Chapter 63: A Blessing for a Prince

Renault stared down at the table in front of him, on which was an array of dried green plants. He brought his eyes up and saw Varek looking at him patiently. Despite the fact that this was a test and he would be judged, though, Renault didn't feel much pressure at all. He'd mastered this subject by now, so he knew he'd succeed.

Without hesitation, he pointed to each of the plants and recited their uses and effects on the human body.

"Elderberry, Rosehips, Yarrow…good for inflammations, some diseases, and swelling. Sage, Calendula, and Comfrey…clear the nose and throat of phlegm. Nettle and apple for upset : Purges the body, mixed with sage, can staunch small wounds. Redweed: Clears the bowels. Bark of willow: Soothes pain."

As he outlined the last one, he fell quiet and looked at Varek expectantly. The hermit whistled appreciatively. "Saint's blessin's, Renault, that was quite impressive. You've only been here five months and you've already memorized all o' those herbs. You're not a master yet, but you've sure got a knack for learning."

Renault smiled back. "I've been reading old Nessarion's Manual of the Green Children and the Royal Academy's herbalism manuscripts nonstop. Not as if I had anything better to do, right? So it only makes sense I got so good at it."

"Heh, I suppose that's true. Alright, then, let's see you make a salve!"

Varek pointed Renault to the mortar, pestle, and other medicinal supplies next to the herbs on the table, and the apprentice quickly and happily got started. The swift, dexterous hands which served Renault well as a builder and better as a swordsman were equally suited to an apothecary's work. He took some of the dried winterberry, redweed, and yarrow, carefully measuring how much he was holding between his fingertips, and set them into the mortar. With equal precision he ground them up with the pestle; in a few minutes they'd been reduced to a fine powder at the bottom of the bowl. Standing up, he went to the center of the room, near the hearth, as Varek watched. The fire was already burning merrily to provide warmth, and he set over it a nearby metal pan. He then retrieved some ingredients from the table: A small vial of pungent oil, a small block of beeswax, and the powder he'd created. He carefully decanted the oil onto the pan; after it had heated came the powder, and then at last the beeswax, melting into the mixture. With a wooden spoon Renault stirred the concoction, and after some time, when it seemed ready, he motioned for Varek to see how he did. The hermit took the spoon, scooped up a little bit of the hot salve, blew on it to cool it down, and then rubbed it between his fingers. The substance rubbed into his skin smoothly and cleanly. He nodded to indicate his satisfaction, and Renault hastily got to storing the stuff, running to a nearby shelf for a glass jar, then delicately ladling the salve into the jar while it was still hot before screwing the jar's cover on for storage.

"Good work, lad. Very good," said Varek with just a hint of pride. "You can rest, now. You've earned it, in my view. I'll make us dinner…well, make me dinner, at least."

"Actually, Varek, I could catch the fish for tonight. If you're giving me a break, I wanted to take a walk, and I like fishing."

Varek shrugged. "Suit yourself. Suppose I can get some more reading done, in that case. Just make sure you're back with a catch before sunset."

That Renault could do, and happily. He stood up, walked out of the cottage's door, and took in a deep breath of brisk Bernese mountain air. There wasn't a smile on his face, as even after five months of relative peace his sorrow and regret had not left him completely. Around Varek, though, it seemed more like an ache than a debilitating pain, and even his horrid loneliness, the misery of being alone without Braddock, seemed less obvious.

Understandable, to an extent—Varek really did remind of him Braddock. Aside from their hair, they were similar in a few regards. They were both capable, self-reliant, and intelligent, and neither went out of their way to berate, lecture, or criticize Renault. Indeed, both had been pretty patient with him. Of course, both were also different in even more ways, meaning that Renault's loneliness wouldn't be entirely assuaged. Aside from Braddock being bigger, he was also friendlier, funnier, and more talkative. Varek, as expected of a hermit, didn't speak much to Renault unless something was particularly important. And while Renault and Braddock could talk to each other—and did—about practically anything and everything, Varek wasn't the sort of man Renault could open his heart to entirely.

At least…not yet. He had been willing to listen to Renault's life story, even if only the bare basics of it. That was more than anyone else had offered him since he had been betrayed by Nergal, and that little bit of kindness was enough to sustain Renault, and at least keep some spark of hope burning in his consciousness.

And all in all, Varek was a good teacher too, as Braddock had been. The past five months had been immensely productive, which also helped to take Renault's mind off his troubles. Almost every day his routine had consisted of waking up with Varek, waiting for him to finish his prayers, and then heading up to the second floor of the hermitage, where the apothecary's materials were kept. Varek would spend a few hours showing him how to properly use the herbalist's tools of the trade (mortar and pestle, the proper ways to apply salves and ointments, and so on), showing him the differences between the various sorts of plants in the area (carefully instructing him on which ones were hurtful and which beneficial, along with how to tell them apart), and giving him readings from the various texts and manuscripts the very well-read Varek had stored in his home. Renault would then help out with chores and sometimes cooking Varek's meals, and then his education in the healing arts would continue 'till it was time for Varek's nightly prayers and sleep.

It felt good. Quite good, really. Renault was satisfied by the progress he was making. And while texts on herbs and medicine weren't as engaging as the history books he and Braddock liked to read, he did enjoy the intellectual exercise. And though the making of salves and ointments was nowhere near as exciting as the waging of war, the screams of dying men reminded Renault of nothing more than the death of his friend, now. He was more than happy to get away from it all. If this was peace, perhaps Braddock was right. Perhaps it wasn't so bad at all…or rather, wouldn't be bad if the Ostian were still alive.

The shadow of Braddock's death still lingered over Renault, but it seemed less heavy than it had originally been. Renault still dreamt, but the dreams came less often, and they seemed less like nightmares, too. Somehow, one way or another, Renault got the feeling he was making progress. Towards what, he didn't know, but he was honoring the memory of his best friend better than he had been. At the very least, it seemed like he wouldn't be driven insane by visions of his best friend fleeing from him in horror and fear.

Renault took another deep breath as he continued his leisurely stroll around the grounds of the small hermitage. Another advantage of living here was how plain nice it looked—the beauty of the hermitage was obvious now that the snow was melting and spring had arrived. Renault had never lost his appreciation for natural beauty, and this strange little sanctuary had it in spades. The air seemed to be as clean and invigorating as Renault had ever known—in Etruria or even the grasslands of Sacae, there were always impurities from the smoke of civilized settlements or the detritus left behind by passing nomadic tribes. A place as high-up and isolated as this, however, had absolutely nothing tainting its winds. The sky was almost always clear except when it rained, allowing Renault to see a vast, blue canopy that turned into a lovely pastiche of orange, red, and violet in the evenings and a magnificent panorama of hundreds upon hundreds of stars at night. The greenery seemed as bright and healthy as any Renault had seen in Sacae as well—grass so clean and thick one could walk on it barefoot just for pleasure, and tall trees of such variety he knew it couldn't be natural as well. Evergreens, elms, willows, and others all managed to find sustenance in the same soil, growing tall and proud into the air like dozens of emerald spires belonging to a forest-lord's plantish castle.

