing as the man—the hermit, apparently—went about his daily business. Renault wasn't really sure what that was, he hadn't been paying the least amount of attention to his surroundings. But he remembered the front door to the dwelling opening and closing, Varek setting a fire in the hearth and cooking a couple small meals of stew, offering them to Renault and then withdrawing them when Renault made no response to him, and also picking up and reading a few books from the small shelf on the far side of the room. It was after his second meal, when the sun had fallen and the flames of the hearth providing the only light in the little first-floor room, that Varek had begun to chant a prayer. As he was now, he knelt alone on the hard floor and rocked back and forth, pushing along the beads of his rosary with his fingers, and though Renault didn't remember the words he'd said exactly, they were similar to the one he was currently repeating. Those nightly prayers, which were chanted a total of fifty-two times, were that last thing Renault remembered hearing before Varek set himself down upon the stone floor and slept (without complaint), and before Renault felt himself taken by sleep as well.

"Blessed Creator, Lord of all heaven and earth, I give praise and thanks to you as a new day dawns. Blessed Elimine, speaker of the Lord's wisdom and His most favored emissary, I commemorate your sacrifices as a new day dawns."

Renault stared at Varek. He thought of saying something, but his voice caught in his throat, choked by a resurgence of his grief and shame. Any time he tried to speak, or even move, the image of Braddock reappeared in his mind, along with the knowledge of how much his friend would loathe him if he were alive. That was enough to paralyze him entirely.

Thus, Renault found himself unable to say or do anything until Varek finished his prayers.

"Blessed Creator, Lord of all heaven and earth, I give praise and thanks to you as a new day dawns. Blessed Elimine, speaker of the Lord's wisdom and His most favored emissary, I commemorate your sacrifices as a new day dawns."

Varek's fingers traced the last bead before the terminus of his holy necklace. Renault gave the relic a closer look—it seemed to be the most luxurious object in the hermit's otherwise austere dwelling. It was essentially a silver necklace, with ten beads of sapphire, ruby, opal, emerald, and topaz each (for a total of fifty) spread equidistantly around its loop. At the front of the loop, hanging by a bit of chain as a pendant would, was the symbol of the Church of Elimine, cast in gold: A circle whose bottom radius was crossed by a single line.

Varek had gone through all of the beads, and he was holding that symbol, now. Still shutting his eyes tightly, he spoke the very last prayer which ended this set:

"Most holy God, as the day begins I ask for Your charity and grace. It is to You I owe my life, and on Your protection I rely. May You watch over me, and may my hands do good, my tongue speak justly, and my mind attest to Your glory, as You will. May the words and deeds of Your blessed Saint, the holy Elimine, stir me and keep me on the path of righteousness. And as You guided Elimine on her Journey, may You guide me on mine as well. Amen."

Varek sighed contentedly, lifted the symbol of Elimine to his lips and kissed it, then turned to look at Renault, whom he noticed had awoken. "Ah, sorry about that," he said, in a tone that did not seem to be entirely apologetic. "Did I wake you up?"

"Yeah," said Renault sullenly, his dislike of religion managing to pierce through, at least slightly, his haze of grief.

"Well, I am sorry. I didn't mean to," said Varek, and this time he did seem to be genuinely contrite. "Those were my morning prayers. Every Eliminean ought to say them, but for a hermit like myself, they're absolutely required! Still, I'll try to be more quiet, at least while I have a guest." He allowed himself a small smile. "Unless you'd like to pray with me, of course? I'm not the most sociable of men, but it's always a blessing to meet another follower of the Path. I'd be more than happy to worship with you. Not permanently—I am a hermit, after all—but as long as you're here, if there's anything even someone as humble as I can do to help with your spiritual growth, you need only ask."

Renault shook his head, his irritation continuing to resist his heartache. "I've got no use for religion," he sneered.

"Is that so?" Varek's smile disappeared. He raised a hand to cough, somewhat violently—it was more than just a passing annoyance; Renault got the impression that the man might actually be sick. Still, though he wasn't smiling, Varek seemed otherwise unperturbed. He apparently wouldn't allow himself to be rattled. After hacking and coughing again, he said, "You've been relying on a religious man's charity since yesterday. Seems to me you've got at least a bit of use for it, ungrateful as you may be."

This made Renault quite suspicious. "I didn't ask to show up on your doorstep." Wherever that may be, he thought. "What, do I owe you or something? If you're looking for repayment, I don't have anything to give." This was true—he'd noticed after he woke up that neither his sword nor the incredibly valuable book were still in his possession, but after everything he'd learned from Bramimond, he hadn't cared where they went. "You want me to convert, is that it?"

