Here we are once again! Hope you’re ready to delve back into the world of the Left of Midnight universe! Thank you for reading and hope you’ll enjoy the next offering! Alright, here we go!
SHŌTŌ WAS RESTLESS. There was no peace to be found in his thoughts as he stared into the depths of the firepit. The flames licked the air but his thoughts were unsettled. It didn’t help that the fever was getting stronger and the sweats a lot more frequent. He stood up and sought out a better position to try and find some relaxation within. Nothing was helping and his thoughts kept trying to drift to dark concerns. A part of him wanted to go home. It was a prideful part. One that didn’t want to see his home country reduced to rubble. A fear that was eking deeper and deeper into his soul and resolve. Another part of him kept saying that there was nothing to go home to. What little family he had left, had long since abandoned him after his mother’s death. His one remaining uncle had been friendly enough after the funeral, but his only words of advice were to, ‘Join the war efforts, nephew. Give your life for our emperor. He is our only hope of salvation.’
Of course, for Shōtō, that was the last thing he wanted to do. However, with Furimi’s insistence and the ever present reach of the Ministry of War looking over him, there hadn’t been very many other options. In the wake of these events, a deep sorrow had fallen across his soul and the hope he had once found in his mission to surrender, was now a fading memory leaving him alone for the first real time since the loss of his mother.
Shōtō went up and around to the top of the stony formation running into the lake. If he couldn’t find any sort of solace in his solitude, he thought that maybe meditating (something he hadn’t done since leaving Nippon) might help him drive away the darkness threatening to engulf his entire existence. He sat down into the seiza style, his legs underneath him where he found the flattest portion possible, and raised his hands into the Taoist method of focus. Almost instantly he was transported to a green world beyond the reality he was living.
He stood in a field of Shion, the purplish flowers flowing outward in every direction. A smile adorned his face as at once he felt his heartrate finding a measured pace. He walked a few paces, his arms out to his sides and his hands palms down feeling the warmth of the flowers flowing up and into his body. He paused after several feet. His eyes fell on a Sakura tree in the center of this wide field reaching out into an eternity. Surrounding the tree for a few feet were a clutch of yellow Tsubaki (what westerners called the Camellia flower). He walked towards the Sakura tree that now seemed to rise up ontop of a hill in the center of the great field of Shion. His smile faded, and he wasn’t quite sure why. What had been an eternal field of flowers before, now gave out onto a view of Fujisan far on the horizon line, its great mountainous form a faint shadow rising up into the sky. A sense of dread creeped up his spine as he continued toward the tree in the center of it all atop its small hill. The horizon started greying. Subtly at first. Not completely noticeable save for at the very edges of his consciousness. An unsettled sensation fell like a blanket across his mind as he neared the Sakura tree, its blossoms in full bloom.
‘Shōtō…’ A voice called out. It was light. Yet, familiar. It was wispy and seemed carried upon the subtle breeze flowing across the landscape. The cherry blossoms swayed slightly under the breeze as he came closer, his eyes focused on that tree and the tremor of unease growing steadily still. ‘My darling child. So full of peace and love. So willing to give yourself to those undeserving. Never forget who you are, Shōtōchan…’
‘Okasan…’ Shōtō muttered as he stopped, tears at the edges of his eyes.
‘All the torment you’ve endured… you must not let them change you. Hate and fear hover thickly over all that you see… Oh, my son! The darkness is so thick here!’
‘Okasan! I will never change! My body may be broken, but they will never take my spirit! No one may have it!’
The breeze began dying down. The tree came to a slower sway. ‘Oh, my son! Oh, my precious child! They will take your spirit if you’re not cautious! They… they are here now… They will take you as one of their own. An army of shadow awaits…’
‘No! They will never have it! I will not yield!’
The Shion started to grey for as far as he could see. The greyness grew from the horizon, beating a hasty march towards where he stood at the base of the Sakura. The breeze died and the tree ceased its motions. Yet his mother’s voice was still there, though dimming significantly.
‘I fear for Nippon, Shōtōchan. Our world… it is giving in… oh! Oh! I will always love you, my dearest child…’ the voice trailed off for a moment before returning as an echo far in the distance. ‘But perhaps there is hope for us all yet. Do not turn away. There’s a sliver of a chance. But do not turn away. You will need him…’
‘Who? Who!? Okasan!!’
Shōtō screamed into the greying world. His mother’s voice had gone but the greyness remained and grew deeper still. The color faded from the grasses and the flowers and the tree. Then those things simply faded away as the greyness reformed before him and came hurtling towards him. It transformed into an American Corsair and rammed straight into his body.
