Prayers were sent to the gods above in hope that I was reborn in a better lifetime. Such an event was unlikely because I still remembered life. The Wheel washed away nearly all of a soul’s past, save for karmic debts to be repaid. Only a few escaped the cleansing and the gods would never see fit to make me an Enlightened One.
My body was still my own. The pillow’s side felt flattened. Thick blankets piled on top me. I did not wish to look up and attempted to curl onto a side. A shocked gasp came out from nearby while I wished the world away. Footsteps rushed off down a hallway. Doors slid open and more people returned then had left.
I opened my eyes and expected to see that mouth of lightning who spoke in thunder’s voice. Instead, my father stood nearby looking less assembled than normal. Clothes were uneven and strands of hair poked out from under the hat. His beard lacked its normal luster.
“Greetings father,” I tried to move my arms but motion hurt.
“You’re awake,” he stated. “Do you know where you are?”
The location I sat in did not seem familiar. The sensation of not being my garden made me quiver. Many places in our clan property were alien now and after the recent failures, I felt even worse.
I shook my head slowly and tried hard to get out from under the covers and sit up. The motion failed. My legs refused to work correctly. Being limited made shook something deep inside and both eyes tried to widen and take in light. Everything refused to come into focus. This felt worse than a hard day of Captain Nagi’s training.
“You’ve been sedated.” Father stared down at me while taking slow steady breaths. He sat closer than ever before and I tried to move my hand out, to reach him. The effort resulted in a flopping arm panting breath.
“Why?” I managed to ask.
“Because you’re dangerous, son.” He stared down at my hand and I watched with unfocused eyes as one of his fingers twitched. “Everything I do must be for the clan,” father said in a low tone. “Were I a different man, or if I believed another more capable person might be able to lead our family in my stead, this, we, might be different.”
My head bobbed slowly and the pillow about my ears rustled. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t overcome this, but being restricted because of who we were made a twisted sort of sense. Life had delivered that lesson to me repeatedly.
“What happened?” The words came slowly.
He hesitated to answer. Father rarely showed pause in anything, but today the older man seemed lost. “Tell me son, what do you remember?”
“I asked the sky a question,” the admission tumbled out.
“What did you ask?”
“When will I be free of my curse?” I said.
There was a pause and father’s head lifted. He stared through walls towards sights unknown. As a powerful man on both The Way and able to pierce the veil’s first hand, father would know of secrets I could never reach. Even now he seemed lost, and the sight of someone I looked up to being uncertain made my heart unsteady.
“Did you receive a response?” the man who sired me asked.
“Soon. It said soon,” my throat felt dry and vision swam. Part of me believed that more than simple sedatives had been used. Perhaps they added Serpent’s Tongue and Liars Bane to make me truthful and more talkative.
Father’s stance turned rigid. The words we had exchanged upset him. I started to ask a question but he cut me off.
“You are well enough to return to your garden. Lower Master Song has been all over its grounds in search for what might have caused the event, but found nothing that should endanger you.”
“I don’t want to go back,” I spoke the half-truth. Imprisonment was both comfortable and lonely.
My father, the Asger clan head, a man further along The Way than most, lowered his head in my direction. “Forgive your father, and work hard.” He rose up quickly as if nothing had happened. “There are many problems we must straighten out before letting venture out again. I will talk to your teachers and see what options we might discover.”
Father had never once bowed his head while making a request. We only exchanged greetings this way while kneeling across from each other. I did not dare ask to be free again, and nodded slowly. He left, and I felt too muddle headed to watch the retreating figure.
An elderly woman with wrinkled features and loose fitting clothes walked in the room. She had been Colborn’s wet nurse many years ago, though I remembered little else of her.
She stared at me then raised both eyebrows slowly, causing more wrinkles to appear. Her head shook and lips smacked three times. “Rest some more, young lord. In the morning you’ll return to your little garden.”
In her hands was a small cup of water. She tilted the glass back and I drank, thankful for something to quench the growing dryness. After the first few sips, my temporary room started to fade.
