The Paradox of Zacheus Evergreen
Word of Zacheus reached the city of Khorwa long before he arrived in person. An important lesson there: rumour flies faster than even the world's swiftest airship. The word itself varied in weight, from claiming Zacheus was more than mortal, and was in fact an elemental spirit, some primordial thing left over from the shaping of the world, to declaring he was merely the most powerful magus to have existed in generations. Aside from general agreement as to his power and success, the rumour was as varied and conflicting as might be imagined. He had come by his strength through demonic pacts, some said. Others that he owed them to his tireless selflessness, as he travelled from place to place, helping where he could. Some maintained that it had been he who had halted the advance of the Silent Horde out of the East, others that the Crystal Phantom had been shattered only by his efforts.
Whatever the truth of these varied words, the word of his arrival had been true. His airship (literally this, a sea-going vessel he had lofted into the sky with willpower alone) cast its shadow over the town like a rogue cloud. It had no need of mooring, but simply drew to a creaking stop near the belltower of the city cathedral, the Tower of Seven Storms. There the airship hung motionless, its sails furled. The people gathered to see it, dropping their afternoon business or rushing from their homes and into the street.
Zacheus himself entered the city on foot, through the most travelled gate in the city wall. He barely noticed the clamour around him, the excitement at the arrival of the airship. There was a time to flaunt his celebrity, but this was not it. He looked up as he passed beneath the arch, and felt the magic singing within the bones of the wall. The wall was ancient, raised from the earth by some great magus in a forgotten time. He smiled to himself. This was a place to find truths.
The gateway was busy with traffic, as wagons entered and departed, and people from nobles to peasants made use of the space to chat or hawk their wares. A child standing nearby lost all interest in the game he was playing, and tugged on the sleeve of his companion, all the while pointing directly at Zacheus.
Zacheus winked at the boy, and he put his finger to his lips.
'You've already forgotten my face,' he breathed as he passed the children. They turned suddenly away, back to their game, and Zacheus threw a casual illusion over himself, replacing his ageing, experienced face with that of a young squire.
The street towards the bazaar was broad and long, well-travelled with the traffic of ages. The city was an old one, its origins long forgotten, its success nearly constant in the thousands of years it had endured. People spoke of Khorwa as though it were an exemplar, a leading light, but it was far from a paradise. Khorwa, like any city its size, was hungry. By day it sated this hunger with wealth, visitors, and the lives of its people. By night, its hunger was a more primal sort, sated by murder, theft, and things far worse. In this it was not unique. Far from it, in fact – it could be said to be simply a city, anywhere, in any place and any time. Zacheus had seen enough cities of the sort to know this, but larger things had brought him there. It was the first time he had been to Khorwa, personally, and he suspected it would be the last.
The bazaar occupied a wide plaza near the heart of the city. As Zacheus emerged, its healthy, excited noise washed over him, from the braying of donkeys to the strange rise-and-fall chant of countless sales pitches. The space smelled somehow cooler than the rest of the city, its few fountains giving much needed moisture to the stale desert air. A tangled smell of animals, spices, and sizzling food filled the air. Several flies tried to pester Zacheus the moment he arrived into the square, though all fell dead, scorched by the invisible energy that shivered at the boundary of his body. He found himself feeling sorry for them, as he always did when taking a life, from the smallest to the largest.
'Magic!' was the yell that caught Zacheus attention. 'Gems and philtres! Potions and jewels!'
He crossed to the stand, to the stall-keeper whose voice was ringing throughout the square. He was a young man, skin not yet leathered by the desert sun. His shaved head was hidden slightly by the hood he had pulled up against the heat. Within this hood, his flawless face flashed a bright smile. He looked Zacheus up and down before speaking directly to him.
'Foreigner!' he cried, meeting Zacheus' eyes. 'Step forward, now, won't you?'
Zacheus glanced down at his feet, but didn't move.
