This is a work of fiction. There should be no way that these characters are like anyone else, but if that isn’t the case, it has definitely been unintentional. The pictures used are those of Ziyi Zhang, used without express permission. Quotes from the Inner Chapters are from the Jane English translation. Also, if you happen to find that your life is represented in these pages, I’ll be impressed.
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly flying happily here and there, enjoying life without knowing who I was. Suddenly I woke up and I was indeed Chuang Tzu. Did Chuang Tzu dream he was a butterfly, or did the butterfly dream he was Chuang Tzu? – Chapter 2, Inner Chapters, Chuang Tzu
Sunday, January 28, 2007
The world shimmered liquidly, and suddenly Chou stood alone on a forest path, as opposed to the beach where she had been playing with a penguin moments earlier. The conifers on either side of her reached up to the heavens, and the smell of pinesap was rich in the air. She looked around, a bit confused, trying to figure out where she was; however there was no hint anywhere, as the forest didn’t even seem familiar in any way. She probably wasn’t in Kansas anymore, not that she had ever been in Kansas, but that wasn’t the point. This did not feel like any other dream she had ever had.
She felt for Destiny’s Wave, and the comforting feel of the hilt of her jian was there, cool against her hand. It calmed her down quite a bit knowing that she was armed and thus able to protect herself against any denizens of this place. She tried to make sense of where she was. The woods faded into mist at a distance, and that helped her none at all. Things felt strange, and that was not very comforting. What was going on?
Walking down the trail was pretty easy, as the trail was not rough or steep. She moved down the way she had been facing when this whole situation had started. There were no sounds of life in the woods, which was disconcerting and only served to increase her paranoia. That was a bit perplexing, but she did not mind all that much, as she was okay, moving around alone with her thoughts. She moved through the trees, and the wood shifted from conifers to hardwoods to bamboo. Still the mist enveloped things, but she enjoyed the nice walk. It was very soothing and she appreciated it.
She reached an open area in the bamboo forest with several diverging paths. She waited there, looking around. The small pool was still, reflecting the sky and the bamboo. Chou wasn’t sure why, but she knew she had to wait there. The scenery was very calming. She stood there taking it all in, feeling the surroundings calming her heart. This was a nice dream.
Shortly a figure moved to her through the mist, coming down one of the trails. The garb was familiar, as it was very androgynous and made it difficult to tell if the wearer was male or female. Chou knew this person well. Lan Caihe Ho was walking towards her, smiling. “Greetings Chou.”
“Uhm… Hi. Where am I?” asked Chou, looking around the glade confused. If Caihe was here then this couldn’t be a normal dream, and if this wasn’t a normal dream then what the hell was going on?
“You are currently in Dreamtime.” The answer was remarkably not helpful, as Chou had already surmised that she was dreaming by the slight wavering of the world at the periphery of her vision. It was almost impossible to deny that fact.
“That isn’t really helping me at the moment, Caihe. Naming the place doesn’t really help me know where I am.” Chou looked at him askance, eyes narrowed in annoyance.
Caihe just grinned at her, clearly amused. “Dreamtime is a realm that is very connected to the real world and it is most often visited by dreamers who end up here and have the most vivid dreams. That is because this area is real and not like the truly liquid realm of normal dreams. Come on. Since this is your first visit to Dreamtime, let me give you the guided tour of the important stuff.”
They walked down the path he had come from, and the images around them shifted again. When the changing settled down, it looked as if they were walking over water but Chou was more focused on the island they were nearing. It was beautiful and literally something from a dream.
The island reached up out of the waves like a spire of light grey rock with a few crystals glittering in the light of the Dream Sun. The foliage hung down over the edges, and they could see the few rooftops peeking out over the trees and bamboo that covered most of the area. It looked lovely, and she was looking forward to checking this place out. This was certainly worth traveling here. Caihe said, “Welcome to Penglai Shan, the abode of the Immortals.”
“Wow.” They walked onto the land, which had many flowers about, some she was sure did not exist in the real world. Through the ring of trees and bamboo, she could tell that the buildings were amazing, with intricate carvings on the beams, and the architecture was classically Chinese. There were Fu dogs sitting guard at places, but the big difference was that these were alive and breathing, looking around as if they were analyzing everything as a possible source of danger. There was even a version of the Temple of Heaven that she had seen in pictures of Beijing. She was clearly stunned by the beauty of the place and the fact that she felt utterly at home here. Caihe smirked at her response.
