On the lonely stretch of sky a flock of birds flew above, their passage as silent as the desert expanse about him. Skin bright in the sunlight, Vatma sat in a meditative pose, legs crossing each other like entwined snakes, his hands draped loosely over his bony kneecaps. He had partially shut his eyes to avoid the stabbing glare of the sun reflecting off the baize desert; it wasn't like there was anything else for it to reflect off of. All about him, stretching as far as the eye could see was desert, no life, just sand cast beyond the realms that the eye could see, and beyond even the invisible. A gentle tingling had crept into his fingertips, sending sparks of energy down his spine, which remained bent from the tensions he had not yet learned to release. Before him a lone desert shape advanced, its shadow growing exponentially in length until Vatma could make out the blurred likeness of a man.
At first the man's form was hazy and as difficult to make out as his speech, which sounded like so much submerged tin, but gradually it became comprehensible. "As you can see, I'm a bit lost. The last thing I remember I was supposed to be headed toward Bytopia, but it seems I took a wrong turn a few realities back I'm not disturbing you am I?" The red-haired young man interrupted himself.
It occurred to Vatma that he too had red hair and that it was no coincidence he meet a red-haired man in the middle of a barren desertscape. The effort to speak initiated a flaky pain in the hollows of Vatma's throat, so he bided his time with shut mouth while the stranger talked.
"Look, I don't mean to pry, Powers know it's none of my concern, but exactly how long have you been in this desert? You can see how it might impact my current situation, I mean, being stuck in a burning desert and not knowing where I am?" His form becoming clearer, the young man's features began to crystallize into a look of surprise, which he played down by repeating himself absent-mindedly. "As you can see, I'm a bit lost. By the way, you're floating."
A flurry of activity in the sky, birds flapping their wings to escape a shout born on the wind of the desert left Vatma picking himself out of the sand to rest on his hands and knees. Still, no sound would come to his throat, though there was an emerging desire to explain to this bothersome young man why exactly he was here.
While Vatma became accustomed to using his hands to support him the young man placed his hands on his hips, looking about the sandy oceans of scalding heat. "It goes on forever, doesn't it? Just my sodding luck."
Vatma was beginning to get the impression that this young man enjoyed to hear his own voice, which, Vatma had to admit, was thoroughly enchanting. Every sentence the man began with a guttural expulsion of air, soon warming into a steady melodious drumbeat of speech. A grin spread across Vatma's soul though his face remained perplexed at the inability of his body to ease himself to his feet and the inability of his mind to let him remain crawling in the desert sands. He reminds me of myself. When he was younger Vatma had been gifted with a voice so soothing he could lull warriors to sleep and steal the hearts of the most worldly queens.
"You're coughing up something terrible there; care for a sip of water? Mind you, not too much now, seeing as I have to travel that vast wasteland once you can talk," the young man smiled at his own cautioning, realizing it had been more for his own benefit than for Vatma's and handed him a leather bound cylinder.
Narrowing his eyes, Vatma breathed deeply before moving his fingers over the gem studded cap to the water jug. Slowly, steadily, he willed it to open. Though the rest of his body was beginning to ache, Vatma was pleased that he still maintained his manual dexterity. Immediately he paused, a frown sending rivulets of blood across his parched lips; what had he accomplished these past years if he still yearned for pleasure? Gazing into the steel colored water inside the jug, Vatma pondered its texture, its inviting coolness and metallic aroma. So many memories seemed to be trapped inside the water, memories of the Vatma who had died, the one who loved too deep and felt too much. What had become of Vatma, the one who tamed the gorgon of Amun-Thys, who outwitted Tvashtri the inventor, who escaped the clutches of a jealous erinyes for stealing a hell-bound soul from under her nose? Had he vanished somewhere beneath the water, drowning all these years to wait for a chance to emerge?
So easily he could have quaffed the water, ending his thirst, reviving a life he had dropped on the wayside like a bag full of stones. In that moment Vatma could have awoken his imprisoned raptures and forgotten loves. The luster of her lips caressed the fringes of Vatma's memory, gnawing lips which teased him to pick up the string of that old bag, taunted him to continue carrying the stones even though he didn't know why he carried them nor what their purpose was. Kara pleaded him to return to her, but Vatma only watched her glistening lips with lethargic eyes. Not for anyone, not again.
Vaguely smelling of olives, Kara wrapped her red and black silks about her waist, clutching a bunch of the shiny fabric, though only enough to reveal the deep hazel flesh of her ankles. "You still have love in you, Vatma Rohnti, and as long as you do can you forget me?" Her upper lip quivered slightly as it always had when Vatma heard the explosive passion enter her voice, undulating chaotically as Kara searched for a more controlled tone; even after all these years she thought she could outwit herself. "I know you've not forgotten the joys we had in the Gilded Hall, lost amid the rose gardens and ourselves. What are you hiding yourself from? Could your truly forget the wonder of a kiss?"
