Dulas followed the servant into the room. He stood at the foot of the bed for several menes before the figure on the bed noticed him and stirred. Dulas ran his fingers through his thinning, grey hair uncomfortably. He had stood in the presence of dying people many times before, but it was never an easy thing to do. This particular situation was especially strange.
“Come to gloat, have you?” came the raspy greeting from the wasted man on the bed. The servant looked up at Dulas, a questioning look on his face. Dulas nodded, and the servant left, closing the door behind himself.
“Hello Anarr,” Dulas said. “How are you feeling?”
“How the hell do you think I’m feeling?” snapped Anarr weakly. “I’m dying.”
“We all die, Anarr,” replied Dulas gently.
Anarr coughed weakly for a long time. When he spoke again his voice was fainter still.
“You’ve always been a pain in the behind, Dulas.”
Dulas moved to sit on the stool beside the bed while Anarr spoke.
“How long have I known you?” The sharp tone had bled from Anarr’s voice, leaving behind only weakness and vulnerability.
“I was nineteen when I first met you at Balthus Celerion’s school. I’m sixty-nine now.”
“Fifty years. Half a century. Not that long at all. It just seems longer.”
“You had grey hair then, too,” Dulas commented, staring at Anarr’s mostly bald head.
“It started falling out three years ago. The spells stopped working. Too much age pressing in on me,” Anarr replied. “It didn’t go back to grey at first,” he continued, his voice rising and becoming more reflective. “It just started getting thinner. I didn’t want to think about it at the time. I think I knew even then that the spells weren’t working anymore.”
“You’ve lived a long life, Anarr,” Dulas said. “Much longer than most. It’s not a bad thing to die after such a long life.”
“It’s always a bad thing to die, idiot!” snapped Anarr, the anger returning. “Death is the enemy.” He lay for a moment, rolling his head on the pillow and his eyes in his head. “You fools. It’s bad enough that you think that one man came back to life. Do you have to insist that everyone else will too? Idiots.”
“Stevene has shown us,” Dulas corrected gently. “We will live again.”
“Stevene was a fraud,” muttered Anarr, his burst of vigor fading fast. “A liar.”
Dulas sighed. “I had hoped, over the years, that I could convince you otherwise, before our relationship came to an end.”
“You didn’t expect me to die, did you?” Anarr asked quietly, wistfully.
“No.” Dulas watched Anarr quietly, a gentle, almost sad look on his face.
“Well, neither did I,” Anarr replied. “Arrogant of me, wasn’t it? To think that I thought I would live forever.”
They sat silently for a while. Outside the birds were singing, and from throughout the large complex sounds of daily activity drifted in. Finally Dulas spoke.
“Have you made arrangements for your body?”
“Quite to the point, aren’t you?”
Dulas sat for a moment. “I take it that you haven’t.”
“It has been done for me. The council has decreed that my body will be burned and the ashes scattered. They don’t want my empty shell coming back from the grave and wandering around the complex, I suppose. Too many years of applying spells to my own body, or so they fear.”
“Magic as powerful as you have used cannot always be trusted,” commented Dulas.
“Ah.” Anarr was becoming hard to hear. “Nothing powerful about it. Careful use of well known thamaturgy, systematic study and practice over the years. It’s barely even magic.”
“Most people don’t live to be one hundred and sixty,” commented Dulas.
“Some live much, much longer,” countered Anarr bitterly.
Again there was silence. Finally Dulas cleared his throat.
“I know you don’t believe me,” began Dulas, “but you will live again. Hear me out,” he added quickly, when Anarr seemed ready to reply. “I know that you don’t believe in the teachings of Stevene, but somehow I can’t shake the feeling that I will be seeing you again, when we both shall live in eternal light.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” replied Anarr. “Don’t you have to believe in this ‘god’ before he will help you?”
“And how will you believe?” asked Dulas.
“In your ‘god’? Why would I want to? So I can wear a noose around my neck? Not to mention jumping through flaming rings and dancing on my hind legs like some circus animal for him.” He fell to coughing again.
“You’ve never really understood Him,” replied Dulas when Anarr stopped. The inflection in his voice clearly showed a respect for the subject that Anarr lacked. “You’ve studied the texts, but you’ve never really understood them, nor Him.”
“He sent his messenger to die. That’s all I need to know,” replied Anarr. “I don’t need a god who wants me to die. I want — I wanted — I want to live.” The last was spoken almost as a confession.