Varek coughed again and shook his head. "No, stranger, I desire absolutely nothing from you. My kindness is freely given and comes with no price. And if you're worrying about me trying to convert you, don't. I've been called to prayer, not evangelism. Lord knows I've no right to lecture anyone, not with the sort of life I've lived. I'll not condemn you, nor threaten you with curses or try and guilt you into belief. I will, however, worship and praise the Creator, as is my purpose here. If you don't like it, I am sorry, but you'll have to leave."

"Alright, I—" Renault was about to take him up on his offer before he realized something very important:

If he left wherever he was currently staying, where would he go?

For the past two hundred years, every single step he had taken, every last moment of his wandering, was directed towards his reunion with Braddock. Now, however, he could not possibly avoid the truth: It was a foolish, impossible quest, and even more importantly, his friend would be horrified and ashamed of him for undertaking it, for committing all the crimes he had in search of an unattainable goal.

Now, then, what did he have left? What could he do, and where could he go? And what would be the point? The vast majority of his centuries-long life had been spent searching for a way to defeat death, and since he no longer had that…he had absolutely nothing at all.

He could leave this strange little hermitage, if he so desired. But it would be entirely pointless. He would find no more peace outside that door than he would here, nothing to justify his unhappy existence beyond the thin blanket upon which he sat. For a moment, he considered ending his own life again—but then another memory, Braddock's last words, his exhortation for him to live, echoed through his mind, and he promptly banished the thought. Instead, he simply shook his head, shut his mouth, and collapsed back down upon his blanket, arms hanging limply over his knees, and resumed his staring off into space, blankly and miserably.

Varek stared at him for a moment, let out another pained, whooping cough, and then sighed and shook his head. "Regardless of whether or not you believe, your grief feels like my own. It feels as the Saint's did," said Varek quietly. "In any case, my earlier offer to you remains. You can stay here as long as you want, at least until your heart is no longer torn. When you've pulled yourself together, you can resume your travels and I will wish you the best."

Renault didn't respond, but he'd heard what Varek said.

The hermit did pause for a moment, though, considering what he'd just said, then took back his earlier words. "Wait, there is something I'd like from you."

Renault's head snapped up, the hostility in his gaze returning…

"What's your name, son?"

"Wait, what, my name?"

"Aye. I'd like to know who I'm sharin' my roof with, at least."

"My name…" It took a bit of effort for Renault to even say those two words. If Braddock couldn't hear what he said, and would never be able to hear what he said, he saw no purpose in saying anything at all. But, once again, another memory floated up unbidden in his mind—his friend repeating his name as he died. And, lost in that memory, he repeated what he heard.

"Renault…"

"Renault? That's your name?"

He could still see Braddock's dying form before his eyes, and hear his last dying words—clearly, now, thanks to the 'help' Bramimond had given him. He was too distracted to respond to Varek's query more clearly, but he did nod slightly, and that was enough for his host.

"Renault? A good name for a man," Varek said, just before he let out another cough. "Well, Renault, you're welcome here. I don't know how you found yourself here, or what happened to you, but I hope your stay brings you some measure of peace."

With that, he got up and headed for the door, once again beginning his daily routine and leaving Renault alone with his thoughts.

-x-

This state of affairs lasted for about four days. Renault found this out later, because he certainly wasn't paying much attention to time. In fact, he paid only the slightest bit of attention to his surroundings. He had instead spent all that time (when he wasn't sleeping, at least) on his little blanket in the corner, doing the same thing he had his first day here: absolutely nothing, just sitting and staring at the floor, contemplating his grief and the horror of what Bramimond had shown him. To his credit, he was no longer entertaining even fleeting thoughts of suicide, but he still was unable to do so much as get to his feet of his own volition. He occasionally glanced around himself before returning to his reverie, though, and he could still hear what went on around him. From this, he acquired a vague idea of Varek's daily schedule.

He woke up with those prayers, all fifty-two of them, chanted with the help of that rosary. Renault didn't pay much attention to them, but he understood the gist of them: Praise of God and Elimine and a plea for their help in starting the day. Then, Varek would leave the dwelling for a little bit, coming back with a bucket of water and some fish, which Renault surmised he caught in the river running through the sanctuary. Varek would boil those fish or fry them over the hearth, on occasion. Afterwards, he'd take a book from the shelf and read it for a few hours before beginning his midday prayers. Another 50 repetitive chants, though Renault, only half-paying attention, got the idea that they were slightly different in tone from the morning prayers, focused on contemplation and asking for God's protection. Following those prayers, he would again leave for a few hours, during which time Renault assumed he'd be working on the garden or farm which provided the vegetables he ate. When the sun began to fall he'd come back, this time with game in hand. The first day Renault had seen him bring in a hare, the second a pair of doves. Renault wasn't sure, but he got the impression the hermit bred the birds. Either way, in both cases he cleaned and prepared the animals with the efficiency and skill of an experienced hunter and roasted them over the hearth's fire. After that, he took out another book and read, and then, when the sun had disappeared completely and the only light was from the dying embers of the hearth or the small candles on the table, he would begin to pray a final time, singing of his frailty and fallibility and begging God for forgiveness of his sins.