Topping it all off was the animal life. Even when he wasn't catching them, Renault found a degree of peace in watching strong trout and bass swim through the crystal-clear currents of the mountain river running through the sanctuary. The swimming-races held by the fish were accompanied by a rousing chorus provided by birds of all sorts, as varied as the trees in which they nested. Hawks soared overhead, occasionally descending to join Renault in making meals of fish, flocks of sparrows weaved between the mighty trees, passing by robins making their nests there, and occasionally filching the everberries in the bushes outside the walls from the hermitage's most numerous inhabitants: The doves. Aside from his studies in herbalism, Renault had also taken to caring form Varek's dovecots, almost over the hermit's objections. Even at the very start of his journey in Thagaste, he'd loved birds, and found himself a little less lonely whenever he had an opportunity to pay his cooing friends a visit. And it wasn't just sentimentalism on his part, either—city-dwellers might have detested pigeons for doing nothing but dirtying their fine buildings, but Varek's doves more than made up for their messiness. Dove eggs and meat were the only luxury the ascetic allowed himself, and it was just as well, for those buttressed Varek's otherwise spare diet of grains and vegetables; it was likely he'd be somewhat malnourished without those birds. Caring for them was just one more way Renault had managed to find a degree of peace for the first time in many years.

And yet, despite all this beauty, Renault still wasn't certain why it was all here—why any of it was here, why he was here, why Bramimond was here, and most importantly, why Varek and his little hermitage were here. Renault had a decent understanding of the Scouring and why Bramimond needed to set up a "Shrine of Seals:" The Divine Weapons might perhaps be necessary in the future, but until then their power needed to be kept under the tightest restraint possible. Thus, Renault could understand why Bramimond had hidden himself and his Shrine under so many strange magical barriers, so no-one could easily find him and un-seal the weapons. But why had he crafted this beautiful, enchanted sanctuary around his shrine? And why would he, a master of Darkness, not only allow an Eliminean hermit to live here but apparently provide for him? And how did Varek get here? Likely not the same way as Renault did, but the former mercenary surmised his host had a tale to tell that was not much less interesting than his own.

Even so, Renault had never asked Varek about any of this. There was an unspoken understanding between the two men: While Varek would not pressure Renault any further about his past and what he had done before coming to the hermitage, Renault also understood that Varek wasn't the sort who liked talking about his own past very much, or about the mysteries surrounding the Shrine of Seals. If Renault wanted to give Varek answers, his understood that Varek would likely want answers from him in return.

As these thoughts rolled around in his head, Renault looked up and noticed that the first tinges of sunset were beginning to appear in the sky overhead. He immediately changed direction and headed towards the river, picking up his trusty fishing spear lying next to nearby tree as he did so. Leaving things outside was common for both Renault and Varek, since the sheer isolation of this area meant it was very unlikely thieves or other immoral people would come by to steal anything.

As he neared the river, though, he would discover that this little sanctuary was not quite as isolated as he thought.

"What the hell?" Five months of easy living had not dulled his instincts for battle—Renault immediately ducked and grabbed his spear when he heard the beating of large, leathery wings above him and saw a great shadow cast on the ground in front of him. He whirled around and saw what could only be a Wyvern Lord descending behind him. The man was clad in full purplish-black plate mail with gold gilding on the pauldrons, along with an armet of the same color—its visor was lowered, so Renault couldn't see his face. He had in one hand a blue-and-gold spear; Renault could sense the magic radiating from it and surmised it was a Brave Lance. His mount was quite large, even for a Wyvern, and equally fierce-looking and acting. Its red scales gleamed in the sunlight, and it let out a low snarl as its yellow eyes fixed on Renault.

"I think that ought to be my line," quipped the Wyvern Lord as he landed. "You're definitely not Varek, or Lucian, or anyone else I know. What're you doing here?"

"I…" Renault tightened his grip on his spear as he stopped to consider his answer. He had no idea who the newcomer was or what he wanted, and thus no idea if this man was friend or foe—to him or his host. Besides, he certainly wasn't going to mention killing Lucian, getting rejected by Bramimond, and ending up in the care of a hermit to a total stranger. However, he also knew there was no chance of besting this warrior. If he'd still had his weapons and armor, it might have been a possibility, but cheap clothes and a fishing spear not meant for combat (and which he wasn't good at fighting with anyways, being a swordsman) would not prevail against a wyvern, full plate, and a Brave Lance.

Diplomacy and a little bit of fudging the truth were the order of the day, then. Unfortunately, while Renault wasn't bad at the latter, the former was very much not his strong suit. "I'm a…traveler. A traveler who…lost…lost his way." A pang of guilt and sorrow coursed through him as he was reminded of Braddock. That, at least, was true. "Varek took me in, and I'm staying with him. That's all."

This seemed to amuse the visitor slightly, but wasn't enough to convince him. "A traveler, eh? Someone's wayward son? Well, taking in that sort of folk is the sort of thing Varek would do…or any good Eliminean, really. Trouble is, this isn't the sort of place people can just stumble on. You need the Royal family's guide to get here on foot, or a talisman like mine to pierce through the clouds in the air. And those aren't easy to come by. You're hiding something, and I'd like to know what it is." The hint of good humor left his voice. "And if it's something that could hurt Varek or this country, not even blessed Elimine would be able to save you from me."

"No! No, listen! I'm not here to hurt anyone, least of all Varek. I…it's a long story. Varek can tell you everything."

"Where is he?"

"I left him in his cottage to read."

"Why don't you show me to him?"

Renault narrowed his eyes and tightened his grip on his makeshift spear. "Why should I? I don't know any more about you than you do about me. You're pretty heavily armed for someone just paying a visit to a hermit. I don't want Varek to get hurt, either. How can I tell if you're his friend or his enemy?"

The Wyvern Lord had no response to that. He said absolutely nothing-the only sound in all the sanctuary came from the clanking of his armor as he raised a hand to lift the visor of his helmet from over his face, to stare down at Renault. Renault could only see his eyes, which were bluish-green and seemingly benign, though the former mercenary wouldn't let his guard down 'till he could see the stranger's entire face.

What the man did next, however, was almost enough to make Renault drop his weapon out of surprise.

He tossed his head back and laughed, loudly. The happy sound seemed to echo across the entirety of Bramimond's strange sanctuary, but Renault didn't join in.

"Eh? Damn it, what's so funny?!"

"Oh—oh, by the Saint," chuckled the stranger, trying stifle his laughter, "well, I can give you credit for one thing: You don't seem to be here on bad business. But we still have a problem! I can't tell if you're really that dumb or just pretending to be dumb!"

"What the hell did you say?!" Renault felt his anger rising, but gritted his teeth as he restrained it—he still had enough composure to realize picking a fight with a Wyvern Lord was a bad idea. "Are you some kind of celebrity or something? You don't look much different from every other lizard jockey I've seen over the years."

"Lizard jockey, huh?" He snorted. "Hell of a smart mouth you got there. Nobody without Varek's patience could out up with you for long—no wonder you're hiding out here. I have to say, though, if you're just playing at being dumb you're doing a great job. I know some theater troupes in Etruria who'd be glad to have you."

"Then why not play along with my ignorant rube act a little more? Tell me who you are, why you're here, and why I should care."

"If you're too blind or stupid to tell by looking," the man pointed to his gilded pauldrons, "I'm Harod."

"Harod who?"

"Wyvern General Harod! How the hell can you live in Bern and not know who I am?"

"Oh, you're a Wyvern General? That makes sense." Renault lowered his fishing spear. "You're probably here on royal orders, which means you wouldn't be here to harm anyone under Bramimond's protection."

"What an incredible deduction! You're as good a logician as old Ocken."

