DargonZine 24, Issue 1

Facing Fears

Seber 14, 1018


“How have they driven away their fear?”

Cefn an’Derin paced back and forth in his small library. His gaze swept back and forth across his collection of books, scrolls, tablets, and other documents. He knew that the answer he was looking for was in one of his many manuscripts, but which one?

Cefn had witnessed a man dying in the street, right before his eyes, apparently from sheer fear. He had also witnessed very unusual behavior from a number of the city’s infamous “shadow boys”, behavior that indicated a pathological recklessness. On one side was an all-consuming fear, on the other, a total lack of it. Neither was natural. Cefn had known fear, and he had ruled it. That was his training. This was something different.

These thoughts triggered a memory in his mind: a memory of something that connected these events. He knew that in his library was a manuscript that would explain it. But which one? Cefn began to look. He had many tomes, and many indices. Menes turned to bells as he searched. As he searched a clay tablet caught his eye. He picked it up. It was an ancient artifact that he had found himself, buried in the ruins of a city in the distant desert. It told, in a long-dead language, of a secret sect that existed to maintain order in the world of magic. Cefn grinned. He knew the tablet spoke the truth, for he had been taught by that hidden cult. What it spoke of in tones of awe and dread he recalled with gratitude.

There are many ways to access power, and many ways to use it. Cefn had learned methods that could reveal to him the answers he sought. But with those answers would come a price Cefn was loathe to pay. Surely a riddle this simple would not require such drastic measures. Simple sweat and toil would suffice. Laying aside the tablet he persisted, moving throughout his collection, examining years of collected knowledge and experience. He saw many things he had forgotten, and he remembered many days and weeks that had passed away. He did not find what he was looking for, however. Frustrated, he considered the hard methods, but again turned away. There were still other methods.

Cefn reached into a fine wooden cabinet and withdrew a scroll. He unrolled it and held it before his face. It was blank. The scroll could not tell him the answer, Cefn knew, but perhaps it could jostle his memory and help him find it. Taking a deep breath, focused his mind on the place where he had been trained, so long ago. He visualized it as best he could, picturing the rooms and aisles of that facility. As he remembered, he began to speak words of power. As he did, he could see an image forming on the scroll. It was one of the classrooms he had spent so much time in as a child. As the image solidified, Cefn turned around, still holding the scroll before him. The image wrapped around him until it was as if he were actually in the room, as a student again.

“Cefn! Concentrate!”

Cefn looked up to see his teacher, Elder Birre. He immediately knew that was the wrong thing to do. There came the clatter of metal against glass as the delicate arrangement of goblets and knives he had been constructing suddenly collapsed. He was barely able to prevent the goblets from shattering. As an adult this task would have been trivial, but Cefn was in the memory now, and he was a student again. He looked up at his teacher, feeling that familiar trepidation once again.

“No, no,” Birre fumed. “‘Concentrate’ means *don’t* look at me!” He sighed. “This is a simple lesson! You’ve mastered all these skills individually! We’re merely orchestrating them together!”

“Yes, Master Birre,” the young Cefn replied. The adult Cefn was still there, but he was feeling the young Cefn, watching and listening inside the memory. In a distracted sort of way, the older Cefn wondered briefly what this memory had to do with the library, but he had used the memory scroll technique before, and while all magic was unpredictable, he trusted this particular method.

In the memory Elder Birre sighed. “Straight, so do it again. Concentrate on the project this time!”

“Yes, Master Birre.”

“Ah, Elder Birre!” Cefn glanced up to see the jocular form of Master Shawlp appear in the doorway. “I’m so glad I found you. Master Ilowen asked me to tell you, if I saw you, that he would like to speak to you.”

“Ah!” Birre stood suddenly. “That’s right. I should go.” He turned to Cefn as he was leaving. “Go to your room and drain some darih-wae into the crystal wall, then return here and try again. I’ll be back after a bit.”

“Yes, Master Birre.”

Cefn and Shawlp watched Birre leave. Cefn stood and began to collect the objects as the older man watched.

“You know, I think I know of a yilred that tells of how to do almost exactly that,” Shawlp commented.

“You do?” asked the young Cefn hopefully. The older Cefn winced at his younger self’s naivete but had no choice but to continue in the memory.

“Indeed,” continued Shawlp. “I seem to recall reading it in a scroll just the other day, just before I returned it to the library.”

“The library?” Both Cefns perked up a bit at that. Shawlp seemed not to notice.

“Yes, the library.” Shawlp looked up the corridor. “Elder Birre will be gone for a while. Why don’t you run up to the library and see if you can fetch that scroll for me? Someone there will know of it.”