'Will it be worth my time?' he asked, smiling. He had taken a guess for himself. The stall hummed with power; true power. It was no trickster's display, and Zacheus found himself impressed in spite of himself.
'You know already, I think.' The younger man plucked down from his shelves a green gem, set in an ornate weave, as if it were to be worn as a brooch. 'You know, I think, that this jewel can bewitch minds,' he said.
'Useful for a stallkeeper.' Zacheus smiled. He glanced down again, and this time took an exaggerated step forwards. 'It would take a potent mind to use it, though,' he said. 'A mind capable of powerful empathy, deep understanding. A mind that knows as much when not to use power as when to use it. Such a power can't be used to dominate, only to persuade.'
The young man was measuring him, he knew. Gauging his exact interest and aptitude, his eagerness to purchase. It was professionally done, and Zacheus' reply was itself tailored, a test of his own.
'A potent mind indeed,' the boy replied. 'And you know what? It's too much for me.' He beamed, shrugging, and tossed the ornament aside.
'And as for myself,' Zacheus said, playing along, 'I've enough tricks for the mind.' He took another step forwards, taking him to the stall.
Zacheus gazed into the young man's eyes, and in his mind he began to form a shape. In the real world, that shape could not be said to have a form, but in Zacheus' mind, as he layered it, coloured it, and strengthened it into a clear image, it became the shape of Trust. An abstract given definite form, he then opened up the mind of the young man and deposited the image there.
The man began to laugh.
'Now, that's a powerful trick, I think,' he said. 'Even though I know full well you've done it, I can't bring myself to tell you no. I trust you. How about that?'
Zacheus smiled. 'I could've made it subtle if I'd wanted,' he said. 'But I thought you'd find the art of it compelling. You're not just a storekeeper, are you? You've interest in your craft. What stirred your interest, may I ask?'
'That's a rarity,' he said. 'I don't get many questions about myself. I don't have much of a story, sir. Nothing much grand has ever happened to me, I think. My interest is simply the kind of interest anyone has for things far greater than he'll ever know. I like storms. And fire.'
'I wouldn't be so quick to judge what you will or will not know, friend. Believe me.'
'Then I'll keep an open mind, see what spells fall into it,' he said, and winked. 'But aren't you great enough? No stage wizard could reach into my thoughts like that. Surely there can't be much still above you.'
'A man can only grow so tall. There are always greater things.'
'I would drink to that,' the man said. 'If my father wouldn't have my hide for drinking on the job.'
The young man ran a hand thoughtfully over his bare chin, as if the mention of his father had set him to thinking.
'You're a discerning sort,' he said. 'And a powerful one, and that's why I know nothing I've got here will interest you. That's why I'm going to share something I don't have here. I have a job for you, if you'll take it. The reward will be just the sort of thing you're looking for.'
Night. The desert moon shone down cold and clear, like a blessed counterpart to the day's roasting sun. Zacheus loved them both, in their way. They were fundamental things, ancient, shivering with forgotten magic. They were testament that a man was always subject to the things that his animal mind could not overcome. They were gateways to prehistoric truths.
This moon cut through dusty air to the river wharfs, as Zacheus was making his way through narrow twisting ways, towards a particular storehouse. No one bothered him, but a memory came to him of a night many years ago beneath a similar desert moon, when he had been set upon by several thugs. They had taunted him before striking. He had retorted, told them calmly that they were scum. They said they had heard it all before. He said, again quite calmly, that he had meant it literally. That they were scum, floating on the surface of a pond. They were by nature so divorced from the true essence of the world that they were not worthy of notice. They were ignorant. Powerless.
They had looked at each other, equal parts amused and bewildered. Zacheus then seized one with a powerful spell, and that man's skeleton made its way out from his flesh of its own accord, and proceeded to hack up its horrified and erstwhile allies. When the bloody assault was done, the skeleton was released from the spell and, turning its empty eyes on Zacheus, it stretched out a hand, as if overcome with beautific knowledge it wanted to share. It told him with its eyes alone that he too was scum, that for all his power he was no closer to the truth than they. It was a lesson Zacheus did not need.
