Chapter 25 - Monoliths
The great light breaks through all limitations; strength is born from strength; ten-thousand points, ten-thousand lights, and from them shine ten-thousand truths.
- From the Book of TaishôgekiDin
The ground quaked heavily, and she could barely keep her balance as dust and stone chips fell of the walls. She looked to the window but saw nothing. “What was that, an earthquake?” she asked with clenched teeth. She had heard stories of naturally occurring earthquakes, but these days, those only happened in the Lands of Inferno on the far side of the Walls of Weltenend.
“I think not,” Master Yagitsune replied. He had not even swayed during the shaking. “It must be the Brotherhood of the Null. They have gathered powerful mages of earth to draw up pillars to the west of the Yamato Mountain Range, meant to split apart the clockwork.”
“Why would they do that?!” Din asked shocked.
“They are building a bulwark that will hold against an enemy who uses neither magic nor catapult and yet can break through any wall all the same. This is what they can do to protect mankind,” Yagitsune replied sternly. “Now move along and mind your surroundings when the fight begins. If another quake takes you by surprise, you might fall and never stand up again.”
She nodded and followed along. Their destination was one of the training halls with wooden floor, and once there, she could see all the silent bystanders waiting to witness her fight. The Book of Taishôgeki taught that facing greatness, even just looking it in the eye, may waken greatness in oneself. So, many had come to watch and learn, though some might have come primarily for the entertainment. Perhaps more than some.
Still, Din was the Keeper of Fire and had a body tempered by the Great Clockwork. She was aware that many in the monastery were following her progress with great interest.
She stepped onto the floor and all eyes turned to her. On extravagant cushions along one of the short sides sat all the masters of the monastery, and Yagitsune took his place amongst them, the lonely few hairs on his shiny head floating gracefully as he moved, as though a small battalion of tiny warriors with long capes stood at attention on his scalp. <Stop staring at his shiny scalp, you idiot!> she thought to herself angrily.
There were three scrolls that comprised the martial art of Taishôgeki, the Taishôgeki Budô, and written down on each them: three advanced styles, for each of which one master lived in this monastery as well as a tenth who had mastered the spiritual aspect of Taishôgeki, the Taishôgeki Zen, above all others.
Of these masters, Yagitsune was among the three of the Tsukimai, the school of the moon dance, and had mastered the style of the morning moon, Zangetsu Ryû; under him, Din had trained for the duration of her stay. It was a rather versatile school, which tried to strike a balance between the gô, the forceful nature of the first school – Taiyô, the school of the sun – and the jû, the gentle nature of the third – Seisei, the school of the stars – albeit the focus of the morning moon leaned towards the gentle fist.
When her gaze wandered away from the ten, she realized that another had taken a stand and was facing the ground vacantly. He had scruffy looking, shoulder-long hair of dark-brown color and tired rings under his eyes. His feet were bare, and over his wide trousers he wore a simple dôgi, a thin but densely woven jacket made from either shishisô or murasaki moth fur with long sleeves, all of it dyed black: The colors of the disciple, for black in Taishôgeki represented a thirst for light and knowledge, absorbing all experiences indiscriminately. By contrast, all the masters were clothed in white. Din herself wore simple black Yamato clothing, a dôgi like him, and a very wide pair of pants with many folds that almost looked like a long, heavy skirt, called a hakama; clothing that had been provided to her by the monks for her training.
“Well met, friend,” she said cheerily to her opponent, who looked up to her and then back down again:
“Hello…” he mumbled.
There was some agitated whispering and murmuring that ensued within the ranks of the observers until Master Jörg Talward of the sun school spoke up in his commanding voice: “Quiet! No one speaks but those who stand!”
“Well look, who’s talking now, Jörg!” Master Akaboshi Yôko retorted with her usual playful snark. The people from the sun and stars schools tended to rib each other due to the long-held belief of either side that their way was the one true path. But Master Talward, in an uncharacteristic move, kept his quiet, and the whispering cut off immediately.
Master Talward’s school was the midday sun. The sun school prided itself on being the foremost experts on gôken, the hard fist, meaning those styles that were most direct in their exertion of force and reliance on overwhelming power. On the other side of the spectrum was jûken, the gentle fist, which focused on evasion and the manipulation of the enemy’s movements and strength. The moon dance was the one that sought balance between the two, and so the three together represented an expression of the basic trinity of the universe.