Over the course of those four days, neither spoke a word to the other. Varek, it seemed, had forgotten Renault even existed, and Renault, for his part, acted as if he felt the same way about Varek. Though he heard and saw Varek's coming and goings (of course, what lay outside the little dwelling remained a complete mystery to him), none of them elicited any reaction from him. He'd stayed in the same place—hunched up on that blanket—for over half a week. He still had to sleep, however. Not even his miserable mental state could outweigh his unnatural body's need for rest, exactly six hours every day.

And when he closed his eyes, he continued to dream.

It was strange, very strange. The dreams were just like those he'd had on his first night here. Not the ones which had accompanied him for years—images of Braddock fleeing from him in horror. No, they were memories. Of more than just Braddock's last moments, too. He re-lived many of the battles he and his friend had fought, and also many of the nicest times they'd spent together, from the day he'd first met.

On his second night, he dreamed of the first trip to Scirocco he'd taken with Braddock…

Rosamia was a statuesque woman, but not a particularly strong one, and while she wasn't having much trouble unloading the modest sleeping mats, Renault and Braddock could still do it faster. "Hold on, miss," Braddock said as he went beside her and hauled up another mat, "my friend and I can help you out. Come on, Renault, lend a hand!"

He remembered his friend's reaction at his refusal to bury the dead body of Revil, the tax collector…

"Come on, Renault," Braddock admonished, somewhat disappointed by his friend's petulance. "We might as well get the body out of sight while we're here. It'll be pretty bad to have to look at some nasty corpse when we're heading back, won't it?"

And he remembered what Braddock had told him when the Ostian had received a pretty serious beating from a grieving Roberto…

"Renault, I told you, I'm fine. Don't worry about it." He looked away. "Can't say I didn't deserve it, either…"

During the third night, Renault continued to dream. This time, memories of his service with Khyron and the Autonomous Company floated through his mind. He remembered Braddock upbraiding the Great General due to his lack of concern for the Ilian mercenaries…

"I just want you to know, though, that some of us died to 'do our duty,' as you said." This admission drew surprised glances from the rest of the group. "What were their names," Braddock continued, "Imelle, Hiyu, and…Vayin, I think? They left with us, but they didn't come back. You're not even gonna say anything for them?"

He remembered what Braddock had said in response to Keith's declaration of faith in him…

"Damn, that's some good principles you got there, girl," the Ostian whistled appreciatively. "Just promise me you'll never lose that, alright?"

And, oddest of all, just before he woke up on his fourth morning with Varek, he dreamt of a conversation he'd once had with Braddock:

"Renault, did you ever think you've given religion too little credit?"

The nobles may be bad, but they're not as bad as Paptimus. And even if Eliminism or any other religion isn't correct, it's got to be better than what Paptimus has to offer!"

It's not like I'm askin' you to buy into all that stuff either. I'm just saying…don't look at it in such a…I dunno, such a one-dimensional light, I guess?"

That last request echoed in Renault's mind as he awoke from sleep. He was still grieving and miserable, but hearing his friend's voice again, even if only in memory, made him feel slightly less lonely, at least. However, hearing Braddock in his head while hearing nothing around him piqued his interest. He sat up, still feeling an ache in his back (he'd not yet gotten used to sleeping on the ground) and looked around. The house was completely empty, though the door was open, sunlight streaming merrily through.

After four days, this was finally enough to pique his curiosity and spur him to get off his blanket for the first time.

"Varek," he called, quietly at first, then louder, a second time. "Varek?"

There was no response. Renault thought of staying quiet and continuing his unhappy reverie, but all those dreams of Braddock had left a mark on him. He'd began to wonder if that strange hermit more than Bramimond was responsible for them—after all, he did remind Renault of Braddock for some reason, and Renault wasn't sure why. Hoping to find an answer, he finally got up. He was pleased to find his feet were steady. At least part of Bramimond's enchantments had wore off, and his eternally-young body hadn't atrophied at all despite so much time lying inactive. Renault then made his way past the table and hearth and out the front door, stepping into the sunlight.

What he saw amazed him.

