The clouds had parted, and the sun was setting, brilliantly red, over the horizon. They had left the temple hours earlier. They were a somber group, the abbot’s empty saddle a constant reminder that they had one less companion. They were making their way to Kar’s Chapel, but nobody seemed to have much heart for the next leg of their quest.
Gallant plodded away beneath Roger. The pony’s gait was slow and steady, a regular four beat rhythm that repeated over and over. Roger swayed subtly along with the beat of the hooves. He’d mastered riding the walk, if nothing else, although he was pretty sure that wasn’t much of an accomplishment. Over and over the hooves repeated their beats, and soon Roger’s mind was wandering.
He rehearsed the fighting drills and maneuvers he had learned from the others, searching for a way he could have helped. The more he thought, the more frustrated he became. Not only was his skill in fighting so lacking that he couldn’t imagine a single way he could have been any more use, but he was more and more sure that he didn’t have the will to try to use what he already knew, regardless. He imagined facing the dragon, like Ari had done, and it filled him with terror. He considered driving his dagger into Shurre-Na’s body, and he was so repulsed by the thought that he physically shook.
How could the others do it? Where did the resolve to fight to the death, to kill, come from? Was it something he could learn? Was it something he even wanted to learn?
The abbot had been prepared, indeed, he had been the most skilled of all of them, but it hadn’t done him any good in the end. It was obvious now that any violent encounter was a cast of the die, your strength, your skill, against that of your opponent, and there was no good way of knowing whether or not the odds were in your favor.
And yet, his companions could do it. They had put themselves into harm’s way, and had come out the victors. For how much longer? What motivated them to risk it?
“You look like you’re brewing some dark thoughts,” Hil said, walking his horse up beside Gallant.
Roger was startled out of his brooding. “I guess I am,” he replied, “Can I ask you something?”
“Go for it.”
“Why do you fight?” Roger asked earnestly.
Hil raised a thick dark eyebrow at him. “Hmmm. It’s not really that complicated, I guess. If your opponent is willing to die for something that is unacceptable, you have to respect that in them, and be equally willing to die to stop them.”
“Isn’t there a better way to figure these problems out? Like, couldn’t people just play a children’s card game and the winner gets their way or something?”
“What a world that would be!” Hil laughed, “But I understand what you’re getting at. Unfortunately, I feel that there are some things that people are willing to risk everything for. In those situations, they wouldn’t accept the outcome of the game.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“Do you have anything like that?” Hil asked, “Something you’re willing to risk everything for?”
Roger looked around at his friends. He wanted to say that he would die to defend them, but when he tried to he couldn’t. “I don’t think I do,” he concluded. The honesty of the statement filled him with shame. Tears started to form at the corners of his eyes, and he raised his arm to wipe them on his sleeve.
Hil reached out, and gave Roger an awkward pat on the head. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of, Hrothgar,” he said, “There are many good people who do very important things who never have to fight.”
Roger, his sleeve still pressed against his eyes, nodded into his arm, but it was more an acknowledgement that he understood what Hil had said, rather than that he accepted it.
Hil gave him another awkward pat. “Just think on that for a little while. Feel free to talk to me later, if you want.” He kicked his horse and pulled it up to the front of the line to ride silently next to Ari.
Roger had grown up obsessed with heroes. When he was younger, he had poured over stories of men and women pulling out miraculous victories for the greater good. Everyone knew that heroes were fighters, unyielding paragons of righteous ideals. He admired these fictional characters, he wanted to be one of them. He played computer games, became the best at them, because it let him pretend that he was one.
He had always believed that given the chance, he would become such a person. Several chances had passed him by now, and his innate heroism had yet to reveal itself. The truth was that heroics were horribly expensive, and Roger realized that he might not have the fortitude to make such a risky investment.
So where did that leave him? In this world he was nobody. True, Hil, Ari, and Hannah had been looking out for him, and he’d been able to provide some modicum of use. This quest wasn’t his, though, and he hadn’t done anything in a meaningful way that made him feel like he was a supporting member of the team. He found himself with the same problem he’d had back home. If he couldn’t be a hero in this world, he didn’t know who he wanted to be. He didn’t know what he could contribute.
“Hey Hannah, can I talk to you?” Roger called ahead to where Hannah was riding in front him.
She glanced back over her shoulder at him before slowing her horse to pull up beside him. “Sure, what’s up?”
“I just wanted to know, do you have any dreams? Like, what motivates you to do anything?”
Hannah opened her eyes wide at him, and blew out her cheeks. “Good grief, guy, you need to give me some warning before asking what the point of her existence is.”
“But to answer your question, I guess I just like experiencing things. Each new thing I do or see is another drop in the bucket that is me. The fuller that bucket is, the fuller I feel as a person.”
“So you don’t have any specific goals or anything?”
“Well, there are some experiences that I’d rather have over some others, but I’m not so picky that I’m going to reject the ones right in front of me,” she said.
“What are those experiences that you’d rather have?”
