I found that I had not slept long at all. I doubt I had been asleep for more than a few hours. The liveliness of Anzan was more boisterous than before. The night was calm and soothing in spite of the ruckus caused. I found a set of what amounted to personalized pajamas hanging on the back of the door. Donning the pants, shirt, and a pair of slippers I ventured out into the halls. Small lights hung on the walls. To the left was the stairway leading down the stairs. On the stairwell I could see my shadow being cast by light coming from another room. Looking to the right I could see Winston coming from a room with a door wide open.
“Awake so soon? Were the beds uncomfortable?” he asked.
“No, they were fine. The past few days I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep. Situations have been hectic.”
Winston smiled. “I can only imagine. Zen does often have that effect.”
“Speaking of, where did he make off to?” Winston tilted his head.
“He’s in his room. You may not want to go in there. He’s in a bit of a panic.”
I thought back to the few days I’d spent with Zen thus far. Panic is not something I’d have pegged him with. “What’s going on?”
Zen came tearing out of his room. He shut the door behind him, shutting off most of the light in the hallway. “How could this happen Winston?”
He crossed his arms. “It’s like I said, the young girl came in with your crest. She didn’t say anything… she just showed me your crest. I let her into your room.”
“Yes yes… just as I said to do, I know” Zen said in a defeated fashion. “Wait… when did this happen?” Winston thought for a moment. “Just a few days ago actually. The crest was on a small pouch…” The pair came to a simultaneous realization. “Garner… you remember the item I was looking for back on the Mountaintop? This girl took it.”
I recalled him stooping down, searching the plateau atop the Mountain of False Gods. “You told me it wasn’t important” I replied.
Zen laughed again. “No, and it still isn’t. It’s more of an aggravation than anything else.” Zen sighed. “Amongst other things, she took my clothes. I have da’an with the Trappers, so I could have more commissioned. They should be able provide something more suitable than this.” He waved at his tattered outfit.
“I don’t know… it has a wild look to it. It suits you” Winston shot out.
“I’ll see if they can’t get something like it for you” Zen shot back playfully as he walked past Winston and down the stairs. I returned to my room to change back into my clothes. A departure seemed imminent. As I went back to the stairwell, I tried the door to Zen’s room and found he had sealed it shut.
Heading downstairs I found a new mix of patrons. The whole of the room was lacking Zen, however. Alpha had found her way here, and was speaking to a man at the bar. Winston, standing watch at the bottom of the stairwell, took near immediate notice of my recognition of the elder woman. “…and she is?”
“Alpha. She was present when I met Zen.”
Winston nodded a little. “So… which one is more your type?”
“In regards to a companion?” Winston nodded. “I’d have to say Alpha. She reminds me of my former wife.”
Winston was surprised, but only for an instant. “Oh, I’d not have imagined. Why is that?”
“It’s solely on the count of her being a woman of intensity.” Winston laughed. “I see Zen is starting to rub off on you already.” We stood in place a little while. Alpha sat with her back to us, and the man with whom she spoke did not react to our presence, so she had no reason to be alarmed. I made a note that both Winston and I instinctively felt it better to watch this pair.
I leaned in toward Winston. “Out of curiosity, do you know why he’d go to the top of the Mountain of False Gods?”
Winston looked a little taken aback. “The one between here and the sea? That place has quite a history to it. So the reasons are myriad.” Now this was unheard of. I’d never heard anything, not even a whisper, of the Mountain being of any importance. It alluded at some explanation as to the beasts residing there. I was about to ask when Winston continued speaking. “Alpha is an unusual name. Have you asked if it bore any significance to Zen?” I was surprised at myself, as I hadn’t even thought to ask previously. Apparently, where Zen was concerned, taking information in stride was folly. “I take it you haven’t,” Winston expressed after reading me. “He is a person who is trapped constantly in words. They hold a vast amount of power in his mind. The thing is… oh, how would he say it… ‘he plays his cards close to his chest’. If you’re around him for any stretch of time, you’d do well to remember that. It will make interacting with him much easier.”
I nodded and thanked Winston. “Just remind me to tell you of the garden here some other time” he added. I considered getting Alpha’s attention, but experience led me to be uncertain as to whether or not it would be wise. I decided to defer to Winston’s judgment. He seemed to have an uncanny sense about when to let information go… much unlike Alpha it would seem. I stepped out of the inn and into the night air. “Wait… there were cards?” I queried aloud, not quite understanding the turn of phrase. Zen and his kind seemed to have their own idioms. This would be tricky.
I had no need to wander about town this time around. I proceeded directly to the Dreyphand posting to report in and get a lay of the area. Fortunately the establishment was open this time around. The Dreyphand displayed their knowledge in part by building each outpost with nearby materials. Stone was used as a primary element from where I had grown up. While similar, this outpost was made up of the same unusual material as the ziggurat. The furniture inside seemed to be wholly laced with the substance. The furniture had been wrought to be a softer variant of exterior shell.
“Greetings! May new knowledge be imparted to you this day! May I learn your name?” This style of salutation is common among Dreyphand members. Valuing knowledge we agree that the world would be better if all shared the same level of education. The desire to learn a name shows that it, and by extension the person, is a valued addition to the mind. “I am Garner, of the Dreyphand” I replied, introducing myself fully. “Oh my… we were so worried about you! Your arrival was delayed… we sent messengers out to the other towns… they had returned with no word. We could only wonder about how far the orange light reached…”
I listened to this official rail on without pause for some time. I have learned that in some instances allowing Elders to speak was best. But in this instance I attempted an interruption. “Pardon me… but I have yet to learn your name…”
The man stopped in his verbal tracks. “Oh my! Manners… I am Scribe Ooley of the Anzan Dreyphand.” Ooley waved to a low table. On it were a few open tomes, unrolled scrolls, and scrawlings that one would think were from Ooley himself. Ooley sat on a cushion that left him close to the table top. I took a similar position across from him. “Forgive the minor disarray. Sending out a Surveyor has been largely unnecessary with as little continental drift as there has been, but the number of living beings has changed these past several generations. It is an exciting event nonetheless. I do not mean to diminish your importance.”