The skeleton then fell to the dry earth, its puppeteering magic unstrung.
The empty eyes of that skeleton had stayed with Zacheus in his thoughts. How could a blank skull hold an emotion? That thug had, in being stripped of his life, seen something beautiful in the space between life and death. He had seen the truth, the very same truth that Zacheus had spent so many long years pursuing.
Zacheus had felt envy. Envy for a man stripped of his flesh. After all, why not? Had he not once been in that same position?
He shook off the memory, and entered the storehouse.
The arrows flew at him as he took his second step beyond the door. A dozen of them, maybe. He reached into the world and halted it, suspending the arrows from the passing night. They froze in place, and Zacheus crossed the room, beneath the dumbfounded gazes of the lookouts, past their petrified arrows, to where the storehouse opened up onto the piers jutting out into the river and the night. There the smuggler-in-chief stood, resplendent in knightly armour. His face was lined and scarred, his hair and beard peppered gray. Zacheus knew the man was afraid, though he showed no outward sign. This was a brave man, he knew.
'You pass that test, then,' he said casually, as Zacheus approached. 'Stand down, boys and girls!' the knight yelled. With disgruntled murmurs, they went back to their work. Zacheus released the spell, and the arrows clattered to the floor.
'I heard about you,' the knight said.
'From your son? He sent me to find you. Said you'd have things that might be of interest to me.'
'My…? Ah, you know? You know much that is hidden.'
'Quite. How does a knight come to act like a thief?'
The knight shrugged. 'By being a thief, and becoming a knight,' he said. 'This armour isn't mine, but it gives me an image, such as it is. Even the innocent souls of this town know of the Champion. An identity can carry great weight – is this not so, Zacheus? Aye, I know of you. My boy wanted to offer his congratulations for your defeat of the March Baron. It made life around here much easier.'
'I'm famous. I'm hardly impressed that you know me.'
'But you don't normally look like that. I also know you weren't always powerful. There was a time when walking through that door would have meant your death.'
Zacheus blinked. There were many stories about him, and he laughed at most of them, but rarely had a rumour hit this close to the truth. Even so, he knew it might have been no more than a bluff.
'Hardly makes a difference now,' he said.
'It can make a large difference, stranger. You spared those men, when you could have crushed them.'
'I need your help.'
'Remember who you were, stranger. You're on a dangerous path. I've seen men like you before. The ones who lose sight of things. They start out stealing to feed their child. Before you know it, they're stealing just because they can, because they can get that thrill from no other source. Because in stealing they find something that's missing from their lives.'
'I steal because there are people in this city starving. The food more often goes to decorate the tables of the wealthy than it fills the bellies of the destitute. Only the rich make such necessities into luxuries.'
'How selfless of you.'
'If you were just after trinkets for trinkets sake, then you disappoint me. I thought, given your legend, that there might be more to Zacheus than I knew.'
'There is, and you will never know it.' Zacheus gestured loosely to the river, and the Champion turned in time to see a dozen casks rocket from the water and shoot towards him. To his credit he didn't flinch, merely ducked beneath their arc to let them pass harmlessly overhead. They alighted on the floor just before Zacheus' feet, as gentle as a flock of birds.
'Your cargo, I believe,' Zacheus said. 'It was looking likely the riverwards were going to take it, so I took the liberty of helping you. Your son's suggestion.'
The Champion looked at him sidelong. 'You would just give me this?'
'It was nothing. I was told I'd be paid well for it.'
'Just so. My thanks for taking the time to help. The trick is to see that you don't sacrifice overmuch in pursuit of your goal, don't you think?'
'You have your cargo. Tell me what I need to know.'
'I don't have any great secrets for you, Zacheus. You seek where I would not follow. But there are others in this city who walk in footsteps of beings far greater than us. I could…arrange something.'
A long, scornful look. The face of his teacher, in days long since gone.
