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The Son of Nepal

The Son of Nepal

–The Sons of Thunder–

The Son of Nepal

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any likeness to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is coincidental.

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Copyright

© 2015 Jeremiah Sylvester

All rights reserved

Shakespir Edition

Contents

DEDICATION 6

PROLOGUE 7

CHAPTER 1 11

Alone with my thoughts 11

CHAPTER 2 15

The caged bird escapes 15

CHAPTER 3 19

Here comes Mama! 19

CHAPTER 4 22

Into the nothingness 22

CHAPTER 5 24

The song of hope 24

CHAPTER 6 30

Johannan and Ayushi 30

CHAPTER 7 36

A spring of life 36

CHAPTER 8 39

Visions of red and gold 39

CHAPTER 9 43

Son of Nepal 43

CHAPTER 10 48

Speak, Johannan! 48

CHAPTER 11 52

A tone that breached the stillness 52

CHAPTER 12 56

I am the be all and end all! 56

CHAPTER 13 59

I call to you! 59

CHAPTER 14 64

A crown of stars 64

CHAPTER 15 67

Abduction in the wilderness 67

CHAPTER 16 73

A peculiar figure 73

CHAPTER 17 81

The stench of destruction 81

CHAPTER 18 88

Remembering him 88

CHAPTER 19 91

Stand to your feet! 91

CHAPTER 20 97

The sorcerer 97

CHAPTER 21 103

The Everplanes 103

CHAPTER 22 112

The request to chasten Europe 112

CHAPTER 23 119

Even the river bows down! 119

CHAPTER 24 126

Come, Mama! 126

CHAPTER 25 130

The Wandering Spirit 130

CHAPTER 26 134

The whisps 134

CHAPTER 27 140

A glimpse into the future 140

CHAPTER 28 146

My Ayushi 146

CHAPTER 29 151

The old traveller returns 151

CHAPTER 30 155

Back on the mountain 155

EPILOGUE 158

GLOSSARY 160

Acknowledgments 162

DEDICATION

Dedicated to my late grandmother Emerata Sylvester and my wonderful bundle of joy, little Miss Tigger aka

Shai-Lee Sylvester.

The first book of an author is like a companion through life. It has been there in my highs and many lows, has seen many come and go, and has been deleted twice by my mischievous ball of fur, Tigz. I never knew that cats could select all, delete, and save. Well . . . here’s to Tigz: without you, this book could have been completed a year earlier.

PROLOGUE

“State your case, Aliqxis!”

“Master, you promised that you will keep my people from harm. You promised me!”

“And have I not spared your people for the sake of that which was promised?”

“Wicked people have increased in the land, and Teki will have the case he needs to chasten the lands of Asia. The good will pay for the deeds of the unjust—unless something is done.”

“What is it that you are asking of me, Aliqxis?”

“Send one of the two sons that you promised to me and my people a thousand years ago. Send him that they may restore balance, or Teki will destroy my beloved people.”

“You have asked much of me.”

“Forgive me, my Master.”

“I have weighed the heart of a youngling in the lands to the south, one with your blood flowing through him. He will be the one, but he is not yet ready.”

“Master, if nothing is done soon, we will lose them all: men, women, and our children. Will you forfeit all for the sake of one?”

“Very well, Aliqxis, I shall hasten his destiny. I shall go into the land and afflict the youngling with a burden for the sake of your people. He will become a man of great sorrow and pain, at your request.”

“Yes, Master, this is the way it has to be.”

******

It was a fair morning as usual. A woman stood in the river washing her clothes with her little boy. From the sides of her eyes, she caught the ambling movement of the old traveller, the same one who visited two years ago. He wore a hat so wide that it sheltered the basket he carried on his back.

“You again!” said the woman.

“Oh?” reciprocated a deep tone. The old traveller chuckled, “How is the boy treating you?”

“He’s getting on well. We were just washing our clothes together. He seems to enjoy helping me—don’t you, son?” The little boy nodded, and the old traveller closed in and laughed, extending his arm to ruffle the boy’s hair.

“See, I told you he would settle down.”

The woman stood on the balls of her feet and angled herself to peep over his shoulder. “So, what have you got in the basket?”

“Someone special. She’s here to meet your little one.”

“So that’s it, you have brought me another child.”

As he was about to remove the basket from his back, the old man paused, “A blind girl. You do not want her?”

“Oh no, no! I will take care of her and treat her as my very own. The poor thing, where did you find her?”

“On a roadside, far from here—abandoned, of course. Plucked this little flower up from the ground and threw her into the basket of beans. We’ve been travelling companions for many weeks now.”

The woman expressed a confused demeanour. “But she’s such a pretty child, isn’t she? Why would . . .” She extended her hands to embrace the child. “Just give her to me. Me and Johannan will take good care of her, won’t we, Johannan?” The little boy smiled and nodded with enthusiasm.

“He seems quite excited about having a new playmate.”

“What is the child’s name?” said the woman.

“I’ve grown accustomed to the name Ayushi.” The traveller kneeled down to take the girl out of the basket. “Say hello, little Ayushi. This woman will be taking care of you from now on.” Ayushi gripped onto his forearms and remained quiet. The traveller chuckled, “Err, perhaps she needs more time. The two children are quite the set, they have some kind of special bond. You may not understand this, but it was the will of the heavens to bring her here. You three belong together for some reason of fate.”

“The will of the heavens? I’ve never heard of such things before,” said the woman.

“Yes, as soon as I picked her up, the wind began to blow in the direction of this village. You have to see it to understand: the grass, the trees, everything bending and pointing in this direction. And the moment I got here, it stopped.”

The woman repaid him with her most delightful smile, “Well, I will raise them as my very own. You can be sure of that, old traveller.”

The man’s wide sedge hat tilted up towards the sky. “I know you long for a family, but these two children are very different; they will not be like brother and sister. I can sense it—it seems to be the will of the heavens.”

“Let’s get her out of the basket. Come, Johannan, come and introduce yourself to Ayushi.”

Johannan walked over and took hold of Ayushi’s hand, and they both giggled. The woman clasped her hands in admiration. “Wonderful! They like each other.”

The old traveller swivelled to face them and caressed his bearded chin. “Perhaps she doesn’t need much time at all.”

The nearby trees began to clatter; the rapid movements of the woman’s eyes exposed that she was surprised. “That’s a very strong gust of wind. We don’t get winds like that round here.”

“See! Did I not tell you?” The man pointed to the sky. “It is the will of the heavens. The sky is rejoicing that you are finally together. It could well be that the heavens have been waiting for this day to come.” He wagged his finger at her, “Great fortune I predict.”

He hoisted his basket onto his back. “Well, that’s my job done then. I shall be off.”

The woman laughed, “Just like that. You are a very mysterious old man.”

The Account of Johannan—1460

CHAPTER 1

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Alone with my thoughts

High up in the Himalayas of Nepal, the whistling cries of the falcon proclaimed its dominion over the sky as it scanned the wilderness for food. The lands of Asia welcomed the heavens where the blend of delicate blues met the dapple greens of nature along the horizon. The coarse organic outlines of the great mountains, crowned with a diadem of sparkling white snow and a halo of clouds, were a symbol of benevolence from an almighty god.

The herds rested sound in the bosom of the hills not far from the winding serpent of crystal that crafted the afternoon river.

Charged with the protection of life, the vast moving islands of vapour shielded the eyes of the earth from the sun that demanded respect from those that gazed upon him.

There, high up in the Himalayas where the earth reached for the sky, was a free spirit. A wandering young man, an Ambassador of the Soburin, who scarcely was caught in the same place more than once. The young man went by the name of Johannan.

His eyes locked on the clusters of white clouds leisurely floating through the azure sky. The clean smell of crisp mountain air cooled his throat as it filled his lungs.

Weary from his travels, Johannan rested on a smooth rock while nibbling the stem of a length of grass. The towering blades of green and brown bowed before the majestic shrills of the upward drafts. He recalled his travels on the lands beneath, and how long it took him to climb to the summit. Places that took days to travel seemed only to be minutes away when he gazed into the everlasting greens of the lands below.

For hours, Johannan had been fixed in a tranquil state of mind, but the sudden noises of bashing hooves from the mountain goats clapping against the rocks broke a spell of stillness over him. He turned and saw a tribe of goats feeding on the wild grass as the young ones played with each other. The scene strummed on the strings of his memory, reminding him of all his childhood friends and all the loved ones and wonderful things he had left behind in his village. He could smell the warm, dense, spicy fragrances of dal bhat that Mama prepared, the hot wisps of vapours that escaped and filled the room when he broke into the skins of the unleavened bread that she baked. Johannan licked his lower lip; he could almost taste the memory. It had been a long time since he had tasted some good home cooking.

He longed for the days of waking up to the clapping echoes of Mama beating wet clothes against the river rocks. The noises annoyed him back then, but it was something he’d gladly welcome back. The simplicity of his life then was something he took for granted. Mama often warned about the comforts of love and the danger that lies in taking it for granted.

Johannan reminisced about Nanda, the storyteller, and Raman, the giggler who always found humour in his jokes. He remembered partaking with the mischievous Ketan in his silly antics. Ketan was always getting up to no good; he was remarkably skilled at aggravating his elderly father. He recalled a time Ketan decided to hide his father’s goats from him, and another scenario where he dyed his father’s chickens bright blue with the dye his mother used for cooking. He turned his head as if to focus more on another area of open sky, and he envisioned . . . her. He breathed in as much air as he could. She was the reason he was out here, far away from home, travelling the wilderness night and day. She was the reason he met him, the Soburin.

The vision was of a young, beautiful Asian woman sitting on a small wooden stool. His eyes opened wider with an expression of awe and his heart raced.

An upward gust of Himalayan glory covered him, the blade of grass he chewed on arched, and his long charcoal-toned hair loosely danced like a blown flame to the wails of the passing winds. He could see her long, black hair falling to her waist, a benevolent smile on her face. The subtle aroma of rose oils that Mama massaged into her skin filling the house with her presence. Despite the cool brushes of the wind, he could feel the waves of heat from his heart moving within him. He hugged himself, gripping his shoulders; he could almost feel her gentle embrace. Johannan stretched his hands to the sky as if to touch the vision of her with the tip of his finger. My beloved Ayushi, you mean so much to me, and I have been gone for years, so long. I wish my journey would come to an end, so I could be with you again.

He closed his eyes and gently placed his hands over his heart. When I return, your sight will be cured as he promised me, and we will get married as I have promised you since we were children playing by the riverside. Johannan stared at the goats playing with each other so blissfully, enjoying a freedom he longed for.

Even the wild animals are with their loved ones.

A deep sigh of sorrow escaped his lips, and a tear freed itself and swivelled down his cheek.

I wonder what she’s doing now. Probably home, outside playing away on that old flute I made for her when we were little.

He reminisced about how they used to play the flute together. Raman and the children of the village would dance to their cheerful melodies. He caught the escaped tear with the hem of his cloak. The wails of the winds fell to a silence. It would be the greatest manifestation of joy if my Ayushi could have her sight by our wedding day.

He remembered how he felt when he first met the Soburin—the excitement, the adventure, and the beginning of his greatest sorrow.

“I remember the day I left home,” he said just above a whisper.

CHAPTER 2

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The caged bird escapes

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It was the day it all began, when he took up another challenge to search for a cure for his beloved. His deep love for Ayushi burned ardently in his spirit. He couldn’t rest until this torment, this burning desire was quenched with the waters of fulfilment. He saw a vision of her sitting down and laughing with him, listening to his humorous adventures with Raman, Ketan, and Nanda. “Ayushi,” he said as the sorrow from missing such happiness burdened his heart.

“When—when will the Soburin lead me back home to you? It has been three long years already. I don’t know how much of this I can endure,” he said, adjusting himself to lay comfortably on a rock and tucking his hands under his head. He could see a group of[_ _]bar-headed geese soaring around in tight circles upon the small gyres of wind. He knew what the gyrating wind was: the Master was present, watching over him, keeping the great promise he made that day.

Perhaps the Master is listening to me. Perhaps he may feel compassion if I just vent my feelings. Perhaps he’d let me go home.

Johannan opened his mouth and poured out his heart into the air, “Master, I feel so alone.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I miss her, and I can’t wait for the day when I can go back to her. I remembered the day you took me away years ago. To us, you were just a spirit that was last seen in the wilderness of Gobi, hundreds of years ago, but I dared to look for you—the only one who can cure my Ayushi. Please, Master, I miss my home.”

He stretched his hand to the sky, “Let me—let me return home to my family and friends.” His hand fell to cover his face as he began to weep. The responding silence made it feel as though his words were falling on deaf ears.

Johannan played it through his mind, fresh as the day it happened, the very moment he left her. He pictured himself talking to her and getting all his supplies ready. She was sitting down on the old wooden stool by the front of the door. “Ayushi, I have found a way that can cure your blindness. I was told that a spirit with great healing power was last seen in the deserts of Gobi near mainland China. I must go and seek him out.”

Ayushi just wanted Johannan to stay and not to worry about her so much. What if some sad fate befell him when he was away on one of his journeys to find this cure? Johannan was unshakably convinced that one day she will be cured from her horrible blindness. He couldn’t leave her like that, not even at her own request. Ayushi, being so used to her blindness, didn’t share the vision as passionately as Johannan did; after all, she was born blind. She never experienced what it was like to see. She couldn’t let him go, especially if it could cost him his life. She refused to imagine what it would be like to live without him, being in the world and knowing he was gone forever. The idea was so frightening, it was like standing on the edge of a crumbling precipice whilst peering into a bottomless abyss.

Johannan was driven by the picture that glowed so beautifully in his mind. The vision of them getting married and Ayushi being able to see. The whole village celebrating and throwing flowers over them on their wedding day. The loud sounds of banging drums and great, rich smells of roti, herbs, and dal. He imagined himself with Ayushi, breaking the roti and, as tradition stipulated, dipping it together in a single bowl. It was that vision that drove Johannan away from his home, to places he had never been before, to search for a cure. As long as it was there, haunting him, terrorising him, and burning ardently and infinitely in his heart, he could never settle down.

Just this thought alone caused his body, his mind, and his soul to unite and flow in one direction with one goal. There was no stopping him. He was getting ready to set out of the village, but not before they tearfully said goodbye to one another. Ayushi tightly embraced him, refusing to loosen her grip. He could feel her slim fingers gripping the midsection of his back and right shoulder. She rested her head against his chest. His clothes had just been washed and dried by Mama Jala on the riverside. She could smell the waters of the river on his cloak and hear the fast beating of his heart pumping away, ready to go on another quest.

If I let go, it will almost be like letting a caged bird escape; he may never return to me.

She couldn’t bear for him to leave again. There was the sudden appearance of a lump in her throat, a sudden strong sensation of discomfort in her body. She tried to swallow the shiftless lump before speaking, “Please—stay. Don’t go.” Her face glistened with tears—Johannan cringed at the idea of leaving her like this, but questions needing answers caused his face to tighten under tension.

If he goes and doesn’t return to me, I will lose my soulmate, my best friend, my everything. Oh Johannan! Do not be a fool, searching for truth in the myths and the fables of the elderly. I’ll forever be in a darkened abyss, never to know happiness again because of you. How can you be so cruel?

CHAPTER 3

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Here comes Mama!

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Johannan faced a battle within himself, one person against an army of guilt as he felt the tremble of her slim body in his embrace, every shudder like myriads of soaring needles penetrating the membrane of his soul. He held her even closer and whispered in her ear. He could sense a change, almost as if she had given up on him coming back. “I will return to you, my love.”

Ayushi adjusted her head as if to stare into his face. He had never called her my love before; something was different. He grabbed her hands and pressed them firmly against his heart. It pounded faster than ever, overflowing with passion and life like the river after heavy rainfall. “My beloved Ayushi, you are always with me, and you live in here. I’ll take you with me wherever I go.”

Johannan felt that the strong, intense love he had for her would give him the unstoppable desire and strength to return to her. Just that inner vision of them living together, happily, with a small family of their own, made him feel invulnerable to pain and unflinching towards all challenges ahead. He pictured himself playing the flute to settle their firstborn while Ayushi gently rocked their baby to sleep. It was an amazing thought, two childhood best friends sharing something so special and so unique. Creating a family and taking care of one another. He stared at his hands, clenching his fists tightly against all the bad fate that may befall him on his travels, as if his will to survive was manifesting itself in the tightness of his hands.

“I must—I will return to you, Ayushi.”

He went to briefly visit Ketan, Nanda, and Raman to tell them that he would be back one day to share his adventures and to listen to the mischief Ketan had gotten up to while he was away. After a short while, he departed for the Gobi desert, knowing that if he stayed any longer it would just be too challenging to leave. Ayushi cried while everyone else followed behind him as he progressed past the last two huts in the village. She couldn’t stand up, the grief and distress sapped the strength in her legs. She fell to her knees clasping her hands, her face shimmered with tears.

Raman and Ketan stood on opposite sides of her and supported her onto her feet. The door to one of the huts swung open, and a voice of an older woman shouted his name.

“Johannan!”

He stopped; it was[_ _]Mama Jala. He knew she would come out sometime and demand that he come back. He could hear Ayushi weeping, and it tugged on his heart. Mama Jala rushed over to console her. He knew she would—it was just like her to be so predictable. He could hear her voice.

”Quiet, my child, he will be back.”

Mama knew how intense Ayushi felt about him. She shook her head in disappointment.

“That boy!”

Mama was so protective of Ayushi. He knew she was going to shout at him for disappointing her, but this time he couldn’t listen to her. She didn’t understand what was going on inside him, the day-to-day struggle with his desires. No one did, not his friends, Mama Jala, or even Ayushi.

“Are you really going to leave her like this, in this horrible state, Johannan?”

Discharges of pain ran from his eyes, he couldn’t turn back. But he knew she had just fallen to the ground, and if he turned around, that would be it; he’d rush back and abandon everything.

