The Man Who Met Truth
Erik smelt burning sulfur when his senses returned to him. Then he opened his eyes and saw he was free falling down to a volcano that had lava frothing in its crater.
Smoke and air whistled past his ears as Erik opened his mouth in a silent scream. Then gravity faded away for a second time and his feet touched the ground. Erik staggered and would’ve fallen if Xie didn’t keep him upright.
“That cost me ten years of my life,” he croaked.
“Should I give you a warning next time?” Xie asked. She had the temerity to sound amused and stand surefooted.
“A heads-up would be nice, yeah,” Erik grouched. “So where are we going? What should I expect?”
“We’re off to see the clan heads.”
“That’s a ‘who’ not a ‘where’.”
“Where they are is a real place,” Xie said. “Wizards don’t want to be found. So expect resistance. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself trapped in your highest false heaven or your deepest private hell.”
“…Right.” Erik swallowed hard. “Lead on.”
They raced down the slope. A turbulent sea was before them, and a glassy black hill was behind. The air was warm and tasted moist and salty. Erik was starting to feel at ease until he realized he was running headlong towards a cliff.
“Brake!” he shouted.
Xie didn’t stop. She kept sprinting with her hand wrapped firmly around his wrist. Then she jumped off the ledge, taking Erik with her.
A giant maelstrom greeted them, screeching like a pig. Ocean droplets splashed against Erik’s face like malevolent tendrils trying to pull him in down the abyss. Erik closed his eyes as the vortex’s open jaw drew nearer.
He didn’t hit water. It was as though the whole world was held in suspense. He opened one eye and found he was floating down a long vertical shaft.
“You promised me a warning,” he accused Xie, heart racing.
“I did, and you had ample,” Xie said.
They landed on something soft and squishy. Xie trotted ahead. Balls of blue light flared to life as they proceeded down a tunnel, which was wide enough to for two adults to walk side-by-side. In spite of everything, or perhaps because of it, Erik found the warmth of Xie’s hand on his elbow ridiculously comforting.
Xie stopped them when the cave opened to a large gallery of stalactites and stalagmites. A ring of white light illuminated the place. Erik noted some of the bigger stalagmites had thick straw ropes festooned with red and white ribbons.
Xie squinted at a rock that had an inscription on it.
“We’ve entered a qi-free zone! Don’t use it unless I tell you to!” she whispered.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Erik muttered.
Xie took a cautious step forward, and then another. She raised her free hand towards a rock engraved with red letters. What happened next Erik didn’t have the hand-eye coordination to follow, but he remembered the sound: SLASH.
Thin transparent threads crisscrossed the gallery. The ropes and streamers got shredded to confetti. Xie and Erik escaped the deadly onslaught thanks to the multitude of portals that redirected them.
“…Christ,” Erik breathed, his heart in his mouth, while Xie shattered the threads to powder with a flick of a hand.
Erik and Xie left the stalactite gallery and entered another tunnel. They continued on for some time until they reached a blank stone wall. Xie scanned it, muttered “need to go down”, and opened a portal beneath their feet.
Fire exploded around them as soon as they hit a floor. Xie shot out a hand and the flames batted themselves against an invisible dome.
“Kill on sight,” Xie explained as Erik watched in horror.
Xie didn’t search the gallery they entered, though Erik spied several inscriptions on the floor. She just marched straight ahead.
“I did not sign up for this,” Erik mumbled as he forced himself to follow. Sweat beaded his forehead. He didn’t feel the flames, though they roared like an overheated furnace.
He stopped before the barrier. The flames were so close, Erik could intuit the scorching heat lying just ahead. Xie gave him a gentle nudge. Erik took in a shaky breath and took another step.
The flames retreated.
“Were they real?” Erik wondered aloud.
Xie didn’t reply but placed both palms on a rough rock surface. The rock shimmered, bore a hole that expanded, and opened to an archway.
Erik felt his heart sing when he saw what lay ahead: an evergreen forest, blue stone mountains marbled with snow and ancient rock formations that looked so much like the Highlands.
Xie reached out again. This time, Erik matched the gesture. They clasped hands. If Xie thought this was odd, she didn’t comment. Thankfully. Erik wouldn’t have been able to explain.