Shōtō found himself being pummeled in his stomach by a heavy fist and his meditative state disappeared. He looked up as a fist came up and behind the grimacing visage of a red skinned man, his flesh dark, his hair jet black, and his eyes full of fury. The man hand one hand on his shoulder as the other was swinging towards his face, the snarl on the man’s lips spewing spittle. Shōtō pulled to the side sending the man careening just past him and flinging to the rocks at their feet. Shōtō had all of a moment to realize he’d been pulled out of his meditation and that the American pilot had apparently survived his crash as well.
The man howled and thrust himself off the ground and into Shōtō’s midsection. He dropped himself into a low crouch and clasped a fist into his left palm to drive it into the American’s back. The man plowed into the surface of the rocky ground, a long slash opening up across his nose. Shōtō jumped back and raised his hands in a defensive posture.
“Please, friend! Don’t do this! Let us talk!”
Yet, the American pilot howled his rage once more and plowed right into Shōtō before he could make any further move. The attack was so sudden he barely had time to think about what his next move should be. Instead, the both of them went tumbling down the stone peninsula and into the water. They were under the surface for all of a moment and then they were both coming to their feet. The red American pulled his right fist back and Shōtō took that moment to drive his foot into the man’s knee buckling him down into a crouch. He howled in pain but was only down momentarily before he was lunging at Shōtō again like a wild animal. He did the only thing he could think of. The man was bare chested but his arms were reaching forward in a manic attempt to grab his throat. Shōtō grabbed those arms, dropped backwards, and pulled the American up and over him letting the man’s inertia carry him over his head.
Shōtō heard a crack as the American’s head smashed into the stony surface and his body flumped over and across the surface and over the sloping side and down towards the muddy shoreline at the stone peninsula’s base. Shōtō leapt to his feet in the same instance and raced over to the man.
His eyelids were closed and his jaw gaping open. Shōtō checked his pulse. Miraculously, the pilot was still alive. Shōtō knelt beside the man and opened an eyelid. His whites were unbelievably bright and a sudden snore escaped his lips. Shōtō sighed, his eyes felt like they were trying to escape his skull, and leaned back onto his thigh.
“What the hell?” Shōtō queried and shook his head. The pilot was out cold. It felt as if his entire body had just been pummeled by some ancient spirit and now he was left with an unconscious American who’d just tried to kill him. “Or beat the ever living spirit out of me… Did you not just want to talk? I’ll have to do something about you. Maybe, we can help each other out. Providing you don’t try to hurt me anymore.”
Shōtō looked around. The island environment had gone deathly silent for a long moment. Then the colorful birds started their mewling caws once more and he leaned back onto his palms contemplating what he was to do next.
“Think you can meditate for a moment…” he looked back down to the man. Aside from some severe scratches and the long cut across his upper lip and across his nose and brow, the man seemed in healthy enough condition. “I suppose I can find enough food for the both of us. But I have to say, you’re not making this any easier, Mr. American.”
WERE IT NOT for his torch, the darkness would be unbearable. It’d already been three days, and Neti had yet to find the way to the surface world above. Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure he’d ever really been there. Sure, his father had told him stories about the bright light in the sky and how it shined down upon a verdant world full of plants and water (the only plants he’d known were small shrubberies grown in the agricultural cavern in the highest recesses of Urudiin where the Lord’s light could breathe fresh life into them and grant the denizens food; water came from a lake that itself was highlighted by light from the cavern ceilings making it look jeweled and sanctified). His father had told him once in a story, there was so much water on the surface that there were places where it left land and stretched all the way to the horizon. When Neti had asked, ‘What’s a horizon?’, his father had laughed heartily and long. This made Neti more suspicious of the claims, but he never contradicted his father on his tales.
Now, though, he wished desperately for something so awesome as vast fields of grasses and lakes so wide they disappeared from sight. Anything save for this unending abyss of tunnels and dark shadows just beyond the reach of his torch. The stony walls were rough in places as he braced his palm on a surface once more, climbing steadily up the narrow incline leading where he could not say. Running his hand further along as he walked, his robes skirting the loose soil at his feet and shuffling it back down a few feet, he found patches of silky feeling portions that didn’t so much crumble as dusted away from the walls. The sounds of his torch rippling and eating away at the fuel source around the shaft of wood, and the falling debris of pebbles, grit, and dirt, were all that filled his existence as he continued onward through the dark cave tube. The ceiling was merely inches above his head.
I hope this is the way… Neti sighed and paused long enough to check the satchel swaying at his hips. Dried roots and jerkied meat were still in there. Enough to get him through a few more days, he considered. But what really concerned him was the dwindling fuel supplies. He was trying to make the torches last as long as possible. However, whenever he’d let them go out and just focus his eyesight in the dark (he’d become quite accustomed to the dark back in Urudiin where his eyes could pick out shapes even at the darkest moments), but here, the darkness was so pitch black he could barely manage a few feet before stumbling and falling on his face. There were alcoves here and there with enough of a flat surface to make camp, but it was mostly just a series of tunnels. As he’d been warned by his friend, Elnith, he had to be precise in which direction he took. Lest he become eternally lost. Yet, I fear I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere despite my best at memorizing his directions. Oh dear, Neti, oh dear.