'No great skill at arms,' said the teacher, as he transformed into a swordsman, resplendent in knightly armour. 'Nor in brewing.' He shifted to the traditional garb of a chemist, a philtre in his upraised hand. 'No magic to speak of.' A shift to a magus' vestments, his staff shining with light.
'You are good for only one thing, Zacheus,' he said, returning to his simple tunic. 'So green are you that you make every other inbred scion of nobility to pass through my care look positively godlike by contrast. Now wake up.'
Zacheus bolted upright, wrenched from his dream. It had been many years since he'd been to that place, whether in dreams or in life. He blinked the weariness from his eyes, and looked around into the shifting grey of the rented room. Something crawled at the edge of his awareness. He reached into the aura of the room, hunting for it, and found it sitting in the corner.
'You can come forward,' Zacheus said, lighting a flame in the palm of his hand. The light showed a shadowy figure, seated at the writing desk on the other side of the room. The figure was masked, and dressed in a light raiment of some deep colour Zacheus could not determine in the fuzzy night. He pulled himself from under the covers, moving to the edge of the bed.
'We have an appointment,' said a female voice from beneath the hood. It was a voice delicate and small with youth, but hard-edged, like a keen knife.
'You are the Champion's mercenary?'
'I don't belong to him. We help each other out, that's all. Mutual interest. He said you needed to speak to me, and I owe him a favour.' She sounded as if her words were chosen carefully, the knife of her voice slid so quietly from sheath that it hardly made a sound at all.
'If you can help me,' Zacheus replied, feeling harsh and blunt by contrast. 'I'm looking for something. Something extremely powerful.'
'Then I might be able to help.' The shadowy figure stood, and moved towards him. He saw that the mask was in the likeness of a lizard, but human eyes glinted within it. He gazed up at her, trying to see the skin around her eyes, to tell something of her face. The eyes were young, he thought, but other than that, there was only night.
'When I look at you,' she said, 'I see old powers. Mountains. Bones. The deeps of the sea.'
'And do you know of any of those? Just out of interest?'
'Zacheus. I think we're both a world apart from what they know.' She put a hand to her mask, and pulled it away. She still appeared young, but for the first time Zacheus felt the fury of the magic that whirled inside of her. It stole his breath away, like the sudden shock of icy water. Her own metaphor leapt into his mind, and he thought of ancient roads, lost ruins, and forgotten tomes.
'What are you?' he asked.
'Just a shadow,' she said. 'The shadow of a life long forgotten.' She knelt before him, and grasped his hand. She held it firm in hers, as if reading the shape of it. 'Once, a long, long time ago, my god came to me as if he were just a man, and asked for my help. He said the choice was mine, but I bound myself by oath to honour his request. I pledged to help him recover the only artefact he ever left in the mortal world. It was lost, many ages ago, and without it he is diminished. I became Shadowscale, his agent, until the task is done.'
Zacheus heard the love in her voice, and felt pity for her. She was a slave to impassioned feelings for a god beyond her reach. She had been just a victim, conned into serving him and now trapped forever. No spell held her, only the natural dominating magic of passion.
'You've travelled as far as I have, perhaps farther,' she went on. 'And you've seen much of the world, and the places beyond. They say you visited the realm of the Day Queen, once.'
'Twice,' he said. 'But I'm hardly the only one.'
'No. You didn't let me finish. I was going to say that even the realm of the Day Queen is just a stone's throw to you. You'd scoff to call it far, unreachable.'
'I've been there too. But it's the farthest I've gone. What is that drives you so?'
'Passion,' he said, unable to keep a wry twist from his voice. She raised an eyebrow.
'Do you think I'm in love with my god?'
'I love my god, but I am not stupid enough to believe that I can be in love with him. You've misunderstood me, Zacheus.'
He believed, and reassessed. What he had taken to be an impossible love held for her god, he realised instead was belief. Pure, raw belief, a driving power beyond anything the mortal world could offer. He knew the feeling himself, it was what had spurred him on these long years. He knew the ache that gnawed within her chest.