In that final moment of awareness cracks along the wall became apparent. They ran together towards a small dresser. Behind the wood should be a location to hide valuables. It dawned on me as blackness arrived, that this room had been mine during childhood. Stranger still, I no longer felt comfortable in a location which had once been my fondest dream.
The next day two guards escorted me slowly to the walled in garden. Ion and Yon chose not to speak in my presence then separated at the gate. They closed heavy metal behind me and the slam felt like a trap snapping closed. My back shivered with a rush of cold.
Slower still was the journey to the small home. My garden looked much the same as before. Grass and building were unharmed from the repeated blasts of lightning. New flowers lined a wall that had not been present before. Their vines were already taking root and climbing upward. Thick pick blooms sat open and added color to the surroundings.
Tomorrow I would inspect the foliage for extra properties. Doctor Lumin might shed light upon these new additions. The travel from my entryway to the bed took two hands of the wall. Once inside I toppled into thicker blankets than expected and returned to oblivion.
The following week occurred in its proper order. Teachers visited me but getting out of bed proved difficult. Doctor Lumin and Mistress Charity were kind with regards to the plight. Captain Nagi’s level of irritation only elevated with each visit.
“Stand up little sprout!” His voice filled the small home. I tried to rouse myself but sluggish hampered motion. “Come on! Sweat clears an addled mind.”
My body moved wrong. Commands which normally lifted arms and legs went haywire. I felt as if the world around me jerked by at uneven speeds and could not tell if these issues stemmed from lingering drugs or perhaps a poison. Still, I made it into morning’s last light and stood poorly at attention
“Move. The best cure for sickness is exercise, and you’re running laps!” He lifted the long thin reed and threatened to hit me with it. The fear of sharp pain served as a powerful motivator despite fatigue.
“Yes Captain Nagi,” I recited a standard reply then tried to hustle along the wall. My feet hung limply and stumbled over exposed roots. Ground around the yard had become uneven following the lightning storm’s wake.
On a normal day, I could have reached ten laps or more. Exhaustion reduced today’s performance to four.
“Stop, move to Silent Night and stretch,” he ordered.
Silent Night focused on laying back and stretching leg muscles. There were five Silent styled poses which all contained limberness and range of motion exercises.
I worked my leg as directed in order to work out kinks which had formed. Moving in such a manner assisted working my grip as well. All these ideas had been drilled into me over years of practice. Counting kept the movements on track and thoughts stayed clear of distractions. The blankness of physical exercise made long hours of near solitude easier to bare.
“Good,” Captain Nagi nearly implied satisfaction. “Now we run again. Up, go.”
The switch cracked near me and I startled into motion. By the first laps end I felt winded. Struggling through the third lap left a layer of sweat beads. Halfway through the fourth the torment paused again near shade.
“Perform a Long Afternoon, then work through to Eternal Twilight,” he ordered.
We performed this action two more times before physical exhaustion overpowered mental conditioning. The ground grew closer as I fell forward. Thankfully sunlight did not add it’s burn in this protected bit of shadow.
“Get into proper form,” my teacher said.
I struggled slowly to do as asked. My teacher did not touch or help lift me upwards. In this, I was alone despite the presence of another human nearby. Breathing came in labored gasps. Sweat dripped no matter how correct a pose I maintained.
“Captain Nagi,” hoarse words came out that could equal Doctor Lumin’s wracked coughs.
“What?” he asked.
Chest muscles worked to keep my breathing steady. Vision swam and my control over the first hand of veils started to slip. I could smell the sun’s energy, a dry scent of heavy air which tickled like fur. The small trickle of water feeding into my lake magnified into a roaring river that made me think of morning dew hanging from grass blades.
I took another breath then struggled to shut off thesenses. Captain Nagi waited with narrowed eyes and a flat frown.
“Do you think I’m defective as a human?” I asked.
“What do you mean? Physical strength can be regained through training,” he drifted off as my head shook in negation.
“I killed a man, and feel nothing for the lost life. I ended his existence in front of his daughter while she screamed. Instead I only worry that father will think less of me.” I managed to sit upright, tilted my head back, and looked into the Captain’s eyes.