There was no other choice for it, though, he had to keep moving. If he’d become lost, then that was the Lord’s plan for him. And that was enough for him. Even so, he had to admit, he hadn’t expected so many tunnels in the vast network of caverns making up the subterranean cities. True, there were those who said the surface world was a myth. That there was no such thing as this world beyond so many kept speaking about. And, if there were, then that was Heaven. That was the Lord’s garden and home. If they’d been meant to be there, they wouldn’t have been placed in the great cities. And Neti had taken comfort from that for a great many years (decades even). Yet, now that he was exploring so many tunnels, he had to admit to himself, there was far more beyond Urudiin than he’d ever known. And all of it was the abyss of darkness.
Ah! So that’s it, is it? I’ve found myself in the home of Ereshkigal! Neti laughed to himself and shook his head as he took another step forward, the ground here ground steeper still. And I’ve become trapped somewhere beyond…, he grunted in the effort, the seven gates protecting us from the great demons who sought to wipe out humanity in the ancient past. Yes, that’s it, alright.
His sandaled foot slipped on some loose soil and he almost collapsed to one knee. He caught himself on the wall and came back to his full height trying not to laugh at the absurdity of it all. He continued onward. Resting only when he needed to sleep. Another day and a half passed as he navigated the tunnels. At one point, he’d come to an offshoot where three tunnels ran in three different directions.
But he remembered, Elnith had said, ‘Just take the middle paths where the branches are in threes. It will carry you to where you need to go.’
‘Are you certain of this? Have you ever been to the surface?’
‘No, no. But my great grandfather had. He told me in my youth of a time when he used to play in great fields of weeds.’
Neti furrowed his brows thinking about that. It would seem some people did believe that the surface world existed. And maybe it wasn’t so much Heaven after all but a place where human beings once played and made merry. The thought was an unsettling one for him. The journey was giving him plenty of time to think about his lot in life. His mother, his grandparents, his priesthood, his friends… all he’d ever learned was that they were the protected and sacred. The chosen people of the Great Lord Anu. Who promised to return for his children in a time after the great war with the minions of the lord of chaos. He whose name all were forbidden to speak. So forbidden that said name had been absolutely forgotten over time. He had been raised to submit himself to the Lord above and not question his motives.
Yet, his father had been a man of a different mind. Though he never said so in public, in private he’d always tell Neti to broaden his thoughts on the matter. That there was more to the story than most remembered. But it was best to keep that knowledge to one’s self. It was a secret knowledge. The knowledge that to discover the way through the world and to fulfill one’s total self, they had to throw away what they thought they knew and follow the way of the True Word. For the True Word was the way of the Godhand. This wasn’t something Neti had ever given much consideration to. But now that he had so much time to think, to focus, to meditate, he found that maybe there was something to it after all. Particularly in light of the voices that continued to speak to him in the night.
“Bah!” Neti spat as he found himself bent over onto his hands and knees, the torch at an extreme angle as he struggled not to drop it. The terrain here became a hill rising up a dozen feet or more. He couldn’t see what was at its summit, but he knew this part was more treacherous than any he’d encountered yet. His voice echoed all throughout the caverns. It came back to him as a taunting growl. “You’re imagining things, denu. Do not confuse… bad dreams with reality.”
He let his voice become a murmur but it still echoed with resonant resolve returning to him in waves. He pressed up the steep hill somehow managing to maintain his footing. Which was impressive. The thought of careening back down into a rolling descent was the last thing he really wanted to do. The climb back up would be irritating. Yet he was sure the bruises and scrapes he’d get in the effort would stick with him far longer.
With an effort he had no idea he had, Neti kept climbing until the cavern floor rolled forward further until if flattened out and he was able to stand erect once more. He lifted his torch to find yet another tunnel heading straight ahead into the darkness.
“Bah!” he uttered louder this time with growing irritation. He was beginning to think that he was marching to his death. Perhaps even dead already. Soon to be feasting on nothing more than the dust caking the walls.
And then his torch flame flickered frantically. He stared at it for a long moment. The flame slowed to its steady burn. After a moment, it danced hard once more and this time he felt it. A fresh breeze blowing through the tunnel. It was light. So light he almost hadn’t felt it at all. But it was there. It was caressing his face and he thought he smelled a salty scent upon its embrace.
“What is this now?”