It was obvious Harod was being sarcastic, but Renault had no idea who Ocken was, so he didn't much care. "Thanks. In any case, since you've introduced yourself, I'll repay the favor. My name's Renault."

"Hmph." Harod seemed a bit less guarded now. "At least it seems like you're not totally without manners. Well met."

"Varek's big on politeness, so as long as I'm here I'll show it. Anyways, I'll take you to—"

Renault needn't have worried. As he turned, he saw the old hermit walking towards them. "What's all this commotion? Renault, what've you been doing?"

Harod dismounted from his wyvern (which, after seeing Varek, had actually become quite placid—even beasts had respect for the holy man, it seemed) and genuflected. "You honor me with your presence, father. I thank God and His Saint for your continued health."

Varek smiled (though it was slightly strained, indicating he didn't care for such deference) and nodded, returning Harod's greeting with his own faith-filled response: "You've blessed me, son, and I hope God and His Saint continue to smile upon you as well." With the formalities over, he allowed himself a chuckle. "You've met Renault, eh?"

The ex-mercenary and present Wyvern Lord shot each other suspicious looks. "I have," said Harod. "What's he doing here?"

Varek waved a hand in the air. "It's a strange story, and one that would take too long to tell. Let's just say he has Lord Bramimond's dispensation and means no harm. He's actually made himself useful around here, truth be told. I can tolerate him."

"Is that so?" Varek shot Renault another look, and this time it was apologetic. "I suppose I was wrong. I'm sorry for interrogating you as I did when we first met, Renault."

Renault just shrugged. "Hmph."

"Not very graceful," said Harod dryly. "I apologized to you; can't you do the same?"

"Apologize?" asked Varek, "what did he do?"

"He called me a lizard-jockey."

Varek stared at Renault with a combination of surprise and annoyance.

Renault, for his part, felt oddly like a small child being scolded, and had to resist the urge to shuffle his feet and hang his head. "Look, I didn't know who he was, and I thought he might've been a threat to you. I couldn't help being less than polite!"

"Renault, I can appreciate your concern, but that's still no reason to insult a visitor."

"He was a complete stranger and could've been dangerous! It's only natural to be less than respectful!"

"Maybe it's natural," Varek said bluntly, "but it's not actually wise. If he really was a threat, insults would have provoked him more likely'n not."

"But that's—" Renault stopped when he realized he couldn't come up with a particularly good retort.

"It's fine, Father, I'm not really that offended."

"I know, but guests do come every now and then an' I want Renault to learn how to treat 'em. There's an old saying, lad, that people aren't befouled by what comes into their mouth, but what comes out. Using a slur like "lizard-jockey" is no way to treat anyone, and I don't want to hear you say anything like that again in my earshot. Now, apologize."

"What comes out rather than comes in? That…" Renault knew that phrase. He'd heard it a long, long time ago. But where? He'd first heard it before he met Braddock...didn't his mother tell him that? In any case, he wanted to protest, wanted to argue, to carry on about why he was right, but as he opened his mouth, a memory popped back into his head—a memory of Braddock, which meant it actually was clear:

"Don't say it, man." Braddock gave him a disapproving stare as Renault just managed to stop himself from calling his Ilian friends "vultures," which was a terribly racist slur to their country. "We're mercenaries too. We don't have any right to call anyone else 'vultures.'"

Renault realized he probably didn't have any business calling a Bernese Wyvern Knight a "lizard jockey," either.

Remembering what his friend had told him, and feeling another wave of grief crash through him as he was reminded of how Braddock would be disappointed in him now—just as he was back in Etruria, so long ago—Renault just bowed his head and accepted Varek's reprimand.

"You're right. Harod, I…I'm sorry."

The Wyvern General's eyes widened; he was clearly impressed. "Well, now! I wasn't expecting that. Apology happily accepted, Renault." He offered a hand, which Renault took after a moment of hesitation.

"Now that we're done with that, what brings y'here, Harod?"

"A few presents and a few requests," he replied. Harod turned to his Wyvern (who had apparently fallen asleep) and untied a small brown pouch from near the saddle on its back. "Renault, hold them, please," said Varek, and Renault did so. Out of the pouch Harod took three large books and then three smaller vials of odd-smelling substances and handed them all to Renault, who balanced the vials on top of the tomes with admirable skill. The odd tinctures weren't unknown to Renault—though he'd never seen them in person before, he'd read about them in Nessarion's Manual, and recognized them as special healing salves made only from rare plants in Lycia which were particularly good at soothing the pain of lesions, boils, rashes, or other skin problems.

Renault didn't need to be told to take them inside, and did so promptly. As soon as he'd laid all the stuff down on a table, however, he immediately popped back out of the cottage. He wanted to know what Harod and Varek were talking about.

"…A terrible thing," Renault made out as he returned to hearing distance. "The King and Queen are mighty saddened, I'd wager."

"That's an understatement. Damon was the crown's best hope. Now his younger brother is all we have, and I sure don't think Desmond can fill his shoes. The lad's no good with books or blades, and he doesn't want to admit it, either. Ah—keep this between us, Your Holiness—but as the Wyvern General, I don't see Desmond leading our country to glory."

Varek nodded. "Still, there's nothin' we can do. If the Creator called Damon back, He must have had a reason for it, and all we can do is trust. So what can I do for the bereaved?"

"The Royal Family would like to pay you a visit. They want you to bless the body before its interment."

"I'm honored, but isn't that an Archbishop of Bern's job? Or at least a Bishop's?"

"You're one of the holiest of men, and the only man deemed worthy to tend Bramimond's shrine. They insist a blessing from anyone less than you, even an Archbishop, isn't fitting."

"Alright. I'll be ready for 'em when they come. Anything else?"

Harod took out a few folded envelopes from another pouch hanging at his belt. "Let's see…some correspondence for you. Abbess Meris told a messenger to make sure this letter reached you…Bishop Zama from Lycia wants some advice—have you written to him before? Oh, and Archbishop Cortez is in Bern at the moment and sends word of some developments he thought you'd like to know about."

Varek took the trio of envelopes and smiled. "I'll be sure to read all of these, and I should have replies ready by the time His Majesty arrives for the blessing ritual. Thank you, Harod."

"Glad to serve Church and Country as always, your holiness. Before I leave, do you need anything else? I'll be sure to requisition it once I return."

"Hmm…two things. I've a list of some more books I might need—if it's not too much trouble, think y' could get 'em for me?"

"Shouldn't be a problem. What else?"

"If your colleagues have any spare Restore staves lyin' around, I'd be obliged for one. I'm teaching Renault about herbs, but there're some maladies you need magic to cure. Shouldn't be a problem up here, but as I always say…"

"Better safe than sorry," Harod grinned. "Well, don't worry. I'll see you get one."

With that, the Wyvern General performed a curious gesture which once again seemed familiar to Renault. He drew a circle with his right pointer finger across his chest, then slashed down with it. It was…an Eliminean ritual, Renault realized, one he hadn't seen in many, many years, as it was the sort given by a parishioner to a priest. Whatever it signified, it pleased Varek, who waved as Harod woke up his wyvern, mounted it, and flew off.

He then turned to Renault, whom he had known was standing there listening, with a much less happy expression.

"It's gettin' late, Renault," said Varek with a tinge of irritation. "The sun's about to go down. You'd have been better served with finishing that work instead of eavesdropping."

"Aw, da—sorry, Varek. I was just curious, I didn't think you got any visitors."

