Off the Grounds: Exploring the Whateley Universe
by Heather O'Malley
Some may say that my teaching is nonsense. Others call it lofty but impractical. But to those who have looked inside themselves, this nonsense makes perfect sense. And to those who put it into practice, this loftiness has roots that go deep.
- Chapter 67, Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
The hammer dropped onto the metal again and again, pounding a rhythm, a heartbeat, a touch of life into the sword. Sweat poured down her face, her torso, sliding over the cobalt blue tattoos that once bound her. Flecks of sweat hit the metal, spattering away on the heat with a slight hiss, barely audible against the hammer strikes. She flipped the blade and hammered the same heartbeat into the metal. A glance of her silvery metallic eyes gave her an instant assessment of the state of the emergent weapon. Satisfied with its state, she thrust the blade back into the forge. Only eighty folds to go before she could shape the specifics.
Stepping back from the heat, she drank from her jug of water, trying to replenish her body's needs. There were not many thanks to her bodies design. She watched the blade closely, gauging the temperature by sight. There were spells that could do that, magics that others used but she preferred this way as the metal would be pure until she poured the magic into it, bringing cold mithril practically to life. It was a gift to all those who had the misfortune to be 'gifted' with being an Artificer. This blade would not be the most exotic she had made, not by a longshot since this commission was for naught but a minor noble in the Fivefold Court and not anyone of true power. Granted, his blade might help them move up, seeing as it would boost their power, but there was little chance for them to move to the upper ranks.
She scoffed, irritated with the maudlin drift of her thoughts backs towards her bondage. If it weren't for a simple chance occurrence, a freak mishap, she would still be a slave, with no life of her own save making things. She would still be someone's tool. Sadly, Artificers were not afforded freedom as their skills were far too valuable, too in demand, too powerful to allow them to have free will. It still amazed her that if that fool hadn't insisted on watching her work and caused the forge accident, the mithril and orichalculum would not have splashed as she poured it forth, burning irrevocably through the tattoos on her alabaster skin, releasing her from bondage.
When self-awareness had snapped back into her, she had taken that opportunity and took action. Her purported owner did not have the resources to deal with an angry artificer wielding a weapon of her own design and so she was able to escape. It had been one of the most formative moments of her life. Though she was still lost to her past at least she had a future. Feeling a niggling at the back of her head, she turned to check the rest of her forge, glancing across the collection of tools, piles of supplies, racks of nearly completed items. Things seemed quiet. Too quiet.
Just as she was reaching for the battle hammer she had made back before her awakening, a man knocked on one of the support beams and walked into the forge, smiling broadly at her. He was fairly plain to look at with no features that stood out and his clothes seemed to be in keeping with the middle class. With an extravagant bow, the man said, "Good day unto you Lady Artificer, how has life been fairing?"
She was about to reply when recognition dawned and she pointed at him with her hammer. "YOU!"
"Well yes, it is indeed I... who else would I be?" replied the man, quite confused with her shout.
Seeing him standing there brought up a number of conflicting emotions within her, making her nearly growl, "You are that fool who caused the accident!"
He produced an even more extravagant bow at that, which did little to assuage her worry. "Why yes, it is me. At your service fair damsel, though I did not take that action of my own accord. My master bid me follow the threads in order to free you from your cruel enslavement."
She did not loosen the grip on her hammer. That accident had been on purpose? Then what did he want from her now? Was he going to attempt to re-enslave her despite the marring of her leg tattoos? "And who is your master?"
The smile he turned to her was the brightest and most carefree of any she had ever encountered. This was a man who feared nothing. "I serve the one true power of this realm, of which these pale courts are but a fraction of their might."
Blinking at him she wasn't sure what he was talking about. If there were a person here, in this place with greater power than the Five Fold Court she had yet to hear of it. She narrowed her eyes, ready for him to take any aggressive action.
"Oh... perhaps you might want to retrieve yon blade before something bad happens to it."