'I'll forgive you, this one time. I think you and I are of a likeness, Zacheus. So I'm going to help you. I know someone who knows a lot of answers. Who…is an answer. But I think you might have some answers for me, too.'
'There's a place I know,' Zacheus said, pulling a roll of parchment from thin air. He handed it to the Shadowscale.
'It's a map,' she said. 'What is this place?'
'A lost city of magic. It was abandoned long ago, but it's still powerful. Its secrets have helped me become what I am in this world, but for better or worse, I won't need it any more. Maybe there you can find what it is you seek. Tread carefully within; this is where I shackled the Tyrling.'
'This could end an unending life of journey,' she breathed, her eyes alight as she studied the map. 'And now you will have my help. I will tell you how to find the swords which sing beneath the city streets.'
In the catacombs beneath the city, there rang the sound of blades. Zacheus emerged from a tunnel onto a ledge above a large hollowed chamber. Around the walls of that chamber a hodgepodge crowd of ragged commoners had gathered, and in its centre two figures were locked in mortal combat. Both were naked, armed only with a sword. Zacheus watched as they battled, swords locking, until they wrested them mutually from each other's hands. Then the fight became one of fists and grapples, until one man gained the advantage, and brought a knee crushing into the other's windpipe. The crowd cheered, and the victor stood and bowed.
'The Night's work is done,' he said, his voice echoing through the chamber. 'Now go with it, and be one.'
The crowd dispersed through the tunnels. When they were gone, the chamber empty but for the victor and his opponent still gasping around a crushed throat, Zacheus stood. The victor, looking down at his opponent, suddenly said:
'I feel you skulking, watcher. The Night hides nothing from me. Come face me, won't you?'
Zacheus' body became as mist, and he drifted down to the floor of the makeshift arena, reforming before the warrior. Only up close did he realise the warrior had no eyes, only an empty black void where they should have been.
'My name is Valdis,' the warrior said. 'If the Shadowscale is believed, you are the famous Zacheus.'
Zacheus nodded. 'Are you the one I'm supposed to find?'
'I am. I am the Shadowscale's…ah, spiritual advisor? We both serve the Nightlord, though in different ways. I am the closest thing to a priest the Nightlord deigns to have. But you came not for my story, but for answers to a question. I know this because I am a servant to the Nightlord. I am a living question, and people come to me to seek the Nightlord's answer. Is this not the role of the priest?'
'Then may I speak with the Nightlord?'
'Then what help can you offer?'
'Strip, and we will fight, and you will have your answers. You can use magic, if you like, but know that no ruinous spell will work on me. The Nightlord has shrouded me.'
Zacheus shrugged. He had done stranger, more twisted things in the search for the ultimate truth. He removed his robes, and felt his sense of the world grow steadily darker. He threw aside his enchanted rings, and his protective aura sizzled into mist. His necklace and bracelets went next, and he felt their enchantments leave his body as he became heavier of foot, less sharp of sight. With these artefacts gone, he summoned spells of strength and protection to empower his body in their place.
'Now,' Valdis said, throwing aside his sword. 'We fight.'
Valdis lunged for him, and instinctively Zacheus reacted, aiming a punch for the priest's face. Valdis was a more experienced warrior, and caught it effortlessly, bringing Zacheus to the ground with a perfect throw, Zacheus feeling his joints pop as he was levered to the earth.
'I have seen that look of obsession before,' Valdis hissed, as he twisted Zacheus' arm. 'You more than need this answer. You are plagued by it.'
Zacheus breathed new strength into his limbs, and with only the arm Valdis held, he threw the man bodily across the arena. Valdis landed hard but rolled, pouncing catlike to his feet.
'You are consumed! Your soul is sick with the plague of curiosity, the desperate need to know! You are rotting from within!'
He charged at Zacheus again, and Zacheus felt the magic in him, the way the man slid in and out of his sight as if stepping into shadows that were not there. Zacheus felt his legs go out from under him, and he hit the floor hard. Valdis backed off.