"Well, I can't blame you for that. I guess I should've told you earlier. There are a few hermits who live in total isolation, but I'm not one of 'em, strange as it sounds. As Harod said, being in charge of the Shrine has a few responsibilities as well, and every so often I get callers. That, and sometimes even I need a few new supplies, too. Now, do you want to fish or do you want me to do it? I'dve liked to get started on these letters, but…"

"Nah, it's fine. Sorry for taking so long."

"Thank you, Renault. And just remember we'll be having another visitor here, soon. He oughtn't stay for too long, but I'll expect you to be on your best behavior while he's here, understand?"

"Yeah," said Renault, just a touch sullenly, feeling a bit like a child again.

As it turned out, however, when the nature of Harod's return visit became apparent, Renault would actually do some growing up, rather than the other way around.

-X-

It was the second time Renault had heard the beating of Wyvern's wings during his 5-month stay at the hermitage of the Shrine of Seals. Fortunately, he'd been expecting it, and wasn't surprised as he'd been before. He immediately stopped what he was doing (gathering some herbs from the base of a tree as part of his lessons) and ran back to the cottage to tell Varek. The ascetic was sitting at his table near the hearth, reading the Journey, when he looked up to see Renault entering his home.

"I think Harod's back," said Renault, "and he brought some more guests, too."

"They're here, eh? Time to attend to 'em. Thanks for telling me, Renault."

"A…alright. Do you want me to—"

Varek shook his head vehemently. "No. This is an important ritual, and a personal one too. Your presence would disrupt it."

Renault looked somewhat offended, and Varek sighed. "Don't be insulted, lad. This isn't just about appearances or proper 'respect' for the crown. A mother and father have just lost their son, and you're a total stranger to them. When your best friend died, would you have wanted someone you didn't even know starin' at you while you mourned?"

The reference to Braddock was enough to make Renault pay attention to what Varek was saying. "No! Of course not!"

"Then pay these two parents the same respect. They're here to see me, not anyone else. You can watch, if y' want, but just stay inside and don't interrupt. That's all I ask, Renault. You can do that, can't you?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I can." Renault nodded. "Sorry for…"

"It's fine, just as long as we're clear. And I won't be gone for too long anyhow." Varek stood up, moving his book to his left hand picking up the other tools on the table with his right—his ornate Eliminean rosary, which he put around his neck, and then something Renault hadn't seen before. It was a small golden chalice. Not a particularly ostentatious one, as it was adorned with no gemstones or skillful gilding, but Renault could see it was clearly made out of gold and also had writing etched onto its sides, though he couldn't make out what it said before Varek picked it up.

After Varek took his things and stepped out of the cottage, Renault sidled up to a window to see what he'd do. Some distance away, near the river, Renault could see three Wyvern Lords, who'd landed with their mounts and their passengers. One was Harod, but the other two he didn't recognize. Harod's men, he wagered. Sitting behind Harod was a tall man with thinning, straw-blond hair, and behind the Wyvern Lord to Harod's left was a nondescript woman—or girl, for she seemed so young—with red hair. She wasn't particularly beautiful or ugly, but she was dressed in an immensely expensive-looking purple gown, and the man was wearing an ornate, ceremonial suit of armor in the same color. Both had gold crowns over their heads, and this was what told Renault they were the King and Queen of Bern.

Varek walked up to them, and as they descended to the ground it seemed as if he wanted to bow, but the King wouldn't let him. King Bern instead wrapped him up in a great hug, burying his face into his shoulder as it seemed he was weeping. If Varek wasn't expected to show any degree of deference to the sovereign, Renault realized, the degree of respect this hermit must have commanded was immense. Either that, or Varek had a truly close, personal relationship with the King. The Queen, though maintaining her composure somewhat better, was crying as well, though she tried to hide her tears behind her hands.

The reason for their misery was carried on the back of the third rider's Wyvern. The soldier dismounted, carefully carrying something wrapped in a pure white shroud. He gently and reverently laid it down on the ground near the river and unwrapped it, allowing Renault to clearly see what it was:

The pale, dead body of a teenage boy, clad in rich purple prince's livery.

The Queen was weeping even harder now, and King Bern was clutching Varek to him, the hermit running a comforting hand through his hair, mouthing words Renault assumed were meant to bring solace. This went on for several minutes; the death of their youngest child had clearly been absolutely devastating to these two. Renault wasn't sure how close they were to each other, but they'd sincerely loved their son. And as they wept, paralyzed with grief, something happened to Renault that had only happened once before, in Bramimond's sanctuary, and never during all his years of wandering:

He understood how someone else's grief must have felt.

The revelation came from looking at the Queen, oddly enough. When her son had been laid down by the riverside, she'd cast off any pretense of self-control. She jumped off of the back of the Wyvern which had borne her here, and neither her husband nor any of his men made any move to stop her. She threw herself over the body of her child, wailing so loudly that Renault could hear her voice even far away, in Varek's little cottage:

"Damon…Damon, oh, my sweet Damon!"

And she held him, as well. She took his slight, motionless body into her arms and held him against her chest.

That was something Renault recognized. That was exactly how he'd held Braddock the day he had died.

And in that moment, Renault realized that he was not the only one who had mourned, nor the only one who had felt the pain of grief. He knew absolutely nothing about the King and Queen of Bern. He didn't care the least about their great rank, the wealth and power of their nation, or the mighty armies over which they lorded. All he knew was that they felt the exact same pain he did, the exact same pain which had defined his life and turned into his over-riding obsession for so many years.

"Braddock," he mumbled to himself. He would have shed tears if he were still able. "Braddock…is that why? Is that what you were trying to tell me?"

Once again, Renault saw memories floating before his eyes. He wasn't sure if it was Bramimond manipulating his mind again, or simply spurred by a familiar sight. But once again, he could hear Braddock's voice in his head:

Renault…don't…don't fall in love with violence, alright? Just keep that in mind, even as death impacts you less the more of it you see.

Why had Braddock said that to him, so long ago? Renault had never given it much thought, but watching the mightiest rulers on Elibe mourn over the loss of a single life, he realized that the more death he caused—and he'd caused very much—the more he forgot how much it hurt. And he'd forgotten completely that it could hurt other people as much as it hurt Braddock, and as much as Braddock's death had hurt him.

His best friend was no coward, nor a pacifist. But he had always been able to tell when someone's pain felt like his own. That was how he could comfort Renault after all the losses both of them had endured together. And how ashamed would he be if he saw that Renault had forgotten how to do that?

Of course, the people who'd elicited this emotional reaction from Renault had no idea he even existed. It had taken some time, but the King and Queen had composed themselves enough to allow Varek to begin the blessing ceremony.

The father separated himself from Varek, who left him with one more comforting pat on the back, and went to his wife, gently taking her hands and prying them away from her son's, and standing her up. They stood off to the side, giving Varek space with which to work, and so he did.

Varek stood in front of the body, the cup in his left hand and the book in his right. He opened the book with practiced finesse to a spot near the end and began reading it aloud. His voice was clear, but still not loud enough to carry it all the way to where Renault was. After about a minute of recitation Varek handed the book to Harod and then knelt down by the river.

