Chapter 61: The Frozen Forest
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[Anima Cores: 149]


“Oi, oi!” a little creature screamed in the night. “XJ-XJ! Wake up!”

XJ-V roused as though from a long, deep slumber, hearing a very different voice respond to the protests of the creature that was trying to wake him with its ghostly paws.

“Perhaps we ought to leave him in peace. I have never seen a Cog in a Dao-walk, but the experience is painful enough for us humans.”

“Nuh-uh! Arha knows how to fix her machine-man! Arha knows the secrets to his soul like the back of her paw!”

“…if that is the case,” XJ-V whispered as he rose. “You would know your machine prefers peace and quiet.”

The Cog awoke to the eyes and lolling tongue of his ghostly familiar. Through her translucent form he saw the concerned eyes of Mah-Jung, brows knit in focus on his form.

“Forgive me, Brother,” XJ-V murmured. “I would rise to bow to you, but find myself…indisposed.”

Mah-Jung returned a smile of good cheer as Arha rubbed herself against her awakened Cog. “Brother, the apologies should come from my mouth alone. It has taken me this long to come and pay you a visit, and I admit that I do so partially to sate my own curiosity.”

Curiosity…XJ-V thought, his mind going back to the dream-vision he had just beheld in the Dao. It had been such a vivid flashback to his past – to the dawn of his life, and the life that was injected into him. His longing to see more had been hampered by his will to live – a will that was becoming more astute to the tricks of the Dao.

I can not allow it to consume me, XJ-V thought. But neither can I deny the allure of its secrets.

“I can see your recovery is progressing splendidly,” Mah-Jung continued. “This is good. I cannot fight an invalid opponent in the tournament of Aun’el. To do so would shame both me and our Sect.”

“Fight?” Arha shouted up from XJ-V’s restored legs. “How can you even think of such things at this time? Poor XJ-V. Arha promises that she came as soon as she could. But the Grove has been acting strange, recently. She has not been able to visit as she likes!”

XJ-V patted the little Huli reflexively with his one good hand, seeing that his other arm still had a ways to go by way of repair. She purred under his touch, probably the only creature to ever do so, but her words had sparked something in him that made his whole body lurch.

“The Grove?” he asked. “What has happened?”

Mah-Jung addressed him as he leaned against the oval window of his chamber – looking out onto the darkness of the outside.

“Ever since your return with young Feng,” he explained. “Our Dao-Walks have been troubled. The mists of the mysterious realm are more shrouded than usual, as though the Dao itself does not wish to grant us entry. It is as though it hides something from us. I can only wonder what the effect must be on our fledgling Anima Banishers below the mountain – they need the Dao to survive more than we do.”

XJ-V petted Arha absent-mindedly as he watched Mah-Jung’s face turn from jovial to pensive, and saw his eyes glance in his direction.

Instantly, he knew why the top Corporeal Temperer Disciple had really come here.

“You wish to know if I can provide you some insight,” XJ-V said. It was not a question, and he did not wait for his Brother’s response before he went on. “In truth, the Dao has been a comfort to me in my state of disrepair. I feel I finally have the chance to delve into its depths and see what I wish to see.”

“No Brother can command the Dao, XJ-V,” Mah-Jung said morosely. “We see only what it allows us to.”

“Why would it show us fragments from our past, then?” the Cog asked his startled Brother. “When such desires for recollection are at the very forefront of our minds, is it possible the Dao would know and placate us in our hour of need?”

Mah-Jung dropped his head and fixed his serious gaze on his Cog brother. Right now, he seemed more like a counselling Master than he did a fellow Disciple, speaking from experience beyond his Brother’s ken.

“Brother Cog,” he said. “The path of one’s Dao walks is always treacherous. It winds and spins us round, knowing that we seek power, knowing that there are things it can show us to keep us locked in its grip. Never forget that every meditation session where a Cultivator enters the realm beyond is also one where he puts his life at risk. You have passed through your early trials – you have ascended to Rank 4 – but now your real test shall begin. Can you overcome your own desire for knowledge?”

“I thank you for your counsel, Brother,” XJ-V replied. “But there are mysteries that I fear must be known.”

“It is a warning,” his Brother replied. “Not counsel. Take heed, Brother Cog, that you do not dive beyond your limits. When you gaze into the abyss…”

He let the statement hang. He didn’t have to finish it.

“Oh, Arha hates Cultivators sometimes!” the Huli barked. “Can’t you boys just hug and wish eachother well!”

