Short Novel: Seven Trees

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The Bucket

 

Jexx stood ankle deep in the mud and water, wearing bright yellow rubber boots. The yellow foam of the gray ocean was being pulled back out of the lagoon by the tide. Surrounding him were thousands of squirming fish, crustaceans, sea snakes and a dozen wicked black and green birds swarming down to peck at them.

When a yellow wave would flow in, the tiny sea creatures leapt towards the water, only to be stuck in the mud when the wave receded. Jexx had a bucket, and it was his job to collect as many of these poor creatures as possible, and the Warlock was always extra pleased if Jexx could catch a few of the hunting birds that got stuck in the mud. Behind Jexx, was Copper, Jexx’s Tasmanian Devil-dog. Copper was running around chasing birds, and dashing in and out of the yellow stinky water.

Jex had to grab each creature with his muddy hand and shove them into the bucket. His jobs for the Warlock were never ending, and in this land of forever midnight—or not really midnight, but more of a strange graying twilight— he never had rest. He never had the satisfaction of a job well done. He only had Copper; and he liked to watch him run around clawing and biting anything that moved. He liked to look out over the dead gray ocean, and wonder what made it move. He liked to look to the horizon and guess what fires or volcanos created the red glow that was always there, just past the rim and darkness.

The sound of all the creatures clamoring around trying to make their way back to the water was mostly a collection of clickings and pops. The claws and shells of so many desperate lobsters, crabs, popping shrimp, and water scorpions—not to mention the slapping of eels and water snakes made it look as if the ground were bubbling over with lava and boiling fumes. Every step Jexx would take with his rubber boots would pack a handful of organisms down into the mud, and Copper could take a bite randomly and end up with a half-dozen legs and tails trying to wiggle their way out of his mouth.

The repetition of his tasks was slowly grinding Jexx into dullness—when once he might have jumped around sprightly if there was a large barracuda flopping in the shallows, now he might only give it an indifferent glance, but even through the dullness, on this strange day there was something new. Out over the ocean, there was a red and orange comet racing across the darkened sky. As far as he could remember, he had never seen one of these. The sky was always the same distasteful place, filled with green thunder and colorless clouds. The air always the same nastiness.

The smell of the exposed bay made it worse. It gave you the idea of vomit, and it had the chemical aftertaste of light poison. This was the only world Jexx and Copper knew.

Jexx filled his bucket and then walked back up towards the Warlock’s tower. He could see the upper windows lit up with the magic of his master’s work, the top of the tower guarded by hawks and giant cats.

The stony trail leading towards the tower was stained from all the footprints, and dried out spots where blood and animal guts had spilled from the bucket; ten thousand such trips had left their mark. When Jexx walked, he dragged his right foot some, so this would mash the muck together and crush some of the creature pieces in new ways.

He took off his yellow boots and left them and Copper at the door.

The circular stairs leading up to the tower were made from the crooked and jagged teeth of an aging dragon—or so Jexx thought. He spilled much of the muddy bucket and the creatures crawled aimlessly off into dark corners in a useless attempt to find the ocean again, some may find a way to live on in such dark corners for ages, but most would dry up and starve, until some other thing would smell them out and eat them up.

Jexx’s job was an empty task. One that he did not enjoy in the least, and he had done countless times. In fact, he could not remember a time when it was not one of the tasks he was charged with.

He paused before the Warlock’s door.

He was questioning whether he should knock.

The sorcerer had told Jexx that his magician’s eye was always on him, so he should never try to disobey him. So Jexx was thinking. “I don’t really need to knock then do I? If his magic eye is on me. He knows I am about to open the door, so I can just open it up. What’s the point in knocking. Or maybe, if I open the door really quickly, and he is surprised and doing some sneaky black magic thing, then I know his eye is not always on me?”

And as he was thinking these things, the Warlock opened the door, and stared at him with heat in his eyes.

“You breathe so loudly. I can’t concentrate.” He said.

Jexx, paid no attention, and waddled into the room, a little more careful not to spill mud or creatures on the Warlock’s floor.  He brought them to a giant cauldron in the middle of the room, where he knew the Warlock would pour them until they will be boiled and burned and melted together.

Normally, that was the end of it, and Jexx would leave and go about the next job on his list. But something had bubbled up in Jexx’s personality. Something new.

Jexx asked, “Why do you pour all these creatures in there?”

The Sorcerer, walked slowly towards Jexx, and gently took his wrist into his hands. “I am making fear.”

It was of course, threatening and strange for ther Warlock to take Jexx’s wrists into his hands that way, but Jexx had a tendency to be oblivious to most things, and something like this was not concerning to him, so he continued with his line of thought.

“But why does fear get made from all these little creatures dying?” Jexx asked, really not knowing why these questions kept coming into his head.

The Warlock, very slightly turned his grip on Jexx to make things a little more uncomfortable. “There is no dying here.”

At this point, Jexx was starting to realize that he should keep his mouth shut, but for some reason he couldn’t. “But it sure looks like death. They get all burned and melted…” Jexx, stopped talking, by some minor magic, the Warlock’s hand was hot as fired metal, and it was burning his skin. Jexx tried to pull away, but the Warlock made sure that he understood the idea clearly: no more questions.

The Warlock released his grip, and there were no marks. Jexx’s arm was cool to the touch.

“It seems that I need to give you a tougher job tonight to clear your mind. You rotten underside of a desert rodent.” The Warlock turned and retrieved a book from his bookshelf.

He always said things like this “tonight you will do this…tomorrow you will do that.” But as far as Jexx could tell, it was always the same night, there was no tomorrow or last night or any time at all.

The Warlock took a painfully slow walk getting the right book, and finding the right page, and bringing it back to Jexx. He always took so much slow time. Usually, Jexx wouldn’t even notice these things, but today, he was quite bothered by the whole dark wizard ceremony of everything his master did.

“I need you to go past the swamp, between the mountain pass, into the dead forest of ash, find me one of these, and bring it back to me.”

Jexx leaned in and saw a picture of a Medusa Cactus. Without a word. Jexx looked at the Warlock, and headed out back down the stairs.

Outside, he saw Copper, and one of his yellow boots.

“Did you just eat one of my boots?”

Cooper wagged his hairless tail.

“The whole boot?”

Cooper turned his head sideways.

“Marvelous.”

Jexx and Copper went over to their shed, which was a dozen or so yards away from the tower, and Jexx tossed the bucket into the corner. You didn’t rinse it out; you just throw it into its corner along with the shovels, and axes, and picks and sacks, and ropes and jigsaws and clamps, and screws and nails and an old trumpet ended-single shot-hunting gun. He grabbed a small axe, and was getting ready to set off in search of the Medusa Cactus.

Before setting off, he was still mad at the Warlock, and this was a relatively new thing for him. Of course he would obey—there is no other way for him, but to obey, but he didn’t really like it anymore. He didn’t like getting his hands magically burned, and always being sent somewhere to do something, find something kill something.

So Jexx walked stealthily around the backside of the tower wondering again about the all-knowing Warlock; and defiantly, he peed on the tower wall. Large swirling motions of pee, as if he were writing words or drawing pictures. He had a big smile on his face because in this world, there is no biological necessity to pee, or eat, or drink. He did this out of choice, he did this to rebel. When he was finished, he waited a moment to hear if the warlock was tumbling down the stairs in anger, or if he had sent out his ravens to pluck him off the ground. He smiled again, and said to himself, “The Warlock doesn’t see everything.”

Jexx then had a strong desire not to follow the Warlock’s orders, so with his axe, set off into the wooded area on the backside of the tower. Copper was off somewhere on his own, sniffing things out and chasing down movements and unusual sounds.

Jexx headed towards an old tree. The thing was ancient—well respected among the trees out here—and for no particular reason, Jexx gave the thing a few strong whacks. It wasn’t enough to cut it down, or even enough to mortally wound it, but it was enough to cause it damage, pain, and leave permanent scars. From behind, Copper came scurrying up wondering what the noise was. Jexx was quickly bored, so the two of them went on, looking for something else to whack.

Copper barked, as he discovered a big yellow, slimy, poisonous bullfrog sitting on a sideways black and purple tree. At the base of the tree was a Blood Tooth Fungus. It is an ivory soft fungus with blood red droplets within it. The bullfrog didn’t bother to move away.

It knew well that it was poisonous, and that nothing would bother to eat it. What it didn’t know was that Jexx’s axe wasn’t so worried about the poison. Jexx crept up slowly and stuck his fingers into the fungus. The red droplets punctured and the thing turned into a bloody mess. Copper sniffed it out, and then took a big bite of it. The fungus itself wasn’t too bad, but the blood corpuscles were bitter, and not very tasty at all, so Copper took only—one more bite.

Jexx looked at the frog. “What If I just whacked at it, like I did the tree.” He was reasoning some with himself, looking for a justification to follow his impulse to destroy the bullfrog: out here, in this small hidden part of the world, behind the tower, where no one is looking—no one will ever know. One minute the frog is there and the next it is all squished and messy. There was no joy or fun or purpose of any kind, just a sort of nasty impulse, like an itch, and the only way to make the nasty impulse go away for certain was to go ahead and give in to it. Then at least you can be sure that the impulse is gone, and what replaces it is not so important when you are standing on the cliff of such a decision.

Jexx, put his hand more firmly on the axe.

Copper must have read his thoughts, and he charged the frog ready to bite the thing—poison or no poison—being a Tasmanian Devil Dog, he wasn’t worried about much. The Bullfrog, seeing his defense was not going to do the trick, leapt into the air, and released a well -aimed blast of poison from its butt that hit Copper right in the nose. Copper stopped in his tracks, and shook his head violently, sniffing and snorting, dragging his nose on the ground, and scratching at it with his paws like he were trying to get some prickly bush off him. The bullfrog could be seen leaping away back towards the safety of some diseased stream. Jexx laughed at the whole thing, on some level, he was relieved that he didn’t have to kill the animal, but he still had that itch, so with one clean swipe of the axe, he decimated the Blood Tooth Fungus.

His laughter stopped. He had scattered the remains widely.

From nowhere, the Warlock appeared, stern-faced, and holding a whip. He turned his head slowly with the awkwardness and strain of someone with a painful stiff neck. He squared up in front of Jexx, and leveled him with angry words: “You are the stinky collection of a thousand severed ant heads still biting in buffalo dung! You’re the wasted innards of a dead duck! You have all the backbone and intelligence of a bucket full of yellow slugs! when I ask you to do work, I expect it done immediately. Do you understand!?!”

Jexx looked meekly away.

“Do you understand!!!?”

“Yes.”

“Now. Be gone, or I shall whip your dog.”

The Warlock knew that Jexx’s skin was coarse and thick, and in general, Jexx had a high tolerance for pain; Burning his hands with magic was a uncomfortable thing, but a much better sensitive point for him was his unnatural affection for the dog.

Copper cowered a little bit, suffering still from the poison in is snout.

“Yes. We are going now. Come Copper.” Jexx set out quickly with his back to the Warlock. He could feel the cold stare on his back. Copper followed, moving as quickly as he could, but his nose felt itchy as if he had snorted a bushel of pepper, but also, at the same time, it hurt acutely; it seemed the poison had made a small cut in the delicate parts of the inside of his nose, which the pepper burned.  Copper wanted to put his whole head into a fire to fix himself, and being a Tasmanian-Devil Hound, he could have handled that fiery treatment well.

 

The Medusa Cactus

 

The road to the swamp was narrow, with trees reaching in to make a type of tree tunnel. Inside the trees were all types of night foxes, owls, and giant bats. Wherever you turn in this dark realm a new micro-environment would pop up. You only needed to head off into some direction and walk for about a half-an-hour and you will find yourself into a totally new ecosystem. Halfway to the swamp was a fork in the road that broke off towards the witch’s house.

Copper paused at the fork, and took a few curious steps in that direction, then smelled something that he didn’t like, so he stepped back playfully towards the main road, but Jexx redirected him. He wanted to see the witch up close today, so he headed in her direction.

You could see the green glow from her windows. She was the witch cursed to stay inside that house for a hundred years. Always to relive the same hour. It was a terrifying and wicked curse to be sure. She was almost always confused and distracted. Setting about doing the same tasks over and over again—never sure why—never getting anything done. Jexx felt that if he had such a curse, he would just play with Copper forever, but such is the nature of curses that it is easy to see another’s but impossible to see your own.

The house had black roof shingles stacked up into pointed cones, and a deep green paint on the wooded siding that looked sinister in the ways the boards had cracked, peeled and warped. There was a wooden deck that lined the whole front of the house, and old solitary chairs wasting away. Lanterns hung on the walls, and they were magically, perpetually lit in an orange glow. The light of the surrounding dank woods was either pre-dawn murk or after sunset gloom. The air was the usual mix of toxicity and stink, but it seemed to be even more stagnate, as if wetly coughed up by a black lung.

A little bit of curiosity, but mostly a devilishness brought him up to her house window. He turned towards Copper and held his fingers to his lips, which made Copper feel like they were hunting. The windows were covered in a thick layer of filth—if you only had one hour to relive over and over, you also, would not get around to cleaning the windows. Jexx smudged the dirt around with his sleeve until he could peer inside. She was dressed in rags, a pained look on her face. Copper, still thinking they were hunting, started off in the direction of some small critter like a vole or Komodo dragon.

Her eyes shot upwards in the direction of Copper’s steps, but only briefly. She was used to confusing distractions and then returned to her work. The clock on the wall was nearing midnight, and her work was almost done. She was putting a spell together. The last of the animal guts had been put into a very small stone pot, the last of the noxious liquids gathered from drums underneath her bed, the last of the dried bits of tree and flowers and herbs gathered from the woods nearby, the last of the powder that she had grinded from bones, stone, and petrified tree roots. There were only two things left. The sources of her personal power and witchery. Every spell must have a piece of her in it, so she removed a long obsidian blade from her apron, and made a slow painful cut along the meatiest part of her forearm, letting the blood drip into the pot. You had to give a bit of yourself into every spell. You have to sacrifice in order to subdue the subtle magic of the universe to bend to your will. Her work was the same as yogis, monks, and saints. She was conquering her mind and blending into the invisible flow of the nature around her, but unlike the others, her goals were selfish, and her means willing to manipulate and destroy others to get the magic she wanted.

The last step was to say the magic words. Her spell book lay open upon the table, and she began to chew on long and twisted words from ancient tongues and darker times. Bits and pieces of what was once whole languages only spoken by the priests and priestesses of dark rituals. As she came nearer the end, her heart began to thunder the weak ribcage and thin muscles.

This will be the spell to save me from the curse. She only had a vague idea of what the curse was, but she knew and deviously dreamed that this spell would be the one to make everything better. To clear her path from all the tragedy and pain—all the damaged trees and twisted briar tangling her up and ruining her mind. She was one spell away from evil salvation. Her fervor was all the more increased because she knew—on some level—that she had done all this before and failed. The mind is a strong and terrible thing when it is desperately doing something that it knows will only lead to failure—strange that so many continue to do these things.

And, as was the practice for many years, just as she was nearing the end, the clock struck midnight, and then, immediately, went back to eleven. The pot emptied, her arm healed, many of the ingredients appeared spread out on the table raw and untouched. Many of them went back to farther places like under her bed or out into the surrounding woods. Every time the curse turned itself over at midnight, she became more confused, less aware that something odd had happened. The first few times, she knew right away that there was something wrong about this, and her hours were productive. She wrote the spell to break the curse, gathered most of the ingredients; she was full of hope and determination, but at this point, so many revolutions down the cycle, she was left with only a brief strain to remember before she looked at the table, and began to gather the materials for the spell all over again.

Jexx wondered. What if something different happened? So he knocked on her door. Copper came rounding back in huge leaps through and over all the little shrubs and stones in is way until he was a few feet behind Jexx.

The witch opened the door wearily, one eye peering out at them with distrust and ill will. For a moment, she looked directly at them, both with dumb smiles on their faces. Then the door opened, and the witch, with her gathering basket, walked right by them and into the woods to collect the many bits and parts of plants and nature that she needed to break her curse.

Jexx wasn’t sure if she couldn’t see them at all, or that they weren’t important to her, as she just walked away as if they didn’t exist. Either way, he was a bit disappointed. Copper looked into the house, then smelled something disturbing, so he stepped back playfully towards the main road, and towards the swamp.

Jexx, shrugged his shoulders and headed back towards the main road to follow Copper. All these little events never stayed long in Jexx’s mind. Bringing the bucket up to the Warlock, getting his wrist burned, peeing on the wall, the witch—all these things are like images that surface for a moment or so in your dreams, they seem important when you’re stuck in them, but as soon as they pass, you are on to the next illusion.

Up ahead on the road was a dark figure walking toward them. Copper was always the guide here for these things. Jexx, was clueless. Copper trotted up with relaxed gait and easy tail, tongue wagging loosely.

It was a troll cleric in a dark hood. He had large, green, oversized features. Trolls in general look ugly, strong, and mean, but not necessarily dangerous, and the fact that Copper had already passed him to explore further up on the road was a good indicator that there was nothing to be afraid of here. Jexx thought it a good idea to chat with the stranger.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“What are you doing?” Jexx asked.

“I am bringing soup to the witch. I do it every week.”

“Why?”

Kind eyes strangely out of place on the troll’s ugliness. “Because she suffers.” The troll held the soup out in front of Jexx’s nose. “Would you like to smell it?”

Jexx really didn’t want to smell it, but he did. He got very close to the large stone bowl and took a look inside. It was green, gluey and smelled like the good parts of the forest. “Animal or Vegetable?” He asked the troll.

“Mostly vegetable.” He smiled.

“It looks good.”

“Thank you. And what are you doing out here with your dog?”

“I’m going to get a Medusa Cactus for the Warlock.”

The troll smiled at Jexx, and said in a comforting tone, “It is good work that takes one far on foot.”

Jexx really didnl;t understand, but felt like saying something that sounded very similar, so he said in return, “It is good work to bring soup to witches.”

The troll, bowed slightly, “Yes. It is.” And he continued on his journey.

The interesting thing about thoughts is that you can think them and not even know that you are doing it. For example, right in this moment, Jexx, was thinking something like this: he was wondering whether the troll cleric was also cursed—maybe he brings the witch the same soup every day, and she throws it on the ground, or ignores it, or he drops it every time they meet—or maybe he is not cursed, and this whole thing for him is a good thing. Maybe he is a benevolent one, who chooses to be here, trying to do good works in hell. This thinking just popped into his head all at once, without words, just a bubble rising up above his head, sitting there for a second, and then bursting.

 

 

In the swamp there were pools of quicksand made by the decaying oils of ancient trees, there were pythons, and large black crocodiles the size of canoes. This was the dangerous path through the swamp, which Copper and Jexx enjoyed.

The ground was uneven, filled with large stones, and red clay. The occasional tree root running across. The surrounding swamp came in close to the path, so that the buzzing of insects, and the splashing swimming of strange creatures seemed right on top of them. Here is where the air got its thickest and hottest. Steam boiled up from the bog, and breathing became more difficult. A black cloud hung in the sky and it made the trees look a darker gray, engraved with the grimaces of goblins and gargoyles.

Even Copper would not stray from the path. A hot wind came from nowhere, and it whistled in the branches and down the corridors, between the large rocks that were randomly dropped every few hundred yards. Up above, he could see black birds playing sideways in the wind.

Jexx had a talent that most of the other inhabitants of this world did not. He could enjoy—especially when allowed to roam away from the grounds of the Warlock. This small journey to go get the Medusa Cactus, was the perfect kind of thing for him. He could get lost in the moment and all of what he saw before him. It was a nice break from the monotony of scrubbing the bottom of boats to clean them of algae and dead mollusks, of digging in the mud to find worms and centipedes, or of circling the property to check all the rat traps. Here he could feel the hot wind, and scan the dense growth around the path for danger. He could listen to the splashes and feel the solid steps under his feet, and every now and then, there was a thing he liked most. He would tell Copper to halt for a moment when he found it, and he would pause, putting all his energy into the listening of it. It was those rare moments of complete silence.

Silence has a clear, purifying effect, and so, in this graveyard misery world, it was almost never allowed. Things were always busy and bumping around. The mind always working for some selfish aim like a broken carnival machine.

He found one such moment, and squatted down, like he were hunting a rare animal, and had just caught sight of it ahead. There was still a whisper of a wind, which made the silence even more of a treat. Cooper walked very slowly forward, sniffing something odd in the marshy waters alongside the path.

Jexx was lost in the silence, and then collected the little sounds that entered in. at first, Copper’s footsteps and sniffing; then, a few bugs started in, soon the wind pushed the trees around, a large splash, and the normal humming of the swamp resumed.

The odd thing that Copper had discovered was an artwork.

Floating in the swamp was an ornately carved piece of fallen wood. Carved like a totem, in the shape of a crocodile. Its eyes were closed, as if asleep or dead, and it had decorative patterns engraved along its whole body. It seemed a very lifelike representation.

Jexx went very close to it. He knew that wizards and witches would sometimes cast spells turning the living things they encountered into stone; perhaps this had happened here, and a crocodile was turned into wood. He reached down to touch it.

The crocodile’s eyes opened; it was not a carved piece of wood, but alive. It bit hard on Jexx’s arm, and locked him in. Jexx, instinctively dug his feet in, as the crocodile attempted to pull him into the black waters of death.

“Corpuscles, Maggots, and Gizzard Stones!!!” Jexx swore and spat.

For a moment or two the tug of war was a stalemate, for Jexx was stout. Copper barked and ran in small tight half-circles of alarm, as the crocodile began to win; small thrashes loosened Jexx’s foothold, and he was pulled closer to the water.

Copper dove in, completely submerged. What Jexx couldn’t see, was that Copper was targeting the crocodile underbelly until Copper landed a strong bite. He bit and held. The crocodile released Jexx, and then twisted his body violently to bring his jaws onto Copper. The turbulent black waters showed no sign, of who was winning this fight.

Jexx, could only stand there helpless. A few panicked thoughts came to his mind. He could grab a stick and try to whack the crocodile. He could dive in himself and wrestle the beast. He could do something? The longer the fight was under water, the better the advantage for the croc.

After, what seemed like an hour, the turbulence stopped, and Copper emerged for a breath, and stepped his way out of the muck. This kind of adventure was what Copper was made for. So, he had a refreshed and happy look, not too different from a bird dog trotting out of a lake with a duck in its mouth.

They got back on the trail, and Jexx looked at his arm. Since he was dead, and in hell, and a demon, he was virtually indestructible. He could feel pain, he could wound, but his constitution was made of concrete. It would take magic to break him apart, and the bite of this crocodile, though painful and ugly, didn’t do much to him.

Copper and Jexx brushed the whole thing off as just another bit of pain and ugliness, and they kept on moving down the path wondering what would be the next trouble to cross them.

He started to recognize a few trees and stones, and knew it was a sign that he was coming to the peaceful place. His own secret sanctuary.

A few thousand more steps straight along the path, and they came to Jexx’s favorite place.

A small cave in the side of the mountain pass. Inside was a clear cool pool of water that had slowly dripped through the mountain. The ceiling was filled with crystal stalactites, and the whole roof of the cave was speckled with glow worms. The stillness of the pool of water below reflected each glow worm, and it created a universe of stars above and below.

Jexx had never seen the real sky. He had never seen a clear sky, jet back with stars.

Copper sat still at his side, and the two of them looked into the pool, and felt a cool clean energy. A light wind moved somewhere in the cave, and it sounded a bit like music. In this place, Jexx, was able to notice his thoughts, and feel a discomfort in who he was, and all the never-ending jobs that the Warlock brought to him. And one by one, all these thoughts dropped from his head, and fell into this pool of water. Breathing seemed to change from this rough uneven thing that he did when he was walking up stairs, or pushing around wheelbarrows, (filled with poisonous herbs and scorpions), and it became something refreshing, slowly turning to steady waves rolling into the shore. This was the only place, that Jex xwas sure the Warlock’s eye could never find him.

He could feel his feet underneath him as he knelt at the water’s edge.

He stayed for a long time, like some hot and thirsty animal, leaving only after he felt refreshed and invigorated.

The road took him through rocky passes and dirt roads made by the movements of waters that have long since died and gone away. After a tight turn between two sheer rocks, the pathway opened up to a wide valley of forested land. The majority of the trees were dead looking, and sparsely placed.

In the forest, it was predictably dead and boring. The burned out skeleton trees peppered the ash landscape, and rolling hills spread out in all directions. The symmetry of everything made the valley seem vast, dry, and lifeless. In places there where red sand mounds with small and brittle bushes. In some areas, but also very symmetrically placed throughout the landscape, were giant Dragon Blood Trees that sat like huge umbrellas, should a giant have a need to take a nap in the shade.

Copper sniffed the air, and he was sure that there were ghosts wandering around. Ghosts have a sweet smell to Copper, cooked sugar, and they leave a slight residue on anything that they pass through, and if they should pass through a person or a Tasmanian Hell-Hound, you don’t really notice the sweet smell, you are overcome with a coldness, and absorbed into the feeling and emotion that dominates that particular ghost.

Ghosts are driven by some need or desire. Something that dominated their lives so much, that when passing, they have clung to those needs—ever searching, ever wanting, always hungry, never finding. This dry, lonely, dead looking forest was the perfect place for them to wander, without brains, without bodies, without speech—seemingly more a function of the atmosphere like the wind, mist, or fog, and to Copper, nothing very exciting to play with and completely un-bite-able.

“How can I find a Medusa Cactus here?” Jexx said to Copper.

The ground crunched when you walked on it, and he looked down watching his steps listening to the crunching steps. He could hear the lighter crunches of Copper circling around trees looking for something stinky and interesting, something better than ghosts.

