I exited my room and walked lightly. I could feel the rage in my steps. Was I upset with Zen?
Yes. He is deliberately hiding truth from me.
No. He’s not the first one who has done so.
Yes. He, an outsider, knows more than I.
No. Of his own volition he’s offered to not only tell me, but show me the ins and outs of what he knows.
Yes. He’s foolhardy and brash, annoyingly confident for one his age, and impulsive beyond all compare.
No. He accepts himself for who he is and leads with his heart.
I was at his door. I breathed a heavy sigh. So much was running through my head, and in several directions. Maddening really. I realized, after all that had happened within the past several days, there was no fair choice. Whichever end I chose would have inherent drawbacks. Who could I trust? I’d given the Dreyphand my life, and they’d given it fulfillment in return. And the last few days caused me to question it all. What of my children? How do I go about changing… everything? What I learned could change the world.
“Having the same problem I am?” came Alpha’s voice. Dressed in the Inn’s guest attire, she stood looking much the same as always.
I eyed her questioningly. “That depends. Are either of us really having problems?”
Alpha came forward and shrugged. “The truth changes things. Zen is young. Foolish. But he has the… what is the proper word… personality that draws others to him. He claims truth. He often iterates that it is only his truth, and he lives his life, hoping that others do the same.” She seemed particularly upset just then. Her brow furrowed deeply. “He thinks that the world will change. Not even while he is alive. ‘The spark that starts the fire of change.’ Preposterous.”
I took a step back from both Alpha, and Zen’s door. “I think our problems are different” I said.
“Until a few days ago I was excited to be Surveyor. Proud to go out and mark the changes of the world. I knew nothing, or so I thought. I relished the chance to learn more.” I paused. This was all ridiculous. “But the very instant I began my work, I’m drawn to the Mountain of False Gods. I find the two of you. And, after days with you, I realized how little I truly know.”
“And you don’t know how to proceed, because part of you logically thinks this is ridiculous, but something deeper that you’ve long buried screams at you in a tiny voice, compelling you to give yourself over to Zen’s thinking.” Alpha spoke with such a candid tone, revealing much of her thinking. For the first time I saw her, for the first time I understood part of who she was to Zen. She was the elder, more worldly. And he the child. She continued. “Where we come from Zen is young, but well regarded. He… he feeds us promises of better tomorrows, in his own way.” Alpha was pained at speaking.
I placed a hand on her shoulder. “I have a question Alpha. Are you a parent?”
She looked at me, a mixture of emotions roiling beneath her surface. She shook her head. I nodded. “I have two. A daughter and a son. They light up my life. I’ve grown up and I remember a time when people said of me that which we’re saying about Zen. Then I had my children. I matured, or calmed down for their sake. I allowed them stability. I allowed them to dream.”
I looked toward the door behind which Zen slept. “There is something about children, the young, the young at heart, that stirs those dreams in us. We forget that as we age often times.” Something struck me. “But you indicated you didn’t have children. Who are you talking about then…?”
The door opened from the other side, where Winston stood. He caught sight of us and was somewhat alarmed. “Oh… Pardon me. I was just on my way out.” From behind him I saw Zen turn. He was immediately able to figure out what elicit pause and response from Winston.
“Winston” Zen called out. “I can only imagine why they’re here. If the show downstairs can go on for a little while longer without you, I’d prefer if you stayed.”
Winston stood aside and waved us within. “Are you certain of that, Zen?”
He nodded. “Of course My Friend.” He smiled in reply and shut the door behind us.
The first major difference between Zen’s room and my own was the size. It was palatial. It had multiple tiers with various icons spread out. If it was organized in any specified fashion I imagine only Zen knew how. Statues of various designs stood prominently and could be seen from this ground level. A set of statues of different beasts had their bases set before us, each from a corner of the room. To either side was a dragon and a tiger. The former was coiled repeatedly as it guarded one corner. The later was crouched down low, captured in a dangerous stalk, its gaze falling across the sitting area. Somewhat behind me was a large egg. It was cracked, but nothing was exposed from the inside. Opposing it was what remained of some talon-bearing and winged beast, however, much of it was left ruined on the floor. I had to assume this was somewhat deliberate as the rest of the area was pristine. Looking again, a small statuette of what I could have identified as what the larger statue should look like rested on a more stable piece of stone.
This sanctum somehow represented Zen. The tiger and dragon seemed the most powerful, wonderfully sculpted and almost lifelike. The other two seemed somewhat a mockery of the whole ambiance of this place. Zen was unusual, but deliberately so. The presence of a broken statue and a cracked egg screamed deliberate, but it hearkened to that odd sense that Zen exuded. What was the norm was merely a veil ready to be torn away.
A circle of sitting apparatuses were arranged in the midst of the four statues. Zen seemed to be without one, and it didn’t seem to bother him a bit. He stood with his back to a grand painting. It was mostly black, however what appeared to be a large blue sphere covered in swirled wisps of white took up at least a third of the canvas. A glowing white orb, one I recognized as a moon, was further up the work. Alpha marked the work as much as I did, her eyes taking in every detail.
Zen marked our interest. “Please, sit” he requested. “What you see behind me is simply what I dream of. Another world, another place, pristine and perfect. Even though it is the womb that sustains untold billions of lives, it is all done in balance.” I recalled the place Zen remarked was “in his head”. I’d never seen a moon before, but Alpha and Zen found it commonplace. She seemed to be holding back some emotion, but I could not read what it was.
