The Yoga of Pain
Kathryn waited for the lighting of the lamps before she slipped from her hiding place in Hightown. She was sought now, hunted in her home city of Isha like common vermin. She wrapped her ancient and threadbare woolen cloak more tightly around herself as she moved, shivering as she did so. The last day of Novembus Month was going out like a lion. It would be the Yule Month tomorrow. The world would only become colder and more uninviting. For the first time since she had destroyed it out of fear of detection, Kathryn wished she was wearing the thick crimson robe of the Red Tradition, instead of the brown cotton dress with which she had replaced it.
The City Guard was easy enough to avoid. It was the White Guard, the King’s bodyguard, whom Kathryn was certain to be her pursuers. For their part, the City Guard had not yet fully understood that the King had shut himself up in the castle like a scared little boy, and so there was still some element of Order within the way that they conducted themselves. It would not last, Kathryn knew. Before long, the quiet spell of civilization would begin to fray at the edges. The bloody business of anarchy, so far from the minds of a populace which had known the stability of a ruling King for the entirety of their lives, would soon be running rampant in the streets. The last place Kathryn wanted to be was within Isha when the dam burst.
Kathryn soon found herself next to the gate leading out of the city. She fell in with a half-dozen Serfs who were dragging their empty carts from the Markets, making their ways back home before dusk robbed the countryside of light. The gate sentinels, City Guards exchanging donkey laughs with each other, completely ignored the crowd shuffling before them.
Breathing easy once again, Kathryn split from the Serfs when she made it to the first fork in the road. She turned away from the road to the Estates of the landed nobles, instead veering towards the rugged coast outside the walls of the city. She had made it about fifteen paces when her eyes were drawn upward by something extremely strange.
Bands of unearthly green light were shifting wildly about in the sky. Commencing their passage completely horizontally before shimmering into a zig-zag, they pulsed across her field of vision. For a moment, Kathryn stopped in her tracks. She had only ever heard tell of such a wonder in the context of stories about the frozen north, in the wild lands beyond the Frost Channel. These lights were called Caelum’s Rust, after some long-forgotten God last worshiped by the Heraclytans. What was it doing so far south? Was it the work of a Mage? She instinctively crouched down and scanned her environs.
The torch that Kathryn had lit before she left the city guttered in the wind and sent shadows dancing across the cold field. Apart from a large grey boulder and swaying bunches of yellow and brown grass, there was nothing there. Unsatisfied, the Mage turned to look at the area behind her. After making certain that the Serfs had moved on and there were no approaching witnesses, Kathryn threw the torch onto the dust of the path and cupped her hand in the air before her, her palm facing up towards the night’s sky.
It must be said that the operation of magic, strange as it is, never ceased to amaze the severe young woman with raven hair and emerald eyes. At first there was nothing in the air above her hand. A moment later, a blue orb had appeared, her version of the Light of Hermes, a simple light-giving conjuration. Its shade was somehow simultaneously both the white of snow and the deep azure of the frigid ocean that surrounded Isha. Its surface seemed paradoxically made of both made of liquid and fire. Perpetually shifting and flickering, Kathryn’s old teacher Marius had told her that if the telescopes developed by the intelligentsia in the Reliquary at the Red Keep could be trained upon the surface of the sun without blinding the operator, the great fiery orb in the heavens would look something similar to the Light of Hermes. Regardless of such academic navel-gazing, the spells gave off an incredible amount of light, permitting Kathryn to see much further into darkened areas than she would have been able to with simple torches.
Looking around once more for threats and finding none, Kathryn proceeded forward, leaving the well-trodden dirt of the path, glancing upward at the strange colours in the sky from time to time. She allowed herself to be led by the green lights. For that is what this was - a leading of some sort. Kathryn knew that she very well could be being drawn into a trap, an ambush devised by Patricia or Queegan. Or even Janus. Once, these three were the only people she thought she could trust. And now she had betrayed them for a man that had up and left her for some fairy tale that took him to Atika, that strange jungle continent far to the south. Would Andrew ever return?
