Our journey from the summit of the Mountain of False Gods was finally at an end. We had just made it past the threshold of 10,000 City Anzan. The ziggurat at the cities’ center sparkled low in the dimming light. It had been a few cycles travel from the mountain’s peak, and a harrowing descent at that. The beasts had given into fighting each other. Beings that were of no consequence could be seen testing themselves against far greater foes and coming out on top.
Zen and Alpha proved themselves not only brilliant strategists, but competent fighters in their own rights. Along the way they had each entered into combat theory and practical application. I had known of some martial theory, but these two had practical experience. Alpha seemed much more hardened while Zen seemed to enjoy it as simple exercise. Was there such turmoil in their land as to necessitate these practices?
I still wonder after their good health however. In their plans they had me spearhead the attacks, even though I obviously was lacking in their tactical knowledge. They relegated themselves to team based tactics, allowing me to draw the brunt of opponents’ attentions. The few times they had earned a lump or two for themselves it seemed to have struck them harder than I’d have wagered. Alpha took it in stride. Zen nearly collapsed more than once.
I could not help but voice my confusion over these feats. I was told that the beasts on the Fell Mount were not to be trifled with, and yet I was victorious with all those I came across. This admittance seemed to cause Zen some heartache. He looked skyward and muttered something about the world being out of balance. He spoke a small time about changes that would occur if such a thing were not remedied quickly. He lamented that while his knowledge wasn’t lacking, his power was. This doldrums didn’t last long at all. He began smiling again in no time.
For the time being I could put my concerns away. Anzan was always filled with celebration, positive emotions, and excitement. As a cultural staple guests were warmly welcomed and well received. For an untold time the people of Moksha flocked to this town until it flourished. There were probably days that went by without seeing anyone coming or going, but the festivities continued unabated. Anzan housed a familiar phenomenon of Moksha. It was uncertain whether cities were settled in safety or if the presence of people made them so, but there were definite boundaries to the area that promoted good health.
Alpha, per her norm, seemed unphased. I could see now that her hardened exterior was battle forged. By comparison anyone else would have been ecstatic. That made describing Zen’s turnaround in attitude hard to peg, as he seemed more revitalized than I did. His eyes gazed over the whole city in a sense of wonderment.
“Are you alright there Zen?” I asked of him. “Doing fine. Honestly. I don’t think I’ve appreciated being here like I am right now.”
“Is that so? You’ve been to Anzan before?”
Zen nodded in reply. “It’s hard to put into words…” he trailed off as he began taking deep breathes. “And what of you Alpha?” She shook her head.
Zen, seemingly in ceaseless motion though standing in place, suddenly paused. He seemed to have picked up on it sooner than I. His eyes had gone wide, and a loud otherworldly growl resounded from sources unknown. Zen seemed to be cast into a fright, he stood so still. I looked around for the source, but couldn’t discern its location. Again it bellowed and I snapped around. It seemed to be coming from Zen himself. Alpha laughed at her “friend”, seemingly amused. Her sudden change in emotion immediately disarmed me.
“Just what is that ghastly noise?” I asked the pair.
“It would seem that I am hungry” Zen replied.
“Is that all?” I asked.
Zen seemed lost in his own world, his hand open. “Let’s see…” he looked skyward toward the daystar. “…we’ve been here… four cycles? Hm… interesting…”
I looked between he and Alpha. “What was that sound then?”
Alpha turned to me in surprise. “It was just his stomach. Calm down” she replied matter of factually.
Zen started sniffing at the air. “Oh… it doesn’t look as though the food stalls are open as of yet. Well… that leaves but one option!” Zen tore off into the thick of the crowds seemingly possessed. I lost sight of him quickly.
“Zen…!” I called out, but he was already gone. “Where could he possibly be going?” I asked Alpha. However, when I turned to her I found her gone as well. I blinked dazedly. I didn’t know much to say about them, but when it came to them being where you expected them to be it was an exercise in futility. This left me to wander about the town on my own.
