The Authorities and some dirty torchlight were the only guides helping Zhi dime lead Dun fi through the quiet alleys of Ku-Na-Zem.
--We must not be seen by anyone.—Zhi dime spoke in a whisper only Dun fi could hear.—There are many who speak of what they see.—
--That is no difficulty—Dun fi replied, swiftly disappearing into the Signs.
--I have never used tricks for my advantage.—Zhi dime stopped walking forward.—I consider it a great dishonour to the Gokhanway.—
--There is a Gokhan way?—Dun fi asked, with surprise.
--There is, though it has been long forgotten.—
--I too follow the Way.—Dun fi spoke.—We must speak of these things later.—
They passed a twisting, coiling path. Dun fi following Zhi dime. Thrice he had to stop to speak with someone known, Dun fi waiting in the shadows and the Signs.
When they entered the Precinct of the Schools—now guarded by two sleepless Graduates, the Gokhan made a serious face. The Graduates, unquestioning when it came to a Gokhan, merely displayed the act of respect. Zhi dime replied in turn, and passed, Dun fi swiftly on his heels.
--There it is. At least it has not changed.—Dun fi pointed at the schools, having briefly reappeared in the deserted paths of the Precinct.
--Outwardly, no.—Zhi dime replied.—But inwardly…The Seventh School has changed everything.—
Zhi dime pointed where a stone beast squat, windowed eyes burning in the night amongst fluted ceilings like a swirling wave from the Great Water. It seemed to have been there longer than any other, were it not for the memories that burned in the veins of the Gokhan and Dun fi.
--Be careful.—Zhi dime spoke with a hoarse whisper of anger.—Ginse dwells there. He is careful, always watchful for approaching enemies. You, I suspect.—
Dun fi had drawn his Wakat, which shimmered in the flickering lights of the torches and the rising light of the Lesser One.
Dun fi continued into the Seventh School alone. Zhi dime melted into the darkness behind him.
Dun fi came to the door, pushing hard upon it with the palm of his hand. It was solid, plated in the iron of the Nei di, which made passing through it impossible.
--He has prepared.—Dun fi thought before making his way around the stone wall of the Seventh School.
It was not long before he found a high pile of stinking refuse. Looking close, Dun fi noted the narrow opening from which the refuse came out of the upper level of the school. It was just wide enough for Dun fi to squeeze into.
Dun fi chuckled at the memory of Lu Mīn among the trash as the slime clung to his garments every measure further up he went into the building.
Cloaked in the Signs, Dun fi passed from lit room to lit room. A paper screen covered the opening to each, broad and clean halls making up the remaining space. Behind each screen, Dun fi could make out a figure, practicing the Signs. Some had advanced quite far. Dun fi shivered as he saw techniques of Arathus, and other Alchemistics he had met over the cycles.
The Seventh School was notable for its concentration and its silence. Only the occasional shuffle of limbs or the grunt of exertion would interrupt it.
Dun fi was watching one room where a silhouette was practicing the sign of throwing light, when suddenly the silhouette stopped and tilted its head like a windgoer on a tree.
--Gokhangin!—called the silhouette in the warrior shriek of a graduate Shizu.—The Loosu are here!—
With a whipping crash, the paper blinds snapped back to reveal the Graduates. Shizu and Shime, all seeking the source of the stench.
--I smell him nearby.—declared a Shime. He snapped his hand out, missing Dun fi by fragments of a finger.
Dun fi tried to loosen the wrap of garments and escape naked when another graduate cast the green coils that twisted and sinewed, looking for their target. Dun fi dodged backwards, missing the flying coils only to collide with the exploding attack of another Graduate. He collapsed against the wall, crumpling down to the floor half naked, unable to remain in the Signs.
Several moe coils* were cast, binding his limbs fast together.
A creaking sound emitted from down the corridor. It was the laughter of Ginse.