A steady fear had been building itself like a cobweb in Vatma's chest while Kara spoke. As she leaned into him, Vatma closed his eyes to reason away her existence as a hallucination born of exhaustion, but he couldn't quite forget her. Wet lips collapsed over his own, and he felt a dull warming pressure on either side of his temple where Kara's fingertips had rested. If a waterfall had erupted in his mouth, Vatma doubted it could have held so much moist life and thundering passion. Red lights and whirling phantoms danced over Vatma's eyelids even as he opened them, overcome with longing which sent tears to the corners of his gray eyes, orbs of tumult waiting to cascade.
A vicious stab of alarm rocketed through his bones like a patch of needles. In place of endless desert a huge pillar-ridden temple of cool white and gray marble surrounded him as he was kissed by Kara, whose forceful lips held a savor of the past, a poignant nostalgia which tugged at Vatma's soul, like a farmer trying to husk an ear of corn. There had been one other time in his life when Vatma felt this, but it was his own doing, and that had been when he adopted the ascetic life. Palisades adorned in bright green flowers and streaming banners of pink and white lined the upper walls of the great hall. In the distance Vatma could make out the foggy whinnying of racing horses and the laughter of children playing in the sunlight. The kiss ended. Strings of saliva snapped as Kara severed the life giving bond which left Vatma's lips wet with what he presumed were tears.
Gasing, Vatma collapsed to his knees, mind drowning in those tempting waters which promised to soothe the suffering. "It's too much!" He cried.
Tender light lit Kara's face as she settled on the purple rug running the length of the steps which Vatma now sobbed on. "Oh, Vatma, why did you ever leave me? Come back and I promise you unimagined bliss. Drink, Vatma. Drink."
He was searching madly for a site in the room to anchor him, stabilize his beliefs, support him in making this decision. A life of pleasure or a life of asceticism? Vatma knew it was the question he had been wrestling with for the last twelve years of his life, and he felt no closer to an honest answer than a child asked to explain the meaning of suffering. Perhaps it was the banners twirling like the wheels inside his own mind, following each other like a dog chasing its tail, going round in rings but never going anywhere, that gave Vatma a clue to solving the puzzle he had created for himself. It could just as well have been the stark contrast between the fry desert and the moist air of the Gilded Hall. Vatma finally felt certain that the answer had come from within, and the core of his soul, which had been wracked with longing and despair greater than a vampire's bloodlust, jumped with elation. "It is too much," he said again, though now his voice only hinted at the overwhelming emotion coursing through his veins.
Slowly, cautiously, Kara leaned into him, one hand crawling across his chest with concern. "What do you mean? Vatma, you must tell me what you mean." Her voice was as full of awe as it was of fear, and her eyes flicked back and forth from Vatma's face to his body, which had begun to straighten, his spine unfurling like a carpet rolled out before a king.
When Vatma did turn his head over his shoulder to look at Kara, the penetrating stare dropped her arm from his chest and she eased herself away. Vatma observed her body moving beneath the dark ruddy silks, how first she had tightened her stomach in worry, noticeable by the lines which flashed across the cleft of her throat, how the hip closest to him dropped to allow her torso enough mobility to lean away, and how the shoulder and breast farthest from him relaxed, transferring the tension to the arm closest to him. Fascinated by how her body moved, Vatma watched with growing eyes. A sudden impulse encouraged him to speak and when he did a great gust of air expired from his lungs, the smell stale after waiting all these years.
"This is a multiverse of suffering; if I choose to live for joy alone I am trapped by the multiverse. This is a multiverse of suffering; if I am trapped by it I will know pain. The only path I can choose is one of balancing joy and suffering."
Energy sparking through his being, Vatma was so drunk with this understanding that he nearly did not hear Kara's wry laugh. "Why, if what you're saying is true, Vatma, then so too must you abandon the severe life and cast aside your endless meditations and nights of fasting. What path would you be left with then?" No loner looking at Vatma with fear, Kara brushed the side of his face with her fingertips, pressing her body against him, black silks draping across Vatma's legs. "You yearn for the pleasures you have denied yourself; you need not restrain your passion any longer. Where would you go without pleasure? Back to you self-consuming desert? If you must abandon even that, what will you have left? I don't think you have the strength."
Placidly, Vatma smiled, looking at Kara with a certain reluctance born of old love. "For an illusion you've done surpassingly well, but Kara never would have doubted me; if you're wise you'll learn not to doubt me again." The stunned expression on the illusion's face was priceless, but Vatma did not dwell on it long, instead rising to his feet. Walking past the frescos and pleasure dome of the Gilded Hall, Vatma let the illusion fade about him in a colorful whirl of pink and white banners snapping in the breeze.
Vatma opened his eyes, taking in the gem encrusted cap dangling by a thin cord from the lip of the water jug. A refreshing aroma mixing iron and cool mountain mist filled his nostrils, and Vatma knew the water jug was filled at the banks of the River Oceanus, whose pure flowing crystal gleamed with the blessings of a thousand gods. Touching the rim to his lips, Vatma felt the metal interior click against his teeth even as his hands, which grasped either side of the jug, trembled. Sweet beads of holy water draped across his chin, winding their way down his beard in tiny canyons, mixing with the blood on his cracked lips. Eyes wide open, Vatma drank in the endless aquamarine sky and ended his thirst. With a curse the jug was snatched from his hands, leaving Vatma to gaze with unfocused eyes at the heat waves where the desert met the sky. Could a man live twelve years without water? Now it seemed that he could not live an hour without that invigorating ambrosia lining his lips.