“Is this your first fight?” Din asked her opponent kindly.
He looked up to her again and then back down, blushing slightly. “No…” He pointed at Master Talward, and as she followed his direction, she was quite surprised, for Talward reached down and pulled his own dôgi open, revealing a large scar that ran diagonally across his entire chest and looked non-too-old.
She looked back at her rather plain opponent. “Wow, you fought that guy and you aren’t even maimed? You must be really strong!” she said excitedly. “I saw him crush river gravel with his pinky,” she added in a conspiratorial whisper.
He just nodded shyly.
“Ok, how about we make a deal before we start!”
Now he looked up and stared at her in surprise. “What…?” he said as if he had misheard her.
“Yeah, I could use a favor from a guy like you! You know what they say here, right? The loser of a fight learns more than the winner if he survives. So, if we both survive, it seems to me like one of us will have won and gotten less out of the fight, right? To make it even, the loser owes the winner a favor.” She smiled warmly, though on the inside she was grinning widely. She was getting exited, feeling as if the air was vibrating. When Kenji had assaulted her, she had only paid attention to her distress and the general notion of survival, but looking back, she realized that fighting a powerful opponent had been rather exhilarating.
He nodded shyly and looked back to the ground.
“Great!” she said gleefully. “Now, everyone who isn’t prepared to die: Leave! I am not going to factor in collateral.”
No one moved, and there was some nervous giggling.
“Do I sound…” her eyes widened and her voice had a strange primal anger radiating everywhere, “as if I am joking?!”
A moment of dead silence followed, and from the side opposing the masters, a student left, then another, and soon almost everyone but the masters had left the hall. Five disciples had elected to remain, all of them seniors.
“Good,” she said and drew her sword. “I see you are using two swords; I never fought against two swords,” she admitted. “Looks threatening.”
His gaze wandered towards his back briefly: two slightly longer than usual Yamato blades in their scabbards were strung over it. Then his gaze went back to her, and this time it did not return to the ground. “Maybe later…” he said vacantly.
The masters exchanged meaningful looks. Then Yagitsune called out: “Begin already! If I die of old age, I lose a bet.”
“Well if you won’t come, I will!” she proclaimed determinedly and jumped forward with extreme speed, the floorboards moaning underneath her hefty tread. Since her transformation, she had often felt like a spring when jumping, fast and brutal, but as she pounced towards him, sword drawn, he made a single step forward and his body simply turned into her movement, resulting in a close evasion: Taisabaki, the efficient movement of the entire body as a form of defensive and offensive move, best understood as ‘body-work’ as opposed to ashisabaki, ‘footwork’. She had not expected him to just throw fundamentals at her, applying them against this kind of high-speed attack so fluently, but now he was standing behind her as she slashed at air, and two hits, one from his wrist, one from his elbow struck her in the joint of her left shoulder. She almost flinched from the pain but managed to turn around and evade further hits by lowering her body by bending her knees, using the momentum to turn and face him once more. Her shoulder ached: even though he clearly only possessed slightly above average strength, her joints were still vulnerable to attack. They had become more resilient to not break under the strain of her new-and-improved musculature but were still vulnerable against outside force. Being so-called pain points, the trick with joints was to hit them two to three times in rapid succession: Yagitsune had once explained that hitting a pressure or pain point once would only open it partially, a second hit fully, causing intensive pain, and a third hit would begin to damage the attacked area severely. Of course those three hits had to occur in swift succession, which is why she had been trained to attack with all areas of her body that could be weaponized, such as her fingers, knuckles, wrists, forearms, and elbows, just to name some along her arms.
Her opponent seemed to be well trained in these basics, so she had to be careful. “My name is Din, by the way,” she said, trying to distract him. And besides: In her excitement she had forgotten her manners.
“Takagi…” he replied.
She put her sword back in the scabbard. “I guess we’ll play with those later, Takagi.” A sword gave her a huge reach and threat advantage, but she wanted to gage his movements a bit more thoroughly before she risked being disarmed and potentially sliced with her own blade. She flexed her fingers and then attacked again.
“Mistake…” he said calmly, shaking his head ever so slightly as he exuded a strange calm that bore down on Din like a pressure wave as she moved swiftly towards him.
The closer she came the slower time seemed to pass.
“Kôgetsu School, 27th step: Reibai.”