I casually waved my hand. “I am in agreement with you Ooley. However, this is what I’ve long yearned to do, so I accept the task most selfishly.”
We shared a small laugh. “The timing may be perfect however, and your work cut out for you.” Ooley unrolled several pieces of parchment in front of me. Looking carefully I saw that they were maps. Many dated back to before I was born. In order from oldest to most recent it showed a drawing in of the lands. “You see the time marks on each of these? If you consider how long it took to confirm the new distances these coincide…” he moved several overlapping historical accounts to me “…with similar flashes of light. The accounts don’t remark on the intensity of the brilliance, but each time our living places grew closer together.”
I looked over all the related data. Indeed, the information did corroborate itself. “What makes you think this time is different?”
Ooley blinked. “How do you mean?”
“You produce documentation showing that the lands have compacted after each incident, yet you say that my work is potentially cut out for me?”
Ooley nodded “Ah… have you noticed an increase in the number of beasts roaming about as of late?”
I thought back. “I can only readily recall the previous forty years or so. My area has actually seen a large decline in such populations. It is why I am wearing attire not suited for battle.”
Ooley seemed to have realized a small mistake. “Oh, that is right. I forgot your area was anomalous. You must have noticed the guarded paths on the way here?”
The guards at the port… “Oh yes… I do recall such measures.”
“Caravans and travelers have needed such measures. While not particularly ferocious the beasts are more numerous than most people are prepared to handle.” Ooley eyed me carefully. “By the way, which path did you take, ill equipped as you are?”
I had not thought about how I was going to handle explaining the last few days. Best to be honest and find out. “I came over the Mountain of False Gods. I spent a day cycle at the summit. It took about two full cycles to get from there to here.”
Ooley began a stream of speech again. I was completely unable to keep up. He realized he had become hyperactive again and slowed himself. I explained seeing the light from the coast, the state of the creatures behavior, Zen and Alpha, and of the descent into town. Ooley seemed to hold more concern for the beasts being in a vastly inferior state than of the two people grossly out of place atop the rarely ascended mountain. “I still don’t have any idea of what Alpha and Zen know, but they are the only lead we have to the ochre light” I continued telling Ooley.
“I see. Those names don’t adhere to any particular etymology I know. It would help if I knew of this Xartrea, but even among records from the time when the world extended to the Frozen Wastes I don’t recall of such a place.” He rubbed his temples trying to make sense of the duo himself.
I glanced over all of Ooley’s work again. “For now I’m going to see what they can teach me. I think Zen went off to the Trappers to order himself some new clothing.”
Ooley’s attention returned to our conversation. “Oh… very well then. I wish you safe journeys. With all the concerns regarding travel the Trappers are stretched thin. Your local credentials are in the box near the door. Take those with you and they should be as accommodating as they can be.”
I left Ooley to his musings while I proceeded to the Trappers’ building.
The Trapper building was a good distance away, but also along one of the inner rings of the city. I don’t know how such a glaring construction choice escaped my notice, but many of the buildings were built out of the ziggurat material, rather than just the Dreyphand outlet. This made this location rather easy to pick out. Stepping inside I was shocked at what I saw.
Trappers are hunters. They go out and find whatever raw materials are needed by a town and the populace. Needs were easily met, and most other goods were kept in solid repair. As such, materials from occasional outings and initiation rights were usually enough keep shops’ stocks full. However I found this place barren. There was a lack of raw materials which was startling enough. While most items were made to order, some crafted goods were kept on hand to prove skill. But even these were lacking. No weapons hung on the wall, no armors on the mannequins. I eyed a few pieces of display work, far too small for an adult of my stature, and they seemed to be solely for display at that. Letting my eyes wander about the store there were but a scant few other patrons, apparently waiting for the quartermaster. Zen was among the number.
He seemed to be engrossed in conversation with a woman who was dressed as sparsely as he was, except hers looked rather intentional. The material was light in both color and material, sheer enough to be seen through. She seemed to want to keep Zens’ attention, continually batted at slumping tatters of fabric and running her finger along what bits of exposed skin were easier to reach. Zen kept his voice low, but the woman still leaned in close to whisper past a brilliant smile. In spite of all this Zen did take notice of me. The womans’ attention turned to me at once. Before she saw me she seemed perturbed that anything would distract her quarry. Even still, she flashed her smile at me. The pair exchanged a few quick words, and her attention drifted to me again before returning full force onto Zen.
Allowing Zen to have his space I made my way toward the storefront. In front of what should have been a full weapon case was another patron. Very loose garments made determining anything specific nearly impossible. I walked up to the figure. “Out of luck too I see?”
Upon having a question directed at them, the figure turned, revealing another woman. Having a more copper skin tone than the woman Zen was speaking I found myself taken aback. This woman was stunning. “Quite. It seems all the Trappers are out of stock as of late. It is not for lack of materials per se, but increased demand.” This woman came across completely unassuming in her civilian clothing, save for her eyes. They are sharp, and slice across the store taking everything apart.
“Have you attempted the Far North?” I asked. “While at a shortage of source beasts, there is a small supply there.” She turned her piercing eyes to me. She began looking for some signature of my identity, much as I had done to her just a few moments ago.
“You… are affiliated with the Dreyphand?” At this point I bore no obvious markings or tell tale clues of my alignment with them. “Not much more than most others” I replied.
She nodded. “Ah… Old Ooley has a particular blend of spices that he says aids his thinking. He seemed most troubled. I was happy to have been on my way to him.”
“That’s a rather personal trip. You too are affiliated with the Dreyphand than?”
“Not much more than most others” she responded with a smile.