"Well done! You've finished all the water, leaving us here to die in this wasteland and the vultures if they even live in this infernal heat to pick our bones clean!" The red-haired young man yelled at Vatma, gray eyes flashing in the sunlight as the corners of his mouth curled towards his ears in sheer aggravation.
Turning his trance-like gaze from the blistering horizon to the young man before him, Vatma arched a thin brow, a bizarre suspicion lighting his awareness ablaze. "This is not a wasteland."
Still angry with Vatma, the young man flexed his arms impatiently. "I assume you're going to offer an explanation for drinking all the water? While you're at it would you care to conjure us a way out of this wasteland?"
With a winning grin Vatma tapped his nose. "I might do just that, but only if you act civil and "
Vatma never finished the sentence, the fiery young man lunging forward to land his fist on the edge of Vatma's temple, slightly above the brow. Once again, Vatma was left to pick himself up, drag his frail form out of the sand, but he took his time because, after all, he realized that this felt like the first time he had ever been punched, just like the water had tasted fresher than he ever recalled, and he wanted to savor it. Chuckling as he clutched his spinning head, Vatma scolded the young man. "That is the first time I've ever been compelled to hit myself. Well," he grunted as he rose to his knees, "that isn't quite true. I've thought about hitting myself a lot, but you've gone and done it."
Not certain whether to fuel his anger, the young man squinted, caught off guard by the warmth of Vatma's drum beating voice. "That's one more thing you'll have to explain. Lucky for you I'm a patient man." Even as the words left his mouth the young man's face flushed and he looked down in shame.
Vatma, all smiles, nodded, still feeling the thunder in his ears after getting punched, and obliged the young man. "Just as I begin to find the answers I've been looking for here I am taking on an apprentice "
"I am not your apprentice," the young man said emphatically.
"Of course not. After twelve years of meditation you can understand how my skill with words may be out of practice," Vatma spoke evenly, his voice once again picking up the pattern of drumbeat speech he spoke with in his youth. "Only a man himself is his own teacher. However, I am you, so I happen to be in a position to tell you what to do or what not to do. Agreed?"
The young man shook his head, though the creeping smile on his face suggested otherwise. "That's impossible. You can't be me; I mean, you don't know what it is like to be me."
Holding up a dry hand, Vatma nodded peacefully. "I understand. Only one of us can truly know what it is like to be me or you. For now we'll say 'Vatma.' It's your name too? Vatma is my name! This is no coincidence," Vatma grinned sardonically. "This is a place of illusion, and it's clear the one being tested is Vatma. I believe that I am Vatma, and you've expressed to me how you are convinced you are he. Because we have seen and done different things, both of us cannot be that man, and yet we go by the same name, have similar patterns of speech, red hair. How many brown-skinned fellows do you know with red hair?"
Blinking, the young man was dumbfounded, evidence by his slightly protruding lower jaw. "How did you know my name?"
"No, my name," Vatma winked. "Not bleeding many, I'll tell you. Part of Shekinester's goal is to push us, or rather Vatma, into proving his existence. I've passed one test so far, the question on my mind is have you?"
A snap of the fingers brought the young man back to life. "Shekinester! Of course! The naga goddess of tests! I was under the impression that her realm was a thorny maze, or do I have 'Clueless' written all over my face? Or are you suggesting that this is all illusion?"
The young man was beginning to understand, and Vatma smiled with the pride a father would feel for his son, though he suspected the young man was a past version of himself. "I was trapped in a desert landscape of the mind, and Shekinester merely played on my thoughts to create this desert, a reflection of the internal one I had created during my years as an ascetic. In a sense this is real and illusion."
Hands clenching one another as sweat built on his brow, the young man shook his head ever so slightly. "You are not me. I'd never abandon the people around me to live a solitary pointless life in some mental wasteland."
Along the lines of his cheeks Vatma ran his thumb and forefinger before merging the two to emphasize his voice with a motion akin to beating drums. "Let me be very clear. This is not a wasteland. This is one of Shekinester's tests, designed to force Vatma to decide between two starkly contrasting philosophies that he has tried to live simultaneously. One is hedonism and the other asceticism." Vatma held his calloused hand up once more. "Yes, I say hedonism, the path you are following now. Before, I was an ascetic, but I have seen the light and understand that both extremes can lead only to suffering."
With a dramatized roll of his eyes the young man smiled gently at Vatma as if he were comforting a senile old man. "You seem to know so much about me, it is only fair I tell you something about yourself. Maybe once you thought you were Vatma, and you still do, but you're a delusional barmy who hasn't quite put all his bolts in the right places. Instead, you've taken to preying upon feeble minds to slake your appetite for fantasy. Sorry, berk, you can't make a sheep out of a wolf." The young man smiled wolfishly, eyes lit with contempt for Vatma.