“Don’t turn around. You must do this,” he ordered himself under his breath.

His nose was almost beginning to run. He could imagine Mama Jala pointing at him with her rolling pin. Johannan didn’t know when he was going to return, but when he returned, he was adamant that he would have the cure with him.

CHAPTER 4

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Into the nothingness

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Nights of shivering from the cold and days of walking had gone by, and all he could see was the endless forest greenery yielding no signs of him getting any closer. The rich landscape filled with collections of pistachio and jade greens almost seemed to discourage him. He knew he was the only living thing to cross the lonesome wilderness for months. The sounds of his long cloak trailing behind him and flapping in the winds were the only sounds that broke the lifeless silence of the open. Johannan knew he still had far to go, and he hadn’t even reached the tall grassy plains of Tibet yet. He could vaguely see the muddy foothills that led to the plains, and time was closing in on him.

He wasn’t going to let anything get in his way. The clouds gathered over the empty ether, and it began to drizzle lightly. Hundreds of tiny crystal-clear droplets settled on his face, and he squinted his eyes to protect his blurred vision. He was getting wet and cold, but he couldn’t rest, nor was he interested in finding shelter. His heart continued to speak to him, driving him to go out further. His lips were chapped from not eating or drinking, and his frame ached all over.

Johannan’s ardent desire hid all the pain and the discomfort. He continued his travels for weeks, feeding on fruits and roots to fill the recurring hole in his stomach. Ayushi was on his mind. He could see her clearly in the sky when it rained against him. He could hear her in the wilderness where he was all alone. She was there beside him in his heart.

He crossed over the slippery slopes of muddy foothills, concentrating hard on each step and clenching his legs tightly together to stop him from slipping and toppling over.

Johannan made it to the plains of Tibet after a full day of walking through the foothills. The inside of his legs ached badly from clenching them together over a long period, but he was ignorant of the pain. The relief of making it to the plains in one piece made him smile with joy. Now he had to journey to the Yarlung Tsangpo River further north.

Thoughts of how to cross the gushing river troubled him for some time. He had to come up with a way to overcome this vast obstacle, to avoid having to go around the whole river, which would significantly increase the number of weeks in the journey. He decided to take a risk and search for a small fishing village along the muddy banks of the river; if he was lucky enough to find one, he could employ a fisherman to take him to the other side of the river.

Johannan trekked for months on end, and finally he could hear the loud hissing of rushing waters; he was there. He smiled when he thought about his achievement.

CHAPTER 5

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The song of hope

Johannan continued to wade through the muddied banks upstream until the waters became calmer. He felt the heat of exhaustion and the warm sensation of moisture trickling down his forehead when he stood still to examine a smoke-flavoured scent in the air. He pointed his nose to the sky, filling his lungs. The scented air carried the aroma of roasted fish and vegetables.

He used the flat of his right hand to shade his eyes from the sun’s intruding glare, trying to focus further on ahead. After exploring for some time, he saw a small boat and a cheerful man, who was nodding his head as he whistled an upbeat melody. The man was stooping down on the riverbanks. He was wearing traditional Tibetan clothing in the form of a male gown. He held both corners of the garment and continually fluttered it like a bird flapping its wings in the direction of the flames. Grey wafts of scented smoke escaped into the atmosphere and dispersed over the river. Johannan moved briskly towards him.

The man turned his head to face Johannan with an ear-to-ear smile.

“Whoa—a traveller!” The man leapt up to his feet, wiping his hands on his clothes. “You’re far out into the nothingness.” At first glance, he could see the dryness around Johannan’s mouth. “You look hungry, my friend. I’m surprised the wild dogs aren’t stalking you for your bones.”

He grabbed one of the skewers with roasted fish. “Here, take this. I just caught them, so they’re fresh, and there’s more than enough for the two of us.”

Johannan reached out and accepted; the fish looked crispy and succulent. “Thanks to you, that is most kind of you, sir.”

The fisherman swatted the air with his hand. “Come now, don’t mention it, my friend. You are hungry, and all this fish here will go to waste if someone doesn’t eat them.”

Johannan smiled. The man beckoned him to come over and stoop down next to him. Johannan fixed his eyes on the small boat; that was what he needed to get to the other side. The man passed him a helping of his fish, serving it on a wide leaf. Johannan took several bites into its crispy texture, nodding his head with a full mouth to hint that it tasted good. The man squinted and beamed with pride.

Johannan pointed at the fish in his hand, “This fish tastes really good.”

“Thanks, glad you like it. It’s my wife’s secret recipe.” He turned away for a brief moment and mumbled, “Passed down to her from her miserable mother. I was lucky to be able to find most of the ingredients here.”

“Your wife must be a brilliant cook,” Johannan said, pretending not to hear the words “miserable mother.”

“Well, she learned from her mother.” The man shook his head, gazing into the river. “God, I can’t stand that woman,” he continued in a tone above a whisper.

Johannan gawked at the man. “You hate your wife!”

The man chuckled, “Oh no, not her—my mother-in-law! She’s so . . . ah, forget it.” He handed Johannan some roasted vegetables. “Those unruly children, I can’t say anything to them when she’s around. The only time I find peace is when—well, when I’m here, miles away from them all. I keep telling her to take those brats and get out of my house!”

Johannan could see that the man’s mood had changed as soon as he mentioned his home and family. He remembered Mama Jala as soon as the man mentioned his mother-in-law. Mama Jala was a good cook too, but she was really bossy and complained for a long time when you didn’t do what she wanted. Anything Johannan did to upset Ayushi when they were younger would trigger trouble— Mama would pick up her rolling pin and chase him around the village.

“So, you have a girl?” asked the man.

“Yes, she’s at home now . . . in Nepal.”

The man gawked at Johannan. “In Nepal? Goodness, that’s worlds from here. Worlds, my friend. She must be giving you hell to drive you all the way into mainland China without eating. You’re so young too. Shame on her.” He inhaled deeply, shaking his head and tutting, “What a pity! What a pity!”

Johannan laughed; it had been a while since something made him happy. “No, it’s nothing like that, sir. She’s blind, and I’m searching for a cure.”

“A cure in China?” The man’s eyes fully sprung open. “Are you serious? There is no tea in China that can cure blindness, my young friend, you’d better be on your way . . . back home, that is.”

He glanced at the sky and sniggered, then slapped his forehead. “Travellers, only travellers—they seem to be getting younger.”
He released a loud wheezy laugh at Johannan’s expense, “Oh, the gods are generous to show me such a kindness, they must be taking pity on me.”

Johannan felt like an idiot—there was no way he was going to let the man think this of him.

“No, no, not a tea medicine, but a Great Spirit that grants wishes. They say he lives in the deserts north of here.”

“Well, aren’t you full of surprises. A Great Spirit in the north of China, who would have thought.”

The man sat still for a while, then he turned to Johannan and stared at him as if he had suddenly sprouted wings. “Hold on—just a minute, my little friend,” he said, leaning back and wagging his finger. “You are not going off that silly old folk song about the nomads in the desert that were cured by a Great Spirit, are you? It’s just a song, you know.” He laughed, wheezed, and coughed. “Travellers—rich people pay a lot to hear things like this.”

“Tell me about this song.”

The man waved his hands, “Fine, fine, but I’m not singing it. Almost everyone in China knows it. It’s about an old man and his entire family. They were a group of sickly nomads in the Mongolian desert. One day, they met a great wandering spirit who cured them. That’s it.” He stretched to yawn. “Those people were meant to have moved from the desert way of life to settle in the mountains of Altun Shan. It’s all rubbish, though, nothing but bandits up there, my young friend. I think you came out here for nothing.”

The man noticed that Johannan was staring at his boat. “So, you want to use the boat, my friend?”

Johannan grinned, scratching the back of his head. “I need to get to the other side of the river.”

“That’s not a problem, I’ll take you there as soon as we finish eating.”

“Thanks to you, I’m most fortunate to meet someone like yourself on my journey.”

“Don’t mention it, I’m only too happy to help. I’m just grateful for the company, to be honest. I’ve been fishing for hours; just having running waters for company can get boring after a long time.”

They finished eating the fish, and the man took Johannan to the other side of the river.

“Thanks to you once more, perhaps we’ll meet again,” Johannan said, standing on the sides of the bank.

“Perhaps we will.” The man was about to turn around but sprang back as if he had forgotten something. “You know, I’ve been thinking: if you meet that Great Spirit—not that I believe in such things or anything—get him to come to my house and rid me of that howling beast.”

Johannan gawked at him, “Your wife?”

“Goodness, no—“

“I know, I know, your mother-in-law. I was just teasing,” said Johannan, stretching his arms out to pat the air below his waist.

“Ah, so you’re a bit of a jester on a full stomach!” grinned the fisherman.

Johannan laughed, “It hurts to laugh on an empty one.” An expression of contemplation covered his face, and he held onto his jaw. “Say, have you ever tried just talking to . . .” He thought about what he was going to say. He imagined the man’s response would be something like, I’ve tried that and shouted too. Johannan shook his head, “Never mind—I’ll see you again, perhaps. Who knows, maybe you will be a lot happier next time.”

“Who knows, my friend, I could go back and she’s taken those children and left, or . . .” The man shivered with guilt, “No I shouldn’t say what I was about to say.”

Johannan covered his face to hide a chuckle while the man kept talking. “I had an idea once. I wanted to find someone to come and take her away, but I can’t find anyone I hate that much, not even a bandit. Would you believe?”

The man released a sigh from his stomach. “But we can dream, aye? We—can—dream.” He nodded as a form of goodbye and started to row the boat.

CHAPTER 6

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Johannan and Ayushi

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Johannan continued on his journey to the cold mountains of Altun Shan. He was always weary of mountains because of the rumours of them being used as a strategic point for bandits to steal and to abduct travellers. It bothered him that at any moment the ruthless mountain bandits could ambush him. His eyes were under stress from being wide-open and staying alert for anything out of the ordinary. He kept moving, trying to maintain a low profile in the treacherous mountains of Altun Shan. He must get to Yumen.

Yumen was the beginning of the Gobi desert. The atmosphere was silent with no sign of life. Could a spirit really be living out here?

It had been months since Johannan had left his home, and he travelled hundreds of miles through forests, rivers, and villages to come here. The real challenge was to keep believing. His feet plunged into the cracked clusters of sand and mud beneath him. The sky was a vacant blue, and the land spared a few shades of brown. That was all he could see. He couldn’t imagine a Great Spirit living out here in such a barren place, but he also knew things were never as they seemed.

The light from the sun charged the ground with a scorching heat. He felt the acidic burn from bulbs of salty sweat that had gathered on his forehead and trickled into his eyes. He held a long rope behind him, just dragging along the earth in a straight line to make sure he wasn’t walking around in endless circles.

He visualised himself back home with Ayushi, together, up in the hills. They went up there sometimes to get away from the village and enjoy one another’s company. Johannan held her soft grasp within his, “The weather is good today, Ayushi.”

She stretched her arms out, “I can feel the wind, like veils of cool silk brushing against my hand.”

He smiled. From the top of the hills, you could see the entire village and the pillars of smoke billowing from the clay ovens. You could hear the gushing sounds of the river and Comet, the goat, bleating away with the others.

“Tell me about the colour of the sky, Johannan, how does it look?”

“It’s a deep blue with lots of full, white clouds. The grass is a rich green and looks healthy.”

“Yes, the grass feels so soft.” Ayushi pointed her nose to the sky and filled her lungs. “Mama is cooking dal bhat; it smells good.”

“You can smell that all the way up here, Ayushi?”

“Yes, Mama loves to cook with different herbs. It’s her way, and besides that, I can always smell them up here.”

“Wait here,” said Johannan, rushing off. He came back panting with a flower in his hand, “Touch this, can you feel what it is?”

She rubbed her fingertips against it and chuckled, “Of course, it’s a flower, Johannan.”

“Yes, it’s the one Mama crushes to make the sweet scent in your hair. There’re so many up here.”

“Don’t tell her that, or there will be none left,” said Ayushi.

Johannan tittered, “Hold still.” He fixed the flower just above her ear. “There.” Johannan stood back up and admired her beauty. If only she could see her reflection in the waters of the village.

He broke the moment with a loud snicker.

“What is it?” Ayushi responded, with an unsure smile.

“Mama is by the river again; she’s beating the clothes against the rocks.”

“Can you really see her from here?”

“Yes, you can’t miss Mama. That woman is really big!”

Ayushi chortled, “Johannan, if she ever heard you say such a thing, the clothes won’t be the only thing she will be beating. You know she would chase you around the whole village again.”

“Yes, but she never catches me. You know that.”

Ayushi giggled, holding onto his inner arm. “She will catch you one day, you know. I hear her plotting to herself sometimes.”

Johannan shielded his eyes from the sunlight as he gazed into the village. “Mama has stopped washing the clothes now. She seems to be looking around the village.”

“Is Comet tied up?”

“Yes, I did it myself this morning.”

Ayushi gasped, “She’s probably wondering where we are.”

“Oh goodness, I wasn’t thinking. She’s cooking and dinner is ready! I’d better get you back before I get into trouble again. You know Mama would complain for days . . .”

Ayushi laughed at Johannan’s tone fading with worry and she went straight into her impression of an angry Mama chasing Johannan around.

She clenched her fist into the air. “Boy, you get back here, you slippery little eel! Don’t you worry, I will catch you. You can’t run that fast when you’re asleep. Ooh Johannan! I’m going to give you such a sweet walloping when I catch you.”

Johannan burst into a fit of laughter, “You know, you do a very good impression of her—too good.”

“Well, I have no choice but to listen to you two, almost every day. Chickens flapping their wings and clucking, probably trying to defend themselves. Pots kicked over and old Comet getting angry, because you knocked him down again while trying to escape from Mama.”

The two of them laughed, and Johannan had to stop to catch his breath.

******

Johannan still couldn’t distinguish a difference in the scenery from a full day of travelling in the desert, but nothing was going to stop him. He wondered how Ayushi would respond when her eyes were finally opened and she saw him for the first time. The entire village would be astounded. He pictured everyone congratulating him on his success, gathering to listen to his stories. He knew Mama Jala would be happy. Finally he would have done something good to make the old woman proud.

Time was going by, and after days of travelling, his enthusiasm to find the Great Spirit outweighed his supply of water. There was no way Johannan could make it back alive—there was not enough water to last him the journey back. Even if he could go back, the thought of going back empty-handed after putting Ayushi through so much grief only made him think about how many times Mama was going to hit him for leaving to begin with. She’d never let him out of her sight again. And every time he made a mistake, she’d bring it up how he deserted Ayushi to chase some silly fantasy.

She had a strange way of viewing things and making you regret your mistakes by bringing up the past. He could only imagine the laughter of Raman, Ketan, and Nanda overhearing her plans of what she was going to do to him when he returned.

Johannan shook his head, “Going back is out of the question—that spirit has got to be out here—for my sake.”

The soft sand beneath his blistered feet was a relief. The stubborn scenery was beginning to surrender, hundreds of golden, unblemished pyramids of sand scattered from east to west. There still wasn’t a sound to be heard for miles, not even a bird in sight. Johannan almost felt like he was the only man on earth or, much worse, the only living thing. He compared the differences in the plains behind him. The cracked, brittle grounds just behind him made it seem like his journey had just begun.

Taking a glance at his waist, he saw the three shrivelled water skins. He had wrung them out completely for traces of water that may still be sitting inside. There was one full one left, as precious as life itself. I have to make this one last, he vowed to himself.

He came to a wobbling stop, using the back of his hand to wipe his glistening forehead. I know there is truth in that song the fisherman spoke of. The Great Spirit must be here, but where is he? Surely he knows I’m out here searching for him? Perhaps he’s hiding, watching me from afar, waiting for me to die of thirst. After all, there’s no reason for him to care that I’m out here. He seems to be quite the heartless kind if he’s not testing me.

He stared deep into the scenery and frowned. What was the point? Why search so hard? It’s all the same dammed thing. It’s always the same thing, nothing’s changed. If Mama were here, she’d say I’m a wandering fool.

“Show yourself! I know that you can hear me!” The desert mocked him by throwing his words back. He fell to his knees and a tear freed itself and slid down his face. He used up his very last bit of strength, and he wasn’t even that far into the collection of sandy pyramids.

Johannan unceasingly pressed on for another two days. His water had run out, and he began to feel faint. He staggered with each step. The cracking skin on his lips pained him when he opened his mouth to breathe. He felt nauseous, like something was hitting him in the stomach.

Am I finally going to die? Is this the end? He questioned himself as he took one more step forward, joggled, and collapsed face down. His body rolled and slid down one of the steep hills.

CHAPTER 7

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A spring of life

Hours had passed, and Johannan was still knocked out, his roll down the sand dune had completely wrapped him in his cloak. The clattering noise of many empty tin pans knocking against each other intermingled with the complaining grunts of a camel. An old traveller had spotted him as he was trotting by. He watched Johannan lying on the ground motionless. The traveller rubbed the sweat from his face and shook his head. “Another one out here about to die.”

He reached to the side of his groaning camel to grab one of the pots and filled it up with water from one of his water skins. He prodded his camel to move a bit closer to Johannan and poured the water all over Johannan’s head and the rest of his body. Water vapour escaped into the atmosphere as the liquid touched the ground.

Johannan head started to move, almost burrowing face down in the sand. There was a few silent mumbles spitting of sand followed by a loud, excited voice as he recognised he wasn’t dreaming at all, “Water! It’s c-cold!”

The sudden feel of water all over his head and body had cooled him down from the heat that sapped his strength. His energy began to climb up his body. It was like a heavy animal sitting on his back and slowly easing itself off. He got up and rubbed himself all over as the old man generously showered him with more water. The stranger found it humorous as he watched Johannan rubbing himself down like he was trying to extinguish a fire.