“You’ve not come to hear my inelegant ramblings, so please. Ask what questions you wish.”
I turned to Alpha who still seemed a bit detached. Looking to Winston he gave me the floor. As I did I saw that Zen had taken a seat on the broken statue, glancing solemnly for a moment at the statuette. “How did we wind up ‘in you head’”? I asked.
Zen thought for awhile, regarding what I assumed would be a proper answer for him to share. “I thought of the best way to the graveyard, but my mind got locked on remembering, so I inadvertently sucked you into my nightmare. Still… how? You may not share my opinion but I am a firm believer of worlds having their own consciousness. They contain the memory of everything that has transpired on them. I’ve been to such a graveyard before. I asked the world to help me find the path and it did… eventually. Why it brought out a memory of mine for you to see I can’t say.”
“What was it a memory of?” I asked, prodding Zen to continue.
“I trust that the people of this world still set out on occasion and converse with the world?” I nodded. The practice was rare these days. Back when the power of Creation was first granted there were elemental fonts that resonated with Wind, Water, and Fire. Traveling to one of these would usually align a person with that particular power. Zen smiled. “It is good to see that the Dreyphand haven’t buried every scrap of your history.” He looked at me. “Sorry, but from what I know of them, I do not like this ‘Dreyphand’. I agree with their desire to learn, but I prefer people do it individually. I like to let people make up their own minds about things.”
Zen carried on. “There have been several times in which I’ve spoken with the world. Some say I have tried too much. I can readily hear the hum of this world, at times it is as tangible as your speech. The world seems to remember me all too well, and none too fondly to be honest. Each of the images you saw was some mindset I had come to the planet to.” He counted off on his fingers and muttered some words under his breath. “I thought it had been more than that honestly, but no matter.”
“It’s my turn to ask something of you” Zen began. “What happens after you hand in your full report as Surveyor to the Dreyphand?”
I thought back to procedural lectures I was given numerous times. “The notes are taken to be copied, all the while a council will review the material. Any discrepancies will be up for inspection. Field and research groups will collect data independently of each other, and it will all be considered for relevancy. While data is never discarded, what is kept inside later versions is sometimes altered after these finding come back.”
Zen nodded. “What are the chances of me getting my hands on some original documentation?” Alpha turned to look at me, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“They are very touchy about who they let into the archive sections of their libraries” Winston chimed in. “Someone even chose to write about me, and they wouldn’t let me read it.”
That stopped my laughter cold. “That shouldn’t be…” I said, thinking. My mind raced and I continued aloud. “While detailed records are kept on individuals, it usually occurs after their bicentennial. They are interviewed, facts are confirmed, friends and family have a chance to offer their insight. There has never been a time where, pardon me if I offend you Winston, someone normal was barred from reviewing their own life’s story.” Winston smiled disarmingly, somewhat tickled to have been called normal, and then I continued. “The only situation where this isn’t so is when someone somehow becomes a legend in their own time. At that point a scribe is selected to chart their life from afar. They are still allowed the normal treatments, however the scribes’ work is an untouched, outside perspective.”
As I finished speaking I could heard Zen’s fingers drumming on the stone. “How long ago was this?”
Winston thought back. “Oh, perhaps 30 years or so, give or take. At least at that point it was completed.”
Zen seemed to consider something, then posed another question. “Was there anyone that was a frequent customer for an unusually short period of time?”
Winston’s memory seemed to immediately find the person. “That’s right! He looked the part of a Trapper or some such. Didn’t stir the other patrons at all, so I knew right away he wasn’t what he seemed. I guess he was trying to blend in. Sadly, it’s my job to notice things. You’ll want an exact time frame and description I assume?” Zen nodded, and Winston started thinking.
“’…an unusually short period of time’? How is that helpful?” I asked.
“I have a VERY dedicated clientele” came Winston’s voice.
“Many of the people you see downstairs come from a great many walks of life. Something… abnormal usually occurs. They find themselves on Winston’s welcome mat, and eventually someone comes along who can help them” Zen explained. “You may come to learn in time.”
“Thirty nine years, four months, twenty two days” Winston said. Again, time was expressed in the unusual fashion Zen was most comfortable with.
Zen shook his head. “Yeah… this isn’t good at all. I’ll have to look into it when I have time.”
An aggravated fist landed on the ‘chair’ next to mine. “I for one don’t have time for all of this” Alpha blurted out. “I have greater concerns than whether or not Winston is even important to all this. How long have you even known him Zen?”
Winston laughed. “Longer than you have in any case” Winston shot back.
Zen sat there looking between Alpha and Winston while they argued.
I always thought that I was a rather scholarly person. I rose with an unusual quickness through the Dreyphand, but I could see now that I did not know full well what information they gave me. I knew facts, but not context. I forgot one trait and one act: To question, and to ask. Alpha stood defiant, Winston reclined coyly, and Zen seemed to be paying little attention to them. He was looking straight at me. He seemed to see something in my eyes. Certainty? Determination? Those are the things I felt. He smiled and nodded.
“Who… are you?” I whispered.
Winston turned to me, and Alpha stopped speaking. “What did you ask?” they said together.
Zen sat there with a pleased look on his face. “He wants to know about us all” Zen said.
I stood up, joining Alpha and Winston. “You have access to unheard of technology. You know of things in the past long hidden, but can’t recall events that happened within your lifetime. All of this…” I said, waving to the room “…is unheard of. You don’t live according to the Mokshan ways…”
Zen began clapping, effectively cutting me off. “You’re completely right. We don’t” he said. “You may not be too good at gathering information… but consider what I’m about to say. Truth is not only to be found in what words reveal, but also in what they hide. Sometimes, what they try to conceal is more important.”