He stood there with cheeks drawn tightly against an early afternoon sun. I felt no cooler or more rested than before. My heart still raced as if a beast inside my chest struggled to be free.
“I cannot gather energy as others in my family. Even a lowborn can make progress upon The Way if they receiving training. Instead my very touch clearly ends lives, seemingly without reason.” The worries of a young boy poured out from me and felt unceasing. Each uttered line made the racing pulse inside me thud louder. “I nearly killed my younger brother. My actions have brought harm to my eldest sister. The very gods themselves acknowledge my plight and send down lightning to our clan.”
Captain Nagi stood there. He wore the same confusing expression that Yon and Ion had displayed. A slight pinch around both eyes, eyes that were unfocused, lowered eyebrows and downward turned lips.
I knew happiness, worry, and standoffishness. I knew dislike, and confusion. I did not understand the expression Captain Nagi wore. There were many which made no sense. Mistress Charity would help me, if I could remember to ask her.
“Did no one explain tell you clearly what had happened?”
I shook my head. The entire situation still remained very much a mystery to me.
“Gods above, what fool decided to deny you that information? No wonder you’re lacking spirit.” He turned away then started his brisk walk out. I tried to complete my Falling Evening stance but found both legs unsteady. “Keep practicing! Go through all the Hour Glass Turns!” Captain Nagi yelled back at me. “I’m going to talk to the clan head right this minute!”
The gate opened with a rapid creek, then slammed shut. The rattling noise hung. Despite the disorientation of movement, hearing functioned correctly.
I tried to go through my practice again but frequently failed the motions. My body’s stiffness from being drugged for days followed by a week mostly abed had already turned trained muscles sour. Nearly all movements required a firm stance, but legs had been run until they were wet noodles.
The Hour Glass stances were all designed to assist in toppling people. There were different ones based on angles, outstretched arms, and speed of the attacker. I knew them all but mostly in theory. The seventh stance is what I had used on Mercy’s father. It represented the first hour in which a full noon sun started it’s descent.
Every muscle in my body strained to reach the normal range of motion. I worked through all twenty four motions of the Hour Glass stances and only paused when I needed to catch my breath. By the fourth slow repetition my body felt empty of energy and limbs hung heavy. I fell downward then weakly crawled to the tiny lakeside for meditation.
Captain Nagi did not return that day, or the next. I saw no signs of Mistress Charity or Doctor Lumin during that evening or the next.
On the morning of our third day I sat in wait, pretending to meditate upon the past. There would be no purpose in recalling my failures today. Instead I waited for the gate to open.
There was no sound, but a person slowly moved into the yard. The thin woman held a tray of food and wore no shoes. My visitor wore a long skirt on coupled with a poorly made top which left thin arms exposed. This girl looked far smaller than I.
Each footstep reminded me of a bird tip toeing along while avoiding any noise. Perhaps she thought of me as a dangerous feline. I stayed still as the young girl moved forward.
Perhaps she was not as young as her looks lead me to believe. Age could be deceptive. A strong follower of The Way would look the same for decades, or so my teachers informed me. Each one wore a different face upon speaking of those who learned The Way.
This ragged looking serving girl couldn’t be a real follower of any school or training method. She had no black squiggles like our house guards. Yellows and oranges did not follow her like they did for my sisters and mother. Even father’s silver haze of swords would have been familiar.
Instead a light blue energy trailed behind and curved upwards as if the sky itself held onto spider thin strings to control her like a puppet. I could not recall ever witnessing such a scene on her before, but rarely did she risk delivering materials while I remained active. The confusion made my head tilt.
My movement caused her to react. The young girl’s head snapped up, once again making me think of a small bird being startled. She froze completely as our eyes met. Black pools swam to huge sizes while eyebrows rose.
“Wait!” I tried to move but still felt heavy from exertion.
She did not. All pretense of stealth vanished as the young girl ran quickly towards the gate door. Unsteady and tired feet could not even stand to give chase. Moments later I heard my gate clank shut with uncommon softness.