--Well done, I told you the Loosu could always be recognized by his stench.—
Ginse’s face had stretched, his hair had turned slightly silver, but otherwise he seemed as ageless as Dun fi.
--Now keep watch over the Loosu carefully, for he knows many tricks.—Ginse cast the blue striking light of Arathus. It connected with Dun fi, causing him to writhe and spasm.
--Let us set him up below to tell us where the others are, for they cannot be far away. Call the other Graduates. And the Matrishizu. She must see this.—
Muscled Graduates grasped the bound Dun fi and carried him while four others watched his movements for struggle. They regularly struck him, with Signs and without, whether he moved or not.
The coils disappeared just as they stretched Dun fi out onto a wall of a grand chamber below. Chains hung from high on the wall to hold his limbs fast and straight in every direction.
Beneath the chains burned hot oil torches. These gave the chains an eerie glow against the stone. Once made fast, Dun fi felt the shock of the heat that travelled down.
The group of Graduates watched. Some were permitted to practice the Signs upon him while Ginse’s eyes bore into Dun fi, willing to see which way his mind bent.
--Look to kill me in my sleep, Silent One?—Ginse strode forward to take his turn.—You have grown cowardly with the cycles.—
The strike, another blue strike of lightning, swallowed Dun fi’s attempt to answer.
--The Loosu always prowl around in the darkness for the easy food.—Ginse spoke aloud to the gathered students as he struck again.—Which is why we practice in Se-Lim’s absence, to stop the Waygoers from destroying the Schools.—
At that time, the doors to the Seventh School opened to reveal a torch lit parade of Graduates, their arms glistening with a Nei-di shine. A pathway opened amongst them to allow a well garbed Shizu, red, stride forward. Her dark eyes shone in the light, her painted face emitting a bright and voracious smile.
--Gokhangin, so they do exist.—The Matrishizu only had eyes for Dun fi as the Gokhangin made the act of Respect.
--I spoke of their desire for our destruction, Matrishizu.—
--You never spoke of their great physical beauty, though.—The Matrishizu put a long, thin hand upon the torso of Dun fi to feel its contours. She then looked at Ginse.—I suppose that is no mystery, seeing how it compares with your own. This one would make a great servant of desire. Must you harm him irrevocably?—
The Gokhangin bristled.—Only this one, Matrishizu. He is the most dangerous of them all.—
--Very well, Gin Gin.—The Matrishizu gave Dun fi’s bare sack a twisting squeeze.—What do you intend to do with him in this spectacle of Se-Lim’s absence?—
--We must discover the whereabouts of the others, Matrishizu.—Ginse made another act of Respect.—There are certain to be others in Ku-Na-Zem, as I have long foretold.—
The Matrishizu’s fingers dug into the sack, Dun fi looked down at the Matrishizu, his lips curled in pain and contempt. Finally he gathered the strength to spit.
It landed on the Matrishizu’s painted face, dribbling down a cheek. With her spare hand, the Matrishizu wiped the spit and tasted it, her smile unchanging.
--You have a great taste, like the big Waachi of the open waters. You cannot catch such a one in one pull, Gokhangin. This one will take some time.—
--I am more able than that, Matrishizu.—Defiance crept into Ginse’s face as he strode closer through the ranks of unmoving Graduates.
He took out from an inner recess of his garb a fine metallic powder, grasping a torch from the wall, and held it below Dun fi’s feet.
--We shall break your Silence, Dun fi. You shall scream like a true Loosu caught in the dwelling fire!—
Two Graduates gently pulled the Matrishizu away as Ginse blew a handful of the powder into the torch. It exploded into a fury, the flames running up Dun fi’s lower limbs and back. Dun fi closed his eyes and focussed on Go-na, refusing to scream.
--Speak, Loosu! Or return to the Elements from which you came!—Ginse’s concentrated fury gripped him as he added a dancing blue strike to the fire.
The pain was almost too much for Dun fi; he felt a cool soothing touch of the true Go-na begin to caress him into sound quietness. His head slumped forward, eyes catching the hot fire that emitted from Ginse’s burning eyes.