While the nightly revelry of Anzan had begun, Zen was indeed correct. Many of the vendors were not only not set up, but didn’t even seem present. That was awfully unusual. Still, the regular residents made up enough of a cacophony that it did take a concerted effort to even notice. I hadn’t been to this city since I was very young. Now that I was here under my own power I held a different appreciation of it.
The ziggurat in the middle of the city has eight sides. Districts extend from the base of each side, adhering to a circular design around the structure. While not a hard and fast rule most of the town residents lived toward the center, while amenities for travelers lay in the outer rings of the city. This made it easy for those passing through such as merchants and travelers to get what they needed without having to deal with the hassle of daily bustle.
The ziggurat itself was honored as something of a religious icon. However it was unknown to what deity it could be attributed. The structure stood the test of time with no assistance from the town. That was no small feat, as buildings constructed in the Mokshan way could last millinea. The ziggurat had been around for as long as there had been records. Perhaps that would be the place to dally. The local Dreyphand may offer some new insight. Perhaps I could reference what little I had gleaned from Alpha and Zen. In any case I was to check in at every outpost along my path.
Making my way towards the city center I happened across many townsfolk. Shops of all kinds bearing instruments, local sundries, and even some armorers and outfitters were present. Colorful arrays of clothing and jewelry lined storefronts. It all seemed a bit excessive, but occasional frivolity is something I find necessary. No one was certain when it was developed, but magical techniques had progressed to such a point that most necessities were miniaturized. It was a common practice for the would be traveler to practice fashioning lodging. It made long journeys in the wilderness much easier. However it was now something of a lost art as the recent world made singular days outside the norm. As the cities drew ever closer it eliminated lengthy and dangerous trips.
I happened upon a hostel. Thus far it had been the only place where I thought someone could get food at this time. As soon as I thought it I saw Zen tearing down the street, apparently not having slowed down from his earlier rush. He didn’t notice me right away, and was fitfully looking to and fro.
“Zen!” I shouted, waving him down. When he stopped he leaned forward and breathed heavily. “Still haven’t found anyplace to eat?”
He shook his head. “It’s the most maddening thing! Usually there would be scents galore but I can’t even find one. I was looking for an inn…”
I pointed to the one we stood in front of. “That one there?”
Zen followed my finger and pointed to the building. “Aha! You found it!” Zen planted a kiss on my cheek… then charged off in the opposite direction.
He had darted down an alley looking up and down the walls frantically. Following him with some distance I watched him carefully. “Zen… there would probably be food back at the inn…” Zen spoke hastily over his shoulder.
“True… but I have a promise to keep.” Zen raised a hand and as he lowered it he was pointing down the alley, veering more to the left. “There!” He charged off again, but his time into the wall. I ran after him. There seemed to be a very subtle recess covered by an equally subtle curtain. Above the door was a single simple stamped carved into the wall reading “Rest”. I entered into the doorway.
Inside was an unassuming lobby. Lining the walls were large, comfortable looking seats extending well around the corner. A counter stood more or less in the middle of the area. A number of bottles of varying colors containing all manner of liquids lay on the other side. Light poured in from the windows, which I was positive did not exist on the other side of the wall. Directly ahead of us a stairwell ascended, while a little off from there one could see a courtyard. “This place looked a lot smaller on the outside.”
“I get that a lot” came a voice from the other side of the counter. “I’ll be with you in just a moment.”
The construction of this place seemed singular and out of step with the rest of the town, which was amazing in and of itself. I looked down at the floors. Wood of a deep shade. It seemed that some of the patrons had removed their shoes. Seeing Zen’s I followed suit. If allowed I’d take a look around to find him. A man stood up from behind the counter. I assumed it was he who spoke to me. “Welcome! I’m Winston, and I happily welcome you to Scion’s Rest. I’m here to assist you however I’m able.”
Winston was dressed comfortably. His pants and shirt were loose, sleeves tailored to stop a bit above the elbows. A white apron adorned his waist, and while there was a scent of food wafting from a kitchen I had not yet seen a smear or stain was present on him. He was himself groomed flawlessly, hair long enough to tie back, but well maintained. His smile was broad and inviting, his voice soothing. “Most don’t find there way here on accident. If I may ask, what brings you here?” It was at that time I saw Zen leaning on the counter over Winston’s shoulder, having moved behind Winston before he stood. The smile on his face extended from ear to ear. “That would be him” I said, and nodded in Zen’s direction.