“You know, saying the name of your technique out loud, makes me feel like you are not taking me seriously!” she hissed with considerable pressure, adding a high kick to her commentary, but, surprisingly, she struck air. She could have sworn the image of her opponent had been before her when her foot had rushed towards his head, but now he had completely vanished.
“Where are you looking?” came his quiet voice, accompanied by a rather painful hit to her left kidney.
She groaned, seeing white for a second, but maintained her footing: she could handle this much. She turned around to get him back in sight. “Fast,” she noted and drew her sword again.
“Hard,” he replied and rubbed his right palm with his other hand. “It’s like hitting stone…”
He was extremely quiet, barely getting the words past his teeth, but his fists spoke all too clearly. Then he spoke up again: “Kôgetsu School, 54th step: Beniran.”
Now the subtle changes in his presence became more difficult to ignore: Even though his physical appearance did not change, his raven black hair seemed to cast darker shadows on his face; so dark that they seemed to bend and break the light all around him as well, tinting the air in the room into an ominous red light. Wait, hadn’t his hair been dark brown before? Suddenly, Din felt terribly small before him whereas he towered like a great mountain in front of her.
He moved one foot forward and lifted his arms, holding them bent, his fingers tensed like claws before his face, sinewy muscles bulging where the long sleeves of his dôgi had slid down to his elbows, his image like that of a great beast.
She tensed her body and deepened her stance, unable to make another advance, switching to the defensive, giving up any momentum she had possessed, even though he had not yet moved an inch. This fight was nothing like the one against Kenji: Kenji had pressed her with incredibly swift attacks, coming at her time and again; but this enemy, who had been trained in the most brutal style of the moon dance, Kôgetsu, the crimson moon school, this Takagi, seemed to be in no rush at all. And suddenly she realized why! She was ‘hard’, just like he had said! Her muscles were so dense that they protected her body like armor. She was a block of marble that he wished to chisel into shape with his fists. As he was waiting, watching her, she could feel his barely visible eyes pierce her, covering her in attacks from every angle, making it difficult to breath. Soon he would come… any moment now… any moment…
She began to scream in defiance, barely noticing how the watchers flinched in their ranks as a spark ignited around the blade of her sword, Saramaganta, and red flames burst out around it. There was no holding back against this enemy, no half measures. She was the Keeper of Fire, and her enemies would burn! Din rammed the sword down into the floor and jets of flame burst forth in all directions like violent snakes. A loud scream escaped one of the disciples who was burned alive where he sat. The rest stormed for the door, one of which came too close to Takagi and had his neck broken with one back-handed stroke. Din was not sure, but thought she could see a smirk on Takagi’s face.
Yes! This was the rush she had been looking for. She realized in this instant that her fight against Kenji had prepared her only in that it had calmed her faltering heart. There was no secret technique to use here. Takagi was the man with the techniques. Din, on the other hand, was the woman with the bigger stick, and now she was far too agitated to do what she had done before; and more importantly, she did not want to be calm. She wanted to be very agitated. She felt the fire of her sword not without, but within, filling her up to
the brim. She began to laugh as the flames danced around her, turning first yellow; then blue.
The air began to thin out, and through the crackle she heard him speak clearly: “Kôgetsu school, 81st step: Taima’atsu!” There was an intense wave emanating from him, though what it was Din could not make out. It did, however, knock the flames in his way aside, a task she would have considered quite impossible before since the flames were not entirely made and controlled by traditional magic; she did not tap into the ur-soul of fire but simply told it what to do. Keeper magic was the most potent kind of elemental magic. Nonetheless, they budged and cleared a path for him as he walked towards her at a fast yet measured pace, trying to land a barrage of attacks with fists, elbows, knees and feet as he pounced across the last few meters of distance.
Din dodged his attacks as best as she could, trying to use her sword to slash at him but caused no more than small cuts since her sword was more unwieldy in hand-to-hand range and he made it especially difficult for her to adjust the distance between them.
Something kept knocking the flames she called forth out of their trajectory, not quenching them but bending them away from Takagi, so much so that soon they were completely encircled by fire.
Takagi jumped back, breathing heavily, and she too went down on her knees, holding her chest.
She extinguished all fire, her eyes burning in their sockets. The air had been almost completely depleted by the flames and now their bodies were suffering the consequences. Only slowly did fresh air circulate in through the open door.