Turning, she could tell by the color of the metal that the blade needed to be plucked from the forge if she was going to have any hope of completing her work without starting from scratch. Reaching into the heat, she grasped the blade and pulled it free, keeping one eye on him. She set it down upon the cooling rack and turned back to her guest. "You never did answer who you are?"
"San Vequn at your service my lady." Yet a third different and extravagant bow.
She narrowed her eyes in suspicion. Ever since her Awakening she had been worried about any attempts to re-enslave her, which were not unfounded as there had been several attempts. "I suppose you want me to make you something?"
"Me? Heaven's forfend! No, I already have my weapon with which I am quite pleased. Nay my Lady, I am merely a guide to take you to meet my master."
She pondered this, thinking through this offer, hammer still tight in her hand. This person was responsible for her freedom and now seemed as if it had been intentional rather than accident. Why would someone free an Artificer? That made no sense. And then why not talk to her sooner rather several cycles hence? And who exactly was this mysterious Master he refused to name? Was following this idiot worth the risk? Perhaps? There was a swirling of questions about her that she had no knowledge to answer. She would need to learn more before she would have definitive answers.
Knowing that this would certainly cut into the delivery time of the mithral blade that lay on the rack, she walked from her forge, grabbing her satchel on the way out and slinging it over her shoulders before quickly casting a summoning. The words and gestures flowed smoothly from her lips, snapping up in the last gesture. In a brief moment a Shadowcat walked from a large patch of shade heading straight towards her. It bowed its head and asked, "How may I assist you Lady?"
"Thank you for coming in answer to my call. Please inform Lord Galios that his blade has been delayed due to pressing business. I shall inform him of the revised delivery date later when my business has been concluded."
"Very well. If there is nothing else...?" With another bow of the head, the winged cat walked back into the shadow from whence he came, vanishing from sight.
"You can call a Shadowcat?" Sen Vequn was a touch wide-eyed at this bit of information.
She nodded curtly. "I did a favor for one of their leaders once. He told me the summoning."
"Which one, if I might ask? There are several prides."
"Lord Rythax." She said the name calmly, despite the nobility of whom she was speaking.
"Ah... yes... him." Sen Vequn nodded his head sagely and then inquired, "Anyway, shall we be off?"
Her suspicion returned, "Where are we going?"
"To a temple some distance away. That is where my Master... well not exactly resides but rather has a place. You are expected so there is little doubt of their presence. I have a cloud that will serve to carry us," replied the man.
Nodding, noting that there really was no other option save refusing with no further information. She took his offered hand, noting the hidden strength that his form spoke little of, and stepped upon the cloud this person had offered. It was not an unknown mode of transport however she had never used it to this point. She centered herself the best she could as the cloud took flight.
It was not an amazingly long journey like she had expected. The cloud sped off though there was little sense of movement under her feet or in her body. The island they flew towards reached up out of the waves like a spire of light grey rock littered with crystals that glittered in the sunlight. Foliage hung down over the edges of the spire, vines draped over rock, and she could see what appeared to be a few rooftops peeking out over the trees and bamboo that covered most of the area. Sen Vequh maneuvered them deftly to a clearing and the cloud came gently to a rest. Her... host stepped off first and offered his hand, "My lady?"
She gave him a look of irritation that one might think that she would be so fragile that she could not dismount this transportation and stepped off. He returned a mocking bow of acceptance and gestured towards the collection of buildings in the near distance. The two of them walked the land, wending about the pathway that was draped about with many flowers, some she was sure did not exist anywhere else or she would have noticed them. It was simply beautiful here. Through the ring of trees and bamboo that seemed ever present, she could tell the buildings were amazing, with intricate carvings on the beams and walls, and she had to admit the architecture was very peaceful and tranquil to the eyes, creating a soothing environment. She could feel quite easily that a Master craftsman had been involved in making this place a reality as it was too... perfect to have been shaped by lesser hands. She spotted lion-dogs sitting guard at places, baleful eyes looking around as if they were analyzing everything as a possible source of danger, their large heads following her movement.