“Do you want to wander around some before we go to the Temple?” asked the Immortal.
Chou stopped gaping at things and looked at him intently. He remained calm under her gaze. “Why do we have to go there?”
The Immortal chuckled and replied, “We don’t go there. You go there, you and the other Handmaids. It is your sacred place and none may go there without your express permission. Not even Sun Wu Kong may trespass there, though he has tried.”
It took a great deal of effort not to goggle at that pronouncement. This was a temple for her? For Handmaids? Chou could hardly believe that and it showed. “Oh.”
As they wandered around the gardens, Chou was amazed at the number of Immortals she could see meditating, wandering around or chatting with each other. She leaned in towards Caihe and asked quietly, “Do all Immortals concern themselves with the Mortal plane?”
“Nope. In all actuality there are very few of us who do. The Universe is an amazing place and many of us travel to distant worlds or even to other planes of existence to explore and have new experiences. Many people become Immortal and never look back at the Earth.” They stopped in front of a beautiful pond and looked out across the still water, one leaf floating just off center.
Chou stared at the water, thoughts churning in her head. If the Immortals didn’t mess with the Earth, then what the hell was she doing? Why the hell was there someone like her anyway? It seemed so random and in a way so ineffectual. Chou really wanted to know the answer, and this might be her best chance to find out. “So why the Handmaids then? Surely some of the Immortals could do a far better job of this?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. There have always been Handmaids and supposedly always will be. The purpose of each Handmaid is different and the choices of the Tao in this are different. It is wholly the work of the Tao and thus beyond our understanding. Master Lao might know but he has never directly said anything.” Caihe shrugged.
“But…” started Chou.
“The answers you seek may be within the Temple. I cannot say.”
She nodded, focusing her determination. If there were a source of answers then she would go there and figure this whole thing out. “Right. Well, let’s get going.”
Caihe bowed, with a huge smile on his face and led her towards the Temple. When they reached the edge of the polished stone courtyard, he stopped and turned to face her. “This is for you alone Handmaid. This is a place none of us can enter.”
Chou sighed and shrugged. “So it goes. Well, let’s find out what is going on.”
As she walked forward onto the courtyard, she began to get a feel for this place. The energy here was different from the rest of Penglai Shan, and it was warm and refreshing. That alone made her feel good. There was also something familiar about this place, as if she had been here before, though Chou knew that was impossible.
There were three buildings in the complex. The main one, the one that dominated everything, was the central building, a three level Circular structure that was raised on a circle above the others. It was done in red and gold tilework on the roofs, with plain stone for the walls. It seemed to reach up to the sky. To her left was a long one-story building that had no windows and apparently one door at the end closest to the central building. To her right was a two-story building, of equal length of the other and with a similar design. However, the overall design of the place directed the eyes back to the central building that appeared to reach for the heavens.
She had paused in the center of the courtyard to take this all in. The air was virtually buzzing with Chi, and she noticed that the flagstones were carved in such a way as to channel a great deal of energy through the Dragon Lines into the place. The Central Building was apparently a nexus of power, and she felt almost compelled to go there. She climbed the stairs and went into the building.
It was incredible, with deep reds and golds everywhere. 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 ceilings that seemed to dwarf the skill of Michelangelo. As Chou looked closer, she could see various images of young girls battling various creatures, doing various tasks. There were other strange images that she could not understand. She stood under the three-story display and stared into the amazing artisanship that had gone into this. It took her breath away. Standing there, in what felt to her like the Center of the Universe, Chou was content. This was good and right.
Her body began to move, almost of its own volition, but Chou knew that she was just moving in response to the flow of Chi in the building. She danced through a longer variation of her traditional form and moved into more complex patterns. Her body was humming with power, and she felt almost exalted. She didn’t know what this place was, but it felt like the center of her soul. The rightness of everything made her want to cry.
She came to a stop, still staring in wonder at everything. Her voice was soft and reverent when she asked, “My God… what is this place?”