“Yes, Master Shawlp!” Cefn was moving towards the door before he even finished speaking.

Even as a lad Cefn had liked the library. As a young man Cefn liked the assistant librarian even more. She had been unlike the other Elders. She had not seemed as focused or intense. She was slight and graceful. The most amazing thing about her, to the young Cefn at least, had been her manner of dress. She had eschewed the floor-length robes the other Elders wore, and instead preferred short, colorful outfits that usually did little, if anything, to conceal the outlines of her body, and in fact often revealed quite a bit more than mere outlines.

Cefn an’Derin had lived among the Elders, who helped him as he wrestled with the wild magic that lived within him. In addition to this strange power, Cefn also struggled with all the normal conflicts and desires of a lad of fifteen summers. His studies had mostly kept him isolated and occupied, but this did not always keep his restless mind from the natural curiosity of adolescence. More than once he had wondered what lay under those beautifully dyed fabrics and intricate laces the librarian wore. In the memory he ran back to his room, deposited the goblets and knives, then sprinted to the library, taking the older Cefn along.

As he passed through the ornate entrance to the main reading room, the young Cefn slowed to a walk. Covering the walls were intricately carved friezes and faded murals, and there were benches scattered about. The older Cefn knew that normally there would be people reading here, but to the younger Cefn it had appeared empty. Cefn passed through that area and headed for the main workroom, the place in the library where the librarians worked on restoring and repairing old documents and books. He saw no one. The younger Cefn paused, looking about. The library was a rather large place.

A splash of color and gold caught his eye. A large book lay open on a table beside pots of ink and leaves of gold. It was well illustrated with very vivid images of people in very dire circumstances. Cefn’s hand seemed to move of its own accord, reaching out to lift the pages, taking care not to lose the current place. The book seemed to be a catalog of dangerous magics and artifacts. There was a description of lycanthropy, a warning against necromancy, as well as a description of an ancient device to drain away a man’s fear. The older Cefn wanted to stop right there, but in the memory the younger Cefn read through a dozen or so pages before he replaced the book and moved on.

Leaving the workshop behind Cefn moved out into what the librarians referred to as “the bins”. This was where most of the documents were kept. It was a dim place of musty odors and shadows. The young Cefn wandered down one of the main aisles, the older Cefn a bit at a loss of as to why he was still caught in the spell after having found what he was looking for. The young wanderer hadn’t gotten far when a hint of movement caught his eye. He slipped down a cross aisle just in time to see a colorfully dressed figure turn a corner ahead.

Even years later and leagues away Cefn could feel his young heart skip. There are mysteries that every lad of a certain age longs to plumb without even knowing what they actually are. These urges defy logic or reason. Without really knowing why, the young Cefn moved quickly but quietly in the direction of that furtive figure. He had almost reached the corner when a flash of color from his left drew his eye. Through a latticework wall he could see the assistant librarian moving in the opposite direction. Cefn doubled back, catching the occasional glimpse of her. Her arms were moving about her, and Cefn realized she was taking off some sort of jacket. Then the lattice wall turned solid. Cefn hurried back to the corner and around, but when he got to the other side she was not to be seen.

The young Cefn wandered up that aisle, with the older Cefn noting that this area was particularly dusty, even cobwebby. Some parts of the library were used more than others, he knew. He wondered what was kept here. The young Cefn reached an alcove where there was a simple desk. This desk was clean, and on it rested a multi-hued jacket. Under it was a pair of simple shoes. The older Cefn felt a tug at his memory when he saw those; the young Cefn kept moving, checking each of the aisles for his prey. When he reached the end of the aisle he came across another such table. On it rested a red and yellow blouse.

The older Cefn’s heart began beating faster. The spell was preventing him from recalling the end of this event, but even as an adult the idea that she had left behind several items of clothing was very potent. He had no idea how much time he had spent in the library, but somehow that wasn’t all that important. The idea of the librarian shedding her clothes drew him on, both as an adult and as a youth. He couldn’t leave now. He had to press on.

Cefn turned the corner and walked down the aisle. An odd sound, very faint, came from his right. When he looked he only saw dusty bins. Another sound came from ahead to his left. More bins. Still he walked on. There were odd scents in the air, and Cefn was sure the light was somehow different. He passed a potted plant, the first he had seen in “the bins”. The aisle turned to the right beside another desk. This desk had another potted plant on it, as well as something that Cefn was sure was a blue and green skirt. The faintest of breezes touched his face. The strangeness of the whole event was pressing on him, along with the fear of discovery, but still he couldn’t resist the pull, the lure she presented.