He continued walking. The tunnel twisted and twined but broke off into an offshoot only once. That tube turned back into the darkened depths. He wasn’t interested in that way. He pressed onward for another hour until there was a glow at the end of the cavern. It was a subtle glow at first. Dim and bouncing off the dirty walls with a bluish white tint. He thought he was hallucinating it at first. What with the torchlight casting orange yellow patterns all up and down the tunnel. However, coming to a bend, he saw what the source of the dim light was. An opening far down at the tunnel’s end.
Wait… Neti’s eyes widened, he could feel them. It felt tired and they stressed his brow line. Almost like pulling eyes open after they’d been sealed shut by sleep for a heavy night of dreamlessness. His upper lids cracked in the effort. He could almost hear them as the light grew brighter. His sight struggled to focus clearly as he hurried faster towards the strange new discovery. The breeze here heavier, his feet moving ever quicker, the air (salty, salty air!) fresh across his sweat slicked body. The robes sticking to his skin now feeling heavy and hot. A weight that he wanted nothing more than to alleviate. However, there was still protocol and duty to concern himself with.
Neti was nearly running now as he approached the edge of the tunnel. There were now sights beyond the bright white light. A wide open terrain of a sort his eyes had never lain sight to before. He came to the opening and stopped. Hesitantly, he walked beyond the cavern tunnel, his torch sputtering as he let it drop to the ground. He was standing on a terrace. Much like the dais looking over his congregation. Only this terrace at the mouth of the cave, overlooked a great plain. It stretched on for as far as the eye could see. It was blanketed in a carpet of green grasses and weeds. Where this plain ended so far away it pained his mind there was a green dark green growth rising up as high as the mountainous terrain around it. Well, not quite as high as the stony rise just beyond it. But almost. And to his right, there was a great lake. An ocean of water steadily lapping at a sandy shore.
“Oh… My Lord…”
Neti dropped to his knees and raised his hands over his head. He stared up at another ocean. This one a gentle blue. Crystal and clear. It stretched from one end to another in an unfathomable breadth. And at its center, high above, was a great whitish light so bright he could only look at it for a moment before being forced to look away.
It’s him! It’s the Lord! His warmth! His light! His embrace! It touches all that can be seen here! Oh! The miracle of it all! I’m in Heaven!
‘Don’t be foolish…’
Neti had closed his eyes for the brightness of the Lord and was in the process of bowing low, his arms outstretched beyond his prostrating head. He opened his eyes and then rose up to his haunches to look around.
“What, Lord, what?” Neti dared not raise his eyes beyond the ground before him. He felt like a school child caught performing a naughty trick on a classmate. “Apologies, my Lord! Please, I only came for my people! To beg that the quakes stop! That your war with the dark one not lay us to waste! That your battle with the other Gods does not destroy us as well!”
‘Look around you…’
Neti cautiously raised his head and took a better look at the environment all around the horizon line. It spread around in a circle in every direction. Like he was on top of a massive ball looking to every side and seeing no corner. Yet this world was full of greenery. Lush vegetation, the great sea, mountains on the horizon, a river off to his left flowing from that lake of water to somewhere far out of sight. And behind him, the mouth of the cave leading into another large mountain rising up blocking his view of the horizon beyond it, if there was one there to be found, he considered.
‘You’re not looking…’
“Whichever of the Lords you are, I am looking with all my heart! What do you wish me to see?”
Neti shook his head and felt queerly vulnerable. There was something not entirely right up here. Something he couldn’t see but could sense deep within his soul. Something that had all sorts of alarms ringing in growing alarm. Yet, the voices in the dark, that continued to speak to him, settled them down quickly enough.
‘You know what it is you are to see…’
His eyes found the great forest (forest, yes, that’s what it is! That’s a forest far beyond! And standing above it is…). Neti came to his feet in a hurry. Far beyond the forest, and the low lying mountain behind it, he saw a great structure rising up into the skies. It wasn’t very clear but its silhouette was obvious enough. It was a tower. Instinctively he knew, it was the tower fo the gods. It was there that they were fighting. It was there that he had to go to plead the case for his people. From where he stood, the tower was a pale thing, masked to a degree by the mist in the air. The mist coming off the great sea.
Volcano… it’s a great volcano… Neti had the thought come to him then. It wasn’t a volcano, he knew that. Yet, he couldn’t help the notion that for some reason the tower on the horizon reminded him of a volcano. And it was to the volcano that he should go. I have to get there. It’s there that I will discover the truth of it all. It is there I will find the Godhand. And the Godhand will deliver to me the True Word.
‘Come to us. Come see us. We will show you the way…’
“Yes, I will come to you. I will beg for our survival. I will go there to where you are… I will go to…”
Thanks again for reading and stay tuned for more posts to come soon!
~Timothy S Purvis