“No, Dinton! We must push on! It will take us several sennights to pass through these mountains, and we cannot waste so much as one night!”
Ga’briyel’s eyes flared as he faced down his friend in the darkening evening. Dinton stared back at him, his face impassive.
“You will kill these men if you push them too hard, Ga’briyel. Is that your intent? They need a day to recover from this pace you have set, as do the horses.”
“Fine! One day, Dinton, and that is all!” Ga’briyel stormed off into the stunted trees that were scattered along the steeply sloping side of the Sikhara Mountains. He climbed the slope until the trees turned into bushes and until those bushes turned into rocks. Only then did he stop. For what he was about to do, he needed to make sure there were no witnesses.
For the last moon, since waking from his latest death, he had been meeting with Telantes every night, away from his company and away from anyone who would try to stop him. He stood silently and waited. He did not wait long. Within moments, Telantes appeared, a deep frown on his face.
“Are you sure about this, Ga’briyel?”
“Of course I am! Just do it, Telantes!”
“Very well, my friend.” A longbow materialized in the spirit’s hand, an arrow already nocked. “This should be the last one, Ga’briyel. I pray to Yisu it is.” Drawing the bowstring to his cheek and sighting down the arrow, Telantes aimed at Ga’briyel’s heart and released the string. The arrow whistled through the air briefly until it embedded itself in Ga’briyel’s chest, piercing his heart just as Zahin’s had the first time. With only a grunt, Ga’briyel staggered back a step and then pulled the arrow from himself. With barely a trickle of blood, the wounds sealed themselves almost instantly.
“Once more, Telantes,” Ga’briyel said. “Just to see.”
“As you wish,” the spirit sighed and shot a second arrow. When it slid through Ga’briyel’s flesh this time, he felt nothing. No pain at all--nothing but the pressure of the arrowhead making its way through his heart. He pulled it out, and there was again nothing. No pain, no blood, and Ga’briyel felt the holes in his back and chest heal immediately after the arrow was gone.
“At least Yisu is still being merciful, Ga’briyel,” Telantes said as the bow disappeared. “Twenty seems to be the number of times you must suffer before there is no more pain.”
“Merciful? Is that what you call it?” Ga’briyel snarled as he fingered the holes in his shirt. “Two would be merciful, spirit! Perhaps three! Twenty is not merciful!”
“It could be hundreds or thousands, Sainika, remember that.”
Ga’briyel sighed as he sat down on a large boulder. “Yes, it could be. You are right, Telantes. I am sorry.” During the trek to the mountains, Telantes had been subjecting the Anmah to the things that had killed him over and over again. Ga’briyel, over the last four sennights, had been stabbed by a sword, shot with an arrow, and beaten nineteen more times. There hadn’t been enough water for him to drown that many times, and they had not encountered any of Sayatan's minions, but he knew that the next night Telantes would start with the burning and crushing and suffocating. “Thank you, my friend,” he said, standing and holding out his hand. “Thank you for being willing to do this for me.”
“You are welcome, Ga’briyel Mistri el’Adama,” the spirit said, clasping the Anmah’s forearm tightly. Then he smiled grimly. “I do not think anyone in your company would be as willing.”
“No, definitely not. If they knew what I did away from camp, they would probably tie me up as soon as we stopped for the night. I want to make sure we get the burning out of the way before we reach the volcano, Telantes,” Ga’briyel said as he turned toward the camp. “I have a feeling there will be Dirack as well as humans guarding those eggs. Not to mention the lava of the volcano itself. I want to be immune to fire soon.”
“As you wish, Anmah,” the spirit said softly, and then he disappeared.
When Ga’briyel arrived back at camp, he was stopped by the watch. His eyes widened, and he was about to say something when one of the guardsmen said, “The other captains wish to see you as soon as possible, Captain Mistri. As soon as you return, they said.”
With a growl and a flare of his eyes, Ga’briyel pushed past the man and stormed to his tent. Dinton, Tero, and Kajal were all standing there, arms folded across their chests and frowns on their faces. “What do you want?” the Anmah said with a sigh, knowing exactly what they wanted.
“Where do you go when we stop, Mistri?” Dinton asked, taking a step closer to his friend. He reached out a hand and poked the new hole in Ga’briyel’s shirt. “And why do you always come back with torn, bloody clothing?”
Ga’briyel jerked back from his friend’s hand and snarled, “Where I go and what I do is none of your business, Dinton. It is not anyone’s business but my own. If I wanted you to know, I would have told you long before this. Now let me by.”