I could find nothing else to say, but reflected upon those careful and quiet movements. Her feet had barely touched the ground. The girl looked to be younger than Colborn with hardly any internal energies swirling about inside light skin. Whatever power she used strung behind her. The oddness of external energy daring my garden stuck me deeply.
Two more days passed without a sign from any instructors. Her repeated presence implied I had not been completely abandoned. There was value to be had in that knowledge. Such a small hope kept me going and I started to look forward to the hesitant and careful footsteps of a young girl delivering food.
The stealthy movements amazed me. She brushed past plants and trees without causing ripples. I managed to remain still as she crept in each morning. Discoloration lined space under each eye, and purple marks showed on what little skin slipped into view.
Their markings reminded me of welts left behind when I failed to perform for Captain Nagi. Many such spots lined my skin during the earlier days of my isolation. Doctor Lumin would have remarked on the young girls bruises, pointing out their size and spacing. I could almost see the imprint of a hand in their pattern.
If ever the little girl looked up and saw me studying, she would flee quickly, leaving the meal set upon a small porch. I tilted my head and tried to piece together this new riddle in this tiny garden, and wondered how such an oddity had gone for years without notice.
Perhaps young age caused me to overlook her presence. Those footsteps may contain hints of a technique that allowed one to avoid detection. Studying her helped me pass through isolation, and once the girl departed, I tried to mimic her method of movement.
Her steps didn’t match any stances Captain Nagi taught me. The moments were unlike any cultivation technique Doctor Lumin tested me with, and there had been dozens. I dared hope that such a silent and focused method of moment might allow me to escape unnoticed one day.
It only distracted me for so long. As time passed without more company I started to desire freedom once more. A single taste on the Black Day had rekindled my needed to peek at the world outside. More and more I stood near the gate which sat latched from the other side.
Each time I truly considered fleeing but worry paralyzed my feet. I had made progress, and escaping now might undo years of work. Being punished involved no food, and no visits from the younger girl. Such additional restrictions might tip me into insanity.
Nearly two weeks after the Black Day I still adhered to a recovered routine. The evening sun drifted down and I worked to keep my body well trained. Rapid knocks broke the garden‘s silence.
“Young Lord Fell?” a voice shouted through the metal wrought fencing. “Are you awake?”
I walked briskly to the doorway while feeling giddy.
“Young lord Fell? Quickly, quickly before these fools change their minds.” Doctor Lumin’s rasp was barely suppressed as he strained to make words carry.
Other voices grumbled at the edge of hearing. Metal clanged together. The doctor’s rasp kept up a chain of protests at unseen assailants. I rounded the corner in time to see two large men in green uniforms trying to take objects away from the Doctor’s grasp.
My head tilted as I studied the situation. Both guards were known to me now. Black energy wove its way through their bodies and radiated like sun spokes. I stepped towards the doorway, closer than normally dared, and knocked on the metal. Both guards froze and glanced in my direction.
“Guard Yon, Guard Ion, can you please release the Doctor?” I asked while clasping my hands in front of me. Per Mistress Charity’s instructions I remained civil but did not bow to those below my station unless they deserved respect.
“Yes. Let me go. I have studies to complete and information to gather. You oafs are getting in the way of science.” Doctor Lumin started coughing and quickly charged through the gate. His armfuls of luggage took up nearly the entire hallway. My form pressed up against a wall to allow room.
“Sorry Young Lord,” Yon said with a lisp. “We’ve orders to be extra careful.” Half of the man’s face dropped as his eyes were cast down.
Ion glared at his brother then shook his head. I carefully closed the gate and both guards gave that odd expression again. Emotions ran through my thoughts as I walked back into the courtyard to catch up with Doctor Lumin.
The frazzled man hovered over blue and purple flowers which had grown rapidly at the rear of my garden. His eyes were wide and movements rapid. Two blooms were plucked and pressed between cloths. They went into a pocket while he studied the remaining row of flowers.
He continued about his work while I sat with both feet tucked under my rear. Doctor Lumin eventually looked over with a frozen expression upon his face, like the servant girl who delivered breakfast. My head bent forward to touch the floor a full two seconds before I lifted up.