Takagi’s hands were shaking. “You… I broke my bones on you…” he said huffing, staring at his shaking hands, then looking up at her, grinning. He truly was mad.
But so was she. There was no going back now. “Well, you got one rib in exchange,” she said, coughing, also grinning. “Gears, that hurts. I’d say we end it with the next one.”
He laughed loudly. It was pure elation, channeled through his voice; then he looked her dead in the eye. “Fine by me. Kôgetsu school, final step…”
“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me!” she yelped.
Of course his ‘final technique’ was named ‘demon god’s fever of madness’. She had started to doubt that Plâton Rai’enjoh, the grandmaster of the school, had ever done a single thing in his life without maximum escalation.
Well, the technique certainly seemed aptly named, for as Takagi’s head bowed slightly to his chest, veiling his face in shadows and hair, his hands slowly drawing the two swords from his back, his chest heaving with a deep, terrifying growl, he truly exuded the presence of a ‘demon god’, and as he looked up with a crazed laugh that leashed out like a whip, a ‘fevered madness’ was as good as any description for his expression. Even the yasha part was all too apt, seeing how a couple of hairs on his head turned paper white. Somehow the technique was putting severe strain on his soul, making him hover on the edge of spellblight.
Din tried to ready herself, but there was no time, for as soon as that infernal laugh escaped him, did he already stand right in front of her, his forehead pressed against hers, his black eyes looking like abysses drawing her to the depths of the dark side of Helgard.
She opened her mouth, but only let out a surprised “Oh”, as she realized the actual impact, tumbling backwards from the head-butt, two blades slashed over her front in rapid succession. And even as he took a step back and blood began to seep through the long, thin cuts, he swung the blades again, unleashing a dicing hurricane upon her.
She turned her momentum into a wide step backwards, fueled at this point mostly by reflex and instinct, and rammed Saramaganta into the ground before her once more, this time bathing herself in a pillar of red, hot flame. When the veil of fire lifted, his swords were glowing red and his arms were charred black, but he did neither seem to mind nor to budge, and his broken hands held the two Yamato swords at the very butt of their grip, the last place any fencing instructor would want to see them, but the best place if one was going for nothing but brute force and destruction, casting aside any notion of control and balance for sheer centrifugal force.
Din could feel it now: The energy that was streaming out of every one of his pores, the madness that fueled him. Madness was one of the five inner gates, and she ventured a wild guess that his was wide open right now, flooding his soul with extra crazy flavored magic.
The time to ponder was short though, and it seemed her end had finally come as he stood before her in another instant and his burnt arm pulled up one of the blades to let it rush towards her skull, all too quickly for her damaged body to react. She expected to be split in two; instead his swing froze just above her head.
“What’s the matter, I didn’t think you would be able to stop in this state…” she said, spitting blood on the ground – one of his earlier hits had broken the skin of her lip – her legs shaking. The fear was not in her mind, no. It was in her bones.
There was no reply.
She looked up, and he seemed to be frozen mid-strike. As she peered around, she saw no one else in the room: all the masters had left along with the disciples it seemed. She stepped closer and waved her hands before his eyes. There was no reaction. When she tried to touch him, her hand went right through him, as if he wasn’t there.
“What is going on?!” she said terrified. She ran out of the room and looked around. Was this it? Had she died? When she looked out of one of the windows, her heart almost stopped. Of course…
Outside, the rock face had become much steeper than before, and all around there were great trees, growing horizontally, their roots relentlessly dug into the stone.
“In here,” an all too familiar voice said from behind. Her voice. She turned around and went back into the room. But Takagi had vanished and all the walls had been replaced by blackness. In the center, her four selves of her stood quietly, holding a fifth place open for her. She went over there and took her spot without hesitation.
“What can I do for you?” she asked suspiciously.
The one to her left answered: “You are the one that has come here. What do you want from us?”
Now Din smiled. “So, this is the game?” she asked. “Then…” She looked around and had her eyes rest on one of the five little gates that were spread in the spaces between them.
She pointed to one of them: “Open that one.”
“Din, are you sure? That one-” the soul said in surprise.
“Now, now,” one of the two that stood next to that particular gate said. “I believe I am the one who gets to complain here, and I choose not to.” That one stepped closer to the gate and looked to her partner.