The two wandered along in this moonscape for a while. Jexx had half forgotten to look for the Medusa Cactus. Mostly he was imagining that he was a thousand feet tall, and each step was crushing and crunching the rocks below him, and Copper was a monster pursuing evil sorcerers, dark wizards, and the devil himself.

This daydream carried them far into the ash forest, and the sky went from the colorless amoeba type clouds to stormier ones, and a hotter wind blew the heavy air around, which Copper liked because new scents travelled to him.

After a bit of lazy walking around, Jexx stumbled upon a Medusa Cactus. It had a typical cactus look in some ways. It was a green tall column. Its spines where thin, wispy, and white like the fuzzy hair of a gosling. You expected to touch it and feel softness, but the little spines would stick and cling to your skin. The only odd characteristic was the bright red parts growing sideways out from it like laser beams.

He axed up a good third of the plant and stuck much of it into his pocket.

 

 

 

Lilith

He turned Copper back around and headed back towards the Warlock’s tower, but it was a long way, so there was a high chance that he might get sidetracked by something or the other.

Jexx thought about the Warlock again. There are only a few moments where he feels mostly free. One is when he has just been given a job, and the other is when he has just completed it. In both situations, the Warlock doesn’t really know how long it will take him to complete his job, so he can dally at the beginning and get lost, and right when he has finished it, he can dally a bit more. He could always make the excuse that things took longer than he thought.

This was the great advantage of being thought of as a bumbling incompetent fool. Jexx knew that all he had to do was tell the Warlock: “I got lost. I went left when I should have gone right.” And there would be punishment, but only the regular kind of punishment that he was likely to get anyway—even if he did everything right, the Warlock tended to get angry about something and punish him without warning and without cause.

So he started to walk intentionally in the wrong direction back. The way home held little novelty. All he would be doing there would be to give the Warlock the Medusa Cactus, and the Warlock would give him some new jobs to do; a new direction, was something unknown. Copper was pulling hard towards the left, so it was only with a moment’s hesitation before they headed off in that direction.

Jexx didn’t realize this, but it was the first time that he decided to intentionally follow his own goal. It was not much of a goal. It was not that he had a master plan to accomplish something amazing—all he was doing was setting off in the direction of becoming lost, with no other reason behind it than knowing that not being lost was worse. His heavy knees and boots, and thickness in all of his movements lightened some.

And in every world—even in dreams—if you keep moving in some directions, you will soon discover that there are pathways there; that many others have set off in this direction before you; they have cut easy ground for you to follow, and all that you freshly discover is old to them. Jexx and Copper followed this new pathway, and it wasn’t long before the entire environment began to change.

The forest became alive again, and the trees were wicked; the bramble thick. The land became a darker kind of twilight, and coldness chilled the air. They soldiered on, and at times, it became too dark to see, and in those dark turns in the road, eyes began to light up in the surrounding woods. Probably owls, or giant mockingbirds, but here, you never could tell; maybe it was a tiger, or jackal, or a wolverine.

Just as Jexx was trying to imagine what the eyes were. Copper was doing the same but with his nose; To Copper, the new animals were pies, coffees, cakes, and cinnamon sticks all coming to you quickly when you leave the winter street to walk inside a sweet shop. An experience that Copper had never had, but still had some community with it.

Copper really had a wonderful bravery about him. He would dive into a dragon’s mouth to have at its tongue if the need arose. His loyalty to Jexx was not common in this world—karmic ties are usually left on earth. Niether Jexx nor Copper knew anything of the attraction each had to the other, and in these circumstances, there can be nothing gained from understanding. When a bond is good and strong, it is better to leave the thing alone.

 

 

—a loud raging noise came from behind them, and a horse-drawn carriage barreled down the road right at them. They moved quickly to the side to avoid being trampled by two Friesian Stallions pulling the carriage.

The carriage had glowing lanterns rattling wildly on the sides. There was no driver, and it seemed that the wheels might snap off the axles at any moment. Hanging from the windows were two ghouls gripping the sides and sticking their heads out, thoroughly enjoying the speed and chaos of the trip. The one closest to Jexx and Copper, was a dead green color, dressed in a tattered beat up suit, with Victorian collar. His face had all the markings of being dead—scarred, dead and dried skin—but the thrill and energy in his eyes showed that he was very much alive.

On the other side was a ghoul girl, whooping and calling into the darkness and to the moment itself. Jexx could not see her too well, only he could tell she was wearing an ivory dress, and her hair blew to the side in tangled mats and dreads.

Inside the carriage, there was the Ghoul Princess. She was wearing a red wrapped dress with gold floral symbols. Her skin a dramatic blue, and a beauty and fierceness that made the others look dull. She had a petulant expression, as if permanently dissatisfied, and she had not two arms but four. Three of them crossed across her chest, and the fourth supporting her slumped chin.

Even in her stillness she seemed to have the power of the stallions. On her head was a thin gold crown, with a blue sapphire.

All this entered Jexx’s mind in a snapshot as he dashed sideways to avoid being crushed. To Copper, it was less distinct, more of a blur and a lot of noise, something to investigate after it had passed as he pieced together a number of disparate smells.

Written on the back of the carriage were words written in Old French.

“Death to us all.”

Jexx and Copper plodded on following the tracks. The sky in this part of the world was much darker than Jexx had seen before. His reality was always that same colorless gray and green, with a pulsing as if it were breathing, but here it was darker, like the place had a true nighttime. The sky was a deep purple, and there was a cold wind.

After some time, they came to a gate that marked the entrance to a small town. They could see a number of buildings lining a main street. The buildings were wooden, ornate, and painted in dark two-toned patterns of Black on Gray, Blue on Indigo, and Emerald on Forest. There were street lights and lanterns all with an electric brilliant green glow.

The sign announced: “Welcome to Ghoul City”.

They pushed through the gate, and there was the keeper of the watch.

“Hold” he was in tattered dark clothes, like someone had left him outside for years.  Across his lap was an old silver pistol, and in his hand was a giant mug of some toxic liquid.

“Hold and reveal yourself to me, Ghoul.”

Jexx and Copper walked closer to him, and they could see that he had the tell-tale signs of being ghoulish. He had a face that looked like it had been unearthed; greenish in places, ghostly white in others; greedy eyes, twitchy fingers; had he just spent his time digging through cemeteries stealing gold coins—luring careless travelers into some darken corner where he could eat them?

“You are a strange looking little ghoul!” He announced, and then he took a reckless swig from his mug. Then spit it out. The stuff had disagreed with him again. “At first, it tastes like a poison to the lips; but then—“ and he had a wide greedy grin”—but then, after the burning in the throat, it finally comes to you—It revelas itself to you—that this drink tastes like poison all the time, dirty rotten stuff.” And he laughed miserably. “And you cannot enter Ghoul City!” he said forcefully, picking up his revolver with his left hand, pointing it aimlessly towards Jexx and Copper, firing two shots well over their heads, and then falling backwards off his stool—almost as soon as he hit the ground, he began to snore.

Sometime after Jexx and Copper had left, he would awaken again, and sit back on his stool and begin again to drink and stare off into the road awaiting visitors to shoot at, for not quite eternity, but long enough that that word is a good enough label.

Jexx and Copper stood outside an old saloon. The dark carriage that had carried the blue ghoul with four arms was parked outside. Inside was a wild ruckus that shook the walls, and spilled out onto the street as ghouls of different types came out to catch their breath before diving back in again.

A while ago, the Ghoul Princess had made her entrance.

All four arms swinging naturally by her side, her entourage going before her, pushing open those little tiny half doors that mark the entrance of old cowboy saloons, yelling to the crowd inside “Murder, Menace, and Mayhem have arrived!!”, and there was a good deal of increase to the already loud screams and chaos inside.

The Ghouls inside seemed to come from a wide range of time periods—their clothes appearing Gothic, Victorian, Elizabethan, Arthurian, Roman. The energy was loose and reckless; in every corner there was a game, a fight, a tease, a theft, a story being retold to hoots and hollers, monies won and lost in games of chance, music being played on top of each other; and always the light threat of a riot or a murder. The bartender kept back customers with a dagger, and money was used, or not used. Drinks were lit on fire, some thrown into the air, some slammed against walls, but the sea of weirdness parted cleanly when the princess walked into the room, there was a special table in the back and there she sat, bored.

Repetition is the key element of most hells. The Princess had made that carriage ride to this particular saloon many times before, but still, despite the regal boredom and aloofness, she expected to see something new, something different, she expected the opposite side of the coin to be other than tails, but knowing this was unlikely to happen, she was depressed.

There was a time, when she was living, long ago, when coming to a saloon like this was a bold act of rebellion—leaving the stale palace to revel with the common was a piece of virtue. To throw herself wildly into the city nights was a brave acceptance of the great equalizer that removes all false decorations of title. All are equal here who celebrate death, and in this celebration this thin wire of life is shot with an electric bolt that makes all regular people seem dead in comparison. But it is repetition that turns this revelation and moment of discovery and breakthrough into routine, and the wire is not meant to sustain such continuous electricity.

It was the fever that eventually did her in—a fever caught from cold midnight carriage rides to city saloons; where she howled at her own mortality. Surrounded by loved ones, for she was loved, high in a castle, for she was a princess; and all manner of medicine and the witchcraft of the day working so hard to stop the inevitable: leeches, hot oils, cups, boiled roots and herbs.

It was the witch who stood over her in her last moments, not the king, not the queen. All the cures and medicine had failed, but the witch still kept her hands busy, so as to give the family some form of not exactly hope, but at least a small comfort that things were being done, and as the princess began to fade, the witch whispered to her the key to her personal trajectory, “You will be banished to the shadow land until only love frees you.”

And as the princess fell into the disorienting darkness of death, as her soul stumbled backwards down the stairwell, grasping for some hold to keep her conscious, she misheard the words to mean “until only true love frees you.” And the princess, with her last bits of energy scoffed at the idea in disgust, then she slipped away leaving the king and royal court drowned.

And now that she existed as a ghoul, she forgot her whole story, and she looked at the debauchery and superficial macabre play in front of her; So what’s next? When one feels the strong need for something next, but has no idea what that next could be or how to go get it, then it is depression, and all four arms folded across your chest, holding yourself together.

Jexsx walked right into the saloon with Copper at his side. It was hardly unusual. In this madness everyone was aware of all the idiosyncrasies, but no one cared. No one moved outside the selfishness of the micro-moments of their party. It was a sea of people, a forest to Jexx, and he only knew one way through things, so he put his head down, and shoulders square and moved into the mess.

Jexx had stumbled into someone, and because he was not a ghoul, and because he didn’t know the game well, he fought back a little too hard when he was pushed. Before Jexx realized what had happened, he was in the middle of a fight with different people swinging and dropping fists on top of his head, and angry faces spitting and cursing him.

Demons are made of heavy stuff and he charged on of the ghouls with his horned head down and hit him right in the crotch.

Even though he was a ghoul, he had all his working parts, and these were just as delicate as any other man’s, so the ghoul fell back into the crowd in angry, helpless, pain. This pushed one into another, and a general mood of fighting began to take over the crowd. From one corner, a large ghoul removed his shirt, screamed a barbarian’s fight call, grabbed a chair and started to whack anyone within range. This created a very unstable situation. There were multiple threats to everyone inside the saloon, and the uncertainty of the threats quickly turned to riot.

Guns were brought out and fired, daggers, clubs, and stools were bashed in all directions. Waves of people were knocked down, and in the middle of the whole thing were Jexx and Copper. Both well suited for such a brawl; strong, stout, low centers of gravity, and with absolutely nothing left to lose.

They participated fully.

In some corners, there were private murders; the bartender completely abandoned post, and there was a mad rush to the cashier and bottles. Some spilled outside, some ran upstairs. The great Friesen Horses neighed if anyone came close.

But around the princess, there was still a protective bubble. No daggers seemed able to fly in her direction, no marauders dared enter her space, and despite it all, she was bored. The only fact that caught her attention was that Jexx and Copper were not ghouls.

It was only a matter of time before the place caught on fire.

For a few moments, this added to the insanity of the brawl, with new more dangerous weapons and flaming bottles of liquor that bombarded the unlucky.

The doors of the Saloon seemed a vacuum and in little time, the tangled noise was pulled out into the dark street. The energy and the fighting quickly dissipated as many small groups scattered in different directions of the night—some laughing, some cursing, some with grave wounds that would send them limping off to lie under a tree.

The Princess grabbed a parasol as she left the saloon, and went for a midnight stroll through the streets. Here imagination was remembering such walks when they were pleasant; and her gait mirrored the old ways she used to walk, with the head at a tilt, and dreams in her eyes. The darker and lonelier the street, the better she felt, and soon her steps were the only sounds.

It was a thieves’ night, with a small fog shyly peeking around corners, and cats and rats going about their nocturnal existence with mystery, solitude and purpose.

The princess stopped and listened to the quiet in the darkest and loneliest of corners in the city. This pause was also a routine of hers. She closed the parasol and lowered it to her side.

A robber pounced in front of her, with knife already dripping with blood from some earlier crime. He had the excited look of the predator having tracked its prey to a poor position. His ragged breathing and dirty look was contrasted by the princess’ poise and steadiness.

“Give me the sapphire you blue beast!” He almost bit each word.

The princess was not amused. In many things, she was a great fearless woman, and this was one of those things.

The ghoul knew by her look that he would have to cut her first and steal second, but he hesitated; her confidence alone seemed to thwart his efforts to find a good striking point.

A few dozen yards behind them, peaking through an old window, were Jexx and Copper; they had followed the princesses’ scent, and they crouched low to read the scene. Copper wanted to go to protect her. He had the hero instinct in him that wasn’t always found in in the shadow lands, but Jexx stayed him. Copper didn’t understand why , but Jexx did not want help; both were falling back onto instincts, so they watched.

“I’ll cut you. I’ll take you.” And the ghoul made a slashing movement with his hand.

“It will be the last thing you do.” The princess said with believability.

The fight was over quickly.

The ghoul made a forward thrust with the blade, and the princess opened her parasol to create a shield. The ghoul’s blade went through the parasol, but stopped short of her, and she easily turned slightly to avoid it. His hand was stuck in the parasol, and before he could pull it out again, with her second hand, she sent a sharp chop on his wrist freeing the knife, with her third hand, she caught the weapon before it hit the ground. She stepped towards her attacker and with her fourth hand sent a strong blow back upon his forehead—the effect of the strike was greater because he was also pulling back to free his hand from the parasol.

In a quick whirlwind motion, she was now behind him; three of her arms locking his shoulder and bending his head sideways, and one holding the knife to his throat.

Copper barked.

Murder would be too kind to him. Though she did consider it, and she was not above it; perhaps he needs to feel what his victims feel? She had some belief that revenge wasn’t so mathematical.

“I will tell you something now. I would tell you to go home, but I know that an eel like you has no home. So I will tell you this, go back to your rotten hole that might as well be the cold blackness of the bottom of the sea; until you hunger again to sink your crooked teeth into cold fish. And know that the only result from your wickedness is to eventually be devoured by a crueler creature.”

And she released him with an aggressive shove that sent him to his knees. He looked back at her with disgust and ghoulish rage. He would bite her. He would wait until she made another walk into the alley ways and that time he wouldn’t bother with the robbery; he’ll just destroy her from behind. But stronger than his anger was his fear of his own knife, and the destructive power of this blue princess with four arms. Still on his knees he scurried away still happy to have his tail.

The princess turned towards the area where Copper had barked, dropped the knife, picked up the damaged parasol, and headed to investigate. When she turned the corner, she found Copper thumping his butt on the ground to greet her, and Jexx, somewhat bashful.

“You see a princess in distress and you hide in the shadows.”

“I..I thought.” Jexx had no answer. It was sometimes just his habit to do nothing in these kinds of situations, and it wasn’t anything he could understand clearly.

“You are a charming little demon.” She said changing her tone.

Again, Jexx had nothing to say.

“You are different from the rest of us.” She continued, “You don’t celebrate death do you?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I don’t, I don’t celebrate anything. I do my work.”

She laughed. Seeing how opposite they were.

“There is no work here, so you must do something other than work?”

“I…I get lost sometimes.”

“I wish I could get lost sometimes.”

“I’m confused,” Jexx said, “How do you celebrate death if you are already dead?”

“The same way you celebrate life when you are alive, but it can get boring after a while, having the means to do what you want can be an odd prison; you begin to look around at the boundary-less world and think, is this all there is.”

Both Jexx looked at her with confused but enamored empty stares.

“And then a little demon and his dog come walking in to show you that there are things different—even in this dungeon land.”

Abruptly, from around the corner, came the same ghoul who had been hanging outside of the carriage.

“Lilith, come cousin, it is time to leave.” He didn’t take much notice of Jexx, Copper, or the bloody knife still in Lilith’s hand. He, aristocratically, took her by the arm, and led her away.

She looked back, as she walked away with her cousin, and said to Jexx “Some things cannot change.”, and then she disappeared into the streets. She returned to her carriage, and her Friesian Stallions, and took her place inside; he cousins resumed their game of hollering at the wind, darkness, and evil atmosphere of this place. She was going to return to her palace, where the princess sits, confined to the dead luxuries of a ghoul’s chambers, choking herself on idle hours, purposeless. But as she rode over the familiar bumps and turns of the dirt road, there was a new idea: “and then a little demon and his dog come walking in to show you that there are things different-even in this dungeon land.” And her four arms moved, more lively than before, her eyes picked up new life, as even the slightest of new ideas took their first awkward steps.

Hell thrives on mindless, compulsive, desirous, fearful routines, and the key to freedom begins with this seed: there may be something new here.

Jexx, and Copper too, missed the four armed, blue princess; as far as something new goes, she was a tornado. But such is the heaviness of Jexx’s mind that thoughts of her quickly faded—and such is the strength of Copper’s nose, that he too quickly began to follow new smells.

The ghouls had long left the city—all returning to some solitary retreat to spend their time painfully, until the midnight hour called them back to the city. It was the animals’ time now. Jexx and Copper walked somewhat aimlessly down the empty streets. Copper, alert, and aware of so much more than Jexx. Copper could stop and smell out the whole of the scene of the crime. Sharper than a detective, he could determine wear the white owl swooped down to snatch the rat, upon what eve the owl perched to tear the thing to pieces, and the exact point the bird dropped the skeleton and useless bits in the air; and Copper would find the remnants, and chomp them down with his Tasmanian stomach.

In another corner, he would smell how a black fox had cornered a pair of raccoons, and three had engaged in a bout of hissing, small bites, and scratches, until at last the fox decided this fight wasn’t worth it, and returned to the surrounding forest, hungry and cold.

All this and more Copper explored, and Jexx more or less had the same repeating thought, “This is a street. This is another street. All these streets are the same.”

The two of them sat in the shadows under a broken street lantern, in one of the wider boulevards. Behind them was an old book store, inside the window, sitting on an oversized pillow was a huge oversized cat. Its eyes were yellow—not so different from Copper, and it had long flowing burgundy fur that hung loose from its chin like a beard. In some places there were marbled purple stripes and patterns. It raised its sleepy head to look at the two strangers, then lazily dozed one eye. Behind him were a number of books in old leather bindings, most adorned with gold leaf and thin stips of platinum. The books were of the occult, esoteric, and mysterious nature. Towards the back of the store, was a spiraling staircase that led to a small attic—where the dangerous books were kept.

This was the kind of store that existed for reasons other than business. This was a store that would remain empty for days, until the right customer came in; the bell would ring; the cat would run under the feet of the customer; and the owner would say “coming…”; and the purchase would seem more like a predestined meeting than a business transaction.

To Copper, it was quite obvious that the cat was the owner; that at night he became a cat to stand watch and slumber, but during the day, he would become a ghoul, and watch over the hundreds of books that no one ever came to see; waking early, repairing the bindings, and reading them, alone, over and over again.

Jexx paid little attention, he was just sitting. This place was so different from the noxious shores where he worked with the Warlock. It was a vacation of sorts for him to wander off.

It was still a theives’ midnight, and Copper stood rigid and pointed in the direction towards an old church straight ahead of them. Jexx froze. This wasn’t a “Hey, I just smelled a rotting rabbit over there!” This was more like, “Hey, over there is a live dragon or something.”

They saw an unusual figure at the gates of the church: a tall hooded figure was bent down by the front door, picking the lock.

He made short work of it, and moved the massive iron doors, which had many sculpted twisted figures trying to escape the entrance to hell. The thief entered the church, and for one full minute, Jexx and Copper stayed still. The studied the outside of the building. From within, a candle was lit, and you could see the dim light coming through the stained glass of the high windows above the street. Each window depicted a different scene of torture and violence. This church stored the evil deeds done its name.

The cat stood and shifted its position, so his head was looking back towards the store.

Jexx and Copper made their way to the church doors, and peered in. Several candles along the side of the altar were lit, but there was no sign of the thief. Jexx and Copper entered and stood in the back near the unholy water. The inside of the church was black and gray stone, striped and decaying. The pews rotting mahogany, the smell of death. The altar, a gorgeous byzantine mosaic, showing the world itself and an underground river beneath the roots of mighty trees—and next to the river were fires, and lava and monsters and skeletons.

Jexx made a movement of the hands that indicated prayer, but it was an empty gesture from hidden memories. Copper started to sniff aggressively and pull towards the darker side of the church, but Jexx held him firmly to his side.

Then the gentle steps of some creature could be heard on the stone floor.

From behind, it looked like a large deer, with wide antlers. It stepped cautiously, as if it were tiptoeing through a church ceremony and didn’t want to displace any of the sacred words. It paused to look over the altar, checking to see if there was any holy spirit to be sensed; and then, with an even grace, walked on out of the side door.

The thief had also been looking at the animal; it was a demon elk. A majestic elk with a reptile’s face. The chest emblazoned with a scarlet cross. The thief wondered how such wild things live here. What is the purpose of these evil wild creatures? Why the need for noble creatures in the shadow world?

 

Jexx sat in the pews thinking of similar things. Jexx was wondering what was the purpose of this church? Who goes here? Why was it all rotten and broken down in a lonely stretch of street. Did the Ghouls go here, or just these weird deer. And Copper was thinking of less important things—about chewing on the roots of a dead tree.

In this thieves’ midnight, the thief was ready to do more than pick the lock and come inside to pray.

The two of them crouched down low behind the pews. The thief emerged quickly into the church. In large strides, he climbed acrobatically to the sepulcher, removing something from inside. With two quick sideways jumps, he landed down in front of the altar to examine his prize.

He laid it out on a piece of protective cloth. It was a small white box. It glowed with the iridescences of opal or mother of pearl inlay. The thief touched the box with his bare hand recoiled sharply—there was a hissing sound and the box burned the thief’s flesh. For a moment, the thief looked at the box, uncertain what to do next. Then a noise, or a smell, or some other thieves’ sense startled him, and he wrapped the box back up in the cloth, and exited the church following the same path as the deer.

Copper led the pursuit.

The thief was impressively fast, gliding through the forest darkness with ease. It was not hard to put distance between Copper and Jexx for both had short and stumpy legs; and the drive of pursuit is always less than that of the pursued. Jexx really loved these kinds of little adventures. The kind that might lead to a volcano or other evil. The kind the sorcerer never let him have, so he snuck along a row of tree stumps, and followed Copper’s lead.

Low hanging branches slapped Jexx in the face; his ankle twisted when stepping into holes; and his arms swung sluggishly by his sides; Copper trudged ahead with energy plowing, through the little shrubs and rotting logs in is way.

Jexx stumbled into Copper as he had paused before a meadow.

The thief was again laying the box down in the meadow, and Jexx and Copper had a  better opportunity to observe him. An honest thief in this world was a rare thing, and both Jex and Copper wagged their tails.

He had a gold cloak that made it hard to see who he was. It was similar to a dark wizard’s robes, but he wasn’t a wizard or a witch, and if he was a demon, he was a new kind. The thief pulled back the hood, and it was a she-thief.

The hardest thing for Jexx to understand was the brilliance of the colors. It was as if the whole rest of land and sky was dull, dark, a hundred-year-old yellowed book, and this was a shiny thing in a shallow brown stream; his mind struggled to make a connection.

Her face was broad and strong like a badger. Her skin was pale green as if it were made of unworked jade. Her eyes dark and painted; the darkness spilled over onto her cheekbones, and ran down the sides of her face. From this distance, it seemed that she had a third ruby red eye in the center of her forehead, and more than anything, there was a feeling of confidence. You knew you weren’t looking at a human, or a wizard, or demon, but something stronger in nature—maybe a river, or a mountain, or a sacred tree.

But despite the confidence, and the other-worldly nobility of her presence, she still had the careful and light steps of someone who had just stolen something. Jexx knew these movements well, because it was the same quickness he used when he would sneak up into the Warlock’s cupboards to steal some stinky treats for Copper.

She was puzzling over the box again. The thing didn’t seem to have an opening, and when she touched it, she got a nasty sting. She looked up to the sky, and just barely visible, were several ghosts. She thought them to be the normal decorations of these lands, and did not ponder them much, but she was unaware, they had been drawn to her, attracted to her; they were pulled to her like a magnet. She was the water to their thirst.

The box was unenterable to either her thoughts or hand. She looked out into the surrounding woods, and then turned quickly, and stared directly at Jexx.

Even though she was the thief, Jexx felt like he was the one in trouble, and he looked back at her with his shoulders down. Copper, on the other hand trotted into the meadow and waddled over to her wagging his tail. She reached down, and said some quiet words to him.

“If she liked Copper, then everything would be OK.” Jexx thought, so he walked down to where she was.

She stretched out her arm, and her cloak stiffened, and it looked more like the protective wing of some giant bird.

“What is your purpose?” She said threateningly.

Jex, jumped back a bit, and didn’t really know what to say.  “My purpose is the same as Copper there.” He pointed to the Tasmanian Devil-Dog sniffing at her bare feet.

