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journey to the center of the mind

Eiji Hino

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canto i.  rifiuto
They said that in the time when the outer heavens were still open, the First Maker came down and crafted Ormenskake from the severed head of a sea dragon a hundred and eight mio long.  It was easy to see why they said that if one looked at the island from the right angle.  Indeed, the huge salt stalagmites that ringed the flat eastern coast resembled great teeth jutting from some enormous jaw, and the lopsided mountain that dominated the western half looked for all the world like a towering, skyward-pointed snout.  Even the caverns on each seaward side of the mountain’s base looked like they had once held eyes.

It was to one of these caverns that the ship now headed.  The Marka’s Pride cut a clean line though the waters, riding each swell with little resistance and a steady sway.  She was a fat-bellied cog with a hull painted bright red and a collection of flags and pennants that danced merrily along the gunwale.  She was built primarily for Matoran occupants, which meant that, for the past two weeks, her sole Toa passenger had had to deal with less-than-ideal elbow room.

Halima stood at the forecastle of the ship, shadowing her brow against the glow of the setting sun.  A stray wave slapped the hull and sent up a spray that soaked her face and chest, but her enthusiasm refused to dull.  Her head and heart sent a buzz of energy though her body that kept her from standing still; she rocked on her heels in time with the ship’s rises and falls and danced between one side of the bowsprit and the other.  She was ready to end her journey across the sea, not because she disliked sailing- although the cramped living spaces and early bouts of seasickness she could do without- but because what awaited her at her destination was much more exciting.

For in the caverns of Ormenskake, in the port town of Yan Cun, lived Mother Nephthys, the greatest still-living practitioner of the Psionic Art.  Halima had traveled here to hopefully become her apprentice and continue her training as a new Ce-Toa, at the insistence of her previous mentor Chamak.  She found the Av-Toa’s words drift through her mind again.  Empty Palms Style or the seven forms of staff fighting I can teach you, child, but the Psionic Art I cannot hope to understand.  Someone who does must guide you now.

Even half-submerged, the too-round and too-smooth mouth of the cavern loomed twice as high as the tallest mast.  It drew closer every moment until, finally, it swallowed the Marka’s Pride whole.  Past that point, the wind diminished, the waters grew eerily still, and the air became dark and musty.  At the angle the sun was setting, little light followed them in; the only color to be seen ahead was a dullish orange glow that could only be the lanterns of Yan Cun.

Despite the warmth, Halima felt a small chill, and her previously high spirits lowered a bit.  She had expected her first sight of Yan Cun to be less foreboding.

Her short rumination was broken by a shrill whistle for her attention.  The captain, a Fe-Matoran with an enormous belt buckle, tossed a lightstone lantern at her, which she managed to catch just before it hit the deck.  Hang that on the bowsprit while ye’re standin’ there, will ye?” he asked as he put his cigar back in his mouth.

Oh!  Of course!  Um, aye aye, sir!” Halima replied, offering a smile and a jaunty salute.

Her response drew a frown from the captain, who likely thought it was highly cliché.

With the lantern’s ring secured in the notch on the bowsprit, Halima resumed her watch.  In the orange glow ahead, two bright pinpricks of yellow light appeared and began marshalling the Marka’s Pride toward what was hopefully the town harbor; the helmsman steered whichever direction they signaled with ease.  More details- structures, stalls, ships, and eventually, citizens- emerged from the glow as, bio by bio, minute by minute, Yan Cun drew nearer.

They finally arrived after fifteen minutes.  As the marshaller gave his final signals with his lightstone batons, as the ship bumped against the wharf with a wooden knock, as the dockmaster set his men to tie it down, Halima took in her new surroundings with no small amount of wonder.

Yan Cun proper sat a small way back and up, on and along the short cliffs that jutted out from the wall of the cavern.  The harbor was situated on an artificial outcropping below them all; a string of lightstone lanterns, held up by a line of poles close to the water, illuminated it.  The docks were made of a thick, light-colored wood, the street of once-rough cobbles worn smooth by centuries of boots and feet.  Two-story warehouses hugged the face of the lowest cliff, tall enough for the walkers above to easily step onto their roofs.  Smaller wooden structures, likely administration offices or supply warehouses for the docks themselves, huddled in front of them.  In between them, lifts and ramps carried beings and cargo up to and down from the town above.