She nodded and stepped up as well. They were Willpower and Natural Power, two of the five forces of existence that dwelt in every human being with a soul.
Din opened her arms. “That’s more like it! Fight fire with fire, I always say!” Then her smile widened to a grin. “In fact, fight everything with fire…”
They began to open the gate of madness, the one that Takagi too had opened to win this fight.
“Do it!” Din commanded.
The next thing she saw was Takagi’s blade rushing towards her once more. She grabbed it with one hand, broke it into pieces and rammed her own sword into his right chest while laughing wildly. Free! She could move without impairment, despite her grievous wounds, despite the relentless force that seemed to spring forth from her opponent. With her eyes widening, she pulled the sword up, cutting clear through his ribs, lung and shoulder. He screamed violently, but instead of stopping, he simply let the sword fall out of his limp right hand and attacked with the one in the left. Din blocked it easily but also felt that the power behind the strike was severely diminished. With one swift motion she had gripped that blade too and ripped it out of his hand, tossing it away. She did not even notice that she cut herself. He breathed stertorously and fell to his knees, his eyes jumping around wildly until he keeled over bleeding profusely onto the charred floor.
Din looked around tensely, her breathing heavy. Her enemy was felled but the energy was not subsiding, and it was making her ache to break free of… of what? Of everything! Shatter reality if she must!
Din screamed and kicked the nearest wall in, hundred-year-old chiseled granite gave in to her unrelenting force as a large hole to the adjacent walkway opened up. She saw movement in the corner of her eye and turned around, but then she felt a hard impact on the back of her neck and fell over unconscious…
When she awoke, there was a throbbing pain where she had been cut, and she felt weakened but alive. She was lying on a bed in the infirmary. Many beds stood in rows here, and on some of them lay those that had been wounded during training. At some stage in martial arts, improvement through practice slowed down exponentially and rising to greater heights necessitated fighting skilled opponents. Even early on, sparring was a very effective, albeit hazardous practice. Many chose this path for their training after a few years of basics.
Well, they were in good care here, for the chief healer was no doctor as they were trained down in Yamaseki. He was the keeper of an eternal artifact with the power to heal: A mighty staff called the Oath of Hippocrates, ever overflowing with clear spring water that covered everything and undid all ill; give or take.
Far from a Taishôgeki monk he was more of a freelancer: A druid of the Kaltani who lived on his own in a distant place. There was an overgrown door in the infirmary, which lead far, far away into a forest where he dwelled, and some said that it had been a barren land before he had taken up residence there.
During her first few days of training, Din had once mortally wounded her sparring partner and had feared the worst, but the healer had doused that boy named Soren in the water of his staff and he had recovered as swiftly as he had been harmed. Secretly, she had thought such a power far more preferable to the power to kill someone with her bare hands, but in the end, she was the Keeper of Fire, and what else could she do but burn things?
Since her wounds had been tended but not cured, the healer had clearly not been here yet. Weakly, she turned her head and saw Takagi lying on the bed next to her. His arms had been bandaged and splinted, and he had been dressed mostly in gauzes.
“Hey there,” she said weakly.
He might have replied with ‘hey’ himself, or not. Lying completely flat, his breast was rising and falling quickly as his breath rattled loudly. The gauzes around his right shoulder were soaked in blood, and it certainly seemed like a miracle he hadn’t died already, seeing how one of his lungs was probably as useful as a shoe without a sole right now.
“You sure are shy, considering you sliced me like an apple earlier,” she grinned faintly.
“You practically… split me in two…” he rattled with extreme effort, clearly in tremendous pain.
Well, she wasn’t all that cozy herself. The two cuts he had inflicted on her had been somewhat deflected by her dense muscles, but they still went square across her torso and had nicked several ribs. “Gears know I am a saint for not making a sex joke about that…” she laughed, regretting it instantly. “So, how would you feel about going on a little trip?” she asked, looking back at the ceiling. Having her head turned to the side was rather uncomfortable.
“I… lost…” he replied quietly.
“I have to admit, I kind of hoped you would also want to do what I am about to ask,” she said carefully. “I am leaving this place.” Suddenly, she felt him staring at her.
“Leaving…?” he asked. A trickle of blood was running down the corner of his mouth. There was almost a hint of surprise in his otherwise vacant voice.
She could barely read him at all. She had only gotten a glimpse during their fight, but there was definitely something there. Something she could use. She could feel it. “Yes. I am going north, and I am going to need an escort.”