“Here, drink!” the old croaky voice said, chucking a large water skin towards him. Johannan caught the skin and gulped its water down in no time, wringing it for that last stubborn drop.

“It’s obvious that you’re thirsty, whelp! Here, have another!” The man chucked another water skin at him. “What is a young pup like you doing out here in the Gobi desert without water?” Johannan was about to answer, but the man interrupted, “Are you trying to catch your death, son?”

Johannan pondered, This man is very abrupt and quick to tell someone off. Perhaps it wasn’t the best of ideas to say exactly what he was looking for. He could only imagine being ridiculed for investigating the whereabouts of this stubborn spirit. His thoughts drifted onto the fisherman he met earlier by the Yarlung Tsangpo River. He was kind, but his response had been bad enough.

“I’m searching for someone.”

The man paused as though he had heard the strangest noise he’d ever witnessed. “You are searching for someone—out here?” He stared up into the sky. “Young man, you can’t, you just can’t be serious. Are you all right?”

“Well, I blacked out until you came along and poured water over me. Thanks to you.”

“Oh, you misunderstand me, whelp. I meant that there is nobody out here apart from me and you. If it is not me you’re looking for, then you should turn around and go home.”

Go home. That’s the second person to tell him that. I’m glad I didn’t mention that I’m out here in the torrid plains risking my life to seek out the Great Spirit. The way the old man’s expression changed as soon as Johannan said he was looking for someone was an obvious sign that it wasn’t going to go down too well with him.

“I’m curious to know who this person might be you are searching for.”

Johannan sighed, “Never mind, you wouldn’t understand—no one has so far.”

“Go on, tell me,” the traveller sing-songed. “You’re crazy enough to come this far without enough water; why can’t you be just as crazy to tell me who this person might be? Perhaps I’ve seen something that may be of some help.”

“I doubt that very much.”

“Go on boy, tell me. What have you got to lose? I gave you the water and saved your life, didn’t I?”

CHAPTER 8

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Visions of red and gold

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Hundreds of miles from Nepal, trapped in the immeasurable sands of the Gobi desert with a prying old man and his miserable grump of a camel. Despite the situation, Johannan felt a deep sense of gratitude budding within him, but the old man and his camel seemed to be quite the characters.

The stranger pushed hard to find out who Johannan was looking for, digging hard with questions that made Johannan feel outpourings of guilt.

The old man was right about one thing, though: he did save Johannan’s life. The unbounded blaze of the atmosphere around Johannan became cold and small. He felt like he had no choice but to tell him everything. As soon as the old man heard what Johannan was searching for, he laughed so hard he nearly fell off his camel. The camel released a series of grunts that would have led you to believe he was laughing too. This was the reaction Johannan was trying to avoid.

“A blind girl and a great spirit,” the man coughed in laughter. “Listen, child, go home! That girl is going to become a widow before she’s even married.”

Johannan’s gaze dropped to the ground. He felt ashamed and very silly. He didn’t care what the stranger thought; he was still going to continue his search. The old man would probably think he was extremely stupid if he continued, though.

“Listen, whelp, I can take you back to the nearest village. There’s food and water, and you can rest until you’re ready to go home.”

Food, water, and rest sounded good to Johannan. It sounded like the right thing to do. The man displayed an ear-to-ear smile at Johannan, bouncing his eyebrows as if to prompt him to go for the idea. “Return home and have a big wedding. You and that girl could have lots and lots of children.” He released a hearty howl of laughter, “Sounds good, no?”

As Johannan heard the man say “wedding,” a vision of Ayushi appeared in his mind. It was the same one that had driven him into the desert to search for the spirit. He saw her sitting on the ground next to him. The whole village threw flowers over them; they were cheering and dancing. A red veil with golden patterns covered her head, and he could faintly see her image underneath. The drums were loud, and the children ran around with colourful strings. There was a mild smell of sweet oils and food being prepared. He turned to her and lifted the veil from over her head, his friends cheering him on. Her smile grew as she saw her young husband looking handsome in the fine clothes Mama had proudly made. But, the greatest thing of all was that his beloved Ayushi could see. Mama cried with tears of joy. She was finally proud of her boy.

“Yes, it is all I ever wanted,” whispered Johannan, breaking from the trance-like state. “I will find this Great Spirit. I know he’s out here somewhere, and somehow I get the feeling he knows I’m here too.”

“Fine!” A sharp tone of disappointment severed the atmosphere. “If you won’t take me up on my offer, then suit yourself. I’m not going to force you to come back with me. You youngsters are stubborn these days.”

He chucked another two water skins at Johannan, knocking the air out of his chest. “Here!” Johannan caught them before they dropped.

“Thanks to you, again.”

“Thanks to me?” the old traveller laughed, staring into the scenery as if to plan his journey. “You are a stubborn whelp. But it’s the least I can do if I can’t convince you to come back with me. Without help, you are going to die out here. To be honest, you’re probably going to die anyway.” The man paused and hesitated like he shouldn’t have uttered what he just said. “Go on, whelp, be careful.”

“I will. Take care, sir.”

The camel grunted and began to move in the opposite direction. “The pup tells me to take care. I’m the one that found him on the ground half dead with no water, and I’m the one he tells to take care,” Johannan overheard him say.

“Don’t worry about me, I will find him,” Johannan said, waving goodbye.

“I will remember you, whelp, you are a funny one. Don’t panic too much if you get caught up in a sandstorm; they are not as bad as they look. Just cover your entire face and don’t breathe in the air directly—otherwise you’ll end up with a mouth full of sand. With all this scorching heat, you don’t need that.” The man laughed out loud, “You’ll wish then that you took me up on my offer, you stubborn boy!”

CHAPTER 9

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Son of Nepal

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Pressing onward, harder, Johannan was adamant he would find the Great Spirit, wherever he might be. He gazed far into the stretches of gold. The still, jagged outline of the boundless horizon began to dance. It seemed like the land was rising into the sky. Sandstorm!

He panicked, but plunged the balls of his feet into the sand; he was ready. There was nowhere to run or hide, just hopeless stretches of endless desert dirt. The whirling dusts of gold clambered to the heavens to cover the face of the sun, patches of thick sands turned the light to darkness, simulating a nightfall over the terrain. Johannan remembered the old man’s advice. He had to surrender to the swelling, golden clouds to proceed.

He tucked his head down by his knees and covered himself with his cloak, and the spiralling brown clouds enveloped him not long after. The whistling Gobi winds blew around him, and he struggled to keep his fluttering cloak on the ground. It was like nothing he had ever been through before. Suddenly, the whistles of the gale were blotted out. There was an eerie silence.

“Johannan.” The voice faded into the heavens—Johannan hastily searched around, groping the air as he was shrouded within a wall of darkness. Is my mind playing tricks on me? He was certain that he had heard someone call his name. But no one knew who he was out here, not even the old man on the camel. I must have been hearing things.

The voice returned to call him in its ghostly tone, “Johannan, Son of Nepal, why do you bother me? Seeking me out against all counsel?”

Johannan trembled; this voice knew him by name. He knew who he was and where he had come from. This had to be the Great Spirit. He probed the barren land for him, risking his life. He never prepared himself for what he would say or do if he actually had an audience with him. His doubts were beginning to surface. Perhaps deep down he never thought he’d find him.

“Johannan, Son of Nepal, why do you bother me? Seeking me out against all counsel?”

The question asked a second time gave Johannan no time to think about an answer. He was short of words.

“I am here—”

He clenched his fist and pounded the ground. That’s not what I wanted to say. But what do I say? He just came out of nowhere. I must come up with something before he departs, or else it would all be for nothing.

“Is—is that you, Great Spirit?”

There was a cooling presence in the atmosphere. Johannan felt a tightness on his skin, giving rise to thousands of goose bumps. He knew he was still near, but the voice didn’t respond to his question. “I’m in urgent need of your help.” Johannan clenched a handful of dirt, tightening his grip as the sand slid through his fingers. He was not happy with himself; he believed he could have expressed himself much better. “I’m in urgent need of your help.” Why did I say that? So long, I’ve been out here, and that was the best I could come up with?

The sands began to hiss, “Leave me!”

Johannan stretched his hands out in the darkness as if to hold on to something. “No, please don’t go! I—I need you.” He held his head down in distress. “She needs you.”

The noise of the whistling winds returned, and the shivery presence of the spirit had departed. Johannan was very disappointed with himself. He could have responded quicker, for a start. He let the spirit get away—he was so close to making his request known. Against all the advice he was given, he found out that the Great Spirit actually existed. This was something to be happy about. He decided to search for him again, but this time he would waste no time making his request known. He was not going to let down himself or Ayushi.

He smiled, “I can’t believe I’ve met him—wait till Nanda hears about this.” Nanda loved stories of the supernatural. Johannan thought about home: Mama Jala was probably waiting at the village gates for his return, ready to ambush him as soon as his shadow reached the entrance. “She can’t do that now. Not when I return with the cure for Ayushi’s blindness. She’ll be happy that I left to begin with.”

He continued his search for a few more days, only to collapse again from total exhaustion. Time went by, and he was still out in the sun when he heard the sounds of rattling tins and the grunting of that miserable old camel nearby.

The old traveller was passing by again. He saw Johannan in the distance, and being already acquainted he wasted no time. He nudged his camel to increase its speed towards him. The old man quickly went through the motion of pouring water into one of his pots and splashed it over Johannan.

Johannan groaned, and the man laughed in relief. “That’s right. Get up, boy!”

The camel grunted. Johannan knew who it was, but what was he doing back out here? Nonetheless, Johannan was happy to see him again.

“You’re making a bad habit of this collapsing-thing, aren’t you, whelp. You know, I’ve tried to tell you this earlier, but this place isn’t a place for young, inexperienced pups like you. Come back with me, and I’ll take you to a good village,” suggested the old, croaky voice. Johannan was only too happy to see him again, even though he had no intention of following him back.

This old man seems to have an endless supply of cool water. Where is he getting it from? And, how is he coming out this far with nearly all his water skins filled?

Johannan wasn’t about to tell him what happened, especially after the man’s last response. Not even a hint, in case the man dragged it out of him again.

“I—I can’t go back,” Johannan said as he got up on his feet. The old man responded with an expression on his face as though Johannan was crazy.

“You know, the next time you decide to take one of your midday desert naps, I may not be here to pour water over your hot head, pup. Now, let’s get back. I’ve got some camel cheese—you can have some if you want.”

“No! I can’t, I must move on. You wouldn’t understand.”

The old man swatted the air. “Suit yourself, whelp, you’re only going to catch your death out here in a place like this.” The man reached to his side. “Here take this with you,” he said as he chucked two full water skins at Johannan. They pounded against his chest as he caught them. “Make them last, whelp. They don’t grow on trees out here, you know.”

The man began to depart, leaving Johannan. Johannan thanked him and continued to trudge along the sandy dunes. He was empowered with a surge of enthusiasm by the vision that his beloved Ayushi would be able see his face when he lifted her veil on their wedding day.

CHAPTER 10

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Speak, Johannan!

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Johannan, in a deep trance of reflection, suddenly came to a halt after days of wandering through the desert.

Why is the ground rumbling? He inspected the area but didn’t see anything that resembled a stampede of animals or a landslide of some sort.

He caught his breath. “An earthquake! That old man on the camel never said anything about earthquakes out here!”

There was nowhere to run, and he was trapped like a hunted animal, with no escape. Johannan felt the earth shudder as the hands of nature panned the Gobi of its golden pyramids. The vast structures of sandy hills were humbled to lie as low as the valleys they once towered over. Johannan screamed at the top of his lungs, his feet paddling against the loosened sand. His voice snapped like a high-tension wire, leaving him hoarse. He fell down so many times that he decided to stay on the ground, but that felt even worse. He had been through storms and disasters many times before, but he hadn’t realised how much comfort it brought to hear other people screaming. A comfort he now understood he had taken for granted.

The tremor released its firm clutch on the land. Johannan’s body was weakened from fear. He was still trying to catch his breath—the idea of having nowhere to run in such a situation made him wonder if he should have taken the old traveller’s advice.

“Johannan,” ebbed a voice. Johannan scanned around his surroundings, the sky was still vacant apart from the invading glare of the sun.

The long, jagged edges of the desert that touched the sky had now become a long, straight line that surrounded Johannan. It was almost as if the land was stripped of all its garments, and he was standing on a colossal plate of sand.

“What do you want, Son of Nepal? Why not consider turning back and leave me be?”

It was the voice he longed to hear. The fear that weakened his body departed, his heart fluttered. Johannan was disorientated. The words—I’ve lost the words again. What was I going to say? Quickly, Johannan, think!

He attempted to get up, but a lingering dizziness forcefully held him to the ground.

“I—I have a request for you, Great Spirit.”

“A request?” bellowed the Great Spirit. The dense chilled presence of the spirit began to thin. Johannan could sense what it meant. He slapped his forehead, “No—No. Please don’t do this! Don’t do this again—the least you could do is listen to me!” Johannan was exhausted. The spirit was very stubborn and unwilling.

How can I get him to see my plight. What will it take?

Any normal man in his right mind would have given up by now, but not Johannan. So far, the Great Spirit had appeared in a sandstorm and an earthquake. Johannan did not like either of them, but the earthquake was far more terrifying.

Johannan felt that it might be a difficult task trying to get the Great Spirit to listen to him, judging from the ridicule in his last response. He trod through the sand for days and halted as soon as he noticed the long, straight line of the horizon dancing. He gasped, “Another sandstorm—could it be the Great Spirit again?”

Johannan didn’t panic like he did before, and his heart didn’t race; he knew what he must do. He most definitely preferred a sandstorm to an earthquake.

But what am I going to say this time? Perhaps I should just come right out with the question as I never get a chance to make it known.

He tucked his head down by his knees and wrapped himself in his long cloak. The clouds of brown engulfed him. He couldn’t see past the pitch dark of the storm from under the covering of his cloak. He felt a breath of cooling breeze circulating him.

“Speak, Johannan!” The Great Spirit returned, but this was not what Johannan had expected him to say.

“M—My fiancé is blind, and I heard that you can help restore her sight. Can you do this, Great Spirit?” he said, trying to speak as clearly as he could through the wailing gale.

“Come, Johannan, find me up the mountain.” When the Great Spirit had finished speaking, his chilling presence vanished. Johannan felt the heat of the desert invading, increasing like a fanned flame.

What does the Great Spirit mean by “the mountain”?

He was confused—he hadn’t see any mountains nearby before the storm. As a matter of fact, it had been weeks now since he had seen anything that even resembled a mountain, especially since the earthquake.

The sandstorm disintegrated at a steady pace. The azure skies and the blazing scowl of the desert sun returned after a few hours. When the flying sand had settled, and the desert became a little more visible, he noticed, to his astonishment, a colossal mountain less than half a day’s walk ahead of him.

CHAPTER 11

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A tone that breached the stillness

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Johannan wasted no time and began his journey towards the mountain. His heart pounded with expectation and excitement. He didn’t want to get ahead of himself, but he couldn’t help it. His heart wouldn’t keep silent, it kept declaring within him that his travels would soon be coming to an end, that his beloved, Ayushi, would be healed.

The ground’s texture soon began to change. It felt harder, sturdier, giving Johannan a great sensation of balance. He knew he was approaching the foot of the mountain. Johannan glanced upwards. All he could remember was the pain and the hunger to find a cure for her vision. Every moment that he stared into Ayushi’s face, he wanted her to be able to see him. His enthusiasm reminded him of all the people that discouraged him, telling him to go home and that the Great Spirit never existed.

I must bring an end to this burning desire and finally snuff its fires.

With eagerness, he took up the challenge to climb the mountain; things were beginning to turn around. He clambered up the treacherous cracks and landings, and after many hours, he finally got to the summit. He waited there, refreshing himself with the streams of waters that flowed in-between its brooks. Apart from the gushing waters in the brook, there was not a sound to be heard. He expected to hear the fluttering of birds or any other signs of life. There was nothing, no sign of the Great Spirit. Just the usual empty sky. Where could he be? The sun was beginning to descend, the gentle night winds increased, and the bright, luminous full moon took its place in the sky. Johannan sat on a rock with his chin in both palms.

A slight whisper freed itself from his lips, “He has forgotten me.” He began replaying his journey through his mind.

Anyone else would have turned back by now, why am I out here risking my life? But, I can’t return empty-handed. What would Mama say?

“Johannan!” A loud tone breached the stillness. Johannan’s heart rolled like a drum as he vaulted to his feet. “I—I thought you had forgotten me.” He was delighted—finally he was here. “Where are you, Great Spirit?”

Johannan scanned around only to find large rocks and mountain rubble.

“Look up, Son of Nepal,” echoed the Great Spirit. Johannan gazed upwards and saw nothing. The full moon was all he could see in the sky until, after a while of searching, he noticed a single white nimbus cloud floating by. It was so small. Johannan frowned. Surely, he can’t be on that. He studied the small cloud as best as he could. There was an odd shimmer and a flame burning next to it—it must be him.

The cloud drifted forward. Johannan’s hands dropped to his sides as he gaped at two entities coming towards him on the cloud. One was in the form of a man, and the other was a giant lion with a mane of flames. Glowing cinders whirled up into the night sky like fireflies before a storm. The moon’s luminous face was distorted behind a window of haze. Johannan began breathing heavily, and his heart began to pound; this was too real. Perhaps coming here was not a good idea after all.

The appearance of the Great Spirit was frightening. Johannan’s fear insisted that he make tracks, but his sense told him that he’d never escape. He preferred the Great Spirit’s manifestation out in the desert as a storm or an earthquake—at least those things were natural. He had no option but to stay in one place, just like what he did before in the sandstorms, surrendering to his fate.

The same question kept popping up in his head. What is he going to say or do?

