The Apostate Saint: Chapter 9 – Hospitality

As the exquisite food filled his belly and the wine washed out the remainder of his feelings of failure, Fridok allowed himself to celebrate. Perhaps he had been too hard on himself, thinking that the only acceptable place was first place. The end result was the same as if he had won everything, after all. He would still get to prove his worth to the Son. He still would be counted as one of the best swordsmen in the city. He would still get to finally have a chance to crawl out of the hole he had known all of his life. Mother, if you could see me now.

Fridok hardly ever drank wine or any lesser drink more suited to his class, for that matter, so he could definitely feel the effects of it flushing his cheeks. It felt good to be able to celebrate for once in his life, and he found the more cups he drank, the more he was able to ignore the social walls put in place separating him from the others sitting at the table nearby. He felt a kind of kinship growing with Alaric even though in truth he knew very little about the young man. Alaric may have beaten him at the melee, but Fridok wasn’t as upset by that fact, being so colored by his state. Perhaps he would get another chance to prove himself in the future, when he was able to challenge Alaric with a better sword. For now, going cup for cup with him was enough. Fridok was bigger; surely he could beat him at this.

Even though Fridok sat a mere two seats away from the Son, it might as well have been a mile away. He couldn’t make out any discernable conversation from this distance, likely because the rest of the crowd there was just as well-imbibed as he was. It didn’t matter, for Fridok had no idea what to say to the man. This man was a living legend, a relic from an age long-gone yet here in the flesh. He had just brought six men back from the dead. How was Fridok supposed to connect with such an individual? Thankfully, Alaric took him under his wing and the two of them found more simple crowds in which to mingle.

“This here is Bulgar Alcamora,” said Alaric, trying to enunciate as best he could through his cups. “And here is his cousin Yurk – Euric, sorry. These are the best archers alive today in the City, and there’s no question about that. At all. Truly. You should have seen their competition – they always give quite the spectacle.” Alaric leaned up against Fridok to steady himself. Fridok bowed to them, probably too exaggerated because of his drinks, which almost caused Alaric to lose his balance. The cousins didn’t seem to mind.

“You think that was a spectacle?” said Euric. “Did you see this guy take on that big group all by himself?” Euric hit Fridok with a friendly fist to the shoulder. “Unfortunately, no,” said Alaric. “I was too preoccupied with my own ordeal to focus on someone else’s.” Alaric took another sip.

“It was absolutely wild,” Euric said, enthusiastically. “You should have seen him, weaving in and out with every swing. He played every one of the others like a fool. I knew right away that he was the one to watch.”

Fridok happened to catch the annoyed reaction of Geilamir right at that time. It felt great for the truth of his fight to be proclaimed, especially when it was a direct denial of the lies that Geilamir’s bigoted father had tried to spread about him.

“Where did you learn to fight like that?” the quieter cousin Bulgar asked. Fridok shrugged his shoulders, trying not to let his head get too big. Everyone’s attention was on him, and he was very certain that it was a tentative interest at best, like he was a street performer with a new trick to show off. He didn’t know how to handle it very well and he felt rather exposed.

“I taught myself, actually,” said Fridok. Both of the cousins reacted with surprise, though Euric’s was far more animated than Bulgar’s. “During the day, I smash things with a big hammer. During the night, I train with my sword.”

It still stung to mention his broken sword, though all of the other good feelings still trumped his anger about that.

“And you had no trainer whatsoever?” said Euric, loudly. Fridok shook his head, and Euric laughed belligerently. He turned to the other side and put his hand on the back of Ervig Lacertian’s shoulder. “You hear that?” Euric said to them. “This guy didn’t have any formal training at all and he still almost won the competition. What do you think about that?”

The middle-aged gentleman just gave a nod to Fridok and lifted his cup to his mouth. He must not have known what to say about that, but he certainly played it off as cool as he could. Fridok noticed Alaric hanging nearby, listening to the conversation but not really adding anything to it. Fridok felt like it was worth telling more of the story, so as to spread around the good cheer he felt.

“Truth be told, I learn a lot just by watching the games in the training grounds. This one, in particular.” He pointed at Alaric with the elbow on the arm of his cupped hand. “I found myself fighting with his phantom in my head every day, convincing myself that if I ever got the chance to fight him, I would be able to beat him. So much for that.”

Alaric gave a smile at the compliment, drinking another sip of his wine, perhaps to conceal it.

“You hear that?” said Euric, once more to egg on Ervig. “Alaric’s been training champions without even insulting them or threatening them with flogging. Did you even know that was possible?”