“Ok…” he replied.
“Just… Ok?” she asked in surprise. “No questions, no objections?”
There was no reply. Perhaps talking was just too painful for him, or perhaps he had fainted.
“Ok then…” she said, twiddling her thumbs.
The overgrown door opened slowly, and a small puddle spilled over the doorstep and onto the stony floor. Slowly, a heavy step paced towards the beds, accompanied by the clanking of a staff. A deep voice droned towards her: “A shadow has crept over the Middle Lands.”
She turned her head to look at the figure: broad-shouldered and hooded, covered in creepers and leaves, wearing heavy, moss-covered boots.
“Wait, you can talk?” Din joked with a weak voice.
He had been silent as the grave when she had seen him the first time. “You just said that you are leaving this place, did you not?” he inquired sternly. “I am merely warning you. What you face strikes no dent in shields and chips no swords. But it will dent your soul and chip your mind. You are young, Din, Lady of Fire, perhaps you should stay in the care of those that have seen the world for many years.”
He stood by Takagi’s bedside now and tilted the staff: carved from oak and ornamented with a small golden basin, two vines hanging down from its tip. Water overflowed from the basin and now ran down onto his broken body. The rattling of his breath quieted down as new life force quelled through him and his wounds closed up as the spring water saturated them.
She arose, rubbing her aching shoulder. Fresh blood seeped through her bandages. “I was told this many times by many different people, first and foremost myself…”
Now he went over to her and freed her of her injuries as well. Carefully she got up on her feet. “But I am not going to wait for experience to come to me. I will gather it myself, doing whatever is in my power to do. What is only in my power to do.”
The healer nodded. “Then your request is granted.”
She raised a brow. “What request?”
“To use my door. It leads to a shrine built by the Skôts long ago. It is the north you seek out, is it not?”
Now she smiled. “You wouldn’t perhaps want to come along, would you?”
He shook his head. “My place is behind that door, but no further. I can never leave it for long.”
She put her hand on Takagi’s shoulder. “He’ll come along.”
“As you wish,” the healer replied, observing Takagi as he removed his splint and gauzes.
Din looked around, finding her clothes neatly folded by her bedside and changed into them quickly. “You change too, we are leaving right away,” she said to Takagi who looked somewhat flushed.
“Uh… yeah…” he mumbled and rooted around for his dôgi, as there had been no need to take off his pants. Then he tied it up and stood. “Aren’t we going to get some provisions… master?” he asked.
“Master?” Din said surprised. “You sure are one tough guy to read… Well, maybe we should…”
The healer chimed in: “If it is only a few basic things, I might be able to spare them from my home.”
Din nodded. “That would do. Time is our scarcest commodity.”
“Follow me then,” he said and stepped back towards the door.
“Oh, but one thing before we go!” Din said suddenly. “If we leave with you now, will you tell my master where I have gone when he returns here?”
“Very well. And where is it you will go?” the healer asked patiently. She glanced at the overgrown door and then said firmly: “I am going home, to the land of the Angel Saxons.”
Beyond Paxia’s lair, Ísa leaned against a tree, inspecting the ivory lantern. She had transformed an onyx lantern she had acquired during her travels on the Corsic Ocean to serve her conclave long ago, cutting it off from the Great Clockwork. Now she possessed the magic to use it, thanks to Ísa Muundir.
Her gaze wandered down to the girl, who was holding on to her pant leg, looking up at her with wide, blue eyes. In the back of her mind, Ísa could always feel the Great Clockwork, churning, trying to connect with her. She hummed to herself and to the child, not paying too close attention to the strange sound of her own voice:
There is no call, the gates are white,
I locked them, tossed the key…
She patted the cold metal helmet on the girl’s head gently.
Tick-tock, the teeth they bite,
But no gear turns in me…
“What do we do now?” she asked, looking at the girl.
“I suppose we could go looking for Miyako Fluxum. Can’t use the lantern for that though. What a hassle…”
The little girl cocked her head.
“Yes, a vacation does sound nice, doesn’t it? But in the end, with the gears so busy, this already sort-of is, isn’t it?”
The little girl pointed a small finger westward.
“Ah, you mean that ominous music? I’ve been wondering what kind of soul is making that, too. Though the cadence is quite familiar. Makes my bones ache.”