I caught sight of Alpha, who seemed to be as frustrated by the answer as I was. “Why can’t you just say something plainly for once?!”
Winston was off to one side laughing at our exchange. Zen sighed and shook his head. He looked for the right words and tried again.
“I’m not cryptic intentionally or out of cruelty. I merely feel awkward giving people advice and insight. Often times they act on what I say. After awhile I feel like I’m telling people what to do. Sometimes they blame me for their problems. Well… I live and learn. Now I tend to speak circularly. It is a complete circle, but anyhow… if what you want to discover isn’t long lasting, then I’m just being odd. If you take my words and find the true meaning behind them, then you did enough work on your end to prove my words worthwhile. In that sense I put more power in your hands.” He looked between us, marking our lack of frustration pleasantly. “Alpha, we’ve debated this point many times before. What you want me to reveal to you is information I don’t have yet. Even when I get it, I’m honestly not liable to share it with you. You I don’t have a problem with. It’s who you work for. How much higher up your command line do you know?”
She was taken aback by this question. I assumed from her stunned silence that she wasn’t certain of who was several levels above her.
“That’s what I mean. You’re ‘performing your duty’, and someone like you I would assume would think about the long reaching consequences. But you admit your talents to those who would continue our peoples’ cycle of destruction more rapidly than ever. Why?”
“Because there are two sides to every coin” she said. “It’s inherent. You work for a better future and look for the path with the least bloodshed. It is admirable. However, people die now of hunger and in the cold with no blood being shed. What if one of the young minds lost is your better? How can I sit by when there is another with potential such as yours being lost due your to youthful idealism?”
Zen turned his head aside. “You think you could deal with two of me? Now THAT is admirable.”
Alpha stormed forward and grabbed Zen by the collar of the robe he wore. “You’re an insolent brat” she spat.
“And you’ve deluded yourself into thinking that those in power will come to a peaceful consensus and make sure that Creation energy is never turned towards destructive ends,” Zen countered. “You’ve seen the effects yourself. Would you have that curse brought down upon every man, woman, and child who is my potential better?”
Alpha tossed Zen into a fallen section of statue. He hit with abrupt force. Alpha looked between her hand and Zen, who was rising slowly, and with Winston’s help, obviously winded. She looked at the painting and turned to leave the room. As I looked into her face as she passed there was tangible confusion. Had she misjudged how hard she had thrown him? She slid the door open as she reached it, and looked back to Zen. “You’re a hypocrite. Your version of Creation energy is already a weapon. But nothing like I ever thought of. It would be dangerous. You’re right… too dangerous.” She stepped out into the hall and began closing the door until Zen’s voice stopped her.
“We have plenty of time to discuss what to do, in this place. We should be able to figure out the one perfect solution.” With that, Alpha closed the door.
I looked to Winston and Zen. “Are you alright?”
Winston held onto Zen, making sure he was steady. “Yes… I’m fine. That was simply quite a toss. The little lady is stronger than she looks” Zen replied.
“What did she mean ‘your version of Creation energy’?”
Zen breathed loudly, understanding my dilemma. “You’re accustomed to people who wield Creation energy as a simple matter. There are people who exist that can’t use it.”
I nodded. “Those who embrace the use of Void?”
Zen blinked somewhat in surprise. “So you know of THEM but… Nevermind… No. These people can’t even wield the power of Void. They seek to harness the power of machines that draw upon and focus Creation energy to create untold horrors.” Zen sighed. “Those are my people. They seek to dominate, control, and rule. They are Xartreans.”
Winston shook his head. “Now you know that isn’t the truth.”
Zen turned to him and seemed lost, then recollected his thoughts. “Okay, I admit, it is a failing of our social structure. Most people just want to live in peace, and try to do so day to day. However, those who have ambition and seek power move up through the echelons of politics to do so. It is a sphere where idealism is often snuffed out. It is not a place for dreamers. The ambitious rule, and the dreamers feel reality oppressive.”
I found myself shaking my head. “Zen… that is horrible! I’ve never heard of such a tribe… Part of me hopes to never come across your Xartrea.”
A light knock came from the door. Winston and Zen looked at each other. Neither of them seemed to be expecting anyone. I found it odd… this seemed to be Zen’s personal area, and Winston seemed to know of every going on inside his inn.
“Who is it?” I called out. No reply came. The air seemed to slowly draw from the room and I could feel a heat emanating from the door. Zen ran over to me and tackled me to the ground. I saw Winston quickly run to one side of the door and make the same inquiry I did. The heat ceased as I heard a woman’s voice ask if it was Winston.
“Oh… Ms. Jane!” Winston opened the door. Zen whispered ‘Jane’ to himself in a confused manner and sprung off of me. “This is a surprise! What are you doing here?”
I listened to her speak while I gathered up my clothes in a decent fashion. “I’ve been getting reads on many anomalous activities and I thought it best to…” As I stood her sentence trailed off. Standing between Zen and Winston just inside the threshold of the room was a woman just under Zen’s height. Her hair hung to the middle of her back, a medium brown and mostly straight. Her features were soft, but her face seemed wholly still. She wore a simple white dress, the tops of her forearms covered in sleeves ending atop her hands. The white dress seemed to bear its own luminescence, and it seemed to be flaring. I could tell she was eyeing me cautiously.