“Stevene didn’t come to die,” countered Dulas. “He brought a message of love about the One, and we hated it so much we killed him.”
“You fools die every day. You wear that stupid rope around your necks like you’re waiting in line for the gallows. Your prophet got himself killed and now you want to join him. I mean …” Anarr tried to sit up, but couldn’t quite manage it. Dulas moved to help, but Anarr shook his head. He lay panting for a while before resuming his thought. “I mean, you act like you have a real god who can actually do something for you. Why don’t you face reality? Some fool blathered about some fictional god and gets himself killed for his trouble, and you people make him into some sort of god too, and go around wearing a noose on your necks. I mean, have you ever seen him bring someone back from the dead? Have you?” Anarr sank deeper into the bedding, exhausted from his outburst. “You ignorant fools can’t even get your history right,” he sighed. “Stevene was beheaded, not hanged.”
For a while the pair simply sat in silence.
“I have seen people healed, and lives changed for the better,” said Dulas finally.
“You’ve seen people recover,” replied Anarr, his eyes closed, “and seen people act like fools.”
“His spirit infuses us, and we live as He wants us to,” replied Dulas gently.
“You live as you want, and say it’s the will of your god,” countered Anarr, tired and still.
“Stevene has shown us the will of God. His teachings bring light and goodness to us. They show us the proper way to live, the just and good way.”
When Anarr didn’t reply, Dulas continued.
“He sent Stevene to teach us goodness, and then has infused us with His holiness, so that we can live that way. We cannot live that way of ourselves.” Dulas opened his shirt and extracted the worn noose that he wore around his neck — the custom of some Stevenic sects. “Even as Stevene died to serve Him, so each of us must leave our lives behind to serve Him. In exchange He helps us live His life instead. We have His wisdom, through Stevene’s words. We have His strength to endure the hurts of daily life. We pursue His goals, adopt His attitudes. Because Stevene showed us the way, we can live His life.”
Anarr sighed. “Dulas, do you know how many different religions there are in Makdiar?”
Dulas sat silently, unanswering. Anarr paused, then continued.
“I didn’t think so.” Anarr took several deep breaths, gathering strength for his reply. “There are one hundred twelve different religions in Makdiar. Of those, ninety-four teach a moral code similar in almost every way to the one taught by Stevene. Over half claim to represent one or more gods. Forty-two state that they have some form of invisible assistance from one or more gods that helps them live better than they could otherwise. Each of them teaches honesty, obedience to the law, respect for authority, and personal accountability. Most of them claim supernatural intervention in one way or another, although usually when we send someone to check it out, it turns out to be some simple form of magic or other.” He stopped, panting. While he lay there, catching his breath, Dulas said nothing. “In every case, those people who make a real effort to live by the rules they are taught are better liked, have more wealth, and live longer than those who do not. That’s good.” He panted some more before continuing. “Of course, when we talk to people who don’t believe in some god or other, and who also live good, clean lives, they also live longer, are better liked, and have more money.”
For several menes there was no sound in the room save Anarr’s panting and the sound of birds outside.
“Over one hundred years ago, I was a student here in the sanctuary. After one lecture about immortality spells, I decided that I would live forever. Since that day I have pursued life. I learned the secret incantations that prevent wrinkles, that thin and thicken the blood, and that cure infections.” He paused to catch his breath. “I studied the foods to eat, the exercises and meditations to practice. For a while I moved to the south, and for ten whole years I went naked, because someone told me that clothes restrict the circulation. And yes, Dulas, the blood does circulate, despite what Goolten says.” Anarr shook his head. When he continued his voice was softer, almost inaudible. “I did everything I could to live forever. And it was working. But life — or death, actually — caught up to me.”
He fixed Dulas with his stare, vigor returning to his voice. “And through it all I’ve not seen one thing to convince me that the followers of Stevene have any special grace above or beyond that of any other religion.”
There came a knock on the door. Dulas arose and opened it. A younger man in a red cloak entered.
“Anarr, how can I help you?”
“Ah, Gotrung. You made it.” Anarr panted a moment or so while Gotrung took his place on the stool Dulas had vacated. “My thamaturgy is failing me. Can you see where the energies are going?”
“Certainly,” replied Gotrung. He removed a few amulets from his neck and set one at Anarr’s head, one on his feet. He placed his hands palm-out in the air above Anarr’s chest and stared straight across his fingertips for several moments. Dulas watched as a pink aura grew around Gotrung’s eyes, then finally faded. Gotrung slowly gathered his amulets back up.