The entities drew closer with their piercing eyes of light that were focused on him. Johannan’s attention was undivided, so much so that he didn’t notice a change in his own appearance. His long, black, bushy hair began to lose its jet-black appearance. The roots of his hair glistened, transforming into a glowing white colour. This change of colour gradually extended to the tip of his hair. The colour of his eyes also changed from brown to blue-violet. The few strands of hair that grew below his nose and on his chin became more apparent as they were not exempt from the transformation. When the bright colour had covered all of the hair on his head, he resembled a man that had been crowned with stars.

Johannan, still not noticing the dramatic change in his appearance, fell to his knees as the Great Spirit drew closer.

“Well done, Johannan of Nepal, who has persistently travelled the wilderness of Gobi and has succeeded in the trials of the Ambassadors. In you, I am delighted.”

The lion fixed his gaze on Johannan. But Johannan hadn’t come all the way out here to complete a trial for some hero’s reward or the glory that came with it. All he cared about was his beloved Ayushi. Even through the shocking awe of the entities’ presence, he never forgot what he came for, and the thudding of his heart reminded him of that.

“Master! Great and powerful Spirit, I beg of you. Please restore sight to my fiancé’s eyes.”

CHAPTER 12

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I am the be all and end all!

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The man on the cloud stood still long enough for Johannan to admire his glorious appearance. His sparkling white hair swayed with the upper winds; every time he blinked, a split second of dimness blanketed the night sky like an eclipse. His robes displayed mottled shades of blue-violet that glinted like the sun on an evening tide. Johannan wondered what he was thinking; he knew that the man had heard him.

“I am most pleased with you, persistent Son of Nepal. You have overcome the challenging trials of the Ambassadors, and you did so because of your strong love for your betrothed.” A resounding and clear voice echoed down the mountain terrain. Johannan needed to hear what he had to say, but between the earthquake and the Great Spirit’s tone, he didn’t know which he preferred.

“The trials that were set before you can only be overcome with love, and it is with love that you have found me. Many others before you have attempted to seek me out and have failed not long after they started, but your love, Johannan, has brought you here before me.”

There were others? Johannan could see why they had given up; he had entertained the idea of turning back himself. The Great Spirit was right: if it wasn’t for the love he felt for Ayushi, he would have not even entered this barren place to begin with.

The Great Spirit continued, “Today, I will give you the power to restore your beloved Ayushi’s sight, but first you will travel the land and complete the tasks I have for you. I will be your guide and your defender.”

Then his eyes became brighter and his voice denser. “Call out to me in times of trouble, and I will slay all your enemies and punish those that stand in your way.”

The man stared into his clenched fist with a frightening countenance. “I declare it, that not even the sea will flow against you, Johannan of Nepal! Go where I tell you to go and do not falter, and you will remain with the power to restore Ayushi’s sight.”

It was a surprise to Johannan that he mentioned Ayushi’s name, but he was delighted to know that she was going to be able to see, especially for their wedding. He brought his hands to a clasp. “Oh, thanks to you, I am very happy, Great Spirit.”

But what is it that the Great Spirit wants me to do, that he cannot do himself? Johannan didn’t feel comfortable with the idea, but he would do anything for Ayushi. The Great Spirit seized the silence to further introduce himself.

“I am the Eternal Soburin, the be all and the end all, the Asian Manifest. I have seen the beginning and the end. I heard the first cry of the earth the day it was birthed into your reality from the realm of spirits. I have seen death pleading for life and vast oceans of the world almost drowned in the power of the Muhandae.

I was there when the garment of the sky was stitched together. When the land was formed with fire and cooled, so that all beasts may walk upon it.

I was there when the first creature stumbled as it took its first steps on the land, and the moon watched in wonder. When the stars gathered around the earth. When the grounds pleaded from thirst, and the first cloud was formed to comfort the lands.

I was there when all the names of mankind had been written, and the earth was charged to nourish man and beast alike.

I was there, when the first mountain goat ran to the peaks to greet the eagle as it soared past. When the first whale was taught to swim, before rust sought the comfort of iron, and when the last number was hidden—I was there.”

CHAPTER 13

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I call to you!

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The lion was terrifying, his huge, well-defined body and the fires of his mane began to beat against the heavens with flashes of light.

The lion opened up his powerful jaws and released a sky-splitting roar. Johannan covered his ears. Holding his head towards the ground, he noticed hundreds of little pebbles and stones rolling backwards from the booming power of the lion’s cry. If the lion continues, the whole mountain will come tumbling down. Surely he must know that.

The heavy roaring stopped, and a very different voice spoke. It was deeper and denser compared to the voice of the Soburin.

“I am the almighty Muhandae. I am the be all and end all. I am he that sowed the mountains across the earth, like the farmer who plants his crop. I carry the sun down and lift the moon to high places.

With a baton of splendour, I have measured the sky to fit the earth perfectly, like the garment tailored for a child. I weave threads of many colours through the fabric of time to create magnificent generations with wondrous histories.

I select a different thread for the ice age and a different one for the stone. A gold gem for a king and a red rock for a warrior. A glistening thread for bliss and a dark one for sorrow.

The sun cannot burn unless I fan its flames, and I keep watch when the moon soundly sleeps. I shoot stars across the sky with my bow and guide wayward rivers to the sea. My spirit can burn fire, and my breath quenches the waters. I stand outside of time and space. The earth and all that exists is terrified of me.

I am the secret of secrets hidden in all things and the reels of binding cords that keeps it all together.”

The Muhandae continued his fixed, ardent gaze on Johannan. Johannan didn’t notice anyone speaking; he checked around to see if anyone else was there. The lion! How silly of me to even think someone else was here. But the lion’s mouth doesn’t move when he speaks.

His observations were shattered abruptly by the crackling sounds of the Muhandae’s mane fading to patches of royal blue and purple. The tower of flames stretched into the heavens.

“Behold, child of Nepal. It is by no coincidence that you are here, but you have merely fulfilled the duty of your land. Like a farmer examines his crop before a harvest, I too have reached down into the country of Nepal and examined the hearts of men and women to find a judge. Yet, the land yielded none.

I commanded Nepal to send to me a young male by three generations of its people. A young man who endures the weight of a pure heart, so that I may raise him to be a judge. Here you are now, Son of Nepal.”

Johannan was baffled by all this talk about him being a judge—it was more power than he asked for. Sure, he was far away from home, but he knew he could return when he pleased. Having a responsibility meant he could be away for a long time until it was completed.

He thought about the plan he had to build a little home in the far end of his village. He would have animals, work in the fields, and catch fish in the river with Ayushi. He didn’t feel like he was driven out to the desert to become a judge, neither did he feel like a hero or some sort of chosen one. He had no interest in it. He came because of Ayushi. Mama Jala’s voice echoed inside his head: “Johannan, you are a child and not a man, and you must do as you are told.” These were the words that would fly out of her mouth when she chased him around the village to beat him as a punishment. He caught his breath—for once, he agreed with her words.

“Great Spirit, you must be gravely mistaken.” Johannan’s mind drifted onto all the mischief he had gotten up to at home with his friends. Mama was always complaining about him, blaming him for things going wrong, and most of the time she was right. There were so many better-behaved children in his village— he should have selected one of them.

“I am not even a man yet.” Johannan had hoped the Muhandae would change his mind. His head dropped to face the ground, “And what’s worse, I left home against Mama’s wishes. She will never forget that. She never forgets anything.”

The Muhandae stared at Johannan with compassion; he could see that he was frightened and felt very alone. His voice softened, “Johannan, I have weighed your heart in the wilderness and brought you out here to me. Do not be afraid.”

The Muhandae’s words were of no consolation to him. How was this all going to affect him? Would he still be able to live a normal life? Spend time with his friends and laugh at their silly pranks? A shadow of regret was beginning to creep in. He shook his head—so many people had told him to turn back, but he refused to listen.

Mama was right—she said my stubbornness would get me into trouble one of these days.

He recalled something she used to say: “A stubborn man will always find himself by himself.” This was very fitting for the situation.

He envisioned the scowl of her disappointment and anger. “Oh, Mama, I never listened, but you were right all along. You were always right. I am a stubborn and bad child,” he muttered, feeling a quiver of regret. Johannan was annoyed with himself for being so headstrong. He knew he could never get out of this, but he tried nonetheless.

“B-but I cannot be a Judge. I know nothing about such things, Great Spirit. Can you pick another person?”

The beginning of the Muhandae’s response seemed like his request had fallen on deaf ears. His tone was like a tremor. Johannan was too frightened to object another time.

“I shall teach you the ways of the Ambassador and multiply your knowledge rapidly through dreams and visions. As of this day, you, Johannan, are a seventh-dimension Ambassador, a Judge, and you will bring judgment on the lands you enter. Go from here to the land of Bhutan and wait there till you receive further instruction.”

Johannan’s heart sunk; he had no choice. He saw what the Great Spirit was capable of. On the other side of things, he knew Ayushi would be able to see if he kept his part of the arrangement. A fatigued voice crept from the depths of his throat, “I will go, Great Spirit.”

CHAPTER 14

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A crown of stars

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Questions filled Johannan’s mind. He was desperate to get home. A geyser of motivation began to empower him. Just a few errands, and all this will be all over.

As he was about to ask how long it would take to complete his tasks, a long strand of his glowing hair flicked past his eyes in the building gusts of wind.

“M-My hair!” He panicked, pulling handfuls before his face. “What’s happened to my hair?”

“Johannan!” the Muhandae called, loud and clear enough to grab his full attention. Johannan released his hair from his tight grip to focus upwards.

“You are now a seventh-dimension Ambassador, a Judge, and the power of my judgment will be with you. The state of your hair is not permanent, and it will revert to its original state. However, it will come to pass that whenever I am nearby, or with you, the authority of the Soburin will rest upon your frame, and your hair will begin to transform into its present state. Like the stalking drafts that bring burning glory to scattered embers. I will be the wind, and your hair will be my glowing flint.

You, Johannan, will be like the Soburin who walks to and fro in the heavens above, and so you shall be on the earth.

You will know in times of peril that I am there beside you, to defend and protect you, for the rest of your days here on earth.”

Johannan expressed a sigh, he felt relieved that this wasn’t a permanent change. But he couldn’t have this happen to him at home, in front of all the villagers, the women, and the children. His mind already began to devise suggestions. He’d have to wear a hat all the time. What would Mama think of his hair like this? Obviously, she’d hate it, and she definitely wouldn’t let him wear a hat indoors. Out of embarrassment, she’d probably sheer it all off while he was sound asleep. Mama was like that—she’d never let this one rest. He could imagine Ketan and the others laughing at his bald head for a long time. What had he gotten himself into? Johannan felt like the Great Spirit had cornered him and plundered all his hope.

Chilled gusts of desert winds continued to develop. The white nimbus cloud began to ascend. When they had disappeared, Johannan filled his water skins. He had never been to Bhutan before, and he was quite eager to get there, to have this journey over and done with. The sooner he could complete his tasks, the sooner Ayushi would be able to see. He could get back home and face Mama Jala head-on. He would be delighted right now if he could go back to just one of the times she was scolding him. A particular scenario sprang to mind: Mama was chasing him out of the village entrance because of the mischief he had gotten up to with Ketan. She could never catch him straight away, but that turned Mama into a crafty trickster. He once overheard her complaining to the neighbours about how he was as hard to catch as catching an eel with your bare hands. He remembered being a few steps outside the entrance, peering in at the younger children playing outside their homes. He felt horrible, staying out there until night. Mama was waiting, up to her crafty schemes again. She knew the hunger and cold would drive him back home—then she’d get him. He remembered being frightened of what Mama was going to do to him.

How much he preferred to be in that situation now, safe, at home with his friends and the two women that loved him dearly. The condition of his hair still bothered him; perhaps he should just shave it off and return home bald. He clamped down on his teeth and shuddered. What have I done?

Johannan climbed down the steep mountain, and he noticed that as he descended, the sky was getting brighter. The top of the mountain was like midnight, its summit was covered in a dark mist . He marvelled at the sight. The Great Spirit was infinitely more powerful than he could have imagined.

The desert’s scorching sun returned—it seemed like it was saving all its heat just to grudgingly blaze its fury down on him.

CHAPTER 15

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Abduction in the wilderness

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Johannan finally got to the foot of the mountain. But, it wasn’t quite the same scene as when he had started to climb up. He inspected the area, and something baffled him. The scenery didn’t make sense. The more he examined the area, the more he realised it was the beginning of the desert. This was where he had started!

It was impossible that the many weeks of travelling through the barren wilderness were reduced to mere hours and minutes. Johannan scratched the top of his head in a frustrating curiosity. He spun around in tight circles, searching for something that could explain what was taking place. He couldn’t be dreaming; the damning glower of the sun and the lack of a cool breeze made that very obvious.

He glanced at his waist—the water skins were still full. He was in Yumen again, on the brim of the Gobi desert, without so much as sipping a mouthful of water. His hair had reverted to its normal colour. Then he remembered the quaking words of the lion that his hair was like a glowing flint and would serve as a sign when the Muhandae was nearby. It was obvious that he was gone.

Johannan started to make his way to the mountain range of Altun Shan, thinking about this amazing phenomenon. He kept checking his hair every so often to see if it had changed again without his knowing; he didn’t need that to happen at the wrong time.

The weather was changing. He could feel the treacherous caress of the cold winds against the numbing skin of his cheeks, but it didn’t seem to affect him. Pebbles rolled along the ground behind him as he trekked along. He stopped. Something didn’t seem to make any sense. His cloak was pulling him to the left and right. It felt much heavier, thicker, and more solid, almost as if it had been growing.

“You there!”

A tone carrying hostility forced Johannan to smack his forehead with the inside of his hand. He knew that he shouldn’t be hearing anyone’s voice way out here. He had let his guard down. What a fool I am.

“Better the long way back from the desert, the Great Spirit has led me to my death,” he groaned. Another one of Mama’s sayings came to mind: “The long way is tiresome and reliable, but the shortcut is filled with mishaps.”

Those words sprung to life in Johannan’s spirit. All of Mama’s ramblings and complaints were starting to make sense. But, the shortcut was forced upon him. Not that he would have taken Mama’s advice anyway, if given the choice.

It had to be the voice of one of those bandits that the kind fisherman by the Yarlung Tsangpo warned about. Another problem his stubbornness has gotten him into. Johannan turned his head with a disappointing frown; he almost hated himself at that moment.

Five men dressed in tattered clothing were pointing their weapons at him. “What have you got there?” the shortest one said.

Johannan eased the aggressive frown from his face as he didn’t want to draw unnecessary and negative attention to himself. Maybe they will just go away if I talk with them very nicely.

Yeah right! another conflicting voice retorted within him.

At first glance, they didn’t seem like the type to enjoy respectful chatter. They appeared to be more like the kind of men that just took what they wanted. It occurred to Johannan that if they could see that he was just a young boy, maybe they’d let him go, but he didn’t put his hopes on that. He had tried that defence with the Great Spirit, and it hadn’t worked well with him either. That only works with Mama when she’s angry. And she’s the one saying it.

“Nothing, sirs, I’m just a young traveller.” His heart pulsated faster. Their victims’ blood was like a trophy to them. They were the type of men that wouldn’t even wipe the blood from the blade of their weapons. The type that would take the lives of innocent people without giving it any thought.

One of them chuckled, then the others joined in. Johannan feared he was done for.

“A young traveller,” a chubby one mockingly repeated, tilting his head over and nudging the others. “And I thought a traveller was just a traveller.”

One of the men pointed a sharp dagger at Johannan that he had quickly drawn from his side. He drew closer to search him. He patted him down, and with a soft downward swipe he cut the water skins from his waist.

“What’s in those skins?”

“It’s obviously full with wine,” said the tallest one. His red nose and eager stares exposed that he was quite the drunk.

One of the men prodded another man standing next to him with his elbow. “Looks like we have a young traveller that’s a drinker,” he sing-songed.

Johannan held his head down. One of the men tutted, and the others laughed.

“Drinking? And he still has mom’s milk just under his nose.”

The man that had snatched his water skins took a swig and immediately spat a shower of the liquid in Johannan’s face. “Water!” His eyes sprung open as the skin on his face gathered towards his nose. He threw the water skin at Johannan, hitting him in the head.

“Useless as a chicken pulling a chariot. I don’t even think your mother has a use for you! Let’s just throw him over a cliff.”

The others laughed. Johannan shook his head and waved both hands— he was helpless. Fear held his mouth, and his bottom lip trembled. He couldn’t even speak in his defence.

“Hey! Calm yourself! Let’s just take him in. He’s young—there’s more use to keeping him than throwing him off a cliff,” a bearded man responded.

The red-nosed man ran over and knocked Johannan to the ground with the side of his spearhead. “But he’s so scrawny! Look at him! I say, let him splatter against the rocks.”

The remaining four, including the bearded one, were silent, showing stares of disagreement. The red-nosed man faced Johannan with a disappointing droop to his eyes.

“You hear that, boy! You are coming with us. Goodness knows what they want with you. You look like a shaved bird!” he said, blowing a long blast of air through his flared nostrils.

The first people that came to mind were Ayushi and Mama. Will I ever get to see them again? He knew too well what these men where about. What were they going to do with him, if they weren’t going to kill him? They took his water, and it was all in the world he had. Why did he have to go with them?

The red-nosed man grabbed his arms, tugging him forwards.

“Move it, young traveller!”

The man who had spat in his face playfully dangled his knives in front of Johannan. “Do we have to do something that would speed things up a bit, young traveller?” Despair didn’t allow Johannan to look in his face.

“That will only slow things down, you idiot!” shouted the chubby figure.

The men laughed. The term “young traveller” must have been the joke of the day. Johannan drew in deep breaths through the slight parting of his lips. He couldn’t panic because these men wouldn’t think twice about killing him or beating him to near death. Out here, his life was worth less than two pigs, and that was being generous. He stared into the sky, speaking in a tone of dismay only he could hear. “Not even the sea will flow against me, you said.”