Cefn was almost ready for the sight that greeted him as he turned the next corner. The aisle was lined with potted plants, normal sized at first, growing in size as the aisle progressed until the far end was almost entirely wreathed in green. The leaves of the plants waved in a breeze that had no obvious source. Movement was there everywhere, even though Cefn was unable to spot any of the actors. Again, directly ahead, the figure of the librarian turned around the corner and vanished. Cefn hurried ahead, quietly. At the far end the bins were still visible beneath the greenery, but just barely. A pair of cloth strips were hanging from a low branch. The young Cefn had no idea what they were, but when he touched them they were warm. The older Cefn knew what they were, and his breathing deepened slightly.

Cefn turned slowly around the corner. As he now expected, all was green. Now he could see what was moving – it was the plants themselves. Except now that he stopped and actually looked at the leaves, he could see that they had writing on them, as if they were actually the leaves of a book. There was a path through the plants, which were trees now, with strange sunlight filtering down from above. Sensing that his quarry was now near, Cefn did not follow the path. Instead he cut off to the side and quickly scaled a small hillock. At the precipice he stopped on hands and knees and parted the foliage until he could see.

The librarian was seated crosslegged at the side of a stone-lined pool. She was dressed only in a short, plain tunic that barely reached her hips. Crossing her arms over her breast, she began to gaze at her reflection.  She sighed heavily, allowing the day’s tension to escape from her visage.  Her mouth relaxed and her eyes closed briefly.  She drew in a deep breath slowly and exhaled forcefully.  Cefn watched the librarian begin a routine he himself had performed a thousand times.

The process was simple.  She would release her worries, let go of distractions, and let her mind wander.  Thoughts would surface.  She would listen, letting each one pass without judgment or censorship. Leaning forward until she could see her reflection, the librarian began to chant the age-old mantra the Elders taught all initiates.

“All is not self, self is for all. Mind is not all; all have not mind. Fear is not all; fear will not rule. All is not self, self is for all. Mind is not all; all have not mind. Fear is not all; fear will not …”

“And what do you know of fear?”

Cefn jumped. He stared at the tableau before him. The voice had come from the reflection, which was now staring back at the librarian with an attitude and posture that was independent, sentient.

“Come forth,” the librarian said calmly. Suddenly the image in the water rushed upward, erupting from the pool in a fountain. It was a twin to the librarian, identical in form, color, and dress, but alive, separate. It stood, water pouring off it, immediately before the librarian.

“What do you know of fear?” it repeated.

“All is not self,” the librarian began to chant. “Self is for all. Mind is not all …”

“Mind,” the shape hissed, writhing sinuously, its face twisted in contempt. “You can lose your mind in this place. You can become like — an animal!”

Suddenly the figure was reptilian in aspect. It lashed out with a talon-terminated arm, slashing the librarian, shredding her tunic and spraying blood through the air. The librarian recoiled for a moment, then leaned forward and seized the beast. She throttled it as it bit and clawed at her. The librarian continued to chant.

“… self is for all. Mind is not all; all have not mind. Fear is not all; fear will not rule. All is not self …”

“All?” hissed the beast. “There is no all.” Suddenly the beast was gone. In its place was the librarian again, but dressed now in military finery, the insignia of high rank on her epaulets. “The masses are cattle. We have the knowledge; we have the power! We should rule!”

The librarian maintained her grip and continued to fight. The figure drew knives and slashed and punched. As she struggled the librarian continued to chant.

“… is not all. Mind is not all; all have not mind. Fear is not all …”

“And what do you know of fear?” The figure looked again like the librarian. “What do you know of responsibility?” A fell glow grew in its eyes, and its voice deepened and grew. Lighting crackled across its fingertips and sulfurous blasts of flame burst from its nostrils. “You will use your power to rule, to steal, to destroy!” The demon laid hands on the librarian and blue arcs of power crackled and snapped. A sudden wind howled through the trees. The librarian did not release her grip, nor end her chant.

“… self is for all. Mind is not all; all have not mind. Fear is not all; fear will not rule. All is not self …”

And now the figure was her own again.

“You rule your mind, your fear, your ambition,” the doppelganger intoned. “You live to serve. But it’s meaningless.” As Cefn watched the figure aged, wrinkling and shrinking, its voice growing old and faint. “All your effort will be gone in the winds of time, wasted, futile.”