Our conversation continued on cordially for some time. Zen and the woman he was speaking with carried on in muted fashion. I found that I wasn’t charting the passage of time, so I don’t know how long it was before a third woman entered the store. Whereas Zen’s conversation partner was obviously beautiful and mine was doing her best to hide hers, the third took ample pride in her appearance, yet it possessed an air of refinement. I was not the only one who had noticed. The woman with Zen made her way as coyly as she was able to in the open store to her. Zen appeared nonplussed by her sudden change of heart. Per his norm he took it in stride and made his way over to me. I must have been a bit too keen in my observations. I found the woman I spoke with a good distance away, apparently trying to salvage something from this trip.
I angled Zen aside before I began talking to him. “You don’t find this abnormal at all? I come from a clan with a strong base of women warriors. Just looking at those of us here I couldn’t peg anyone as a fighter needing the Trappers aid.”
Zen smiled and held up his hands. “Everyone starts somewhere… even if it isn’t where they’re supposed to be” he said, growling the last part under his breath. After a sigh he continued. “But you’re right. No one here seems as though they need repairs to their gear, but would be looking for new items. Not a visible fighter among us.”
I laughed, but not loud enough for anyone but us two to notice. “Well forgive me.”
Zen waved his hand again. “No worries. Balance is quickly restored in such matters where I’m concerned. Just wait for it…”
As if on cue Alpha entered the store. I looked from her back to him. “You’ll have to teach me to do that.”
“What, summon trouble on a whim? It’s not that difficult. We’ll get around to it right after…” He trailed off as Alpha made an aggressive stride towards Zen. “Hello there, Alpha!” he said in greeting. “You were certainly gone awhile. Is everything alright?” This seemed to flare Alpha’s temper. She drug him to the corner he was previously talking in. He flashed a defeated smile back to me.
A man, visibly exhausted, came into the store. Dark circles were under his eyes, and he seemed otherwise consumed by a lack of rest. On his belt was the emblem of the regional Trapper quartermaster. It was his responsibility to send out other Trappers on hunts, to keep straight orders that came in, and to ensure the general steady progress of the organization. If what I’d heard recently was true his work was very difficult as of late. The two women at the storefront caught his ear immediately and after a short exchange left. The woman I had spoken with then quickly made her way to him, looked to we dispersed patrons to ensure we were out of earshot, then she began speaking with the quartermaster. I could not hear what was said, but several negative indications later the woman departed, exchanging a dejected glance and a bow with me before leaving.
“…and you know good and well that’s WHY I WAS DETAINED!!!” came Alpha’s voice, suddenly erupting in rage. The quartermaster and I looked over at the corner. As Alpha had done in these situations, she quickly recomposed herself and resumed talking to Zen. The quartermaster shook his head and made his way up to me. “I suppose you’re here for armaments as well?” the quartermaster asked of me. I nodded. “As I had to tell the ladies who just left, I can add you to the list, but I’m not truly able to fulfill any custom orders right now.”
I nodded again. “So under no circumstance can an exception be made?”
He shook his head. “Listen My Friend, it is not out of lack of desire or excess of cruelty. I simply do not have the materials to make quality goods in the capacity we’ve grown accustomed to. I have a standard to upkeep. If I were to just send people out in whatever I could throw together it would be on my conscience if they were to come to harm because a weapon broke mid-strike or a piece of armor didn’t protect when it ought.”
I sighed. “May I learn your name?”
He nodded. “I am Quartermaster Aegis of Anzan. And you…” He seemed in part to realize where this would lead before finishing his question. “…are the new Surveyor of the Dreyphand.” I held out the parchment made available to me at the outpost. Quartermaster Aegis looked it over. He sighed mightily. “This is quite a troublesome problem. I know your appointed task is important, and there is a longstanding tradition of providing only the best. Our best at this point is better than what you have, but it won’t meet up to what I would like.” He shuffled back around the store taking dressings off mannequins and a few other items. “I’ll do what I can” he said, and shuffled off to the back.
No sooner than I hear him set down the items he collected did Zen run next to me with Alpha in tow. “Quick question… would you be willing to tell the Quartermaster we’re in a group for the time being?”
I thought about the question and looked back at Alpha. “Precisely to what end?”
“I think I know a way to help out the Quartermaster. However I would really need your help until the task got completed. Thing is it would probably take away from what materials he had. You’d benefit from this excursion too.” Zen seemed determined to sell me on the endeavor.
Aegis came back out. “By the way…” Upon seeing Zen and Alpha engaged in conversation with me he eyed us carefully. “Friends of yours?”
I sighed, and acquiesced to Zen’s request. “Yes, in a sense. They are with me for the time being at least.”
Zen perked up and threw an arm around Alpha. “Yes… ‘marriage of convenience’ and all that. Forgive the earlier outburst. We’ve had a long journey.” Alpha tried to break Zen’s grasp, but he released her at the same time, handing a small tablet tied to his waist to Aegis.
“What is this?” he asked.
“You don’t know?”
Aegis grimace fiercely. “Of course I know. You didn’t steal this, did you?”
I was shocked to hear this. “Quartermaster Aegis!” I blurted out. “How can you so blatantly accuse someone of thievery?” The concept was not unknown of, but the act was not something anyone from Moksha engaged in. Aegis had placed the tablet on the counter before him, and Zen had placed his nose nearly on the stone. It was smooth and gray with a sheen to it. He tapped it a few times expectantly. “Oh!” he exclaimed. Zen exclaimed and gripped the stone gingerly, holding the two corners closest to him with only his thumbs and forefinger knuckles holding it. Aegis, in kind, took hold of the other side in mirrored fashion. Alpha and I leaned in on either side of Zen. He and Aegis bowed, allowing the crowns of their head to touch. Characters began to appear on the tablet, embedding themselves into the material. They remained in this position until the ‘letter’ ended. I could only surmise that because it was punctuated with the same character that Winston had over his doorway. The two men then raised to straightened postures, and Zen relinquished the tablet to Aegis for inspection.