Ervig gave Euric a deadpan stare, unimpressed with the antagonization. A slight smirk came across Isidore Maritium’s face, but he turned away to avoid getting involved with the conversation at all. Ervig muttered something to Isidore, but Fridok couldn’t catch a word of it. Fridok got the feeling that the two of these men probably felt like avoiding fraternization altogether.

Just as Euric was starting to say something else, Fridok noticed that the Son had gotten up from his chair and had approached the group of champions. Bulgar jerked Euric’s shoulder to stifle him. All of them turned to give the Son their attention.

“I pray that you all have eaten well,” the Son said. “If you do not mind, I would ask that all of you join me in a quieter place that we may discuss some business.”

Everyone who was sitting stood up, and the seven followed the Son several blocks away to the entrance of the hospital, of all places. It was definitely quieter there than the garden where the feast was taking place; it was just very odd to them that he had taken them there to talk. Euric shot a confused look to Bulgar as they entered, while the others all just followed along patiently waiting for some answers. Fridok pretended not to be bothered by the location, but the memories came back to him of when he was a child and his mother became deathly sick. It was a sobering thought, despite all of the alcohol swimming in his head.

“Why are we here?” Fridok found himself asking with resistance as they entered the first room, not meaning to ask with such hesitation in his tone. His heart pounded as they neared the curtained entrance to the main infirmary hall where Fridok had sworn never to return, years ago. It all came flooding back to him, the fear and desperation that he felt as soon as he found out his mother was dying. He remembered vividly the sounds of the sick, the death-rattles of the elderly as he prayed for a vindication that never came for his mother. He couldn’t get the memory of the smells out of his mind, once they had gotten closer. What joy he had gained in the last hour was now challenged by the trauma of a past that he couldn’t escape.

As they approached the doorway, Fridok reached a boiling point and stopped dead in his tracks while the others continued on toward the infirmary. They all stopped at the door, and the Son turned to face them. He took notice of Fridok immediately, and, with a look that said “I see your pain,” he calmly motioned for Fridok to come closer. There was no reason for Fridok to distrust this man – after all, he was the son of a near-diety, the heir to the founder of the one true religion. If there was anyone in the world he could trust, then this man was probably it. Still, Fridok hesitated.

Alaric took notice of Fridok’s hesitation, then turned back to face the front. Fridok sensed that Alaric, too, had seen a glimpse into his soul. He wanted to go up there with them before he caused any of the others to see his hesitation, but he didn’t really know these people. They seemed fine, but they couldn’t be trusted with the raw parts of his being. Alaric turned around once more to look at Fridok, concern in his eyes. He must have sensed that Fridok needed saving, because he came in, once again, to his rescue.

“Why are we here?” Alaric asked, just as the others attention was starting to meander. The Son took his eyes off of Fridok which gave him some relief. He simply wasn’t ready to face this place again.

“I thought that it would be best if we went someplace quiet,” said the Son, his hand finding the edge of the curtain that blocked the doorway. Fridok’s nervousness was elevated as soon as he saw what was about to be exposed. In a flash, the veil was torn away, exposing… an entirely vacant room.

Fridok had never seen the room so devoid of suffering before. Instead of the agonized moaning and the sobbing and the other raw emotions that he had always known to be present here, there were simply empty cots. He exhaled, the expectation of terror taken from his fragile mind.

Alaric looked back at him again, waving him forward while the others looked on. Fridok approached his new companion with tentative courage and looked around the infirmary.

“You’ve healed them all?” said Euric, in amazement and disbelief. “Even the terminal and long-stay patients?” Euric turned to Bulgar, who shared an understanding with him. “Where are they?” asked Bulgar, stunned. The Son smiled at Bulgar, and comforted him. “I have sent her back home, along with everyone else who was here. Their ailments have been lifted from them, it is their burden to bear no longer.”

Bulgar looked as if he was about to cry, but fought it. Euric gave him an excited hug and jumped up and down. Apparently, everyone understood what had happened except for Fridok.

“It’s Bulgar’s sister,” said Alaric to Fridok, quietly. “She was dying, there was nothing the doctors could do for her. A festering malignancy that had robbed her of all of her strength. If she has been healed, then this is a great day indeed.”

Despite all of the attention going to Bulgar, Fridok still felt the Son’s eyes upon him. Fridok kept his eyes focused on anything else he could, to avoid him spotting the intrusive thoughts he was feeling.

He can bring recently deceased back from the dead. He can heal the living sick. What about Mother? Had he shown up years ago, she, too, could have been saved. Why now? Why must he have come during my lifetime but too late to make a difference to me?