It was a long while before Vatma responded, drowning his infuriated pride in the beauty of the endless desert sky where no clouds could be seen or even hinted at by the silent passage of birds. "In seeking pleasure you deny pain, just as you deny it by denying pleasure. Look at me, I am not an old man, though my beard hangs by my navel; there is still life in my fragile bones. I am real. I've created this desert but I need your help to leave it and begin living."
Pursing his lips the young man eyes Vatma. "So, this is all illusion? How do you know that you're not the illusion? I believe you're one of my many possible future selves; well, I won't have need of you anymore. The lesson has been learned. You've taught me what not to aspire to. Thanks, you may vanish or whatever it is you illusions do."
Nothing that the young man said seemed to impact Vatma in the least, and he stood transfixed, eyes anchored to some distant point on the scintillating horizon. He understood why he was here, why he chose the ascetic life, why he now renounced it. "Why are you afraid to leave this desert?"
"Afraid? I wouldn't be happier if a great eagle swooped from the sky and carried me off to be eviscerated. At least I wouldn't have to listen to your barmy raving!" Collecting himself, the young many looked slyly at Vatma. "If you're as real as you claim to be, how can you be sure you're not the one who is afraid to leave? You heard what I said, berk. You're afraid of pleasure. I don't think you can leave. I don't think you're strong enough."
Vision drifting to the nearly invisible flock of birds, Vatma experience a sunset in his mind, that is, he had a dawning awareness of what his new path demanded. He could know with certainty that this desert was illusion for the true realm of Shekinester lay in the Outlands, where light came from the surrounding realities, organized in the manner of spokes on a wheel's axis, the axis being the Outlands. This desert was lit by a burning sun and could not be real because Vatma also knew with certainty that he was in the realm of Shekinester. He had come seeking revelation, to renew his strength of conviction in the path he had chosen and learn the meaning of suffering. It was said the man who reached the center of the Court of Light would purge his spirit of all doubts. Strangely, he could not remember entering the Court of Light, only that he had been meditating for twelve years, attempting to reach a spiritual nirvana. Unless, of course, this was a test. Looking into the heart of the young man Vatma smiled wistfully. "You are my doubt."
A kicked up gust of sand sent birds erupting into the sky as Vatma felt the young man drawn into himself. Though he fell backward, Vatma wore an expression of sublime bliss even as the young man faded from view and merged with Vatma, becoming Vatma himself. There was no escaping it, he was himself, with doubts and all; if he hoped to survive his new path he couldn't afford the doubts. He had to reach the center of the Court of Light.
Bramble cracked and kicked up spiny burrs as Vatma careened through low hanging vines of the thicket, sinking knee deep into a foul smelling puddle of dark muddy sand. Above him Vatma made out a complicated shamble of vines and roots carving up into the air; there had to be one low enough to grab. For a moment, Vatma did nothing, savoring the feel of the mud oozing between his toes and sandals, basking in the energy he felt at having passed another of Shekinester's tests. Only when he realized that it would be a matter of minutes before he was up to his neck in the mud did Vatma try to reach the vines, and by then it was too late. Not one would fall completely into the palm of his hand, and he could only brush his fingertips against their smooth flesh, just as Kara's illusion had touched his cheek. Blinking away the memory, Vatma struggled violently to reach the vine, but to no avail.
"If you seek it you won't reach it," a soothing serpentine voice whispered from the dark thicket as the pale green face of a woman with eyes the shade of moonlight emerged from the winding trees. Her cheeks were decorated with dark patterns of kohl, which only accentuated her haunting wild beauty. Behind her trailed an aquamarine body of a snake, trimmed with white lines and a crimson spine of venomous spikes. Winding her body around the trees the snake-woman came close enough to examine Vatma's predicament.
Quelling his fear, which juggled between being swallowed by the swamp and devoured by the snake-woman, Vatma took her advice to hear and stopped reaching for the vine. Immediately he noticed he had stopped sinking so quickly, digging his own grave as it were, though he still inched towards death. "I'm still sinking."
Head cocked to one side the snake-woman confirmed what Vatma had said. "You are."
"Could you hand me a vine or something? Oh, you don't have any hands. See that one above me? Maybe you could lower it a bit, enough so I could reach it and "
"Deny you the learning experience?" She indulged herself with a smile that reminded Vatma of all those times he wanted to hit himself, instead directed at the snake-woman and her beautiful face.
"I see," Vatma frowned, looking about him for the secret to escaping this inescapable death trap. The mud had crawled up to the middle of his torso, drenching his pants in their stinking filth, a filth which intrigued Vatma greatly. He was convinced he had never smelled an odor quite so foul in his entire thirty-some years of existence. What had he learned during those years of meditation, when he abandoned all joys of the flesh for the path of the spirit? Like a stunned deer, Vatma recalled what he had told himself in the illusory desert; had he indeed been floating? Had he at last mastered the art of levitation or was it all imagined?