“This is the nexus, your place of power. The veils of perception between you and the Tao are thinnest here, and when you achieve Enlightenment, here is where you can most deeply immerse yourself. This place is your most sacred haven. It is where the Handmaid and the Tao can truly become one.”
“How do you know so much about this?” asked Chou, still speaking softly, lest she disturb the tranquility of this place.
“Chou, I was not always a sword. For a while I was even a girl and I could dream even as you dream.”
Surprised, Chou drew Destiny’s Wave and stared at it incredulously. “Were… were you a Handmaid?”
The sword chuckled softly and said, “I was.”
Chou sank to her knees in surprise. “You were?”
“Yes Chou, I was. You see, I was apprenticed to a Mage Smith, under one of the great Master craftsmen in the era before the Five Courts. She taught me all that I know of magic and crafting items of power. It was she who told me about the Artificers and the terrible magic that created them. It was she who helped me follow the dictates of the Tao and craft this blade. It was she who held the handle as the blade entered my heart. I owe her everything.”
Chou blinked in astonishment. “You… you were crafted before the Five Courts existed?”
The chuckle was soft and clearly amused. “Yes. The Five Courts came together as conflict was dying down between and the peace brokered by the Shadowcats began. Rythax’s people were very busy keeping things together, and that was a good thing. Their work ushered in that era of peace and prosperity.”
“Wow.” Chou was at a loss for words. That information was more than she had ever expected.
“Come, get up. There is more to see and you don’t want to let the night pass with you sitting.”
Chou’s answer was very concise. “Hunh?”
“Time passes here a bit slower than in the real world, but your time here is limited, so you need to make the best use of it. So we need to see more of the wonders.”
Rising to her feet, Chou sheathed Destiny’s Wave and walked out of the building. She looked between the two buildings that remained. Going on instinct, she headed toward the one story building. She could feel the palpable energy of the Tao permeating the place. Like the central building, this place felt right to her, familiar. She walked inside and stopped in the doorway, stunned at what she could see stretching off into the distance. “Wha… What is this?”
Destiny’s Wave answered, “This is the Tapestry. It shows the interconnections of all things and all places. This is your tool to see the greater interaction of all human beings. This is only part of the whole and the full Tapestry is too much for even the Immortals to deal with.”
Chou turned her head slightly towards the hilt of her jian. “This is the Tapestry I see in my meditations?”
“Yes. You have progressed far enough to finally be able to reach the more powerful tools of the Handmaids. This can give you what information you need anytime you need it. It will take you a while to become truly adept with it, but once you get the hang of it you will no longer be subject to the information of others. You can check any thread you like and see where it will go.”
“So if I had been able to use this earlier, I wouldn’t have had to kill…?” asked Chou a bit hesitantly.
“Maybe. Maybe not. Only the Tapestry knows, and the only one who can see the entirety of this section is you.”
Chou blinked at this. There was something that she was missing, something that she needed to know that eluded her, and it was bugging her. She bit her bottom lip in thought and asked, “How do I track individual threads to know the fates?”
“The what?” Chou again looked over her shoulder towards the hilt of her jian.
“The Garden of Forking Paths. It allows you to see the different options available and wander down them. The plan was originally designed by Ts’ui Pen to allow one to follow the energy that allows you to find all the possible choices anyone might make. It was an impressive creation that unfortunately only manifested in his dreams. Thus it was built here as a supplementary tool for the Handmaid.”
Chou stood there, looking at the Tapestry. She noticed that the threads were slowly moving. She moved in closer and examined it in detail. It was still being woven as she watched, with new threads being added, others cut, but it was going slowly, making it very easy for her to trace patterns. “So this Garden lets me start with one thread and go from there?”
“Yes. It can do that.”
“Can I go backwards as well?” Chou was wondering about possibly finding the sources of things. That could be useful information, especially if she wanted to understand the meaning of certain events.
“Yes. The Garden is a tool for immersion understanding.”
“Ah… okay.” She then noticed something in the weave, a place where a lot of lines were coming together, but was almost indecipherable because of the strange charring that blurred the details. “Uhm… are these burn marks?”
“Remember how I said something was blocking the clear vision of the future?” asked Destiny’s Wave.