“They aren’t going anywhere, Anarr,” replied Gotrung slowly, carefully. “They’re simply exhausted.”
“What do you mean?” asked Anarr. “I had enough to last a lifetime!”
“And they did,” Gotrung explained gently. “And then some. And then some. But they’re exhausted now.”
“You must give me more!” exclaimed Anarr weakly, trying to raise himself up.
“From where?” asked Gotrung. “If there were time we could try an exchange or extraction, but there isn’t.” He was silent for a moment. “Your life energy is so low, you will be dead within the day. I’m sorry. You’ve used up all your life.”
Dulas hung his head, while Gotrung stood up and walked to the door. Anarr lay quietly, eyes open and staring at the ceiling. After Gotrung closed the door behind him, Dulas sat down on the stool.
“Dulas, is that you?” asked Anarr, his gaze not leaving the roof.
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“I imagine you plan on staying until I’m dead,” remarked Anarr, not looking at his long-time acquaintance. “You were always a decent sort, that way, regardless of what I’ve said about you. But I don’t want to waste any more of your time — I of all people know how valuable time is. Go. You’ve made your effort, you’ve done your duty. I’m no more convinced of your god now than before, through no fault of your own. Go in peace, my friend. May you live as long as I have.”
Dulas took Anarr’s hand for a moment, then turned and left.
“… not one of the nicest rooms, but it’s nicer than mine, or I’d let you have mine,” the servant was saying as he let Dulas into the small room that he was to occupy for the night.
“It will do just fine. I don’t need more than a place to sleep,” commented Dulas as he held his traveling lamp up and examined the tiny cell. “I shall be leaving in the morning anyway.”
“Anarr is stubborn,” remarked the servant, “but I don’t expect him to last the night. He’ll most likely die in his sleep.”
“It’s better that way,” commented Dulas, “more peaceful.” He turned to the servant. “Good night.”
The servant left, closing the door. Dulas set his lamp in the corner and stepped up to the window. It was open, letting some air in. The night seemed to intrude into the room: thick, inky velvet. Dulas satisfied himself that there was nothing to see, and knelt on the straw mattress. He extinguished the light, bowed his head, and closed his eyes. He began to pray. His words were barely audible, not spoken to be heard by any ear. Dulas’ tone was that of the believer, the supplicant, one who has spoken often to someone that they have met, but not really ever gotten to know. His posture was one of habitual reverence. There was much to say. When he finished, Dulas rose and again looked out into the dark, then lay himself down to sleep.
No more than a few menes had passed when suddenly the door flung open. Dulas bolted upright. There, in the door, stood Anarr, torch in one hand and a noose in the other.
“You did this to me!!” he shouted at Dulas.
Dulas stared. Anarr stood straight and tall, his muscles full and taut. Thick black hair covered his head, and his skin was smooth and clean. He was young again.
“Anarr!! What happened?” Dulas exclaimed as Anarr stalked into the room. Frightened, anxious faces peered in the door, but no one interfered.
“You did this, cursing me with your filthy noose and your filthy god!” He cast the noose at Dulas’ feet.
“But, but Anarr, that’s not mine!” Dulas reached in his shirt and withdrew his own noose to show to Anarr. Anarr stared at it his eyes wide, his face white. “I did nothing but pray for you. He has answered my prayers and healed you!”
“I don’t even believe in your god!!” shouted Anarr, kicking part of the mattress away.
“Well, perhaps he believes in you,” Dulas replied, uncowed.
Anarr stared, fear replacing anger in his eyes. He looked at his hands and stroked his face and hair. “It’s some trick. You’ve placed some enchantment on me.”
“I’ve done nothing!!” assured Dulas. “It is He who has done this! He has shown His power to you, so that you might believe in Him!”
“I’m a magician! I’m no Stevenic!”
“Then perhaps it’s time you were.”
Anarr staggered out into the night. He cast the torch away, running in the dark. He stopped in the main parade grounds, the black of evening all around. He held his hands up before his face, but could not see them for the darkness. Out of habit he conjured up a foxfire. The blue light flickered across his fingertips, illuminating and outlining their newly restored youth. He flicked his hands, spraying the cold flames away and dousing them. Then he collapsed on his knees, shaking his fists at the sky and howling.