'What were you, once? Do you remember, or have you forgotten?'
A foot came from nowhere, stamping for Zacheus' face. He caught it, and threw it aside, rolling sideways and back to his feet.
'If you have forgotten, good! Devotion is to release the will. Let the cancer of the soul drive you on, until all you know is how to seek the cure. To be a priest, a question, a servant to the truth is not to be healthy. It is to be nothing!'
Valdis slid into visibility again, and this time Zacheus caught his movement, slamming an elbow into the assailant's jaw. Valdis stumbled backwards, and vanished again.
'I seek an answer, too,' Valdis hissed. 'Not for me, but for my god.'
The next strike came from nowhere, the open palm slamming into Zacheus face, breaking his nose. His head swam, he tasted blood, and barely felt the impact of the floor coming up to meet him. Valdis leapt, driving his knee into Zacheus gut. Again he drew off. Zacheus gasped, his world a blaze of agony and whirling, pounding sensation of the kind he had not felt since he had grown truly strong. Finally, whooping breath back into his lungs, he coughed out his words.
Valdis kicked him over again, onto his back, and straddled his chest, fist raised, manhood uncomfortably close to Zacheus' face. Even through his pain, Zacheus found himself reflecting that though it was not the strangest thing he had done, it had hardly been his favourite. The pain began to recede, his nose knitting back together as he weaved power back into his body.
'Then you will answer me,' Valdis said. 'I feel you know my answer. It burns within you. A man cannot carry such a secret and have it unknown to those who ask these questions.'
'You have been far and wide, consorted with many spirits, even unto the gods. So tell me: what is the true name of the Day Queen?'
'I know to speak a god's true name is death, yes. But I'm not speaking it, and I hardly think you are perturbed by gods any more.'
Zacheus yielded to the point. He stretched out a hand, and one of his rings, adorned with an emerald, skittered towards him. He caught it, and held it up to Valdis.
'Wear this,' Zacheus said. 'And look into the sun at noon. The name burns there. A mortal voice cannot carry its weight. Your eyes of night will shield you from its majesty.'
'It's the living-and-dead body of the Prince of Flame, lastborn of the Day Queen.'
Valdis lowered his fist and stood, offering Zacheus a hand still slick with the magus' blood. Zacheus took it, and hoisted himself from the dirt. Valdis slipped the ring on his finger.
He smiled, face creasing around the empty pit of his eyes.
'With this, the Nightlord could triumph. The world would be his, and I would be raised to an saint at his side.'
'And this doesn't bother you?'
'The truth I seek is larger than this world, larger than any world,' Zacheus replied, beginning to dress himself. 'Larger than all worlds. Your shadow-play of gods and spirits means so very little to me.'
'Is that so? You've been a worthy opponent, Zacheus. The Nightlord owes you much. You seek things that lay beyond this world? Beyond even the realm of the gods? We know of places that might hold these answers. This is an old city. The oldest.'
'And how would I find them?'
'There are places under this city where only the Night can go. Walk with it, and you will find them.'
The door creaked open, something snapped, and the whole thing fell unceremoniously from its hinges. It slammed to the floor. Zacheus peered into the darkness beyond. He had finally dispersed his illusion, showing now his true face for the first time since arriving in Khorwa.
'Sorry about the door,' he said, into the echoing black. There was a sound of water dripping.
'These things can be replaced,' was the reply. The voice that gave it was breathy with dust, a sepulchral voice, lost in time. It was the voice of a tomb, as if Zacheus' words came back to him from his own grave.
'Would you mind some light?' Zacheus asked of the darkness. He had found it better to ask. Frequently, to ask in advance was to invite less pain from whatever dark horror you had startled with sudden miracles.
'Do as you please.'
