A sennight later, they were still traveling through the forest toward the northeast. Ma'ikel had given Ga'briyel a map of the route they should take to make it to the volcano in the least amount of time. Ga'briyel was happy to see that the men and horses in his company were able to take the long days and long distances they traveled each day, but that was all that made him happy. He missed Sophyra, and he was still angry with Yisu. The feeling that he was going to die soon had been getting stronger with each day, and now it was pounding at his brain. The worst thing was that he knew his next death was going to be from a Sarpa's venom. He wondered how many of the men around him would die at the same time.
At last light of the seventh day, the company made camp, but Ga'briyel took his sword and moved to the edge of the clearing they had stopped in. He slashed it in front of him, wishing he had someone to spar against, but knowing that if he sparred against one of the men with an edged blade, he would probably kill him. He removed his shirt and settled in to perform his patterns.
"I will spar with you, Ga'briyel," Telantes said from his left.
The Anmah looked in that direction and grimaced. "They will all see you, Debaduta."
"No, they will not. If they happen to watch you, it will be as if you are doing one of your patterns. I can keep myself hidden if I choose, and I choose to do so now." Telantes held his hand out, and a longsword appeared in it. "Shall we, Sainika?"
Ga'briyel growled. "Do not call me that. A Sainika is Yisu's champion, and I am no longer that. I am not doing this for Him anymore, Telantes. I am doing it for the people of Duniya."
"So you say, Ga'briyel, but by doing it for them, you are doing it for Him, for it is His desire that Sayatan is defeated as well. For the sake of the people of Duniya, not for His sake. Sayatan cannot touch Yisu, Anmah, so you are fulfilling His will even if you do not want to accept it as such."
"Let us just fight, Debaduta. I do not want to talk about Yisu and His will."
"As you wish, Ga'briyel." Telantes raised his sword in salute and grinned. "I shall now see how good you really are, Anmah. I am thousands upon thousands of years old, after all, and I have wielded a sword for all that time. By the way, if I score a hit, you will bleed, Ga'briyel. I will not, but you will."
"Will it at least hurt if I cut you?"
"Yes, it will hurt, but I will not bleed."
"Good enough for me." Ga'briyel dropped into a low stance and slowly circled the Debaduta, looking for an opening. Then without warning, he spun and aimed for Telantes' midsection, but his sword was blocked by the Debaduta's. From there, they both attempted to make contact, but neither one succeeded. "You are good, Telantes," Ga'briyel said as they separated. "If you were a man, you would be dead by now."
"You are better than I had expected, Ga'briyel," the spirit replied. "No one has ever held out this long against me."
"Thank you, Telantes. That means a lot coming from you, but I will still score a hit on you before we are done," Ga'briyel said with a smile.
"As I will on you, my friend," the Debaduta said with his own smile, and then they started up their sparring again. To Ga'briyel's ears, the clearing was filled with the ringing of blade against blade, but he knew the men watching him, of which there were many, could hear nothing but his sword swishing through the air and his grunts. The mock battle continued for almost an hour before one of them finally managed to make contact.
Ga'briyel had blocked one of Telantes' strikes, and then he completed his spin. His sword sliced cleanly across the spirit's ribs, and the Debaduta grunted. "First blood, so to speak," Telantes said with admiration in his voice. "My compliments to you, Ga'briyel, but second blood will be mine."
"We shall see, Telantes," Ga'briyel answered as he picked up the speed of his attack. The Debaduta was forced on the defensive, and the Anmah managed to inflict two more wounds on him, one on a thigh and the other on an arm, before the spirit's sword finally made contact. It was a powerful strike, and Ga'briyel heard his men gasp as a long, deep cut appeared along the forearm of his sword arm. "Son of a goat, Telantes! That stings! Try not to take my arm off next time!"