“A document from Winston?” I asked Zen.
He nodded. “A very old method. Anyone who knows how can apply notation to the tablet in any form they see fit. However, inside the notation are three names. The one who etched the tablet, a courier, and a recipient. The author is the only one who can change anything in the message. Both the courier and recipient have to be present for the message to be revealed.”
I looked quizzically at Zen. “Zen… I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
I looked to Alpha. It took her a moment before she saw me looking at her and replied, “I know of similar… devices. It is not all together foreign to me.”
Zen looked to the two of us. “I’m not surprised. On either count.”
Aegis looked up from the tablet. “That’s Old Winston for you. Making use of knowledge that should rightfully be gone. I hate to tell you Surveyor, but this order trumps yours.” My eyes shot to Aegis, a look of shock in my eyes.
“What do you mean?” Aegis set the tablet down, the script disappearing. Even if I had time to read it the characters themselves were alien to me. “Winston has been helping Trappers for quite a long time. For whatever reason he has done so without so much as a stipend. When he asks for a boon, we grant it, no questions asked.”
I looked back and forth from Aegis to Zen. “Just who is he?”
Zen hid a smile and Aegis continued. “Some say he is akin to the Devas. He’s lived longer than any other Mokshan on record.” Before I had a chance to voice any confusion Aegis added. “The Dreyphand do know the world, yes. However, you only know the surface and what you can see. There is a world under the surface, waiting to be discovered in the shadows, and that looks down on us from the other side of the star. Young Master… Zen is it? What do you wish to do?”
Zen thought for a moment. “First, I humbly request that every possible benefit be extended to my friend here. He too is a personal friend of Winston. I’d mark it as a grave affront if not every courtesy was given to him.”
Aegis turned to me. “Is that so? You’re a popular one. May I learn of your name, Surveyor?”
“Garner” I managed to stammer out. Aegis nodded and returned his attentions to Zen, who continued speaking.
“Winston saw fit to send us with an introduction because he thought we could help you. I am obviously in need of more substantial attire. Master Garner is in need of the accouterments proper to a Surveyors’ station, but we understand you are lacking supplies. We would like to help restock your coffers.”
Aegis’ eyes lit up. “I have every Trapper between here and the nearest three villages out collecting. There are plenty of beasts for food, but none for what we need. There is no where they haven’t been. Where would you propose to look?”
Zen smiled with the knowing tone I’ve seen before. “Someplace where no one has looked yet of course.”
Aegis released a very robust laugh. “Winston does keep quite a rabble about him. I’d not be shocked if he knew of such a place. I hadn’t thought to ask him before. Give me some time. Will I be making attire for the lady as well?” Zen and I turned to Alpha. She politely shook her head. “Very well. I will return with something at least a little better for you.”
Aegis set off to begin his work, leaving us to our own devices for a time.
Zen opened the conversation. “So you’ve not seen the like of those tablets before Garner?” I shook my head, and Zen continued with a chuckle. “If the Dreyphand are markers of history, why is it that you are so surprised by the littlest things?”
I thought back to lessons and mindsets long given to us. “We make it a point to do our duties once. At times of great growth or upheaval we will send squads of Surveyors out to chart absolutely everything. We share lessons about what is pertinent information to the current world. We don’t hide or horde knowledge.” I thought for a moment. “If the Trapping guild was to fall out of favor we would mark their full history. And once they passed beyond the annals of recent recollection, we would not mention it. There are many things in the past that should stay there. You will find specialists among us that pride themselves on knowing everything about such things. Just because I do not know does not mean it is unknown to us.” Zen and Alpha shared an expression of clarity. They did not pick up on this mirroring themselves.
“What then would you say your specialty is Garner?” Alpha asked.
“Practical combat theory. I have read much on the few wars that have plagued this world. It is hard to say what this means, but it seems to always be precipitated by some outside force. In any event, I have read much from what the Dreyphand have kept on martial arts. It is why I went to the Far North. They live the practices daily.”
Zen nodded. “Well, to help you along as Surveyor, I have something you may find interesting. That tablet was a device used in one of the struggles of the past. A leader could write a message and only by having the two appointed activate it would the message be known. It was sometimes troublesome, but it did prevent information from falling into the wrong hands fairly readily. There are very few of them left, and fewer still are the ones who can leave messages on them.”
It seemed a very common thing around Zen to be privy to lesser known information. At some point I’d have to peruse the annals of the Dreyphand to see just if his facts held weight, and just how much so. I wonder how one as young as he was able to know so much, what his source of information is? I continued to think upon the relationship of Alpha, Winston, and Zen. In a few short days my worldview was greatly expanded. I was still lost in thought when Aegis made his return.
“I am certainly sorry, but I have done the best I can with what I have. These are not the most… tactful choices in battle attire. However, as I said, I have worked the best for you I am able. There are changing rooms lining the halls behind me. Please make use of them.” Aegis slid an outfit, folded, to both Zen and I. Zen made his way to the hallway to the right, availing himself of the enclosing. I turned the folded cloth over a few times. There wasn’t much to it. “Aegis… I’m not feeling any type of energy coming from these clothes whatsoever. They seem resilient enough… but I don’t sense any syncing stones.” Aegis nodded. “I’m completely out of the material.” Aegis waved me back to the hallway on the left.
Aegis was wholly truthful. The attire I held was enough to cover my chest and torso, but nothing more. My arms, legs, and head would be exposed. I looked it over. I heard Aegis explaining to Alpha about the importance of syncing stones. Most of Moksha was crystalline at its base. One reason why foodstuffs and materials were regularly abundant was because even small fragments, infused with enough energy, could become whole again. Heirlooms were often set with artifacts and, over time, would meld. Syncing Stones were known to help weapons hold and edge, armor their durability, or infuse gear and attire with unique traits. A flame based syncing stone could be melded with clothing so that it could counter severely low temperatures.