“This is how things have been manifesting on the Tapestry. Something very dark, one of the darkest events in over two millennia, is on its way. Whoever is planning this has covered their tracks very well, at the cost of thousands of souls. This event is one of the main reasons that you were chosen. This is an event that you need to stop.”
Chou gaped at the burn mark and gasped out, “What?!”
“This is why you need to be able to kill, because if the person can be narrowed down, then you have to be able to kill them without hesitation. This tragedy would have catastrophic repercussions. This event must be stopped before it leads to the end of this world.”
Chou shook under the weight of this mission. “Okay. Okay. Just… let me… Okay.”
A wave of nausea rolled up her and she swallowed it down. “Okay. Can… can I look at a thread here?”
“Yes. This is your tool after all Chou.”
“Right. Can I look at Caitlin’s thread?” Chou was wondering about something and this seemed like a good time to confirm her guess.
“Certainly. Because she is an Artificer she will be hard to see, as Artificers have their thread cut when that manifests. Just think about yourself and her, and you should be able to find the threads you want.”
Chou concentrated on herself and Caitlin, and was soon able to see her thread and a hollow space next to it. She carefully followed it backward, until the hollow space connected dead on with another thread. Chou reached out and touched it and got an image of Mahren, the Range Master and person with the ability to understand the workings of anything he touched. That severed that line completely.
Chou looked at the weave and noticed that Mahren’s thread was important in the burned area, and if it had continued it would have changed the pattern immensely. She frowned. This was not a good thing, as the movement of the non-thread that was Caitlin went somewhere else entirely, changing the pattern in a different, and less decisive manner.
However, she had the confirmation she needed. Caitlin was Mahren.
As Chou stood there in thought, Destiny’s Wave asked, “Shall we go see the Garden?”
Chou nodded and walked back to the central building, following Destiny’s Wave’s directions. She exited out a small door opposite the grand entranceway. She came out of the door and into a vast and beautiful garden, which seemed to stretch off into the distance. A small moat seemed to surround the area with a red, arched bridge that crossed over. That detail only added to the air of tranquility that seemed to hover over this place. As Chou stood there, gazing out at the Garden the sword said, “Think of whom you wish to track and then follow the pathways.”
Chou was at a loss at the moment about who to pick, so thought about herself. Maybe this would help her in figuring out what she wanted to do in life. She crossed over the bridge and noticed a number of pathways veering away from where she stood. It seemed as if there were a lot there.
She followed one path on her right and came to a clearing where she saw several images of her saving people all over the world. There she was stopping an avalanche in the Alps, causing a flood to recede in India, fighting terrorists in several places. Doing amazing things as she wielded the power of the Tao. It was incredible. She was a hero.
Chou smiled faintly and took one of the paths that veered off that one. That hadn’t been so bad. She had been a great hero and that was a good thing. She had saved so many lives that it gave her a warm fuzzy feeling. Maybe that would not be a bad place to be. She would save people and maybe even the world. What she wandered into froze her, and she shuddered.
There was an image of her, with Destiny’s Wave thrust through Toni’s chest. There was another one, with Fey’s head lying next to her fallen body, her hand still clutching Malachim’s Feather. An arrogant, expensively-dressed Ayla was stepping out of a limo when Chou appeared, ruthlessly dispatching her bodyguards and then cutting the density changer in half as she was trying to go light for all the good it did her. All her friends in Team Kimba lay dead at her feet, including Tennyo, sliced in half in the ruins of a city that could be New York. Jade was clutching the upper half of her onee-san and was weeping as Chou stalked slowly towards her through the smoking rubble. The Japanese girl didn’t even look up as the sword fell.
Chou fled back to the start of the path, shaking. She dropped to her knees and dry heaved onto a fern, the image of Jade’s head falling away replaying itself in her mind. “Okay… okay… I can do this. I can look through these.”
“Chou, you don’t have to push yourself.” stated the sword, trying to give her wielder an out.
“Yes I do. If this is one of the tools I have in order to be free of people lying to me, than I need to know how to use it.” She stood shakily and headed down another path, trying to prepare herself for whatever she was about to see. What she saw however was not what she expected.