The three captains reluctantly moved aside, and Ga’briyel entered the tent. He quickly changed his shirt and put the first one aside for washing and mending. Then he sat down on his pallet and unsheathed his sword. Pulling out a linen cloth, he polished it although it did not need it. It seemed as if the blessing Yisu put on it kept it clean and sharp no matter what he used it on. He did not move or even glance up when the tent flap moved aside and Tero stepped in. The older man sat on the ground, his knees almost touching Ga’briyel’s, but he said nothing. Finally, Ga’briyel looked at him, his eyes blazing, but he was not angry; he was mourning. Mourning the loss of his life, mourning his wife and child, mourning his situation.
“Talk to me, Ga’briyel,” Tero said quietly. “I promise anything you tell me will stay secret from the others.”
“There is nothing to say, Tero, but thank you.” Then Ga’briyel glanced up. Tero was just staring at him, and Jarda’s words came to the Anmah’s mind. Listen to him and his advice. He is a wise man. He sighed heavily and quickly prayed, Yisu, please, may I tell him? I need to tell someone, please. There was no verbal response, but a sense of peace flowed around Ga'briyel, and he nodded. “All right, Tero, I will tell you, but you must not tell anyone else. Promise?”
“I promise, Ga’briyel. Your secret is safe with me.” Tero clasped his hands on top of his knees and looked at Ga’briyel expectantly.
His eyes glowing softly, the Anmah held up his sword in his left hand. “Just watch,” he said, and then he ran his right hand down the blade’s edge. Tero gasped and reached out, but Ga’briyel shook his head. “It does not hurt anymore, Tero.” When he reached the hilt, he held out his hand toward Tero, and there was no blood, no cut, nothing.
“Your hand should be severed from that cut, Mistri!” Tero’s eyes narrowed, and he frowned. “What have you been doing?”
In response, Ga’briyel held out his sword hilt-first toward his friend. “Take it, please.” Tero did so slowly, and then Ga’briyel took off his shirt and spread his arms wide. “Do it, Tero. Stab me. You need to see.”
“No, Ga’briyel! I cannot do that!”
“Do it! I promise it will not hurt me. Through the heart, Tero, please.”
Shaking his head incredulously, Tero did as Ga’briyel asked and thrust the sword forward, cleanly piercing the Anmah’s heart. When the crossguard met his chest, Ga’briyel stepped back without a sound, pulling the hilt from Tero’s hands. Then he grasped the hilt and slowly slid the blade from his chest. There was no blood on the blade, and Ga'briyel felt the wounds seal themselves the instant the steel was removed.
"What is happening, Mistri?" Tero whispered, wide-eyed.
Ga'briyel put his shirt back on and sat down. Tero collapsed in front of him. "Telantes has been helping me. I can no longer be hurt by blades, arrows, or beatings. For the last moon, he has been helping me become immune to these things. Tomorrow night starts the burning, crushing, and suffocating. For the next nineteen nights, I will suffer all three. This is where I go when we stop. I travel far enough for the company to not hear my screams, and Telantes hurts me. Twenty times in total, Tero. Twenty times suffering from a certain cause, and then I am immune to it."
Ga'briyel shrugged and sheathed his sword. "I assume so. I hope so."
"How did you find this out?"
"Yisu told me."
Tero's eyes went even wider, and his eyebrows soared. "The Creator told you? When?"
"A while ago. He came to me and spoke to me. More than once." Ga'briyel stared at his friend. "I have to do this, Tero. It is painful, yes, but eventually it is not. There was no pain when you stabbed me, Tero. None! Once I die from a cause, it takes nineteen more times being exposed to that cause for me to become immune to it. Which is why the burning starts tomorrow. By the time we reach that volcano, I want to be immune to fire. Eventually, I will be immune to anything that can potentially harm me." He sighed and clenched his fists. "Although I do not look forward to nineteen more encounters with Takosa or Sarpa. Telantes says that the Dirack's flames will not affect me after I burn more, even though they are different than regular flames. He says burning is burning, and it does not matter the source." Ga'briyel stared at his friend, his eyes blazing violet. "I do not want to do this, Tero, but I must, or I will go insane. I do not want to hurt anymore."
Tero stretched out his hand and clasped Ga'briyel's shoulder. "I understand, my friend, and I will support you in any way I can." Then he smirked. "Just do not ask me to set you ablaze."
With a chuckle, Ga'briyel stood. "No, Telantes is more than willing to do that for me. It pains him, I know, but not as much as it would you or Dinton or Kajal. I will leave the camp tomorrow night as before, Tero. Make some excuse for me, please?"
"I will think of something, Ga'briyel. Something that will appease Dinton and Kajal. Dinton wanted to follow you tonight, but I did not let him. I will do my best to keep him in camp after you leave."