The little girl nodded and kept her finger hovering in the air.
“You certainly are insatiable. That is good.” Ísa held her hand out to her and lifted the lantern with the other one. “I’ve unfolded quite far now, we can be there right away.”
The little girl nodded again.
The ivory lantern began to glow as the entire forest around them suddenly grew dimmer and dimmer until the lantern itself went dark and the black shadows around them were sucked into it as though it had a hunger for darkness and a stomach to take in all of it. As the last stretches of shade vanished into the lantern, so did Ísa and the girl, their forms contorting and contracting as though space itself was caving in on them.
When they emerged, they stood at the edge of the forest, facing the trees. “Did I travel to the right spot?” Ísa wondered to herself as she turned around, but there was no question about it: Down a slope of swaying grass, the green crown of a tree as tall as a mountain filled the entire valley like a city of branches and its broad trunk went high up into the heavens where it vanished behind the clouds.
“That doesn’t look like it grew in a feddey…” she now said with a raised eyebrow. She looked at the body she had sucked up with them and let it sink into the earth with a touch of magic. “Thank you,” she said to the fresh grave. Long ago, back in Rim City, the man who had owned that body had offered it to her freely, and she had worn it ever since.
She lifted the girl up to her shoulders. “I’m not used to this Shadow Society magic, so I think we should walk over there on foot. The lantern appears to be warm still, and I cannot use it before it cools down anyways. We’ll enjoy the scenery.”
Steadily she went on her way towards the upside-down tree. What marvels the world kept hidden from her still… how could she ever grow bored of this?
When they passed through the first few meters of branchwork, Ísa noticed shadows moving in the thicket. She stopped and looked about curiously.
A man stepped forth from within and gave her a measured look. “We have sensed your approach for quite some time now, though you travel quickly. Have you also come to witness the great tree? Or are you perhaps on your way to the western sanctum?” He was an elderly man, dressed in the black robes of the Brotherhood of the Null, speaking in a kindly voice, though Ísa did not miss his apprehension.
Honestly, she was as well a reason for apprehension as there could be, so she took no offense. Though the words ‘quite some time’ made her wonder if they had sensed her already when she had set foot in the Brammenwoods. She took the girl down from her shoulders and set her on her feet where she clung shyly to Ísa’s leg.
“Today I am a tourist indeed. I hear sweet music coming from within the boughs, and I aim to step up close and have a listen.” She intently walked past him, and instantly, she felt a black flicker behind her.
“I cannot say I have ever seen one like you before in all my years. Your existence gives of the strangest aura, and it frightens me,” he spoke with a voice turned brittle.
Ísa stopped once more. “Be not afraid, old man,” she said kindly, without turning around. “You are the shadow and I am the light, such labels do not define good and evil, for good and evil are their own concept.”
“Then you have told me not which of the two you are.”
She took another step, and another. “This is a brand-new voice, but I shall put it to the test.” Softly she began to hum, testing the ideal range of her vocal chords. Then she sang:
Oh, when the voices call to me,
I dance so lightly to their song,
They guide but do not fetter me,
For I’ve been singing all along…
After a few more steps she came to a stop, puzzled. Now she turned around after all, seeing the girl standing there quietly, facing the old man who was staring back at her with growing fear in his eyes.
“Wha- what is this thing?!” he said with genuine dread in his voice.
Ísa’s face darkened and her expression turned cold as ice when she replied: “I do not appreciate her being called a thing. Come, little dove; we have someone to meet.” She took the little girl by the hand, and the two of them delved into the thick of the canopy of the upside-down tree, which was as tall as a mountain. She could sense the old man still, sitting right there where they had left him, but he did not pursue them. The Null were an odd bunch.
In time, the sunlight was broken thousand-fold between the branches, and shadows mingled freely with specks of light, the many leaves around them lustrous in various hues of green, some as broad as Ísa’s chest.
As they delved deeper and deeper into the unnatural thicket, the world they knew seemed to fall behind them as they entered a new, utterly strange, utterly unreal one, until the grass turned white and their steps began to crunch the ground as it turned into a wide field of snow, reaching as far as the horizon. All the branches had vanished and Ísa knew that there was nothing but the snowy plain anymore, even if she were to turn around.
“What a curious tree,” she noted.
“Well, it did not have to be a tree, the decision was rather difficult to make, child.”