Near one end of the street stood a four-story inn, its windows glowing merrily and its painted sign swinging above its door.  Near the other end stood a guardhouse that looked as if it had been abandoned for many years.  That way also lay more docks, a handful of which were occupied.  Besides some Matoran-sized fishing boats, Halima saw two Vortixx trading galleys made of jet-black wood and bristling with oars, and a Steltian junk with three strangely shaped sails made of red cloth.

At the dockmaster’s all clear, a boarding plank went up.  Halima was the first to cross it, but two weeks on a rolling deck had made her land legs slow to return.  What should have been an eager first step into her new life became a wobbly mess as she shuffled down onto the dock and up against a nearby pole for support.  Her cheeks colored; whatever confidence had been there moments ago was now almost gone.

There’s somethin’ else ye’ll say ye could do without, I’ll bet,” the captain said with a half-mocking laugh as he crossed the boarding plank soon after with a much steadier stride.

I told you, I’m new at long-distance sailing,” Halima said, pouting.  I never thought the land wobbles could get this bad.  At least her stomach was sitting still.

Most first timers get ‘em worse than ye, so be grateful.  Give it ten minutes and a few deep breaths and ye’ll be fine.  With a parting clap on the arm, the captain left to begin haggling with the dockmaster.

Halima frowned at his back, but she dutifully drew long, deep breaths as she waited for the rocking beneath her feet to stop.  The air tasted slightly of salt, smelled mostly of fish, tar, and wet wood.

Looking back into the street after a short interval, she found many of the beings there eyeing her, some with amusement at her unsteadiness, most with curiosity; the gold and navy-blue Ce-Toa like her wore were a rare sight at the best of times.  Chamak had promised that an escort named Jenko would be waiting for her at the docks, but none of the observers made themselves known as such.  Perhaps Jenko was late, or shy.  She mustered a smile and what she hoped was an endearing wave to try to draw him out of the crowd.  When all she received in return was a few scoffs from the observers and a return to personal business, she reasoned that they found it ill-becoming of her to simply keep standing around listlessly.  Her legs felt much better now; she decided to use them to go to Jenko instead of making him come to her.

The crowd, consisting mostly of Matoran workers and civilians, was dotted with the occasional Turaga priest or Vortixx trader; regardless of race, all were clad in rich clothing and well-kept armor that made Halima feel woefully underdressed.  She covered herself with her hands as, one by one, she approached anyone vaguely non-threatening and asked a single question.  Excuse me, but do you know where I could find someone named Jenko?

No, why?” a Ta-Matoran asked.  Does he owe you money or something?

I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard that name before,” the sole other Toa she found said.

Alas, child, names and faces leave my head as quickly as they come in,” a Turaga priest said.  Had I ever met the Jenko you seek, I’ve long since forgotten him.

Most of the rest simply said no or shook their heads, either genuinely not knowing or wishing to get back to their business.  With every negative reply, Halima grew more discouraged.  She was on the verge of leaving the docks and taking her inquiry further down the street when an odd noise met her ears- running footsteps accompanied by what could be jangling bells.  Her curiosity stayed her feet for a few moments longer.

The footsteps came from a Le-Matoran in a gray robe rapidly approaching her; the jangling came from the sheer number of knickknacks hanging from his belt.  He came to a stop in front of her and leaned forward, hands on knees, to catch his breath.

Um, hello,” Halima greeted uncertainly.  Is there something I can do for you?

Through his puffing, the Le-Matoran managed to get out a proper salutation.  Glory to the First Maker’s ashes,” he said as he pressed his palms together.  You’re Halima, correct?  The one Chamak sent?

At this, Halima visibly brightened.  And to the life that springs from them,” she replied, finishing the salutation.  Yes, I’m Halima.  And you must be Jenko!  I’ve been looking all over the docks for you; I got worried when you weren’t there.

Jenko straightened, allowing Halima to take a proper look at him.  He was thin, with orange eyes and a lime-green Noble Huna.  His loose robe, patterned with small orange flowers, was cinched at his waist with a leather belt loaded with religious tokens- a crucifix, a horseshoe, a string of prayer beads, an innumerable amount of paper talismans.  A piece of straw was clamped between his teeth.

My sincerest apologies, that was not my intention,” he said, making a placating gesture.  I would have been here much sooner, but somebody started a dispute with the Navigators’ Guild that ended up overtaking three major streets.

Halima frowned.  Does that sort of thing happen often?

More often than I’d call necessary.  Anyway, Mother Nephthys expects us back soon, and the way is long enough on a peaceful day.  Let’s be off.

Of course!  Lead the way.