The other patrons seemed to pause when Winston turned around in confusion. His shoulders jumped when he saw Zen, a mark of surprise. Winston put his hands on his hips and Zen’s smile fade. Letting out a sigh edged with playfulness, Winston opened his arms. Zen relaxed noticably and a strong hug was shared between the two. They rocked back and forth, slowly turning in place. Winston was smiling and was mirrored by Zen. The whole of the eating area seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. They held the hug for quite some time. I have never seen two friends greet each other so happily. After a long beat they separated, Winston and Zen walking to an empty corner table in what looked to be a practiced motion.
“So you’re back?!” asked Winston, a mix of excitement and curiosity.
Zen tapped the table. “I’m all here this time, for the first in a long while.” Winston looked at Zen carefully. After some time Zen began to squirm. “Oh… cut it out. You know I’m bashful.” Again, I could see the trust between the two friends. Mokshans hold the ability to alter their eyesight to see differently. In essence we can view energies that signify life. With greater practice and scrutiny one could learn much from the world around them. Winston seemed to gain much as his demeanor shifted, indicating skill, familiarity, or both. I had gained nothing little from Zen, but I was often told my Sight was different somehow.
“I see” said Winston solemnly. “Congratulations are in order I suppose… But where does this leave you?” Zen got quiet. He said something under his breath that I could not hear. “Ah…” Winston said softly. “I thought that was you.”
I made my way over to the table. Zen looked up, his usual light returning to his face as he did. “Ah… my manners. Winston, this is Garner. This is the daring do-gooder that helped me down the Mountain.” Some of the other patrons took greater notice of the lot of us, especially me, when this was said.
Winston nodded. “I see. Then you have my thanks Garner, and if you’ve no place else in town you are welcome here.” He looked over at Zen. “I imagine your first order of business is getting some food in you?”
Zen laughed. “Am I that transparent?”
Winston smiled. “Only to me, but it took awhile. Plus, you are uniquely consistent. I’ll be right back with something for you.”
I sat down at the corner table with Zen. “What is this place?” I asked. “It’s a safe haven for those out of step with the world” Zen explained. “Are there places to eat and sleep? En masse, of course. This place is outside of the bounds of Moksha. Sturdier, more complete. It leads to a few oddities, but as they’ve always been helpful the patrons don’t mind.”
“Oddities such as?”
Zen looked the inside over. “See the warrior at the bar?”
“The counter with the stools. The one in the worn armor.”
“Don’t they seem out of place to you?”
I looked at the person he pointed out. Nothing major, just battle torn armor… which was at least 500 years out of use. I focused and let my Sight shift. Some type of weird bubble stayed around them. It seemed to pulse. Whenever it was about to fade and disperse it would become complete again, good as new.
“Time has less meaning in this place than to which you are accustomed.” At that moment Winston came back with plates of food on his arms. Zen immediately shot up and helped him set them on the table. Winston nodded back at the bar. “There are a couple of bottles I left there with a few glasses. Could you grab those Garner?” I did as I was asked.
Upon even my swift return there was a veritable feast laid out. Varieties of dishes I’d never seen before, styles of preparation I’d never thought of… I didn’t know what to make out of it all.
“How did you make all this so quickly Winston?”
He just smiled. “Quick had nothing to do with it. It took simply as long as was needed. You waited no more and no less.” Zen laughed hard, apparently finding humor I missed. “Please, eat your fill” Winston invited. “There is more available should you want it.”
Zen rubbed his hands together, trying to decide where to begin, when he eyed the bottles Winston had directed me to retrieve. “Are those what I think they are?!” Zen exclaimed, which was met by Winston’s smile. Zen reached for the bottles and I handed them to him. “Oh my… genga brews.”
“Genga” I pondered. “Like the genga root?”
Zen nodded “Precisely.”
“I didn’t know you could make them into beverages.”