She walked up to me confidently. Her movements were deliberate and did not waste any motion. As she drew close I could see that her eyes were simply too dark. She looked me directly in the eyes and I could feel a heat pouring off of her, her dress billowing. I looked over her shoulder to Zen, who shrugged. Winston, in similar fashion, could offer no help.
With little other recourse I tried to open a dialogue. “Good day. I am Garner of the Dreyphand. May I learn you name?” Let it not be said that I can’t mind my manners.
She blinked. Her eyes brightened and with them the heat pouring off of her ceased. “Ah… one of the Dreyphand. It is a pleasure. Greetings Child. I am called Jane.”
Zen made his way up to us. “Jane, like Winston, is a near and dear friend to me” he said.
“That is an understatement” Jane replied, looking to Zen. He offered up his arm and Jane took it, and they walked to the broken statue. Zen placed the robe he was wearing in the place he was sitting, and offered it to Jane. She sat very smoothly onto the makeshift palette, pulling her legs under her. “I see you still leave this in ruin” she said to Zen sadly.
“I can’t repair it yet. At this point it is more a matter of lack of skill than desire.” Jane nodded, and picked up the statuette, smiling. I returned to my seat while Winston took Alpha’s former place. Zen sat against the statue just beneath Jane. As he sat there she’d muss his hair every now and again. “So what brought you here?” Zen asked.
“I just wished to see you” Jane said, giving no sway to emotion in her statement. Winston and Zen laughed at this, and after they settled Jane began speaking again.
“’Child of the Moon, Ye Who Basks under Creation’s Star. The secret of this world is yours to learn. Much time will pass before you learn the truth. It will be revealed only while you are within the world.’”
Winston and I looked at one another. We knew not of what Jane spoke. “That was what was written on the icon” Zen said.
“Correct” Jane said. “In spite of what you think, you did not reach that place of your own volition, or due to any ‘bad blood’ you have on Moksha. The Black Goddess has taken a hand directly in your fate. There is much trouble for you ahead.”
Zen let his head fall back against the stone hard enough for a loud thud to resound. “Of course she is” Zen replied. “She’s so troublesome.”
“Wait…” I thought back to the legend of Tulfris. “The Black Goddess? The Destroyer?”
Jane looked to Zen, who opened his eyes and stared at her. She raised her head to me and answered. “No. You reference a myth regarding the history of Tulfris. It was Tulfris’ own power that led to them collapsing in on themselves. The Black Goddess is much younger than those events. She has proven that she enjoys picking on Zen.”
“I think she’s just upset I wear the color better than her” remarked Zen.
That rationale held up no weight, but I had the feeling this was another thing I was just going to have to trust Zen with for now. “You speak to the planet as well, Ms. Jane?” I asked.
Again, she looked to Zen, who offered no signal. “I do. It is in that vein that I offer you a gift.” She lifted her hand and pointed to the statue of the egg across from her. I walked over to it, and touched it again. It shrank down until it would fit into the palm of my hand. I lifted the separated top and I could see evidence of movement in the enclosed liquid, but I could not see what moved. I put the halves back together, and the shell was made whole.
“You have been asked to find a suitable place for the creatures living inside the egg. You needn’t worry, the shell will keep them safe from all harm. Simply will it to open in the proper environment and time will return to the beings inside. It is something of a training regiment so I am told,” she said.
Zen sighed. “I think you mixed up “task” with “gift” again Jane.”
She looked aside and thought about what Zen said. Whatever it was called, this was certainly an unusual request. “Jane, if I may ask… who asked you to grant me this…” I looked to Zen. “…gift?”
She looked up at me and without faltering said “Oh, your mother of course.”
That was simply impossible. I was adopted in an old ritual. Pilgrimages to be given a child from one of two elemental fonts would occur. For a particular time a loving parent needed to simply go to a font and there was a chance a spirit of the element would intercede directly, impregnating them. After awhile, this stopped occurring. However, after The Twin Gods’ War, three children were given unto the people, one from a newly revealed font. It was then said, for the sake of balance, that children would only be granted simultaneously from all three points. So hopeful parents were selected and sent out to the three fonts. After awhile, even these periods stopped. However, the parents who raised me one day were walking along a crevice near the coast. I was offered up to them, and they accepted. I was the first child and only child of this, a fourth font.
My mother was the spirit of that font.
“…and for you to say that you came with this from my mother is impossible, in spite of everything I have seen” I seethed angrily. “Just who do you think you are claiming something so audacious?! Speaking to the planet is one thing…”
Jane cut me off. “And speaking to ones’ equal is another. I am the Goddess of Fire. As such, conversing with your mother is commonplace. She is quite happy to see you branching out in the world, but is troubled by your company” she said, looking to Zen, who replied
“You weren’t supposed to tell him all that just yet Jane.”
This was all too much. In my midst sat a force of nature. “So… when you referenced the story of Tulfris…”
Jane nodded. “It is for me memory, not mere speculation Child.”
I looked to Winston. “Zen does keep interesting company” he said, completely at ease with the situation at hand.
I don’t know how they kept their minds so steady. This entity was present at the banishing of Tulfris. At the Twin Gods’ War… the Imbalance liberation… the power of her flames are legendary, and these two just… jest with her.
“Where is the icon now?” Jane asked Zen.
“It was destroyed. We had to use it in order to escape from Tulfris.”
Jane looked confused. “She would thrust you into that situation and give no inclination as to its purpose?”
“You know how she works” Zen replied.