There was all the time in the world now, but no time to dwell on what promises the Great Spirit had made him on the mountain. He felt as though he was abandoned—the Great Spirit never did say how to summon him. The narrow focus of his eyes could’ve started a fire if he stressed any harder for an idea of how to escape. The problem was that these men could probably knock a fly off a camel’s ear with their spears, standing several paces away. He wasn’t going to risk running, waiting for a spear to rip through his back. But, the more he scanned his mind for a plan, the more his brain reciprocated stupid ideas that would get him killed. He’d just have to go along with the men until an idea more effective than running presented itself.

CHAPTER 16

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A peculiar figure

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After some time, they arrived at a small village, bedded with red mud. The trees were withered and shrivelled. Lifeless shades of hickory and walnut browns clawed towards the sky with a grasp of choking men drawing their last breath. The carefree children were playing outside, and they skipped over to greet the men and escort them in. The village women stared at Johannan with a disgust he had never experienced before.

What did I do to those women? Not even Mama Jala is that bad—she is miserable when you upset her, but at least there has to be a reason. His suggestive thoughts crept in, They are probably just a sad, angry people with nothing better to do but to frown all day.

Johannan noticed that little pigs were left to roam the village, partaking in the same freedom the children had. The place homed a foul smell of unwashed skin and other unpleasant odours. Johannan tried refraining from revealing the frustration in his face, in case he offended anyone. However, losing the fight with the intrusive whiffs had caused him to blink uncontrollably as if an eyelash were trapped in his eye. Maybe if I stopped breathing through my nose, I could avoid this horrid scent and maintain a straight face. A thought of observation added, Do these people actually wait for rain to wash themselves?

Johannan closed his eyes as thoughts of reason kicked in. Well, they don’t have a river like I have back home, maybe that’s why they smell like this.

His suggestive inner tone presented an idea: Not everyone has a river, but maybe if they left enough buckets out in the rain, they could collect enough water to do the things they needed.

They approached the last building in the village. Next to it was an iron cage about a foot taller than he was, with prisoners inside. There was no roof or walls; it was a public exhibition of their cruelty. The captives were malnourished and bore the stench of neglect.

But an overriding conflict of judgment concluded Johannan’s thoughts. No, nothing helps, these people are just cruel and nasty. Keep breathing out of the mouth.

The door to the cage squeaked as one of the men hauled it open. The others pushed and kicked Johannan to the ground inside. All of the prisoners huddled up together, rounded up by a threat Johannan had yet to witness. Flies scurried over their muddied skin. Johannan frowned in disgust, and breathing through his mouth was only effective to a point. He sat in the opposite corner of the cage, holding his knees against his chest. The dogs visited the prisoners to lick their skin as their frames collapsed against the cage bars from exhaustion.

“These people are barbaric savages,” he muttered to himself. At least they left him with his cloak for now, which, judging by their level of cruelty, was an obvious blunder. He could, at least, endure the cold night with it. A few hours had passed, and the sun began to surrender the day.

Johannan kept facing the hard muddy grounds to avoid eye contact with the constantly peering eyes of his pallid cellmates.

One of the prisoners got agitated as he stared at Johannan. Maybe it was the fact that he appeared healthy, reminding him of better times that he had buried away many months ago. The man’s eyes detonated into a flaring look, like a wild sow robbed of her piglets. You could count his ribs through his tanned skin from lack of eating as he stepped forward. He had reached his limit.

He opened his mouth wide releasing a helpless whelp of despair, “Let us go! Why are you keeping us here?” The guards rushed over with sticks and flogged him, reopening some of his wounds. The man fell to the ground, making a noise close to crying. A rumbling, wheezy cough rattled within his ribs.

Johannan crouched down and remained still, keeping his brown eyes to the reddened earth. The prisoners piled up on one another in an attempt to avoid a stray blow from the swinging sticks. The village guard continued to beat the man, every blow against his body sounding like a stick swatted against a stretched sheet of leather.

How am I going to get back to Ayushi now?

One of the prisoners spoke to Johannan once the men were out of sight. The sound of his wheezing in-between breaths was like a bubbling pot of Mama’s soup.

“They treat us really badly here. I have been here for months—my family must think I’m dead by now.”

Another prisoner interrupted, “What do they want with us? Sure, sell us or kill us even, but to keep us here in these conditions—why? Back home, we have chickens in a cage, and we clean the cage out all the time. The children are no better—they come during the day and throw stones at us.”

“I hate those little brats. If I could get out, I’d set them all on fire and burn them alive,” said another captive.

Johannan glanced into the village and saw a tall, peculiar figure. A man, watching him—everyone marched right past him, almost as if he wasn’t there. But he didn’t fit the scene; he didn’t resemble one of those people. The man’s robes seemed to release a faint glow that could be seen in the daylight, and his sky-blue hair rippled like silk in the breeze. Johannan glanced at the ground to break eye contact, and when he had turned back, the man was gone.

The sky gradually turned grey and cloudy, and it started to rain as the evening advanced. Johannan stooped in his corner of the cage. The other prisoners had nothing to protect themselves from the building rainfall. Every now and then, one of the village men would throw something on top of the cage to protect them from the rain, but he hadn’t been sighted in the village for some time, a prisoner told Johannan.

One of the prisoners pointed to a skinny, shivering dog taking shelter outside the cage. “Dogs are worth more than any of us.”

Johannan began to sob. Maybe I should have stayed home. I didn’t know people could be this bad. He rested his back against the cage, and he could feel the heat from his body rising up from the inside of his cloak. The heavens pecked the earth with showers. He glanced at the gaping prisoners; the red scabs of mud that had built up on their skin began to dissolve. Their appearance was horrible and unkempt, their washed skin revealed hidden bulbous welts all over their bodies. Johannan dipped his head. Those cruel village children have thrown so many stones at them, and they refuse to see what they are doing to these men. I can’t believe that their parents allow this.

The sudden clench of his fists prompted a cry for vengeance within. These people should be punished for their crimes.

That night, Johannan had a dream—or more so, a nightmare. He was at home with Mama and Ayushi. The chants of clucking chickens indicated that it was a fair day. His ears welcomed the missed sounds of popping from the fires under Mama’s pot. A burden departed from his body. The wonderful rich smell of Mama’s cooking penetrated his being. An atmosphere of love and peace, a sense of belonging to somewhere or to someone echoed within him, releasing fullness in his soul. Ayushi was sitting on her stool, hinting a smile of contentment. He dipped his chin; he had taken this for granted—he hadn’t been aware of his luck. It reminded him of something Mama used to always say: “You cannot see when you’re in the presence of love, but when it is taken from you, at that moment, your eyes begin to open.”

There was a growl from the hole in his stomach, and he inched over to the pot and began prodding for bits of meat, as he usually would when Mama’s attention was elsewhere. The simple smile on Ayushi’s face changed into a wide beam as she detected Johannan was up to no good again. As he bent down, poking for the biggest piece of meat he could find, he felt the sting of Mama’s rolling pin against his backside. Johannan shrieked, and both his legs hopped into the air, capsizing the pot.

Mama gnashed her teeth and trembled with rage. Ayushi cupped the sides of her head in panic. “Oh, you’ve really done it to her this time. Run, Johannan!”

He yelled as he dived through the hatch opening, but Mama was faster this time. She reached out to grab him, but he escaped her grasp. He hurtled over the goats, through the bush, and skipped over the river. When he twisted around to scan the distance he’d covered, he could see Mama closing in. He saw her large body hopping over the river’s stones in pursuit. Her rage had given her access to some sort of untapped energy to charge onward. Robbed of feeling a sense of relief, Johannan began to feel frightened. Mama wasn’t giving up, he had to retreat into the hills where he’d often take Ayushi. He always leaned towards the thought of Mama being more like a ballast on legs, as opposed to someone who could keep up, let alone catch him. Fatigue was invading his body, he had never seen her like this before.

With the last exhausting steps forward, he finally made it to the top. “Phew! She’s getting faster,” he said, resting his hands on his knees to regain control of his breathing.

He could see a panoramic view of the village and the heavenly trail of pluming ovens billowing upwards. Then he heard a sudden disturbance, a rustle in the scenery behind him. He veered to face the bush, and Mama was standing there, flicking a custom-made whip, crafted from a tree branch she had shelled of its skin.

“Boy, you are going to get it this time! Stealing our food before it’s cooked. Today, I know why there is always hardly any meat in the pot.”

The fury in her words overwhelmed him. He clasped his hands. “Mama, I’m sorry, please forgive me and let me go. I won’t do it again.”

“It is too late for that, child. I didn’t run all the way up here, almost killing myself along the way, to accept your silly apology. You knocked over my pot, and I have to do it all again. I’m going to beat the thief!”

And in saying that, she held up her whip and—

Johannan immediately woke up with a surging intake of air through his nostrils. The heavens still showered the earth with needles of water, and everyone in the village was indoors, sound asleep. He was relieved—it was just a dream. But come to think of it, he was in a better position in his dream than he was here. It was like one of Mama’s weird sayings: “Better to be beaten by a mother who loves you, than to be beaten by those who hate you.” It made sense now, a lot of sense.

He turned to view the village, and there was that man from earlier, standing there, staring at him. He began to draw closer to the cage. Johannan felt a quiver of unease. Swiftly, he turned his head, so that he caught sight of his glowing robe from the corner of his eye.

“Son of Nepal.”

A comforting voice resounded through the missiles of rain. Only two beings called him that, and this man didn’t resemble either of them. Johannan angled up into the man’s flawless face. His clear skin deflected the light along his prominent jaw line, and his eyes changed from blue to green, like iridescent sheets of satin. Johannan had never seen eyes like this before. The signature stench of the village dissolved as he came closer.

“Do not be frightened, Son of Nepal. I was sent here to deliver a message. The Master is with you. He said he can feel your every anguish, your every fear. You must not be troubled.” Then he pointed to the sky. “Behold.”

Johannan stared into the raining heavens and saw a wide hole in the clouds right above him—it unclothed the star-speckled night. There was one star that stood out brighter than all the others. Every time he glanced at the beams of light, it shimmered in response.

“That excellent star which sits in the distant heavens above you is the Master. He has followed you from out of the Gobi desert. You must not be afraid.”

Johannan was silenced by the hand of awe. The man continued to speak, “During the day, the Master will be like a small gust of wind in the heavens, and you will know that he is with you when the birds of the air have taken to the wind.”

Johannan felt like his tongue was suddenly released by concern, “What am I supposed to do? These people are going to kill me.”

“Be still—this village has seen its last days on earth. In the morning, the law will pass over it, then their judgment will come from the heavens.”

What does that mean? The law passing over the village?

The man ambled away with a voice that faded in the rain, “Do not be afraid, Son of Nepal.”

CHAPTER 17

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The stench of destruction

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The muddied ground of the morning exposed a whole night of rainfall. It was cold and damp. The prisoners formed a cluster of wet bodies in the corner of the cage to distribute the heat that escaped from their fellow captives. Throats were cooled in the morning mist that was beginning to depart early in favour of the afternoon. A shivering forehand of filled veins extended to point at Johannan.

“Look! He’s bone dry, he didn’t get wet at all!” A mixture of mucus and saliva dangled from the lips of the prisoner in his attempt to expose Johannan, whom he believed had greedily hidden a secret from the rest of them.

Johannan, at a loss for words, failed to explain how he managed to remain dry, especially when all the prisoners’ skin glistened with evidence of heavy rainfall. Having no explanation didn’t suffice with a few of the prisoners, and they kept to a grudging silence. Johannan was puzzled; all the questions he had asked himself yielded no reasonable answers, almost like asking a fisherman’s advice on how to build houses. How did the small area around him remain dry? After all, he did sleep quite well, and this would partly explain why.

The progressive bustle of the village indicated that everyone was getting prepared for the day. The men were gathering materials to make a fire, and the women scraped the skins off vegetables for dinner.

The intrusive blare of a horn suddenly arrested the entire sky. The whole village paused with a frightened curiosity. The low-pitched peal was many times worse than the roar of thunder that heralded the approach of hurricanes. The people stretched their arms out to balance as the ground quivered. Old pots and pans edged and tumbled from their shelves, and some of the weaker roofs of the village huts collapsed. Ornaments rattled, and some shattered. The children and the animals scampered in all directions in an aimless hope to find shelter. The cage rumbled, and the prisoners yelled. Johannan held onto the vibrating bars. He had been in situations like this before out in the desert. The betraying message of his heart revealed to him that no matter how many times he experienced similar events, he would never be allowed to grow used to them.

Could it be the Soburin and the Muhandae? This must be what that man spoke of last night.

Shouts from one of the men jolted Johannan, who was by now lost in a world of his own ideas. The anonymous individual implored everyone in the village to witness what was happening in the sky.

Johannan saw fear in their faces. Those expressions had caused him to shiver with the cold of an unknown terror.

What are they all seeing?

He tilted his head to observe. There was a sparkling ball of what could be better described as a glowing white flame. It was soaring high above the village, and spewing behind it stretched a billowing trail of ashy clouds and glittering embers. It was the same type of smog that proclaimed the vengeance of a volcano.

The snatching hands of some of the village women hoisted their children onto their hips. Others searched and latched onto their just as frightened husbands. After half an hour, the low-pitched sound of the horn died. The evidence of a long stream of black smoke lingering over the village pointed the route of the fiery light, which had now returned to the heavens. The village was overwhelmed with the wails of crying children, howling skinny dogs, and squealing pigs. So many times, the question “what was that?” was repeated throughout the village. No one had ever reported seeing a thing like this before. The prisoners were all talking and sharing concerns for their families and homes.

Later that day, the village settled back into their everyday routines, but the villagers were still discussing the perplexing events of that morning.

Johannan remembered what the man had said to him during the night. He stared up high into the ether and saw a group of bar-headed geese gliding around in circles. It was just as he said, the Master is up there watching.

But his inner voice of objection aired its views. But, what is he actually doing up there if he has come to help?

Johannan wondered why the Soburin and the Muhandae didn’t free him from his imprisonment. A guard’s voice pulled Johannan from his state of mind.

“That’s him, that’s the one we caught yesterday, blissfully trespassing in our mountains,” said the tall, skinny guard with the red nose. He was talking with a form of respect, which led Johannan to believe the other guard was the one in charge.

“Did you find anything on him?” the leader replied in a stern, husky, and malevolent tone.

“Skins filled with water. We actually thought the boy had wine on him.”

The man in charge paced around the cage, glaring at Johannan. The other prisoners attempted to stay out of his line of vision. It was obvious to Johannan from their behaviour that this man was responsible for most of their wounds. “You thought he had wine on him? Get him out! I want to further inspect him.”

The red-nosed guard beckoned his fellow guards to assist him in getting Johannan out of the cage. It wasn’t long before Johannan felt the forceful grip of four hands locking onto the inside of his arms. He begged them to release him with pleas for mercy.

“Shut up!” said the leader, slapping Johannan across his face with the back of his hand. “You will speak when you are spoken to. You belong to me now!”

Johannan struggled, but the men who were holding him exhibited a force twice his strength. They were getting annoyed with him and threw him against the ground with a severing noise of tearing clothes. They closed in with several kicks to the stomach, and Johannan coughed in pain. They knocked the wind out of him, his stomach convulsed, and he regurgitated. He couldn’t recall ever feeling a pain like this before.

“On your feet, young traveller.” The men yanked him back up.

Johannan could taste blood inside his mouth, and his eyes were red from the abundance of tears.

“What were you doing in our territory, boy?”

“He could be a spy, coming to search for the other prisoners,” said the man with the red nose. The leader stepped close to Johannan, so that they were face to face; close enough for Johannan to smell the warm stench of his horrible breath.

“Is that true, then? Are you a spy? Have you come to free the others?”

Johannan could barely stand up, his head slowly pivoting on his neck.

“I—I’m just a traveller. I don’t know anyone in the cage. I’m too young to be a spy.”

The responding frown showed that the leader didn’t seem convinced. The men shouted words like “He’s lying” and “He’s a spy”.

Johannan knew they couldn’t be so stupid as to believe he was a spy, but they just wanted to beat him for sport. The leader slapped Johannan again and again, blood and saliva sputtered to the left and right.

“Speak, boy! Tell us the truth! We want to hear it.”

The villagers gathered around in a circle; they were feeding off the suggested lies.

“Beat him,” they shouted.

“Hit him really hard,” said some of the women, stamping the ground with enthusiasm.

Johannan could only imagine the pain he was about to endure as the voices of the villagers drowned out any sound he could have made in his defence.

A few words only he could hear crawled from his lips, “Home . . . M-Mama . . . A-Ayushi.”

Was he ever going to see them again? He remembered that day, leaving home—he chose not to turn around, but he heard Ayushi crying and felt her falling to the ground. He recalled Mama rushing to her, demanding in her most commanding tone that he came back. This was his last memory of the women he loved.

He drew in a deep breath, a breath that only a festering buildup of anger could support him to inhale, and he shouted with all his might, “Let me go!”

The guards threw him into the cage. Johannan’s head bounced against the metal bars with a resounding clung, his knees collapsed, and he fell on the ground.

“Let me go!” he cried, he could feel his heart beating fast.

The leader felt like he had tolerated enough of Johannan’s insolence, and he called for his spear with a sharp, direct order that revealed an intent to kill. Johannan shouted, expelling all of the air his lungs carried, repeating the words, “Let me go!” His teardrops darkened the red earth beneath him.

High up in the heavens, where man’s eyes had not seen before, the anguish and pain of Johannan caught the Soburin’s attention in the realm of spirits. A loud, thundering scream of Ayushi’s name ripped across the voids.

The Soburin swayed back as if to dodge something that came towards him. He felt Johannan’s sorrow blasting against him in the manifestation of a gust of wind, and he covered his face with the inside of his elbow. Johannan’s heart continued to cry out in blustering currents that appeared to increase in strength, proving that his connection to the Soburin was strong.