They splashed across a wide shallow lake full of pebbles of many colors, hand in hand. The surface, dotted with water lilies, mirrored the clouds painted gold, magenta, and dusty blue so perfectly, it made Erik think they were treading the sky.
They entered the evergreen forest. It was brighter inside. Thick trees buffeted a narrow but well-trod path. Moss and lichen covered the gnarled roots and stones. Clean air that bore the aroma of rich humus and pine resin filled Erik’s lungs with every breath. Songbirds chattered, and he could hear the flutter of their wings. Beams of sunlight broke through the thick canopy and danced when a cool breeze blew. The leaves and undergrowth were shades of luminous green that defied description. And there. He could hear the Horns of Elfland, ever so faintly blowing.
They ran. The horns kept blowing but didn’t seem to grow any louder or nearer. Here and there, Erik wondered how much longer they had to go. He didn’t mind how long it took. He could go on indefinitely, as a matter of fact. Never had he had a run this pleasant, with a companion who could match his pace.
“Erik, you must concentrate!” Xie hissed—after hours, days, one could not tell.
Erik blinked. “You think I’m not?”
Xie bit her lower lip before answering:
“The forest isn’t ending! As long as you’re seduced by what you see, we’ll never get anywhere!”
Erik faltered. “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
“Every disclosure carries a time penalty!” Xie cried. “Now focus!”
Alarmed and chastised, Erik scrambled to think about the clan heads. It was harder than he’d thought it would be. He wasn’t in a hurry to see them, not when they had no qualms about setting traps that burned outsiders to a crisp. In fact, he couldn’t picture them at all. Were they old? Were they young? Did they live in his world or they may as well be hunter-gatherer aliens? What little he’d seen so far suggested a people who were rough, willful and untamed. Far removed from the over-sanitized, technology-saturated world he dwelled in.
Why would the wizard community care about the Internet? Erik wondered with a frown. Xie got sent seven years ago, roughly when the Internet became ubiquitous. She had plenty of time to get acquainted with current day technology and form an uneasy truce. Yet Xie didn’t know any video hosting websites and regarded smartphones with deep distrust. The same went for David, who was a true Luddite. If Xie, who was young and intelligent and made a conscious effort to learn how to live in his world had so much trouble, how much more so the wizard nation’s leaders? Did they have any stake in his world? There was some overlap between the wizard community and his world to be sure. Xie wouldn’t speak English like a Scottish country bumpkin who got educated in Oxford if there was none. But if that overlap didn’t include technology, why would they care?
“Whatever it is that you’re doing, it’s working!” Xie shouted.
Erik looked up and around. The forest was strangely still, and a muffled silence seemed to permeate the air. Bolstered by the change, if uneasy by it, Erik marshaled his thoughts to bring his suspicions to its logical conclusion.
If the wizard community had little to no stake in his world, why would they send eighty-four people there on a long-term mission? Wouldn’t they confine their search to their own country? Why send so many? Why so little in terms of supervision and help? Why let David leave without penalty, his family support notwithstanding? Even if the leaders were shooting in the dark at the beginning, they would’ve recalled most, if not all, of their spies when Xie and her team figured out the prophecy likely involved the Internet. Unless…
“…The prophecy is a lie,” Erik blurted.
Xie almost crashed into a tree.
“What?” she shouted, as she skidded to halt.
“When was the last time you heard from your leaders?” Erik asked once he jogged to a stop. “Or did they tell you: you’re on your own until you found Thought and Memory?”
Erik could tell from Xie’s paling face the clan heads hadn’t made any contact since she left.
“There’s something fishy about that,” he soldiered on. “Not that I know anything first-hand about spycraft, but I’m pretty sure spy agencies assign handlers to agents who go undercover. To make sure they don’t lose sight of their mission if nothing else. Speaking of, how many of the original eighty-four are still loyal? Not that many, yeah? Did you even know about the Internet until you got sent out? Do you think it’s relevant to your people?”
Xie actually blanched.
“No, but…what’s the point of sending us, then?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Erik said.
Xie nibbled on her lower lip. The girlish expression brought home the idea Xie was younger than he’d initially assumed. She’d have to be in her early twenties if David was old enough, and her young enough, for diaper-changing to enter the picture.
“I don’t think you’re right,” Xie said after a long beat.