As they walked, she noted what appeared to be a primary focus of everything in this seeming paradise. It was doubtless the temple her savior had mentioned. It seemed circular with three levels rising towards the soft blue sky, sections that grew smaller the higher they went. The whole structure was done in red and gold, with tilework on the roofs that complimented everything. There was plain stone for the lower portion of the walls, contrasting with the colors, the whole structure seeming to reach up to the sky. It seemed simple and ornate at the same time, bringing a balance to things. "Please My Lady, if you would enter the Temple. My Master awaits your presence."
She frowned slightly as she approached the edge of the polished stone courtyard. Her senses sang out, the energy here was certainly unlike the rest of this place, a virtual node of power and it was warm and refreshing. That energy shift made her feel good, calm, welcomed. There was also something familiar about this place, this energy, as if she had been here before but to her knowledge she had never been to this place.
Pausing in the center of the courtyard to take this all in, she stood there eyes wide and talking it all in. The air was virtually buzzing with energy, with power, and she noticed the flagstones had been carved in such a way as to channel a great deal of some sort of energy through the Dragon Lines directly into the place, making the Central Building a nexus of tremendous power. The energy itself sung to her and she felt compelled to go within the temple. She climbed the stairs and went into the building, with a great deal of trepidation, hand tight on her hammer.
As she neared the entrance, the doors swung open of their own accord, a silent invitation into the shadowed recesses inside. When she looked behind her, her guide had vanished, leaving her alone with this mystery. With a narrowing of her eyes she stepped into the Temple to meet this supposed Master and discover what she wanted.
The inside that she walked into was breathtaking, with deep reds and golds everywhere, catching the light and making the walls practically glow. The interior of the building was open, allowing each level of the structure to be visible. There were carvings and paintings on the walls and ceiling that seemed to dwarf the skill any artist she had ever seen before. Looking closer, she could make out various images of what seemed to be young girls battling various creatures, doing various tasks. She had no idea why that might be but her eyes continued their scan. There were other images as well, hints of the deeper power struggle between the Mythos beings and this very realm, pictures of a tidal wave of death and destruction, the Starkiller walking upon the land of this charmed world. She stood under the three-story display and stared up at the amazing artisanship that had to have gone into this. It took her breath away, tightness in her chest. Standing there, in what felt to her like the Center of the Universe, the nexus pulsed. This was good and right.
The dim light was not comforting, though she did note the oddity that there was nearly a balance of shadow and shade in here. The energy she felt was moving, in a swirl that was fascinating and again seemed painfully familiar. Reaching out her hand, she brushed the power, trusting in her own strength should something go awry as had happened in the forge from time to time. With a tingle, it merged with her, running through her body like an old friend, dancing through familiar channels. She pulled her hand backed as if burned. That had felt... No! No! It couldn't be true.
A voice came from deeper into the shadows of the Temple. "So you have discovered the truth I wished to share with you. That is a good thing. Welcome back to us Jialing."
She spun about, hammer rising and sparking with power and stared at the older woman standing there in rich robes. Her mind was awhirl, the energetic revelations and this welcome back were troubling. What could all this mean? "How do you know me?"
The smile she received was gentle and comforting, the kind of smile that might appear on a friend or family member. "I am the Mage Smith Fai Zhan Wu. You, Jialing, were my student in the craft of Mage Smithing before your power as an Artificer manifested. Though we tried to protect you, to keep you safe, you were captured and bound since there was little we could do. Sen Vequn was the one to devise the particular method to discover where you had been spirited and to return you to your own life."
That information was troubling ad her voice shook at the one piece of information that could not be ignored, "My name is Jialing?"
Fai Zhan Wu nodded encouragingly. "Indeed you are. Once we had an idea of roughly where you were, who had possession of you, I managed to hire you through a front to come to this very island to build these structures. We watched helplessly as you made these magnificent things but reassured that you were still alive. When you completed the work and returned to your cage, Sen Vequn was able to get himself invited to your owner's forge where he constructed the accident, twisting the metal about which managed to break the bonds that trapped you into servitude. You took that moment of freedom and shock, fleeing your prison. While we misled and dealt with your former owner's troops we let you be you, to find your own footing in this world before I asked Vequn to bring you here. I could not stand to be apart from you any longer. You have been missed my beloved Jialing."