“Oh, heh, well,” she blushed a little, “That’s kind of personal…”
“It’s ok, I was wondering when we’d get around to having some real bonding time,” she grinned, “But this stuff is secret. If I tell you, it means we’re best friends forever, and you swear to never betray me by telling anyone, ever.”
Roger smiled back at her through the aching in his heart. Hannah seemed to have a talent for being able to get him to do that. “I swear,” he promised.
“Well, this is silly and boring, but I’ve never really been in love,” Hannah said, “I died when I was only eighteen, and I wasn’t exactly… How to say… Outgoing or interesting? When I was alive, I mean.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Roger said.
She gave him a rueful look. “I’ve had to try hard to become the person I am, but luckily I’m pretty happy with myself now. Anyway, you’ll remember that I ended up in probation because I was flirting with guys before I would reap them. Evidently, that was against the rules.”
“How was that going?”
“Eh, who knows. It’s really hard to gauge how much a guy is into you right before he dies. Usually they’re all like, ‘Where’s all this blood coming from?!’ or ‘Tell my mom I love her!’ and garbage like that.”
Roger laughed at the absurdity of what he had just heard. It took Hannah a second, but then she realized what she had just said and started laughing too. “I guess, from your point of view, I’m a pretty weird person,” she said.
“Oh, for sure,” Roger said, “Mostly because I like you better than most others I’ve known. The other stuff is just details.”
Hannah was quiet for a second, a small smile on her face. “That feels good to hear,” she said, “And see? This is another one of those experiences that I was talking about earlier. My bucket is a little fuller!”
“Was it one of those experiences that you’d rather have?” Roger asked.
“Obviously,” she said, grinning.
She continued to regale Roger with various things that she wanted to do. Some of them were completely pedestrian, like trying every apple pie she came across, and some were extremely exotic, the kinds of things only someone who had complete confidence in their own afterlife would be able to dream of. Eventually, though, she ran out of things to talk about and they fell into a peaceful silence.
Roger still felt raw whenever he thought about the abbot or his own personal shortcomings, but he felt that life would go on. He just had to keep putting one foot in front of another. Or rather, Gallant had to. As much as Roger had a hard time with riding, he vastly preferred it to walking.
Soon enough the sun had set, and they found themselves setting up in the twilight. The air was chill and crisp as the night came on, and they hurriedly built a small fire. They sat around it, blankets pulled up over their shoulders.
“There are two more shrines along the Pilgrim Road,” Hil said, “If we continue along as we have, we’ll reach Kar’s Chapel in a few days. However,” He leaned forward, the fire illuminating his large body from below, “I have an alternative proposition.”
“Oh really,” Ari said. She was doing her best to mend the tears in her skirt, but, seemingly, failing.
“Seeing how Shurre-Na was able to get to the Temple to Une so much more quickly than us, I’m guessing that she is able to take some paths that we are not. I do not believe we will be able to reach Kar’s Chapel before her, but we may be able to beat her to the Shrine of Rei.”
“How’s that?” Ari asked, tugging forcefully at her needle, “The Shrine is further along the road.”
“Yes, along the Pilgrim Road, but what if there was another road, one that cut through the mountains.”
“I haven’t heard of one.”
“That’s because it’s a dwarf road,” Hil said, with a sneaky smirk, “We don’t tell everyone about them. Otherwise they’d be full of big slow humans and their animals.”
“Hil,” Hannah said with a flat look, “You’re bigger than most humans.”
“Tch,” he dismissed her with a wave of his hand, “The Shrine to Rei is located in the dwarven mountain home, right? There’s a dwarf road not far from here that leads right to it.”
“Alright,” Ari said, spreading her skirt out to check on her handiwork, “But Shurre-Na will still get Kar’s shrine.”
“I’m not sure that actually matters,” Hil said, “The dwarves don’t think he’s even a god.”
“Eh?” Ari said, surprised, “But he’s been around for thousands of years, before even any of the other gods.”
“Sure, but he doesn’t do anything. He just kind of wanders around talking to people, and his followers aren’t even imbued with any divine powers. Doesn’t that seem a little odd to you?”
“I suppose… But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a god.”
"Suite yourself. Regardless, I don’t think losing Kar’s shrine will be that big of a problem.”
“And losing Rei’s shrine would be?” Roger asked, speaking for the first time.
“Rei is our warrior god. Without her, our armies may be insufficient to protect us.”
“I see,” Roger said, “Wait, does that mean that without the other shrines, there will be other problems?”
“Yes,” Hil said simply.
Ari elaborated, “Oir’s priests can heal the sick, and followers of Une can guarantee bountiful harvests. Without these gods we will definitely have problems, but they are not nearly as immediate as the trouble we will face if we lose our connection with Rei.”
“And that is exactly why we should get to the Shrine to Rei as quickly as possible,” Hil said.
“Alright, I’m convinced,” Ari said. She was cutting away the torn section of skirt, apparently having given up on repairing it. The result was a dress that came up slightly above her knee in the front before sweeping down to full length in the back. She began to hem the newly cut cloth.
“Sounds good to me too,” Hannah agreed.
Roger nodded his consent, not that it really mattered.
“It’s settled then. Tomorrow, we make for the Shrine to Rei.”