“What are you?” She asked.

“I’m Jexx.” He said dumbly. “What are you?”

“I am a Daikini. And what type of creature is a Jex?” She asked.

“I don’t know what type I am, but I am not a dog, and I am not a Warlock or Wizard. I do jobs. Jobs like that I collects little sea animals, puts them in a bucket, and bring them to a big cauldron to be boiled; the kind that has to climb up to the top of the Sorcerer’s tower and clean all the Raven poop. The kind that searched for Medusa Cactus for no good reason at all.” Jexx was pretty satisfied with that answer. It didn’t explain what creature he was—he had never really thought about that—but it seemed to sum up the things he did all the time, and maybe that was good enough to define what he was.

She looked at him carefully. She was figuring him out with her three main senses—thought, observation, wisdom. She was reasoning through what he had said, and at the same time, observing him:  square three-toed feet, purple and red skin, and the two small horns at the top of his head, yellow glowing eyes, and a deep scar across his face. And most powerfully, she was absorbing his energy. It is the energy that a person projects that truly reveals what kind of creature they are. What a person says, how they look, or smell, even what choices they make are only echoes of the soul. But the energy that exudes from them is the best clue.

“You are a shadow person.” She said, with only a trace of sympathy. “You can come closer, I won’t fight you.”

Jexx trotted in towards her, a little wary of the ghosts above.

“They are harmless.” She noticed his hesitation. “They are less lucky than you. You still have choice, and a body, and a world to explore. They have lost all of this, and they are never sure what is real or unreal—even themselves.”

Jexx looked at them. For the first time he wondered about them. He had seen them from time to time wandering and floating above the marsh, occasionally illuminated by the bubbles of lightning that would float up out of the marsh and then ignite in electrical fire. He had never considered them before—to him they were just another part of the scenery; he was just as uninterested in wondering how a tree worked, or dirt and dust.

“You stole that box from that old church.”

“I did.”

“You can’t open it.”

“I can’t”

“How come it burns you up like that?”

“I’m not from here. The box has a kind of safety spell on it.”

“Where are you from?”

Copper had already lost interest and was out and about digging up the bulbs of truffles and unearthing worms.

“Are you from a castle, a prison, a dungeon?” Jexx continued, but she ignored him still looking at the box, thinking.

“Maybe you can help me?”

“Maybe” Jexx offered hesitating.

“Come here and try to open it.”

“What if it burns me?”

“It only burns for a second, and you have thick demon skin. Try.”

“It’s gonna burn me. These things always go bad for me.”

“Think of it as a fire. You can put your hand in a fire for just a second, and you will not be burned too badly.”

“You can?” Jexx, was easily persuaded, so he leaned down towards the box, and slowly put his finger towards it. He was just going to test it first. Maybe the spell was a lot stronger for someone like him, and he would blow up or something. Jex had some time to more closely examine the box. The Opal glow from within was always moving slightly. It was as if there was an energy trapped inside that was moving and making the Opal lights glow and shift position. The box was smooth and cool to the touch. It didn’t smell like poison or rotting things, and he didn’t blow up or get burned or anything.

Jexx was quite happy about this, but then he thought slowly for a moment. Ok so it didn’t burn me, but maybe there is something very dangerous inside this box. Some kind of magic that blows up the person who opens it, but that gives wonderful blessings to the next person standing there. He had many of these mildly suspicious thoughts, so he thought he had better check things out some.

“What is in the box? How does it open? Why did you steal it? Who are you again?” Jexx muddled everything all together.

“Kora.” She replied.

“What’s a Kora?” Jexx asked.

“That’s my name.” Kora said.

“I’m Jexx, and this is Copper.” He said.

“I know.” Kora replied.

Jexx wondered about this…”How does she know?” he thought to himself, but he didn’t ask about that. He wanted to know more about her. “What is a Daikini?”

“We are neutrals. We can travel between the three realms.” Kora said, still focusing most of her energy on the box.

“Oh.” Jexx said. “The three realms. I don’t know them very well.” He, of course, had no idea what she was talking about. “Do you have magic like a wizard?”

“I have spiritual power. Not like a wizard.” Kora said.

“Oh. Nice.” Jexx was still really confused.

“Do you think that you can try to open the box for me now?” She asked patiently.

“Yes, but you didn’t tell me what is in it.”

“I am not so sure what is in it, but I can tell you what I am looking for.”

“Ok. Then, please go ahead.”

“I am looking for seeds.”

“Like a flower or a tree.”

“Yes. Tree seeds. Seeds that I can only find once I have gone here to this place, but that I can take to a new world and plant them there for the benefit of all.”

“Ok. Magic seeds then—like the things the Warlock uses to make fear. Things to cook in a pot.”

“Not exactly.” She smiled.

“Well, I do a lot of this kind of thing—going around and gathering things.”

There was a screech in the surrounding woods, a night owl or other creature. The alarm made her look around for other threats. Above her she noticed a black hawk circling; the ghosts had gone, and this caused her some concern.

“Let’s find safer ground.” She said, and the three of them set out towards the edges of the forest on the far side of the meadow. They continued in. It was more walking for Copper and Jexx, but the first time either had walked for much of a distance with a companion in their memories. There was not much time to be talking, but very soon the trees were already becoming sparser and more dead looking—the ground less filled with the dead fallings of leaves and foliage, and more rocks and blackened ash.

 

 

 

Jelly Fish

The Dakini walked as if her task was a solemn and religious one, and she kept the box close to her chest, wrapped protectively in the cloth;  Jexx walked clumsily, turning to look at her with curiosity. Copper trotted along with joy and bounce.

As they walked, Jexx could see a strange tattoo on her wrist and forearm. The tattoos were small but laid out in a pattern, and they caught the light like diamonds. The Daikini walked with her head down, and the cloak pulled over her eyes; she could cover ground easily, so Jexx had to hurry his steps every now and then just to keep up.

Jexx began to wonder about a few things. Especially this shadow person idea made him wonder.

He could tell by looking at the Daikini that she was a thief, and he could tell who was a warlock, and who was a witch. He knew Copper was a Tasmanian Devil-Hound. He could size up a lot of the things in the world around him, but he had never thought much about what kind of creature he was. He wished he could step outside himself and see himself better. Then he could easily tell if he was a shadow person. He took his hand and ran it across the top of his head. “Why do I have horns?” he thought.

With the trees thinning out, the horizon became visible, and in the distance there seemed to be a number of small hills that had rounded cone tops; smoke and fire peeked out from cracks in the ground, and the overall smell of the place was much more familiar to the type of hell that Jexx and Copper were used to. They headed out towards one particular hill. Kora valued the high ground more than the cover.

At the top of the hill there was a circle of cracked and burnt trees with a black rock in the middle.

From this higher section of ground, they could see the pathway between the mountains that led to the swamp, and the desert badlands that were on the outer rim of the Ashen Forest. Jexx could also see something closer: just about 13 paces down the other side of the hill, at the base of a tree stump, there was another small clump of Medusa Cactus.

He walked over and removed half of it from the ground, and put it into his sack.

The Daikini, carefully scanned the horizon in all areas, and when she was satisfied, she sat down near the black rock, and set the Opal box down in front of her. It seemed that she had not rested in a long time. Copper stepped slowly up to the box and sniffed it. For a minute or two, nothing happened. The only movements at all where the slight steps of Copper, and the hot, dry wind.

Copper shifted from the box to again smelling the Daikini. The box was unique, but its smells were of this world, the Daikini, however, was something Copper had never encountered. She looked down at Copper and put her and on his head, which contented him.

Copper was an even mix of a Tasmanian Devil and a Hell Hound. This should have made him a mean and ferocious beast, but something in the mixture must have gone wrong. He was a sweet and curious creature. He did have the iron stomach and tenacity of the Tasmanian Devil, and he had the yellow eyes, and magic power of a Hell Hound, but his temperament was not at all evil or wicked—which was why the Warlock gave him to Jexx. On many an occasion, the Warlock threatened to destroy Copper, and melt him down into a soup for the ravens.

She turned to Jexx.

“Those horns. Tell me more about the work you do here.”

“Yes. I clean, collect creatures to oil up and make fear, I go on searches for evil things…”

“Then you are a type of demon?” Kora said.

“I’m not sure what I am.”

“Let’s get back to opening the box. put your hands on this box, and say these words, ‘for my master, I shall open this box.’” Kora set the box a little closer to Jexx.

Reluctantly, he knelt down, and said the words, then he put his hands on the box. But nothing happened.

“You need to put your hands on the box, and THEN say the words.” Kora said.

Jexx took his hands off the box, put them back on, and then said, “For my master, I shall open this box.”

The opal lights and patterns intensified their glow, and the lights moved quickly. The box was no longer cool to the touch, but warmed quickly. It became hot, and Jexx removed his hands. He thought for a second that it might blow up, so he took a few steps back. Copper also jerked back and stepped away from it.

Kora leaned in.

The lid loosened, and steam emerged from the sides. She reached down and removed the lid to look inside. There was a lot of steam, so it was hard to see the objects.

Jexx and Copper were again curious, but the box will have to wait. Just then, the sky cracked with thunder and a green flash spread out in all directions, and the Warlock blasted down with lightning; the ground smoked and smelled like skunk.

Jexx could tell that he was angry, but Jexx could see something else that he had never seen before. He saw a little bit of fear.

Kora stood up confidently. She closed the box, and wrapped it in her cloak.

“What do you want witch?” the Warlock threatened.

“I want things that have no interest to you.” She said.

“My servant is of interest to me, and you have him—that odious filth receptacle of liar’s spittle.”

The Warlock was slow to get this fight started, uncertain about Kora.

“He can stay here or he can go with you. It is his choice.” Kora said, and, without noticing it, she and the Warlock were walking along an invisible circle, in opposite directions, setting themselves up for a duel.

“You know the rules. No one here has freedom of choice. They have forfeit that right when they came here.”

Kora did not respond.

The sorcerer continued, “If everyone had a choice, they would all just choose to leave.”

“They all have a choice. At all times. In all realms. It is only the cloudiness of the realm that makes it seem as if there is no choice. Even you have choices.” At this point, Kora had secured the box in a tight bag that sat beneath the hood of her cloak. Both of her hands were free, and she was ready. She knew that the Warlock would not be making any surprising choices today. She knew that he was as predictable as grease sizzling on a skillet.

“First, I will capture you. Then I will cause you pain for the trouble you’ve caused. And you…”

The sorcerer looked at Jexx with cold rage. “I will destroy you, until you break into a thousand pieces of insects, and rats, and crabs, and worms, and muck. Into my pot you will be boiled, and your whole process will start all over again, and you won’t even understand why.”

These words triggered more than the normal strength in Kora.

“You will do none of these things.”

The Warlock had no other option but to attack. His status. His words. His servant not listening to him. He had no choice but attack. To rethink the challenge, to back away, was not possible, so the grease on the skillet sizzled. He collected dark energy into his left hand, and fired green electric pain in her direction.

Kora then began the basic steps of protection that she had perfected over a thousand years.

First, center yourself.

Second, deflect the direct attack, but do not retreat.

Finally, extend your attacker’s energy to make him vulnerable.

As the green light when towards her, she stepped forward and to the right toward the Warlock but only at a slight angle. Her left arm stiffened and the cloak became strong and linked like the scales of a dragon locking into protective position.

This simple movement allowed the green lightning to deflect away from her into the ashen ground, and at the same time, she cut down the distance to the Warlock very quickly. He lunged for her attempting to grab her with his hand, but again she moved forward to the right.

His attacking arm went right passed her, now she was very close to him, she pivoted with quick efficiency in a circular motion, and this sent the Warlock to the ground following his outstretched arm.

The Warlock was strong and wicked, but he hadn’t had a real fight like this in over a hundred years. The ruthless wicked magic that allowed him to rise to the position of Warlock hadn’t been tested—and he had never fought a Daikini before.

He rallied to his feet quickly, and started to collect more dark energy with both hands above his head, but this made him vulnerable. Kora quickly advanced on him and extended her cloak past her right arm, and it stiffened into a whip attack that easily sent the top-heavy Warlock flying backwards. This time with much pain.

Kora paused. She had no intention of aggressive action. Her only plan was to keep him off balance and deflect every attack until he tired and retreated.

The Warlock knew that she would easily thwart any attack. He also knew that she would not attack him while he was down, so he stayed down, exaggerating his tired breathing. Trying to think of his next move.

“Peace.” He said in between false heavy breaths. “You have won. I yield to you witch.”

Kora said nothing. She never trusted words in a fight, only actions mattered. Only once or twice had she ever encountered a creature noble enough to let their words be true when life and death was in balance. Kora stayed centered and laser focused on the Warlock.

“Give me a moment to get up he said.” And in his crouched position, he was gathering wicked energy that he could quickly launch, and he had kept it hidden from her view.

The Warlock slowly started to rise, but as he did, he launched a hidden sideways blast at Copper. The lightning struck Copper and sent him flying back in agony, yelping as he tumbled down the other side of the hill. This distracted Kora’s focus for a split second and the Warlock fired another blast of energy at her.

It hit her directly and she tumbled backwards. Her cloak created a protective circle around her and instead of falling, she rolled smoothly backwards, and all that Jexx or the Warlock could see was the protective cloak, like a turtle retracted into its shell.

The Warlock fired again, full strength into the cloak, but it seemed to absorb the energy. It hummed and glowed; the blast had stimulated harmonious chords within the cloak’s mechanics.

The Warlock wasn’t one to give up an advantage, so he again summoned dark magic into his hand, and his eyes fixed on Jexx. He would destroy him as promised.

Just as he started to bring the attack down onto Jexx, Copper emerged from behind the hill, mad as hell and bit hard into the sorcerer’s leg. The Warlock could do little more that shake his leg, but Copper had a good Tasmanian Devil-hound grip, and the Warlock had lost his balance and attack. He pulled a knife from his belt, and stabbed at Copper, but Copper thrashed around with all four legs in the air.

In this moment of chaos, Kora—still completely encircled in her cloak—rolled at the Warlock. The cloak opened and she sprang at the him with a blast of gold energy. Copper released, and the Warlock flew back crashing through two of the burnt out ash trees. Kora stood tall and in control with wounds splattered across her arms, shoulder, and neck.

The Warlock was alive, but almost completely drained of energy. There would be no more attacks; he lacked the strength for simple words. All he could do was crawl. Giant black birds swooped down and picked him up to carry him back to his tower, and it would be some days before he had the strength again for renewed action.

Jexx went first to Copper, and then to Kora. Both had the same type of wounds. There was no blood, but a glowing green or yellow-like sap, which showed where the Warlock’s blast had done the most damage.

Jexx was happy that Copper had not been destroyed, and Copper was happy to have saved Jexx.

Kora knelt on one knee, and let her head fall to the ground. She was recovering, and thinking about the next step.

The dry wind of this ashen forest on the edges of the Mud-Man Desert picked up. The colorless sky blended into the horizon. Kora knew this was the first of many battles, and now was no time to rest.

Kora stood up.

“We need to find a sanctuary. He will come back, and he will bring others. I’m not a normal presence in this realm, it will alarm all the way to the lowest levels.” Kora was scanning the horizon, looking for a place to hide.

“I know a place.” Jexx said. “Even the Warlock doesn’t know it.”

Kora did not have much confidence in Jexx’s hideout, but she could envision no other option, and she already had the feeling that the three of them would have to be in this adventure until the end.

“Let’s go quickly.” She followed Jexx and Copper back down the hill into the valley, and at every step, she tried to hide her pain.

Because they had purpose, the journey was a short one, and they backtracked Jexx’s steps into the cave with the glow worms and the still clean water.

Kora removed her cloak and used it to cover the entrance of the cave. It became clear like a gray window, but from the outside, it perfectly blended into the rocky walls as camouflage. Kora walked in and put her hand on the walls of the cave. The glow worms’ light intensified.

“This is not a normal place for this realm.” Kora said. “This is strange and sacred ground. It was built.”

She walked around to the other side of the cave, and looked up at the stalactites, and down into the pool below. In the corner of the room she found a strange stalagmite, that had a star-like shape. She took a small crystal from her sack and it created a faint purple light, which she shined onto the stone.

Strange symbols appeared on the stalagmite, running vertically. Without Kora’s light, the symbols were invisible. She turned the stone counter-clockwise, and instantly cool fresh air emerged from distant part of the cave, and minerals in the water began to glow in a faint way similar to the glow worms. The portrait of the room shifted. It no longer was a black pool reflecting a universe of stars, but the major light source in the room was the minerals in the water. It was like a small fishing boat had dropped a light in the water in the darkest night to attract fish, and the watery light reflected up in uneven movements to the ceiling and walls.

Jexx and Copper were very still—just watching. When you get a glimpse into something new—something beyond the world you are used to—it calms the waves inside your brain. It steadies your breathing. It brings an easiness that is watchful and accepting. Outside the cave, under the spell of the Warlock’s work, Jexx was a busy, restless, and always discontent mind, shoveling swarming creatures into buckets.

Kora went to flat area in the room, and laid out the box in front of her. She stumbled a bit, and grabbed her side. The wounds seemed to open up some, and the yellow sap was running out thick.

“Before we set out, I will need some food.” Kora said, and she sat on the edge of the pool in a meditative position.

In her hand, she was holding the same crystal of Amethyst that she had used as a flashlight earlier. She began to quietly repeat her prayers.

Jexx was curious. “You eat crystals for food?”

She stopped her prayers, and looked at him, just a little disoriented.

“I am a spiritual being, so I eat spiritual food.” And she returned to her prayers.

The sound was small, more like a whisper, and all the Jewels in her body glowed with the Amethyst. Her eyes now closed; her mind soared up and out of this realm and into the island waterfalls and ruby emerald birds from the human realm.

Mists turned to rainbows in the wind, warmth, and sunlight.

At the same time, Jexx noticed that the gems in her body moved and sent glowing patterns to the areas where she was wounded. The wounds began to heal. The minerals in the water also moved in unison to the patterns of her tattoos.

Kora’s mind turned and flew in all directions as one of the birds. Diving straight into the pool of water below, and instantly becoming a fish, slowing down and absorbing the warmth as an ancient turtle gliding through a lagoon—completely emptying the mind, and stretching up completely as tree from roots to leaves—expanding and blending until she was the whole island—all body, no mind.

Not more than a few minutes to Jexx and Copper watching, but longer to Kora.

This small journey that she was able to take is something only accessible to those who have spent much time in the pursuit of spiritual pathways. It is a small journey that begins in the mind, but somewhere in there there is a doorway that allows you to open up into new places. Her healing place, that island, the birds, waters, and sunshine was always something accessible to her under the right circumstances.

The healing hadn’t fully restored her, but she was no longer so broken up that she couldn’t return. She exited through the same passageway un her mind and came back to see how Copper was doing with his wounds.

She walked over and put the amethyst onto him, and his wounds began to retreat and disappear.

She opened her eyes refreshed to face the dreariness of this realm, reenergized to begin the task.

Jexx again was curious. “The gems on your body. They cure your wounds?”

Kora, sat close to Jexx. “These gems are my wounds.” She smiled at the confusion on his face. She held out her wrists to him.

“In the ancient days, when boats travelled on rivers but not seas, I was a slave. Here is where I was burned. Here is where I was beaten.” She pulled her cloak off her shoulder, and a pattern of amber green gems spread out down her back like painted sunbursts. “Here is where I was whipped.”

Jexx looked with partial understanding. Still he was curious, but he didn’t want to be disrespectful to a spiritual being with wounds that have become magic crystals, so he was quiet.

“Every time I have been a victim, it transformed. It made me a Daikini. It gives me the power to travel between the worlds as a neutral. I can heal. I can fight. I can see clarity.”

Do all Daikinis have super magic cloaks?” Jexx asked.

“Whatever helped them get through life becomes our gifts. I always had to protect myself.”

“I would like to be a Daikini.” Jexx said.

Kora looked at him sideways. “Only women can be Daikini.”

“That’s unfair” Jexx said.

“Many things about women are unfair.” Kora said joylessly.

“Could I at least have a jewel in the middle of my forehead?”

“It takes a hundred lifetimes and more pain than you can imagine.”

This seemed like a trick to Jexx; turning your pain and scars into something useful and powerful. It seemed like something the Warlock or witch would do, by uttering some kind of spell words, gathering the right ingredients, but Jexx had no understanding of the spiritual power that Kora was talking about.

There was nothing so magical or easy about the process. The point of transformation, where the pain and violence done to her becomes something useful; this is also very near the breaking point. It is at the face of that precipice, where she was able to turn around instead of hurtling forward and be smashed into a million fragments. She was able to turn and walk towards the evil and pain in front of her—accepting the horror.

When you accept that this terrible thing has happened, is happening, then you can look for it. Where is this pain from the whip? Is it in my back? Is it in the nerves travelling from my back to my brain? Is it in my brain? She finds it is nowhere. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t wrong. It just means she isn’t running from it; she isn’t allowing it to continue to break her in pieces. One time, face down in the dirt. Her arms bound. Her attacker taking a pause from the whip. It began to rain. Small drops of rain hitting the dust and sending little explosions up with every impact. This immediately changed the smell of the ground and dirt. It became more fertile and pungent. The air also gathered the moisture and changed its constitution. A few minutes ago the only thing that dominated her senses was the terrible voice of her attacker, the fear and horror of the experience being permanently etched in the mind, body, and soul, but now she was completely absorbed into the moment. There seemed no separation between herself and the earth. The rain that fell upon the ground a few yards away seemed the same as the rain that fell upon her body. The value of sensation seemed to change. For the remainder of the beating, she had disappeared.

I accept this is happening. And afterwards, when the physical pain is gone, and she has time to investigate the source of the emotional pain, she comes to a similar conclusion. Where is this heartache? Is it in my blood? Is it felt in the heart itself? Is it in my hands that shake? Is it in my mind that jumps from painful memory to fear, self-loathing, and other useless thoughts. And again she returned to the moment. This time a moonlit storm, with wind sending leaves and branches sideways into the wooden shack where she slept with a dozen or so slaves. Out her window, she moved up—not sure if it was her mind, her soul, or her actual body, but she moved up, and twisted her wings wildly into the wind of the storm. The danger of the flying branches and rain did not bother her, she felt an exhilaration and freedom from being out of the shack below. Tumbling and turning in strange turbulence from tree tops to the meadows below; the drama of the darkness and rage of the storm were the waves on which she played.

This was the moment when she realized the larger trajectory of her soul. This light within that was greater than the limits of the body and her present life. Something more connected to the world around her, and something unaffected by the fears of body and mind. This was the moment that she no longer ran and tried to hide in some corner of her mind, but looked her fears in the eyes, and in so doing saw others. Many others, worlds of others, whose suffering she could understand. Here, in this wooden shack, her scars became metal, and the seed was planted for her them to take the shape of whatever powerful tattoos that she wanted.

What she would have avoided at all costs had now become of immense value to her. This gave her many lifetimes of devotion and service towards the suffering of others. Her firm hand would stay the blows of countless aggressors, and her kind steadiness would offer comfort and safety to the same number of victims.

As a Daikini, she was knowing—but not all knowing. She still had doubts; she still needed faith and discipline. Her pathway was still filled with temptation and fear, but her power was in her presence. The ability to leave the confines of her cage and absorb into the moment of existence.

Jexx, could not see the past of who she was. She was the lotus on the surface of the pool to him, and he made no effort to ponder how deep the waters lay beneath. He could still feel something different and powerful about her, and he was grateful in how she was helping Copper.

For many long quiet minutes. The three of them sat recovering. Sometimes looking upon the oddities of the cave. At other times, looking down and into themselves. Jexx had many questions, and wanted to talk and bubble on about nothing in particular, but the Daikini had an effect on others, the way nature herself sometimes does, and hushes people into a state of calm appreciation at the sunrise or sunset.

The only thought that Jexx had was a vague idea about Copper. He looked at Copper who was still licking his wounds, and he wondered what he would do if Copper was gone. What would there be left for him to do—there would be no point in walking around the drained bay, bucket in hand, picking up creatures. All would be lost for him.

After some time of this, there was some warning that Kora sensed.

Kora moved quickly to the doorway, and motioned for Jexx and Copper to be quiet. For a half a minute, they all sat perfectly still. Kora poised and watching, Jexx and Copper frozen, completely uncertain of what they were waiting for—all three of them breathless.

Then there was a noise. A soft walking sound and voices mumbling their way closer. The voices and the steps got louder and more clumsy.

Stiff army demons walking in formation. Yellow eyes and fiery stinky breaths. Whacking away at trees and bushes with their machete’s and halberds. They marched right by the entrance to the cave. To their eyes, the cloak perfectly camouflaged with large rocks of the mountainside.

The Warlock, though still injured and recovering, had summoned all the soldiers of his domain and called them to the task of finding the intruders and destroying them. They were a motley and diverse group of demons all known for doing some wrong or evil deed. It was easy to ignite their blood lust. They searched for the outlaws, not with the calm and noble focus of a bloodhound searching over hills, following a sent, but like dogs that have been poked and angered, and threatened into a frenzy where they would be quick to bite and tear the thing to shreds.

The army split up into different fingers, running into whatever nook and valley that the downhill path took them. One such group wandered into lonely towns, where they would play all kinds of tricks on each other as soon as they realized that their targets were not there. One might steal some hot embers from a fireplace, and when a fellow soldier was not paying attention, pour the whole the whole bit down his shirt or trousers, and they would cause even more random mayhem to the other creatures and souls they encountered: they would walk into whatever building they could, steal, terrorize, and otherwise harm others.

It was easier for them to follow these bad impulses. In fact, for many of them, in other lives, they had been the worst of the worst. Decrepit, genocidal, craven. They did the work when soldiery meant laying towns to ruin and destroying and taking everything that they encountered—slaughtering innocents, maiming, dishonoring. The reward for their risking of their lives was the booty of those they had conquered. It’s all part of the game. It’s how you really defeat an enemy. It’s in the blood of course.