To Renault's surprise, Varek dipped the cup into the stream, bringing it up full of fresh, clear mountain water. He again took the Journey in his right hand and then stood at the body's feet. He poured the water over the feet and on the ground around them and began to recite from the holy book again. After that he went back to the river, filled his cup, and drained it over the boy's chest, this time, while again reciting from the book. Then, one last time he filled the cup, poured water over the boy's head and hair, and recited a passage from near the end of the Journey. Varek then brought the holy book up to his face and touched it to his forehead, mouthing a word Renault couldn't hear at this distance but that he knew would be amen.

All of the gathered mourners did the same, except they also performed a gesture that was also familiar to Renault from his childhood, but that he didn't remember the meaning of. Holding their index and middle fingers together, they drew a circle clockwise over their chests, and then moved their fingers to the bottom of the circle and drew them down, forming a line that would have bisected the circle if it had been made at its top. It was the same sign Harod had made when he visited and genuflected before Varek. This would have formed a rough approximation of the holy symbol of the Church of Elimine, Renault realized.

Varek then stepped back and nodded at Harod. He looked at the still-crying King and Queen, who also nodded their assent. The Wyvern General took the funeral shroud and wrapped up the body with it, as carefully as it had first been prepared. He then reverently handed it to one of his knights, who buckled it to his wyvern and hoisted himself in the saddle, along with Harod and the other knight. A couple more minutes passed as Varek spent a little more time conversing with the King and Queen, and then, at last, it seemed they were ready to leave. The ritual seemed to have provided them with some degree of solace, as neither of them seemed quite as distraught as they'd been when they first arrived. They got on the backs of the Wyverns, and then, with the beating of a trio of scaly wings, ascended to the sky and soared away, back to Bern. There, Renault surmised, they would give the newly-blessed body of their child a proper burial in the royal Bernese mausoleum.

Varek stood there for a few moments longer. Then he headed back to his cottage, where Renault was waiting for him.

"So…that's it?" Varek heard Renault's voice after he'd walked through the door, and the expression on his face indicated he was surprised by the apparent sadness in Renault's words.

He didn't make much note of it, though. "Yep. A blessing's all they asked for, along with a few words of comfort. I'm not the best at that sort of thing, but sometimes words from a friend can mean more than those of even the most eloquent speaker. I did the best I could, and I can only pray it helped 'em."

"Words from a friend…?" Renault blinked. "So you actually knew the King and Queen? Personally?"

Varek shrugged. "You could say that. Their son was a guest here for some time."

"Really?"

"Aye. 'Twas quite a surprise as well…you're not the first person to show up on my doorstep unexpectedly."

"What happened? That is…" Renault looked down. "If you'd like to tell me the story, I mean."

Varek nodded, and he and Renault took a seat at the table. "Not a terribly personal story, so I can oblige, I suppose.

"It was about two years ago. King Warren and Queen Nici had two sons, you see. The oldest was Desmond, who's still alive and is in line for the throne. The second, however, was young Damon, to whom I gave the rites of departure.

"Damon was…five years younger than Desmond, I believe. But there was absolutely no love between the two brothers. Shameful, eh? It was all jealousy on Desmond's part. As the older son, he'd follow his father on the throne. But he wasn't and still isn't a great sage or a great swordsman. His brother, though, excelled in every way. The people loved him, and were a lot more interested in him than Desmond. Th' King and Queen seemed t' prefer Damon as well. And Desmond didn't take it too well. I can't say I approve, surely, but I can understand why, and I'd be lyin' if I said I didn't have any pity for 'im at all. Still, it didn't do much good for his home life. He an' Damon fought constantly, and one day it got so bad that Damon fled from the palace.

"I don't know how or where he was plannin' on runnin' off to, but somehow he got kidnapped along the way. There was a mutiny among the Wyvern Riders at the time, so he definitely chose the worst possible moment to run away. He ended up getting caught by one of the traitors, who I guess wanted to hold 'im hostage. This was just before the traitors all got slaughtered—by a single man, no less, a mercenary the King hired by the name of Lucian. He assaulted their stronghold in the mountains all by himself and came close to killin' em all—and there were hundreds of them—before one of them sprung Damon from his cell and took him on Wyvernback before Lucian could rescue him.

"This mutineer wanted to fly…somewhere, I guess. Wouldn't surprise me if he thought he could hide out in Sacae for a while; the people there wouldn't know who the Prince of Bern was and wouldn't care even if they did. But this Wyvern Knight got caught in a storm as he was flyin' above the mountains. Dunno if it was just plain luck or Bramimond's doin', but somehow he crashed down into my sanctuary in the dead of night. Gave me a terrible fright, if I'd been older I might've been scared straight to death! But as it was, he'd been thrown outta his saddle and right onto his head. Broke his neck and died right quick. Same happened to his Wyvern. But his royal prisoner managed to fall into the river. When I heard the noise, I got up from bed, ran over there, and managed to fish 'im out before he could drown. That's still the best catch I've ever made from that river, y'know!

"After that, well, it didn't take too long to get everything sorted out. I figured out who the lad in no time, and sent a letter with one of my carrier doves to the proper authorities. Wasn't long before the King and Queen themselves came out to meet me. Took about a week, in fact. In that time me and the boy struck up a bit of a friendship. I taught him a few things about the Church and religion, and he seemed to appreciate it. Spoke mighty highly of me when his mom and dad came to pick him up. Ever since then, I was friends with all of 'em. Majesties Warren and Nici wrote to me every once in a while for advice, and so did Damon, too. Never quite made up with his brother, even after all that." Varek sighed. "Boy had quite a fine future ahead of him. Shame he was taken away so quickly."

"Quickly? You don't suspect foul play, do you?"

"Don't think so. 'Twas one of those horrible accidents, I believe. Accordin' to Harod, there was an earthquake in southern Bern a few days ago. Not a great one, we certainly didn't feel it up here. But it was enough to make a few buildings collapse. Damon was in one of 'em…he was touring his country and eating under a peasant's roof, as he sometimes liked to do—one o' the reasons the people love him so much. But the earthquake struck, and…"

"I see. Man, what a way to go. No warning or anything at all, the ground just started shaking, and…"

"Mmm. Rebuilding will take a few years, but the scars on the people's souls…that might last a long time. Many lost sons and daughters, but Damon was like a son to all of Bern, and his parents loved him as much as you could imagine. I saw it in their eyes, and how they spoke of him. I did all I could for them, but I fear for how they'll continue on."

"I would too. I can't understand…how are they going to live?" Renault's voice was choked with emotion, but his question was sincere. "If they loved their son that much, how can they continue on without him? It looked like they loved him as much as I loved Braddock, and I could barely stand up when I lost him. How could they possibly continue on?"

"It'll be hard, Renault, no doubt about that. But they're not the only people who've lost someone important to them, and they know it. The only thing left for them now is to bury their son and then move forwards, for the sake of themselves, their country, and their dead child. Damon was a good lad, truly, from everything I've heard. The best way for his parents to honor his memory would be to rule the country as best they can and hope his brother can take up his mantle. Nobody has high hopes for Desmond, but who knows? Maybe they'll be able to bring out potential nobody knew he had. Damon always tried to get his big brother to be proud of him, right till the end. Supporting him now is what Damon would have wanted, so it's what his parents will do."

"The same way I should've honored Braddock's memory, huh?"

"Aye."

"Did you tell them to do that? Was that what the ritual was for? Commemoration of his life?"

"Mm…not really. It's a blessing, a religious tradition. The King and Queen took the faith pretty seriously, which is uncommon for Bernese monarchs. It's how we send the departed on their way in the Eliminean tradition."