Regardless of whether he had or hadn't, Vatma decided that he had better learn how or he wasn't going to be among the living for long. Letting his eyes roll to the arch of his nose, Vatma focused on the unity of creation, the tremendous mystery of all as one. As his breathing slowed Vatma ceased to notice the physical sensations about him, his awareness turning in on itself.. A steady hum filled his throat, a mantra he practiced over the years designed to increase focus on the task in the present. Time lost meaning. Distance lost meaning. Stepping out of the oozing puddle, Vatma walked lightly over the moss covered stones before coming to lean against a solid ash tree. He kept an eye on the snake-woman, the dull fear of being swallowed alive returning to him. "Are you going to eat me?"
A hiss that could have been a laugh was followed by silence as the snake-woman seemed to consider the idea in earnest. "No, I'm not."
While Vatma recovered from exerting himself, an unintentional smile reached his mouth. "Did you see me levitate? I've been practicing for year; how strange I only realize the secret now after " Vatma's voice trailed off, a dying drumbeat. "Are you part of a test?"
She pondered the questions, the snake-woman did, and after she had finished dwelling on all the implications it had she responded with a question. "Do you ask because I'm a naga?"
Acquiescing the point, Vatma nodded. "I was under the impressions that all nagas were servants of Shekinester."
Lifting her emerald green eyebrows the naga pronounced her words with extreme precision. "I may be what you call a 'servant,' but as to whether or not I'm part of your test, I couldn't say." With a pause long enough to arouse Vatma's concern, she continued sarcastically. "You see, I haven't sat down and chatted with the goddess in quite some time."
While the naga chuckled, Vatma sighed, looking to either side of him as if he would, on some off chance, find the center of the realm right there. "How does one distinguish between what is part of the test and what isn't?" He looked at the naga squarely.
"Life is a test," left the naga's lips and she chortled all the more to Vatma's aggravation. "No, seriously, it is." She pursued Vatma as he, sandaless and covered in drying mud, trekked off into the thorny maze. "Shekinester tumbled to this dark and created her realm to reflect the nature of life. While you're here I imagine everything is a test, but that's still true even if you manage to leave."
Hand paused on several vines to brush them out of his way, Vatma stopped and turned to face the naga. "What do you mean 'if I manage to leave?'"
Deftly slithering forward, she spoke nonchalantly. "Only that in order for one to pass the tests, someone has to fail. There is no light without darkness, my friend. A test you can't fail is no test at all."
Flicking a spider crawling across his neck, Vatma kept walking. "I'm beginning to think I'm the only one with any modicum of confidence in myself."
Over the last hour Vatma had a chance to introduce himself to the naga, who called herself Ananta. She explained in meticulous detail the differences between the three broad types of naga, though she assured Vatma that there were as many varieties as there were blades of grass in the multiverse. First, there were the guardian naga, brilliant gold and platinum encrusted creatures who served the forces of creation. Then came their counterparts, the spirit naga, shadowy gray and dapple creatures who devoted their lives to destruction. Finally there existed the water naga, of which Ananta was one; their priorities were those of preservation.
"Yet you all are servants of Shekinester? The culture I hail from has a similar belief, that Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva are all faces of Brahman. I think that is why I am here," Vatma watched Ananta from the corner of his eye, suspecting her to dissipate soon enough once he knew she was illusion.
Ananta's only response was "Oh?"
Stopping before a massive wall of thorns, Vatma wavered between asking Ananta for directions, which he mentally hit himself for not doing earlier, and explaining to her the emerging understanding of Brahman he had been gifted with. Instead, he remained silent, craning his neck back to follow the wall of thorns as it disappeared into the clouds.
"That," said Vatma at length, after watching a flock of birds pass overhead, "is a very tall wall."
With a voice that brought to mind the image of a harp being tuned, Ananta spoke after giving the wall a mild looking over. "What is insurmountable appears such because you choose to let it be insurmountable."
Rubbing his beard, which he found littered with miniature burrs that refused to leave their new home no matter how hard he tugged at them, Vatma stepped a few paces away from the wall. The longer he studied it, the more he felt the gnawing suspicion enter his throat that he was being tested; what precisely he was being tested on, Vatma did not know, but he was passionately curious to find out. Before him was a wall, and as sure as Shekinester ruled the Court of Light, it was a wall placed there to test some hidden unresolved puzzle of his own creation that is, woven by Shekinester and made possible by his own inner conflict Vatma first needed to know what he was being tested on. Therein lay the challenge. Not one fiber of Vatma's being resonated with doubt, and he found himself staring at the wall, amazed by how distant it felt. During most times of his life his ascetic life Vatma felt attuned to all things, aware of a tremendous bond that inexorably clasped light to darkness and all to one. This wall, then separated Vatma from the rest of creation, and his new path required he reach the other side at whatever cost.
Clearly it was impossible to climb such a daunting obstacle, for even if Vatma was a nimble climber his hands would still be minced after clutching the bladed leaves of the wall. In a jerky motion Vatma looked down, paced a ways, stopped, looked back up and squinted. Though he attempted to see some trick to the wall, nothing came to his mind; Vatma was confounded. However, he could not fail this test for to fail meant he would never reach the center of the Court of Light, and to not reach the center meant certain death, an abrupt end to his chosen path. Bushy brows pursed together, Vatma let his watery gray eyes wander over the wall.