A distinguished but lovely middle-aged woman stepped out from the back room and approached the group. The Son turned to her, bowing his head at her. She returned the pleasantry, then took a place facing them, standing next to the Son.

“Champions of my City,” he said. “I have brought you here to discuss the terms of our journey together. Here in these City walls, you have enjoyed life without intrusions from the outside world. Each of you has lived your life protected from the dangers that thrive out there – the same threat I now ask that you stand to oppose. You have won your right to be here, but you are not yet sworn to my cause. Until you have spoken the words to seal the pact, you still have the option to walk away.”

He looked directly at Fridok and paused before he continued.

“The mission must be a success, or I fear not even the white walls will be enough to prevent the destruction of our people. Corruption resides here, just under the surface of these hallowed grounds. The balance is lost. Your kind takes more than what is needed to survive, and the very stones upon which you walk will soon start to displace and crumble. Fortifications can be made, but before we can do that, we must make safe the lands around us. That is why you are here. To do what you must do to cleanse the world of this evil that has been allowed to thrive for too long.”

“I will do whatever it takes, my Lord!” said Euric, emphatically. Bulgar shifted in place, but ultimately nodded in agreement with his cousin.

“I admire your drive,” said the Son. “But you are not yet ready to face the things that lie in wait for you out there.”

Euric looked dejected. He must not have expected that response.

“None of you are ready,” the Son continued. “For you have not the tools you need to kill the twisted things that walk the land.”

“With all due respect,” said Isidore. “Most of us are outfitted with the finest Temple steel. Perhaps much has changed since the days you roamed these grounds, but we trace back our heritage of blacksmithing to the First Age, to the time of the Toriad. The same craftsmanship that your countrymen enjoyed is alive and well today. You saw for yourself in Alaric’s fight what a true sword can do.”

Fridok didn’t appreciate the destruction of his beloved sword being used as an example.

“And I tell you,” the Son replied. “Your highest quality steel will be deflected the first time it makes contact with a greater demon. Your weapons are not enough.”

All of them looked around, puzzled. Euric interjected. “With all due respect, Lord, you have the Gifts. Surely that and our steel is enough to quickly dispatch any threat. If we sustain injuries, you can heal us, just as you have the people who you have saved today.” The Son studied Euric’s face for a time, before continuing.

“I can heal your wounds,” said the Son. “My Gifts can pick you up if you fall. But if I fall, what then?”

“Nonsense,” said Euric. “You cannot fall.”

“Anyone can fall,” the Son shot back with passion in his voice. “For death hounds me, just as it has for millennia. I watched too many of my people, the greater population of the world, fall at the end of the civilization. The Gifts I was given by God are vital for this endeavor, but there is only one thing that can truly put a stop to a demon.”

The Son reached into his sheath and pulled out a blade that shone like the Sun. Fridok had to turn away, as his eyes were adjusted to the darkness of the infirmary.

“This is that thing — It is a Soul-edge,” he said, with reverence to the weapon he held in his hand. “Each of you will need to acquire one, through your own sacrifice. Three swords, two bows and two lances must you manifest. Only then will you be ready.”

Fridok immediately envisioned himself holding a magnificent blade like the Son’s. He decided that if what the Son said was true, then losing the sword he had saved up for years to purchase really didn’t make a difference.

“One last thing,” the Son said. “As I mentioned, If I fall, you will likely need somebody who can dress your wounds in a traditional matter. You may never yourselves possess the Gifts, but you have modern medicine on your side.” He held his hand out to gesture to the woman standing next to him. “This is Gailavira, the matron of this hospital. She will be coming along.”

The woman bowed at everyone respectfully. The Son continued his speech, not allowing for any drunken remarks from anyone.

“The journeys we embark upon will be many. You will fight bravely, but you cannot fight forever without growing. It will be best to bring along wards, to train them to carry on your work when your fighting days have ended. I leave it up to you to find those worthy to bring.”

Irvig and Isidore looked at each other and nodded in silent agreement. Fridok met Alaric’s eyes, both of them considering the weight of the Son’s statements.

“Knowing this, I ask each of you seven-” said the Son. “Are you prepared to swear yourself to my cause?”

“Let’s get on with it, then!” said Geilamir, suddenly breaking his long silence. It shocked Fridok to hear his voice come out of the blue. He had nearly forgotten the man was part of the group entirely. The Son nodded and turned to the others, awaiting their responses. One by one, they swore themselves to the great cause.

Their lives would never be the same after that moment.

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