"Religion, huh?" Renault sneered, and Varek's reserved expression turned into a grimace. He expected to upbraid Renault, thinking he'd have to remind his guest to at least respect his religion if he didn't want to share it. However, Renault surprised him. The sneer softened, somewhat, replaced with a frown that was still suspicious but also slightly more contemplative.

"Varek, you're an intelligent man, and I respect you. But can you at least answer one more thing for me?"

"What is it?"

"How can you possibly believe in the face of death?"

This was something new. Varek and Renault had agreed to keep away from the subject of religion for as long as he stayed at the hermitage, and now Renault had broken that agreement…but not maliciously. Though his distaste for faith was still apparent in his voice, the question was honest.

Still, Varek had to make sure. "I don't want an argument, Renault. If you're just going to insult me—"

"No, Varek, I'm serious. You won't convince me, and I won't convince you. I know that, and I accept that. And if you want me to drop it right now, I will. But after watching that…funeral rite, or whatever it was, I need to know. I need to figure it out. Because I've gone through the exact same thing the King and Queen of Bern did. And not just with my best friend, but earlier in life. And I'd wager you have too. But the King and Queen still believe. You still believe. What I can't understand is why?

"Again, I like you, and I respect you. I think I'm…at least to some extent, following the path Braddock would have wanted me to take, thanks to you. But that's exactly why I can't understand why you believe like you do. I don't understand how someone I respect so much could have drawn the exact opposite conclusions from watching the same events I have, though maybe you haven't lived a life like mine. Varek, after everything you've seen, why do you believe in God?"

"Hmm…" Varek let out a small chuckle. He noticed Renault's expression change, and raised a hand to calm his guest. "I'm not mocking you, Renault. It's just that…your question is, to put it very mildly, a big one. It's not just a personal question, but a real complex one. Smarter, wiser, holier men than me have had to write entire books on why they believe. Can you at least give me a little bit of time to think?"

"Uh, yeah. Sure."

The two men sat in silence for several minutes, each contemplating what the other had said. At last, Varek thought he'd come up with something.

"Renault, I beg your forgiveness for this, but…I think the best way to answer your question would be to start off by asking you one."

"Alright. What do you want to know?"

"Why don't you believe in God? I'm askin' now because I suspect it has something to do with what you just saw, and your experiences with death."

"Huh. Alright." Renault took a deep breath, gathering both his thoughts and his memories, before he started. "It's been so long, so my memories aren't as clear as they were. But I remembered something…I used to believe when I was a child. My parents were both Bishops. In Thagaste…yes, it was Thagaste. My father was a Bishop, and I looked up to him more than anything in the world and wanted to follow in his footsteps.

"But then, one day, he died. It was disease. My mother and I prayed and prayed for him, but nothing happened. God didn't listen. He died anyways. And ever since then, I didn't believe in God. Why would any God, able to create an entire world as He wanted, force us humans to deal with pain, and disease, and most of all, death?

"My mother and I never got along after that. Religion was still important to her, 'cause she took my dad's station after his death, but I never wanted anything to do with it. I became a mercenary instead, and…she died, too, and I never had a chance to make up with her. But my life as a mercenary…that's just made me even more convinced that God doesn't exist. I've seen an entire country destroyed by civil war, and an entire town of innocent people dragooned by a rebel army and their womenfolk murdered in return. I lost nearly every friend I had to war, including the man who could have been a brother to me. He…Braddock was…he was a good man, every bit as good as my father. So why did he have to die? Why did they both have to die? If God would condemn both of them to death, what's the point of believing He exists?"

"Hmm…I see. I think I understand. That's theodicy, Renault. The problem of evil. Somethin' I've struggled with as well."

"Eh?"

"That's the formal name for the conundrum you describe. How can evil exist if the Creator is good? If He's truly all-knowing and all-powerful, why does He allow His creations to suffer? If He loves them why wouldn't He take away their pain, and eliminate death, and disease, and make Elibe a living Paradise?"

"Theodicy's the word for it? Well, it's exactly how I feel."

"I can certainly sympathize with that. God knows I've lost enough and seen enough loss to wonder why He allows it all. Damon's fate is just another example of a good person dyin' meaninglessly, eh?"

"Yeah, exactly. So then why would you, and the King and Queen, still believe in a God that would let that happen?"

"Well…" Varek hesitated for a moment. "These are just my beliefs, along with those of whom I've read. A little bit of both mixed up in there, so if y' think it's foolish, I take all the blame. Don't get the wrong idea about anyone else I quote, y'hear? But as to why God lets bad things happen, why we have wars, and disease, and disaster…well, some say, and I agree with 'em, that it's a matter of logic. Moral logic, you could say."

"What do you mean?"

"It's a line of thinking that arose from a follower of Father Nessarion about a hundred years ago. This Nessarite had spent some time in Sacae, and had actually managed to strike up a friendship with one of their Druids. The Druid lent him a Dark tome—not a magical one, but a commentary on several lost spells. One of those spells involved the creation of strange…homunculi, you could call them. Puppets, artificial men with no will of their own."

"Morphs," Renault breathed, unconsciously gripping the phylactery 'round his neck. "Morphs!"

"You've heard the term, so I guess y' don't need me to explain it." Varek was wise enough not to press Renault further. "Well, in any case, I bet you know what they're like. Ageless and changeless, they exist only to carry out their creator's will, and can't do anything else. They have no minds of their own, no choice, and no emotions, even. They can't hate, but they can't love, either. They're…they're meaningless, when you get right down to it."

"Morphs are the fact of existence when all meaning has been stripped away," Renault pondered retelling what somewhat else had said to him a long time ago.

"Yep, that's a good way to put it, Renault. Now, here's what I think. I think if God had created a real paradise for His creations—a paradise on Elibe, rather than as a reward for what they'd done in life—I think He would have ended up making us all as meaningless and helpless as the Morphs, in the end."

"What do you mean? That doesn't make any sense."

"When you get right down to it, aren't Morphs already livin' in the sort of paradise you describe? They don't age, they don't get sick, and they'll never die, except in battle. And there's no battle unless it's ordered by their masters, because they can't love or hate or feel any of the things that spur men on to fight."

"Come on, that's really stretching it, Varek. Why can't we have a world with free will and without suffering? If God's all-powerful and all-good, why didn't He give us both?"

"I know it's hard to explain, but let me try. Think of it this way, Renault. Even if God was all-powerful, He couldn't make a universe that contradicted itself, right? He'd have to work within some kind of logical, meaningful restraint. God couldn't create a world in which two and two equaled five, or in which circles were square, or something equally as contradictory. Logically inconsistent, like old Ockem might've put it. You agree with that, right?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"In the same way, I think, He couldn't create a world without death or disease or any kind of suffering if He also wanted to have our lives mean somethin'. After all, the one thing we humans have goin' for us, I think, is to inscribe meaning into our own lives. To improve the world around us, to show kindness to each other, to make our beliefs and our virtues a lamp in the dark of a world that sometimes seems to be nothin' but dark. That is what makes us different from those helpless, mindless puppet things the old texts spoke of. As strange as it sounds, and maybe it sounds heartless of me, but I think suffering is the flip side of the glory in life. I think it's as impossible to have a paradise where nothing bad ever happens and where life is meaningful and free will exists, as it is to have a circle that's also a square or where two plus two equals four and five.