A burning MCO sign fell to the ground as she left a destroyed facility. Chou cocked an eyebrow when she saw this, as the image didn’t really make any sense. She had destroyed an MCO facility? Why? For what purpose would she do something like that? She followed one of the paths exiting from there and stood a bit stunned by what she was seeing.
Chou was at the head of a group of heavily armed Humanity First members, leading an assault on the school. Students were running. There were explosions and gunfire, and she saw herself cut down several students who were trying to fight back. Chou stood there watching, transfixed by the image of her doing something that felt so out of character, so wrong to her. Did the Tao actually ask this of her? Would the Tao ask this of her? Would she actually lead those bigots against the school?
She was in a bit of a daze when she made her way back to the starting point, shaking her head in disbelief. Surely this could not be the truth. But Destiny’s Wave said that this Garden could show her the possible repercussions as action built on action. Part of her wanted to find out how that whole sequence played out, but she was a bit afraid of it. Maybe it would be better if she simply followed another path and saw where it went.
The first clearing on the new path showed her transformed back into Alex. She smiled happily. She was going to become a guy again. That was awesome and filled her with great joy. She walked on and then tried to make sense of what she saw in the next clearing. He was face down in a muddy field, with a number of bullet holes in his back. There was no one about and Alex was just lying there dead.
She was a bit dazed. Did all of her paths end in death and destruction? Was that all there was for her, for any Handmaid? Death and destruction writ large over the world?
The next clearing she walked to showed her fighting against several different groups of soldiers, and it kind of looked like her stopping a war. There were soldiers in different uniforms looking at her in awe, and it seemed as if she had done something good. What could this good act lead to? She nervously walked down another path.
What she saw was herself fighting against a horde of monsters, cutting them apart as she drove towards their master. The enemy fell by the wayside, unable to stand before her blade. Their Master sneered at her, her long mousy brown hair in a severe braid, cold eyes gazing at her angrily. Unflinchingly, Chou walked up to Molly and drove Destiny’s Wave through her Soulmate’s heart. The girl’s eyes went wide in surprise, and they both dropped to the ground. Chou was clutching the girl and sobbing, repeating ‘I’m sorry’ over and over. Just watching this was making Chou’s heart ache. She turned and left, unwilling to watch that any longer for fear that it would make her cry.
She just walked down another path. Anything would be better than leaving that image in her head. What she came across was a glimpse of the Demon Lord of the Hell of Fiery Immersion and her father. The Demon was laughing as he repeatedly lowered her father into the burning liquid, and her father’s screams rent the air. She pivoted and walked away to another scene where she was kissing Greasy for some reason. This made her gag.
The next image she saw was right out of her nightmares. She was fighting her way through a large force, driving towards the Dark Man. The man stood there, holding chains in his hands and laughing. Chou growled both in the image and outside it. This had to be the cause of the burned area. This bastard and this act, whatever it was. This had to be the event. Chou looked at the details, as the image of her fought this army, but could not get any clearer an image. She was frustrated. This was such an important moment and yet nothing she could do would give her any better idea of when or what. She wanted to just scream.
She found only two pathways from this event and with a little concentration she was able to find the one that indicated her failure to stop this. The world seemed wrong as she looked upon the globe. The color was off. The oceans were an almost rust brown, the vegetation looked either destroyed or severely overgrown. The angle of the planet’s rotation also looked off. What the hell was wrong with the planet? How the hell could failing to stop that even lead to this desecration of the Earth?
Chou swallowed and headed back to the start. It was clear that the cost of failure in that fight was really high. She couldn’t fail, not if it meant the destruction of the Earth and the ending of life. She would have to give her all to stop the Dark Man and whatever his plan was. With a toss of her head, she headed for another path, hoping that what she was going to see was a lot less disturbing than what she had seen already.
Unfortunately, it was almost as disturbing for an entirely different reason. Chou watched herself sort of waddle into a room, one arm bracing her back, trying to counterbalance her very pregnant belly. Molly grinned, raced over to her in order to help her into a chair. Molly kissed her lovingly and then knelt down, pulled up Chou’s shirt and kissed her belly. Chou gaped at the sight, especially after the earlier vision of her killing her Soulmate. What was also disturbing was that she looked happy, and that was strange in context. Maybe being pregnant would not be that bad if she looked that happy. At least Molly was still alive. She sniffled back a few tears.