“I, in fact, don’t. You’ve had much more experience with her than I have.”
I chimed in. “It had a power that flowed directly into Zen. Ever since it broke he’s been exhibiting strange abilities.”
Jane nodded. “That is because it was a teleportation talisman. It was to take Zen directly to the Isle where he could directly recover what the Goddess has sealed from him. Perhaps that is why The Black Goddess was so gleeful.”
Zen pondered. “Alpha and Garner were in the blast radius. If that was intended solely for me, should I worry?”
Jane shook her head. “It will only grant related powers that are inherent to the individuals involved. However… Zen… there is something I need to speak to you about privately.”
Zen turned to Winston and I. “I apologize, will you excuse us?” He looked up thoughtfully. “It appears as though we’ve talked the whole day through. If Aegis is ready, we can check on our armor and get out of the sparse get ups we have.”
I nodded to Zen. “That’s fine. We can leave whenever you’re ready.”
Zen smiled. Winston and I stood, making our way towards the door. I turned as Winston held open the door. Jane seemed to already be whispering to Zen about what, I assumed, she truly wished to relay to him. Zen noticed my gaze, and held a hand up to Jane. “I never really answered you” Zen said. “In regards to who I am and all that… Ultimately, who I am is how I live.” Zen said. “I won’t tell you everything all at once. I doubt you’d believe me. Over time you’ll come to see firsthand how my life is yourself. The more that passes between us, the more I’ll share. I hope, at that point, you’ll have sufficient grounds for believing me.” He passed his gaze back to Jane. “And Garner… thanks for trusting me and not pressing too hard. I tend to look from the end of the road backward. I hope that one day you’ll look back on this time with the same eyes I do and understand the weight of this situation.” We nodded to each other, and I stepped into the hallway with Winston close by.
As we passed my room Winston asked me to get changed and meet him downstairs. I got back into the loaned armor, and proceeded downstairs. Winston quickly attended to the patrons about, explaining he would be just a little longer. He nodded towards the garden, and I relegated myself to waiting there.
The wooden paths from the dining room extended through this room, separating pools of sand. Small trees and shrubs were interspersed around other areas of rich soil. I realized now that the relief on the far side was probably something Winston had in place for Zen, considering the statues in his room. It also seemed to be hanging. I had before thought it to be embedded in the wall. The artistry looked very similar. Sitting areas were set in very unusual places, and I attributed this to Zen as well. Each setting was deliberate, but I could not tell of what significance they represented.
The middle of the room was large and circular and constructed of rather plain stonework. Situated in a perpendicular fashion were elemental representations. An exhausted fire pit sat on the the far end, nearest to the relief. On opposing sides sat a waterfall and a small beaded enclosure, which resonated with small sounds as the air stirred throughout it. However, also incorporated to this design was a small patch of barren ground. I walked up to it and placed my hand in it. The soil was dark and rich. I have only a passing familiarity with gardening and herb lore, but I thought this to be very fertile ground. With the other plants in the room I was surprised that this place had nothing growing from it. Almost blending into this was a dark mat. I sat down here, and let my mind drift.
I was unsure of how much time had passed when I opened my eyes to see Winston tending to the plants in the room. I called out to him to get his attention.
“Ah,” he said in surprise, “sorry if I awoke you.”
“You did no such thing” I replied, moving over to him. “It has merely been a long few days. May I?” I asked, motioning to his watering can. He smiled and handed it to me.
“Zen seems to have that effect on his surroundings.” I looked to the roots of the nearby plants, and poured water over places that seemed particularly dry. Winston continued. “He often forgets that he is not in the place of his birth… he tends to lose himself into whatever tasks he feels he needs to do.”
I considered what was said, and drew on my own memories. “My own children are rambunctious and a handful. I often hear of Elders expounding upon the ceaseless energy of youth but did not understand until I began rearing my own. Zen seems to bear the Elders wisdom and a child’s youthful mentality for wanting everything now.”
Winston listened carefully, pruning some branches and stray leaves, while point out some places I missed. “He is a well known member of his native land. His resources afforded me this place. It allows me a great deal of self sufficiency.”
“He must have a great deal of da’an. I find it unusual I’ve not been at least not heard of him before now.”
Winston looked at me with an unusual look. “Forgive me, it’s been some time since I’ve regarded the term. Remind me of what da’an is.”
I found this odd, but in this group it was becoming the norm. “Of course. It would be good to be acting as a Dreyphand in giving information rather than being wholly in the dark. Da’an is a unit to measure social standing. In lieu of barter or trading, what one is afforded is based upon their da’an. How it is valued is based solely upon who you ask. If you have to make any assumption, assume that it works on a person by person basis. This makes it somewhat difficult to track of cumulatively. If you were to extend a kindness to someone they may feel led to tell others. I suppose another way to say it is holding enough of a reputation will afford you certain benefits and concessions from people.”
Winston laughed a small laugh. “Ah, I remember now. Zen and I have had the occasional discussion about this. The benefits of da’an over a ‘hard currency’.”
“A hard currency? Did he say what he meant by that?”
Winston nodded. “He did in fact. In his home precious minerals were often pressed into coins… small disks, and marked with iconography to denote values. These were earned and traded for goods and services.”
I tried to imagine my life inundated with such a concept and found myself lacking. “Isn’t that taxing on resources? And what if someone lost their coins?”
Winston shook his head. “From how Zen told it, you were out the worth of the item. Worse yet, he spoke of rampant corruption in the hearts of people. Some went to great lengths for the simple sake of gathering great wealth. Apparently thievery is commonplace.”