"If God gave us everything we wanted just like that, well, what room would there be for free will? What'd we do to give meaning to our lives? Damon's death was senseless, no doubt 'bout that. But all of the good things he did—helping his country, lovin' his parents, and even trying to love his big brother—only had meaning because we live in a world where suffering and death happens. If no-one had ever lost anyone, and if everyone loved everyone else all the time, nonstop, then there'd be nothin' exceptional about the love Damon showed to all of us, and nothing that truly gave it meaning. Adding happiness and hope to a world full of nothing but happiness and hope would be like pouring a glass of water into the ocean. But adding happiness and hope to a world full of suffering and pain…to me, that's more like offering a man in the desert a whole jug of the best water you can find. Pour it into the ocean and it's just a waste—no-one notices. But give it to one thirsty guy and you've saved his whole life—you've really made a difference.

"And in the end, if that's the world God wants us to live in, I'm fine with that. I can believe in a God like that. Because I'd rather believe in a God that wants me to make a difference, rather than a God who set everything up so that nothing did. So that we were all a bunch of Morphs, really."

Renault was now staring at Varek with an expression the old hermit had never seen before—on his face, or almost on anyone else's, for that matter. Even so, he continued on:

"That's why I believe, Renault, and that's how I make sense of Damon's death. And it's how I make sense of the deaths of your father an' best friend, too. Even if their deaths caused you pain, and came too soon, I think the suffering they endured—and that you endured—was what helped give their lives meanin'. Think about it: If nobody ever got sick or died, why would your dad have need to comfort the sick and the dyin'? In a world without pain, his virtue would have been meaningless. He ended up dying because he lived in a world of sufferin', yes, but would he have truly lived in a world where he or nobody else died? And would you have loved him or admired him as much? I don't think so.

"Same with your best friend. Why did you love him so much? Because he risked his life for you. But the key word there is 'risked.' If there was never any chance he might die, then there's nothin' impressive at all about his sacrifices! But because there was that chance, it made everything he did for you truly beautiful, truly worthy o' praise and recognition, instead of something you'd just forget, something that didn't mean anything, or something he'd inevitably give, just like a puppet."

"So what the hell're you saying? That Braddock should have died?" Renault was growing angry now, forgetting his grief and allowing rage to take control of him again. His face twisted and he balled his hands into fists, making as if he might actually strike Varek.

The hermit wasn't even fazed. "No, Renault," he said patiently. "I don't think it's a good thing Braddock died, any more than I think it's a good thing Damon died. What I'm saying is that bad things happening—even happening to good people—is the price we pay for the existence of good, 'least if you believe in God like I do. You just can't have one without the other. It's a matter of logic. I know how cold I must sound, lad, and I don't like it either. But it's the truth, as far as I can see it, at least. You asked for what I believed, so I told ya."

"Seems like terrible logic to me."

"Why do you say that?" Varek was still completely calm and unmoved, which annoyed Renault even more than if he'd been offended and judgmental, as most of the Elimineans he'd known in his life would have been.

"Your comparison makes no sense! There's no analogy between needless, senseless death and…and anything in this world!"

"I never claimed to be the smartest man in the world. If you think my analogy's poor, demonstrate it."

"Don't piss me off! I would've loved my father, and Braddock, every bit as much in a world in which they lived forever!"

Varek smiled warmly. "Your love for them would've been eternal? That's admirable, Renault, and I believe you. But a world in which one's friends never die sounds a lot like the paradise Elimine spoke of, for those who've walked the just and virtuous path."

Those were familiar words to Renault. Someone had said them to him, a long time ago…for some reason, the name 'Henken' flitted through his mind. In any case, it didn't affect what Varek said, so Renault shook his head angrily and focused on his debating opponent. "Yeah, I get that. But why wouldn't God just make Elibe a paradise instead of forcing us to die first?"

"Because a reward unearned is no reward at all, at least to me." Varek shrugged. "Let's take your friend Braddock again. He loved you, I don't doubt that, but I'm sure you earned his love, right? There must've been something he saw in you."

"Y…yeah. We fought together…I saved his life…rescued him from more than one tough bind…and I gave him everything of the only thing I could—my loyalty."

"So you could say you're proud of earning his love, aye?"

"Yeah! I was Braddock's friend. I take more pride in that than anything else!"

"Then you're proud of what you earned. Because you deserved his love. But did everyone deserve his love? If he loved you because you were loyal, would you have deserved his love if you betrayed him? If he loved you because you were brave, would you have deserved it if you were a coward?"

"N…No…" Renault was still angry, but he could tell where Varek was going with this line of thought. And his anger was giving way to frustration.

"Same reasoning applies to Paradise, at least the way Elimine taught. If you want to live in a world where there's no suffering and no-one you love will ever die, you've got to earn your way first. If everyone could enjoy a place like that, no matter what they did in life, it'd make their lives meaningless! And yeah, I guess you could ask why the Creator didn't just make it so everyone would earn their way there, inevitably, without gettin' sick or dying before their time, or without falling off the path and into evil. But then it'd be like I said—everyone would just be a Morph. They wouldn't get sick or die, sure, but if they were programmed to do nothing but good, the glory of doing good would disappear. And I get the distinct feeling you and Braddock wouldn't have loved each other so deeply, and you wouldn't be as proud of that love if you were just a glorified Morph."

"That's…I…dammit!" Renault stood up suddenly, slashing a hand through the air as if to ward off some invisible attacker. He wanted to refute what Varek said, so very badly, but he didn't have the words. And even if he did, Varek had shown him something he couldn't possibly refute: That, in its own way, his acceptance of death as ordained by God made a bit of sense. Perhaps not that much, but not so much less than Renault's own unadulterated fear, hatred, and inability to accept it, either.

And so, Renault did the only thing he could. Turning his back on his host, he fled the tiny hermitage, knocking his chair over as he did so without even noticing or caring.

He didn't even know what he was running from, exactly—Varek made no effort to pursue him, which was probably a testament to the old man's wisdom, all things considered. But Renault hadn't felt this sort of impotent frustration in a long time, and he found it difficult to control his emotions in such a state. At the very least, the cool air on his face felt good, better than it would have in Varek's stuffy little cottage, but it still wouldn't be enough to calm Renault.

That would only happen when, while not paying any attention to his surroundings at all, lost entirely in the storm of his frustration over his failed debate with Varek, Renault slammed head-long into a tree.

"Agh! Damn it!"

He wasn't hurt badly—after the impact, he stumbled back and fell squarely on his bottom, and there'd be a bump on his forehead for day or so, but nothing serious. So he wasn't angry about that—what he was really angry at was himself.

"Dammit, dammit, dammit!"

Renault got up and punched out of the tree, hurting his bare knuckles more than the dead bark. He didn't notice or care. He punched it again and again, heedless of his skin breaking and bleeding under the tear. But every blow was directed not at the tree which had ended up in his way, but at his own image in his mind.

"I…I can't…why can't I refute him? Why can't I prove Varek wrong? Why can't I show he's just an old fool?!"

One punch became two, and then three.

"Why does he…why did what he said make sense? It can't…"

Four, five, and six.

"'Cause if he's not a fool…doesn't that mean…I'm wrong?!"

Seven, eight, and nine.

The image of his mother flashed through Renault's mind—crying and broken on the floor, the wretched abuse he'd inflicted on her marking the start of his entire journey.

"Mom…was I wrong? Was I wrong to have treated you like I did?"

Ten, eleven, twelve.