Chou shook her head as she headed back out of the Garden, her head spinning with the various images that had been presented to her. She was in a bit of a daze as she left the central building and stood in the Temple’s central courtyard. She looked at the remaining building, which was two stories high. “What is that?”
“That is the Library.”
“A library? Why would there be a library here?” asked Chou a bit confused.
“This is the collected history of the Handmaids. It also contains the collected wisdom of the Handmaids, what they had learned and done in order to complete their missions. This is your source of true power, that of knowledge. Here you can learn skills, information of various kinds, things that those who came before you have learned. That is what the Library is for.”
Chou’s head hurt. This seemed like too much. There was too much here, this place was just too strange. She needed some time to process this and to figure out how she could use these resources effectively. As she headed towards the entrance of the Temple grounds, she asked Destiny’s Wave, “Can I only access this place while asleep?”
“Yes. It is one of the greatest weaknesses of this gift. In order to fully get here you have to actually be vulnerable. Things have to balance out after all,” replied the sword. “But here you can learn a great deal, and that can help you in your duties. You also need to remember that time passes just slightly slower than in the real world. The longer you stay here the longer your body will be vulnerable. And until you become an Immortal, leaving your body like this can cause issues. A body without a soul is almost an open invitation for possession.”
“I can be possessed while I’m here?” asked Chou, worriedly.
“Yes. Coming here is a special gift, but like all gifts of power, there are dangers associated with it. Knowledge of the History and of the Tapestry is a potent source of power. Only you can determine if it is worth the risk.
Chou nodded and exited the Temple, feeling almost cut off from something when she crossed the boundary. It was similar to the feeling of leaving a warm bath and the air hitting you cold. Waiting for her, sitting under one of the trees was Kwan Yin.
With a huge smile, Chou ran over to the Bodhisattva of Compassionate Mercy and gave her a big hug. The woman returned the hug and smiled at the Handmaid of the Tao. “It is good to see you again Chou, and under such better circumstances.”
“What are you doing here?” asked Chou, curious about the woman who had saved her after the murder she had committed. Without Kwan Yin soothing her aching soul, there was no doubt in Chou’s head that she would have just laid there and let the snow take her life.
“When I heard you were here I wanted to speak with you. I wanted to let you know something that might help you in understanding.” The woman’s voice was soft and soothing to Chou’s rattled system.
“What is it?”
“You need to know that it is all our choices that shape the future. By our thoughts and our actions, we shape the world. The Handmaid’s Dreams can create a different tomorrow for everyone, so you must dream carefully, child. Such fragile things can shake the world to its very core.”
Chou nodded. “Thank you for that. I guess I have a lot to think about.”
“Indeed you do, Chou. Indeed you do. I will speak with you later when you return to Penglai Shan.”
“I will look forward to it.”
Things faded, as if water was washing her dream world away, and she found herself tumbling…
Chou snapped awake and rolled off her bed, all but bounding to her laptop. She flipped it open and tapped the finger pad, waiting impatiently for the system to boot up. There were so many images that were running through her head, so many bits of conversations, and she wanted to catch them all before the dream faded. The screen came to life, and Chou opened a new file.
She began to type furiously, her fingers flying over the keyboard. The clacking was loud. She heard a noise behind her, a rustling in the top bunk, and a sleepy voice asking, “Wha…?”
“It’s okay Ayla. I’m just writing down a dream,” replied Chou, not even turning or even slowing her typing.
“Dream? ‘kay.” Ayla shifted in her bunk, and Chou continued to type until she had put down everything she could remember. It covered several pages, and she realized that she had remembered the dream in far more detail than she had ever been able to in her life. It was almost as if the dream were real.
Once she finished typing everything and saving it on an external hard drive, like Ayla had taught her, Chou closed the laptop, slumping back into her chair. That dream had been intense and had shaken her deeply. Various images from the Garden still lingered in her head, almost as a warning to her in order to motivate her. Still, those images were disturbing.
Chou sat in the dark and pondered her experience for several hours, until her alarm let her know it was time for her to get up and do her Tai Chi. With a sigh, Chou got up from the chair and started her day, distracted by the glut of information she had been given. She knew she had to do something with all of this… but what?