At first glance, there was nothing out of the ordinary here. The sky above him was blue and bright, the snow below pure and white. In front of the doorway there were a few round stones jutting out of the ground, their placement implying they might have been part of a path which had been long since overgrown. In front of him, following the path for about fifty feet, was the front side of a grey stone wall somewhat taller than he was, ostensibly designed to give this area some privacy. It was, however, broken by a single wooden gate through which occasional visitors could come.

All in all, everything so far seemed like just what he would expect from a hermitage or any other retreat designed to give its inhabitants a degree of solitude. That wasn't what surprised him. No, the really amazing thing was that he was pretty sure he recognized this place.

Renault took a few steps forward and then turned back to confirm his suspicions. As he expected, the building from which he came was a squat, two-story structure with a very distinctive decoration on top of it.

A statue of Saint Elimine, arms held out wide. The very same statue he'd seen standing tall above the hermitage walls when he'd first came to the Shrine of Seals.

He was, therefore, still inside Bramimond's magical abode. Now he knew where he was, but that just raised as many questions as answers. Why had Bramimond sent him here? And what was Varek doing here in the first place?

He could get those answers when he found Varek, though. To that end, he started to look around. When he glanced down at the snow, he saw footprints leading towards that wooden gate. He followed them, wandering back onto the beautiful little plateau, and when he heard coughing he knew he was near his destination.

Varek was sitting on a tree stump outside the walls, right near another tree. He was holding an axe with one hand. His other was covering his mouth, and he was hacking and coughing furiously.

That definitely wasn't good. "Whoah, old man," said Renault, a note of concern—the first genuine concern he'd displayed for another human being in several years—entering his voice. "Are you…chopping firewood? In this condition?"

With one more throaty cough Varek's head shot up, quite surprised—he clearly wasn't expecting to be interrupted. "Ah! D—curses, is that you, Renault?! Don't surprise me like that!"

"I'm sorry!" He held up his hands as a show of peace. "I hadn't seen or heard from you in a while, so I was starting to get worried."

Varek's expression softened somewhat. "Worried, eh? Well, thanks for your concern. I mean that, lad. I don't need it, though, I'm doing just fine." He started to laugh before being interrupted by another cough. "Hah, hah—gah! Well, I'm glad to see you're up and about, at least. Feelin' better?"

Not really, Renault thought, but what he said was different: "Better than you, at least. I don't think it's a good idea to push yourself so hard when you're sick like this." He paused for a moment, because, strangely enough, an image of Braddock flashed through his mind. Renault blinked, and then continued. "Look, I can cut us up some firewood. Why don't you go back in and rest for a bit?"

Varek shook his head vociferously. It seemed he was actually somewhat offended by the suggestion. "I'm not so weak I need to beg one of my guests for help. Ack! J-just go back inside, I'll be done soon and I'll make us a good fire. Or just take your leave now, if you—eh!—wish. Either way, I'm not an invalid! I'm supposed to give charity, not receive it!"

Renault allowed an irritated grimace to spread across his face. "That's how you're gonna be? Alright, have it your way." He turned away and began to march towards the stairs that led back down, out of the mountain plateau. The cold wouldn't affect his unnatural body much, and even if it did, at this point the only thing death could do was bring him closer to Braddock. If that stubborn old hermit wanted to die as well, that was fine with him.

But even as these thoughts ran through his mind, he remembered Braddock's last words.

I want you to live.

He took another step away from the sick hermit.

I want you to find…another way to live.

One more step. But this one was much more hesitant, and after it, Renault stopped. He took a deep breath and exhaled, though the cold air of his dead lungs did not steam around him.

"Braddock," he said quietly. "Braddock…you…you wanted me to find another way to live, man. So…so what would you do? What would you want me to do?"

He looked up at the clear blue sky, feeling the cold wind on his skin, and remembered what he'd dreamt about last night.

He remembered Braddock cheerfully lending a hand to Rosamia…speaking on behalf of the Ilians to Henken…training Keith, and getting an apple for her she was too short to reach…

And he remembered the first time he and Braddock had fought together, when his friend—just an axeman at the time—had jumped in front of him to shield him from a Pegasus Knight's attack. He had risked his life to help Renault, despite not knowing him for more than a couple of weeks.

"Braddock…you helped me. You helped everybody…"

Renault continued to ponder that blue sky for a few moments longer, and then blinked. He knew what he needed to do. At least, he knew what he would have done if Braddock was next to him.

He turned around and headed back to Varek.

::Linear Notes::

Not much to say about this chapter, except that Varek's prayers are loosely based on the IRL Catholic rosary prayers. The "dry words of an old prayer" line is also inspired by a line in Armored Trooper VOTOMs: The Shining Heresy. Keep reading for more background on the religion of Elimine and this world :D