The Apostate Saint: Chapter 19 – What Was Seen in the Darkness

“I look like a complete fool and you know it,” Fridok said, hiding no part of the shame he felt for having so thoroughly embarrassed himself in front of all of the warriors with whom he was supposed to be in league. Alaric didn’t try to deny what Fridok felt, even though he likely wanted to make him feel better. Kind words though his friend may try to offer, the fact remained that Fridok had nearly died because of his complete lack of spatial awareness. Sure, the chasm he had fallen into was well-hidden from the direction where he and Alaric started their ill-fated race, but that was an excuse fit for normal men, not the City’s finest. The world was supposedly filled with demons lurking around every corner; there was no place for a warrior who didn’t adequately prepare for every possible danger that lie in wait. That kind of foolishness could easily spell not only his own downfall, but put every other member of the party in jeopardy as well.

“If it makes you feel any better, you were beating me in the race,” Alaric said, as if that was any consolation. Fridok wanted to be better than Alaric, but was quickly re-thinking his priorities in life after his brush with near-death. It was a low point for Fridok, and that was saying quite a lot, considering the facts of his life.

“Just look at them. See the way that they talk among themselves? They know I don’t belong here. Now I’ve given them all the justification they need to shut me out. It doesn’t matter how good I am with a sword. To them, I’m always going to be just another Solum, and worse, they probably think I’m just a liability – an untrained, unsophisticated nobody who shouldn’t even be here.”

“But you do deserve to be here,” Alaric said softly.

“No, I don’t.”

Fridok knew how pathetic he must sound to Alaric. He understood full well the fact that he wasn’t giving his new friend much reason to stay by his side. Fridok never shared his feelings with anybody at this point in life, which was a problem because he could really use a good venting of his frustrations. He hoped that it wouldn’t be too overbearing, as that would drive Alaric away. He needed a friend now more than ever, but simply couldn’t bring himself to exposing any soft spots in his armor.

Alaric looked as if he had just gotten an idea after a moment, but then stopped himself, instead rubbing his ears with his palms as he had done quite a bit after the supposed attack by the screaming demon. Surely, it was easier to attend to his own immediate problems than to try and continue to struggle to understand Fridok’s. Fridok wanted very badly to crawl out of the figurative hole he had fallen into, but, whether he wanted to admit it or not, he looked to Alaric to be the one to come to his rescue. At least Alaric seemed to recognize his plight, even though there were probably no words that would convince Fridok of his self-worth. Fridok was a realist; he needed proof.

The fire crackled as Isidore poked at it. As the last bit of sunlight fled beyond the western horizon, Fridok realized that it was going to get rather cold if he didn’t forget his shame and find a place near the others sitting in a circle. He just couldn’t bring himself around to it, however. Instead, he thought about Alaric, and how the cold might be affecting his damaged eardrums after the close call with the demon.

“Head to the fire,” Fridok said sternly. “I’ll be over shortly.”

Alaric, still unable to find the right words, walked over to join the others. As he did, Fridok caught Geilamir peering back at him to see if he was also coming. Fridok took a deep breath and rubbed his arms. He knew he should have just bit his lip and gone over there, but his feeling of estrangement only widened as he saw Alaric immediately join in the conversation, even laughing at a joke that Fridok was too far away to hear. So, he languished in his self-pity.

Every time Alaric looked back at him, Fridok turned away, pretending that there was something more interesting to see. After he got too tired of that game, he decided he would at least present himself as being useful. He hated the way he was acting, and the best he could do at this point was to at least put on airs that he was keeping away from the full group for a practical reason. Fridok saw his opportunity in a large rock that jutted up nearby and decided he would use it as a post for looking out. Little did he know, the rock was already manned by a sentry. Once again, it would have been nice if he had some spatial awareness.

“Oh, I didn’t see you were already at the lookout,” Fridok said to Bulgar, who was looking out in the distance, bow at the ready. “I’ll leave you to it.” Fridok reversed course and started back toward the camp before he was halted.

“Why don’t you join me?” Bulgar said, in a tone of voice that carried with it a certain type of pain that Fridok recognized immediately. “You can watch the East, I’ll watch the West.”

Fridok hesitated, but ultimately decided that being by one person he didn’t belong with was at least preferred to being around nine others in the same communion. He swallowed his pride and walked around to the bottom of the rock and climbed up to sit next to Bulgar, facing the opposite way. Fridok was thankful that Bulgar had asked him to watch the East because that meant he didn’t have to look upon those at the camp. For a few minutes, the two of them simply did their duty, watching for any signs of movement in the dark. It gave Fridok a chance to focus on something else for a time, and for that he was also thankful.