Zen looked shocked. “Really?! I thought it was a common drink. I always have it when I come here. Try some.” The scents were strong, and the tastes were full and potent, however they were smooth and quite refreshing. “I’ll admit you’re getting spoiled. Winston is by no means a slouch when it comes to cooking. Here… taste this…”
This taste testing session went on for hours. With Zen scanning the table, finding something and hopping slightly in excitement, explaining it, then having me try some. At no point was I disappointed, and it enthused Zen to repeat the process until there was nothing left. When we finished Winston brought us tea to finish off the meal. “I’ve never eaten like that before” I told Zen.
He seemed to be filled with more vigor than I’d seen as of yet.“I wouldn’t think so. Sorry for that. I just need to keep up my strength.”
I looked at him puzzled. “There shouldn’t be a need for it. The world is filled with energy. You should be able to survive for quite some time on it alone.”
Zen shook his head. “You’ve Seen me yourself. As you can tell my stores are a little low.” An idea sparked in Zen’s mind. He slugged back the tea, and brought the dishes up to the counter. He made his way behind it, much to Winston’s mock dismay. “Oh, come now” Zen jabbed in return. “This is my home as much as it is yours. I can help tidy up after myself.” Seeing him interact with Winston was like seeing old friends at play. They moved around each other fluidly enough to constitute a dance. I sipped at my tea watching the duo. Zen finished quickly, hanging his black apron on a hook that seemed somehow reserved for him. He left me to my tea while he went out to the courtyard. It was strange. Here Zen seemed at home. Somehow while he traveled with Alpha he seemed something at odds with her.
Wait… where was Alpha?!
I made my way to the courtyard. In it was a collection of statuary of large number. A light from an untold source shone like midday. Zen was dancing in front of a relief of a dragon and a tiger chasing one another in an endless circle. I watched for a time. Zen’s steps hinted at a fluidity that I had not seen of him to date. The graceful motions were punctuated with forceful steps more in line with how I had seen him in limited combat. After a time he stopped and knelt down before the relief. I took this opportunity to approach.
“Hm… that should have worked…” I heard him say to himself. He seemed to delve into thought, however he may have just opened his senses as it was at this time he took notice of my presence. “Something wrong with the tea?”
I shook my head. “Everything was fine. I just realized that I don’t know where Alpha is. When you left me at the towns’ entrance she disappeared as well. I haven’t seen her since.”
Zen stood up and seemed to mark the notes of concern in my voice. “Trust me, she’s fine. We’re off the beaten path, but I assure you she’s trying to make here way here as quickly as she can.”
I had no reason not to trust in Zen’s word. His knowledge of Alpha greatly outstripped mine, and I knew firsthand that anyone to trouble her would soon regret it. Overcome by exhaustion, I relayed to Zen that I wished to rest. He laughed, blaming my sudden desire to rest on the hearty meal. He told me Winston would have already had a room made up for me, and indeed he did. I was told a bath had been drawn and clothes laid out for my stay. I took my boots with me to my room. I was too tired to enjoy the bath, so I placed my head down and rested, the light of morning beginning to shine in.
Zen knelled before the relief, focusing once again. Winston marked this, and once Garner was upstairs, closed and barred the door to the courtyard. At this Zen rose and danced before the relief once more. He infused his movements with emotion, weaving into them an energy that predated words. The relief twisted, the Tiger and the Dragon chasing one another clockwise. Voices hissed unintelligibly. Talons of a bird wrapped around the relief clutched the rotating statues thus locking the image in place. The beasts writhed and squirmed attempting to get away to continue in their pursuit. A ring, producing small, thorny blades pierced the relief, halting the motion of all three images. The ring grew into a serpent form and wound it’s way counterclockwise around the whole of the relief preventing any from escaping.
“A rather cruel act, Brother” said the Tiger.
“Little good it does you” raged the Dragon, struggling uselessly.
“I trust all is in order then…” came a third voice in time with the talons tightening their grip.
“Yes. I seem to be adapting quite well. I’m just very weak” replied Zen. “I think I should fix that. Tell me then… where can I find our Sister?”