“And I want to be wrong,” said Erik gently, now mindful of her age. “Why don’t we find out?”
Xie breathed—in out, in out. The rage and grief pouring out of her in waves, with its strong undercurrent doubt, squeezed tight around Erik’s throat, constricting it.
“…All right,” she muttered, at last collecting herself.
Then she reached for the heavens and grabbed.
Erik felt like his head was tearing itself apart. It was as though someone dug their fingers into his skull and tried to crack it open. As his vision blackened around the edges, Erik noticed the forest had turned to broken glass. More cracks appeared as pain beyond agony stabbed him, over and over, in the center of his brain.
At last, everything shattered. Erik felt himself falling as his consciousness flickered out.
Only this time, no one caught him.
When Erik came to, there was nothing.
No sound. No scent. No light. Chilled air wafted down from above. He groped through the dark and touched smooth cold metal. He walked around, running his hands over the metal, and realized he was in a small box. A square floor, each side perhaps four feet long, and metal walls so tall, strong and sheer he couldn’t climb up them, qi or no qi.
Trapped, Erik realized as his stomach filled with lead. Was this his private hell? As time ticked by, without any means to measure it except his own rapid heartbeat, his sports watch useless in the oppressive darkness, it appeared so.
Erik had read about prisoners kept in isolation, of serial killer victims who died of thirst and hunger locked in basements. They said it was crueler than any torture. As his nerves began to fray, Erik knew this was true.
It wasn’t the solitude. Loneliness was an old friend of his. He spent more time inside his head than not. As long as his feet touched the cold floor, he knew he wasn’t dead. It was … the indefiniteness that gnawed at his sanity. When was this going to end? How did he end up here? What did he do to deserve this?
Erik didn’t know when he slithered down to the floor. Yet on the next moment of self-awareness, he found himself lying on his side, back hunched and knees folded in. His hands felt numb. His eyes were closed and he moved not a muscle. His mind, though, was a chaos of disjointed thought, clawing for purchase.
Later—a minute or an hour or an eternity later—there was the sound of another person sitting beside him but no corresponding warmth.
“You look pathetic,” said Rena’s voice.
Erik opened his eyes, half-mast.
“Yeah, it’s me.
Erik didn’t know if he wanted to shout for joy or howl in despair. Rena was a harbinger of bad news. But his sister was better than the indefinite nothing.
“How’d you get here?” he asked at long last.
“Does it matter? I can’t get you out,” Rena replied.
Ah, yes, here cometh the bad news. Erik couldn’t even dredge up the energy to feel shocked or hysterical.
Rena’s laugh was sharp enough to cut.
“Have you ever seen me use qi, even once? Just because I have everything, doesn’t mean I can do everything, fool.”
Oh. This should’ve come as a shock, but it didn’t. That makes sense, Erik thought, as a puzzle piece he hadn’t even noticed was missing slotted itself into place.
“How are we communicating, then?”
“Turns out Mum can send any sound to whomever she wills and Dad can inflict his visions on other people. We’re lucky he’s nice.”
“Is he crying?”
“Like a twelve-year-old girl after a breakup. It’s the epitome of Ungood.”
There was silence for many heartbeats. Erik knew not what to say, but breathed more easily as he listened to Rena shift around.
“I can help in only one way,” Rena said after the pause. “I know the beginning, middle, and end. I know the right moment. Chronos and Kairos, I call it. Here is my encouragement to you, brother mine: your time has barely started.”
Complete silence and cold solitude reigned once more. Erik, however, didn’t panic. Rena, despite her enigmatic parting words and abrupt departure, did one good thing: she put his brain back in working order. He could now think things through.
It made sense to put him in a prison that disabled qi in some fashion. The first two traps he’d encountered suggested qi was indeed programmable. So it was well within reason his prison was rigged so he couldn’t destroy its walls or teleport away. As for why his captors didn’t take away his ability to use qi, he suspected had to do with the taboo associated with stealing qi. It’s like committing a form of murder and carried a terrible price, or so his mother said. But without the ability to interact with his prison, was he without hope?
Not necessarily. He could still reach for real things. As long as it had some physicality. His prison may be an illusion he can’t break out of or a real metal box. He simply did not know. But he could find out. If, say, he reached out for Truth.