Jenko was right- the way was long.  Built to account for the numerous irregularities in the stone, Yan Cun’s clifftop streets were a complex network, seemingly without pattern.  Ramps ended at walls with ladders that led to upper levels, sidewalks forked around deep cracks and rejoined on the other side, and staircases cut through the middles of roads.  At every corner was a lightstone lamppost that housed signs pointing to at least five different destinations in as many directions.  Navigation seemed a dizzying task, but Jenko did it with ease.

How do you know Chamak?” Halima asked as they began their ascent.

Chamak visited Toa mentors around the world before he became one himself,” Jenko replied.  Out of all of them, he sought Mother Nephthys’ insights on mentorship the most.  I cooked for him, tended to his cargo, and listened to him bicker with her every month for three years.

I take it the two of them didn’t get along very well, then.

If they didn’t, would she have let him keep coming back?  They were fond of each other; they just had a roundabout way of showing it.

Where the surface was narrow, wooden bridges widened it; where it was spacious, plazas were built.  Jenko led them through a particularly large plaza, and it was here that Halima allowed her eyes to wander again.  Another staircase, flanked by two huge stone statues of a single-eyed being, connected it to another upper level.  Lining the cliff face and the opposite precipice were vendor’s stalls, from which hung colorful flags and signs written in the standard glyph-script; their owners took advantage of Halima’s slowing pace and rare status to hawk their wares at her, at unreasonably discounted prices.

A pair of Bo-Matoran stumbled over themselves to offer her bowls of noodles and vegetables; she politely declined, even though the pot smelled delicious.  A Steltian ruler claimed that one whiff of his incenses would produce an unparalleled mental clarity; she took a sample, then discarded it without trying it when he turned away.  A fat teal Skakdi bared tobacco-stained teeth as he silently held out a whole dried mudshark to her; she suspected that it was not offered with wholesome intent.

But it was no being that succeeded in finally making her stop.  In between a stonecutter’s stall and a winemaker’s wagon stood a torii gate, the marker of a shrine.  Its well-kept red paint stood out against the gray of the cliff face; its upper lintel, curved up at the ends, towered over most of the plaza’s other structures.  A Turaga priestess sat at its foot with a basket of candles in her lap.

Halima became suddenly aware of the excitement and increasing uncertainty of her situation twisting her stomach into a knot and felt a need to ask for divine relief.  She drew closer to the torii gate before she was stopped again.

There you are,” Jenko said as he doubled back.  Come on.  It’d do no good to delay when we’re almost there.

I’ll come, I’ll come,” Halima said.  Just… do you mind if I stop in the shrine for a moment?  She pointed.  I want to pray.

Mother Nephthys expects us back soon, and soon was five minutes ago.

Just one prayer, and then no more stops the whole rest of the way, I promise.  Please?

Jenko frowned in consideration for a few moments and released a sigh.  Alright.  One prayer.  And we go right after.

Halima smiled.  Thanks!  You’re welcome to join me if you like.  When Jenko shook his head no, she accepted a candle from the Turaga priestess’ basket and stepped beneath the torii gate alone.

The shrine was little more than a shallow recess in the cliff face.  Inside was a waist-high plinth draped in a red banner, upon which sat small idols of the Three Brothers, the sons of the First Maker and the embodiments of his Virtues and aspects.  The Builder, carved from jade, sat cross-legged, his forge hammer in his lap.  The Judge, hewn from rough gray stone, knelt, his arms bound behind him with flaming chains.  The Scribe, cast from gold, also sat cross-legged, his head encircled by a halo of ancient rune-signs.  Each idol had three faces, looking forward and to each side, and a red star-shaped gem upon its forward brow.  The candles that burned at their feet were the shrine’s only source of illumination.

Kneeling on the cushion under the plinth, Halima lit her candle with another and set it at the Scribe’s feet.  She pressed her palms together, bowed her head… and hesitated, unsure of what to say; she settled for a simple prayer she had learned in her youth.  Hail, O Scribe, who reads the stars and records their portents.  The path I must walk down has been written in your book since the time of my creation.  Give me ease in this moment, that I may continue to walk without wavering.  And may the way I walk please you as it pleases me.

The idol, being an inanimate object, did not reply, but she felt the knot loosen a bit.  She kissed the idol’s face with a smile and stepped back into the plaza, where Jenko rocked on his heels impatiently.  All done,” she said, and they were off again.

Three more staircases and a ladder later, their journey ended at a smallish wooden cube of a house, topped with a pointed roof.  Over the curtain door hung a wide awning made of red cloth, and next to it stood a full-length mirror; aside from that, the house had no ornamentation.