“I am older than… you… thi… uh…” As she turned around she trailed off, not quite finishing the sentence. “You’re naked.”
“Well, first of all, I am a good bit older than you, Balsibart. Or is it Ísa now? Whatever happened to that little girl who cried for her brother?”
Ísa sat down there in the snow, quite overwhelmed, something that rarely happened to her anymore. “She still misses him,” she finally replied. “Very much. When I gave her the choice, she joined my conclave after all; perhaps just to see me fulfill her wish… And what about you? What in Helgard are you doing here, Plâton?”
He looked around. “Enjoying the scenery. Healing. I had to travel an unusual path to this location. You know, when I grew back into this world I had a simple choice.”
She patted the girl’s helmeted head. “And what was that?”
He looked up and smiled. “Well, either I’d grow a big-ass tree, or raise down a monolith.”
Ísa jumped to her feet furious. “You bastard! I should have murdered you back then! Who would pick a tree over a monolith! Monoliths are way more impressive!” She looked down to the girl that was tugging gently on her pants. “Oh alright, I will calm down!” she said angrily, though it was no easy task, seeing how Plâton was laughing loudly.
“Shut up, you old fart!”
He sighed in relief. “Oh Balsibart, you are still just like the boy that fought me back in Arkatrash. Forgive my… poor choice. It is just that a place from my past was perched on a tree much like this one. To each their own, wouldn’t you agree?”
She grumbled something incomprehensible containing the word ‘monolith’, but then dropped the matter. “Well, whatever. Your soul sang for me, right? What business do you have with me?”
He smiled. “What, can’t I see an old friend when he… she is close by? I did not mean to inconvenience you.”
“Come, little dove. We are done here,” she said to the girl in a sweet voice and turned around.
“Wait!” Plâton said. “Actually, I was going to ask a little favor of you.”
Ísa sighed. “Go on…”
He stood up and smiled. “Join the war.”
“I have my own war, or have you forgotten?”
“Well, there is a third party now, and in this case the enemy of your enemy is not your friend.”
Ísa stepped away, pulling the girl up and putting her on her shoulder. “You did not need to ask. I already owe a dead Keeper to Ísa Muundir. I have all the time in the world for my own war, and with the Great Clockwork weakened so, well… who knows. I will simply keep doing whatever I please. Goodbye, Plâton Rai’enjoh.”
He just grinned widely as was his wont.
“Well, that was weird,” Kenji said with a raised brow. “And what was all that about ‘Balsibart’ this, ‘Balsibart’ that? Why is Balsibart free of his prison and why does he look like Atlas’s sister now?”
“Oh, you are more perceptive than that,” Plâton replied with a mischievous grin. “And why would you use this unfinished bridge? I recall building a nice old gate up in the Yamato Mountain Range for people like you. Whatever happened to that old thing?”
Kenji smiled. “It works just fine. Your daughter has been frequenting it lately.
But to meet the Plâton Rai’enjoh, well, I could not pass that up. After Sanatana practically smuggled you through the clockwork, I am a little disappointed that I did not get to see you. What was that all about?”
Plâton’s eyes narrowed when Kenji mentioned his daughter, but he did not press the matter. “Let’s say I have a deal with Sanatana.”
“Then we have that in common,” Kenji noted.
“Well, Lord Kenji Sokolow, I am quite honored you would go through all this trouble just to see me. So, what’s with that young thing behind you? Balsibart had one of those; baggage seems to be all the rage these days. I must have lost my touch.”
Kenji’s face almost cracked in two. “She is not baggage. Hmm…” He found his composure again. “Anyways, there was something I really wanted to try before beginning the hunt.”
“And what would that be?”
“Have a fight with you.”
Now Plâton grinned widely. “Oh, by all means, my friend! My joints are aching from all this tree-growing already, what an excellent warm-up for my return!”
“So you are returning?” Kenji asked.
“Well, not into this world I think. I am needed elsewhere.”
“There is an elsewhere?”
Kenji nodded. “I thought you might be more than enthusiastic about a little bout. I need to test my mettle before facing my quarry. But before we begin…”
Kenji lifted his arm and pointed at Plâton melodramatically: “Put on some damned clothes! No one wants to go toe to toe with a naked old man. I swear to the gears, if you slap me with your trunk, I’ll rip it off you!”
Plâton rose. “Nah. My clothes are already being put to good use.”