“Doctor Lumin, I wish to share my observations with you, and seek guidance,” I said.
“Sit, sit up. You should not bow to me.” He flushed red while two hands wildly waved in my direction. The protest confused me.
“You’ve never stopped me before.”
Bowing to the guards was against the rules, but a teacher was worthy of respect. Their attempts to impact knowledge should be acknowledged in both action and word.
“No, not anymore.” The Doctor’s hair shook rapidly. He looked more frazzled and unkempt than ever before. His hands wavered as objects were set up to take measurements. “Station, we must remember our places. Station is all that protects us from those who dare be cast accusations. I am your teacher but you are my young lord.”
I took three deep breathes to prevent myself from panicking. The world outside my garden must be in turmoil, or the Doctor felt threatened by events I did not know about.
“Has something happened?” I chose directness.
“Yes.” His head shook. “No. But yes.” Doctor Lumin sighed then coughed. “Everything is in doubt.”
“Can you explain this to me?” I asked.
He said nothing. Suppressed coughs were disregarded as he ran around the garden taking readings from devices. Notes were scribbled into a stack of papers with one iron bar through one corner. I walked after him while eying the granite and longed for my own papers to sketch with. My mouth opened multiple times to ask for a few small sheets but nothing came forth.
The Doctor frowned then headed at a much slower pace to the garden’s center and my small home. He pulled out an odd coin which hung from a silver chain. I stood in the doorway as he waved the item around the small home.
His four faced coin pulled sharply to one side as it approached a wall above my bed. There was little room inside but I approached to see what the issue was. Doctor Lumin pulled out a small blade and started digging at one crack.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Part of my wall came undone. A gasp escaped and my eyes blinked rapidly. A small square, no bigger than Doctor Lumin’s palm, fell out. Its edges were lined with writing which I did not recognize. Swirls merged together along the edges. He pulled out another object from stuffed pockets then waved it over the cube.
“Gods, it’s almost dead.” A smile crossed his face then his head shook rapidly. “Less than two weeks, the charm should have lasted six months.” He spoke to himself then placed the square into a pocket on his robe.
I stared at the bulging fabric in confusion. The object he had stored away was not one I remembered. He grabbed a chair and pointed to my bed. Doctor Lumin quickly sat down then gestured for me to do the same, once seated the older man started talking.
“The Region Lord knows someone in the Asger household dared murder another clan head in broad daylight. Nosey people followed your guards, young Fell, for this house’s colors are known to all.” He leaned in close then pulled back. I held still and tried not to let the hurt show. Doctor Lumin continued, “the deduction was easy to make. Those who follow practice the Black Demon Fist all owe loyalty to the Asger Clan. Dark green attire, guardsman spears, and that energy lead the inquisitive to here.”
I nodded once, and once again felt the world was a more complex place than an eleven year old child dare imagine. There were monsters beyond the wall, and if Doctor Lumin’s worried motions were indicative of anything, it was how close those evil creatures truly were.
“The Black Day did not prevent this grudge?” I asked.
“Why should it? The Black Day is for the gods to ignore us mere mortals.” His head shook and unkempt hair fluttered about. “It doesn’t matter, if murder of a minor clan head were the only factor, perhaps it would have blown over. But no, the man proved to be inhuman. The first in two years found inside the nobles sector of Sol’s Hope.”
“Yes. Yes. Listen well young clan lord, listen and take heart. Be thankful you cannot practice The Way. Be thankful you are avoided by those energies. Their presence warps the sane even as it empowers the mind, body, and soul. No gain is without cost, and incredible danger.”
I said nothing, but wondered if my own family risked their minds as Doctor Lumin implied.
“Not all paths are true ones.” He shook his head with more fever. “Some bend and turn, some attract demons of the world. Even those I had you try were possibly impure paths. A strong mind is required to break through to godhood, a strong soul, and a strong body. Empowered, at a risk.” the doctor shook both hands as if something icky stuck to the skin. “Traveling The Way is very dangerous if not controlled.”