"Jerid…Serapino…Edmun…was I wrong about your religion? Was it stupid of me to mock you for it? Why did I…"

His knuckles crashed against the bark for a twelfth time, and then an thirteenth, but their harsh rhythm was beginning to slow. As he exhausted more and more of his energy, Renault grew less and less able to stave off that harsh truth.

For almost his entire life, his animosity and opposition to religion in general and Eliminism in particular had been his most constant companion. Ever since he was a teenager, and for all the centuries after that, Renault had worn his contempt for faith almost as protectively as his armor. He had never once thought anyone would be able to convince him that religion was anything but worthless. It was one of his most important, foundational beliefs. He wouldn't take being proved wrong lightly.

But it's not the first time you've been wrong about something, eh?

"W-what?!" Renault froze in mid-punch, then sunk to his knees in front of the big old tree, setting his bloody knuckles down on the grass as he descended. That voice in his head…it sounded like his own. Then again, it could have been Bramimond's. Whether the Lord of Darkness was manipulating him, or his own mind had taken arms against him, it didn't matter. Because the voice was correct.

He saw an image of Nergal flash before his eyes. Nergal…someone he'd once almost worshipped, someone he'd believed held his salvation, had betrayed him without a second thought. Renault had definitely been entirely wrong about Nergal. Why couldn't he be wrong about religion as well?

Then Renault saw something even worse. He saw Braddock in front of him, for just a moment. Braddock…staring at him with horror in his eyes, just as he'd been in that final, demoniac dream Renault had suffered after he'd killed Lucian. Renault remembered how Braddock had died, and what his last words were…and how horribly he'd misinterpreted those last words, and how his life over the past two centuries would have brought nothing but shame to his best friend.

He'd been wrong, so horribly wrong, about what Braddock had wanted. So maybe he was wrong about religion.

As if to drive the point home, he heard Braddock's voice in his head, now. Repeating what he'd said under the clear night sky of Etruria, what Renault had been reminded of just a few weeks ago…

Don't you think you should give religion a little more credit, Renault?

"Braddock…Braddock…" Exhausted, Renault brought his bloody hands up to his face, and began to weep in the peculiar, tearless manner his false body allowed. "Braddock…was this what you were trying to tell me? I was wrong! Dammit, I was wrong! So help me, I was wrong!"

He repeated those words, over and over through guttural sobs. "Wrong, wrong, wrong…I was wrong!" At that moment, in his state, he really couldn't do anything else. He was simply too angry at himself, having realized how foolish he had acted throughout his entire life. Later on, he'd look back at this day with no small amount of embarrassment; having thrown a child's tantrum over one's ideas being challenged was nothing to be proud of. Then again, it wasn't much more shameful than hitting one's own mother, insulting someone's heritage, or most of the other things he'd done over the course of his (very) extended childhood and adolescence.

The only thing that could be said of his credit here was that he didn't spend all day wallowing in self-pity. A fluttering of wings brought Renault out of his trance—perhaps surprised by the noise, he immediately brought his hands away from his face and looked up. Several doves were flying away from within the leaves of the tree above him, heading towards their roosts in Varek's dovecot. This reminded him of Varek, and how poorly he'd treated the ascetic.

"Aw, hell," Renault coughed, standing up and looking back at the hermitage. "I owe Varek an apology…at least. Braddock…that's what you'd say, right?" He took a deep breath, ceasing his sobbing and finally calming his emotions, before trudging back to Varek's cottage. Renault hadn't closed the door behind him and it was still open, allowing him to peer inside.

Varek was still sitting at his table, though he was now writing a letter, Renault saw. He barely took notice of his guest's reappearance—he only glanced up and raised an eyebrow slightly.

"Ah, Renault. I'm glad to see you again. Wasn't sure if you'd be back."

"Varek, I…" Renault stepped through the threshold, then shook his head and then bowed it down. "I'm sorry."

The sound of a quill scratching on parchment ceased as Varek paused. "Well, I'm glad to hear that, Renault. Again, though, maybe I should apologize as well. Belief and the lack of it's always a touchy matter, and meant to be handled sensitively. Trouble is, I'm not a sensitive man…wouldn't have cooped myself alone up here if I was. So if I was harsher on you than I intended, I'm sorry about that."

"No, no!" Renault raised his voice. "Varek, it's absolutely not your fault. It's…all mine. I was stupid. Really stupid. I just…I just couldn't handle being wrong, that's all."

Varek didn't say anything in response.

"Nearly all my life I thought people like you were stupid, that your religion was for fools. But I couldn't…at least not now, I wasn't able to give a good argument to what you told me. That means I was…I was wrong, wrong to mock you, wrong to have insulted you, wrong to have behaved like I did…like I've always done! I was wrong, and…I'm sorry. I'm sorry for it, and I'm sorry for everything. It's…it's one more reason Braddock would've been ashamed of me. And there's nothing I can do now but make up for it." Renault looked around, but it seemed like Varek had already set Renault's upturned chair back to its original position. "If you want me to leave now, I will. There's no excuse for how I acted. Braddock would be callin' me a damn fool if he saw what I did."

Varek snorted. "Certainly wasn't one o' your finer moments, I'll agree with that." He saw the expression on Renault's face, though, which made the one on his own grow a little more sympathetic. "Still, you've done one thing right today, and for that, at least, I think you've proven worthy to stay here a little longer."

"Huh?"

"It's not an easy thing, to be proven wrong," said Varek quietly and sympathetically. "Lord knows I learned that the hard way. But it's still somethin' you gotta learn, Renault. Nobody can call themselves an adult until they're able to admit they might've been wrong about something. Now, I'm not sayin' I'm right. I just gave you my own reasons for why I believe, and I can't say if they'll convince you. I didn't even intend to convince you that God exists. But if I did manage to convince you that I'm not as stupid as y' first thought, well, I'm glad. Because I managed to show you that you might be wrong about something. And if you can accept that, then you're not too stupid yourself, either."

Varek smiled, and held a hand out to Renault as proof he had no hard feelings. Renault almost smiled back—almost. He took that hand, though, and that was really the important thing.

::Linear Notes::

First off, I have to admit something straight up: I myself am not very religious, at least not as much as I used to be. I used to strongly identify as a Christian, after having a "conversion experience," as they called it, back in high school. These days, however, I'm more of an agnostic. Still, I retain a fairly significant emotional attachment to Christianity, and I hope this fic can offer everyone, be they a believer, non-believer, or ex-believer a thoughtful take on the subject of faith.

That said, I'm not Catholic and was never Catholic, so my knowledge of that particular tradition comes mainly from academic reading (not personal experience) and contact with my friends. As you can probably tell, Eliminism in this fic is heavily inspired by Catholicism, but a few words of note:

First, Varek's arguments about theodicy and the question of evil are original, that is to say, created by me. I'm not sure I believe them myself, but they do represent my best effort to solve the problem, particularly in the context of Fire Emblem, with its Morphs. They are not taken from actual Catholic theological teaching or moral reasoning. Any similarities are coincidental. While I'm sure similarities exist—Varek's statements on the necessity of suffering and pain probably echo *some* Catholic beliefs on suffering—in this case, the Eliminean answer to theodicy is the product of my own imagination rather than an intentional reference to Catholic teaching.

Second, Varek's blessing of Damon's body is loosely based off of Catholic last rites.

Aside from those, next chapter's super long, but also really important, so get ready for some in-depth discussion about the religion of Eliminism! :D