The gale that fought against him was unusual to him and if his wrath wasn’t triggered, he would have been astounded. This was something in the whole of the universe that caused him to take a step back, like a mere mortal avoiding an assault.

It was a feat that even the gods would have failed to believe. This, however, was unacceptable. The area above his nose tightened to form a horrible scowl.

The Soburin plummeted from the heavens in a searing rage. The loud cry of Johannan’s heart was a sound he couldn’t seem to abide by, and he descended into the mountainous regions of Altun Shan.

CHAPTER 18

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Remembering him

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“Ayushi, you must eat, or you will get ill. Why must I tell you this all the time, child?”

“Mama, you yourself have hardly eaten. Everyone is saying that you have lost so much weight since—” Ayushi’s head dipped to face the ground, and her tone softened. “Since he left.”

“That boy! I knew he would give me trouble. That he’d be the death of me. He finally left me—he left us,” Mama sobbed, resting a heavy hand against the door. “I remember so well that day he was first given to me. He was a cheeky little boy. The old man said he was a good child, and that he had a great destiny ahead of him.” She sniffed and released a hint of a chuckle under her breath. “Destiny or not, I knew I’d have trouble straightening him out. I could hardly catch him when he was naughty—it was like trying to catch a mouse.”

Ayushi missed how Johannan explained their surroundings with such passion; everything was beautiful as long as they were together. She could feel herself taking deep breaths.

“Mama, you mustn’t cry—he will return one day. He must, Joha—”

“I told you not to say that name around me!” shouted Mama. “He’s gone and left us. Everyone has their sons at home now, working and tending to the animals, and what do we have?”

“Mama, you mustn’t do this to yourself.”

“You think I haven’t heard you crying at night? Trying not to worry me, but failing miserably in your attempt to do so!” Ayushi jumped as Mama pounded her fists against the table. “I have a fool of a son, who abandons his family and wanders across the muddy plains, God knows where, in search of things that don’t exist.” She shook her head. “He could be dying of starvation. Or worse, he could be . . .”

Mama tried to regain control of herself and Ayushi. Every time she thought about her mischievous boy, it drained the strength from her to stand and robbed her of her appetite.

“Every time I cooked, I knew he would steal the meat when I wasn’t looking, so I’d pretend I didn’t know, and I’d put extra in the pot, just for him.”

“Mama, we have to believe that he is well. He is very strong—do you remember the time he climbed up the tree, and you couldn’t get him down?”

“Goodness! He fell and hurt himself. I was so angry with him I wanted to hit him for days, but I couldn’t. It hurt me to see him crying like that. He ran and hugged me so tight. My boy, he knew the way to my heart, past all of the anger.”

“But he survived, Mama—he survived! He is much stronger than you are letting yourself believe. That strength gives me hope. I know he will come back to us.”

“I remember when I was younger, washing my clothes in the river, and an old man from China said he had found him and left him with me. He was such a rude child—he stuck his tongue out and ran to hide behind the man.” Mama stared out the door to watch the children as they were chasing the chickens in the village. “I thought I could knead that stubbornness out of him. I didn’t like his name, and I wanted to change it—it sounded so foreign—but that old man was against it.”

“His name doesn’t even sound Chinese. Do you remember him well—the old man, that is?”

“It was years after when he brought you to me, carrying you in a basket strapped to his back. He said that you two children together were special, and that you could change the world. I actually thought you were orphans from some royal household or something like that. I suppose the bond you shared was special enough.”

“Mama, who was that man? I try, but I don’t remember him.”

“He was just a friendly traveller from somewhere in mainland China. Never said his name, and I never asked. He had a very deep tone in his voice, very manly.”

“What did he look like?”

“He had long hair and wore one of those sedge hats. It was so wide I remember it covering you both from the sun.”

Mama thought about Johannan but couldn’t bring herself to say his name. She laughed as though she remembered a joke. “When I first took you in, you wouldn’t talk to me or eat unless he was there, and I had to ask him the questions I wanted to ask you because you wouldn’t speak to me at all.”

Ayushi smiled; he was always there for her, right from the start.

CHAPTER 19

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Stand to your feet!

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The village became a scene of pandemonium, shouting men, and screaming women. Johannan’s trembling hands were a physical testimony to the untamed fear moving inside him. He still snatched the opportunity to search for an opening in the gathering.

Just past the uneven wall of hate-filled faces, he managed to catch a glimpse of the man with the sky-blue hair. A brief moment of eye contact implied that he was monitoring the situation. He maintained an even pace around the outskirts of the throng. Oblivious, the people didn’t notice him. It was at that point Johannan realised something: he was the only person who could see the man. He was invisible to everyone else, a spirit of some sort.

Is he going to help me? There wouldn’t be much point of him being here if he isn’t.

The man positioned himself, so that Johannan could see above his shoulders. He smiled a soft smile, a type of smile that said to Johannan, “Don’t worry, this is part of the plan.”

“Behold, Son of Nepal. The Master is upon you.” A familiar tone overpowered the cruel suggestions and curses of the people, but they didn’t seem to respond.

The people can’t hear him either, only I.

The man waved his hand with an elegance that exposed a form of nobility as his image dissolved into the atmosphere. “Look up, Son of Nepal.”

Ignoring the storming words of the throng, Johannan fixed his brown eyes to the sky. He flinched when he sighted a shimmering boulder of light about to fall on him. He covered his closing eyes with the inside of his elbow; he couldn’t escape in time.

Moments later, an exchange of screeches and gasps harmonized a sonata of dismay.

“L-look, his hair. Can you see that? It’s changing colour,” shrieked a voice in a startling tone.

“His entire head is changing. It—it’s white, like the colour of lightning!” said another.

Those words reminded Johannan of what took place on the mountain when he stood before the Muhandae. He gulped in a failing attempt to swallow his unease. He remembered the resounding words of that great lion, “It will come to pass that whenever I am nearby or with you, the authority of the Soburin will rest upon your frame.”

The voices of the villagers faded to a silence only attained by human absence. The progress of a tender draft caressed Johannan’s cheeks, and its eerie wails stole the quietness. He released the tight hold his eyelids had on his vision.

“Where am I?” The scenery had changed—he was back on that great mountain in the desert where he first met the Soburin and the Muhandae. “Impossible! What am I doing here?”

He stared up into the night sky, and on a cloud before him, with long, flowing hair as bright as the moon itself, stood the Soburin.

His heart raced, but nonetheless he was saved! Finally, the Great Spirit had come through for him.

“Johannan, Son of Nepal, stand to your feet.”

Johannan stood up with deep feelings of gratitude. A sensation of relief had energized him.

“I thank you for saving me, my Master. Thanks to you!” He tucked his stomach and bowed with his most generous form of politeness.

The Soburin reciprocated with a worried demeanour. Johannan failed to comprehend what it meant.

“Saved you?” echoed the Soburin as he angled forward to get a closer look at Johannan. “Rejoice not, you are not delivered yet.”

Johannan was bewildered. He shook his head; that uninvited voice within him was telling him to expect the worst. “Surely I am safe, Master, I am far from that evil village of thieves and murderers.”

The Soburin expressed a tender smile, “We are still in the village, Johannan. I have summoned you here to instruct you on what you must do next.”

Disappointment clamped his teeth to a bite so tight the sides of his jaws hardened. He had assumed that he was rid of that horrible horde and their foul-smelling village. But how? How is it possible to be here in the desert and be in the village at the same time?

His inner voice answered after scanning his experiences for an explanation. This is impossible, none of it makes sense.

The Soburin’s expression responded to his thoughts. “Son of Nepal, I am in your heart, your very soul, where all your memories dwell. This mountain, because of our meeting, lives in your heart, and I have called you here to instruct you on what you must do next. When you awaken, you will return to the very moment you remembered last.”

The Soburin raised his voice to a volume so intense that even the mountain rocks rolled. “When you return, you must lift both hands to the heavens and take hold of the reins of judgment and destruction.”

These were not the words Johannan had desired to hear. He shook his head, “No, Master, please don’t do this.” He retreated a few steps and threw his head into his palms to hide his eyes from the distracting glare. “You can’t send me back, you just can’t!”

The Soburin’s eyes reciprocated by burning brighter. “Johannan, do as you have been instructed, and you will witness the might of the Muhandae.”

The omnipresent roar of the great lion exploded as he finished, testifying its agreement with the words of the Soburin. The Soburin gazed into the heavens. The columns of light emanating from his eyes were like shooting stars on a clear night.

“Take hold of the reins of power and call him down,” he said in a fading tone.

Johannan surrendered the idea of not returning. He inhaled the deep regret, and in the blink of an eye, he was back in the village, standing before the faces of uncharted terror and fear.

The threats of death that were once filled with anger and enmity were now shrills of dread and trepidation. The people surrounded him, keeping their distance as they would to a wild beast that had strayed into the village and put everyone’s safety at risk. The scrapes of bare feet to the earth pushed the prisoners into a heap against the cage bars.

Readied spears, knives, pots, and pans trembled with the threats of death. The village leader stood in front of the villagers, panting with a festering anger that indicated he could attack anytime soon. You would have never thought it possible for the leader’s once stern demeanour to transform into something far more grisly. The villagers began to reveal their concerns.

“His eyes, they too have changed colour!”

“Do you think he is a demon or some sort of sorcerer?”

“We don’t care what he is! I say, let us kill him before he puts a curse on us!”

Johannan felt lightheaded; his throat tightened, he was almost gasping for air, and he could feel a tremble travelling up his legs, drawing on his strength to stand. Then he heard the stretched voice of the Soburin, echoing from within him. “Take hold of the reins, Johannan.”

He stretched his hands towards the heavens, and the mob flinched; they were just as frightened as Johannan. A soft, stretched hiss made way for the abundance of whispers.

“What is he doing?”

“He’s trying to put a curse on us?”

He could hear a few distinct tones airing their thoughts. He was lost as to how all this was going to end. He wiped the setting blood from his mouth, a sharp pain from a cut on his lip pushed his thoughts.

This judgment and destruction was a delayed retribution these wicked people deserved.

“Now the time has come. Son of Nepal, lower your hands and unleash the power of the Muhandae.”

Johannan dropped his hands to his sides, watching out for anything out of the ordinary. He stood there, with a frown of expectancy. Now what?

The disheartening peal of the world-shattering horn returned. The villagers’ attention diverted to the sky. Johannan angled himself to view the heavens. The horizon began to transform into extending veins of furious greys. The people saw them closing in from all angles. Johannan shared their feelings of distress.

“M-Master, I really hope that this is you,” he said in a tone only he could hear. The coarse outlines of mottled greys swirled and pivoted to surround the village, forming a circular window that revealed the fading blueness of the ether.

CHAPTER 20

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The sorcerer

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The ground-shaking noise subsided, and the clouds remained still but eerily animated. They bubbled like the waters that climbed up the shorelines of the coast. The people’s attention went back to Johannan—they were distressed, he could see it.

“Is this your doing, young traveller? What have you done, boy?” said the village leader.

Johannan’s breathing became rapid, his head trembled, and he peered into both of his hands. I didn’t do this. I just did what the Master told me to do. How do I explain this?

He attempted to gulp, but his throat was too dry. He waved his hands, “Please, I have done nothing wrong.”

“You call this nothing, sorcerer?” Flecks of saliva launched from the man’s mouth. He grabbed his spear, but it snapped in his grasp; the wood appeared to be years rotten. His eyes widened with complete abandon, and he launched himself into Johannan, striking him across the face.

Like flashing sunlight in a moving mirror, a wave of radiance travelled from the roots of Johannan’s hair and disappeared at the tip. He didn’t feel the sting of the strike, almost as if he hadn’t been attacked at all, as if the enraged leader had struck someone else. Not long after, the leader threw himself to the ground, howling in agony.

“My arm! What have you done to my arm, sorcerer?” he rolled around as a man would if he was on fire. “Help me, help me. The fire, it’s burning me!”

The guards rushed over. They couldn’t see any fire, his words confused them.

“Get this coat off me!”

The guards removed his coat, and the entire village shrieked in dread. His arms were covered in red bulbous sores, his flesh beginning to decay before them. The guard holding his coat quickly threw it to the ground.

The land began to shake. It sounded like the entire mountain dislodged, and everyone began to feel a sensation of falling. A worm-like cloud started to dive from the bubbling greys, swirling downward like a spiralling coil. The voice of the Muhandae crippled the firmament with a noise no words could describe.

“Wenling and Hong—did I not tell you that this day would come? Against my council, you have failed to expel your murderous son. And now I will visit utter destruction on the womb of Wenling. I will wipe you away from the body of the earth as you have done to the innocent.” The winding cloud reached ground level and dispersed with a great gale. The atmosphere became tinted as though it was overshadowed by something huge.

“The pain you have caused calls to me for justice, and I can no longer abide with it.”

A thick mist crawled against the ground, bringing with it months of decay within minutes. Sores and sickness began to appear on the villagers as it touched them, and though they ran from it, it eventually caught up. The animals and the vegetation withered. Johannan saw what this terrible mist had brought with it, and his heart began to ache for his enemies. He had no idea that this “judgment” the Soburin had spoken of would be this dreadful. The trees, the animals and pets— nothing was exempt. Johannan had to watch the children suffer. He kept drying his face, but the tears kept flowing. He knew the children had done bad things, but hearing them scream the way they did made him wish that this had never happened. If he had never left Nepal, if he had never gone to the desert, these children would still be alive.

The mist began to surround the prison, and the bars began to corrode as they swirled up the metal pillars like vines. Shouts of fear came from the prisoners. Johannan gasped and covered his eyes.

“No, Master! Don’t do this horrible thing. Please—they were with me.”

The bubbling mists paused; it was as though it had heard Johannan and honoured his request. The crawling fog divided its body, like a sheet torn in two. It formed a pathway that led from the cage to the outside of the village.

Seeing this, Johannan knew that the Muhandae had listened to him. He was letting the prisoners go, but they just stood there, frozen with fear and hoarse from all the shouting.

Johannan knew he had to help them. He drew closer to the cage, and the shouts of terror increased. The prisoners picked up what they could from the ground, pebbles and handfuls of dirt, ready to throw at him.

“Stay back! We warn you, sorcerer!

A puff of dust dispersed as one threw a handful of pebbles at Johannan. Johannan paused in his steps, his lip trembled, “This wasn’t me, I didn’t do this, brothers—please.”

“We are not your brothers, demon!” a venomous howl retorted from the cage.

He fell to his knees and streams of regret flowed from his face. “Why—why is this happening to me?”

Something touched the heart of one of the prisoners when Johannan fell to the ground. He remembered his son, about the same age as Johannan.

“He is just a child, no older than my eldest son at home.” The prisoner dislodged himself from the cluster of bodies and inched over to Johannan.

“No, get back, you fool—he’ll burn you alive with his evil powers of sorcery!”

The man ignored them and knelt down beside Johannan. He took ahold of his hands.

“I have a boy just like you at home. You reminded me of him just now.” The man took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I miss him so, so much, with all my heart.”

Johannan sobbed, “I-I have not done this to these people. This is the doing of my Master.”

“Your Master?” Johannan could feel the vibrations of fear travelling through the man’s hands. “That voice belonged to your Master?”

“I b-begged him to spare you,” said Johannan, holding his head down. He pointed towards the village’s exit. “This pathway that he opened up will take you to the outside of the village. Take the others with you and go quickly.”

The man beckoned the others, and they came after they saw he was safe. He told them to leave, and each prisoner ran out of the village as fast as their remaining strength allowed them.

The man patted Johannan on the back, “Son, I don’t know what you have done here, but I honour you. You have saved us. I will see my mother, my son, and my wife again.”

The man hugged him. Johannan feared he was never going to see Mama and Ayushi again, that this place would be the last place he would be. The man’s hug reminded him of the safe embrace of Mama’s arms, and he cried.

The man held him tighter. “Before you came, I saw four of my fellow prisoners die in that cage. We would have shared the same fate if their men had never caught you.” The prisoner released his embrace to hold onto Johannan’s shoulders. “I will tell everyone at home of your deeds here, and you will be a hero to us.”

He slowly nodded, letting go of Johannan’s shoulders. “Goodbye, my young friend, and thank you.” He followed the others ahead of him.

Johannan got up to his feet, recovered his water skins, and made his way to the exit. He saw a woman reaching for her child, crying in the mist. The child used whatever strength left to crawl towards her mother. Johannan grabbed his head; it was a sight too much to bear. He ran over, picked the little girl up, and handed her to her mother. The woman screamed, and blood escaped from her mouth as she snatched her child from Johannan. He bowed his head in a shame he believed he’d never had to feel. He noticed the sores began to scab and fall off the woman and her child. Their withering flesh filled out like an empty water skin being topped up with water.

The woman hadn’t yet noticed that she was recovering. She spat blood at the ground in front of him, “Leave us—haven’t you done enough, evil sorcerer?”

The word “evil” had bitten into Johannan’s soul. He felt the nasty grip of guilt and shame wrapping around his body, making it slightly harder to breathe. He left the woman to make his way down the mountain.

CHAPTER 21

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The Everplanes

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After a long time staggering with his head facing the ground, Johannan sat on a rock. He started to feel hate, guilt, and shame towards himself, and he began to weep.

The woman’s voice resounded within the walls of his soul. Leave us—haven’t you done enough, evil sorcerer

I’m not the evil one! You are!

A voice of defence and accusation surfaced within him. You were watching when your guards beat the prisoners and left them in the cold. When your children stoned them, you watched and said nothing. When they were hungry, you gave them rotting leftovers that even the dogs would refuse. How am I the evil one? How can you call me evil, not seeing what you were doing?