She stared at the Mage Smith, unsure what was true out of that despite the fact that the energy of this room singing its acknowledgement of the truth. "I... I..."
"I understand that all this can be overwhelming, so I will leave you for a while to grasp this. I will be close if you should have need of me." Fai Zhan Wu drew backwards into the shadow, vanishing from even her enhanced sight.
Jialing, if that was really her name, turned, looking up at the roof of this building, at the Daji that was at both the apex and inlaid into the floor, each shape in a different pattern of colored teardrops that offset the other. Needing to think, she lost herself to the energy, feeling it snap to herself, mesh with her power, babbling the secrets of the currents to her, filling her body with familiar essence. It was soothing.
The name. The name that this Mage Smith had called her resonated and felt true. Perhaps this all was the truth and not some overly elaborate plot to rebind her into obliviousness?
Nervously, Jialing called out, "Fai Zhan Wu?"
The woman moved from the shadows and back into the light. "Yes bright one?"
Jialing blushed a little at the endearment and asked something that she had been wondering about, "So you saved me and now, by bringing me here, I gather you have a task for me?"
The Mage Smith looked a bit discomfited. "Indeed I... we do, for all that it sorrows me. While I am currently the head of this temple I know my power and wisdom needs to transfer to the bright one who I knew would be able to go further in our arts in order to assist in saving the world."
"So what is the task?" Jialing struggled to maintain grounding. This was overwhelming. She needed to construct something to save the world?
"What I ask of you is for the merging, the passing of power. All that I know is that you are destined to make a blade, the most wonderful blade in the world, connected to the true heartbeat of this realm in a way no other weapon has ever been. It is a task requested by the force whom I serve, this power that strives to survive against the dark."
Jialing stood there processing all of this, looking about the temple, at this magnificent building she had wrought when tied to another's will. To be here in this place raised by her own hands, to be free once more was an amazing gift. On top of that, apparently her old Mentor had saved her after her power manifested and she had been plucked from her own life and treated as no more than a piece of property. She owed her, owed this Fai Zhan Wu, if for nothing else than her free will. Her awakening as the molten metals burned her flesh had felt like coming out of an endless nightmare where she could only watch her body move through a darkened lens, shouting up a covered well, begging for help. Now the world was bright and her great Artificer power firmly controlled by her own will. There was but one answer she could make in order to be true to herself, "I am proud to return to your tutelage. I shall build that sword when the knowledge of its construction comes to me, crafting at the utmost edge of my abilities."
Fai Zhan Wu bowed deeply. "Thank you Jialing. You have little idea of what this means. Your assistance will help us survive what is coming."
Jialing started. This did not sound good at all. With some of her nerves showing she asked, "What? What is coming?"
"The breaking of our world, the burning of the sky, death on a scale unimaginable." Fai Zhan Wu's voice was filled with sadness.
"How? How do you know this?"
The smile was self-deprecating, leading with a slight scoff, "Why through you of course my dear Jialing. While under our employ you built a wondrous loom that shows the warp and weft of fate and all threads in there lead to this one junction, this vast snarl which few threads exit. From what can be gleaned from the tapestry created, there is naught that can be done now to prevent it as things have been in motion for too long."
"Then what can I do? How can I possibly do what you ask? I am a mere smith plying her trade."
"You already pledged to it and fate has bound you to this task. The loom shows that through your actions more of the threads shall survive past this... Sundering and into the light of a new dawn than could otherwise. Please Jialing, please, help me forge the possibility of tomorrow."
Bowing her head in acquiescence, Jialing vowed, "My hammer shall be raised to this task and the world pounded anew."
The energy of this nexus pulsed and sang with this oath. Jialing laid down her hammer at the feet of her old Master, looking her straight in the eyes as she stood tall, "Where do we begin?"