It was something he wondered about, ever since he learned the Three Major Laws. If qi could touch anything real, could he not touch Truth directly? He didn’t try it before because he didn’t think he’d survive the experiment. After all, it wasn’t as if he was the main character of a story who had to live and face the consequences of his hubris. But now, what did he have to lose? If Truth was an illusion, then he’d be grasping for something that didn’t exist. He would die, and there would be nothing. But if Truth was really real, then…
Erik rolled on his back and raised a hand.
He hesitated. Should he push himself towards Truth or should he pull Truth towards him? Did it matter either way? Both felt rude. Forgive me for my presumption, he offered to the Cosmic Storyteller, whose identity he didn’t yet know.
He hesitated again.
Then he pulled.
Erik didn’t return to his body after he…after. It was more like he remembered had one.
He opened his eyes. A blood red sky swirled above him like a savage boiling cauldron. The air was piercing cold. When he sat up, his clumsy hands touched something dry and brittle. He looked down and saw bones.
Skulls. Vertebrae. Ribcages. Pelvises. Femurs. Small ones. Long ones. Broken ones. Some connected with sinew. Most not. A field of dry human bones. Erik knew without being told that this was a private hell as real as the breath in his lungs.
He gazed to his side. Xie was sitting with her head on her knees, arms around her shins. He put a hand on her shoulder, which did not tremble at all. But when she raised her head, her face was red and blotchy with ash and tears.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Erik tucked Xie’s head under his chin when she fell upon him with a wet sob. In time, he will tell her the prophecy was true, but her interpretation was not. When she ceased to have any false hope for the minus twenty-four she will carry for the rest of her life, he will tell her about the remnant scattered across the world.
Right now, he must weep.
Erik pulled himself and Xie back home. His lack of skill was clear when they both crashed into the pantry door.
“The wizard nation is no more. The remnant evacuated. We didn’t meet any survivors,” Erik said in a rush.
Dad jumped to his feet. His eyes were bloodshot and snot was dripping out of his left nostril.
“We still need to revoke!” he shouted.
“Yes, but hold on. I need to rescue three kids,” said Erik, raising a hand.
“Four, Erik, it’s four,” said Rena.
Erik stared. Truth, who sang with the strength of an exploding supernova before, was fast retreating to the dazzling darkness. But he could still hear Truth speak.
“Yes, you’re right. It’s four.”
“Why do you need to rescue them?” Mum asked. She had an arm around Xie and was firmly pressing a steaming cup of tea into her trembling and bloodless hands.
“They’re mediums or seers,” Erik answered. “As of right now, their visions are no longer useful. I need to get them before their handlers find this out.”
David entered the kitchen. His lips were pale but set. “I’ll go with you.”
“Me too,” Dad chimed.
Rena sniffed and stood up. “I might as well. Sending just you three is tantamount to courting disaster.”
Erik shrugged. “Suit yourselves. Mum, can you take care of Xie? She just went through a wringer.”
Mum hugged her family before she waved them off.
“Be careful and don’t let your father do anything stupid!”
“How old is Little Girl?” Rena asked as she, David and Erik watched Papa Ransom level a compound with his bare hands ten minutes later. For a man in his sixties who’d spent most of his life studying and standing on one spot, he was quite sprightly.
“Twenty-three,” David replied.
“Aw, cute,” Rena cooed. She looked like she was going to say more, but then Papa Ransom, apparently no longer able express himself in English, started bellowing in his first tongue.
“What is he saying?” asked David.
“You so-and-so how dare you harm hapless children, if I ever catch you, I’m going to—vivisect?” Erik guessed.
“Eviscerate,” Rena corrected.
“Oh, yeah, that means disembowel. Anyway, ouch.”
The three of them entered the basement when there was no building left above it. In an unfurnished room on the lowest floor, Erik found a tiny, blonde-haired mute girl locked inside. He didn’t have to explain his presence. She just raised her arms and he picked her up. He knew her name was Nina, and she knew henceforth he was отец.
Erik, Rena, and David returned to ground level with Nina clinging to Erik’s back. Nina buried her face between Erik’s shoulder blades when she saw Papa Ransom cleave a concrete wall in two. Then, brandishing his fists, Papa Ransom demanded the offspring of a mutt who dared to harm his son’s beloved to come and face him.