The Warlock hadn’t considered what kind of chaos this would create in the oddly stable underworld. These soldier demons had been slumbering in dark corners, and now they had awakened and would turn over a number of carts until the game was called off for them.

Not all, of course, had such long histories of vile service in living armies. There were a few who had been banished to service for different crimes. For some, it was not lifetimes of dark deeds. The underworld will receive you even if your crime was one of a moment only. These seemed to be the greater tragedies. Some of these had lived more or less good lives, but in one moment—usually a moment of rage, but sometimes a moment of lust, greed, envy or a similar sort—they completely crossed the invisible line that keeps one within the boundaries of humanity. For them, this service in the marauder’s army was less comfortable. It was not a consistent way of life, but a bad flock to have folded into, and they had a desire to escape it.

One such of this type of demon was at the tail end of the walk; he paused, looked directly at them and sniffed. His instincts told him that something was there, He knew to alert the others, and bring them back to this point. One or more of the others would be able to figure out what he sensed and find the hiding space. Then they would all get a chance to whack some living things again before marching on, but he didn’t really have the stomach for this kind of thing anymore. He was not a terror artist, and he never was. He had just allowed some rage to completely cloud his brain and it led him to murder—so many eons ago it seemed that he had lost all memory of the event. It had transformed him into something less than a human, and so there was no need for the empathy and guilt and other such requirements.

But all things change—maybe slowly—but even here, all things change, and the others had walked on without him, and he didn’t have the stomach to stab and kill whatever was hiding in these rocks. Whatever it was he thought, it’s strong like a magnet for me to feel it, but not see it, and all in one motion, he dropped his spear, dropped his shoulders into a more relaxed position, and turned to walk back. He was done with this foul-tasting nonsense, and new adventures awaited him.

In this world—more so than the others—it is the imagination and minds of the inhabitants that perpetually creates it and redraws its outlines. One minute the landscape was only built for a group of soldiers clanking through, and now it had to accommodate this deserter. He had created a new loop in the narrative, and his simple choice to walk away necessitated new karmic equations that needed balancing.

When atoms bounce of each other, they are attracted or repelled based on the mathematics of their electrons and protons; it is the same when humans, demons, and souls encounter each other. The karmic bonds repel, fight, stick together to force dynamic change according to the vast mystery and design, and to those completely lost in Maya, it seems to be random, but to the chemist of the soul, the reactions are predictable; the experiments controlled.

Kora watched the soldier walk away with great understanding of the change.

With the soldiers gone, Kora knew there was not much time to waste. She went to a smooth part of the cave and again took out the box. She removed the lid and looked in.

Inside there was an old map. Jexx, and even, Copper, were fixated on Kora and the map.

It was a map of the underworld, and since the underworld was in a constant state of flux, it was a magic map that could adapt to the modifications in the landscape. For all the private hells, like the witch’s cabin, there were many collective hells, like the Ghoul’s City. Some of these collective hells were so huge that they would be as large as the entirety of all the lands that Jexx and Copper knew to exist, so this map had levels and layers—secret doorways that led to new dimensional representations. It wasn’t so much like the linear layers of going underground, or the upwards distance one can imagining traveling through the sky and into space. It was more like a giant mansion, with all different directions—sideways doors, upside down doors, twisting walkways that looped backwards into Mobius strips, and each gateway entered a new area that expanded like a living movie theater screen to fulfill the needs of the sinner—a process not unlike the flexibility of dreaming.

Kora, who was more experienced in reading these kinds of things, was very impressed by the map. She was looking for three things in particular, and she found them quickly. They were three artifacts that she needed in order to complete her larger goals.

On its sides were writings in a strange hieroglyphics and a mix of other languages. By the look on her face, Kora was reading the words.

“Ignore the trees; read the words in the lake.” Kora looks confused, and titled her head sideways like a dog might when hearing a strange sound.

“TekaTl ThsiTf TylleT TjderT” She said out loud. This seemed to her to be some demon language, and to Jexx, he assumed, it was some Daikini.

“TekaTl ThsiTf TylleT TJderT” She repeated it again.

“Take This Tillet There” Jexx repeated loosely.

“You know this language?” Kora asked.

“No, I just like how it sounds a little like words that I know.” He didn’t seem to mind at all that he wasn’t being helpful.

Kora stood, and started to walk around the room with an energy that brought Copper to her heals. He could tell when someone was searching for something, and he wanted to be there when she discovered it. Kora had a flexible mind, and there was little difficulty for her to switch from life or death fighting decisions to strategic hiding, and now to puzzles.

She was less concerned with the gibberish, and more concerned with the “Ignore the trees, read the words in the lake.”

“What trees? What place is this describing? There are no clear landmarks.” She continued puzzling with Copper at her heals.

[Ignore the trees; in the lake]

“It’s a puzzle.” Kora said.

“What’s puzzle. Do you eat it?” said Jexx. Kora kept walking and thinking, so Jexx walked back to look at the opened box, the map and its weird writings.

“Maybe its broken. Maybe the letters got all mixed up.” He looked at the words again.

TekaTl ThsiTf TylleT TjderT.

Jexx couldn’t read the words, and he was sure that the words and letters didn’t mean anything. To him it made perfect sense that they were broken words.

Kora was interested in Jexx’s ideas: broken words, and she came back to look at the box next to Jexx.

“Not a puzzle, but a riddle… and so there must be a code breaker.”

Standing over the pool of water, she paused to think. She looked in and could see her face, and in in these moments of purpose and concentration—which was most of her existence—she almost always looked right past the image of herself. It was of such little importance that she only took casual notice of it. She noticed the back of the map and saw how some of the hieroglyphs looked very unusual in the reflection of the water.

She turned the map over and looked at the clue she was reading, and tried to read the words in the reflection of the water.

Backwards was not much help: But she did see the words red take? Maybe that was something.

TredjT TellyT fTishT lTakeT

This kind of riddle, as important as it is, must be certain. “ignore the trees; read the words in the lake.” She said again to herself.

Jexx and Copper had lost interest at this point. Jexx had followed Kora’s lead and was gazing into the water. Normally, he too would take little notice of his reflection, and have little understanding of what it meant, but considering recent events, he studied the image a bit more. He was very interested how he could change his face to make it look mean, or cross-eyed, or scared. He even tried to smile, but it looked a bit off—with the evil eyes and upturned corners of his mouth, it didn’t quite work. There must be something more to smiling than moving your face around.

She looked at the sentence again. The T’s looked strange. “Remove the T’s” the thought. If she removed them then she came up with a more readable sentence.

“Red Jellyfish Lake.” Kora said.

“Yes. Red Jellyfish Lake.” Jexx echoed.

“You know this place?”

Jexx looked up at her with an over confidence that said, I know everything in this place, and he nodded. “Yes. That is where I capture all of my red jelly fish, whenever the Warlock needs red jelly fish.”

“Can you take me there?”

“You need red jelly fish too?”

“Can you take me there?”

“Why?”

“There are three things I need to retrieve from this world. And the first one must be in this lake.”

“Why do you need to retrieve three things from this world?”

Kora paused for a moment. Normally, she had no desire to tell her plans to anyone, and she felt pretty sure that she could find the jelly fish lake all on her own, but she also could sense the simpleness in Jexx, and identified no threat, on the contrary she felt an alliance, so she very plainly told her story.

“I plan to steal three things from this world that will help me in the next. A scroll of powerful words, a jewel of sympathy, and the key of the shadow gate. These I can then use to plant seeds in a different world that will help others.”

Jexx was very tempted to say “Why?” but bit his lip. He too felt an alliance with her, and he was beginning to unravel the ties that connected him to the Warlock and the endless dirty tasks that bound him.

“Do you need to eat before we go?” Kora asked.

“I am not sure if I eat.” Jexx knew what food was and had seen many animals eating other animals. He saw Kora nourish herself with spiritual food. The Warlock would, time to time, force him to taste the soupy fear he made in the cauldron. He had seen Copper swallow down all manner of things, and he seen the Ghouls drinking wine and beer and absinthe. He just wasn’t sure if he ate. Certainly, he had chewed on some of the creatures he collected in his bucket, but this wasn’t because he was hungry and needed food, but because he wanted to see what would happen when he squished them alive in his teeth.

“No, I don’t need to eat.” He said, and everyone got ready for his journey.

These kinds of small realizations were the first cracks in his reality. The simple recognition that there was something logically wrong with his condition. He should eat. He remembered eating. It was normal to eat. Everyone has their own pace of realizing and remembering these things. The witch may someday remember that a day has a sunrise and sunset, and that there is something called sleep. The four-armed ghoul may remember that she doesn’t need to answer the call every time the carriage and the horses are ready.

Copper was more ready than anyone, as much as he liked the sanctuary of the pools and stalagmites and all, he preferred the open road, and to move forward. To smell things, see things, bite things, fight things. He was built for action and released a bellow and howl that sent an eerie echo through many different lands. It should have alerted the soldiers, but a hell hound’s call did not seem out of the ordinary to them, so they kept their aimless pace.

They made their way back towards the dead ash forest, with its rolling hills and gray pre-dawn skies. For safety, they followed the paths of the soldiers that were looking for them. Riding in this wake was as easy as it was effective. The soldiers were unlikely to suddenly turn around and come back looking for them, and they were just as unlikely to lay in ambush for them, and as for discerning their pathway; they hacked and chopped so much in their way it was as if they were sending them bread crumbs of destruction to help them along.

They walked in silence again as if walking were serious business. Kora leading, Jexx following, Copper always meandering somewhere on the periphery. His four legs giving him the ability to keep pace with them, yet also discover, explore his surroundings. After a good time of quiet walking, the pathway of the soldiers veered off in the wrong direction, and Jexx told Kora that they needed to stay to the left and follow a winding path that led away from the dying forest and into the desert badlands.

The ground became much more bits of rocks, gravel, and sand. The horizon had a reddish-orange tint to it, and parts of the sky turned from gray to nearly black. Overall, there was less light. The only trees were Joshua Trees. Their bodies protected by jagged spikes; their arms reaching up towards the skies; their posture twisted and damaged; their flesh darkened and scarred.

On the ground, Jexx and Copper could sense that there were armies of scorpions, rattlesnakes, beetles, and desert rats. It would only take a bit of digging to get in there and have at them. Jexx fought the desire to loiter and find some. Without his bucket, he would be tempted to squish a few under his boot, or perhaps hand them over to Copper to mildly chew them up, but they were all underground, and their purpose was to find Red Jelly Fish Lake, so he remained focused on being helpful. Jexx knew that they needed to head between the two mountains straight ahead of them and find a narrow pass that goes between the cliffs.

From time to time they would discover the old bones of some larger animal that found its end wandering the desert. Above them, flew vultures, and unlike the other birds that Kora believed to be spies, the vultures did not worry Kora. She felt comfortable walking out in the open. Her mind was unbothered by concerns. She had a purpose, and was walking towards that purpose, so there was nothing left to worry about. The mind was able to slip into a walking meditation. The rhythm of the  steps, the swinging of her arms, the heat of the air, the dead horizon; it all stilled her mind, so that she could observe more, experience more. The power needed by our minds to do such simple things like fantasize about punching the Warlock in the face, or imagine coming over a small hill to discover a hundred scorpions—this kind of effort drains our main battery, so that it reduces the amount of life that we can experience—but when we manage to subdue the mind and set it to our most refined rhythms, then the amount of sensory material that we are able to absorb increases. It increases to some degree that many feel that it is only in such moments that we are really alive, and that when bothered by the tickings and trappings of the monkey mind we are part asleep.

Kora moved like the ancients, when they would cross a stream for the first time, aware of every slight wind that bent down a blade of grass, and every photon of light that multiplied in the dewdrops.

Jexx moved like a drunken garbage man.

Copper, lovable and sweet, was dragging along an old femur that he had found—occasionally tossing it into the air in front of him for sport.

As they neared the feet of the mountain, the pass between them was easily observed.

“Why should we find Red Jellyfish Lake, again?” Jexx asked.

“We need to find an entrance.”

“An entrance to what?”

“I need to find a keeper of the words of power, so I can steal them.” Kora said.

“I see.” The two of them walked on a little longer until Jexx continued, “But again, and entrance to what?”

“In this underground world, There are many little passageways into new worlds. Many openings and doorways. We just need to go through one of these doorways.”

“I see.”

The sound seemed to get completely sucked out of the air as they began to walk between two chalky white cliffs that ran up the side of the mountain. The ground beneath them was also a soft chalk. At times, the cliffs came very close together, where, if you had very long arms like Kora, you could reach out to either side and touch each side. At times it ran wide, but not so far that you couldn’t throw a rock from one side to the other. The pass twisted around many blind corners, but there was never the excitement that something might be around the bend; there were no animals or animal tracks of any kind, and the weirdness of the muffled silence, the lack of wind, and the chalky whiteness of everything dulled them to the point that they were not entirely sure if they had just been walking in circles.

Jexx was thinking about catching the jellyfish with a stick when Kora stopped and looked at the ground. There were many different glass and jewel-like rocks, about the size and look of marbles—in reds, and greens, and the occasional amber. Kora knew they were close to the end of the pass.

After one last turn, they saw the whole horizon open up, and a large desert lake in front of them. The lake looked a pale blue, with the shores around it stained with an oxidized red finish. The dead center of the lake was the deepest, so it had a black, inky quality. From high above, if you were able to stand on some very tall tree or fly like a bird, the lake looked like a giant, diseased, blue eye ball, but standing at its level, it looked very nice. The blue color—although being very pale—was still an unusually pleasant color for this world. When you got to the edge of the water, you could see that the red rim was created by the death of many of the jelly fish. Copper was sloshing around with some of the red decay stuck to his nose and feet.

Here is where they took a break.

The map and the instructions told them to come to Red Jellyfish Lake, but there was no door—at least no obvious door, so Kora paused to consider this.

Kora could pause like this for many hours, but Jexx on the other hand had a difficulty with boredom. His mind always needed some input.

A great fish leapt into the air, arching its back, and splashing down. The water of the splash turned to a light mist, and there was the faintest hint of a rainbow. It sent an echo that reached as far as the chalky cliffs of the mountain pass and then came obediently back to rest at their side.

Copper took a few steps into the lake to see if he could smell or bite the fish, but mostly he just dragged the dead jelly fish around. Jexx followed him in. The muddy bottom stuck to his boots. His thick pants became heavy and swollen with the water. The bodies of the jelly fish clung to his sides. The lake felt thick and muciferous to him, smelling not so clean.

He looked back to see Kora still squatting looking at the map and thinking. For Kora, much of thinking is waiting. As if there were a bunch of ideas on the bottom of the lake waiting for their tethers to break loose, so they can float to the surface on their own good time. She wasn’t doing much puzzle fitting analysis, she wasn’t searching the archives of her brain for the right file. Jexx could see her saying the words slowly to herself: ignore the trees; say the words in the lake.

Jexx thought about those words as he went in just about to waist deep. “What were those words again?”

“Kora. What were those words again?”

“What?”

“The magic words on the map. What were they? I can’t remember”

“Ignore the trees. Say the words in the lake.”

“No. The broken words!”

“TekaTl ThsiTf TylleT TjderT.”

“That’s right.” He turned towards the lake again, and muttered to himself, laughing a little, thinking how those words didn’t mean anything at all—just like chewing on wood.

“Tecotl Thsit’f Tyll’et Tji’dert.” He said it in a quiet way, just for him and the lake.

And the lake seemed to hear it.

At first there was a bubbling and a draining sound. Copper got out of the water with quick hellhound instincts, but Jexx stayed where he was, kind of stuck in the mud. Kora put the map into her cloak and stepped quickly to the edge of the water to read the situation. The water was draining, but the level wasn’t changing. It was more like it was filtering itself. The thick cloudy water all around Jexx began to clear up. It is not too different from when you are home, and it is a creepy, foggy night, and you stick your vacuum out your window and suck all the fog away, leaving things crystal clear, where you can see far into the black night; except this was in the water.

A clear light began to glow deep within the water in front of him, and stone steps could be seen that led from where Jexx was standing, into the clear water all the way towards where the light was. The starlight under the lake tingled. The water was still. The dead jelly fish had all swum away from this spot.

Kora had by now wadded up next to Jexx, and the two of them were looking down. Copper was still a little spooked and remained on the shoreline.

“Should we just walk in and drown?” Jexx asked.

“I think we should walk in, but I don’t think we will drown.” Kora said.

“Come on, Copper, we are going to go walking into the bottom of the lake.”

Copper turned away from the lake and did a frantic little circle stomping the ground with his front paws and turning so quickly, that he stumbled and fell over. This was a dog’s way of saying “Hell no.”

“He’ll come. Don’t worry.” Jexx said to Kora.

The two of them started walking down the steps.

“The thing is to remember that you don’t really need to breathe.” Kora said.

“What do you mean, we don’t need to breathe?” Jexx became suddenly startled.

The water was just up to their necks and they were going under.

“It’s dream logic here, Jexx.”

Just as they went under, Jexx reached out his hand, and Kora held it for reassurance. The water was cold now and crisp and clear, you could see the nothingness in all directions for what seemed like miles. The desire to breathe made a panic in his mind. “I’m going to be drowned” he thought. The heaviness of his boots and thick pants were diving ballasts and he walked as stably as he would on the earth. “I’m going to be drowned”, and he pulled hard at Kora’s hand and tried to twist her back, so they could retreat. She was unmovable. They continued stepping down. They were going to be lost forever.

Jexx looked again at Kora’s face. She was in no way worried about the water or breathing. She was not concerned that they would be lost or swallowed by a sea monster. She a had stillness, faith, and confidence that was hard earned and well worn, and the tiniest bit of this rubbed off on Jexx, and he tried what she called ‘dream logic’.

“I don’t need to breathe here.” He thought, at first kidding himself, but he said it again and again, and slowly the panic left him. In the watery distance he could hear the splash of Copper entering the water. For Copper, the fear and instinct to stay out of deep water was great, but the instinct and courage to protect his own was greater.

And when the panic left him, Jexx, felt a serenity that he had only tasted in the pool by the cave. As they lowered, towards the light, the density of the water almost completely disappeared.

He had not drowned at all.

 

 

 

The Pharaoh and Queen

 

They descended further into the lake, and with each step the water became more like the air. They had walked right through the light, and now the staircase continued to descend, but reality had reversed for them. The surface of the water looked like a blue sky above them, as if a whole world was hidden under the water. The stairs continued to go underground at the bottom of the lake, so they continued to descend. It became pitch black and cold, but they continued to descend. Where before they had been walking towards a light, they were now walking into darkness.

They reached a flat area, which went straight ahead for fifty yards in a straight hallway. And in the walls were giant floor to ceiling windows. It was as if these were windows into the rocks deep underground. Swimming in the walls were dozens of electric goldfish in the brightest of oranges with long trailing fins lined with silver. They were the size of full grown pigs, but they swam elegantly, pulsing a little like cuttlefish.

Kora spoke to herself, “Those wonderful goldfish living secretly in the walls between worlds. Where no one can see them.”

 

And Jexx broke the spell of her wonder, “We can see them. We can see them right now.”

 

After a few minutes to watch them, they continued to descend. The air got thicker, and warmer, drier, dustier, and windy. The stairs opened up wide into a huge world. The stairs descended from a hole in the sky and left them on top of a mountain. In front of them was an expansive desert, a river, buildings, and a giant pyramid. This door had opened into some hellish version of Ancient Egpyt.

Copper scurried about, refreshed by the business of the world before him. A thousand workers were below, and clouds, and birds, a reasonable replica of the sun, and things he had never smelled before.

With her third eye, Kora surveyed the valley below her. Thousands of slaves labored, discovering large stone blocks and transporting them from the quarry to the temple construction site. Other slaves gathered water from the river or fish. Others were doing the carving and construction of a new temple. The whole operation looked more like the working of some machine rather than a human enterprise. Instead of metal gears, the moving parts were made up of swarms of ants.

Atop a temple, stood the pharaoh, surveying his work. Every morning he would rise with the sun. Blow his horn, and watch the slaves do his bidding to build monuments, pyramids, temples, and obelisks in his honor. He would eat the finest foods, and drink the sweetest waters, but it tasted like dirt in his mouth. All he could feel was a restless discontent that the slaves needed to build more. A new temple, a new pyramid.

At night, wrapped in fine linens, he turned restlessly, until he would awaken in a rage, and launch fireballs upon the city of sleeping slaves. Fire balls and lava rained down indiscriminately. It is just the kind of life these people were used to. Occasionally, fire and lave balls would fall from the sky and come crashing into their houses, and the people inside would get crushed and blasted into evil fragments. “There is nothing to be done.” they would think and close their eyes again. In the morning, and they would hear the sound of the horn, and begin their toil again.

Kora understood the situation. “We are like the hands of a clock telling them that a turning hour is at hand.”

Jexx wanted to know the plan.

“Pharaohs move at the speed of glaciers—and as predictable as geological transitions. We watch for one day and steal the next.”

Jexx, “What do we steal?”

“The Pharaoh’s’ code. His law the source of his power. We must steal the words that are the source of his power.”

“What are the words? Like magic words, like the Warlock’s words? Can I have the power?” Jexx asked.

“These words are discipline, strength, and simplicity. Not like the Warlock or Witch’s magic words. “ Kora said.

They sat upon the rooftop of the bazaar, and spied on him.

Immovable, distant from those he governs. He keeps his watchful eye steady through rain, lightening, or heat. The queen by his side, never moving nor able to move him.

Kora did her best to project her vision through the whole city and into his mind and heart. It was a lot to take in. almost everything, in every direction, was an extension of him, from the grandest of monuments, to the way the grime settled into the spaces between tiles. She could begin to see the cycle of his existence, and it would play something like the same routine every day.

At the top, the Pharaoh awoke from a reoccurring nightmare—the same nightmare. always. walking up to his youngest sister, and instead of embracing her, he became a huge rhino crushing her, and he would awake angry and tormented and begin to cast fireballs down onto the city crushing rooves, and behind him was the queen standing in a devil’s shadow. Holding a small flask of potion in her delicate fingers.

In the early morning, before the sun would rise, the Pharaoh took his bath. This seemed to be the only part of the day that he would leave his tower. He would walk down into the darkness, and shower from the cold water poured from buckets by his slaves. The cold water was an ordeal, causing pain. It was something to be endured. The dark morning tested his commitment and strength. The vast majority of his life was pleasure and ease, but he made sure to start each day in this harsh way. Afterwards, he would not wrap himself in warm towels, even though they were ready for him. He did not rush back upstairs to be in his bed again, but sat on the edge of a rock that looked away from his kingdom. He sat on his knees, naked, cold, and alone. Looking into the desert valley of this illusion world.

He thought of his nightmare. He understood it, but never faced it. Despite all of his strength, he caused pain, multitudes of pain. The more he built, the more discipline he cultivated, the greater the anger. The stronger the reckless rhino became, and the more painful the memory of when he crushed his little sister, who was quite possibly the only thing he cared for.

That was the pain in his life. He built and ruled and conquered, but with no purpose. He did these things because he was good at it. He did these things because it was what he always did, and the tools he needed to be successful were the same chords that bound his soul from growth.

When the Pharaoh was at his morning bath and meditation, the Queen also awoke as part of her habit. She went into the base of the temple, underground. Here, among the drawings and statues of all the queens before her, she drew in magical energy.

Slaves surrounded her. They burned incense, rubbed warm oils on her arms and legs. They rang bells quietly at the right times. She also kneeled in a dark prayer. She prayed to her ancestors, that they would give her the power to hold her kingdom and king—to keep the power. It is well known that once you are at the top in this world, that a thousand plots and schemes are always at your door to bring you down.

Each of the slaves who served her would, if the opportunity presented itself, put a knife in her back, and so would the lesser nobility that served the kingdom.

In order to be always on guard, she devoted her mornings to collecting the power, clarity, and strategy necessary to conquer all who struggled against her.

When the king was done sitting and staring naked down into the valley. He would then be wrapped in warm robes by his slaves. He would return to his chambers for breakfast, and to watch the beginning of the day’s work. Breakfast was lizard eggs, blackberries dripped in honey, and the milk of strange underworld beasts.

At this point, the Queen has also returned, and sits by his side. Her only breakfast a black tea that sizzled and bubbled. It was a tea that the slaves needed to brew all night. It was midnight tea.

They both sat in stillness and rarely talked to each other. Both sat strong, immovable, but with restless minds and hearts. He, never satisfied with the pace or quality of the work of his thousands. She, always convinced that in the corners and hidden places, someone was planning her murder and overthrow. This life of swimming in the complexities of power was natural to them, but so routine and restrictive that they did not realize that they were in hell, but thought that the sun they saw, the slaves they owned, the despicable food that they ate was real, and so all of this had power over their souls. They didn’t realize that the one thing that they didn’t possess, was the also something that could break the spell of their curse. It was a hideous thing to them: freedom. It was a dangerous thing, so dangerous to their world order that they never considered the curative properties it could have for them.

And this is how they spent endless cycles of days. The only variety would be when there was a coup attempt, or an uprising, in which case the Pharaoh and the Queen would crush these efforts mercilessly. The stronger their force, the more complete the victory, guaranteeing that the next coup or rebellion attempt would be stronger.

Kora, Jexx, and Copper watched them for the whole day, from their secluded viewpoint on the roof of the bazaar. No small task of self-discipline, considering Copper’s curiosity and nose, and the bustling new world just below them.

At one point, they saw a large pterodactyl swoop down in slow circles. It eyed the people of the pharaoh’s town cautiously. Jexx half expected it to dive and steal a person to take and go eat on some distant rock. Eventually she landed on the roof next to them. She could read that Kora, Jexx, and Copper were strangers here, and she wanted to understand them a little better.

