by Steele Tyler Filipek
He’d put it off for long enough. It was time to take the journey.
There was no preparation and nothing to tidy up. The monk had few possessions; he’d even given up his name when he’d taken his vows of transcendence seventy years before. He lived in an earthen hut on the edge of the swamp, raised on stumps so that the waters didn’t carry his two pots away. He had no neighbors, so he wore no clothes. That was the entire point behind his search for enlightenment: to be alone and to think. He had his sandals and his staff. Everything was supposed to come from inside, or beyond. It hadn’t.
Now he was off into the mundane world that he’d abandoned those seven decades before. The ascetic life had not given him any answers. Maybe the trappings would reveal something before he gave up his mortal form. He doubted it.
One step turned into another. He passed his small vegetable patch without a glance. He’d never see it again. No matter. It had played its role in his life. Down, among the gnarled trunks of the Walking Trees (so named for their propensity to uproot during the monsoon season), past the reeds that stretched for miles in every direction, out beyond the furthest point he’d ventured in times long before. He followed a crow for no other reason than it was the most visually interesting thing in the sky, pure onyx against an ocean of azure.
The sun rose and set that day. The monk rested in a hollowed out log to hide from the river wyrms that plagued the region. Another day passed. And another. It rained, but lightly, just a prelude of the coming torrents. By the time the weather really opened up, the monk was passing through the mountains that protected the tropics from the cool winds of the north.
He met no men there. They were all down in the depths, warm and cloistered and wary of the outside world. As he had been. Yet a passing trader — El-Shaerite? The man had their dark skin, but his eyes bespoke some fiendish ancestry — offered the monk a moth-eaten woolen robe to protect him from the suddenly biting cold.
“Thank you,” he said before moving on. They were the first two words he’d spoken in nearly seventeen years.
The crow continued to fly overhead. Where? The monk had no idea. It was as good a place as any. Perhaps he would see something that would inspire him.
No. Nothing like that. Oh, of course, he saw what the world had to offer — all the worlds. Four-armed prostitute priests at Duni Pass, when he stepped into the Otherwhere. A fortress, walking on five steel legs, out in the desert wastelands of the Underworld. He stepped into the Dreamscape at the edge of the sea, and it carried him across in a ship of thought. All manner of creatures, many magical, all of them going about their lives with as little regard to the world as ants. The monk stayed away from most cities, at least. He didn’t want his tidal depression to flow that far.
This was what he’d given up. It didn’t surprise the monk that no being, mortal or immortal, had answers for his occasional query.
“What do you mean, what am I searching for?” a satyr asked, or rather, sang, as he wandered through Kessi’dal.
One of the felinekin had been far more direct. “I don’t know, old man. Who does?”
Still, the crow kept flying. The monk followed. Past the Strait of Dae, to the edge of the Trysm Empire, around a checkpoint between two squadrons of hippogriff riders that didn’t even seem to notice him, before finally reaching the outskirts of Theore.
The City of Mists was the biggest city he’d ever seen. The ramshackle homes at the edge soon gave way to cobblestone streets filled with every manner of person imaginable, some coupled with strange beasts from afar. Had the monk felt the need to hide, he would have done well: a nude little man was nothing compared to the dozens of races and cultures that pressed their fashionable and unfashionable ways past him.
The crow kept flying. The monk continued to follow it through three of the city’s wards until the bird flittered across a canal and down the chimney of a seemingly non-descript home. No, not a home. A tavern.
“Azrael’s Stop?” The monk muttered to himself. Why not?
It was early in the day; few customers had manifested themselves into the nooks and dark recesses of the room. It smelled like beer and desperation, all right, but that had been fairly typical for his ventures out into the world.
The monk sidled up to the bar. Nobody — not the feyling in the corner, or the orc with a gallon tankard in front of him, or the trio of sailors quietly gambling in the corner — ever looked his way. Even the bartender didn’t seem to notice him until the monk coughed for attention.
“What can I get you?” The young man turned around. He paused, his face frozen. “There’s a dress code here.”
“I won’t be staying long,” the monk said. The weakness in his voice surprised him. Was he really so close? He looked around, spotted the crow up in the rafters. “What is that crow doing here?”
The bartender gave him a weird glance from behind his locks. “It’s… always here.”
“I believe I have been following that crow for some time now.” Yes, that was the same crow. Certainly. Almost certainly. Had the crow he was following been hooded?
As the monk let out his breath, his ribs settled back into his skin. “But maybe not… Who knows? I saw stranger things. A procession of ten thousand beast-men, worshipping a long dead king whose name they couldn’t pronounce. There was the little boy in the Skybridge to whom I gave my robe so that he would have a blanket to sleep on, underneath an arch being built by cranes five thousand hands in the air.”
“There are few who can travel through the Flows with such ease. You must be tired,” the bartender said. He grabbed a bottle from underneath the counter. “Here: first one’s on the house. You look like you need this particular beverage, anyway.”
The monk barely heard the words. He had closed his eyes, trying to remember it all.
“Faces, of all colors,” he whispered. “Red and green and grey and pink and black. Men, women, things both and neither… a God sitting in the clouds, a sprite building his own legs out of brass… I have taken exactly three million, seven hundred and twenty thousand, and fifteen steps. I counted them all. I remember it all.” He opened his eyes, half expecting to see… something. Anything.
It was just the bartender, young and expectant and waiting. “That’s a big journey for an old man to take. Why do it?”
“You’re the first person who has asked me that.” The monk smiled. “I guess I don’t know why. I was searching for something… but never found it.”
The bartender shrugged and began to pour. “That’s the boon and the bane of this world. You spend your entire time looking for something and you miss the world pass by around you.”
The monk didn’t say anything for some time. He looked at the boy. “What is your name, child?”
“Child? I’m seventeen years old. Name’s Ceph.” He stuck out a hand.
The monk didn’t take his hand. He just bowed his head. “You are wise beyond your years, Ceph. Far more than you realize.”
Up in the rafters, the crow cawed.
The entire room went silent. Patrons looked from face to face, searching for the latest addition to Azrael’s roll.
When nothing happened, Ceph frowned. “That’s a first.” He finished the pour and placed it on the bar in front of him. “Your drink, sir.” He lifted up the man’s head from its obeisant position. “Sir?”
But the monk was dead. A smile still sat on his face.
“I guess you found what you were looking for.” He picked up the glass, knocked the contents back, and stopped as his head swam. Not from the drink — just mineral water — but from the implications of what he’d so innocently said.