That was a tough truth to swallow. In my mind this was some type of horrible fiction. There were stories told in which one stole from another, so the concept was not foreign. This was not true of Zen. I couldn’t begin to imagine the effects it would have on a person growing up to deal with such lack of forethought and consideration. Somehow, Zen had endured. After a long while I said aloud “I do not envy Zen his life. It must be quite difficult for him knowing what he does at such a young age.” Winston smiled. It was a solemn smile, and somewhat sad. There seemed to be a great deal of unknowns and hidden boundaries when it came to Zen. I felt ill at ease talking about him, especially when it caused those who seemed to know him the best diffing amounts of pain. I looked about the garden to try to figure out something else to discuss. “Winston, you told me earlier that this garden had some significance. At least you told me to bring it up again later. What’s so special about this place.”
This perked Winston back up to his normal demeanor. “This place is called a zen garden. Our friend comes here to relax and express himself, and welcomes others to do the same” he began.
I eyed him, and he didn’t seem to notice any oddity. “Isn’t that a little egotistical?” My outburst caused Winston to pause. He did not see my point. “Naming a garden after himself. That doesn’t strike you as being a bit full of himself?”
Winston now realized my meaning and laughed a little. “Tell me… is your real name Garner?”
I shook my head. “Of course not. While not much past the age of maturity I have reached that point and have taken Garner as my mantle.”
Winston nodded. “And its meaning?”
I breathed deep and drew on my own memory, but came instead to when Zen evoked my name in Tulfris’ chamber. “’One who would gain all’” I replied.
“It is similar with Zen. It is not his name, but I imagine that it is the first time you heard the word, so you can only relate it to him. Zen, the concept, is a school of thought from the place where Zen, the person, was born. From what I’m told it is perceived with much confusion. It seeks to accept the world and through acceptance move past it. One of the ways knowledge is shared is through koans. They turn phrases on themselves. Something like ‘All is One and One is All’ could be considered a koan. If you do not know the meaning, meditating on a koan can reveal the truth to you. But what is often realized is that the truth is something that you knew all along. Our Zen has taken these thoughts into himself and made them his norm. While you deal with him look at the world like this: What he speaks of is a simple truth, and something you already know. However, keep it in mind and think on it. Often times there is a fuller truth that will come to light as time goes on.”
I nodded, accepting what I had been told, having already realized it myself. “I will try to keep that in mind. What of this garden then?”
Winston pointed. “Look at the beaded structure over there. Can you tell what that is for?”
I nodded. “I surmised it was to represent Air.”
Winston nodded. “That’s right. This whole place is to meditate upon the building blocks of the world. It is easy to perceive the moving air. However that place helps to enhance your focus by giving a more sturdy sensory grip on it. During his meditations Zen tries to block out all things.”
I tried to shift my thinking as Winston instructed. “So the truth is that there is always Air and it can be easily perceived. But it is something you should be aware of constantly to live simply…?”
Winston laughed. “You certainly sound like Zen! I admit that it took time for either Zen or myself to fully understand this style of living, but it is something that is not far from anyone. We feel it to be a natural state. A simple matter is truly complex but can still be reacted to simply. The reasoning for such responses is complex, but going through with needed action is a simple matter.” I set down the watering can and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Is that a scream coming from the inside of your mind I hear?” Winston asked. I nodded. He pat me on the back. “Congratulations! You’ve taken the first steps into understand Zen. Whether that is the concept or person I will let you determine.”
The people around Zen all seemed to be cheerful and happy. Collectively they bore heavy burdens of which I’d just scratched the surface. They were together, and as such remarkably vivacious. Their adaptations were… unique, perhaps even extreme, but they were carried on living just the same. The Goddess, the barkeep, and the two weakened warriors.
“SHE DID WHAT?!”
A voice boomed from directly overhead. I thought it to be Zen’s, and realized that this chamber was directly under his own. The ceiling above shook, knocking some dust loose, the sound echoing in the garden. Winston walked briskly to the garden’s entryway. He seemed more concerned with the dust than Zen’s outburst. I followed in time to see Zen hammering down the stairs. He caught me out of the corner of his eye. “I’m heading to Aegis’. Catch up when you’re able.” And he was out the door.
I looked to Winston. “I thought he accepted things then moved on?” I posed to him.
“He normally does. This Black Goddess has him in a frenzy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like this. For that matter, I never heard of a Black Goddess before Jane said anything.”
Zen had his differences with Alpha, but they seemed to share a tome of information. Zen and Jane spoke with an enhanced camaraderie. And while looking at another volume, Zen and Winston had drawn from similar sources.
“Jane seems to defer to the Black Goddesses’ capability” I said.
Winston agreed. “Yes… and Zen takes Jane’s words very seriously. That gives ample credit to the Black Goddess and her existence.” Grabbing a duster from behind the bar he looked over the patrons. None seemed to be paying ample attention to us. “There are many forces in this world,” Winston continued, “but only three powerful enough to be represented physically as beings of great power. Jane is the Goddess of Fire. She works in tandem with the Goddess of Water, and the God of Air. For as long as I can remember these three entities have kept the world in harmony. When the Twin Gods’ War ceased, it was these three who granted the power of Creation to combat the strength of the Void. That is why products utilizing these elements are so prevalent today.” Winston became distant then as he tried to grasp his own thoughts. “Just who this Black Goddess is… I really should know.”