"Thank you, Tero." Then Ga'briyel grinned. "My father was right."
"You are a wise man."
The smile that stretched across Tero's face told Ga'briyel that General Jarda Mistri's praise meant a lot to him. "Thank you, my friend. I appreciate that."
"You are most welcome. Now, I must sleep. Morning will come too soon."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because when I sleep, I dream, and then I wake. All night long, Tero, my nightmares wake me. I do not want to sleep, but my body forces me to." Ga'briyel sighed and pulled off his boots, unhooked his sword belt, and set it all beside his pallet before stretching out on his back, his hands behind his head. "I have not had a good night's sleep for over a moon, Tero, and I am so tired." He closed his eyes, and Tero watched him for a short time. When he thought his friend was asleep, he slipped out of the tent. As soon as he left, Ga'briyel opened his eyes, stared at the wall of the tent, and prayed for a rapid end to his misery.
The shriek that was ripped from Ga'briyel's throat bothered Telantes greatly, but he said nothing as he watched his friend go up in flames yet again. This was the twelfth time he had done so, and there were still seven more to go. What bothered the Debaduta even more was that Ga'briyel insisted on enduring three doses of pain each night: burning, crushing, and suffocating. Three times each night, his friend was in intense agony until Yisu told Telantes it was enough--that Ga'briyel need not suffer anymore that night.
"A sennight, Ga'briyel," the spirit whispered as the Anmah writhed on the ground, his scream dying down into a whimper. "Only a sennight more of this torture."
"Not true, Telantes." Ga'briyel's words were choked with tears as he sat up, his skin already turning from charred black to pink. "I have died eighteen times, my friend. This only makes six. Twelve other causes, and I cannot inflict this pain upon myself. I am sorry, but you must do it for me."
"No, Ga'briyel, you cannot hurt yourself. It would be the same as killing yourself." Telantes sighed and sat down on the ground next to his friend. "But I do not like doing this, Sainika. For the rest, could you not wait until it happens naturally?"
"No! That could take hundreds of years, Debaduta, and I do not wish to wait that long!" The Anmah dropped his head and exhaled sharply. "Please, my friend, please do this for me."
"Of course I will, Ga'briyel, if that is your desire, but I do not have to like it."
Ga'briyel stood up and stared at the clear black sky, the stars sparkling brighter and bigger the higher up the mountains they climbed. "Where is Yisu, Telantes?"
Perplexed by the question, the Debaduta stood as well. "Why do you ask, Sainika?"
"Is He up there in His heaven somewhere? Is He on Duniya? Where is He? Does He truly care what happens to me or anyone down here?"
"Yes, Ga'briyel, He cares. He cares deeply for what happens to His creation. He grieves every single time you or anyone is in pain, but especially you. You are His champion, Ga'briyel Mistri el'Adama, and He feels your pain each and every time." When the Anmah looked at Telantes skeptically, the spirit continued, "Trust me on this, Ga'briyel. He feels your pain. He endures it just as you do. Perhaps even more so."
Spitting on the ground, Ga'briyel snarled, "Not more so, spirit. There is no chance he suffers more than I do. He would not put me through this if that were so."
"He puts you through it because it is necessary, Ga'briyel. You know that. The rules for Anmah were put in place at the beginning of time, and even Yisu cannot change those rules. If He did, he would lower Himself to Sayatan's level, and He cannot do that. He must follow the rules He set in place so long ago."
Ga'briyel just nodded and clenched his fists. "I suppose you're right, but like you, I do not have to like it. I do not have to like any of this!"
"But it is getting easier, is it not, Sainika? The pain is lessening, yes?"
"Of course it is, but that doesn't matter. Over two hundred more times, with at least three quarters of those with intense pain. I cannot make myself get struck by lightning, but as soon as we get to a cliff, you will have to push me over, Telantes. Nineteen times! The agony of the burning is much less, it is true, but it is not gone yet. Seven more times before that happens! And then comes the crushing, the suffocation, the Sarpa, the Takosa, and every other way I have died, Debaduta!" Ga'briyel dropped to the ground and buried his head in his arms. "Why me, Telantes? Why did Yisu pick me?"
The spirit joined his friend and held him close. "I think it is because the older Anmah who became Sainika were already hardened to what was happening in the world. They had already seen so much and been through so much heartache that they did not care anymore. That is why many came so close to destroying the world instead of saving it."
"That really happened?"
"It did. Several times."
Ga'briyel sighed. "How many Sainika have there been, Telantes?"
"Seventeen, including you. Why?"
"Just curious." Ga'briyel stopped talking and stared at the ground. After a long time, he stood up, put his sword belt back around his waist, and started back toward camp without a word.