The Debaduta laughed. "Three to one, Anmah. Not a bad ratio. Let us see if I can even it out a bit." He swung his sword again, and Ga'briyel shifted his sword to his other hand. For almost another hour, the two fought. Telantes managed to give Ga'briyel a shallow cut along his ribs and another, deeper cut across his back, but the Anmah delivered four more of his own before they were through. Finally, Telantes backed away from Ga'briyel and dropped the tip of his sword to the ground. Ga'briyel did the same. "I am sorry, Ga'briyel, but I must go now. Yisu is calling me." He grinned. "As I said so long ago, the world is in good hands, Anmah. Be strong, my friend, and remember that the Creator does want what is best for you and for Duniya. I know you do not believe that right now, but it is true. You will see."
"I doubt that, Telantes, but thank you for the fight. I needed it."
"You are welcome, my friend. I will be back when you need me again."
Ga'briyel just nodded, and Telantes disappeared. Blood dripped slowly down the Anmah's arm and torso, and Dinton approached him as the former sheathed his sword.
"Fighting ghosts now, are you, Mistri?" Dinton said with a grin.
"No, not ghosts but a spirit."
Ga'briyel nodded and then winced when the pain of his wounds hit him. The one along his ribs was already gone, but the other two hurt badly. The cut to his forearm had nearly sliced through it completely, and it had severed several tendons and muscles. It had made it impossible for Ga'briyel to use his arm, and he grinned as he thought about how he had wounded the Debaduta several times one-handed.
"Why would you fight him, Mistri? He obviously hurt you."
"He did, but I hurt him more, Sekara. Seven wounds to his three. Besides, I am already healing." At Dinton's skeptical look, Ga'briyel said with a heavy sigh, "I needed to fight someone I could not kill, Dinton. I needed to go full force without the fear of hurting one of you."
"But why, Ga'briyel?" Dinton's concern flowed over and around the young Anmah, and he flinched.
"Because I am still angry, Dinton. Because by fighting Telantes I rid myself of some of that anger. Not all, but some. You would not understand."
"Maybe not, my friend, but you should not continue to torture yourself like this."
"Torture?" Ga'briyel responded with a bitter laugh. "What is torture is the thought that I cannot have what want. I cannot have my wife by my side, and I cannot be with her when our child is born!" His voice increased in volume with every word. "I cannot stop being what I am! I cannot rest, and I cannot walk away from this! I cannot stop the death that is coming, and have no illusions about it, Dinton! It just may be the most painful yet! And there is not a single thing I can do to stop it from coming! I am going to die, Sekara, and who knows how many of you will die with me?"
"Yisu knows, Ga'briyel," Dinton said softly, watching his friend's reaction carefully. He was not expecting the one he got. Ga'briyel turned with a ferocious yell, flung his sword through the air, and they both watched as it imbedded itself in the trunk of a gacha tree at the edge of the clearing.
"Do not talk to me about Yisu, Sekara! He is not the loving, caring Creator everyone says He is! He is vindictive and heartless and unconcerned with what happens to us!"
"You do not really mean that, do you, Ga'briyel?"
"With every fiber of my being, Dinton," the Anmah sighed. "I no longer believe that the creator of this world cares for its people. He certainly does not care for me."
"You told me that you would never turn to the Evil One, Ga'briyel, and yet I feel as if you are halfway there already. Only one whose mind is open to Sayatan's influence would say such things."
"Open to his influence? As if I would voluntarily turn to the being who created the creatures who killed me, not once but four times. Soon to be five or six or twenty." Ga'briyel let out another sigh and moved to his sword. It was buried in the trunk almost to the crossguard, and he began working it free of the tree. "Do not worry about me, Dinton. I may not blindly accept the stories about Yisu anymore, but I will certainly not serve Sayatan, either." With a final yank, he wrenched his sword free. He studied it with a critical eye and was pleased to see that, other than the fact it was covered in sap, it was unharmed. It still glowed white, and he wondered if the blessing did more than make it able to kill Hellspawn with a scratch. Perhaps it kept it sharp and undamaged as well.
"Look at it, Ga'briyel," Dinton said quietly, and Ga'briyel sighed heavily as he moved back toward camp. Dinton followed and kept talking. "You say Yisu does not care for you, but look what He did for you. He blessed your sword so that you would have a chance against the Hellspawn in the ruins. He does care, Ga'briyel."