“What does this have to do with the Clan Lord of Stone Hearth?”
“Everything.” The doctor tightened his hand and patted the pocket which had a cube inside. He stared down for a moment in consideration. “Your actions, right or wrong, revealed him to be upon a twisted, mentally damaging path. His body and soul were unclean.”
I remembered the pig like squeals that erupted upon contact. That day had gone by quickly. The assault of new scents and people made every moment nearly overwhelming. My feigned composure had fallen apart under the onslaught of Lady Mercy’s forward attitude and strange allure.
I took a slow breath through my nose then started speaking. “May I share my observations with you, and listen to your insights? It may help me understand what was happened.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He scooted the chair closer and leaned over. “Quietly though, quietly. The walls may have other ears which I missed.”
The comment made me pause, as many words from Doctor Lumin did. He frequently spoke as if his terms would naturally be understood, but their references slipped by me. Still, I hoped the older man might have a suggestion or two once I explained the events from my point of view.
I started speaking simply. For the moments which were unclear I mediated upon the memory then spoke again with a fresh recollection of the past event. Doctor Lumin nodded frequently, and wrote down notes. His eyebrows touched together while sweat dripped down his forehead.
Perhaps what we spoke of scared him. I did not feel outright fear, but instead attributed the unevenness of my heartbeat to worry. Relaying the day’s events took a good portion of the evening. Night started to set outside while we both sat without speaking. The aqueduct’s babble along with lead scratching filled up our silence
“Is there anything else Young Lord fell? Anything at all?” He asked while my head shook back and forth. “Even one detail missing might corrupt the information.”
I told him of the food both guards had bought me. I explained the attention grabbing garb of Lady Mercy, which caused him to cough then look away without explanation. My father and Kirkwood’s glares upon returning to the Asger doorway were recounted. Doctor Lumin noted it all. He stared at the pages while shaking his head multiple times.
“Gears as spinning young lord Fell. Gears all over. Star readers have spoken of a great beast in the sky stirring once more. They urge the Region Lord to action. Dehumanized monsters were revealed among nobility,” he paused and looked at me sidelong. I pretended ignorance and stared forward towards the flowers. Their tear drop shaped bulbs surprised me. Mixes of dark blue bordering near purple could be seen among the petals. “Here you sit, tied very closely to both events.”
My head dipped once as if I understood and agreed. Neither presented emotion held complete truth. Much about this perplexed me. Perhaps they would make more sense at fourteen years of age.
“These are strange times, very strange times,” he said while fighting a cough. The raspy edge to his words reminded me to get up and offer fresh water.
Doctor Lumin coughed while I dashed off to get fresh water. My belongings were fewer now than they had been a week ago. Whoever had absconded with the possessions felt I only needed one cup. I worried that many other items might be out there in the clan hurting my family as the statue had. The fault could have been how I crafted the tool, or simply in my presence as with the garden.
“Here you are teacher,” I said.
“No more Cold Cure?” he asked with a hopeful voice.
My head shook. The small stockpile of herbs had vanished, along with nearly everything else. A lack of personal belongings bothered me greatly.
I licked my lips to remove dryness then asked, “Can my artwork supplies be returned to me?”
His head shook and I deflated. My one recently discovered enjoyment had been short lived. Doctor Lumin reached out and gave my head a pat and I struggled to remain calm.
“But I will ask them again, perhaps Mistress Charity may sway your father where I cannot.”
“Is she okay?” I briefly forgot my own woes. “And Captain Nagi?”
“It has been a rough month for all of us young Fell. But they champion your cause as righteously as any parent might. They, we, do not agree with your father’s handling of this situation.”
My head lowered, and I dared not speak ill of the clan leader aloud. My father had bowed to me and asked forgiveness. Only an unfaithful son would disregard the severity of that gesture.
Yet, I feared that Mercy had been right when she called me the Asger clan’s silk bird. If nothing else, this garden certainly acted like a cage, to keep me in, or others out. Her smile upon delivering a friendly taunt lingered, as did her other features.