Her eyes were a golden fire, and the body charred and burnt. She titled her head sideways in slow robotic bird movements examining them. Copper was moved by a strong desire to bound over onto the other roof, and chew on the pterodactyl’s leathery wings, and sniff the strange creature. He pulled in that direction, but Jexx, as usual, held him firm. Kora was a little concerned that the beast was a spy or a guardian, and that she had brought attention to their location. Kora had taken it for granted that in this particular hell everyone was too busy and distracted by their own illusions to concentrate enough to notice little inconsistencies like a Daikini, a demon, and a Tasmanian devil-dog. But this pterodactyl was not a prisoner of this hell, but a living creature—a decorative part of the ecosystem. She was beginning to learn that the animals that dwelled here, and in other parts of the underworld, were not cursed or tied to bad karma; they inhabited this world in much the same way that they inhabited others: living out their lives in accordance with their natures as part of the grand design of things.

After a while the giant bird was satisfied, and she pumped her large wings, and dove dangerously close to the heads of the crowded bazaar until she gained enough speed to soar back into the sky in the direction towards the distant river and horizon.

They returned to observing the Pharaoh and the Queen. They could be seen, high up in their personal tower, seated upon a large royal veranda, overlooking the work being done below. The entrance to the tower was guarded by a few dozen warrior slaves. There seemed no windows in the stonework. The whole structure seemed invulnerable to direct attack.

It was late afternoon meal time, and the slaves at the base of the tower were busy loading spiced meats, cinnamon anise bread, blood wine, and sugared fried beetles into baskets. There was a complex pulley system that allowed them to raise the food up to the royal veranda, where the Pharaoh would unload them himself. Such was his dislike for his slaves, that none were allowed near the royal suite, and only during his baths or his weekly tours of the worksites would he go near them. This separation also protected the queen against the evil plans to destroy them.

He unloaded the baskets and sat with his feet hanging over the tower, casually eating the despicable treats. The Queen only ate a few bites of the spiced meats and drank some of the blood wine. He tossed bones over the edge.

After the meal, the Pharaoh and Queen returned to their stoic positions watching their owned world with dark restless hearts, always a tightness in their jaws, and an uncomfortable rhythm to their breathing. This, they felt, was the price of leadership, domination, and success.

Towards evening, the sun cast longer than natural shadows into every street corner, and around every building or slave. In the shadow light, the dust of this place gained a glow and sparkle, not unlike what you might design for stardust or gold dust. To Kora’s eyes—one who had lived an ancient life as a slave—this was a very beautiful world, and an even more beautiful time of day. Slaves know few pleasures but the stopping of work, and time for sleep. This transition, and the gold hidden in the shadows, reminded her of such times. She was sure that for these slaves, trapped in this hell, there would probably be no dreams, no heavy refreshing sleep. For them, and all in this place, there would be only the tossing and turning of one in distress. That terrible feeling that the night is not refreshing, and seems too long and torturous, and the morning comes too soon, with its curse that a dreadful day is beginning. Kora did hold out hope for some. She had seen Jexx and Copper beginning to find joy and happiness despite their conditions. Perhaps, in the corners, under the Pharaoh’s very nose, a few would find sweet dreams and companionship.

As the last of the work was being packed a way, something triggered the mighty Pharaoh’s rage. Something he didn’t like, or perhaps something he sensed, or perhaps it was just the culmination of the day’s discontent that he could no longer sit upon and hold down.

He bellowed like a dying beast, punched the wall with enough force that he took out a large crevice, alongside many other dents and mini destructions. He cursed into the valley below in brutal sentences, and then hurled a fire ball indiscriminately into the crowds below. It fell not too far from their rooftop hiding place, so they could see the mayhem it produced.

Slaves were killed, and buildings ruined. Fire burned in the aftermath in small puddles, and it would continue to burn in this way into the night. Most just scattered away leaving the mess for the morning, when new slaves would come in with long brooms and sweep away the death. They would come in with patchwork and clay to slap poor repairs upon the walls, and business would go on as usual.

“What do you think we can do?” Kora asked Jexx.

“We could ride that big dinosaur bird. Fly up there and attack everyone.”

“We could. But I am not sure we can command that creature to be our servant. I somehow feel that its purpose is to remind the slaves that it answers to no one, and that it is free in the skies.”

After a while longer, boredom set in for Jexx and Copper; Kora was immune it. Jexx decided he was going to set out and adventure on his own. He was somewhat thick-headed, so he didn’t worry much about getting caught or ruining their plans, so he started to climb down one of the corners of the roof.

“Where are you going?” Kora said sharply.

“I’m going to walk around.”

“No you’re not.” She said, and walked quickly towards him, and then she jumped acrobatically over the edge of the wall, and was quickly gone into the darkness. Jexx peered over the edge, Copper too. Both a bit confused.

They could not see or hear her. And just when they considered jumping over and searching for her, she popped up on the other side of the roof. She was holding a slave’s robe and a dog’s leash.

“You may need these to blend in. At night, there will be very few out, and you will need to hide your face more. There may be guards or assassins.”

One would think that Kora would be more conservative—that she would look at the clumsy Jexx and the untamed Copper, and keep them close under her wings on this rooftop, until they had created their plan of attack; but Kora had learned to trust her intuition, and this was telling her to let them wander, to let them stumble their way into to trouble. She would wait alone and think.

Jexx put the robe on, and it was much too big for him, but it completely covered his face, so it worked well for this purpose. He wouldn’t be able to run fast, but he was a very good runner in general. Copper looked at Kora with disdain, as she put the collar around his neck. He bit aggressively at the part of the leash close too him. Kora appreciated his wildness and freedom by leaning down and stroking him firmly beneath his jaw.

 

Jexx jumped of the roof like a heavy rock, or a tree stump. Copper scuttled down the walls and ran quick circles of excitement—happy to be free from waiting. The leash dragged dead behind him like the useless thing it was. The night was illuminated by a blood moon, and the air was hot with many smells. All of this was new to both Jexx and Copper. In their disguises, they blended in well. Jexx pulled the hood of his robe down covering his eyes, and Copper seemed like one of the many domesticated beasts that were common here.

They turned down many empty streets and alley ways. Most everyone was in bed, but the general feeling was like a torturous hot summer night where no one can sleep, and this buzz was coming from every darkened room. In most buildings there a half dozen slaves sleeping on the floors, always with someone stirring or batting flies away. The defining factor of these hells is that they are relentless and show no relief. In fact, it seems that is how one might be able to discover if they are in hell; is it an ongoing cycle without break, is it a compulsion to do the same thing even though that repetition is the thing you loathe. The devil’s routine is a strong magnet keeping you in place, and so the slaves in this unreal world kept to a sense of misery even as they turned over restlessly on the stones’ floor.

Copper discovered a strong smell, and pulled Jexx around a corner and through a passageway covered by a large tapestry hung between the buildings. Inside there was large empty room that was lit by seven candles. Inside were buckets of wet clay, and clothes and dyes, and threads and needles. In the corner a pile of used clothes and robes and tunics.

Copper ran among the different smells, all pungent. Jexx stepped slowly into the room, and removed his hood.

“I should call for alarm.” A voice said quietly in the back.

Jexx turned quickly and put his hood back on.

“My mistake. I see now you are one of us.” The woman said.

“Yes.” Jexx said, roughly, like he dropped a dish.

“Do you need mending?” she asked.

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Yes. You do. All things need mending. If you look closely enough, everything needs mending. I can always find the tear, the worn out spot, the stain. Unless you live your life like a baby, at some point, you will break something—do something wrong or evil—get beat or ripped, and then you can come to me for the mending.” She seemed busy arranging her tools on a small table in the corner. Copper ran up to her and she pet his large head, and then looked curiously back at Jexx.

She was an older slave, strong handed, withered in the skin and face, jet black eyes, and peppered grey hair that hung long past her waist. She had the wise and wily look like an old stray cat or coyote that was all skin and bones, but could jump with agility over a wall to drink from a pool of water in an unseen corner.

She had taken an old robe and dumped into a bucket filled with a dark vinegar solution, and she was ringing the cloth with her hands. Jexx wondering how many years—or centuries—she has been doing this same work, in isolation, in the graveyard shift in this place.

“Here. Give me your robe” She said.

Without thinking too much, Jexx gave her his robe. He was obviously not a slave in the way that she knew. His horned head, short squat body, and three fingers would not be much use here—maybe he could carry heavy stones or break them with a hammer.

“I was wrong. I think I should cry alarm.” She said. Jexx stopped, and looked at her, waiting to see if she would scream or ring a bell or run away and bring soldiers.

She opened her mouth wide and said “Alarm!” but she only whispered it, as a joke, and then sparkled her eyes at Jexx to let him know that his secret was staying here.

“Oh. I am too old, and my voice is too weak to sound the alarm. I have seen too much to really care if a stranger has come in, in the middle of the night, breaking all the rules, to be mended.”

She took his robe, and looked it over with efficient, craftsmen efficiency, finding its imperfections, and immediately starting at this with needle and thread. As she worked, she continued to talk to Jexx, like she were in a shop chatting with her co-workers.

“Maybe, this will be my way of contributing to the rebellion.”

“The rebellion?”

Yes. We are slaves don’t you know?” She looked him over. “And slaves are stuck being slaves forever, unless one of two things happen. The first one is a private event, and here it doesn’t work so well, considering all the infinite space surrounding us in all directions. The first one, is to escape. There are no guards around the edges, no walls, but everyone knows that to escape is…is not a good chance. Fear keeps most people from trying it. Fear of the unknown, fear of change. And those that have tried. They…they have come back. Their clothes in need of lots of mending—all torn up and dirty and tattered, attacked and scratched by who knows what. Dry throated and skinny, and wild eyed craziness in their eyes, and a madness, as if they went to the edge of the world itself and saw the blackness that is in all the hearts of this place.”

She had finished patching Jexx’s robe, and was now taking it to a bucket with a green oil, and she was dipping small folded triangles of the robe in.

“The second is a better hope. I think the second will fold this whole place up, and pack it away, in a bag, because the purpose is done. And we can all go live in a real world somewhere. All together to try this again. The second is rebellion. The second is waking up and realizing that I’m all mended, and I don’t need to stay stuck under this pharaoh and that nasty queen anymore.”

She stopped and looked at Jexx, with a playful searching glance.

“You’re not one of the Queen’s spies are you?”

Jexx shook his head.

“That’s good. I don’t hunger to have to be taken into the dungeons of the tower, and have my arms and legs bitten by a thousand snakes and scorpions….again.”

Copper quickly ran to the door and looked into the darkness. Someone was coming.

Both Jexx and the woman looked at the door with some concern.

A large cloaked figure entered the room, and Copper’s tail pounded the floor in recognition.

Kora seemed almost too big for the room when she uncovered her face and studied the room for safety. She walked slowly into the room over towards Jexx and the woman.

“Now I really know that the rebellion really is happening.” The woman said, grabbing a new piece of clothing to work on. “You brought a warrior with you, and a warrior here has one purpose.”

“She is not a warrior. She is a Daikini.” Jexx said.

“I know a warrior when I see one.”

Kora sat down in the corner, in a kneeling position, so she wouldn’t seem so much larger than everyone else in the room. She softened her voice—even the intensity of her stare. She was letting her intuition take over. There are times when logic and determinism are the right tools, and times when they are useless.

“Old mother,” Kora said in respect to the woman. “What is your name, and why do you work in the night when everyone else sleeps?”

“My name?” The woman looked like someone had asked her where she had put an important possession that was rarely used. She kind of looked around concerned that she had lost it, trying to remember the last place she used it. “My name is…is not important anymore, you can call me what everyone else calls me…woman. And I don’t sleep. Who else will take care of all these clothes that need to be cleaned and mended if it isn’t me?”

“Old Mother…if it is ok that I call you something different? What would happen if you didn’t do your work?”

“Then it wouldn’t get done, and what would I be here for? What purpose would I have?”

“I suppose you would have whatever purpose you choose?” Kora said lightly.

The woman—whose name was Oana, but she had forgotten—stopped for a moment to think about what Kora had said, but just for a moment. Oana knew what something like this would mean. She liked to encourage others towards rebellion, and she sensed that something like that would come in and sweep her and everyone away like a tiger river. She thought that freedom would come and take her without her having to do anything about it—just submit to its pull. “Oana.” She said.

“What?” Asked Jexx.

“I remember my name. It is Oana.”

No one spoke for almost a minute. Oana was turning her thinking inward to a lonely place. Jexx was uncomfortable with the silence and fidgeted some. Copper sat and chewed at one of the baskets making it wobble and almost topple. Kora was more at home in these silences, and waited.

But Kora’s suggestion required that kind of courage that is private and individual. The fact of her situation was that coming here, alone, in the middle of the night, to do work that she hated, and to live an afterlife that was like as dry as a dead leaf in the throat—all this was safe for her. It was routine. To break away—even to think of breaking away was frightening, not because she feared anything that could harm her, but she feared change, uncertainty, and making choices. To struggle when one does not have any choices is bearable, but to struggle when one has a world of choices is more painful.

These thoughts were not a place that Oana wanted to visit for long, so she left them quickly.

“Tell me about your rebellion.” She said with a renewed outward energy.

“It’s not a rebellion” Jexx said. “We need to steal the source of the Pharaoh’s power.”

“And use it for yourself! That is a rebellion!” Oana said, slapping a wet robe against a stone with excitement. “Even if you were to steal one cup of blood wine from him, that would be a rebellion, but his source of power—it is rebellion at its best.” She was laughing and content again with her work. “How are you going to do it?”

“We don’t know.” Kora said. “He seems well guarded and almost always in his chamber. I am sure that the Pharaoh’s code will be somewhere near him.”

“You are right. The only time that he leaves his lookout is for his morning baths. This he usually does early, usually before the sun comes up. That is almost always the only time that he leaves his perch. He he is quite vulnerable, naked, sitting on the backside of the tower, with only a few servants and no guards. You could stab him in the back, but then the queen would know soon, and the queen is more dangerous than he is. He is like a rock, too heavy to move, and she is like the asp hiding beneath the rock. But the bath is the only time, the only time he is not looking outward. Morning is coming soon, you must come up with your plan and go start the rebellion. Morning soon, our nights are short and our days long.”

Kora knew this information was the reason she had let Jexx leave; this was the reason he had followed.

“Can I give you a gift, Oana?”

“You don’t need to give me a gift. It was nice to talk with strangers. We don’t talk to each other here, unless we need someone to move out of our way, or to yell at a thief.”

“Then a gift is even more important.”

Kora stood, and put her hand upon Oana’s forehead. The tattoos and gems on Kora’s arm glowed and generated a very quiet and smooth energy. Kora closed her eyes, and focused a great amount of peace into Oana. To Jexx it looked like magic, to Copper it looked like someone putting their hand on the head of another—perhaps she is petting her.

Kora pulled her hand back. Bowed, and thanked Oana.

“That is an odd gift—putting your hand on someone’s head like that. But maybe where you are from that is the way gifts are done. Here let me give you a gift. She turned towards the corner of the room, and grabbed a few different robes. These were similar in cut to the others but they had a gold lining around the edges and a stenciled scorpion and lion upon the breast. “These are the robes of the royal servants. You can get closer to the tower with these. Your dog must be a guard dog. If you can somehow train him to look mean.”

“Goodnight, and good luck.” Kora said. “May you sleep well tonight.”

“Goodnight and good lick to you too, but I don’t sleep.” Oana smiled wearily.

“Goodbye.” Jexx said abruptly, and he and Kora turned towards the door, looking up they could see it was still night, large grey clouds cruised like destroyers in the sky.

When they turned to leave, they saw that Oana, had curled up upon a pile of clean clothes sleeping with the gift that Kora had given her—real, clean, deep sleep, the kind that refreshes and helps you to remember what is real and good, the kind that gives you clarity and hope. Sleep is the province of Daikini. In some words, it is the only place that they can meet people; the only place to do their magic.

They set out again to find their rooftop.

The plan was to use the pulleys to climb up to the royal terrace. They only needed to watch for the right moment when the Pharaoh and the Queen had left their chambers for their morning baths. In the stillness of the predawn, they watched and waiting. There was little noise, but always something. This place did not know the complete stillness of nature. There was always some muffled business happening down an alley or some washing or work being done outside a building. This was a land of restless thinking and constant doing. This night, only Oana knew peace.

Eventually, the Pharaoh emerged, and stood looking out on his creation. He stared for several moments measuring the land and works beneath him.

The real source of his power is his ability to move up like a mountain. Following the same routine; he could sit like this for a thousand years, as long as he knew that he was pushing upwards through the earth towards the sky. Incremental progress is success. He only needed to gain more strength and more power, so that no one could move this mountain, only wind and time were allowed to scrape away some dust from the tops.

After some time of this reflection, he turned to go towards his bath. He was to descend the inner stairs down towards the base of the tower on the back side; his slaves were already waiting for him with his soaps, salts, oils, and buckets of cold water.

After he left, the Queen would also descend to follow her routine—less because she was a creature of habit, but more because she was an opportunist, and the Pharaoh leaving allowed her moments to herself that she could fill however she pleased.

Kora, Jexx, and Copper put on their costumes and headed down through the maze of streets towards the tower. One or two slaves caught sight of them, but immediately turned their heads away out of fear of the royal robes. They didn’t want to get grabbed and taken to the Pharaoh for punishment.

When they arrived at the base of the tower, many slaves were already at work readying the breakfasts and preparing the pulley system for when the Pharaoh returned from his bath—there were a half a dozen or so slaves working lazily.

Kora put a hand on Jexx to calm him, and then she lowered her head and raised her hand. She was conjuring the same kind of energy she had for Oana, but this time it was larger and more powerful. She glowed and sent a spell out into the world, and one by one, the slaves lay on the ground fast asleep. This time, not so much a gift, but a curse, for when the Pharaoh finds out that his slaves were sleeping, and his breakfast is late, they will be punished for years.

Jexx jumped on Kora’s back and she used the pulley system to climb the sheer face of the tower. Copper stayed behind, hiding in a pile of used and overturned baskets. Neither Kora nor Jexx worried about Copper. If trouble should ever find him, he could thrash it like a rag doll and stomp on it at will.

Kora moved quickly and strongly up the wall. Jexx looked out backward to see the city beneath him; lights and movements of all types started as many began their early morning work. When they reached the edge, Jexx climbed awkwardly over onto the ledge, and Kora adeptly sprung up after him.

The royal chamber’s most dominating feature was the large table-like terrace that jetted out from the tower overlooking the lands of the Pharaoh. There were two thrones, on which the pharaoh and his Queen would sit most of their days. The floor was made of large black and white stones, and looked like a chess board. Upon the walls were torches, eternally lit. In the back of the room was a large bed on the floor. The smell was rich: of garlic, rose, ginger, and mushroom oils, but at the same time, where all of them were past their prime and in decay.

Kora scanned the room quickly. She knew that the source of the Pharaoh’s power would not be hidden away in a chest or secret hiding place, it would be out on display. He had no fear. He had only pride and security.

“Where is his power?” Jexx asked.

“Look upon the walls. You go to that side, and I will check this.”

Jexx found old clothes and papers, and paintings of the royal couple that cluttered the corners buried in dust. Small statues of ancient religious figures also untouched for eras. Bowls of gold liquid and purple paints. Dead dried gourds and stones for pounding them into dust, but no magic pharaoh words.

Kora found a cleaner side of the wall. On her side, the paintings were hung, and the small statues were sitting on wooden perches nailed into the walls, and in the center position, there was a book displayed on a shelf. On its cover were these words: Be like the earth. “The greatest storms cannot shake the mountain from its plans. Rise early each morning. Make steady progress. Never yield. Count a thousand days as a day’s work, and a thousand pounds will easily rest on your back.”

Inside the book were pages and pages explaining and describing the power needed for a pharaoh to rule. It was in part a justification for his rule, and also a handbook giving him the means and knowledge necessary to maintain it. If ever there was a doubt in his legitimacy, he could hold the book up high above the heads of his slaves, and they would bow to him.

Kora slipped the book quickly into her robe and turned to descend back down to the tower.

And out of the shadows emerged the queen. She quickly cornered them onto the black squares. The queen pointed her weapon towards them, a dagger dipped in the poison of an Adder.

Everyone sized each other up. Kora and Jexx could instantly tell that the queen was not someone to be easily dispatched. This would take some skill and timing.

The queen’s thoughts moved slowly over her opponents. A lesser royal would have sounded the alarm, and waited for the guards to come running, but the queen always looked for possible advantages, and if the guards were to come running, then what would be the advantage for her. What use would these prisoners be. So she needs to understand the nature of the threat before she decided what to do.

Jexx in front—the pawn, so obviously to her, but what was this other creature? She thought to herself. Not another queen. There was no royalty in the eyes. Not stupid enough looking to be a knight, not square enough to be a rook. She must be a bishop. The queen thought in these metaphors.

But, she had underestimated Kora, thinking she was a normal player in the game. Kora stepped forward and said very calmly.

“I’m a neutral, and you have no influence over me.”

“I’m a queen, and I have influence over everything from the top of the sky to scorpions under the rocks.”

Kora, “I will honor the neutral’s way. I will defeat you without malice.”

The Queen hissed, “I am malice.”

And from her left hand she threw a half-dozen scorpions and with her right she slashed with the dagger. This set Kora and Jexx into coordinated motion. Kora blocking and pivoting each of the viper queen’s strikes, and Jexx collecting all the dark creatures into a basket. Their little bites and stings had no effect on him after all these years.

The queen’s first round of attack was easily defended. The Queen always believed that once the attacks had begun, it is in her best interest to continue forward. When Jexx had put the creatures in the basket, he had separated herself from Kora, so the Queen threw another dagger full force at him. Kora could not intercede in time, and Jexx was left to his own methods. He only had time to raise his arm; it was enough that the blade deflected somewhat, but still cut him, but only a slice, and then the blade flew and clattered against the wall behind him. Being a demon had its benefits, and one was that Jexx was built as tough as elephant’s feet.

This failure made the Queen step back to reassess her strategy. That one is not a pawn, but more of a rook, she thought to herself, so I’ll go after the bishop, and she refocused her evil eyes on Kora.

The only thing equal to the business of her mechanical mind was the quiet and stillness of Kora’s. A great weapon that Kora had cultivated over the millennia was stillness. The waves in her brain moved in harmonics and in agreement with her astral body, while the other twitched with agitated vengeance and fear. The Queen gazed searchingly, looking for the weakness, one of her eyes was as black as a pool in midnight, the other glassed over in a milky white. Her face was once beautiful, but now too proud and too worn by wickedness, the chin always jutting out, the hair pulled back too tightly.

At this moment, the Queen relaxed her shoulders, and began to consider a new approach; like the Warlock, she realized that a direct attack would not work well. She needed more information.

“When I look at that little one, I see he is most obviously a slave. He has done wicked things.” She eyed their faces for the smallest of responses; Jexx did have a micro look of concern when she had said that he had done wicked things. The Queen continued. “This woman on the other hand. Tall and strong, but with the defeated eyes of a slave too. Doing wicked things. Stealing from your queen. Disobeying the divine rules.”

And here there was a small response in Kora because following the divine rules, was exactly her purpose. It was the small guiding light that she had found in her most hopeless moments. That despite the pain and destruction she experienced in life, there was still a purpose and pathway for the universe, and that she could emerge, covered in ash and terrifying memories to have her own purpose—to find sisterhood with other Daikini and industry and quests. The Queen had gathered much information with her probing.

“Will you suffer, proud woman, when I put a dagger into that little ones heart? Or is he just kind of a slave to you too?”

“There is nothing to talk about.” Kora said, realizing the Queen’s game was to get her to reveal something, and get her to be off balance.

“I use slaves like firewood. Maybe it is better to capture him. The way he took that venom, maybe I can put him to good use milking the asps and cobras. Yes. That seems like his destiny, a filthy slave surrounded by filthy creatures.”

“Your words don’t make reality.” It was Kora’s turn, and she hit the nerve.

“I am a Queen! That is exactly what my words do! If I ask for a mountain to be moved. It is moved. If ask for a thousand more slaves then out of their dirty holes they will come. If I want someone dead, they are dead. Do you understand me? You disrespectful little thief.” The queen at times was thunderous.

“We will be leaving now.” Kora said, and motioned for Jexx to stand beside him, and just then, the Pharaoh emerged from hallway beneath the Queen.

You might expect him to be alarmed and move into immediate action, but that was not his style, and things like this have happened before. Things like this were easily handled with simple patience and strength. In his mind, no one could oppose him, so it is quite simple. He could easily walk over and push each of them off the ledge, or call for a hundred guards, or maybe just order the thieves to give up what they have stolen and walk obediently towards their execution. All of these things were at his disposal, so he stood calmly like someone holding the winning hand, watching his opponent bluff a weak position.

He was mountain-like in the chest and shoulders. Deep dark eyes, that almost disappeared except for the odd ways they caught the light—like some night creature, maybe a jackal. He was uncovered except for royal wrap from the waist down to his ankles. Perched on his shoulder was a hawk—peering curiously around his head, sharply questioning each of the visitors.

He whispered something to his bird, and she flew away out the open terrace with orders to alert the guards. The Pharaoh was not concerned with these bumbling thieves, but he was concerned it may be a part of a larger rebellious act—perhaps a diversion, perhaps the opening shot or signal.

“You have playthings my dear.” The Pharaoh said to his wife.

“I am done playing with them. We can discard them.” She said coldly.

“As you wish.”

The Queen moved to the left side of the room, taking a diagonal position threatening Kora. Jexx took up position directly behind Kora. The Pharaoh moved in a straight line to attack Kora. His confidence was in his strength and the ability to overwhelm any opponent with a direct attack. The battle itself was between two queens and two rooks.