Kathryn pushed those thoughts from her mind. What was done was done, and Patricia, Queegan, and Janus had lost the thread of sanity, each of them in their own way: Patricia with her service to Chaos, Queegan in his obsession with necromancy, and craven Janus’ thirst for power. If it were a choice between those three as allies and being alone, Kathryn was happy indeed with the path she had chosen, both in life and below her feet. A sense of Intuition was guiding her. Whatever the outcome, she would face it boldly.
Before too long, Kathryn felt pulled from the path. She walked several minutes over the bumpy terrain before coming upon a ditch next to a large rock. Letting her gaze drift upward for a moment, Kathryn noticed that Caelum’s Rust had disappeared. Simultaneously with the Mage’s discovery that the lights in the heavens had gone out, a feeling of warmth blossomed from the necklace that she wore beneath her dress. It was a magical piece of jewelry that she tried to keep hidden from the world as best that she could. Recognizing the positivity of such a sign, Kathryn listened when her heart told her to dig.
She did not have an implement, no shovel nor spade hidden beneath her dress, so she searched around the area until she found the flat and thin rock that would do in this pinch. Duly equipped, Kathryn hopped down into the ditch and commenced her labours. If she had a spell that might help in this situation, she would have used it. But her magic was all about destruction, and this required something of a more utilitarian nature. Kathryn scolded herself, not for the first time, for deciding to avoid classes at the Ludo Mentus when she was studying at the Red Keep.
It was cold and brutal work. Kathryn grit her teeth and welcomed the cold and frigid wind that lashed her face and rendered her supple hands into arthritic claws. It did not deter her. She was familiar with pain. She had grown to like it, even. It had kept her warm many nights before, though this kind was of a more physical nature than that to which she was accustomed. The minutes passed slowly, but inexorably. Kathryn’s Will was not about to be denied by a trifle such as this.
Eventually, finally, the Mage’s ‘shovel’ struck something hard. Thinking at first that it might be yet another rock, Kathryn prepared to grab it and throw it up onto the grass of the land around the ditch. Then her hands made contact with the rough grain of the wood. Splaying her fingers to rub away the loose dirt around the section she had unearthed, Kathryn noticed in the cool blue light that the wood was dark. Extremely dark. Bear ash, she concluded, picking up the rock again to finish digging up whatever this item was.
A bit of refuse, Kathryn had initially thought, unwilling to let herself hope that she had come to the end of her task. Then came the rectangular shape of a chest, its corners smoothed with filigreed silver. Smiling, Kathryn finished her work, grasped the silver handles at opposite ends of the wooden box, and hauled it up onto the grass next to her.
There was no padlock sealing the metal loop of the chest. Kathryn flipped up the silver tongue and lifted the lid. Within, there were two items - a scrap of parchment and a large square bit of cloth, an oiled tarpaulin of the like her father used to use keep himself dry on his boats. Picking up the paper, she unfolded the document and discovered it to be a letter, written in a hand she recognized. Her sense of surprise being exhausted, given the night’s strange events, she picked it up and began to read.
I knew you would come back to the city, that you would find my sign, and then this place. The opening of the Rift has loosed something that we have only dreamed about. But that dream, at first seeming glorious, has become a nightmare. I fear for your uncle’s mind. I thought that I could introduce him to magic slowly, but something has come unhinged within him. I do not know how much longer I can control him. I am not sure if I ever could control him. I understand now that we have made a terrible mistake. Kronos’ influence grows and the fruit of the trees he has planted will see the world end in fire.
Whatever we have set into motion, there seems to have been some inevitability to it. But what is not inevitable, my dear girl, is sitting idly by while the world is threatened. I know you are not like the others, though you might try to make people think that you are as cold as the flames you conjure. You carry a great burden within your heart, but it is your Destiny to remove the log from your own eye and see the world as it truly is. Pain has been the one constant in your life since before I knew you. In order to liberate yourself from its influence, you must revisit your life and see the lessons for what they are.