Is this it?” Halima asked, frowning.

This is it,” Jenko replied, already halfway inside.  Why?  Is something the matter?

No, I don’t think so.  Only it’s a bit… humble, isn’t it?  I guess I thought someone of Mother Nephthys’ status would live in something a bit more… extravagant.

Jenko shrugged.  It’s as extravagant as she wants it to be.  You might like the look of the interior better.  Now, please accept my apologies again, but I’m long overdue to start dinner for the two of you.  I suggest you follow soon; she has been waiting to meet you, after all.  He slipped fully behind the curtain and left Halima alone outside.

The knot tightened again as it finally set in just how real this was.  This was not a dream or an idle aspiration any longer.  She was going to meet with and speak to Mother Nephthys, and unlike her dreams and idle aspirations, there was every possibility that something would go wrong.  She stepped in front of the mirror to gather herself and smarten up one last time before she went in.

She was perhaps overly critical of her reflection, inflating minor flaws into major ones.  Her navy-blue Great Kakama had a chipped left cheek fin, a souvenir from a misplaced staff strike.  Her blue hooded jacket, with golden letters on it, ended at her ribs, her black shorts well before her knees.  The wrappings on her hands and shins were discolored from long exposure to sun and seawater.

Overall, she looked better dressed for a night out in a rowdy city, but there was little she could do now besides smooth out some wrinkles and tug her jacket the slightest bit lower.  If not with her dress, she could perhaps endear herself to Mother Nephthys with her winning personality.

With a deep breath, she pushed aside the curtain and stepped into the house.

The interior, illuminated with a lightstone lantern, was a bit more in line with what Halima had expected.  Judging by the sounds, the kitchen lay behind the curtain door in the furthest wall.  A bookshelf loaded with scrolls and stone tablets stood against the left wall, and a low bed stood against the right.  In the center of the room, a small table sat atop a tasseled red rug, surrounded by cushions for seats.

And seated at the table was Mother Nephthys herself.

The years had been kind to her.  The round, dark sockets of her navy-blue Great Calix made her magenta eyes appear sunken, but they still held a youthful glint.  Her white robe, trimmed with golden thread, was open to her waist, revealing the broad gold collar around her neck.  In one hand, she held an ornate smoking pipe.  She had an air of royalty about her, albeit royalty on the verge of abdicating the throne.

So caught up was Halima in basking in her hero’s presence that she quite forgot her manners; it took a raised eyebrow from said hero to remind her of them.  She bowed at the waist and pressed her palms together over her head.  May the three faces of God smile upon you, and may the light of the outer heavens illuminate your house forever,” she said in the traditional greeting for royalty.

The other eyebrow went up in surprise, but the greeting was not rejected.  Mother Nephthys raised her vacant palm toward Halima and replied in kind.  May the Builder craft you a house, the Judge deem you worthy to live in it, and the Scribe record your doings in it.  Her rough voice had an unfamiliar accent.  So, you are Chamak’s ward.

And you’re the greatest still-living practitioner of the Psionic Art.  They say that during the Cataclysm War, you cut off Gaius Quintus’ arm without using a blade.  In her enthusiasm, Halima gave little thought to the praises tumbling from her mouth.

The first is debatable; the second is false.  I cut off his head.  But you did not come here to tell me what others say of me, did you?  She gestured to the cushion opposite her in an invitation to sit.

Halima sat; the cushion was plump and comfortable.  No, ma’am,” she said.  I came at the behest of my old mentor Chamak- who sent his greetings with me, by the way.  It’s his hope and mine that I can learn the Psionic Art from you now that I’m a proper Ce-Toa.

A question lies there somewhere,” Mother Nephthys said; something that could have been a smile played around her lips.  Here is my first lesson.  Make your intentions clear.  Are you here because you truly want to petition me, or merely because Chamak told you to petition me?

The mention of a first lesson made Halima’s heart lift.  Wanting to do the thing properly, she straightened her back, smiled, and recited, “Esteemed Mother Nephthys, I humbly ask this of you.  If it be your will, please accept me as your apprentice, that I may learn more deeply of your power.

Mother Nephthys’ face suddenly darkened.  Here is my second lesson, girl,” she said, and her sternness caused Halima’s smile to also vanish.  Do not ask to learn of my power, for it is mine alone, just as your power is yours alone.  That is what you must seek; to do otherwise is the height of selfishness.  Ask me again.