Kora and the Pharaoh locked grips at the shoulders; her cloak tightening in defense; his muscles became as slick as oiled stone. He was surprised, but not concerned that she could put up such stiff resistance, and the two held firm for a moment or two.

It was Kora’s move, and her position was dangerous, locked up in the grips of the Pharaoh, she was vulnerable to a quick attack from the queen; and Jexx was not too valuable directly behind her. She needed to bring him into the battle before the Queen pounced on her; she was not sure she could defend both at once. Kora pivoted strongly, still with arms locked, making sure to keep a low center of gravity, or the Pharaoh could easily toss her to the ground.

The Queen rushed in, and swiped at Kora’s throat with her dagger, but the cloak was at its most concentrated around Kora’s neck, and the blade bounced off as if it had encountered a suit of armor. Kora was still vulnerable, it wouldn’t take the Queen long to find a vulnerable spot under the cloak, and even as a Daikini, Kora could be removed from this world if the body was destroyed.

It was Jexx’s move. He still held the basket of creepy creatures with him—out of habit—and he decided to use it. He lunged forward and dumped the contents of the basket down the Pharaoh’s wrap.

The Pharaoh was renowned for great stoicism, but even he showed a flash of discomfort after a few dozen creepy crawlies were biting and clawing the royal jewels.

This broke his grip of Kora, as he bounced awkwardly trying to get the things to fall out of his skirt and onto the floor, and at this, Kora charged the queen.

Despite all of the evil Queen’s wickedness, treachery, and skill; Kora had three times the strength, and with a large upward, flat palmed punch, the Queen was picked clear off the ground and sent flying against the wall.

The Pharaoh started another attacking move, but even in hell, even if you are a great and strong Pharaoh, a scorpion’s sting to the most delicate of places brought him to his knees, and his only move was to retreat, remove his wrappings and try to get the creatures off him one by one.

Kora and Jexx had the advantage, and were just about to move in to capture the Pharaoh, when there was a terrible sound—a wailing—supernatural, disturbing.

The queen was crying. It was a sound with so many qualities it had a taste: salty blood, pain, and black licorice. She was crying so completely that it rang with a purity like a child who had completely given into the tears and sobs.

She was vulnerable.

“I’m destroyed.” She sobbed, struggling to get out phrases. “I’m poisoned. The Asp. It bit me. I’m scared.”

The reversal, the intensity of the sounds, the bizarre, complete, childlike vulnerability surprised even the Pharaoh.

The Queen slumped to the floor, holding her arm, showing great pain, breathing with difficulty. An asp slithered away from her, and she sat next to an overturned basket. “Please. Please. I am defeated. Please. Please.” She said as one who is already fading away, each word becoming a little softer, the eyes looking far away past the room, and into another world. “Please, help me. Please come to me, I keep an antidote to the poison. Please. Please. Come to me. It is here, but out of my reach. I need your help.”

Jexx was moved, and Jexx had spent innumerable moments collecting creatures and sending them to their doom. He had witnessed a million pathetic last efforts of creatures squirming and begging for their lives; just as Jexx was somewhat immune to the poison of dark creatures, was he also immune to the cries of dying things; but the queen’s death song discarded so much of the cruelty and power she had just a few moments ago, that he felt sympathy for her. Under the treacherous crown, there was a little child, vulnerable, suffering, wanting to be cherished and adored—all her efforts towards viciousness were efforts towards that end.

Jexx, moved towards her to help, but Kora stopped him.

For a moment, there was stillness. The queen continued soft sobs, the Pharaoh stood, naked, but still holding his wounded pride. Down below, Copper could be heard barking. A dry wind moved the dust around the edges of the terrace.

The Queen could see that Kora was not going to help her, that her cries and pleas for salvation would not work; Kora was going to allow the poison to take its power, and that she would fade away, and in that moment, the Queen’s eye became hard again. The sobs stopped, and she sprang up like an attacking cobra, knife in hand, spitting with rage. The King also charged.

Kora grabbed Jexx, and scooped him up, running towards the opening of the veranda, and jumped.

The cloak opened, becoming wings, and Kora and Jexx glided in jagged circles down to the base of the tower.

The Pharaoh and the Queen stopped at the edges of the veranda looking down, still standing on the squares of black and white, unable or unwilling to leave the board.

Kora didn’t even look back.

Quickly they found Copper, and made their ways towards the busy and crowded streets, blending in with the chaotic movements of the city. Alarms had sounded, guards, slaves animals ran wild. Some with a purpose and organization, but most moving for the sake of movement, crashing into one another.

And in one corner, Oana was overturning baskets and kicking in doors screaming with delight, “The rebellion has begun! Slaves awaken! The rebellion has begun!”

Kora had her bearings, and even though they had their heads down running, she was making her way towards the edge of city, towards the upside down stairs and the goldfish between worlds. During their reckless run, they would, occasionally, crash into a cart, or person leading a pack of goats, and this would contribute to the rioting mood that was slowly growing within the city.

A few awakened rebels like Oana began strategic efforts to build the momentum of the chaos, but most were just fuddled and running in circles as if the anthill had been unearthed by a shovel.

After some frenzied running, Kora had turned into a dead end.

They were cornered by the Pharaoh’s guards. The street ended, and fifteen or so guards began to approach them, some with sticks. Kora did not enjoy the task of hurting slaves, but she gathered her energy around her spiritual center, coiling into a tight spring, and just as the men began a full, and reckless attack, Jexx, surprisingly tumbled forward, in front of Kora, and had at them, with Copper at his heels.

Jexx tore into the crowd as if his demon body weighed much more than the slaves. He looked very much like a whirling bowling ball. Two or three of them would jump on his back and he would shake them off with spinning punches and kicks. Jexx was quite the brawler, taking hits well with his horned thick head, and delivering them even better. The slaves were wasted and thin, hungry ghosts, always destined to want, so it was easy for Jexx to send two or three flying with one straight punch.

More slaves poured in until the brawl looked less like a fight, and more like walking against the flow of a sand storm. Copper got into the brawling mode, and was also taking hits and thrashing around attackers by the legs, throwing them wildly.

Kora eventually saw a solution, and made her way to the front, turning her cloak into a forward facing shield, she spear-headed them through the crowd, and the attacks bounced off as she pushed forward. They made it out of the dead end, and turned quickly down a narrow street until they reached the Pharaoh’s stables. Since the street narrowed, the flow of slaves following them slowed in the bottle neck. This made it easier for Jexx and Copper to defend by slugging the initial attackers back into the crowd. The bottleneck was completely stopped.

In the Pharaoh’s stable, Kora was impressed and surprised. There was such a wide, gorgeous collection of animals that are not usually ridden, but that the Pharaoh had trained and saddled as part of his larger compulsion to make everything wonderful conquered and bent towards his uses and ownership: Lions, Ostriches, Wolves, Deer, Bears and Wild Boar, and one confused stable boy slave, who pointed his broom up towards Kora in a weak gesture to shew her away.

Kora wasted no time, and spread about some slop around the entrance to the stable, and released the wild boars, speaking to them in a wild sounding language that excited them as they rumbled on towards the food and chaos of the fight. Kora plucked Jexx and Copper from the mess and brought them in to choose their rides.

She settled on a lioness. All three mounted the beast, and Kora whispered in the lion’s language. Kora had one hand firmly on the lion’s saddle, and the other on Jexx; Copper was sandwiched between, and biting onto Kora’s belt. The stable boy stood behind them, curious about the whole process.

Then the lion bounded out through the gates of the stables, violently parting the crowds of slaves, sometimes clawing sideways up the walls, and sometimes crashing down directly in the crowd scattering the leaves of people with ease. The strength of the lion was a glorious sight to see up close. It was as if they had this strength and courage.

Riding upon the backs of the lion, they raced along the river’s edge. Shouts and screams emerged from behind them. Stones and spears sailed over their heads. The only break in the drudgery of slavery that they have experienced in the last hundred years, and they cackled and bellowed with delirium.

The Pharaoh and his Queen could see the riot from their perch above the city.

The Pharaoh at once realized his dilemma. Encourage the hunt, and this might break his slaves form their routine, and anything that breaks the slaves from their routine leads to original thoughts—the biggest danger to the establishment. Allow them to escape, and the power escapes with them.

Could he rule without the justification of the power? Is rule determined by qualities of the Pharaoh? The voice, the mind, the will? Or is it a piece of paper that grants authority?

And in this moment, as crocodiles snapped at the running lion’s legs, The Pharaoh balanced many types of anger and fear. He reached for his horn and sounded a signal for all to stop the attack. Normally, the effect is instant. Normally, all the slaves respond as if some magic switch clicked in their obedient brains, but this time, some strayed. Some continued the pursuit, and others only slowed, but did not completely stop. He sounded the signal again, and more began to stop, but a few brave ones. A few who had crossed a certain point of awareness kept up the pursuit.

But the threads of his robes have already started to unravel. Curiosity and novelty are harder to suppress than armies.

Kora twisted acrobatically to look at her pursuers, still guiding the lead lion forward at reckless speed. Ahead the river turned blocking their way forward, and she adjusted her grip on the lion’s mane telling him what he had to do. And the lions leaped a hundred yards across the river.

The dozen pursuers reacted in different ways. Some stopped dead in their tracks at the river bank. Others tumbled in and started to swim. Only to be devoured by the crocodiles. But one reached deep to discover something important about this world. Its realities were easily broken once one had seen through the illusion, and leaped just as Kora had made the lions, and he landed safely on the other side.

Kora stopped to face him. All out of breath.

The remaining slaves could see this one standing up to Kora, and through their eyes, the image was spread back to all of the slaves.

 

Kora stood calmly, peacefully. The slave approached and swung his giant club in the air. Kora timed her departure like a magician. She threw dust into the air, and twisted away from the strike—in almost the same moment, she escaped out of this world. They had reached the stairway up into the sky, out through the bottom of the lake.

To the other slaves watching from a distance, it seemed that he had destroyed her. To the slave with the club—he was confused. This single action set forward a ripening. The whole city. The whole of the slaves were ready to move on.

When a single mind is ready for revolution, it wretches violently. It resists. But when the time is ripe for so many, all the old remnants come up like a wave dumping shipwreck on the shore.

Somewhere, written on one of the temples were these words: Be wary of these virtues because they may become your sanctuary. They may become the things you collect with your greedy and hungry mind, and all these virtues won by hard work and will power will form the new walls that close you off from people.

And as this whole slave world came to catastrophe, it realized its purpose. To awaken.

Later, the slaves stormed the castle and devoured the pharaoh and his wife. The Pharaoh stood still and did not resist. He knew what was inevitable and bore it will all the power and strength that he used to rule. The better part of his soul was relieved. His last thoughts were of his dreams—his sister. The only thing he would miss were these dreams of sorrow. Nothing about sitting on his throne, none of the power over so many held any value to him at all.

The Queen however, did not go quietly. She retreated to every dark corner, always seeking an advantage. Stabbing, slashing, manipulating until the last, still breathing and wicked until the last breath, when this world folded in on itself, and in her last moments, she renewed her commitment to come back stronger and to seek vengeance on all these pitiful slaves.

All who took part in the mayhem passed from this world into another with little understanding of the nature of the transition. Their trajectory greatly determined by the qualities of their last moments.

They tumbled out of the Pharaoh’s reality and rolled onto the ground.

Success had dropped them on the side of a strange and deadly mountain. A rain cloud above cast the whole side of the mountain into a purple light. Below them, a valley, seemingly unreachable due to the sheer cliffs that keep them so high above.

The flat stone ground that they found themselves on was as well-shaped, and the rocks on its edge, easy places to sit. The three of them rested. The air was hot and still pleasant; somewhere behind them a small amount of water was trickling down from a high stream, making its path all the way to into the larger rivers in the valley. The omnipresent purple light was disorienting. It made their faces seem different—they seemed new, weirder creatures. It had an effect not only on the light, but on their minds. Even the busy mind of Jexx was able to sit still for a while. Copper, outright slept.

Between them and the valley below, were large white Pelicans and Ivory Gulls, riding the hot airs and moving in sinuous notes. There wasn’t much else, and there were no threats, so Jexx also dozed.

Kora took out the map and sat on the ground reading it. This time, the map was easy to read, and the next step on their journey revealed itself to them right away. She meditated and collected the peaceful energy of the surroundings into her hear heart and mind for later use.

Jexx awoke to a gentle nudge from Kora. She quickly held a finger to her mouth. He froze. She seemed to demand it with her look. The quiet water falling along the walls above seemed much louder. Kora made a very slow movement pointing to something just over Jexx’s shoulder. He turned very slowly.

What madevthis mountain deadly, was that it was guarded by a snallygaster.

It was only a few feet away from Jexx. Not looking at him, but out over the valley and into the purple stillness. It is a combination of many beasts, so many that it is difficulty to really see where one type gives off and the other begins. The neck was long, similar to a giraffe, but thicker more like an okapi. The face bird-like, the eyes predatory, the arms and body as powerful as a tiger, but ape-like in their versatility. Large, black demon wings arched up in a position of menacing rest. The tail spiked and bloodied from many battles.

Jexx didn’t move a muscle and neither did Kora. He for fear of being eaten, and She to not scare the beautiful thing away.

Copper still—unexplainably—slumbered.

To be close to such a powerful creature, you can see that, even in rest, there is amazing potential energy. The breaths, the occasional twitch of the huge muscles. The purpose of the gaze out into the distance. It is a mesmerizing thing, and Kora felt kinship with her. She wanted to reach out and sooth the beast by putting her hand upon the side of her head. This snallygaster had a greater power than Kora; and Kora could understand that the creature was there to help them on their journey. Below, under cover of the many trees smaller birds called out in recognition of the king of the mountain. The snallygaster thought so deeply that it wasn’t anything we would consider human thinking. We could connect a machine up to its mind and not see the jumpy little electric waves that measure the doings of human thought, and so we might imagine that this was a dumb beast; but looking into its eyes, and observing the nobility of its posture, you would know that it she was a great philosopher.

In this creature, Kora saw her future.

Jexx made the first, excruciatingly slow movements to get away from the thing that would surely crush him and drop him from great heights, and of course as soon as he did, the snallygaster turned its head and looked at him. She had an aggressive look to her, and Jexx stopped, dumbly in his tracks, mouth open. The giant demon beast reached out to Jexx with one of her ape-like hands.

“Don’t move.” Koraq said behind him.

“What!?” Jexx whispered back.

The hand rotated towards him at a snail’s pace, until bluntly pressing against his face. She felt him in this clumsy way for a few very long seconds, until discovering the horns on his head. A flash of understanding passed over her eyes, and she lowered her head to show Jexx the two horns on her head. She turned and looked at Kora, turning her head sideways. The two exchanged a long glance, communicating in that wonderfully instantaneous way that spiritual creatures are able.

The giant wings flapped, and the snallygaster rose, and took a higher perch, a dozen or so yards higher up on the mountain. She and Kora again exchanged another glance, and then beast flapped its wings again, taking an even higher perch.

“We have to go up, before we can go down.” Kora said. “We have to climb.”

“Climb the mountain?” Jexx asked. Instead of an answer, Kora began to make a trail up the side of the cliff.

Jexx turned to Copper, “Wake up!” and he jostled the groggy Copper to his feet. It took a good minute or so before Copper even noticed the giant snallygaster, and since it seemed that everyone was at peace with one another, Copper felt no alarm or threat, and was as steady as if they had come across a giant statue or other inanimate thing.

The climb up wasn’t as bad as Jexx had feared. It was one that required some coordination of all your feet and hands at the same time, but there was always some root or rock to get a grip with or set your foot under, so the three of them made good progress, while the snallygaster kept moving higher and higher up the mountain.

Before long, they had reached the top, and could see off into the other side. There was a rich forest—probably a relative or neighbor to the Ghoul’s Forest. Smoke rose at uneven distances suggesting a number of small dwellings like the witch’s hut, or individual castles, but nothing large like a village. The snallygaster took to the air again, but this time in her full majesty—wide black demon wings and powerful sharp glides making short work of great distances. She found her mark and circled above it, sounding a loud call that was not unpleasant, despite its ferocious undertones.

“The map won’t be necessary this time. She is showing us the way.” Kora said.

“The way to what?”

“We need to steal the Black Ruby from the Black Knight in Knife’s Forest.”

“That must be Knife Forest then.”

The snallygaster arched high upwards, to signal goodbye and then turned away from them, and set off into the distance in search of prey.

 

 

The Black Knight

 

They made their way down the side of the non-purple side of the mountain, under the yellow gray sky that pretended to move into different types of predawn twilight. Eventually, the sky became a darker grey—closer to night, and the air seemed to smell less sulphorus and more of an unpleasant sweetness.

The land became quickly forested, with trees beaded close together like a person wearing too many necklaces. The walking became difficult. It seemed that the design was made to keep people in.

Animals, cute and fluffy, scurried about from tree to tree doing their business, and odd dragonflies whizzed by as scouts.

Deep inside the forest, they found a castle. Grey stone, majestic, sculptured, stained glass windows lit up from the inside and glowing jewels, looking very similar to the church they had visitied in Ghoul City. Surrounding the base of the castle was a misty moat with large crocodile and barracuda. The castle was uncared for, and sap or tar oozed from its cracks. Moss grew around dark corners, and there was a smell of damp decay.

A torch was lit along the bridge that crossed the moat. This castle was in decay, but it wasn’t dead. Inside was someone who lit up the stained glass windows.

The door was ajar, and they entered. There were old tapestries and marble sculptures. The subjects were once beautiful, but in this state of decay they had a wicked look. Once an angel, but with the purity and beauty slightly turned towards selfishness in a thin smile. Each room had openings and cracks in the ceiling that let in the misty air from outside. Cats and rats moved about with a sense of ownership of the place.

Copper checked himself again. Kora was the leader here and Copper stayed at her side, calm, alert, prepared for the main task.

They entered a great hall, and seated at a table, with his back turned to them, was the black knight. Tall, grey, and unkempt like the castle itself, he was hunched over an easel. Surrounding the walls were the signs of celebrations that must have happened a hundred years ago when the place was happy, but some sadness and loss must have swept in some time ago and taken all the goodness away. Harps, trumpets, gold cups, ivory silver—all strewn about.

Kora turned and whispered to Jexx and Copper. “This duel, I will take on alone. It is a fight of honor.”

“But I could just hit him on the head from behind, and Copper could bite his leg and hold him down.”

“Then I won’t get what I came here for.”

She took two loud steps towards the Knight, and with sudden and impressive athleticism, he turned and grabbed his sword.

“Halt, and reveal your purpose.”

“I am Kora, and I am here to steal from you, and help you to move on.”

“You are here to steal my jewel.” And he put his hands to his heart, where a large black ruby hung upon a tarnished silver chain.  He set his sword down for a moment, and walked his old bones over to the corner of the room, picked up his helmet, and came back slowly.

“Follow me to the courtyard. You can bring your squire and the dog too.”

The floor of the courtyard was layered with uneven stones, pushed up by aggressive green plants. He lit the torches in the walls, and took his place at one side.

“This is the dueling place. You may have a few minutes to prepare.” He put on his helmet. “I am always prepared.”

The knight put the black ruby under his breast plate, put his helmet on, and kneeled in prayer. He prayed earnestly, for his own victory, but also that in her defeat, this strange woman knight would not suffer too much or be killed. He of course cannot guarantee that she would not be killed—knighting is a dangerous vocation, but he could pray for it.

And since it was prayer, Kora could hear it like it was said out loud, plainly. She had great respect for this knight. This prayer of winning but not harming his opponent was the same intention as all of the discipline that she had built into herself. It was the driving force that transformed her pain and suffering into a purpose, her scars into patterns of energy.

Kora’s preparation was the same as always: become balanced. Balanced in terms of how her feet spread out her weight on the ground. Become balanced in terms of how her eyes scanned both the details and the whole picture of the scene around her. Balanced in breath, in thought, in emotion. Become a large animal crossing a cold rushing river.

The knight rose, and readied his sword. Kora extended her right hand, fanned out forward so the blade edge of her hand was her weapon.

The Black Knight paused, removing the face guard from his helmet. “I will not fight an unarmed woman.”

Kora—prefers not to argue—spun acrobatically 360 degrees, and in one clean chop a branch fell from the tree inside the courtyard. Copper barked until shushed by Jexx.

“I see then.” And he replaced the face guard and readied again for the duel.

Neither fighter preferred to make the first move as a result not only of their personal philosophies towards violence, but also due to their tactical preferences. As a result there was a great deal of calm, slow rotations, and the occasional step forward, meant to bait an attack by the opponent. In time, The Black Knight convinced himself to make the first move.

He went in with an overhand downward chop, and Kora pivoted, side-stepped the attack and parried the blade with a right-handed surgical blow his wrist. Her defense was intended to also loosen his grip on the sword, but the knight held.

He was vulnerable here. The heavy sword and the momentum of his missed attack had placed him off-balance, leaning forward—no real defense. Kora stepped her left foot forward, and delivered a strong open handed blow to his mid-section. This drove him backward, but as a fell, he regained his footing and swiped the sword aggressively at Kora’s head. She didn’t have time to completely avoid the attack, so she was forced to bring up her cloak as a shield. It locked into armor position and the sword created green sparks as it glanced upwards over her head.

The knight wasted none of the advantage and came at her full speed with the sword pointed at her mid-section. She raised up, subtly, so his target and center of gravity also raised, and then in lightning quickness, Kora retracted into a protective balled-up position at his feet just as his attack reached her, the cloak again turning into a complete protective shield. His attack faltered as the sword went over her, and as his legs became tripped up, Kora forcefully stood up, sending the Black Knight tumbling head over heels onto the courtyard in a terrible clatter of metal and stone, the sword flying from his hand.

Kora sensed an early victory. She might be able to sweep in, and lock him up with a python coil. He would be immobile, but she did not. She knew that his defeat would have to be on his terms, according to his understanding of the rules of chivalry. He was not an evil wizard or demon, whose sin was so boldly self-serving and wicked. His sin was fallen nobility—self-delusion, decay, stagnation, over-indulgence in what was no longer useful, but since it was once beautiful and self-less, it was once a clean pure water, and now rank and dead.

She allowed him to get up. He understood, and respected her decision. While, he has fought many a knight who would attack an unarmed, downed fighter, it is not something he would do.

They regained their positions, and this time, he was to be more patient. In fact, in his mind, he set the firm intention to wait for her to attack. If this were a street fight, he would have to wait indefinitely, for Kora would not attack if it became obvious that her opponent could or would not attack. She would walk away. This, however was a duel, and therefore different rules were at play. The most important of these is of course fairness. He had attacked once, putting himself at great risk, and it is only fair that she offer an attack of her own. This being all the more tricky because she didn’t have a sword.

She shuffled forward, testing the neutral space between them, and when the time was right, she shot forward a right hand attack, sending the cloak out as an extension. The cloak stiffened and sent a strong blast that the knight struggled to block by crossing his sword across his body. Kora spun in a whirl and dropped to a low position striking his ankles before he could regain enough balance to counter attack. This didn’t send him to the ground, but the speed and unpredictability of her unarmed attack set him off his game.

Kora was too close to the knight for him to strike with his sword, and it seemed she would be able to disarm him quickly, and he sensed this. For all the years he had spent locked in this castle, he still contained in his heart the passion and art that once had him off riding bravely through the fields in adventures and dangerous challenges of all sorts. He would not go easily.

He extended his left in a strong push to create distance between him and Kora, and then began an attack with all his might and focus. One slash hit her hard, but the cloak did its job. The knight had never fought a defense that was as strong as a warrior’s shield but able to cover so much. He hit at her again, but each time, she was able to pivot, deflecting the main force of the attack, and keeping her center of balance, she did not lose any position advantage. The attacks tired the Black Knight and made him vulnerable. He drew both hands back attempting an overhead downward strike, but Kora went up quickly as he drew back, and sent her common attack of an openhand firmly to the base of his chin. The blow had all the more effect because it utilized his own momentum as he was drawing his energy back and up; he flew backwards in disarray. Kora flew towards him and pinned his wrist with her foot. He struggled to rise, but as he turned, she locked up his arms behind her back, and now she had a secure end. He could struggle, but unless she released, he was trapped.

This was not the end that he had imagined, and he had imagined the end too many times. It would be to a young knight, and the blade would find a weak spot in his armor, penetrating his midsection. He would stagger back bravely, making one or two knightly moves with his sword, before falling to one knee to take off his helmet. His opponent would bow in respect, acknowledging the great battle and skill of the Black Knight. Tears would well up in his face. His heart would glow with the culmination of a life devoted to art and knighthood. He would relish in every last memory and the picture of the moment of his last few breaths. He would perish still kneeling as if some last act of valor and strength remained in his bones even after his spirit had expired. Yes. This was how it was to be done.

But his reality was different. Disarmed, with his face smushed against the stone floor—a biting pain shooting through his nervous system as Kora bent his arm back towards the center of his back and his neck—a sense of complete immobility, not only physically, but as if it were difficult to think in such a position.

“I will release you, but only if you give your word that you will not attack. You will accept defeat, and give me the black ruby.”

“I will not. I will fight as long as there is life in me. You will have to kill me.”

Kora thought for a moment. This will not be helpful for anyone, and that is the framework for her. She aspired to be helpful even in fighting and conflict. What the knight did not know, but what Kora knew well is that death is a very disorienting affair, and most people emerge from death right back where they started and sometimes a little worse off. There is much more of a chance to—to level up, when one is still intact.

“If you do not yield, I will be forced to choke you until you lose consciousness. When you awake, then we will be gone, with the ruby.”

“This is unacceptable. Dishonorable. I will make it my quest to search this dark world until I find you. Kill you and retrieve the jewel.”