I thought I heard the air stir behind me, and I turned to see Jane descending the stairs. She locked eyes with me as she grew closer. She came between Winston and myself, allowing him to remain with his thoughts. “Garner, I apologize for my behavior earlier. I was overtly hostile. I am simply unaccustomed to Zen keeping company outside of Winston. I had thought you meant him harm.”
I smiled as best I could. Remembering the magnitude of power this being represented made such a thing a bit difficult. “No. At this point I think I am merely along for the ride.”
This caused the Goddess to smile. “Indeed.” She placed a hand on Winston’s shoulder, jarring him back to outward perception.
“Ah, Ms. Jane! Are you on your way out?”
She nodded. “For the time being there is little I can do to help Zen. I’ve told him what little I do know, but I am unable to do much else.”
Winston nodded. I looked between the two of them. “What does that mean… ‘unable to do much else’? What could stop a Goddess?” I asked.
She smiled weakly. “Rules, Child. Rules of this world. An accord was drawn within this world. Those of unparalleled might may wield the abilities of this plane, however they must relegate themselves to matters which require their power.”
I nodded. “So you’re unable to make direct influences upon the world. Why would you do such a thing?”
Jane sighed. “Fire houses the power of revival. I am not the first being to be branded by the power of Flame. My predecessor acquiesced to this ideal. The others did not agree to this and set their powers upon each other. They nearly destroyed the world. I witnessed this, and suffered due to it. It took the breaking of the deal to stop the combined might of the Goddess of Water and the God of Air.”
“You don’t mean… The Twin Gods’ War?!”
Jane nodded. “That is what you know it as. The Sovereign of Fire exhausted the full scope of power allotted them, and those powers passed to me. Since then I have held the responsibility of this role. Never again will the world know such ruinous power. Of that I will make sure.”
I was somewhat confused. “If there are rules to prevent interference, why then does the Black Goddess wreck so much havoc? And why against Zen specifically?”
A light wind came from the door and blew against Jane. “That is not your providence” she spoke, seemingly to the wind. She then returned her attentions to me. “The Black Goddess is young. She has the knowledge to be dangerous, but she does not have the power to be bound by the rules I am. I have enough raw power to scorch the world known to you into nothing but ashes. Such a blatant use of my abilities would come at great cost. The Black Goddess could bring similar ruin, but the process would take much longer. As such, on a large scale she is not particularly dangerous. At the very least, not immediately. If she were to start now she could destroy the world in another 5,000 grand cycles or so.”
I became wary of what I had just heard. Jane had existed since the Twin Gods’ War, which happened so long ago that most accounts don’t bother with a number. She spoke of the Black Goddess, planning ahead in almost 2,000 times the lifespan of any living Mokshan. Jane continued. “She focuses on Zen because he has earned the attention of We Three. As we cannot act upon this world, he is our proxy. Our hand, our word. By affecting him she affects our designs. There is something she wishes to teach to him about the higher deities. I know not what.” She walked into the garden, the winds whirling through the room. Moving to the opposite side of the room, she stood in the middle of the fire pit and turned to face Winston and I. “I cannot force you to do anything, but I would humbly ask that you do what you can to aid Zen. He knows his limits, and will need assistance if he is to rise against the Black Goddess. She cannot limit you, so I ask that you rise to meet her challenges with Zen. I leave the choice to you.” She sat down as before, with her legs under her. The fire pit ignited, engulfing her violently, then died quickly.
Jane was gone.
“That was kind of her. She collected the dust and burned it away” Winston mused. It seemed the two of them had their priorities in regards to the garden. “So she wants us to help Zen stand against a goddess. Ms. Jane certainly isn’t making it easy on us. I will of course. You must make your own choice Garner. But for now, I’ve got customers to attend to.” Winston went back behind the bar to address the small clamor gathered about for those wanting more food and drink. I went to the door and put on my shoes, waving to Winston as I did. I made my way through the city back to Aegis’ shop, where inside I found Zen with his head on the counter.
Aegis looked over Zen to me, and was simply elated. “Oh finally. A bit of normalcy. Go to the back and strip out of those clothes. I’ll be able to tie it into the completed design. Just hang it out on the hook and ring the bell.” I looked at Zen who took no stock of my presence. I was going to ask after him, but Aegis shooed me along. Doing as I was told I took off the armor and hung it on the hook. I heard a shuffle which I assumed to be Aegis. Sometime later I heard him return and he thrust the new armor through the curtain.
This was significantly more substantial. It covered my body from my feet to my neck in one solid piece. I favored my left arm, and Aegis must have picked up on this. The joints of my wrist, elbow, and shoulder were left exposed, allowing for flexibility in my weapon arm. Conversely my right arm was completely covered all the way down to my fingertips. The material was supple and breathable. This is what I expected of Aegis. The armor was perfect, and seemed to radiate a latent defensive power to boot.
I returned to the store front and Aegis looked me over as I did so. “Sorry I did not add plating. I’ve not worked with a creature the like which you’ve brought me and didn’t want to hack into it so prematurely.”
I shook my head. “This is fantastic!” I responded. I stretched, and looking down I realized I had forgotten my shoes. While as thin as the previous armor provided I realized the just how superior it was.
Aegis looked down and realized what I had. “My goodness… that wasn’t even intentional. I’ve done what I can with the materials at hand, and that should get you started. I’ll send word out to the other cities to be expecting you Master Garner. I’m sure they’ll have ideas for improvement. Check in with me every now and again. I tend to work on everything instead of specialize. I can bring out the potential of whatever additions are made.”