As usual, the little Huli had the powerful ability to cut through tension with precision, evoking a cheerful laugh from the once-serious Disciples.

“My apologies,” Mah-Jung said with a bow. “Your spirited Huli speaks the truth. Once again, I have made things too serious for a man who is currently recovering from grievous injuries. I must admit that it was a battle I wish I could have been involved in.”

“Yet you did not join us,” XJ-V said. “I wonder why?”

To this, Mah-Jung straightened his cuffs and ran his thin hands through his ponytail.

“We are Dao-walkers both, Brother,” he said. “You have seen what waits for you in the mists of the future. As have I. My time has not come yet. But it shall. And when it does, it will be my honor to face a Disciple of your prowess.”

He bowed stiffly as he then took his leave, XJ-V returning the gesture to his departing back.

“What’s with that guy?!” Arha bristled. “He’s got such a polite way of being a meanie, lately! I remember when he was all fun and games like Feng-Lung. What happened?”

The Huli’s Cog silenced her complaints with a liberal stroking of her chin, sending her rolling in a state of pure, blissful abandon on his restored lap.

“Destiny is a harsh mistress, Arha,” XJ-V replied. “And she does not discriminate.”

Before him stretched a frozen forest.

A silver wolf stood staring up at his immaterial form, cocking its head yet showing its teeth – a picture of readied violence and curiosity both.

And upon a twisted bow of the whitest tree high above him, the bloody form of Sheloth stood, his blade long discarded into the snowfield beneath them.

Through lips caked with grime and ichor, he stared to speak to XJ-V.

“A Shepard may become a wolf if he lays down his staff, and he may roam the forest and hunt down his prey. A wolf may become the wind if he abandons his fangs, and then there is no place out of reach for him. And so he may eventually reach those he lost. But the wind may not blow straight. If you become the wind of chaos, your fangs will grow back and you shall be a wolf again”

The silver wolf turned and sprinted away, and the invisible limbs of the Cog reached out to grab at it, his feet trailing after the creature’s paws in the snow.

When the forest was behind him, he saw a white field filled with graves. Where the wolf once stood, now three other animals looked at him from on high, amidst a cloudless sky that wept snowdrops of purest white.

A red dragon. A gold eagle. And a Grey owl.

And from behind him, the voice of Sheloth started to speak again.

“The Red Dragon shows travelers a pure path, once that leads whence they came. But this path has no end and leads only to the moonless night.”

“The Gold Eagle shows travelers a foul path, one that leads to dark places they do not wish do venture. This path is muddy and difficult, but moonlight illuminates the way”

“The Grey Owl shows a road that must not be taken. This is a road not for travelers, but a road for wolves alone. It is a road drenched in suffering, and it leads nowhere but the wilderness.”

XJ-V fought against every impulse in his being that told him to flee from this realm. He looked up at the three creatures – each one a doorway to another plane of this formless place.

“Take me to the Grey Owl,” he said.

“You are impatient,” the voice of Sheloth replied. “You are not yet ready to behold that which you seek. Your own hubris will be your end, thing of metal and will.”

Now the field melted away, snow turning into nothing but dull ash.

Before him was an egg, and two men – one wearing a long, flowing robe from a Cultivator Sect he had never before seen.

The other man was possibly the most ragged, ugliest creature he had ever beheld.

Once again, Sheloth’s voice narrated the scene before him:

“An egg, if fertilized, produces life. An egg, if left unfertilized, produces yolk. But how can one know what is within the egg if one does not crack it open?

The Patient Man leaves the egg to grow. He lets nature take his course.

The Worldly Man smashes the egg to feast on its innards. He takes what nature has given.

But what does such difference matter if both outcomes are the same?”

XJ-V shook his head in consternation.

“What outcome?”

“Death,” Sheloth’s partially decapitated head told him. “All things end. It is a law written into the universe with as much rigidity as the code that governs your every thought and action, machine. Credit must be given where it is due, when your whole being belongs to another.

“The Grey Owl,” XJ-V whispered. “The one who made me.”

Sheloth scoffed.

“He may have constructed your body, but he did not give you a soul. Souls cannot be made, cannot be given by mortal hands. They can only be…transferred.”

“Take me to him!” XJ-V commanded with a voice that came not from his metal throat, but deep within his powered core. It was something else that was asking. It was as though he were being puppeted by it, now. An intelligence that was done waiting.

And as the ashen world of the Dao disappeared before him, he fell into a vortex of memory again. The mirthful laughter of Sheloth followed him down.

“Like stealing the chick from an uncracked egg…”


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