Halima obeyed, chastened.  Please accept me as your apprentice, that I may learn more deeply of my own power.

Better,” Mother Nephthys said, her expression clearing just as suddenly.  If you wish for me to accept you, you must first receive a taste of what I teach and how I teach it, and you must still have the will to go forward after.  Be warned- many potential apprentices before you lost their appetite after receiving their taste.  They found it… particularly unsavory.

I want to go forward,” Halima said with renewed determination.  I won’t lose my will.  I’m not afraid.

Mother Nephthys nodded.  We will see.  But before we do, hospitality dictates that you be fed.  We will speak no more of testing for now.  Come, tell me of your journey while we wait for dinner.

Halima spent the next several minutes telling of her final days in Chamak’s house, the preparations they had made for her to come to Yan Cun, and the sights she had seen during her time on the Marka’s Pride.  She tried to keep her usual amicable tone, but she chose her words carefully, lest she say something to sour Mother Nephthys again.  A raised eyebrow here and there told her that her hesitations were noticed.

Jenko finally emerged from the kitchen with pots in his hands and more apologies on his lips.  He joined the two of them at the table, and they feasted on creamy fish-and-pepper stew, rice, coconut cake, and cold-brewed coffee.

When they had finished eating, and Jenko had left to clean up, Mother Nephthys folded her hands in her lap and became stern again.  What do you know of the hundred and eight precepts of the Toa Code?” she asked.

Halima, expecting another outburst, simply frowned at the question.  Not as much as I should, I’m afraid,” she replied.  The first time I heard them was when Chamak guided me through my pledges at the Suva.  I thought it was odd that he kept them from me for so long, but I guess I justified it by thinking that only Toa were privy to the Code, not Matoran.

Chamak was wise to keep them from you.  The hundred and eight precepts are meaningless, and those who keep to them from youth have poisoned themselves beyond healing.  A true Toa lives by one principle alone- violence.

Violence?  The claim took Halima aback.  But Mother, we’re meant to be keepers of peace.  We’re meant to uphold the Virtues and protect the Matoran from the great enemy.

And how do you think we do that?  Peace cannot exist without violence, but neither can violence exist without peace.  In peace, we must continuously use violence to cut away that which seeks to threaten it, both within and without.  And in violence, we must have within us peace enough to perfectly measure our actions, lest we fail by reaching too far or not far enough.  Our fates, and the fates of those who depend on us, all hinge on this balance.

Halima said nothing, merely ruminated on Mother Nephthys’ words.  Though it was a peculiar philosophy, it made sense in its own way, and she found nothing immediately objectionable about it.  The unease she felt mostly stemmed from it being such a radical departure from what Chamak had taught her, but it was not enough to dissuade her.  She lifted her eyes back up.

You have said that we are meant to stand against the great enemy,” Mother Nephthys continued.  Do you know this enemy’s name?

Of course.  Its name is the Makuta.

No.  There is an enemy far greater and far more difficult to face.  It craves nothing less than to destroy the Virtues and everyone who seeks to uphold them.  It conquered the Makuta long ago and used them to do this, and if you are not careful, it will do the same with you.  The glint in her eyes became predatory and fearful to behold.  Mark me well, girl.  This great enemy is called ‘I.’  And it is not enough that I teach you to merely stand against it.

I must teach you to destroy it.

Then please teach me!” Halima said, all thought of another polite petition gone.  I want to protect those I must in the best way I can.  I want to do my duty properly.  If destroying this great enemy will help me do that- if it will make me a great Ce-Toa like you- then I’ll gladly do it!  Only please teach me how, Mother.

Do not think that you can beat it into submission once and be done with it.  The great enemy must be destroyed continuously, not only with your hands, but with your head and your heart.  We Ce-Toa are uniquely equipped for this task.

Please, help me learn more deeply of my own power.

Mother Nephthys took up her pipe again and exhaled a stream of smoke that formed a halo around her head.  I will teach you the Psionic Art in accordance with the Virtues and the principle of violence, that you may destroy the great enemy called ‘I,’” she said.  But I will only do this if your will to go forward remains.  Are you ready for your taste?  When Halima nodded, she reached out her hand.  Close your eyes.

Halima obeyed, and she felt the touch of fingertips on her face- one on her forehead, one on each eyelid and cheek.  Her heart began beating faster in her chest.

There was a great flash of light and a sensation of being rapidly pulled downward.

And Halima fell deep into her own mind.

* * *

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Edited by Zasshu
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