The Soburin’s voice echoed within him. “Be at peace, Johannan, Son of Nepal. Stand to your feet.” Johannan stood up, his head still facing the ground. “I shall return to the heavens and lead you to the Yarlung Tsangpo River where we will meet again.”

Johannan nodded, “Yes, Master. Please lead the way.”

“The journey before you is great, and the land ahead has become filled with wild beasts. I will send a Watcher, the Origin of War, and he will clear the way ahead of you that you may be safe.”

The word “watcher” stuck in Johannan’s mind—he had never heard this term before.

“M-Master, all those people you destroyed, was there no way of sparing them?” he said.

“You have much to learn, and it is so that I will send one that will teach you on your way. Go!”

At that point, Johannan’s hair reverted to its natural charcoal colour. After some time, he noticed that the bar-headed geese that were circling above him were now further ahead. He knew he had to follow, beginning his journey towards the Yarlung Tsangpo River.

Johannan reached the bottom of the mountains, and there were sounds of burbling and popping, the kind of sound you’d expect to hear from a spring or a stream making a new path on dry ground. He searched to see where the sounds were coming from and noticed a stretched wisp of smoke in the atmosphere. He traced the smoke, and it led to the man with the sky-blue hair, who was fanning the flames on a fire he had made. The fire was a few paces above a gushing spring of water. Johannan couldn’t recall seeing a spring on his travels to the desert or when he had been abducted.

“Fill up your water skins, Son of Nepal. The journey ahead of you is too great.”

“What’re you doing here, sir?” said Johannan. He wondered why a spirit would be out here baking bread at the bottom of the mountain.

“Here, take this and eat. The bread will strengthen you,” said the man, dismissing Johannan’s question.

Johannan ate the bread; it was moist, flavoured, and crispy. He never thought he’d ever get to eat something like this again. It was like the beginning of that dream he had back in the cage, when he smelled Mama’s cooking, and it made him feel the safety and love of his home. He tried to eat as much as he could, but he barely managed the amount he took. It seemed like his stomach had shrunken since he hadn’t eaten properly for over a week. It felt like such a wasted opportunity—a sin, even—not to be able to eat as much of this food as he could. He knew he would regret this later, but what could he do? Johannan turned to thank the man for the delicious bread, but he had already disappeared.

Why does this man keep doing these things?

Johannan continued to follow in the direction of the spiralling birds. It was getting late, and the geese circled above a tall tree.

Why would the birds come to a stop in the middle of nowhere? The Master must want me to rest here tonight.

The man with the sky-blue hair stepped out from behind the tree a few moments after. Johannan flinched. “You again!”

The man was holding a round plate of rock, and on it were some fish and bread. He extended his hand, “Take it and eat, Son of Nepal.”

Johannan took the food and started to eat; he gathered that the spirit didn’t like to talk, so he didn’t bother thanking him, or he may just disappear again.

The man had his back to Johannan while he was monitoring the wilderness.

“Did you know that you were being followed?” he asked.

Johannan paused. “No, I didn’t, sir. Who is following me?” He glanced over his shoulder seeing nothing but the blue-violet tint of the evening sky and the darker, empty wilderness behind him. He turned back. “He’s gone!”

He did it again.

Johannan didn’t feel like he had the right to be annoyed, but nevertheless, he could feel the irritation tightening his face. Who could be following him way out here in the wilderness? He didn’t see anyone during the day, but he would be sure to keep an eye out for whoever it may be. He stamped the ground, “Why didn’t he just say who it was!”

He leaned his back against the tree. The sun had almost surrendered to the whiteness of the moon. The songs of the local birds calmed him, and his eyelids became heavier.

“Quickly, Son of Nepal!”

Johannan jumped out of his sleep, “What is it?”

The man was standing in front of him. His robes shone many times brighter than his first appearance in the village. It was very late, crickets were chirping; Johannan must have dozed off without knowing. He got up and scanned around. Strands of his hair blew against his face; it was more windy than usual.

“What’s going on? H-how— ?” he shook his head as if he was recovering from a state of daze. “Why can I see my body sleeping against the tree? Am I dreaming?”

“This is no dream—this is the spirit realm, and it is called the Everplanes. I have been ordered to reveal the secrets of the earth to you, that you may see further than the eyes of man permits you. Some things here may look the same, others are not.” The man turned around and ambled away.

“Make haste, Son of Nepal. There is not much time!” he said

Johannan could feel the urgency in his voice giving him a burst of energy. He followed the man, taking several glances at his body just lying there under the tree. His body seemed so at peace, it seemed like the only time his pain and sorrows were not weighing him down.

This Everplanes didn’t seem any different from the real world, though it could be the reason for all this wind. They continued to trace Johannan’s steps.

“I’ve walked all this way already, why are we going back?”

“Wait and you will see.”

A question came to Johannan—he had met this man so many times, and he didn’t know what to call him.

“What is your name?”

“The Master calls me Aneo.

They approached a group of large shrubs which concealed someone behind it. Aneo continued past the wall of shrubs to stand in front of the person’s view. The person didn’t seem to respond to his presence, just like the time he had seen Aneo in the village among the people.

“Do not worry, Son of Nepal, they cannot see nor hear us.” He beckoned Johannan, “Come.”

They? Johannan echoed in his mind. He stepped forward and felt blood rushing to his head as soon as he saw who it was.

“That’s the woman and the child that were at the village gates! Why are they following me?”

“Her name is Pema, and the child is called Rinzen.” Aneo pointed at a rock, “Her intent is to kill you in your sleep with that stone.”

Johannan covered his mouth, “W-why? I didn’t do anything to her.”

“Yes, that is true, but she holds you responsible for the death of her husband, her mother, her father, and her siblings.”

He seemed very specific about her motives—Johannan believed he could have just said the word “family.” The mention of each person caused Johannan to feel an invasion of panic and worry.

“I’m still asleep! We should go and wake me up, or she’ll kill me, and I’ll never see Ayushi and Mama again!”

“Do not be frightened—the second that plan was conceived, the Master provided a way out that you may live.”

Johannan still felt worried. He was helpless. The last time Aneo had told him not to worry, he was beaten in the morning. As far as he was concerned, the Master didn’t have to do anything but wake him up and let him run miles away. Pema had a child, so there was no way that he couldn’t create a vast distance between them. He considered it a bit more and questions came to mind, objecting to his ideas. But what if she caught up, just like Mama did in that dream? I’d be helpless.

Pema took hold of the rock, and leaving her child, Rinzen, asleep, she lumbered towards the place Johannan was sleeping. Johannan wondered whether he might be able to wake up and get away in time if he left Aneo and scooted into his body.

Aneo gently fanned the air behind him with his hand. “Be still, Son of Nepal, we must wait. The Master has not yet permitted us to move from here.”

Johannan’s head dropped to face the ground in defeat; it seemed like Aneo was reading his mind.

Aneo pointed towards the direction Pema went, “Observe and do not let her leave your sight.”

Johannan lifted his head to stare in the direction of his body. Aneo stood there, gazing in the same direction with his arms folded. Johannan watched Pema staggering with the rock in her hand, Just one hit with a rock that size would kill anyone.

She was getting closer, to a point where Johannan was beginning to cringe. If the Master has something planned, he’d better do it now.

An abrupt explosion of a great fire threw Pema into the air and sent her several paces back. The flames grew to sound like the howling wind of a storm, and a voice that sounded like a multitude of men all speaking at once began to speak.

“I am one of the Seven Origins of the Heavens. I am the Origin of War.” Two eyes of a greater fire materialised, and Pema screamed so loud that Rinzen woke up and ran to her.

“You have escaped judgment on the mountain, children of Wenling, and this I know not how.” The fire surrounded them, and Pema cried out in the direction of Johannan, who appeared to be fast asleep, “Please save us, young sorcerer! I’m sorry! Please spare us!”

Johannan could see and hear everything and he began to worry about Rinzen.

A man with burnished bronze skin materialised within the surrounding blaze. He had the appearance of a most dreadful and awesome warrior. His hair was wild like a lion’s mane and glowed as orange as molten metal. A being that looked like the entire earth, from its expansive mountains to its surging seas, would shudder before him. A colossal wheel of flames spun above him. His countenance was so frightening that even Johannan, from the distance he was at, felt an uninvited tremble. Pema called him to help, but what could he do? He was fast asleep and stuck in the Everplanes, wherever that was.

His head turned towards Aneo, “What’s going to happen to her?”

“She and the child will die. There will be no escape for them,” said Aneo. His way of words and tone revealed that he was surprisingly comfortable with this. “The fires of earth bring warmth and are here to serve man, but the fires of the spirit realm bring about vast destruction.”

Johannan didn’t want Pema and especially Rinzen to die. He heard the singing of a swift scrape of metal as the Origin of War withdrew a long sword.

“There must be something that can be done to save them.”

“There is nothing that anyone can do apart from yourself. You are the only one with the power to stop this, Son of Nepal.”

Johannan wondered what he meant by that. He didn’t know he could stop this, otherwise he would have stopped it moments earlier.

“How? How do I stop this, Aneo?”

Aneo chuckled, “Still you do not know of the power that is within you.” He shook his head in a way that displayed slight disappointment. “Do you remember what happened when the mist was about to destroy the prisoners in the village?”

“Yes, I remember.”

“You remembered, yet you still exercise your talent to ask amiss. What saved them, Son of Nepal?”

Johannan rubbed the frown on his face, then the answer came to him. He waved towards the sky, “Master! Please do not do this, spare the woman and her child!”

Aneo laughed. It was an outburst of deep satisfaction. “Excellent, Son of Nepal, excellent!”

A short time went past, and Aneo tapped Johannan on the shoulder and pointed, “Look, Son of Nepal.”

The Origin of War stopped dead in his tracks. His attention was diverted towards the heavens. He sheathed his sword. “Someone has spoken on your behalf, and the Master has decided to show you mercy. Arise and go, you are free!”

The bronzed figure jumped and hovered a few feet above Pema and disappeared with the flame. There was an afterglow in the locations he hovered. It appeared as though he burned through the atmosphere, leaving a brilliance like heated coal.

“It worked!” shouted an excited Johannan.

“Yes, and she will be returning soon. Let us leave now, but you must not worry, you are both safe. Make haste! I have much to show you, and the morning will be here soon,” said Aneo, treading away. Johannan followed along.

CHAPTER 22

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The request to chasten Europe

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There was a certain beauty about the moon of the Everplanes. Johannan noticed that it shimmered with silver and soft contrasts of pink. Aneo’s white raiment appeared brighter than the moon itself as it climbed from a brightness to a brilliance.

“The Master wants me to teach you, and he will take us to the next place. Take ahold of my hand, Son of Nepal.”

Johannan held on to Aneo’s warm hand, and he noticed a surge of energy flowing through his body. He felt as light as a falling leaf on an autumn wind. Aneo waved a hand toward the sky, “Master, take us to the next destination.”

After he finished his words, the entire scenery changed. They appeared in a vast darkness.

“Where are we?” asked Johannan. His voice echoed back at him, insisting that this place was much bigger. The radiance of Aneo’s robes was the only source of light in the darkness, but it still wasn’t enough to illuminate the entire location.

“You are about to witness something important.”

A spotlight beamed to reveal a lofty mountain. It had a circulating belt of serene clouds just above the mid-section, and at the peak was a throne made of glass-like gold material. There was no material like this on earth. The light increased to expose a serene sea that mirrored the sky.

Moments later, the Soburin appeared seated on the throne. His reflection in the sea had caused it to come to life. The sea danced with swirls of grace, and its bluish hue changed to a glow like mottled fires of gold.

At the bottom, further away from the sea, a separate spotlight appeared on another individual. He was standing on a precipice that overhung the golden sea to the far end.

Johannan noticed his hair was sky blue, just like Aneo’s, but much longer. Its flowing elegance was closer in appearance to a glinting cloak that could cover him.

“Great One, it is with a heavy heart I bring this tragic case to your attention.”

“Speak, Teki.”

Teki’s hair responded to the voice of the Soburin with a subtle silver shimmer that moved almost like a quiver of warmth that would go down one’s spine on a chilly day.

Johannan stared into Aneo’s face with a demeanour that expressed he was dying to ask him a question. Aneo nodded, hinting that Johannan should ask.

“Who is this Teki?”

Aneo’s face changed, he angled himself away—he seemed irritated. Johannan had never thought he’d see him like this.

“Teki is of the brotherhood of Origins. They are the highest-ranking Watchers of our order. He is called the Origin of the South, the Origin of Evil and Darkness.”

“Judging by the look on your face and those titles, he doesn’t seem to be a very nice person.”

Aneo shook his head and dismissed a chuckle, “A nice person!” he repeated. An expression of disappointment showed on his face. “You cannot fathom the amount of kingdoms and lives on earth that have been laid low by this being and his subjects. Pay close attention and you will see.”

Teki’s smooth voice replied to the Soburin, “Have you seen the tension the tillers have brought upon themselves in Europe? The accounts permitted for murder have overflowed sevenfold, and the children of the land starve with hunger because they are made into orphans. Will it go unnoticed?”

Such a nice and kind voice could only belong to something or someone that is good. What is Aneo’s problem with this man?

He didn’t share Aneo’s irritation. “I don’t know. This Teki person seems quite genuine,” said Johannan. Aneo frowned and pointed with his chin in a way that hinted to Johannan to stop commenting and to pay close attention.

They watched the Soburin leaning back against his throne, “What is it that you suggest, Teki?”

“If you leave the tillers to their own accord, as you have done the last seven years, they will eventually destroy themselves. Lift your spirit from Europe, that I may enter with plague and chasten the lands,” replied Teki.

Another pillar of light formed, and another man stood opposite Teki. His brown hair glistened with every turn of his head, and his robes glowed like Aneo’s. He was adorned with many ornaments of gold and precious stones.

“No!” the man objected in a sharp, direct tone. “Your way is to kill the good with the guilty. Master, it is better to wait for the good of man to increase.”

Teki tightened his jaw, “Why object, Vestnesis? Will the tillers ever increase? It has been seven years, and they have devoured themselves. If something is not done, they will wipe themselves out.” Teki angled his head to face the Soburin. “Great One, it is with anguish that I bring this to your attention. Will you grant me the warrant?”

The Soburin stood up. “Is there anyone present that could stand for Europe?”

There was a long silence. Teki lifted his head and folded his arms in victory, his soft light increasing to the refulgence of a blue star.

“A man or a woman—a child even? I will honour the word of objection from a child.”

The Soburin sat back down, rubbing his forehead with his hand “Go, Teki, the warrant is yours.”

The images of the Soburin, Teki, and Vestnesis disappeared.

Johannan covered his mouth, “What just happened?” He didn’t understand everything that was taking place, but he knew that what he had heard didn’t sound good.

Aneo stood there with his arms folded. “Teki has won the right to kill as many people as he possibly can. He hides behind a guise of concern, but deep down, he hates man and indulges in his suffering.”

Johannan remembered the people at the village in the mountains, all the women and the children who died. “Can’t anything be done to protect those people?”

“No, nothing can be done now, this happened over a hundred years ago. In such a situation, the people of the land must object, but they do not know how.”

“I wanted to say something to you. When Vestnesis defended the people, he said that the good can increase. But Teki would have lost if Vestnesis had asked for a way to change the people’s hearts and to wait.”

Aneo leaned back, he seemed astounded. “Son of Nepal! You have perceived very well. I can now see why the Master has chosen you.” He lifted his hand upwards, “This concludes one of your many lessons as a Judge. It is time for us to return.”

It was pitch black, and Johannan could smell the strong scent of roasted fowl of some sort and vegetables. He could hear the crackling of a nearby fire. He opened his eyes—he was back from the Everplanes. Aneo had prepared a fire and made food for Johannan to eat.

“Eat, Son of Nepal. You have done most well.”

Johannan approached the food and began to eat, but his concerns were on Rinzen. He gazed into the sky and noticed that the geese had already moved further ahead. It was time to leave.

“Son of Nepal, do you know why judgment destroyed the people of that village, and why you were taken there?”

Johannan cupped his mouth, whispering into his hands. Abruptly, he shook his head. “No.”

“The wickedness they practiced had made them a tool for Teki to use in the courts. If you hadn’t turned up when you did, he would have requested that he chasten the lands of Asia.”

Johannan jerked in surprise. “He would have killed many more people!”

“That is correct, he would have halved the population of Asia right back to your homeland, the good and the bad—it matters not to him.”

“So, we are safe now?” Johannan’s feelings that moment were open to whatever words came out of Aneo’s mouth next.

“For the time being, but there is much you must do to prevent calamity. There are many good people in the land, and though they know it not, they need you.”

There was a noise of a footstep crushing the ground behind them. Johannan’s attention shifted to peek over his shoulders. He was careful, but he wanted to see what it was, so he went to investigate. It was Rinzen, but what was she doing here all alone?

“Where is your mother?” he asked softly to avoid startling the child.

She pointed back in the direction of the shrubs. “Mama’s sleeping.” Johannan noticed Rinzen’s interest in the food he was eating.

“Are you hungry? Come and eat with me, there’s plenty.”

Johannan raced over to where he rested against the tree, and he noticed that Aneo had already left.

Typical!

Rinzen chewed some of the roasted fowl and vegetables. She insisted that she save some for her mother. Johannan gave her as much as she could carry. The negative beliefs Pema had of Johannan had bothered him, and he thought he’d seek some relief for it. “Do you think I’m a good person?”

Rinzen nodded after a slight pause. Johannan returned a gentle smile.

“Good! You must tell your mother not to be frightened of me. I am not evil.”

She nodded again. He observed her in a way that expressed admiration for her innocence. So many of them were killed in the village. They stoned those prisoners, and yet one sits here beside me, enjoying a meal. That Teki was wrong: people can change just like they did, from good to evil. They just need to know how to come back.

Climbing out of his well of thoughts, he noticed a staggering figure past the wall of haze, further into the wilderness, and believed it to be Pema.