Normally such clothing would be seamless to provide more consistent protection. However, the fact that this was more inert left it as just a very tight piece of clothing. I made my best efforts to squeeze into it while trying not to rip it apart. In this case its lack of coverage was something of a mixed blessing.. Granted, I only had defense over my vital organs. However, if this outfit had covered my whole body I am certain it would have impeded my movement. After getting it into place I stretched, getting a feel for just how much strain I could put on, which wasn’t much at all.
Exiting back into the main area I found Zen in his regular attire, though he seemed to be having as much trouble as I was in moving. Amidst his protestations in what I could only assume was native Xartrean tongue, I heard him mutter in Mokshan that it his “armor was as functional as a ‘bathing suit'”, whatever that happened to be. Aegis came out from his work area again. “There isn’t much here, but these are what is left of the weaponry. Mind you, I choose to use the word ‘weapon’ loosely.” The collection of what he brought seemed more like toys than anything else. Zen immediately grabbed a pair of gloves. They were composed of an almost see through material but reinforced in several places with beast leather. Alpha grabbed a slingshot and pulled back the band, testing the strength.
“Why don’t you just take the tonfa?” she asked of Zen.
“Because they would inhibit me more than help” he replied.
Alpha released the band, seemingly satisfied with the feel. “Inhibit how? Allowing you to hit harder? Providing an improved defense?”
He shook his head. “Just… trust me on this one. Besides, you don’t here me knocking your choice in ‘weapon’.”
She moved over to a small pile of fashioned stones and began loading them into a pouch. “That is because in many instances a slingshot is a valid weapon. This one is crafted to standards I’ve not seen in modern construction in a long while…” She snapped out of her whimsy, and her eyes glanced over to me. “You are a student of martial theory, but have not practiced it openly. This has been proven to me. I trust you to take the lead Garner.” She absently gave the bag a couple tosses, then put more stones into it. With only one stone left, she tossed the makeshift ammunition to Zen. “Converstely, your abilities in battle are limited. It is best to have every edge.”
Zen smiled darkly. “I know full well that a slingshot is a valid weapon, especially in your exacting hands. However, you have yet to see how my exacting hands are a valid weapon.”
Their banter carried on. I looked over the weapons left to me. There were the tonfa that Zen had chosen to leave, a whip, and a pile of short staffs. The whip seemed to have been taken from something living, as it was truly terrifying, bethorned and looked as though it would grow back if ever severed.
Aegis looked over to me, evaluating my gaze. “So… what’s your preference?” he asked.
I looked carefully at the selection. “Truthfully I’d prefer something hefty” I admitted. He smiled and tossed one of the staffs at me. It was weighted much more heavily than I would have thought possible towards one end.
“You noticed it, eh? These are from an unfinished project. This is the base work. The person who commissioned the piece was lost so I hear. They went off to grab coating materials. It was to be a quarterstaff, and as you can see, a deadly one at that.”
“I’ll go with this” I said, giving it a few good swings, and liked how it felt. “Actually… can I have another?” Aegis tossed me a second, smiling broadly.
As properly geared up as we could be we decided to head out. Seeing I left the tonfa Zen took them up himself, giving a deferent nod to Alpha as he did. “Do you plan to remain in here during the day cycle?” Zen asked.
Aegis gave it some thought. “No, not specifically. Why do you ask?”
“I doubt we’ll be gone long. We won’t even be leaving the town boundaries.”
Aegis, Alpha, and I all gave Zen a very strange look.
“You’re going to find materials…” Alpha said.
“…INSIDE the town?” I asked.
“…even after I told you this whole area has been cleaned out?” Aegis finished.
Zen smiled. “I said I would didn’t I? I don’t doubt the skill of hunters, Trappers, and other combat types. However, I do doubt their blind luck. It’s something you’re either born with or your aren’t. You can’t really learn it. I do happen to know of a place to look, but you need to be there at just the right time. It’s not static. We’ll be back a long while later if I’m having an off day.”
Aegis seemed to accept this, but barely. “As you wish Young Master. Let it not be said that my hospitality was lacking. If you return before the next night cycle you are welcome within my walls. Perhaps a good word could be put into Old Man Winston.”
Zen nodded and began walking away, beckoning Alpha and I to follow. He halted and turned to shout at Aegis. “Master Aegis! You don’t call him that in his presence do you?”
He laughed. “Of course not! I may have been born foolish, but that was a LONG time ago.” Zen had a laugh of his own and we continued walking on.
I couldn’t be certain if Zen knew precisely where he was going. After we broke away from the Aegis’ store he turned onto the next street in front of him, facing us directly towards the ziggurat at the middle of the city. He would walk straight forward as long as there was only one path, but if there were a division, even an alley way, he’d look down one way, then the other, than behind him. I couldn’t discern a rhyme or reason to path, as often we seemed to retrace our path many times. The few times I caught a look at his face he seemed wholly enthralled in adhering to whatever path he had charted.
After a little while I spoke up. “Zen…”
“How long have we been walking?” he interrupted. “About a semi-cycle” I answered.
He shook his head, apparently frustrated. “Gah… I’m not in the mood for conversion. Alpha?”
“Approximately forty-three minutes.” I looked to her. She normally seemed to barely tolerate Zen, but as of right now she was calm. Perhaps she was able to makes sense of his actions more readily than I. Zen quickened his pace, and turned on a street ahead.
This place was odd. Darkened, deserted… I had never seen an area of Anzan like this. “Zen… where are we. Where are we going?”
He answered without turning around. “In a minute and a half, we have to run. I mean full out run. No holding back. I don’t know who is fastest among us, but whoever it is, the other two will have to keep up. It is best if you stand directly next to me.” Alpha walked next to Zen on his right, leaving me to his left.