Kora could sense that it was these types of quests, the protection of the jewel that was keeping the knight in bogged down in stale waters. A sense of pity and responsibility overwhelmed her, and she improvised by engaging with his soul in such a way that it was almost as powerful as the arm lock.

“I will allow you to rise and recollect yourself, ready again for battle. However, you must indulge me one thing.”

“What is it?”

“You must allow me to hold my hand upon your forehead, and say a prayer from my lands.”

“I agree.”

She let him up, and he shuffled awkwardly, stiffly. Finding that he no longer moved like a cat, but maybe an old arthritic greyhound. He set his sword against the wall behind him and took off his helmet to breath better. Kora could see the age in his face. Age can be something radiant if one is devoted to a cause that is greater than oneself—a playful balance between enjoying the body and life given to you, but also celebrating the selfless pleasure of serving others. The knight’s endeavors were no longer selfless, though this is what he believed. There were self-indulgent. They were the inability to move forward and grow. They were yesterday, and his eyes still had a depth that spoke of years of devotion to the mystical and sublime, but the skin had stretched thin and the lines showed weariness.

“You may have your prayer.”

Kora went to him and put her hand upon his forehead. The engines of her true power began to stir, and the jewels embedded through her body glowed. The knight noticed these strange enchantments, and questioned for a second that he had been tricked by a wizard, and this was no prayer at all. It was a prayer, a strong and simple one. She prayed with strength and purpose for growth within his soul. For him to awaken to see where the steps to the mountain top started.

He felt warmth in his inner eye, right where she held her hand, and it washed him clean of the stale waters he had become addicted to. There was always a pain in his heart, which he felt was the normal condition for a knight. In fact, he felt it was the normal condition for all of humanity, but that only knights were noble enough to take this pain on directly. He felt, maybe if knights like him took on this burden, others could live more lightly on grassy downs, where rabbits grazed, and deer could be seen in the nearby woods. However, the more he felt the pain, the more he turned towards his castle, his artwork, his rapture of loneliness, and the more he cycled down into a state of despair. The cycle reinforced. The more decay and disillusionment set in, the more he committed to knighthood and the heavy ruby around his neck.

Kora sent the clear violet light of the third eye, so he could move beyond the immense blue gravity that was his heart. It radiated inside him, knocking loose the cages that held him in familiar patterns. He could see now.

He was in hell.

The bravery and self-sacrifice that he thought worth everything, was also fear. It was selfishness. He enjoyed the pain. It was where things were safe. It was where he was special and choices were simple. He did not need to move forward into a new world where tapestries no longer hung on the walls, and dark passages were no longer lit by torches. He saw the castle for what it had become: a prison. He saw the black ruby as a ball and chain. He saw himself standing on grassy hills in sunshine, free from the entangled forest and vines that swallowed the castle.

And when you change the inner world, you change the outer world.

The castle disappeared. The knight’s armor was gone. He stood in a cloak of his own. White and gray. His skin looked refreshed, and the heavy pain around his eyes disappeared. A temporary grass and sunshine pierced a small hole in this dreary underworld. He handed Kora the black ruby and smiled. Openness was in the smile.

“It is time for the next adventure, knight.”

“I am ready. Thank you.”

The lightness of the grass and sunshine swirled about him until it became him. Freeing him. The heavy heart lightened. The soul moving on.

Jexx had watched the whole thing with wide eyes.

“whoa” he said.

Copper was chewing on his boot.

 

 

 

 

 

The Crackling Fear

 

“It is time now for us to escape.” Kora said. They had walked out of the knight’s forest, and she was considering which way to go next.

“Escape from what?” Jexx asked. “Escape to where?”

“You aren’t yet ready to understand these things, but to escape from this place. Any path we take from here is vulnerable. The last piece that I need to recover is the Key of the Shadow Gate” Kora kept looking up to the skies.

Before setting out, Kora leaned down and laid the black ruby onto a hard stone. She removed her crystals and pressed the jewel hard with her hands and prayer. The lights on her body hummed with energy. This was another moment where she transformed pain into something positive. The process took a little while, so Jexx’s mind strayed as he followed Copper who was sniffing strange raccoons up a tree.

Jexx paused against a tree and was eye-to-eye with a spider.

The spider’s legs like long graceful fingers playing some invisible harp. The craftsmen like rhythm of its work, and the acrobatic simplicity of every movement. Life breathes into this tiny machine an intricacy of details that Jexx walks by and hardly observes. Then Jexx imagined grabbing the creature and shoving it in the bucket for the Warlock, and the thought disgusted him briefly.

Copper was trotting back towards Kora. She had finished her ritual and had something in her hand. Instead of the black ruby there were seven dark mahogany seeds.

“If you escape with me, Jexx, you can help me to plant these seeds in the next world.”

Jexx sat there confused. The thought of escape had not yet broken the surface of his mind. He couldn’t even really understand the meaning. But the thought was there, and it had been there for a while. There is more to do than putting creatures in a bucket.

His feet, crooked, short and misshapen. A face, part beast, stricken and deformed, but a heart and mind most recently human. Copper was his salvation it seemed. And Jexx turned to his friend.

“What do you think Copper, should we escape?” Copper turned his head comically to the side, and bit his hand, pulling and twisting with the cloth he gripped in his powerful devil-hound teeth.

“We should be moving” Kora said again looking towards the sky.

They set out across the downs, somewhat cautiously, since they were doubly vulnerable. There was no cover over head for them, and as they walked up and down the hills, their visibility was limited. Their goal was a mountain road on the horizon.

With no sun, with the land existing as a flat isolated map, with the loose reality of this world itself, navigation was again difficult. She was searching for the shadow gate.

“Tell me again about the seeds.” Jexx asked.

“I’m going to a new world to plant seven trees in each part of that world.”

“Seven Trees” Jexx repeated.

“Each tree is a reason.”

Their steps were easy and free on the oddly soft downs.

“Each tree represents something good that can be done in the world. Something that can give people a purpose for living.” Kora turned to look at Jexx. “Do you have a purpose here?”

“My purpose, I guess, is to get the creatures and make fear, and to play with Copper, and this.” He pulled out the Medusa Cactus still in his pocket.

“Then your purpose is to follow orders.” Kora said.

Jexx frowned. He knew in his mind that he was someone who could pee on walls, and he was someone who could set off in the wrong direction entirely, and he had felt some pride in the brawling fights, and craziness he had recently taken part in. so he knew that he was not someone to just follow orders, but that maybe a whole new world would open up for him like it did for the black knight. Maybe Jexx would be standing there in some weird robe, recently baptized and given a new chance.

Kora sensed this. “Come on, Jexx, let’s find the next thing.”

He was comforted by her, and followed her, all the while mulling over not what kind of creature he was, but what kind of creature he wanted to become. He was serious about it, but still, he could only be serious about these things for so long, and soon he found himself playing a chasing game with Copper in circles around Kora.

The three of them continued on in this way for some time.

After a while, there appeared three large black birds circling overhead. Kora was certain that these birds were the spies of the Warlock. Almost immediately the sky changed.

From the mountains, a giant black cloud moved purposively in their direction. It breathed.

 

“That’s not a cloud. Its alive.” Said Kora.

“Is it bats?” Jexx asked.

 

And the cloud brought its shadow over them.

 

“Not bats. Butterflies.” Kora whispered.

 

10,000 black butterflies darkened the sky. The fluttering of the wings was like a thunder without sound; the wings of every butterfly had small specks of crystal, and the fluttering of 20,000 wings mesmerized. The yellow sky shone through in parts like glowing honey on black tree bark.

 

Kora drank in the energy, and then she realized her advantage. “Even in this underworld there are benevolent creatures. Let’s move under their protection.”

 

They shuffled solemnly towards the mountains. Continually escorted by the butterflies above them. The bird scouts had long since been scattered and returned to their base.

As they were walking, Jexx began to think more about his mis-shapened feet. He put his hand upon his twisted face. He thought about the taste in his mouth when he would snatch all those tiny creatures from the ocean when the tide exposed them. He remembered how he would get a distorted pleasure from seeing them wiggle in his hands and knowing that there was nothing they could do to escape. Like a powerful giant.

“What do I need to do to escape, and can Copper come? Jexx asked.

Some silence followed. It seems as if Kora wanted all her focus and all her energy to be spent her steps. Eventually, and in small pieces she responded.

“Copper is ready now to escape.

You are not.

You must first understand.

Then you must feel.

Then the invisible chains that bind you to this world will disappear.

Then you will have clear vision.

Then you may join me, and help to plant the seeds.”

 

“I don’t understand.” Jexx said.

“That’s the work of step one.”

There was little time for Jexx to reflect. They were at the base of the mountain. Jexx started to walk up the path immediately, but Kora stopped and kneeled.

“Why are we waiting?” Jexx looked confused.

“Before going, we should re-energize, and I have something to do first.”

Kora knelt down, and again removed the box from her bag. She began a prayer. Jexx and Copper came near her to participate. Although they didn’t know the words or the ritual, they knew the purpose, and so they bent their concentrations towards that goal, and although they didn’t know it, this magnified the effect of Kora’s prayer.

Again the jewels and tattoos lining Kora’s arms glowed—almost vibrating—as she lost herself in her intention. The prayer was that all beings who inhabited this realm will be able to share in an understanding that the only thing keeping them in hell was their own thoughts. Her goal was to jar them out of these patterns of thinking that keep them bound to tasks that cause endless cycles of pain. Pain that radiates outward like a tsunami overtaking innocents running from the noise. Pain that seems to encompass whole worlds. She knew that this prayer, though bold in its scope, may only have an effect on a handful. Maybe even only one. Maybe one would realize that he no longer needed to put creatures in a bucket for a Warlock to create more fear.

At the end of the prayer, many of the butterflies came down towards the box, and picked it up, bringing it to the dead lifeless sky and its energy spread into small glowing orbs throughout the colony. Each butterfly absorbed some of the energy, and this transformed their dark wings into an illuminated deep purple, and in one giant herd, this pulsating energy looked like the living heart of an electric catfish, and the cloudy sky deep like the ocean. Jexx thought for a second that at the top of the sky there must be a surface that leads to the sun—a real sun, which was a strange thought for Jexx never knew what the sun was.

Then the butterflies scattered in all directions, taking bits of Kora’s prayer to drop them to others in the far corners of this world. When their mission was complete they would die, and find a place to be reabsorbed into the mechanics of this dark place.

They began walking up the pathway up the mountain. The pathway was well worn, wide and flat with stone and wood work. It made Kora wonder how many have taken this pathway out of this world. It was odd that even in hell there was a place of pilgrimage. The pathway would take turns into the side of the mountain covered in trees, where the path would become dark, and you could hear the sounds of animals scurrying back and forth, and then it would open up again into a wide vista, where they could see the unreal valley below. Rivers winding off on some purpose, small homes with smoke coming from their chimneys. castles, farms, small cities, factories, sports fields, battles, kitchens, schools, jungles, and wilds. In any of the ways that a human being can build up the necessary bad karma that would require a hell to deal with it, this world obliged—a short of chaotic amusement park, with boundary-less themes and inventions of the mind.

The walk was steep, but not tiring. Jexx and Kora and Copper were invigorated by their purpose. The walk upwards was clearing Jexx’s mind. He was remembering more clearly the abuse he had taken from the Warlock. He was remembering the many hours he had laid his boots by the door, so he could bring creatures up the stairs, so the Warlock could boil them up and make fear. He made the connection between what he had been doing, and the witch’s never ending hour, the Pharaoh and his slaves, Iona and the graveyard washings, the black knight and his ruby. He started to see that all people were on a pathway, and all these things they were doing were a reflection—a creation—of the path that was made of the choices they had made.

To make no choices is to sit on your pathway idly.

To make bad choices is to make a hard road for yourself.

To make good choices is to ascend.

Jexx looked down at Copper trotting along with the usual bounce and energy. Jexx felt a great feeling of love and gratitude towards the beast. He wondered how dead he would have been if Copper didn’t come into his life.

They reached a large sign decorated with human and animal skulls.

Copper sniffed the thing aggressively, and Kora examined its words.

“Beware. You are approaching the shadow gate. All self -awareness becomes pain.”

“I don’t understand” Jexx asked.

“We are coming to the end of this world. The Shadow Gate is an exit. The air is less toxic. The mind can see more clearly here. And in this world, when the mind sees clearly. It sees itself first. It sees the choices that it made to get here. It sees the pains it caused others.”

Jexx understood first-hand what she meant. He had been feeling this change in thought, which was very new to him. He had not considered the pain he had caused others, only the pain that the Warlock had caused him. After all, he had only caused pain to little slimy creatures—crabs, mollusks, worms, birds and things. I mean they don’t even have brains or language, he thought, and anyway, it was the Warlock that made him do it. He was the sinner in all this, not me.

They were on the last stretch of the hike. A final bend that wrapped around to a flat crown of the mountain. Black gravel crunched under their feet, jagged stones punched upwards out of the ground in a large circle; above them the sky faded to black as if they had reached the limits of the atmosphere. In the middle was a large black rectangle, about a half a foot thick and seven feet tall.

Copper ran up to it to sniff, but Kora was quickly behind him and pulled him back. This was not something to go sticking your nose in. Copper got the message, but still sniffed at it from a few feet away. It looked completely dark, but in its depths, you felt like you could see the occasional shooting star or swirling purple galaxy. From a few feet away, you could feel a coldness come off of it—not too different from standing near a very large ice box. To Copper the thing smelled of a wet meadow at midnight, not unpleasing to him.

“This is what we came here for?” Jexx asked.

“Yes.” Kora answered, staring at him closely.

“Are we going to throw your things in there?”

Kora stared at him silently.

“I mean, the knight’s jewel and the Pharaoh’s code? Those things.”

“No. those will stay with me.”

Then why did we come here?” Jexx was confused.

“We have come here for you to make a choice. If you are ready.”

Jexx felt that this was a moment that he should be thinking deeply, like Kora did, but thinking deeply was not something that he could do. The way he had been for so long was sitting on the surface of the waters—he had only recently even dipped his head beneath, and now he felt like she were asking him to dive deep—where the water is black—where you can’t even be sure which way is up.

He was not afraid to try, and out of some respect to Kora, he was willing to give it his best. He honestly didn’t know how to begin to think like that. How do you start?

He actually bent his brow with effort and said to himself “Think!”, waited a few seconds, and then relaxed asking himself. “About what?” Then a realization came to him, and it came from nowhere, which was both surprising and comforting. “You can’t stand by a flower and yell at it to bloom. It will open its petals when the time is right.” Jexx got a little giddy. “That was a deep thought. That was swimming in the worlds of ideas. I did it. Maybe Kora put that thought in my mind with her mind?” His face was starting—not quite there yet—but starting to look like someone who can sit and think. He looked again at Kora, and for the first time, he didn’t see her just as something cool and wickedly powerful, but he could see her pain. The jewels, the tattoos, the beauty and strength that she wore were still there, but now he could see the pain that had created her. He felt that all that trauma—while it had rebuilt her into something valuable and infinitely useful—it had robbed her of something too. She was robbed of putting her toes in the clear harmless waters of trickling streams. She was robbed of the joys of sitting lazy on grassy hills. She was robbed of walking shoulder to shoulder with another equal, laughing with them, filled up inside with warmness—being comfortable and at peace. She was not defeated; she was strong; she had purpose; she achieved heights and understanding that most would not be able to obtain and still remain in a body, but it is not right that the innocent moments were taken away.

Jexx had all of this come to him in a moment. An insight. “This is thinking. Seeing things all at once in your mind.” He said aloud.

And Copper growled.

Walking up the pathway from behind them was the Warlock. His tattered robes dragging behind him, on his right arm there was the plate of armor with its design of a sea monster. His face looked like it was made of stone—a gothic evil priest with hints of some animal or gargoyle. He brought a wind with him that sounded like the hushed steps of some murderer racing across the piazza in darkness. He had that stupid look on his face of someone who thinks they have already won.

“I am here to finish our business.” He said.

Behind him three large, black birds flew up and perched on the jagged rocks behind him, raven in color, the size of eagles, and stinky like city pigeons.

“No one defies my order.” The Warlock, almost quivered with hate. Where the Pharaoh had been made of rock, and the Queen wickedness—the Black Knight a kind of sadness and duty that became an obsession—the Warlock was a rigid creature of routine dominated greatly by the fear that he so compulsively created.

That is the ticket to hell. Riding the train of something bad for your own selfish reasons. At some point, you realize the direction it is taking you, and you may sense that you want to get off, but it is so much easier to keep on going once the thing has momentum.

“Give me the Medusa Cactus.”

Jexx looked down, and in his pocket were a few locks of the plant. He took it out and held it in his hand.

The Warlock smiled.

If Kora wasn’t there, it is likely that Jexx would have slipped back into the normal patterns of obeying, such is the power of this kind of abuse. But many things have happened since he set out to get the Medusa Cactus, so Jexx put it snugly back into his pocket.

“You! Jexx! Are the little meats that still cling to the plucked feathers of live birds! I see that a stronger lesson needs to be taught first.” The Warlock was tight lipped, and caught in the strangulation of his own body. That kind of tightness always came to him in these moments anger, and this made it harder for him to think without destroying things.

“Don’t think this fight will go like the others. When I lose, I study. I learn, and I don’t lose again. I have made all the calculations. I’ve looked at all the outcome trees. There is no move or combination that I have not prepared for with you. I will crush you!” The Warlock was certain. “You have your advantages.” He looked at Kora. “You have your unpredictability.” He looked at Copper. “You have loyalty.” He looked at Jexx with double meaning. “Like all things, they can be understood; and if they can be understood, they can be controlled and put in order; and the outcome determined.”

Kora and the Warlock readied themselves for another battle.

Copper turned back towards the path sensing something.

Galloping up behind them was the black demon elk, strutting and stamping its front hooves on the ground, snorts of challenge, and small turns of the head telling the Warlock that he too was here for a battle. For a moment or two, the only sound were the hooves crunching on the black gravel of the crown of the mountain. Jexx felt bolder.

The only movement were the unusual toxic clouds that moved quicker and more unnaturally than the clouds of Earth. From this height, they were above them, so they lacked their normal suffocating and depressing effect. Straight above them the roof of this place went on and on forever, or so it seems. It created a small amount of wonder, similar to what a person—most likely a child—can experience on Earth when looking up at the stars, when far from the city, a taste of that, but only a taste.

Kora wanted all of them behind her. She knew that the Warlock was vulnerable, but she believed him when he said that he had considered all outcomes, and if he were to test his strategy, she preferred that he test it on her first.

Kora too was certain of the outcome of this fight, but not because she had determined the outcomes, but because she had such excellent access to the inner world, that she could sense the future, and here, in fact in her whole journey, she could sense success. She felt, upon immediately meeting Jexx that he was a core part of her quest. She could sense the right times to attack, to hide, to speak, to rest; and this moment was no different; she allowed herself to ready for battle, certain of a positive outcome, trusting in the same emptiness of mind that she had cultivated over the years; her strength readied but loose in the waiting.

She tried to reposition herself again, so that Jexx, Copper, and the elk were behind her. Jexx and Copper had been around her enough that they fell in line without a word. The Elk moved away from behind her and wanted to engage the Warlock directly. It was a noble creature, and therefore does not do well from behind.

To the Warlock, this Elk was not a part of his calculations, but even that he had planned for. In his plans, he had arranged to handle the dog, the slave, and the witch—but also, if any other shall be there, I will destroy them first, so I can return to measurements of my original thoughts.

The Warlock stayed true to his design. With a fierce and hidden attack he sent a green electricity at the Elk. Kora dove athletically to intercept the blast, but the Elk had already downed its antlers and begun to charge at the Warlock, and it was too far away from her to protect it.

The Elk attempted to push through the dark energy as if it were the horns of another buck, but this was not something that courage and nobility could overcome.

In that quick and lethal blast the Warlock destroyed the Black Elk. He limped off to the side, knowing the blow had done him in. Copper stood instinctively in from of the beast to protect it from further attacks. The Warlock smiled. There was nothing he preferred to ridicule more than useless attempts at goodness. It filled his depravity with the false belief that he was right and all others were wrong.

The Elk slumped over, still holding its head in a noble position, and died.

Jexx looked at the lifeless body of the animal. Jexx had seen so many dead or dying things, but this animal was so much more beautiful. To see its life taken so abruptly—Jexx felt an anger and sadness mixed together. Jexx looked at Copper. He was standing guard over the dead elk, and Jexx could see in Copper’s eyes a steely determination to win and sink teeth into the Warlock’s throat. For the first time, Copper seemed much more of the hell hound and he breathed smoke and steam.

Behind them there was a larger Elk, a shadow version of the original, standing alert and proud. Observing the whole scene, unable to participate. The Warlock couldn’t see him. Jexx and Copper couldn’t see him. Only Kora. Since she is a neutral, she can see what happens between worlds.

“And now it is your turn.” The Warlock pointed his clawed finger at Copper.

“No!” Muttered Jexx.

The Warlock slowly turned and pointed his weapon to Jexx.

“If you prefer.”

The Warlock’s real target was Kora. She was the only real threat. Everything else was to get her to into a vulnerable position. He correctly determined that she doesn’t attack, but only defends, and she is most vulnerable when she is defending others; so he put all his focus on Jexx, selling his attack, collecting the magic needed to send another blast.

Kora could see his eyes burning into Jexx, and hear the sound of the magic generating, so she stepped in his direction again.

The Warlock sent his blast towards Jexx, but he intentionally aimed wide of the mark.

Kora, for once, didn’t trust her instincts. Her instincts told her that the blast was going to miss Jexx, that she could simply stand strong and let the attack miss wide; but the death of the Elk filled her with a sense of dread, an uncertain feeling that the Warlock was going to kill another, and this fear of protecting Jexx—something that was not so present at the start of their journey—was something the Warlock had planned on exploiting. She blocked the blast, but had extended herself too far, for a brief moment she was off balance. For just the smallest window of time, Jexx was exposed and unprotected.

The Warlock sent an immediate follow-up attack, as had been his plan: a one-two attack combination. And as he sent out the blast, he uttered magic words changing the complexity and chemistry of the magic.

The blast hit.

Jexx recoiled in shock as he saw Kora writhing on the ground in pain. The attack was meant for her; as she had over-reached in her defense of Jexx, she also had exposed her side, and her defense was down. The spell was intended to paralyze and not kill. In fact, the Warlock had determined that he could not kill her since she was a Daikini, but he could paralyze her, and throw her into the shadow gate, and all things thrown into the shadow get were reduced to dust.

The spell was particularly horrible. It paralyzed through pain. All Kora’s jewels and tattoos faded. They no longer looked radiant; her skin became dulled and human like, instantly aged and all vitality slashed out. Her face compromised into showing suffering. In this state, she was hardly aware of her surroundings, of her quest, or Jexx and Copper.

And the terror of the ordeal—that even the Warlock had not anticipated—was that the pain was double for Kora. She had built herself out of pain. She had escaped and become so strong, so that she would no longer be vulnerable, so that no one could torture her again, so that she was impervious—and to be taken over by it so completely brought back to her all of the old sensations. It almost washed away all of the hard work she had done. It almost brought her back to the beginning where pain was fresh and raw, and something to fear—where you try to run away but you realize inside your body and mind you can only run in circles. It was breaking her spirit.

Not wasting anytime, The Warlock began to generate the necessary energy to attack the other two, the weaker ones. He had the assuredness of a victor.

Before Jexx could even decide which way to move, The Warlock blasted him with a paralyzing attack. This was not one of pain. He wanted Jexx alert. He wanted Jexx to see everything. To the Warlock, what was the most unacceptable was that Kora had stolen Jexx, and Jexx was his possession. After all his talk about breaking Jexx into a thousand pieces, what the Warlock really wanted was to return things to the way they were. He was prepared to break Jexx down in order for him to return to a sense of order. He was ready to kill Kora and Copper, but for Jexx he wanted submission.

With Kora and Jexx both paralyzed, he turned his attention to Copper.

He generated a fatal amount of dark energy, and fired the missile at the dog.

Copper dodged the attack and continued to run in zig zagging circles. Again and again the Warlock launched an attack, but Copper dodged them with animal instincts.

“Horse Guts! That damned dog is just too quick” The Warlock said to himself. For a human, it would not last forever, continually dodging an attack. At some point, a human would do something different, tire, or make a different choice, but a dog could play this game forever. The Warlock, with the perfect plan, was frustrated like a fool, as helpless as being hwarted by a can of beans that they just can’t seem to get open.

The Warlock’s dark energy was almost completely drained, so he stopped to think. “If the dog attacks me, I shall have the advantage. Its weakness is loyalty. All virtues are weakness, and all virtues can be exploited.” He thought these things with an unhealthy pride. He was very satisfied with himself that he had such a great plan, but now, in the middle of it, he could adjust and improvise. “Even better he thought.”

The Warlock removed a dagger from his belt, and walked menacingly towards Kora.

“Your death is mine, and there will be so much fear I can mine from your soul. You are worth ten thousand buckets of slime. The dog can run away and live in the woods for all I care.”

He dragged her towards the shadow gate, positioning her just off to the side. Jexx looked on, upset, unable to do anything. He had spent so much of his time in fear of the Warlock, that even if he were not under a spell, it would be unlikely for him to be a hero. It was Copper who was free. Copper was thinking, and when dogs are thinking under threat and pressure, they have this certain look in their eye, and the body paces back and forth, and just before these thoughts turn into action, Copper growled revving up his internal fire.

The Warlock put the blade against Kora’s throat.

Copper charged him, teeth flashing, eyes glowing with the red fires of a hell hound, with purpose and fearlessness in a land of fear.