Zacheus lifted his palm, and a tiny star erupted from it, suspending itself above his head. Its light was bright white, and threw tall shadows crawling up the walls as it moved with him, deeper into the room. It was some manner of chamber, a forgotten cellar, but as Zacheus passed the pillars of the room, things moved in his periphery. At first he wondered if this was a trick of the light, but he became steadily more certain that the pillars themselves were moving, swelling rhythmically like the breath of a great beast. Finally he reached the far wall. The room ended in blank stone. The speaker was nowhere to be seen.
Within himself, Zacheus was more elated than scared. Ancient magic crawled through the very air of this chamber, magic that was, he suspected, older than the world itself. It was a stagnant feeling, and yet beautiful. There was truth here. This was the upper depths of the pond beneath the scum upon its surface.
A figure half-emerged from the wall. It was a human shape, pressed against the stone from the other side, as if the bricks were as formless as canvas. The figure writhed against the stone as if trying to escape, but like a canvas, the bricks merely outlined it, tautening but otherwise holding. An impression of an arm reached towards Zacheus. He raised his hand, and a bubble of magic shield formed before him.
'I wouldn't try anything,' Zacheus said. 'Larger things than you have died by my hand.'
There was a laugh like the sound of bricks sliding against each other.
'And you have died by smaller things than we,' said the voice, the echo from before.
'You know of me, then.' Zacheus kept his shield before him, and slowly built the magic within himself, layering it, preparing deeper and more powerful miracles than the stage tricks he had used so far.
'Zacheus,' breathed the stones. 'O Evergreen Zacheus. Walker of the comsos, you. So large and yet so small, as you are born and die and are born again.'
Zacheus smiled. 'I feel I'm closer my mark,' he said. The truth was crawling nearer, he could feel it. A creature that could know him must also know the greater workings of the world, must be concerned with the larger mysteries of All That Is.
'You are still so far, Zacheus. We see you. We can see into you, we see the scars left upon that essence which is you. You were born so ordinary, so weak.'
It was a time Zacheus scarcely remembered. It has been so many worlds before this one, so many lives. He wondered how many of them he could even recall. He remembered, truly remembered, then, and for the first time in centuries, his first life. The Academy. The indecisive weather of the town, the company of the other cadets. Times spent down by the canal, throwing stones into its depths. He had been a poor student, with no great skill in arms at all. Neither had he excelled in magic, in those days.
'And then you were tasked,' said the shape within the wall. 'Then you became so much more. A dire threat, a world gone so wrong that mere children were sent to war. And you must thank him. Ah, him. When did last you think of him?'
His was a name Zacheus did not want to call to mind. He had been the leader of the team, their captain despite being only a squire himself. He had defied a nation on the strength of his own beliefs, and had contended with gods because it had been the right thing to do. He had been patient with Zacheus when everyone had given him up for a lost cause. Zacheus had been able to spin a tale in those days – his one great talent. Their captain had cultivated the talent, taught Zacheus to power magic with imagination, and it was that spark which led him to become a powerful force of nature, a magus to make armies tremble.
That captain, their captain, was to thank.
That captain would kill him, if he met him now. If he learned of the sacrifices Zacheus had made, the lengths he had gone to for the truth. The thought of this man was the only thing that reminded Zacheus of what he had been; small, talentless, ashamed and scorned. He felt all of those things again, when he thought of the paragon that had led them to victory.
'So you died,' the wall said. 'Burned away in the light of a thirsty god. But you were not weak, then. You imagined, as he had taught you. You escaped to another world, rebuilt yourself. It was only magic, after all. But what you saw there, on the precipice between the living world and the dead…ah, it filled with such hunger, you!'
Zacheus dropped his barrier. A tear had come to his eye.
'What have I become?' he said, voice echoing, and he heard the plaintiveness resounding back to him. 'What would he think of me?'
'But there is the truth,' the wall said. 'Always the truth, and you must find it. We cannot help you.'