I proceeded to the spot he asked. “How long is ‘a minute and a half’. Zen… what’s going on?!”
“Thirty seconds now…” he said, seemingly disconnected from his surroundings.
“He said run. Just follow our cue” Alpha said. She acted unphased, but I could tell that whatever was happening was unsettling her. This meant that this was abnormal, even for Zen.
“Ready…” Alpha said.
“Set…” Zen was standing still, not moving, completely relaxed.
Suddenly, his body melted forward. Within two feet he’d gone from dead stop to full run. I followed suit in his surge of motion. Alpha said something from behind me but I couldn’t hear her. I was trying my best to keep pace with Zen, and it wasn’t working. Alpha apparently missed the cue she was preparing me for, and while she was marking Zen’s time, she was now well behind me. I intentionally faltered a step, reached back, and flung her forward. She flew past Zen and I must have surprised her, because she was not going to land well. Zen responded to her plight, catching her, allowing me to pass him. However, after just enough to time set Alpha aright he was moving past me again with her in tow. He grabbed my wrist and accelerated once more hauling the both of us.
I’m not sure if I blinked or blacked out, but in the next moment we were high up. It took a minute to get my bearings. I realized I could see the Mountain of False Gods, the sea beyond, the whole of the city of Anzan. Somehow, we were atop the ziggurat at the middle of town. I looked around, amazed at the view. I don’t believe I had ever been at such an elevation. I had fallen to the ground in the confusion and as I turned to stand I found Zen crouched behind me, his normal smile and demeanor restored. I was shocked at his placement and stumbled back while I attempted to stand.
“Sorry about earlier. I meant no rudeness” he said, bowing his head in apology. “This place is a bit off the beaten path, as you can see. It’s why I told Aegis that I doubt anyone got here.”
I stood up and held my hands out to the horizons. “Zen, anyone could get here! It’s the most obvious place in town!”
Zen stood, his expression remained playful, however it took on something of a serious yet mocking tone, as did his voice. “Is that so? Tell me then… when has someone ever come to this location? Even though it is at the middle of everything Mokshan has anyone questioned it? Climbed it? Expressed anything about it?”
I thought hard, but came up empty. “I have to admit that when I’m around you Zen I find my knowledge lacking.”
Zen looked at me and laughed. “My, I am glad I ran into you! You’re entertaining!” As I looked at him my eyesight shifted of its own volition. Zen appeared to have afterimages. However… they were all different. The very last one in the line seemed to struggling to grab onto the physical body. Its arms were raised and desperately trying to get a finger onto the form. I shook my head, trying my best to find Alpha. I caught sight of her. She was unconscious, but held a pale glow. My sight returned to normal.
Zen looked skyward. “Have you ever wondered what was on the other side of the daystar Garner?” I thought about it, and realized I hadn’t. Zen continued. “The curiosity of Mokshans is very limited. Very purposed. There is nothing wrong with that.” Following his gaze I looked up at the sky and saw something I could not explain.
Day and night came from the pulsing of the daystar. The daystar was dim, providing night. Another body floated above, big and bright. The same glow that encompassed Alpha emanated from this body.
Alpha stirred and I rushed over to her. “Where are we?”
“Atop the ziggurat” I responded to her. She held her head as she stood up. She looked overhead, but was unphased by the sight.
“Where are we?” she said, this time to Zen.
“Oh, I thought you would have missed home, so I brought us here. Isn’t it lovely?”
Alpha looked up at the second body in the sky. “Yes… the moon is always lovely.”
I looked up listlessly. “The moon…?”
Zen doubled over suddenly, screaming aloud. Sound was soul splitting, and pushed my vision into the energetic spectrum. Zen was not the only one screaming. Each of his afterimages seemed possessed of its own will, moving about independently of the body. The one from earlier trying to recapture the body had done so, and tore the Zen I had been watching away, producing a spectral form. The daystar flared above, then darkened. From the Mountain of False Gods I could see wings of fire. From beyond the reaches of my home town I saw a blackened creature. One one horizon a great dragon roared. On the other a tiger howled in reply. The ‘moon’ came crashing down. The broken forms of Zen looked up, opened their mouths, and all the world was swallowed by into them.
I awoke next to Alpha apparently as she did. We were underground, someplace far too stale. Zen was screaming for but a second, then stopped. He seemed to reset his jaw before turning to us. Alpha and I looked at each other, then back at him. Zen’s eyes widened before he spoke. “Oh my… you saw that didn’t you?” He pressed two fingers to his left temple. “A moment…” When he opened his eyes again they looked less mad than they had. “We are in the Tomb of Inner Death. I would say we are under Anzan, however, it is more accurate to say we are in Anzan’s ziggurat. However a word like accuracy is misleading…” He stopped again and rubbed his head. “Forgive me. You saw something you shouldn’t have somewhere you shouldn’t have been.” He looked at Alpha. “It is part of the price I pay, and but one reason why I resist you and resent your kind.” Alpha looked pensive and sullen, but nodded silently.
Zen looked at me wearily. The kindness I normally perceived in him looked diminished. “Garner… so soon and you have dealt with so much. I am sorry. I do not wish to spend more time here than necessary. If there is something I can answer while we move, I shall. Whatever we do now we must be quick.” An otherworldly screech resounded through the halls. “I’m certain we’ve already been noticed.” The walls shifted. Hands began reaching out. “Oh yes… I know we’ve been made.” I turned to ask Zen about his turn of phrase and truly the whole situation, but he had dived into a run in the direction he was facing. Compared to before it amounted to a brisk jog, even for Alpha and I. We quickly caught up.
“Where are we Zen?”
Zen drew out some noises with his mouth, in what I amounted to an attempt to think. Eventually he said “On the other side of Moksha.” “On the other side of the daystar? As in… wherever we were?”