“All effort is fleeting, and life inconsequential,” the librarian replied, continuing the mantra past the version used by novices and moving into the version taught to older students. “My life belongs to the ages.” The figure shriveled into a dried cadaver and crumbled, the ashes blowing away in the wind. As it did so the librarian opened her hand, allowing the last of the dust to flow through her fingers and away. As she did so she spoke, adding in words that the young Cefn had not yet heard: “I release my soul to the wind.”

A sudden gust of wind filled the air with leaves. Cefn covered his face with his arm, to protect his eyes. When he lowered his arm, the greenery was gone. He was no longer in a forest; instead he was now perched on top a wooden cabinet crouched behind a small potted fern. He blinked, dazed. He was at the end of a long aisle of “the bins” that ended at a plain stone wall, at the base of which was a simple fountain that emptied into a small, shallow basin. The assistant librarian sat crosslegged beside it. She was staring up at him with a calm, expectant expression. Her tunic, which a moment before had been a shredded wreck of bloody fabric, was now again whole, although soaked with sweat.

“And you, Cefn an’Derin?” she asked. Somehow the older Cefn knew she was speaking to both of him. “Did you find what you came seeking?”

“Uh, …” the young Cefn stammered, climbing down from his awkward perch, “I — well …”

“I see.” She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, then unfolded her long legs and stood. Turning with a dignity that belied her state of disheveled undress, she headed back up the aisle. Without looking back, she spoke. “Come with me now, Cefn.”  The younger man stood still, temporarily paralyzed by her physical graces and poise. “Now.” The order snapped him to action, and he ran to catch up with her.

“What happened back there?” the older Cefn heard himself ask.

She did not dignify him with a look. “Your invasion of my midday meditation drew you into my glamor,” she said, striding elegantly back the way they had come. “As a young man you seek to find those things that are not yet open to you.” She looked directly at him now, and he turned away. The older Cefn could feel his young cheeks flaming with embarrassment. “As you grow, more and more things will be opened to you, and you will need to know how you will deal with the new power these openings will bring. As with the chant, first we must learn to control ourselves: our mind, then our fear. There is much to fear. We fear loss of our minds, loss of our morality, loss of our humanity, loss of our very lives. If we are to serve the world, we must control ourselves.” The older man echoed those words in his own mind.

By this time they had reached the corner. Gone here also were the plants, save for a few small houseplants. In place of the tree there was now a simple desk. On it laid the two strips of fabric. The librarian stopped there, looking down at the mysterious articles.

“You have much potential, young an’Derin. You also are in much peril. You will need to learn when to walk forward, and when to hang back. Some things you are not always permitted to know. Yes?” She glanced at him, and the young Cefn nodded vigorously. “Some lessons are learned the easy way. Others can only be learned hard. One day you may think the days of learning lessons are behind you, but that is never true, for to serve we must always be ready to learn, even to the very end. Remember, we do not live to take from the world , but to give to the world, even our very lives.” With this she fixed him with her gaze, and he felt her ire, and cringed. She looked away, up the aisle and then off into the bins. Cefn somehow knew that she was looking at something not too far away that he could not see.  “If you wish, the scroll that Master Shawlp borrowed recently is sitting in a small brass bucket on the front desk in the work area. You may take it back to him, and he will dispose of it afterward.” She smoothed her hands across her tunic, then lifted it her nose and sniffed. “This is wet and soiled.” With a single movement she stripped it up and over her head, then threw it in his face. “Wash it, along with the rest of my laundry and linens. By morning. Now go.” With that she took up the first of the fabric bands. The young Cefn did not wait to see what she did with it.

***

The scroll in Cefn’s hands was again blank. Cefn, again an adult, nodded silently, honoring the memory of a lesson given so long ago. Feeling chastised both in the past and the present, he rolled the scroll and set it aside. Doffing his cloak and his jacket, he settled himself crosslegged onto the floor. He closed his eyes and began to chant the words of the Elder’s creed, as the librarian had so long ago. Anyone watching would have seen nothing but a solitary figure, struggling within himself, and would have no explanation for the sweat that was soon rolling down his neck and soaking into his tunic. It was several menes before he breathed the last stanza, and slowly stood. On trembling legs he resumed his search. Soon had a familiar bound volume in his hands. He opened it up to colorful illustrations. He uttered a simple word of thanks to the librarian long ago, and began to read about the artifact known as the “crucible of fear”.

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3 Comments

  • Awesome! Very well written — I laughed, I cried, I voted Republican. Good job!

    Yeah, I really feel Naomi and I outdid ourselves on this story.

  • Melinda McKnight

    Very riveting! Ready for more!

    • I’m so glad you liked it! I am working on a couple of new Dargon stories, hopefully to come out soon!

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