--Gin Gin!—The Matrishizu’s voice broke through the flames. She pointed towards the army of Graduates who had begun a collected gasp of shock as their forest of torches went out. A cold wind blew into the Seventh School, dust flinging up in the air. Soon the only light came from Ginse’s madly burning torch.
--Be prepared!—Ginse howled with maniacal energy at the graduates that came to his side.—They are coming to collect their own.—
Fear had entered with the darkness and the whirling wind. It finally concentrated upon the lone light of Ginse’s torch, obscuring it the cloud of its grasp, taking Ginse with it.
A ringing sound of sharp hammer blows upon the metal chains caught Dun fi’s attention.
--Come.—whispered the welcome sound of Lim ki’s voice.—Before they notice!—She was aided by a grim and silent Zhi dime.
Dun fi fell to the ground, surprised that his limbs could catch his weight.
--Hold him.—Zhi dime said through the roar of the wind. They moved back through the deep darkness and the confusion, and away.
--Gonakhan. I have left the Way. It should not be permissible for me to follow you any longer.—
Dun fi’s burnt form was bent forward over the rock upon which the two sat. His scarred feet rested in the cool and gentle stream of water that passed through the trees in that part of the Western forest. Salve from those silver green trees, and the healing arts of the Signs, had already cured the worst damage done by the Gokhan of the Seventh School.
Lu Mīn spoke.
--Now you know what was meant by the words.—
The worst danger of the Way
Is the desire to turn back.
--You desired to see the old restored, that is always a trap.—
Lu Mīn brought a handful of the cool water up to Dun fi’s mouth to give him to drink.
--See. Were I to try and bring you more water, it would not be the same water. The flow has taken that old water away from us.—
Dun fi put his lips into the water. A relieving cool spread, replacing the burning sensations that were the memories of the fire. His face relaxed.
--Gonakhan, what about when the old things are better than the new?—
The Gonakhan brought his hand down again and splashed water up into the air.
--The things you speak of have nothing to do with the Way.
A building does not cover it.
A person cannot memorise it.
A book cannot record it.
In the Circle, there will always be good things and bad things, worse things and better things. One thing inevitably leads to the next. Only in the Signs is it possible to step outside and see All things at once.—
The Gonakhan directed a splash at Dun fi’s serious face, which had returned to its former fullness with the healing power of the water, though the shadow of burns remained.
--Dun fi, have you forgotten the joy of the Mountain? The wonder of its sight?—
Dun fi smiled through the spray upon his face.
--I think often of its wonders, but for me it contained no Joy. I was looking for you.—
Lu Mīn nodded.
--Yes, you have always pursued me instead of the Signs. I have been a great distraction towards your progress in the Signs.—
--Don’t say that, Gonakhan.—Dun fi grasped Lu Mīn’s arm.—Without you, I would never have progressed at all.—
--Be that as it may, Silent One.—Lu Mīn smiled slyly as he covered Dun fi’s hand with his own.—You have not yet gone as far as you can.—
--I will go still farther then, Gonakhan. And I will keep going till there is no more inner wind to propel me forward.—
Lu Mīn patted the hand gently and kindly, but said nothing more.
For many cycles thereafter, Dun fi, Lim ki, and Lu Mīn dwelled in the western forest. There, they performed greater and greater Signs. Few will ever know about these Signs, except the wild Jo-ri, and none shall know the paths to that place, except they follow the Signs.
Although he never left the western forest, Lu Mīn occasionally travelled deep in the Signs to other locations.
Sometimes he spent many passages of Se-Lim deep in the Signs, in the position of Go-na, as on the Mountain. He rarely spoke of what he saw or heard thereafter, and none asked.