He tapped his head. “The place where you were is up here. It is part of what I see.” He was looking back at us when an arm jutted out of the wall and grabbed him by the throat. It lifted him off the ground. Alpha readied her sling, and I removed the short staffs from a makeshift belt.
Swift as we were, we were both too slow. Zen had lifted his legs up and wrapped them around the arm. Using his entire body for leverage he snapped the arm in two, a bone protruding from the otherwise freshly snapped stump. An extreme flip allowed him to land on his feet. With some effort he pried the hand from around his neck. “Rude. That is what that was. I was trying to talk.” I heard the band of Alpha’s slingshot snap, and a wet crack behind my head. She had eliminted a threat similar to the one which targeted Zen. I had to react quickly to save Alpha trouble in kind.
In the pause of our brief skirmish the true threat to revealed itself. The hallway we vacated only a short while brefore was now filled with shambling corpses. Zen walked past the two of us. He had a maddened smile on his face and was flexing his gloved hands into a number of positions. “Finally… a foe I can handle!” He dropped into a dead run forward keeping his fists raised to hold his guard as he did so. He brought his right shoulder forward and his left hand back preparing an attack. The arms coming from the walls around us retracted then erupted in front of Zen forming a barrier from the floor to ceiling, sealing off our pursuers. Zen did not notice this. He twisted his body in an expert fashion to unleash a powerful punch into where he thought the first corpse would have been. He hit the wall with abandon, thinking that his target would be much further back. Zen’s straight punch would have been deadly to the first several corpses I imagine. Instead the wall of arms quivered, sending ripples along the wall.
Alpha and I both stared at Zen in disbelief. “That was terrifyingly potent” I said.
“Why didn’t you do that on the way to town?” Alpha asked.
Zen turned back to us, face distraught. “I tried, but I couldn’t.” We saw a trio of the corpses coming toward us from the other direction. “Anyone else see it?” Zen asked.
I evaluated the situation. “Attempting to use fear to force us ahead… there’s no telling just how many of these things there are.”
Alpha chimed in. “Putting sheer numbers at our back, ready to be unleashed at any time. This could be dangerous.” We all had the same idea. “Let’s try this again…” Zen charged forward a second time, dropping his right hand behind him.
Zen was about to let fly his fist when I took a focused look at our foes. In the world to which I’m accustomed most animate entities exuded some type of force. I took it as a hint of a sign of life. Even the ground beneath me did. Zen and Alpha were oddities. It took substantially more concentration to see them. They were lacking in what I considered normal vitality. The beings aligned against us were unlike both of them. They were bright, white, and their presence seemed to be drawing in with a voracious hunger. What had I gotten into? “Zen…” I said, but he was in the midst of his attack. “…be careful!” He took special attention to this, altering his attack. He was going for another powerful straight jab like the one from before, but he turned to his left towards me, knocking the corpse he punched into the other following on its right.
“What was that?” he asked from a crouch, looking at me with what was almost a bored playfulness. The one he had missed lurched up with an empty growl. Zen moved with startling speed and shot a kick up toward its chin. Alpha had been prepared and had already let fly a shot of her own, catching the creature in the mouth. Zen’s kick came a second afterward, sending massive force upward into its chin. The simultaneous landing of the attacks caused an odd effect; Alpha’s pellet came shooting out of the top of the fiends’ skull.
Zen looked at me questioningly. I moved forward, peering around the curving hall, and motioned for Zen and Alpha to follow. “You seem familiar with expanded sight Zen.”
“That is true, I am.”
“What of you Alpha?”
She sounded somewhat distant. “Only in theory.”
I looked back to Alpha. She was walking backwards, slingshot at the ready in the event of oncoming enemies.
“I see. When I see life, it projects a light. Looking at you too that light is there, just subdued. The only times I have seen ones as weak is on the verge of death. These beings are drawing in… I’d almost say they are ever consuming.”
There was silence for a long while. We heard the oncoming of corpses again. We dashed a distance ahead. As they were about to get to us another barrier of arms protruded. “You know what? I’m not worrying about them anymore” said Zen. “As you were saying Garner?” he said, returning the floor to me. I shook my head with a smile. “It seems that these creatures, instead of projecting energy, take it in to themselves. Did you feel anything when you hit them Zen?”
He looked at his hand, turning it over a few times. “No… maybe it’s thanks to the gloves? Wouldn’t surprise me.” He balled up his fist. Upon opening it a surge of power flowed out. It flamed, flowed, flurried, fragmented the corridor around him. I could feel energy being pulled in, then pulsing outward. Zen’s eyes went wide. “Oh… now THIS is fortuitous.” Zen flexed his hand and the pulse extended again. Looking around he indicated a general direction. I took point.
“What did you find?” I asked.
“Something I need actually. I didn’t even consider it would be here. Still, we need to find materials before we go. I don’t think decaying flesh will hold up to our needs however.”
I followed the corridors as best I was able in the directions Zen pointed. Many times there were dead ends. Occasionally at sensible junctions we were attacked and forced to switch direction due to more fleshy walls. Fortunately we weren’t wholly sealed off from the direction Zen wanted us to go.
“Garner, What do you know of the element Void?” I looked back at Zen and caught Alpha looking over her shoulder at him as well.
“It has been awhile since it has be considered a major force in this world. To the best of my knowledge the cultures of Void and Creation melded, leading to the world we have today.”
“These beings are infused with the Voids’ power” Zen said. “They were petty foot soldiers ages ago. You could instill in them but a few commands, but it was better if you just left them one to attend to mindlessly.” Alpha threw a question over her shoulder. “What is Void?”
I answered “From what I have read it is a by product of the Twin Gods’ War. At the very least that is when the people of Moksha first became aware of it. Users skilled with Creation energy are able to spawn elements from nothing. But that is basic ability. Further mastery can result in manipulating the physical world to minute degrees. It may lead to why Aegis’ wares are so potent, fragmented and patchwork though they are.”