When Ananta spoke Vatma felt a wave of new confidence wash over him, for he had secretly been hoping she would offer guidance. Just as quickly as this confidence came it vanished, replaced by a burning dread. "Some thing has been following us." Ananta's statement should have seemed nonchalant, but Vatma knew a panic unlike any he had ever felt before.
As if it had been part of the thorn ridden walls which directed Vatma to The Wall, the one which stood between him and all else, a rotting vine uncoiled itself, sneering human face vaguely visible in the shadows of the canopy. Though Vatma no longer felt the awe at seeing a man's head attached to a snake's body as he had when encountering Ananta, a healthy fear gripped his neck and threatened to strangle him if he should let himself get eaten.
Presumably this was one of the spirit naga, and, after his brief sociology lesson, Vatma was convinced the rotting gray form lined with puss laden warts intended to show him just how real entropy could be. Methodically, Vatma brought his breathing under control, letting a cooler air enter from his abdomen, though this helped little to ease his fear of being eaten. If it attacked, Vatma would be helpless to defend, for his muscles had atrophied to such a point that it was a force of will to remember they existed at all. How much harder, then, would it be to wrestle with a python?
Patches of decaying flesh, like that of a corpse, were visible along its snaking body as the spirit naga uncoiled to its full length. "There is no escape from the inevitable. You should not have become involved with this one; his test is of great interest to my mistress."
"Our mistress," Ananta corrected. "If your entropy is so omnipotent as you seem to think it is, why need you even acts on its behalf?"
Hissing maniacally or cruelly Vatma could not tell which the spirit naga licked its black lips. "A cause without followers is no cause at all. Why have you been serving preservation when destruction and creation can create a balance of their own?"
"Preservation is a cause, just as destruction is," said Ananta hastily, though in doing so she fell into the spirit naga's trap designed to render her initial argument futile.
The spirit naga's mouth moved slowly, as imperceptible to Vatma as his change from boy to man, though move it did; it was only after it finished speaking that Vatma made sense of the tumble of words fit together like pieces of a graveyard puzzle. "Yet you support the darkness, for you must if you believe in preservation."
"To support a cause and to believe that a cause exists are two different things. One requires faith and the other reason. Unfortunately for you, you have put faith where your reason should be." Ananta's expression was smug as she watched the spirit naga slither to her side, making it apparent to Vatma that while Ananta's body was the more precious of the two, the spirit naga far surpassed her in length.
With a wheezing voice which tittered between a hacking cough and rasping moan, the spirit naga paused in its circling motion. "If light grows too strong you would use darkness to smother it. This is preservation. Yes, you may believe darkness exists, but you also must believe in the darkness, as it is necessary for light to exist."
"You're talking in circles," interrupted Vatma, struggling to keep an eye on the spirit naga as it maneuvered to pass Ananta and reach him. "Creation and entropy are defined by each other, so without one the other could not exist. By your own argument," Vatma indicated toward the spirit naga, "you must support preservation because without it there'd be no dark cause to follow."
"What makes you think," spoke the spirit naga, slithering around Ananta, "entropy wishes to preserve itself?"
Incredulous, Vatma pleaded with his hands as much as he did with his words. "How can you support a cause which you ultimately hope to destroy? It's madness!" A small awareness, like a needle hidden in a haystack, emerged in Vatma's mind; he had revived the passion of life he knew earlier, but he had also refined it.
There had been no chuckle which so haunted Vatma's soul as the one which escaped the spirit naga's crusty lips. Even Ananta shivered noticeably, tremors terminating at the tip of her aquamarine form, bristling her crimson spines. Was it fear? Could it have been anger? Vatma did not know precisely what common chord had been struck for both Ananta and himself, but he smelled jealousy in the works. Compared to the spirit naga's cause, the new path Vatma had discovered was miniscule, a mere fading spark where entropy was an overwhelming furnace. Despair came to him, caressing his features, bleeding over his pronounced ears, craggy red brows, and smallish neck until Vata paralyzed himself with it. His muscles could respond though weak, but now he did not let them. What was he chasing? Was it any more than a dust phantom which lingered in between the waking and dreaming worlds?
Without warning, the gray form of the spirit naga sprang outward, and in an instant its true length was revealed, a vile conglomeration thrice a man's height, though the only feature which suggested sentience was its ashen face, and even this was not a human face. As it seemed suspended in midair for the longest time, Vatma watched dutifully, and he did feel a sense of duty to this creature which so quickly had shaken him to his very core. Yellowed eyes locked on Ananta's throat, the spirit naga propelled itself through the air, particles of decaying flesh left in its wake like the stardust Vatma watched from the hills of Bytopia in his youth.
Wonder and terror mingled too closely as Vatma saw the spirit naga clutch Ananta's throat in its jaws, which had unhinged in a way which inspired bile to rise to Vatma's throat. Cast aside like a rag doll, Ananta quivered slightly as she fought off the spirit naga's poison. Something in his heart told Vatma that the spirit naga had not tracked them down to end Ananta's life, but to steal his own. If he died now, Vatma knew he would never forgive himself for abandoning his path so easily, regardless of whether he remembered this life in his next incarnation.