When Fridok had gotten a chance to adequately settle into a comfortable level of discomfort, he realized just how little he could actually see, even at this vantage point. Inside the City, there was always at least some light at night, everywhere he looked. Here, the only light he could see was from the Great Band in the sky, the wide twinkling river of wonder that had so encapsulated him during his hardest moments. It was a thing of beauty even there, hampered by the unintentional obfuscation of so many others living around him. Here, in the wilderness, the Band’s glory reigned over all, unfettered by the goings on of life. Here, he could witness it in all of its splendor. It was enough to make Fridok consider his own place and purpose in the vast and unconquered world.

By the time Bulgar spoke up, Fridok had already begun to loosen his grip on the shroud of shame he had donned after his embarrassing encounter with fate. How little his own problems seemed blanketed by the vastness of the night sky.

“Does it still hurt?” Bulgar asked. “The injuries from your fall, I mean.”

Fridok thought about the question, and realized that, beyond the psychological reverberance of the places on his body that he remembered making contact with the cave walls, no physical pain actually remained. The Son’s Gifts had taken away all of that, leaving him with only the burden of knowing he had already proven himself a liability to the rest of them. He was still working through those emotions, mostly feeling angry with himself and his shame above all else.

“No,” Fridok said. He thought about letting on about how he felt about himself, but stopped. Bulgar and his cousin Euric were fairly likeable people, but Fridok wasn’t all that interested in talking about his feelings, especially when they were only half-baked and he didn’t really understand how he himself felt about them outside of the rawness of them. He had learned after the death of his mother that a feeling shared was a shield lowered, something in which enemies delighted.

“It looked to me like it must have hurt like hell,” Bulgar noted. Fridok dwelt upon the fall, and even though he did remember a sudden fear come over him, he didn’t actually remember the impact of the fall at all. He simply knew he had lost the assurance of the ground under his feet, and that’s all he could remember before being woken by the Son. Fridok decided not to be withholding, in case Bulgar would prove to be trustworthy of his friendship. “I don’t remember anything. One second I was mid-sprint and the next I was falling. Then, nothing. I don’t have any memory of hitting the bottom at all.”

“So you don’t even remember the screamer, then?”

“No. Only know what I’ve been told.”

“Did your ears hurt when you came to?” The question gave Fridok pause. If the demon’s shrieking had been as bad as they all said, then his eardrums must have sustained similar damage to Alaric, who was still rubbing them, even after being administered to by the Son. Fridok felt no discomfort whatsoever in his ears, so why was Alaric still rubbing his ears as if they were still ringing?

“No. I felt like nothing had happened at all. I even woke up rested and my legs don’t even ache from the day’s travels.”

In the next ten seconds, Bulgar’s silence clued Fridok in on the fact that the typically quiet archer had something he really wanted to ask, but was hesitant to do so. Fridok decided he would make it easy on him by initiating the process.

“Go ahead and say what you want to say.”

“Did you see it?” Bulgar asked. “The afterlife?”

Fridok stared into Bulgar’s eyes and found a kind of hopeful longing in them, something he recognized because he, himself had gone through that same thought process when he was younger and so full of grief and anger. Fridok knew what answer Bulgar wanted, and had to really think his response through before speaking.

Typically, Fridok was a straight-forward, no-nonsense man. He hated liars, cheats and any other kind of dishonesty, at least when it was a Primisian doing the lying and cheating. So, what made him respond the way he did to Bulgar’s question was against every principle he had set for himself. He would later come to regret how he had responded, but for just one brief moment he allowed himself to give Bulgar the assurance that he, himself wished he had received in his lowest points of mourning.

“It was brief,” he started, still unsure if he should dare continue. “But I know exactly what I saw.” It was too late to stop now. “My mother.” Bulgar prostrated himself, still facing off into the West. Fridok heard Bulgar exhale, and knew he had given the young man something to hang onto, a glimmer of hope that one day he might be able to see his dead sister again. Bulgar’s apparent revitalization came at the cost of his own integrity. Fridok did not remember anything whatsoever between the time of his fall and when he was awoken. There was not some epiphany for him after he had fallen. For all he could tell, there was nothing that would await him when he took his final breath. The end would simply be the end.

The two men allowed the chilly air to pass over them without carrying with it their voices. Bulgar had gotten what he needed, and Fridok dared not to ruin that comfort for him. They rested in their respective solitudes, staring off into the distance at the blackness that had covered the land. They remained there in their silence for over an hour, until the peace they had found in each others’ company finally came to ruin with the advent of one terrible sound that came from near the camp.

A scream, inhuman and intolerable even from this distance, arose like an alarm bell. As soon as Fridok heard it, he finally understood just why Alaric acted as if he could still feel the demon’s voice in his ear drums. To make matters worse, the demon was not alone.

The stillness of the black night was no more. Crawling over the land like a bloodthirsty swarm of insects, hundreds of eyes twinkled darted toward the camp like sharks at chummed waters. It was as if the Great Band itself had fallen down upon them, and Fridok and Bulgar were separated from their group. The demons, it seemed, were every bit as in control out here in the wilderness as the stories all told. There would be no chance for any of them to escape this conflict.

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