Zen caused the pulse in his hand to extend again as he sought out which direction to go. This time I heard a resonant chime from the room ahead. Zen darted just ahead of me, peered around the room, sighed, and turned back to me. “This is a trap.” Zen looked into the room again, pointing down. “Look.” I looked into the room. We were on a a circular second floor, with us being at the only entrance or exit. We seemed to be overlooking a mausoleum or a burial chamber. As Zen again pulsed, dust could be seen being thrown off one of the caskets from where I could hear the chime again.
Zen and I edged back from the archway. Zen took me over to where Alpha was carefully watching the intersection. “Take a look” he said to her. “I want your take on it.” Reluctantly she backed away from the intersection while we took positions to watch the hall. Seven tunnels funneled to this point, to this doorway.
“You know this world better than I Zen. What should we…” Screaming came from every direction. Wild, feral screams.
“Best part of springing a trap?” Zen began.
“When it has layers with the prey at the bottom?” I finished.
Alpha rushed back to us, and we prepared ourselves as best we could for the onslaught of… whatever was coming our way. A torrent of air filled the tunnel, pushing the three of us back to back in order to stay standing. “What could have done that?” Alpha asked.
“I think it would have to have completely filled the tunnels to push that much air at us all at the same time.” I replied.
“Please don’t be water” Zen said silently. Alpha and I looked at him. “What?” he asked incredulously.
We didn’t have time to tear into Zen as we wished. Soon we saw what caused the screams. It was wave of the corpses, however, these were substantially more spry than their earlier ilk. They crawled the walls, scrabbled from the ceiling, and leaped from the shoulders of their tormented brethren. The color of these was closer to that of living flesh, leading me to think that they were more vital beings. The trio of us backpedaled, watching our pursuers advance. “Go!” Zen shouted. Alpha stubbornly pushed me onto the balcony, staying just inside its boundary to shoot any one of the corpses that may have gotten the better of Zen. Just as before arms shot out of the walls, barring their progress, stopping just short of Zen. He turned, shaking his head and walking toward us.
However, unlike before one of the “fresher” corpses got its arm through. Its allies aided it, ripping open a hole large enough to shove one or two through. As one crawled out Alpha shot it, clogging the opening. More broke through, I took Alpha and dived over the edge of the balcony. I heard a huge slam of force up above, not knowing what to make of it.
“ZEN!!!” I shouted.
“Oh, quiet down” he replied, leaning over the edge. “What part of ‘it’s a trap’ was beyond understanding?”
I was offended. “The part where we were almost overrun…”
“…was a continuation of fear tactics, and they got to you” Zen finished. “Did you hear a crash?”
I nodded. “That was a wall of arms emerging after I stepped onto the balcony. Whatever is in control here had no intention of us coming to harm. Or at the very least intended for it to happen here. Alpha… you alright?” She glared at me while nodding. I took a good look at where I had dragged us. A pillar in the middle of the area seemed to be the only way to possibly get out of here. It had a slight slope to it as it came down forming something similar to a cone. However, the jump from pillar top to the banisters above seemed an impossible feat to me. This place was hewn from the same blue stones as the rest of the area we had come through. A grate of some kind had been carved into the pillars’ base, and discoloration showed that fluids had flown in this place. The colors were long faded. As I could see nothing living, I shuddered to think what fluid may have flowed instead.
Zen jumped onto the top of the pillar. He had a puzzled look on his face as he examined something I had missed on the way down. “Aggravation…” Zen muttered, sliding down to where we were.
“Is it supposed to be this cliche?” Alpha asked.
Again Zen tapped his head. “Considering the source material, it can’t be helped. I did set a precedent for such things.”
I was fed up with this… farce. The fact that Zen kept most of his opinions shaded from me and that the few times he and Alpha spoke with one another they sounded as though they spoke a different language was maddening. This was a crisis situation, and I’d had enough of remaining in the dark. “Zen… I want you to start speaking more plainly, or explaining what it is you say. That goes for you too Alpha.”
Alpha turned to look at me while Zen per his norm went about attending to whatever affair caught his interest at the moment. I stomped over to him, stared at him eye to eye.
He sighed. “Garner. I gave you a choice in being here. Granted, I did weigh the scales in my favor.. The information I have isn’t something I am hiding from you because I don’t trust you or think you won’t deserve it. It’s because I need your help. You wouldn’t believe the truth from my side.”
I looked at him with an expression of conceit. “This is what I mean! You speak in… riddles. I haven’t caught you in any lies, but I have yet not heard you speak a plain truth.”
He laughed. Right in my face, he laughed. “I’m just living up to my moniker, Garner.” I took a deep breath and calmed myself. I then noticed Zen was eye to eye with me. I was certain he was shorter than me. He smiled and pointed down. He was still up a small way on the pillars’ slope, making him eye level to me. “You see… it is all in where you choose your battles. All a matter of perspective. The Dreyphand are… new to me. You are a Surveyor and seek to learn. I respect that. If you stick with me I can assure you that you will have the opportunity to learn more than you would anyplace else. We can start right here.”
I eyed Zen cautiously. There were many questions that seemed so small, but so large to him. The reason why is simple: I don’t know him. Admitting to that grants me a certain degree of levity, allowing me to move forward without concern. Again, he was honest in his veiled fashion. He reminded me of a parent that would make up a tale about long life because the truth, while simple, was technical. He had the same gleam in his eye that I held with my children.
“Tell us how the world was made!” “Why does the daystar grow dark?!”
I was just as enthusiastic for Zen to tell me the truth behind the tale. I was ready to understand. “Alright Zen. Show me the world from where you stand.” His smile broadened, as though that were possible.
“Excellent. Alpha, the first, and Garner, You who would gain all. I welcome you to Moksha.”
He raised his hand, and the room trembled.