"He blessed my sword so that I would kill more efficiently. Nothing more. He does not care if I die again, Dinton. He does not care if I die a thousand more times. If He truly cared, He would give me more than just a son of a troll glowing sword!" Ga'briyel's voice caught, but he forced his anger to overpower the feeling of helplessness that filled him, which did not take much effort because he was furious. "He would make sure I did not die again, Dinton!" He stormed off toward the camp, shoving his way past the guardsmen who had watched the exchange with wide eyes and open mouths. Still bare to the waist, he sat by one of the fires and proceeded to rub ash over his sword. When it was coated, he went to his tent, grabbed his soap and a dry cloth, and moved to the small river they had camped beside to clean the weapon. He knelt on the bank and wet the cloth before adding the soap. As he began working to loosen the sap, he felt a warm breeze surround him. He shrugged it off, however. He had no need of comfort or any other compassionate emotion from anyone.
My son, a voice breathed.
"No!" Ga'briyel yelled, throwing everything to the ground and surging to his feet. He knew exactly who was speaking to him. "No! I do not want to listen to You!" He started pacing up and down the bank, his fists clenched tightly over his ears.
My son, the voice repeated, and it sounded sad. I regret that I cannot stop you from dying again, and I am sorry you must suffer like you do. If I could prevent it, I would, but there is a reason, my son.
Ga'briyel dropped to his knees and abruptly started to sob. "What possible reason could there be? Do you like to see me in pain? Does it please you to see me suffer?"
No, Ga'briyel. The breeze surrounded him tighter as if his father's arms were holding him close. I do not like to see anyone suffer. That is why I created you. That is why I allowed you to die so many times when you were young. That is why I will not keep you from dying again. If you did not, Sayatan's creations would have a hold on you. By dying at their hands, you are protected from them, and they have no power over you. Yes, if a Dirack's flame consumes you again, it will be painful, but you will still be able to fight on through that pain. A Takosa can no longer kill you by draining your blood. A Daitya's poison will burn, but you can kill it even as it does.
"But I do not want to hurt anymore, Yisu." Ga'briyel wrapped his arms around his head. "Please, Yisu, I do not want to hurt."
I understand, my son, but you must. I will tell you a secret, Ga'briyel Mistri el'Adama. One no one else knows, but you must promise me you will not tell anyone.
Ga'briyel nodded slowly.
Each time you are wounded in a way you have already died, the faster you will heal. This is true for all Anmah, but rarely does one find himself or herself in that situation. It is even more true for a Sainika. Did you not realize how quickly you healed from the sword wounds at Grama? Eventually, you will heal immediately from any wound. Even a Dirack's fire or a Sarpa's venom. The pain will no longer touch you, Ga'briyel.
"Eventually. After how many hundreds of years? How many years must I endure the pain before that happens, Yisu?"
That depends, my son.
On your choices, on Sayatan's choices, and on your courage. If you are brave enough to face what he has brought to this world, if you are strong enough to feel the pain again and again, it will not take long. I promise. Do you believe me, my son?
"Yes, Yisu," Ga'briyel said with a heavy sigh. "I believe you, but I do not know if I can be that strong."
You are that strong, Ga'briyel, and if you ever feel yourself faltering, call on me. I will give you the strength you need.
"I am sorry, Yisu," the Anmah said suddenly.
For what, my son?
"For saying I hated you. I did not mean it."
The Creator's voice held humor in it as He said, Yes, you did, but I understand. As you once said, I do not need you to be perfect, Sainika, and I am not so sensitive that I cannot handle hearing the truth from you. Some humans have hated me since the moment I created them. While it was not pleasant to hear, I want you to be honest, Anmah. Honest with me and honest with yourself.
Ga'briyel just nodded again and unfolded himself as the breeze drifted away, leaving him feeling empty and alone. Then, for the briefest moment, it touched him again, and for that brief moment, he felt peace.