"Better not die then," erupted from the spirit naga's throat, though it sounded as if it spoke underwater there was so much poison coursing through its veins. Such weariness had entered Vatma's heart he nearly collapsed against the thorn covered wall; the only thing keeping him from this was the thought that if he let his eyes close he'd be eaten by the poisonous creature before him. "You have seen the power of entropy for yourself. Can your path of enlightenment compare?"
Eyes bobbing to and fro like a ship about to capsize, Vatma kept the spirit naga in his view long enough to say "You've known my thoughts all along?"
Chuckling the soul devouring laugh, the spirit naga bobbed its head from side to side, either in parody of Vatma or else to throw him off guard. "You mortals are consumed by your beliefs, but none encompasses your very soul as does entropy. All beliefs fade. What cause seeks its own destruction? Have you seen the beauty sublime?" Easing away from Vatma for a moment, the spirit naga frowned. "Or are you that eager to die?"
All Vatma heard was that he was going to abandon his newfound path, and his only choice was to live with it or die, but it was his choice, and that made all the difference in the multiverse.
"All beliefs meet an end," said the spirit naga though it may as well just have told Vatma that fingers were actually toes or that ears were organs of taste.
Quelling his fear, trapping it under the heels of his feet, which remained rooted to the ground, Vatma looked directly into the spirit naga's tarnished eyes. "If you kill me, you don't end my beliefs; they will continue to thrive, being immortal as the planes themselves."
Was that the spirit naga's ploy? Panic once again clutched Vatma in its talons, sapping his vigor like an intangible leech, when a snarling smile exposed jagged blackened teeth as the spirit naga leered at him. "So you admit that your beliefs aren't unique?"
The question did not kill Vatma, did not extinguish the flame in his heart, the power in his veins, nor the undying focus. The answer almost did, just as the streets of Sigil would nearly kill him. Yes. Never before had "yes" inspired so much pain. With the realization that his beliefs had to belong to at least one other person in all the planes, Vatma nearly died, and yet he was comforted. Crawling into his self-created security, the fear of being eaten controlled him. Vatma's eyes, gray orbs hunted by human terrors, drifted across the foliage to connect with Ananta. A mirror shattered, reflections and inspirations struggling to reach the edge of his mind, but none could find dominance. Before he could act, the spirit naga had followed his gaze to a depressed pile of leaves.
Swearing in a tongue that Vatma couldn't being to understand (except insofar as it was swearing), the spirit naga nearly jumped out of its skin. Surprised that a half snake being could jump, but quite convinced the decaying flesh would drop to the ground any moment, Vatma turned in a circle, filled with wonder. What an art it was to vanish in plain sight without the aid of shadows or night! Even as the spirit naga snapped its head from the spot where Ananta had been to Vatma, he saw her, Vatma did, dancing easily with the spirit naga itself. Dancing with death, as it were, Ananta had mimed the spirit naga's movements so perfectly as to be indistinguishable from it until now. Eyes sharp with the fires of suspicion, the spirit naga followed Vatma's gaze again. Ananta seized the moment and sprang, though her jade skin stayed firmly in place.
Their coils intimately wrapped around each other, the two nagas seemed to be an extension of some other greater being, as if their identities were irrelevant. Vatma did not like this thought; after all, Ananta was fighting for him, but it came unbidden and would not leave. The fight raged on, and though the spirit naga understood combat far better than Ananta and was by far the larger, she had a superior position, the result of her surprise attack, and she fought with passion to maintain it.
Entropy could not be fought, Vatma realized, and eventually Ananta would fall to the spirit naga, and though Vatma understood this was the way of Shekinester, indeed, the way of life, he knew it was his choice. Gripping a hefty rotting branch the color of ash, Vatma stepped forward, clutching the moss laden wood tightly between his two hands so that his knuckles whitened. No opening existed, for the two nagas had become indistinguishable save for their faces, which swayed dangerously close to well aimed bites, ever ducking out of choke holds in the other's coils. With a shout, Vatma brought the wooden log down onto the spirit naga's head. At least, that was his intention. Dazed, Ananta went limp for a moment, but the spirit naga, who had managed to avoid the wild swipe, darted at Vatma, knocking the stick from his hands and simultaneously entrapping thin arms and fragile body within its wart laden coils.
"You think you can stop the destruction, mortal? I thought you knew better. Not only will you lose your belief, but now your life will pay the forfeit of your actions." Jaws unhinged in an impossible way, as wide as a channel for trading ships, the spirit naga stopped before swallowing Vatma, though it was so close Vatma could feels strands of venom dripping along his cheeks and the reek of decay warm against his face.
Yet still Vatma sang. In a voice of steady falling rain, quiet drops against an invisible canvas, he sang. The music was akin to the mantras he used during meditation and it came from the same deep abdominal source, but it was haunting where his mantras were tranquil, eerie where they were intimate. When he felt the foul breath of the spirit naga leave his cheek, Vatma redoubled his efforts in song:
When all the men in battle die, peace shall rule the land.