The Warlock swiveled, making a defensive spell of a black shield just as Copper reached him. The Warlock bounced the dog away with great force, pushing him into the air. Copper yelped with pain, but also because dogs do not have the easy center of gravity of cats, and to be in mid-air was a most uncomfortable feeling. The Warlock’s defense was perfectly timed, and Copper went right into the shadow gate.

Copper’s agonizing scream faded and echoed suggesting that the gate had some mysterious depth to it, but the outside also sizzled and burned, like the entrance itself was as hot as a frying pan. There were remnants. Bits of ash and flying embers flew away from the sizzle; the only things that were left of Copper. Sometimes these are the only things left of bravery; and the wicked are still there to laugh at their good fortune.

Kora’s looked down, still in great pain, she had enough composure to show respect and admiration. Jexx’s eyes bulged. His heart simultaneously swelled and seemed to break. His mouth left ajar, a dead and dumb look on his face. He had lost his best friend, and to do so in just the fastest of moments.

The Warlock rose to his full height—seemingly for the first time. Victory fed him the stuff he needed. “I will now complete things. The little equation is balanced.” And with an evil self-assuredness, he went to pick up Kora to throw her into death.

Then another voice—a brand new voice—came from the side, casual.

“That is the beauty of the design don’t you think?”

The Warlock froze.

“You can look ahead and make all the calculations you want, but you can never know for certain. The little origin rules keep banging away at each other creating new patterns. Even I don’t know for sure what will happen, so surely, Simon, you can’t either.”

This creature was very tall, but stretched out thin—almost unreal looking. Long arms, and legs, and fingers, and hands, and angular face and nose. Locks of grey and white hair. He had a philosopher’s look; someone who gave much value to ideas. His eyes did not have any sign of menace, but you could not see kindness either. He had a stillness to him, and it would not be hard to imagine that he was an orchestra conductor about to begin a performance, or that he was a scientist about to scribble insights into a book. It was that kind of seriousness of thought that dominated him. In fact, he was ancient, and had participated in armies storming cliff-side fortresses, in bodies being thrown away during the plague, in silent murders done privately, in larger massacres that destroyed so much of nature. His clothes were simple, thick, and gray, ruffles around the collar, immaculate without a speck of dust or grime on them, as if he had just popped into the world borrowed from some library.

He raised his right arm, and the cold feeling left Jexx; the pain went away from Kora. The Warlock’s magic melted away in front of the stranger.

“I am the games-keeper.” He said, and bowed his head in a slight nod. Then he turned to the Warlock. “Simon, are you still here?”

Simon the Warlock looked at him dumbfounded.

“Your business is done. You killed the little dog and the deer, you can run home, and we can chat about this later.”

The Warlock considered running his dark magic directly at his superior. It would be intensified by his anger and hate, but he knew he would be attacking a ghost, and he didn’t have the courage nor the vision to bring anything useful up, so he turned and walked a miserable thousand steps down and away from them; back to his tower. By a demon’s roar, how many thousands of cauldrons of fear will he have to make before he can even begin to get over this failure.

“They stole my job.” He said to himself. “They took away my revenge.” And he would say this over and over a million times or more.

For several long moments, Kora, The games-keeper, and Jexx were still. The battle seemed over, but there was still the ringing in the ears. The games-keeper respected their need for quiet.

Kora, remained sitting, but shifted herself into a more comfortable and dignified position. Jexx, stood awkwardly, not really understanding anything, and still deadened, but half-hoping that Copper would emerge from the black gate.

“You need water.” The Games-Keeper waved his hand and a bowl of clean water appeared before Kora and Jexx. “This place doesn’t have enough water. And where it does it is of such stagnant qualities.”

Jexx looked at the water dumbly; Kora drank.

“You are starting to feel better.” The Games-Keeper said. “Well, at least one of you.”

Kora was now able to stand.

“It is not every millennia that we have someone come in here and attempt to abscond with our powerful words, knocking over so many private hells, inverting the realities of so many. It is the kind of accomplishment that is generally punished.”

“I know you from different name.” Kora said.

“Which name?”

“Death.”

“Yes. Another pleasantry of the system. I can be called a thousand or so names. To be honest, I really stopped counting. The rule is, you can call me whatever you want. I like Games-Keeper. But to be honest, I enjoy analyzing the rules much more than enforcing them.” He paused, looking around at the view of his domains, and then continued. “Games, thinker, maybe. So, what do you intend to do?”

“We intend to leave.” Kora said.

“There is no, leaving. You saw what happens when you go through the shadow gate. You will turn to dust and ash like your hell-hound. That is not leaving. Your already at the top of the mountain, you can’t exactly fly way from here through the roof. Again, there is no leaving. You are stuck in these bodies, and you are stuck in this world. That’s all there is. It’s this material that makes up everything that you are, and to escape from it is to be nothing.” Death said these things in a matter of fact way.

Kora disagreed: “It is not this material that defines us. This material is filled with the breath of life, the fire and energy of the soul. We are dust, but we are stardust. The realities of the different worlds are flexible, and one may pass through them with training, skill, and experience.”

Death had a slow chuckle at this—not an evil chuckle, not arrogant, but the soft laughter of an old man listening to naïve words of youth. “These are illusions of your mind. Necessary, I understand, but powerful illusions. The full range of your experience can be measured through the chemical and electrical impulses in your brain. Everything from the way you recoil at the taste of certain foods, to the deepest feelings of love and other sublime transcendences, but it’s ok. You don’t need to see the truth because deep down, you fear it. The one fear that all share—the fear of mortality. The fear that what I am saying is true and what Kora says is the illusion.

“You have things backwards. It is the material world that is the illusion. It exists because we will it. We make it with every choice. We make it with every pathway. We write every sentence and it plays its part. When you see that it is an illusion, you can bend it and reorganize it. You don’t see things clearly. You are the one who is trapped.” Kora fought back.

“You are playing a complex philosophical game. One that will crush you when the truth inevitably knocks on your door, and all this faith draws away.”

“Yours is the game. Yours is the game that draws people to evil and vice. Yours is where we can see people turn towards selfishness, anger, fear.”

The Game-Keeper walked a little closer to them, he looked Kora over very carefully. He studied her jewels, and her tattoos. He wondered about them. He looked at her eyes. He was measuring her determination—trying to see at what point she would break, and searching out what would be the thing that would break her, for in all his thousands of years, he had concluded that all things have a breaking point—mountains, kings, mythical beasts. With her strong skull, and magical self-written body, and steel will, Kora could still break.

He turned to Jexx; a much simpler creature. Deformed, clumsy—unaware of what he was even. All the enlightenment of a diseased raccoon going through the city trash before scuttling back into the sewers. It wasn’t a matter of breaking him, so much as throwing him something stinky and getting him to go where you want. He turned back to Kora.

“You think I don’t have the same questions as mortals. If you keep on peeling an onion you get to the same void. Understanding, you begin to realize, has its limits. The king is envious of the farmer on the outer edges of his kingdom. Rising early with the sunrise. The water tastes good and pure to him. The sunshine warm. The bed so generous and complete. The flesh itself as ancient as crocodiles drifting along without thought. But the King has too much awareness and all those simple pleasures lose their value.”

“All creatures can change. You can once again discover what the taste of pure water is.” Kora was now searching him for his inner mechanics.

“One thing you don’t understand about me. I want to be here. I choose to be here. I have conquered the will, and there is nothing that I can’t put under my power. No taste is disgusting. No terror I can’t absorb. This place is cookies and cream to me. You talk to me like I am some kind of developing creature. Like I have some soul trajectory. Like there is hope for me. I am this place. I have turned it around so that hate is my heartbeat, and I collect all the creatures of darkness and I put them in their places in the curio. You two don’t fit, your hell-hound didn’t fit, and so now I have destroyed him.”

Jexx spoke, “You didn’t kill him. The Warlock did.”

“Anything that happens in my world. I did. If Simon breathes, it because I will it.”

Jexx had the very start of a tear in his eye, but a fully-developed sadness in his stomach. “Why did you kill Copper. He was a good dog?”

In response to this, Death made his move. “That is what I do. You haven’t figured this out yet. I kill the things you love.

“What greater test is there? What greater pain than the knowledge that everything that you love will be killed by me eventually? What greater sorrow than to watch them die, and have no power to stop it?

“You shouldn’t listen to Kora. She is the one who is telling you lies. She is saying that there are pathways between worlds, and that she is the traveler. She will tell you lies about a spirit. She will tell you lies about the journey of the self from one life to another. At best, the body is fertilizer. The whole of your world is the machine that is your body. Science proves this. The range, the limits of what you are—everything is signals and electrical impulses like a messy computer. Kora says what she says because I will it.

“And somewhere along the evolution of this empty machine, it encoded the need for fantasy and lies. One part of the brain devoted to its own personal illusions of transcendence beyond the physical world. When we all know that this physical world, and this body and brain are the only cage and the extent of your brief existence, and this realization is the horror that so few have the courage to realize. All others recede into the comfort of the lies and illusion.

“When you pray to god, you and all others feel something sublime because you are triggering a mechanism in the brain that changes the brain waves. It is not much different than when your breathing accelerates when you climb a flight of stairs. This prayer and access to God is physiology.

“This is the only fear. The source of all fears. The knowledge that all you can build is empty—that all you love is a corpse. The most real thing you have every experienced in your life are your nightmares.

“If you enter that shadow gate, you will cease to exist. There will be no more you. Look at that Elk there. Look at the dust that is left from your Hell-Hound. Think of the thousands of creatures squirming in your bucket that you dumped into the Simon’s cauldron. What do you think became of all of them in that soup he made? Do such tiny disgusting creatures have a soul? Do they live on? Or do their little bits and parts transform into mush and stink?”

Kora listened, stoically. It was not her place to interrupt. She knew that this moment was one of decision. That the challenge the Death spirit had brought to him was his own challenge. She could see the fear and doubt swirling about Jexx. He had been living a thoughtless, unexamined existence in this dark shadow world. Following his orders, living a continuous stream of tasks. He never stopped to think about what the culmination of all this meant. He could see how this was his penance. Without understanding, penance goes on forever. With understanding, it transforms immediately.

“You are saying that I have done evil things.”

“What is evil, but harming others with conscious indifference or, if we want to swell the word to its fullest—with enjoyment. To harm others and feel the conflict is tragedy.” The death spirit said, continuing his lecture. “And good. It is this naïve easily manipulated thing. It is helping others without concern for rewards for the self. But it is so easy for me to twist and distort it because the self is ever-hungry unless continuously tamed. All I have to do is wait for a quiet moment—an opening made by natural fear or desire and there I insert a nasty little thought: ‘you are so good, you deserve fame, fortune, power, pleasure, freedom’; anything that the hungry self smells as good. And the castle tumbles and the virtues fold over upside down until they find their twin vices.”

 

“You don’t remember how you used to enjoy catching all those creatures. How you would steal a few for yourself and throw them against walls, or drop them from heights? And simon would see this and smile, and as you stopped enjoying these things, the Simon became angry and treated you badly. Partly because he thought it might bring back the demon inside you, and partly because he was jealous. He was jealous that you were nearing the end of your time here, and the illusions of this realm no longer had hold over you, but he had so much further to go. You don’t remember these changes?

He stepped much closer to Jexx.

“Turn around from Kora. She is an outsider, and full of lies and fantasy. I’ll take you back with me. I’ll give you a new job. You don’t have to work for Simon anymore. Most importantly, you will still continue to live. The most important thing is that you continue to live while others die. As long as you can, as comfortably. I can promise more than the shadow gate.”

A number of conflicting elements came into Jexx’s mind at the same time: a strong idea that Kora was the only thing that seemed to make sense to him; a powerful sorrow for the loss of Copper; dread, pure and panic inducing as he was persuaded by the Death Spirit’s mortal threats; and a devastating feeling of shame—that his distorted, thick-footed body had caused all of this. Total shame that Kora had taken her personal pain and used it to transform into an amazing, powerful, and beautiful creature.

It was this last idea that became stronger. He turned to her, and said weakly. “What should I do?”

“The first step is to understand.”

He thought. Giving in to the strongest of the ideas in his head. If she can take the pain that others gave to her and transform it into something good and useful. This makes her better. It makes her body, mind, and soul powerful, transcendent. If my body is bad, if my mind is dull, if my soul is so quiet I don’t know if it exists, then I must be the one causing the pain. And all these things come from a pattern—a long history of drops in the bucket—not easily undone, but so easily made; each bad choice making the next easier—eventually pulling you so hard in that direction that it is much easier to relinquish yourself to that river.

He remembered the weird things he remembered before. Not replaying them all, like watching a movie, but understanding them all, like when you step back to understand the whole picture. He could see his lifetimes. He could see his patterns. His ruts in the road, keeping the wheels on familiar paths.

He had killed. He had killed in so numerous ways. He had killed following orders. He had killed as a job. He had slaughtered without really thinking he was slaughtering. In order to accept these things, he dulled the mind with drink and dreary, empty days. The duller the mind, the less the soul can object. The duller and more smudged the glass, the less the clear liquid, the less likely the spiritual signs can be seen.

He could see through the eyes of a soldier, behind a machine gun, cutting down a row of men walking towards him in a line. He actually laughed as the order was given to fire. In relieved disbelief that they were so stupid as to march in lines across the wasted fog of no man’s land. He was so scared that they were going to kill him, that the great relief that the machine gun would shred so many, lightened his mood.

He could see his hands soiled in blood as he worked in a slaughter house. Converting living creatures—noble, kind, giving creatures like cows—converting them into unrecognizable pieces of meat. Pigs, sheep, all kinds of animals. Never a thought about them other than a bored tedious distaste for his job. The stench bothered him, the sight of the continuous blood ruined him from joys. So, at the end of every day, he would make his way to a pub, and drink himself dull, and stuff himself with the meaty creations of his profession.

He saw many lifetimes, where he spiraled downward into similar patterns of following orders, restricted jobs, and so much killing. He was overwhelmed with a feeling of pain and shame, and the only thing stronger than this was a desire to crush this shame with a commitment to do better. He knew he could never become great like Kora, but he could do something better. He can travel with her through this gate and help plant seeds.

He thought of her words literally. He thought of walking a strange world, still with his same cloven feet, and horned head, with a bag of seeds at his side. Stopping along strange mountain ridges to plant seeds. Drinking from mountain streams. Seeing a sun. And the thing that he could see from all of this is that it is better to find a way to plant seeds, than it is to kill things. When you have fallen so far down. It is so much easier to just do better—all you have to do is step up.

He was not brave. He was not wise. He was just a soul who had fallen a long way, and it was his time to understand.

The dullness and the invisible chains that bound him to his hell fell away. He could feel his heart swell. He could feel his spirit.

“I’m going.” He said.

“So that is your decision.” The Game-keeper said. He looked at Kora for confirmation, and she nodded. “Well, then, that’s what it is.”

“Do I walk through the Shadow Gate?” Jexx asked.

 

The Game-keeper took a few steps closer to him.

 

Kora looked at the spirit of death, and the two of them exchanged a knowing glance. Death reached out his hand and placed it on Jexx’s shoulder. Jexx let out a panicked gasp for air. His eyes bulged. He fell to the ground lifeless. He went from confusion to fear, to unknowing very quickly.

Animals have a much more comfortable relationship with death. When the time is right, they will go out and look for it, under a tree away from their pack. Even the gazelle will look with tender eyes towards the lion that has her in its jaws. This is much rarer among humans, and demons, angels, and ghouls. They will object and turn away from it until the last; and maybe the doctor even says the lie to them: I am just giving you something to make you feel a little more comfortable.

Kora and death exchanged one more look of understanding.

“The thing is done.” Death said, and before he turned towards the pathway, he handed her the Key to the Shadow Gate. “This is the thing you needed, right?” It was a black skeleton key of rusted metal. Then he solemnly began his way towards the pathway down the mountain to make his journey back to the small hut at the fork of the black river; where he sits and whittles new creatures to populate and decorate his domains.

 

Kora collected her things, and and sat down to meditate on the flat top of the mountain. She used her crystals, and focused on Jexx, Copper, and the elk. She was putting all her energy into assisting them on their journey. A most challenging, confusing, and important journey. One that seems like you were just shot out of a circus canon, and you have a few seconds to redirect your trajectory so as to land in a more benign location.

 

 

 

Seven Trees

 

 

Jexx did not know where he was.

It seemed as if he were on a spaceship.

He was moving forward at hundreds of miles an hour, and the whooshing sound of air moving past him, and the rumbling movements of his carriage jostled him from side to side. It was dark, and crowded with other demons. The crowd was moving, bumping shoulders together, moving slowly forward, always seeming to wait for something in front of them.

And then, suddenly, he was alone and stood before an open doorway. With a stormy nightscape whizzing past. Stars, clouds, rain, wind. He was being propelled through space at great speed, and he needed to jump.

It was like he was standing in the doorway of some World War II plane, and jump doors were open, outside it was a midnight thunder storm, with icy air and hail moving sideways like daggers.

He jumped.

A rush of thrilling energy filled him to the socks, and he was twisted and turning in the middle of this dark storm. In the distance soft lightning strikes illuminated sections of the sky and rolling thunder sounded. After a moment or two, he got control of his spinning, and began to soar. With subtle movements, he could control the pace, the angle. He could dive or float.

He was exhilarated, in part because of the actual physics of the experience, and in part because he had gone through to the other side, and he had not been discontinued as the Death spirit had threatened.

The storm receded and his falling changed from violence tumble to peaceful serenity. The sky became perfectly clear, and filled with stars. There was no longer any resistance from the air, and there was no more falling. Now he was floating through space. This was a crystal sky: the night a pure black, the stars clear white. The contrast set to nature’s highest measurements.

And then Jexx’s body began to transform in front of him. He held out his hands, and he could see the flesh, or by this point the illusion of flesh, change into light. A million tiny embers, still holding the shape of a demon, but loosely like a colony of fireflies holding a pattern. He was only energy now, still a consciousness, still a complete thread of memory and awareness, but only joy and freedom, no sensations now, no corporal awareness.

And without falling or traveling at all, he found himself in a meadow clearing in a forest. This time the senses were awakened tenfold. The light of mid-morning kept the sun still below the tree-line cast a gentle glow. The cool crisp air moved around his nakedness by the slightest of winds. In some distance, water could be heard tricking over rocks where a small stream turned and redirected.

Kora was with him.

 

“You made it.” She said.

“You too?” Said Jexx, in a new voice. It was no longer sounded gravelly and rough, but was clearer and more true. “Did you have to die and go through the shadow gate too?”

“No. I am a Daikini. I can travel between the worlds as I need to. Die is a strange word to me. I see only change. I see when the time is right to enter the cocoon, and when the time is right to transform. I see when the time is right to evolve, and when the time is right for the single rain drop to be absorbed into the cloud.

All her tattoos and all her gems were glowing. She had a different light here. Her mission was over, and she had a kinder look—less ready for a hundred deadly challenges.

“Is Copper here?” Jexx imagined him tromping out and about in the woods.

“No.  Copper is in his own place.”

“Will I ever see him again?”

“Maybe.”

Jexx was not uplifted by this maybe. To him, in his most recent memories, Copper represented his only friend. The only source of joy and hope that he had—to be truthful—the only companion. In this light world, free from the heaviness and stink of chemicals and the yellow sulfur ocean, his sadness had no place to take root. He thought of Copper in his trajectory, still bounding to and fro, curious, loyal, and brave in everything he did, resilient to the poisons around him, bringing happiness to others.

“What the Devil said seemed so real. It seemed so true.” Jexx said with lowered head, still doubting that Copper was not just a pile of ash.

“It is a powerful strategy. Those who believe him suffer. They only focus on the needs of the body; they cultivate passion and desire, and so, as this body ages it is a horror for them. Every sign of decay as the body drops a way is something to fight against and disbelieve. However, if you can live a life more in tune with the needs of the soul, you cultivate wisdom; then the opposite happens: every decay reveals the glowing soul beneath, like vines falling away from a beautiful temple. To all around the person ages beautifully, embracing the changes, and blending with them.

“Faith is not something that you make a bet on. You don’t flip a coin and hope for the best. It is a muscle. It is a skill. It is something that you can develop. It is a garden that you tend. And after all the work is put in, you have something that is strong within you, but only after the daily work is done, and collected over years. Those who spend no time in this area suffer to varying degrees.”

He thought of the Demon Elk, the butterflies, the slimy creatures in his bucket. Each with a will to live, and each with larger pathway, a place in this larger harmony of innumerous revolving fractals. Material, time, energy. A simple set of rules made complex by its own interactions.

And with this understanding, a beam of light scraped over the tops of the trees. The sun was making itself visible. The sun that Jexx didn’t remember too well, for even in the human, earthly lives, which he could now begin to remember, he was stuck in cloud-covered towns, spending his days in factories that dominated the environment with their smoke. Generally, leaving early before the haze had cleared, and coming home at night when the sun was already a half-self. The sun now crowned the trees and warmed the meadow.

“I am ready to plant trees.” Jexx said, somewhat abruptly. “I have killed so many things. It is time for me to balance this out by making things grow and bringing new life. Trees seem a good place to start.”

“This is good.” Said Kora. “These seven trees will be planted in centers around the world. The will grow strong. They will trigger the people to pursue new ideas. They will interact and support each other and give purpose to anyone who devotes their time to growth.”

“How can trees do all of this?”

“They can do this because the ideas are born from pain.

“When you have suffered as much as I have, the only sanctuary is to find that place where the past and future meet. For the black knight, the past was heavy. He had turned his chair to only face that direction, there was no present moment; there was no future. For the Pharaoh, the past was something to sit on. There was only future, and the future is more. It is where they meet that all the power is.

“The present moment. Finding a way to be in the present moment is the key to the prison. It is elusive and cannot be grasped.

“If you work with me to plant these seeds, we can, with effort, exist where the past and the future meet.

“The first tree is dignity. It will grow and spread the ideas that all living things should be treated with dignity, and at the heart of dignity is the concept of equality, that all livings things are equal in their right to inhabit this world. Anyone who devotes themselves to this cause will gain wisdom and a fulfilled heart.

“The second tree is clarity. That all human systems accomplish more when those systems are more in tune with the natural world. Any work done in this area will clear out the vision and bring serenity in the face of insurmountable struggles. There are unending numbers of systems in the world and in the mind, and the challenge of understanding these is open to anyone who is curious.

“The third tree is transforming conflict. Conflict is misunderstood as a game of hate, with winners and losers; it is more a cooperation that strengthens all according to the natural rules above. There is equality and dignity among participants, and there is a balance in the system. When either of these things disappear, then conflict becomes diseased, but when it is properly designed, conflict is a wisdom. Under this tree is where the warriors work, and their challenge is to work within ethical lanes, so as to ensure that the actions are selfless—even though the goal is to compete. Only here can the warriors experience true triumph.

“The fourth tree is softening borders. The lines on the map that separate people must not get stronger, they must get softer. Country borders, religious distinctions, personal preferences, skin color, etc… when the game is a game of hate, and all or nothing competition, then these borders go up strong, and all manner of destruction and evil is justified. The borders are less physical and more in the mind. Hard work must be done to bring these borders down: changes to the systems, and much face-to-face interactions, so that equality can be experienced first-hand.

“The fifth is the tree of spiritual health. The collective of world religions must shift the emphasis from a competitive, boundary strong relationship to a cooperative shared goal. The issue is not which religion can lay claim to a hold on truth, but how each can support each other in helping the individual to become spiritually healthy. This action will work in step with science, and the investigations into how the mind, body, and soul interact to form a whole and integrated experience. All who devote their time to this activity will gain the ability to see truth even in the face of conflicting realities.

“The sixth is expanding the shared knowledge of the world—investigating, experimenting, and then sharing that knowledge with everyone, stretching the outer boundaries of what is known, and letting its usefulness benefit all of humanity. All who spend time in this pursuit will gain a perspective to allow them to handle all problems gracefully.

“The seventh is to plant seeds. It was what we are doing. To take these small ideas, that are potential energy only, and then to find the right places to plant them, so that they can grow in others. We may eventually sit back like parents or gardeners and see the results of the fruit of our labor.

Jexx, drank it all in like water. “How can we do all those things? It seems like it will take more than seven seeds.”

“Close your eyes and think.” Kora asked.

With his eyes closed he was back into that crowded place racing through space, and he looked around to see the others that he was with. Iona was there. The Black Knight. The stable boy from the Pharaoh’s land, The troll cleric. The demon soldier who turned away from the others back by the cave. Jexx looked closely for Lilith and Copper; he pushed himself through the crowd, and then all the faces became less strangers, so he despaired. As the doors opened again–all became beings of light moving towards something new.

“There will be many who will help is to plant these trees. Our adventure has helped many to set things right.” Kora reassured Jexx.

“But what about Copper? I must see him. I have to see him.” Jexx looked, desperately at Kora. “I have to see him.”

“Copper is in his own space. There is no use trying to find him.” Kora put her hand on his shoulder.

It wasn’t something Jexx could accept. It was the strong attachment that would continue to cause him great sorrows and joys for lifetimes to come—it would resurface and disappear in many different forms, but the chemistry of the process was always quite similar. Love is a wonderful pleasure when mutually held.

“When do we start?” Jexx said.

Kora laughed. She was much more relaxed now that she was no longer in the shadow world. “Well, first thing you need to do is to get a new body. You have been gone from the world many eras. You won’t recognize it too much, but that may make it easier to get our work done.”

“Ok. I’m ready, but one thing still bothers me. what about the four-armed Ghoul Princess—Lilith. Where is she?  When will she come?”

Kora thought well upon this before answering slowly, “Not all notes come into harmony. She will either come to a realization on her own, or she won’t.”

“You mean she might stay there forever?”

“Even hell will have its own Armageddon someday. And she may come during that end of days. You can only be for so long. No matter how you try to imagine it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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