With this note you will find an enchanted fisherman’s tarp. Bed down in the hole you dug for the night, using it as a blanket. Do not worry, it will keep your body warm as you slumber. But it is not your body that will be tried by what will come next - it is your mind. You will see things that you have not thought upon in years, monstrosities that you have buried deep within. These spectres of your past will not be pleasant. In fact, it will be one of the most terrible things you ever experience. But you must understand the why of things.
Forget our conversations about Order and Chaos, for these are figments of the dream of man. Your Destiny is to reach for something beyond. Right now, you are separated from your Self. You have a choice before you: Unity or Separation. No one can tell you exactly what these things mean. You have to experience them for yourself. But you can recognize the call of Unity over that of Separation if you keep one thing in mind: Separation never demands Courage of us.
I hope to see you soon.
Kathryn returned the parchment to the chest, a wan smile edging its way onto her face. She trusted the man who had written that letter. And she knew what she had to do - what she wanted to do - but the notion of sleeping under the tarp sent a stab of fear into the depths of her being such as she had never known. And then it began.
Kathryn spent the better part of an hour bouncing between her choice, though it did not feel like merely an hour. It was an Eternity. Of course, it would be easy to simply drop everything, to get up and return to the City, to knock on the castle doors and beg forgiveness of Janus. She could see if there was any way she could be brought back into the fold. The four of them had planned together to trick Andrew, to use him as a pawn in their scheme to reopen the Rift to Chaos in Old Valtha. As far as she knew, Queegan, Patricia, and Janus were still united. Kathryn was family, they would forgive her for her trespasses.
Of course, this choice would require that she betray Andrew, a man for whom she had developed something new. She felt a sense of loyalty to him, but it was beyond that. It was something that she would not - could not - admit to herself. She knew it was there, but every time the feeling tried to edge up into her consciousness, Kathryn intentionally shoved it back down. It represented weakness. But it came from her heart, and it was inexorable.
It was not just her feelings towards Andrew that gave her pause. Her heart was telling her head that it wanted her to sleep in the hole. This impulse was stronger than whatever it was that she felt for Andrew. But every time she decided to simply do lie down and do it, fear blossomed in her mind, sending needles skittering out from her chest and along all of the skin of her body.
Kathryn tried to weigh things objectively. Queegan, Patricia, and Janus were much more powerful than the rag tag pair that were Andrew and Kathryn, whatever the Knight’s Courage had shown itself to be. Her family, dysfunctional though it might be, was the safe bet. Together, the Aquesters could rule this new world of unbound Chaos. Yes, that was the right choice, the only choice.
But Andrew… And that feeling deep within her… Its voice was weak, but as much as Kathryn tried, it could not be ignored.
Truth be told, if Kathryn had not been wearing a certain piece of jewelry around her neck, she might still be there today, caught in the war between mind and heart. But she was wearing that necklace, and it warmed whenever she thought of proceeding with the strange blanket. Its signal was pure and true. She had long since learned to trust it. The words from the letter returned to Kathryn in the moments before she made her final decision: Separation never demands Courage of us.
Descending into the hole, Kathryn felt every single step. Her mind screamed to her: she was a condemned woman, walking the steps to a bizarre gallows. Or a lost soul willingly climbing into the mouth of Hell. But the necklace kept pulsing heat upon her skin, giving her heart the last bit of Courage it needed. It told her mind that it was in her best interest to sit and finally lie down upon the cold dirt. As soon as she did so, the voices within her ceased. The only thing left was the present moment.
The tarp came down, and with it, an incredible shower of iridescence exploded in Kathryn’s mind’s eye. It was a fountain of colour, the like of which Kathryn had never seen. Blues bluer than blue were followed by scarlet reds and flame oranges and the verdant greens of a lush oasis. Unnatural pinks, purples that made Janus’ robes look flat and uninspired, and yellows brighter than the summer sun were next. In a moment, each of the hues combined together like the coloured paper pinwheels Kathryn had loved as a little girl, gathering speed and melding together like the wind had picked up and sent it spinning.
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To be continued in The Yoga of Pain, launching in 2020.