On rare passages, a figure would come walking in the forest towards the dwelling places of the three. Shime or Shizu, they were often very young, though some were elders, a Shikhan or a hunter of Waachi, a merchant with Nei-di habits, or a landlaborer with dirty faces. They would look at Dun fi and Lim ki as one looks upon a stranger in an unknown place. But Lu Mīn they recognised and greeted as an old friend.
It would not be correct to say that these visitors built a village in that part of the western forest, much less a town—Many left as they came. But they did form a kind of community, with meals and dwellings dug into the roots of the trees. Many slept outside, for Se-Lim constantly smiled upon that place, and the travelling water always kept it green and replenished.
The ones that came spoke little, for above all things they sought out the Gonakhan to hear what he might say. Though they might wait, all had a chance to meet with him in the secluded place he sat, slept, and occasionally ate.
No visitor was the same after this meeting. Some would sit in the style of the Gonakhan, seeking Signs. Some became active, doing the labors that largely fell to Dun fi and Lim ki, finding therein a certain peace and harmony that also allowed for the seeking of Signs. Some returned to their own dwellings, carrying what they had learned with them. Still others left, desiring to forget all that they had learned, heavy from the knowing of it.
Only one came known to Dun fi and Lim ki: The Gokhan Zhi dime.
When Zhi dime appeared, Dun fi was sitting over the fire warming the firstfood. Lim ki was returning from the harvest. She, whose hair had turned silver, dropped the fruits gathered in her arms to embrace him.
The elder Shime was bent over his walking stick. He had long whiskers, and his robe looked worn.
--It is a long journey to this place, young ones. Perhaps you can offer an elder a cup and some of that firstfood?—
Lu Mīn, in the position of Go-na, did not join in the festivity of that passage, nor the next three. Lim-ki and Dun fi with the help of the others, who always kept a quiet reserve towards Lu Mīn’s first followers, acted in the way of servants more than friends.
On the second passage of their reunion, Zhi dime, who looked younger now that he was clean and in good company, being ready for conversation, spoke like the babbling brook.
--I will not need to tell much of what has occurred since the Gonakhan saved you, Dun fi.—Zhi nodded at them both, a cup of the strong beverage of the forest rested upon his elder’s paunch.—It inspired a great fear in everyone. Ginse has now become more powerful even as an Elder. Some have taken to calling him the Elder of elders. He has admitted Nei-di into the Seventh School to play with herbs, rocks, metals, and other substances in hopes of increasing their power. There are words about Nei-di joining the other schools as well.—
--Nei-di in the Schools? I cannot believe it.—Dun fi shook his head.
--What of the Matrishizu?—Lim ki, who had grown accustomed to the drink of the forest, poured a second.
--After Dun fi’s escape, she developed an hysteria. She became mad for blood, seeing the shadows of Waygoers in every corner. Only Ginse can calm her fears, which are said to become very powerful in Se-Lim’s absence. If you walk close to her dwelling at that hour, you can hear her screams—even through the Nei-di walls of stone. When they aren’t her screams, they are the screams of others, held enthralled to her tortured desires.—
--How have you remained alive through all this?—Lim ki continued, attempting to pour Zhi a drink, which at first he refused, then accepted.
--Twice I stood before her with my life in my hands, but on both occasions Ginse came to my aid. There was a great confusion on that particular absence of Se-Lim when we rescued Dun fi, and none can recall its details now. I presume that was part of his working of it.—Zhi dime pointed at the Gonakhan who remained beyond hearing and sight.—I have remained among the living as always I have, by keeping my eyes focused on my tasks, doing my duties to all, and befriending my best students.—
Zhi dime sighed.—Many of them have passed through the Seventh School now. It is now a requirement in order to become a Graduate. I remain respected for my knowledge of the old ways, though I am the last but two of the Gokhanse who have no training in the Signs.—
--How could you have found your way to this place, then, Gokhanzhi?—Dun fi asked.
--I was invited by the Gonakhan, who showed me.—Zhi dime replied. His gruff voice had turned soft.—It seems that I am to become a Waygoer, after all.—