Zacheus could not shake the sense of crushing despair. He had failed not just in his task, but within himself. The boy from the Academy, himself from so many worlds ago, would be horrified by what he had become. Even now, in the day, among life, he was a boy so weak and compassionate that he felt the deaths of flies. By night, unseen and alone, he would sacrifice everything just for answers. The presence in this chamber had forced him to think about this paradox for the first time in centuries, where before he had held them both within his head without them ever meeting.
'Then this has all been for naught,' Zacheus said.
'Nothing is ever for nothing,' the wall said. More strange figures had pressed themselves against the other side of the wall now. The walls, ceiling and pillars of the cellar had become a mass of squirming human shapes. 'We were walkers of the many-worlds, once. We looked for truth. We found none. But power had we, yes. Ah, power had we. So what to do, said we? We will build a world, said we. Here it is, now. All around. Welcome to our world.'
'You built this world? Then where did you come from?' Zacheus asked.
'We have no memory, we. Gone it is, crushed by the weight of…how many years? Chiliads. Ten times ten chiliads? Numbers have become naught. We built this world, its heavens, its hells, its gods. It is ours, and we have forgotten all else.'
'So you can tell me nothing? Nothing of why we live? Why the countless worlds of the cosmos came to be? What twisted heart lies at the middle of it all, creating worlds of endless war? Nothing?!'
'Nothing. But we can tell you to go. Ah, he would be ashamed of you, would kill you, but know this, you. He is long dead. He lived only a mortal life. You are much more, and no longer a man. One such as you can no longer be held to the laws, the morals of mortal men. You are we, but we lost our way. Now alone, you, could find the truth.'
Zacheus nodded. 'I will. It's the only way to answer to myself. Can you help me? My journey must continue.'
'We can help you. We built this world. Power have we. Power of blood. We will consume this city to breath its miracle and lead you where you need to be.'
Zacheus thought of the city above him, the warren of life it had become, a frozen-in-stone tableau of life throughout the many planes he had walked. Everything that could be found out there in the larger cosmos, every joy and sorrow, strength and weakness, could be found within the walls of the city. The talentless student of long ago, the Zacheus of old, murmured within his head. There are many lives here, it said. You can't just kill them!
'And yet I must,' he said aloud. 'Or I will betray the very reason for what I've done. Perhaps yet I may save so many more. There is a cycle that must be broken. Free me, stones. Lead me forward.'
'Our help have you,' the wall said. A bright light shone, washing away Zacheus' view, and he felt pain, a city's worth of pain, as all the death on the world above flowed into him and through him. His whole body burned, his skin sloughed from his bones, his soul was wrenched and twisted, and it was all of it familiar. Just another turn of the wheel. Zacheus reborn again.
He dropped from thin air, rolling down a small incline, over grass and mud, coming to a stop just short of the river that gurgled below him. Gingerly he pulled himself to his feet. His hands looked different. He leaned over the river, and saw. The illusion had faded, but neither was this his true face. In their place was a new truth: he was again young, no older than the illusion he had presented. A squire. He shivered, the wind cold on his naked body.
He breathed deep, closed his eyes beneath the warm sun as the air stilled again, and reached into the magic that whispered through this world. He opened his eyes, held out his hand, and attempted to conjure a flame.
There was nothing. No spark, not even a wisp of smoke. Magic here was present, but different, like light and sound. He would have to learn all over again, as he had before, as he would again. Would magic here be the sole domain of gods and their priests? Would it be runic, ritualistic, alchemical, musical or wild? Would it be grand or subtle? He was a neophyte again, green as the grass beneath his feet, mind burning up with questions to ask of a new world.
So Zacheus started down the riverbank, towards the hearth-smoke that rose gently in the distance. It was time to start again, from boy, from squire, and he would solve one new piece of the puzzle, draw one step closer to the truth. For in truth, there were answers.
"I have done a great many things. I have breathed miracles, conjured demons, and contended with gods. I have rewritten worlds to suit my needs, and bent armies into slaves. I have been unstoppable, unassailable. I have been perfect.
Yesterday, I was invincible.
Today, I ran from a bear."
-The Paradox of Zacheus Evergreen