Zen finally looked up. “’…bring out the potential…’?” He started laughing.
Aegis sighed. “I’m telling you, Master Zen, this is also unintentional. I work on each set of armor individually. I put my heart into everything I do. Why yours turned out so… oddly I can’t say.” Zen held the armor out in front of him. I looked at him, and adjusted my sight. Zen pulsed with a power I’d not seen before. Apparently this was the effect of the teleportation talisman Jane had mentioned. The armor pulsed in ferocious opposition.
“Zen… what is that?!” I asked.
He turned, and realized I was using my altered sight and tapped me on the head. “Cut that out. I told you it could be dangerous.” He shook his head. “This isn’t your fault Aegis, and I know it.” Zen turned to look at me. “As of right now I could beat you in a fight. That wasn’t the case when we left. If I put this on I won’t be as weak as before, but I won’t be as strong as I am now. But as things stand I am limited in my actions. I can’t meet my goals without wearing this, but I won’t be strong enough to even begin getting closer.”
I put my hand on Zen’s shoulder. “’Rules of this world, Child’?” I asked, loosely quoting Jane.
“Exactly! And I…” Zen wheeled around and stared at me.
I smiled at him. “You’re not in your home, and it wouldn’t do to be inhospitable to a guest, or to deny a request. I’m heading out anyhow. Come along with me and we’ll get your whole mess sorted out.”
Zen smiled broadly. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Garner. You’ll do well to remember that you brought this onto yourself.” He dipped down the hall and into the changing room.
Aegis looked after him, then back at me. “What was that all about?” he asked. “A lot of things have changed quickly. I’m thinking I really should avoid going to Winston’s too much…”
Aegis exhaled through his nose. “Aye. I can agree. The place is just too enjoyable to pass by though.” I laughed. All of this was boiling down to matters of choice. These choices were involving me in aspects of the world I hadn’t even considered a week ago.
Zen came bounding back out attired in similar fashion to me. However, the gloves he had worn before had been improved, going up the whole of his arms. The tips of his fingers were exposed, but that was all. He seemed somewhat uncomfortable. Allowing a blinking of Sight I saw that his aura resembled that of a Mokshan now, instead of being out of control akin to the corpses as it was before. Zen held his tattered clothes in his hand, lamenting somewhat of their condition.
“Hand it here, boy” Aegis said. “I’ll figure something to do with it for you. In the meantime, I’ve a favor to ask. Do you recall the young ladies that were present at the same time you were? They each asked for armors for themselves. Very specific. Not like the droll commissions that have come in lately. With new materials I happily obliged. But since the Boneyard Lizard can essentially grow a few outfits a day I’m stuck here. Would you deliver these for me?”
He slid three packages across the counter to us. Zen and I looked at each other. “Forgive my saying so… but how are we to carry these?” I asked.
Aegis rubbed his right temple. “I can’t believe I almost set you along without these.” He handed Zen a small pouch and a pauldron to me. On my offering was embellished the symbol of the Dreyphand. “These will allow you to hang onto items as you need to. I’m certain you each know how to crystallize items?”
I looked to Zen who was looking over his bag. “I know the application, but as I said, my abilities are reduced thanks to this attire. I don’t know if I can manage it on the scale I’m accustomed. What about you Garner?”
I shrugged. “I can manage as well. I focused outwardly. Holding onto items isn’t my particular strong suit.”
Aegis nodded. “Well, get practiced up. It’s a useful thing to be able to do.”
I strapped the pauldron onto my left shoulder. It shifted well, so I didn’t have to worry about it hampering my movement. This also meant I didn’t need to drop my weapon in order to make use of an item. Zen still looked warily at the pouch. “Quartermaster, did you make this yourself?”
Aegis, surprisingly, was not offended by this question. I was surprised when he shook his head. “I did not. A very young woman in black came in and told me it was yours, and asked for me to return it to you. I integrated it into your outfit. It was the basis of my work in fact.”
I thought back a ways. “Your pouch? Isn’t that the one…?”
Zen nodded, not wanting me to finish my sentence. “It is. Thank you Aegis. I appreciate its return. We’ll be on our way now.”
Zen bowed, attaching the pouch onto his leg, and walking out of the store. I followed in like fashion. When we were clear of the storefront I posed a question aloud. “The Black Goddess?” Zen nodded. He was silent, so I continued. “Should we keep an eye out for her?”
Zen looked to me. “Of course, but we shouldn’t get in her way. She much more dangerous that she appears.”
I considered what I had been told by the Goddess. “Jane said that she could only act in damaging ways over long spaces of time.”
Zen smiled and shook his head. “She would say that. Her scope differs from ours. The Black Goddess is unable to harm Jane directly. In order to do so every potential source of Fire would have to be exterminated. The world would, ironically, need to be ashes before Jane could be harmed. That would take a long while to make stick. There is plenty the Black Goddess can do to bring severe harm to us directly with more immediacy.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t think up more to say than that.
As we neared the towns’ borders I saw Alpha laying on the ground trying to stand. A young woman was kneeling near her, and a group of men stood nearby. “Well, speak of devils” spoke a man standing in the middle of the rest. This man seemed to call to the woman aiding Alpha. “Beta, come on. This isn’t why we’re here. Sigma… distract them if you please.” The woman reluctantly joined the men, leaving Alpha to her own. As the group moved away one man stayed put. He was wearing some type of heavy armor.
“Ah… Omega” came a scratchy, yet booming voice. “It is good to see you. Time to play little boy.”