“Now what is he saying?” David asked.
Erik pinched the bridge of his nose.
The still small voice of Truth grew ever fainter when they teleported to a tenement house that held two children. One was a medium and the other was a seer, and their names were Ran and Rin. At the final location, Erik could barely make out Truth’s voice. He strained after it, like a sleeper who wished not to wake from the most beautiful dream.
Not yet. Please, not yet. Just a little longer…
Then he found the last child, Bo, and he heard no more.
At least there’s still coffee.
Erik took refuge in this fact as he stood before the gurgling office coffee machine. Everything else felt wrong and dream-like after what happened the day before. All morning he went through the motions like a sleepwalker: dressing, eating, biking to work, and, when his coworkers asked about the bruise on his forehead, answering with absolute truthfulness that he banged his head against a door.
Truthfulness. Truth. Ever since he heard Truth speak, as one person would to another, Erik trembled whenever he trespassed Truth’s territory. The mere thought of Truth made the visible world around him look more akin to an intricate hologram. He loathed the prospect of forgetting the glory he beheld. Yet at the same time, the fact he’d been irrevocably changed by it left him frightened.
Erik was staring blankly at his workstation, his mug of coffee cooling next to his elbow, when Moses Canes called.
“Hello, Erik. How was the rest of your Sunday?” asked Moe.
“Eventful,” Erik replied. It was not every day you installed supernatural cybersecurity measures, witnessed the aftermath of a decimation, and risked your life rescuing captive mediums. All in a span of an hour according to his parent’s clock; twelve hours, according to his timer. “What’s up? You never called me at work before.”
“No, and I’m sorry about this,” said Moe. “But I have to ask…have you talked to Alex?”
“Not since yesterday,” said Erik.
Xie left right after Erik returned from his rescue mission. She’d sounded composed when she apologized for not helping, but her face was so sealed-off he couldn’t tell what was going inside her head. His phone, which had her number, felt heavy ever since.
Moe groaned. “Damn. I was hoping you got in touch with her.”
“Why? Is something wrong?”
“It’s Lucy. She’s going off food. Says she can taste things dying in her mouth. Jacob’s trying to contact Alex, but she’s not replying.”
Erik hummed thoughtfully. He never had this problem, but then again, he’d been raised by wizard parents. By comparing his and Lucy’s eating habits, he could guess what the problem was.
“Remember that part in Frost where Eareckson invites Frost and Weaver to her house, and they all sit down to eat? They do a gratitude ritual: to the lives that died so that I may eat, I give my gratitude.”
“Oh, God, you’re right!” Moe exclaimed. “If qi is essentially life, then maybe wizards are sensitive to its ebb and flows. I guess it’s fitting for us to acknowledge something died whenever we eat. It certainly won’t hurt.”
“It’s fitting,” Erik agreed.
Moe talked a bit more about Lucy and Jacob Bullion (Erik’s brain refused to call the latter Jacob Peterson). Whereas Lucy relished her ‘magic’ because it made her more like Hermione Granger, Jacob harbored not-so-secret sympathies for the Dursleys.
“Speaking of Harry Potter, it would be nice if we had a school of some sort,” said Moe. “Maybe we can talk Alex into opening one.”
“She’d make a good teacher,” Erik mused.
Then he went quiet as an idea bubbled up to the fore.
“Maybe we should open a school and recruit Xie as a teacher.”
“Oh, I like that idea!” Moe cried. “I bet Alex doesn’t care for the administrative side of running a school. She certainly can’t handle the IT parts of it.”
“You can be the headmaster. I read your CV. Thirty years of leadership experience and a proven track record of building effective teams and implementing strategies, yeah?”
“Stop it, you, or I’ll make you my CIO,” said Moe, ruining his stern tone with chortles. “I think having a physical school makes more sense than a virtual one in this case. I know Jacob has a fifty-acre homestead he doesn’t know how to manage, guardian swans aside.”
“Volunteering him, now?”
“Oh, he’ll agree, don’t you worry.” Then Moe let out a sigh. “You know, I really like this idea. I definitely want to take a stab at it. Thank God I’m retired. You, though, will you have time for this?”
“We’re opening a school of magic. You tell me.”
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