When no more the swallows fly, death reveals its hand.
When all the flowers turn to dust, peace shall rule the land.
When all men's tools turn to rust, decay moves beneath the sand.
Yet all these more beautiful are made, knowing what the morrows bring,
For even though the beauty fades men will praise it when they sing.
It was as much of a prayer as it was a song, for Vatma knew that if he could not sway the spirit naga he would join the ranks of the dead. A vague sadness glinting in its eyes, the spirit naga stared at Vatma as it released him from the death grip, and Vatma swore he saw a spark of tenderness in those yellow eyes which had lives so long in hatred. Both stood admiring the other, and Vatma felt the closest to death he ever had.
"How great it must be to love the cause you follow, but I only have hatred for entropy," said the spirit naga, a muted sadness cast over its being. "You teach a hard lesson, Vatma Rohnti, but it doesn't fall on deaf ears."
As if their minds were working in unison, Vatma and the spirit naga turned to look at Ananta. Her face a shade paler than a fleshy green, it was clear death was beckoning. Vatma felt himself splinter into two, if only for a second; one part wanted desperately to save her and the other was grateful for the sacrifice she made. Was the schism that great between these two sides? Were they as different as darkness and light? Deciding that they were not, Vatma knelt alongside Ananta, one hand gingerly touching her brow.
Though her voice was soft it was still audible. "I've made my decision as you've made yours. Remember to preserve this beautiful life, but learn to let it go when it is your time."
Searching for the words to some spell that could save her, Vatma could only stare mutely as Ananta passed from the world of the living. He found himself looking down at his two hands as the water naga's form went limp, one rested idly in his lap and the other along the beautiful jade skin. "I will never forget you, not even after death."
This solemn oath brought a single tear tracing the creases between nose and mouth like a piece of driftwood in a canyon stream. It was a long while before either spoke, but finally the spirit naga broke the drowning silence. "There is nothing you can do for her now. I know the proper funerary rights," said the spirit naga, hatred once again returning to its gray tongue. "You'd best go before your song loses its hold on me."
Swallowing, Vatma looked at the earth before him, the dead vines nestled in swirling patterns. "You came for me, but she was the one to die " Vatma could not find the words to finish.
"Why?" Sneered the spirit naga, the snarl slowly unfolding from its face until it gazed philosophically at The Wall. "You've come here to seek answers and you'd best do it fast before I decide to eat you."
Eyes flashing in surprise, Vatma looked up at the spirit naga, "You mean nagas really do eat people?" No answer was needed to inspire Vatma to puzzle a way past The Wall between him and all else, at least, no answer beyond a wicked smile on the part of the spirit naga.
A hurricane of exhaustion swept over Vatma, and it was all he could do to keep from succumbing to sleep's tempting invitation. If I stay here I'm going to die. Turning his face to The Wall, Vatma lodged both of his fists on his navel, deliberately slowing the passage of air through his lungs prior to easing himself to the maze floor. No mantras seemed to suffice, so Vatma meditated in silence. What prevented him from reaching the life waiting beyond The Wall?
Kara. Luscious. Sensual. Kara with lips that yielded moisture untold. Kara, whose slightest movement of her insidious lashes could set a man's heart a fire at one hundred paces. Warm lips to caress him, limbs softer than misery to entangle him, and feathery wings to lift their love above mortal heights. He knew what she was. He knew that she hated him for what he had done. Erinyes were known for their jealousy and Vatma had stolen a hellbound soul out from under her resolute fingers, prying the man free with his force of will. She would never forgive him for freeing himself, but he loved her still.
Where Kara was his passion, Brahman was enlightenment, a light in the dark, unity, creation and destruction. For all these years, and there were twelve Vatma could distinctly recall, he worshipped Brahman, though it wasn't worship exactly. In the same way he longed for Kara's sinister embrace, Vatma longed to become one with Brahman for therein lay escape from suffering. Though Brahman was supposed to guide Vatma away from the pain of living, it had failed him, or was it that Vatma failed Brahman?
A light, flashing like a collapsing star, surrounded Vatma's vision though his eyes were wide shut. He saw every moment of his pleasure, bright and willing like a pink breeze, and each of these soothing winds turned half a shade and became pain. Vatma found sanctuary in nothingness, became nothing, had nothing, was nothing. There was no full feeling in this emptiness, no satisfaction, no sense of purpose or belonging. Neither path would lead to the truth. Vatma could not explain why to the arching flame which had formed on the mental plane, but he did not hold back. He stepped forward into the fire. He would learn to accept the pain and the pleasure. More powerful than the radiant meaning in watching a star fall on a warm night, the flame grew, encompassed Vatma, poured through his eyes and out his lips. Every organ, every vein, was lit ablaze, but the thing which burned most of all was not his mind. Vatma's heart was a searing torrent of flame, yet it was nothing compared to this; it was a burning tree where this was a forest fire stretching to the edges of infinity. There was nothing that Vatma could say to explain what happened to his soul, but he vowed to return to Shekinester when he found words.
The Main Chamber