“I believe your mother is searching for you. Take the food to her and a skin of water. Take your time.” Rinzen went back to her mother, taking Johannan’s advice. As he saw Rinzen safely return, he got up and continued his journey towards the Yarlung Tsangpo River.

Aneo observed Johannan from the Everplanes; though he had disappeared from Johannan’s sight, he remained close by.

“Even though these people were cruel towards you, you still can show forgiveness and kindness to your enemy. Yes, Son of Nepal, the Master has chosen very well, and I am eager for your story to unfold.”

CHAPTER 23

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Even the river bows down!

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Johannan arrived at the Yarlung Tsangpo River. He had been travelling along its banks of greenery and hills for days. As the long blades of river grass whipped against his legs, and his shadow flickered to the surging, burbling sounds of the river waters, he turned around.

“I wonder if they are alright,” he said in a voice lower than the hiss of the rushing waters.

Johannan felt an uneasiness inside of him, a feeling resembling guilt, but not quite the same thing. He was indirectly responsible for the destruction of this woman’s entire village. It was a horrid heaviness that churned within him during his travels to bear the burden of a travelling companion that despised him so much. Johannan knew that Pema was terrified of him, so much had happened; but she followed him, maintaining her distance, nonetheless.

He expected her to follow because he was leaving behind portions of the food that Aneo had prepared for him. So many times, he endeavoured to go and speak with her, but as he stepped towards her, Pema would scamper in the opposite direction. It was exhausting and frustrating, and he gave up after some time, putting it down to her wanting to survive. She made it obvious that she didn’t want to be his travelling companion. Even after accepting all the food he had left out for them, day after day, for weeks. It bothered Johannan that he still couldn’t make peace with her. It wasn’t Johannan who came down from the sky and destroyed it all.

He continued to journey down the banks. He detected the voices of men in conversation, which led to an immediate pause in his steps.

He investigated further and found two Tibetan fishermen enjoying each other’s company. Johannan beamed and danced on the spot he was standing. Pema was a weight he hated to carry, although he helped her out of an obligation to a good conscience.

Maybe he could just leave her here, and these men could take her back to their village. Johannan danced again, jumping and clapping his hands. He ambled through the river bush to greet them.

“You will never believe what I just saw from the bushes along the river bank further down,” said the tall fisherman, holding a basket of fish.

A short figure wearing a sedge hat chuckled, “What is it? Tell me, I want to hear it. Don’t keep it all in now!”

The taller man beckoned the other to come closer, as though it was some sort of secret. The sedge hat swivelled to the left and right. “There is no one out here, my friend. You don’t have to be so secretive.”

Johannan could hear their voices through the surging noises of the waters.

“I saw a young man with magnificent power strolling along the river banks. He was trying to get to the other side. Then an amazing thing happened—”

“Well, speak up, tell me, don’t hold back—I want to hear it all!” the short man said, rubbing his hands.

The man dropped the basket and lowered his voice. “The waters divided to allow him to cross to the other side.” He folded his arms with a smug smile on his face. “Now, tell me what you think of that!”

The man in the hat gasped and wagged his fingers, “Why, that’s—that’s impossible! I don’t think I believe that one, my friend. Is this one of your tricks?”

The conversation sounded so odd to Johannan. Yes, that is impossible, how is a river able to part like that? He approached them from behind the trees in the middle of their conversation.

“Hello, sirs, it is a relief to meet other people out here.” They stopped talking for a moment as if to allow Johannan to speak. “I was beginning to lose hope. I need to get to the other side, and I was wondering if you could help?”

One of the men glanced Johannan up and down, turned his head, and continued in his conversation.

“I’m telling you the truth. The river parted, and he stepped across the wet river rocks to get to the other side,” he said, waving his hands about to assist with his explanation. “I remember myself thinking, please don’t slip, that looks slippery.”

“You’re not so secretive now, are you! I’ve been meaning to ask, why do you always do that?”

The other reciprocated a perplexed expression. “Do what? What are you talking about?”

“You always get so excited, act like you have a big secret, but after you’ve revealed it, you don’t care who knows.”

The tall man jolted in surprise. “I actually do that? That’s silly.”

“Yeah, it’s creepy, you need to stop.”

Johannan attempted to get the men’s attention, but they just continued to squabble as if he wasn’t even there. Finally, after a few more failing attempts, he decided to just give up. He swatted the air towards them, whirled around, and marched away.

“Don’t be so hasty, Son of Nepal!” said one of the fishermen in a deep, scolding tone.

Johannan felt like his blood began to rush like the rivers, all the way up to his head. “Where did you hear that name!” he yelled, turning around, but the men were gone. It was just like something Aneo would do, but this time there were two of them.

What were they talking about? Is there another person like me? He cast his glance towards the heavens. The birds were up high, surfing the spinning winds above him. He remembered something that moment: the Master had said he would meet with him here—perhaps he should keep searching until he found him. Then he could make sense of all this.

Johannan continued to trudge along the banks. It had been hours, and the words of the men, or whatever they were, settled in his mind. The soothing noise of the river’s waters had helped him to focus more on what these men was talking about.

Then, from behind him, there was an abrupt shrill of horror, alarming Johannan. It belonged to Pema and Rinzen. They were still following him, and judging by the sound, they were not that far away. He circled around and ran back as fast as he could.

Pema was on the ground, pushing herself away from the river. She saw Johannan and threw her back against the ground while screaming as hard as she could. Rinzen’s reaction, being already acquainted, was different. She wasn’t frightened of Johannan at all, and she calmed down as soon as she saw him. Her mother held onto her hand with a firm grip.

What did I do now? I kept my distance, I was nice.

He waved his hands about, “Please don’t be frightened, please don’t.”

Little Rinzen started to cry, extending her hand to reach Johannan. Her mother snatched her arm, pulling her back. After some time, Pema had regained some control over the little one. She scowled at Johannan, jabbing the air with her index finger towards the river.

Johannan swivelled his head and saw the flow of the river had been reversed. It made sense now—all this time, there had been a different sound coming from the river, and Johannan couldn’t describe what it was.

“That’s impossible! Water never runs uphill!” he shouted, expressing a frown of confusion. “No wonder she screamed.”

He noticed a glare out of the corner of his eye, and though he looked around, he couldn’t see where the delicate light was coming from. It suddenly dawned on him: it could be his hair. He clutched a handful, pulling it before his eyes. It was sparkling white.

“The Master is here! This explains everything!”

Pema’s eyes were moving fast, here and there, something was confusing her. Johannan rushed away in a form of excitement, leaving Pema, to find the Master.

The riverbanks were mostly hills crowned with an abundance of greenery, and its floors were covered in a sheet of coarse browns from the fallen leaves. He arrived at a clearing on the bank and scanned around for anything that was out of the ordinary. The surging force of the rapids and the midday glare of the sun were all he could see.

But, in that very moment, after all the searching, Johannan witnessed something astounding. It was something he had never heard of or seen before.

He saw a ghostly image of himself pacing to the edge of the river and stamping its foot against the waters. He couldn’t grasp what it meant, so he kept observing. The image started again and continued to do so: walking from where he was, stamping, and then disappearing.

Johannan stood there for some time in a maze of ideas. Pema and Rinzen had regained the distance they kept behind him. They watched him from the trees, waiting for him to move.

Hours went past, and Johannan continued to watch this image repeating itself. His hair colour hadn’t changed back, which he knew meant the Master was still present. He sat down on the ground, rubbing his forehead. Why doesn’t he show himself? Where could he be?

The sun was beginning to descend when an idea presented itself to Johannan—things were beginning to come together in his head.

The conversation those fishermen were having, and the image. Perhaps they were linked, maybe he should mimic the image.

He got up to his feet and began to shamble closer to the edge of the bank. It displayed threatening surges of thunderous waters. He wondered why he was doing this; it didn’t seem to make sense putting his life at risk—one misplaced step, and the currents could sweep him away. But, it could also mean that the image was an instruction of what he must do next.

Johannan lifted his foot and stamped it against the shallowest part of the river. As soon as it collided with the riverbed, the earth shuddered. The waters detonated, freeing a screeching wind that forged the liquid into two serrated walls of ice. Pema and Rinzen with eyes wide open were silent and petrified.

The mighty rapids were now divided into two parts that exposed a bouldered pathway of secrets all the way to the opposite side of the river. The shimmering walls claimed their dominion further up. The noise of swirling liquids accumulating was like a dying wail as the crackles of forming ice subdued its movement.

CHAPTER 24

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Come, Mama!

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Johannan inhaled, his lungs filled with the cool vapour that formed in the air. Spots of light danced along the rocky pathway to the other side of the river.

The image of Johannan appeared, walking through the valley to the other side. It was obvious what Johannan had to do next. Scanning the structure a few times to make sure it was solid and safe was the only natural thing to do before he submitted himself to the mercy of this frozen wonder.

Not long after he began to journey along the path, he could hear the loss in little Rinzen’s voice that was calling out to him. She had run away from Pema; the idea of losing Johannan was something she was not prepared to live with.

Johannan stopped, a gentle smile formed on his face. He could hear the echoes of her voice getting louder.

“Hello!” she said with a slight quiver of unease in her tone.

He went back and found her searching for him along the pathway.

She laughed and ran into his arms, it was a great feeling for Johannan, and he felt his heart growing towards the child.

“We have to go back and get Mama. She is scared,” said Rinzen.

It wasn’t long before Pema was at the mouth of the pathway shouting herself hoarse with demands that she come back. Johannan picked up Rinzen and carried her on his back towards Pema. As soon as they saw her, Rinzen beckoned her mother, “Come mama, come! Don’t be frightened. I told you he’s a nice man.”

Pema didn’t want to take another step in. She broke down and began to cry. She had an inner battle with herself and had let go of all the pain and hurt that was rooted within her. Johannan went over to her and held out his hand. This was the closest he had gotten to her since they were in her village. She sobbed, gazing into his face and extended her hand to him.

“That’s it, come, I won’t let anything happen to either of you, Pema.”

“How do you know Mama’s name?” said Rinzen, speaking into Johannan’s ear.

Pema jolted, withdrawing her hand. How does he know my name if Rinzen never told him?

Johannan turned around and saw the image of himself waving towards the sky. He spun back and thrust his hand out.

“Come, Pema, we haven’t much time.”

She extended her shaking hand with unease. Johannan could feel the faint, delicate tremble within his grasp. He helped her down, and as they journeyed through the walls of shimmering ice, Pema refused to release her hand from his hold. Johannan knew she was frightened, but making her feel safe in his presence was something he found most rewarding.

They made it across, and Pema glanced at Johannan’s face, “T-thank you.”

Johannan nodded and placed Rinzen on the ground.

“What is your name, nice man?” said Rinzen.

Pema smiled, looking at him.

“Johannan—my name is Johannan, little Rinzen.”

Pema covered her mouth. “How do you know our names?”

The corners of his mouth lifted. “My Master’s servant, he was the one that told me.”

Pema displayed an expression of confusion.

“My Master is a great spirit, his servant was the one that provided us with all the food we ate in the wilderness.”

Pema remained quiet but maintained a concerned look on her face. Johannan could see that he needed to explain further.

“The Master is here now, but you can’t see him because he is a spirit.” He grabbed a few strands of his hair. “But, whenever my hair turns to this colour, he is present. I think he is waiting for my signal to close the river,” said Johannan, rubbing the back of his head, “but I’m not sure.”

He approached the edge of the bank. “Stay there and watch.”

He waved to the sky, and the walls of ice began to crack at the bottom, releasing a great sound of filling waters. The colossal barricades of ice broke into pieces and floated away.

Johannan turned around and looking at the two of them. “See!”

Pema pointed at his hair. “Your hair has gone black again, does that mean he is gone?”

Johannan nodded.

“Where are we going?” said Pema

“He will lead us. I’ve been following those geese circling in the sky.”

Pema looked up and saw the geese. Now it was time for her to get some answers.

CHAPTER 25

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The Wandering Spirit

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A fire crackled and snapped, and crickets chirped their nocturnal melody. The sky was dark, speckled with thousands of stars scattered like glowing sand across the vast dome of darkness. The dominion of the moon was subtle for its size, and the howls of night creatures were like several notes played on a flute.

Johannan stared with admiration for Rinzen, who fell sound asleep in his arms. Curly strands of her hair were pinned down by the small beads of perspiration that settled on her forehead.

“She’s a good child,” said Johannan, leaning his head back to face Pema.

Pema yawned and stretched her arms. “She . . . has . . . grown really fond of you.”

“Here, take her,” said Johannan, easing himself up to return Rinzen to Pema.

Pema cradled Rinzen in her arms, shushing and rocking her to settle her back down. She angled her gaze to the night sky and saw the bright star shimmering above them.

“Is that him? Your Master, watching over you?”

Johannan laughed. Pema had asked this question on so many nights. It seemed as though she felt safer confirming that he was up there.

“Yes, that is my Master. The same star that followed me when I came out of the desert. No matter where I go, it’s always directly above me.”

Pema rested her chin on her hand. “How come I never get to see this Aneo who has been leaving food out for us? I wish to thank him myself.”

“I wonder the same thing, but I think he just doesn’t want to be seen by anyone else. Shall I pass on your feelings of gratitude?”

“Yes, do so,” said Pema. She appeared to have many questions that night. It was evident that she had been keeping them locked in for some time.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you . . .” Pema hesitated, but Johannan smiled in a way that insisted that she continue with the question. “How did you get into this situation, with this spirit?”

Pema’s eyes locked in with intensity as Johannan explained everything, right back to where he had left home. The sudden look on Pema’s face betrayed the fact that she felt sorry for him and for Ayushi.

“You met this spirit in the Gobi desert,” she said, turning her deepened focus to the ground. “That’s strange.”

“Why do you say that?” The Gobi desert was the last thing Johannan would have thought was strange.

“Well, our ancestors, Hong and Wenling, met a wandering, all-powerful spirit over a thousand years ago in the Gobi desert. Our people were a group of sickly nomads who were healed by this spirit.”

Johannan’s eyebrows closed in to display a search through his thoughts. “Are you thinking that my Master and that spirit are one and the same?”

“How could it not be so?” replied Pema, ready to reject any other possible answers. “There was a song passed down to us, and it spoke about him. It must be him—your Master.”

“Things are strangely making sense. It seems like the Master had his own business with your people.” Johannan lowered his head to look at Pema’s flickering image through the crackling fire. “I am sorry for the destruction of your home, Pema.”

“It’s not your fault. At least now I know that.” She bowed her head, and it appeared as if she felt a shame for hating and even trying to kill Johannan. “It seems like the wandering spirit has favoured you with great power. What are you going to do with it?”

“It’s hardly a power, Pema. I can’t even control it, and what’s worse, I don’t even know what I am doing half the time.”

“I’m sure you will learn what you must do in time. Why not ask his servant, Aneo?”

Johannan sighed as he clapped his forehead against his palm. It described the situation with more words than he could say at that moment. “Aneo likes to speak in riddles. He ignores my questions and remains quiet. But I will—no, I must keep on trying.”

“Yes, you must! So, where do you think this wandering spirit is leading us?”

“Bhutan.”

One side of Pema’s mouth lifted. “Sounds like one of those names that makes a place sound so far away. I have never been this far away from my home before.” She yawned again. “Anyway, I think we better get some sleep. We are going to need the rest if we are to get to this Bhutan.”

CHAPTER 26

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The whisps

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“Arise, Son of Nepal.”

Johannan vaulted from where he was laying down.

“Aneo, what’s going on?”

It was breezy, very unusual, which indicated only one thing that made sense. “Are we back in the Everplanes?” said Johannan.

Aneo turned his back, ready to leave. The radiance from his robes bathed the area in a silvery moonlit glow. “There are some things I must show you. Make haste.”

Johannan sauntered closer. He glanced back and saw Pema, Rinzen, and himself fast asleep. “Where are we going?”

Aneo paused, his hair exposing the direction of the gale. He pivoted to face Johannan.

“To the next village. You will get there on foot, seven days from now. The Master has asked me to take you there and show you what you must do.” Aneo held out his hand. “Take my hand.”

There was a white blur followed by javelins of light that fired towards them, and within seconds they appeared at a strange, small village. Half of the buildings were inside the mouth of a colossal cave, and everyone was fast asleep indoors. After he recovered from the surprise of their quick travel, something that wasn’t too hard to miss caught Johannan’s attention.

“What are these strange creatures doing outside some of the buildings?”

Aneo explained, with a confident tone of expertise, “They are foul spirits called whisps that oppress the people with sickness and depression. Only ill fate awaits those who are bound to such things.”

Johannan noticed that outside some of the houses were baskets filled with coins. Some were gold, others were silver and bronze. The foul goblin-like creatures raced through the village, knocking the baskets over to steal the scattered coins. It was a very disturbing and bizarre situation.

“Aneo, why are these creatures interested in those baskets and coins?”

“It is not the baskets they are interested in, Son of Nepal, but the coins. They are the levels of wealth permitted to each home, delivered by watchers and renewed every month. Every home in the world receives a basket. If a home manages to keep their baskets full, they will experience excess fortune for that month. The more gold, the greater the fortune.”

“Well, the people can’t be doing that well, seeing that they are losing all their coins.”

“Well perceived.”

“I don’t understand . . . What will they do with these coins if they can’t see them?”

“The coins are not for the people to spend, but they serve as a message to another team of watchers that will visit later. When they see the baskets, they take them. The amount tells them how long they can work towards the good fortune of that household. This is why it may seem that some people have more—what mankind has come to call—luck, than others.”

Johannan wanted to make sure he was understanding what Aneo was saying. All this was too new to him.

“So there are two teams of watchers involved, one delivers and the other works.”

“Yes, it has always been this way.”

“Then these creatures are making these people poor—the second team will come in and leave. Am I right, Aneo?”

“Correct,” Aneo nodded.

Is this the reason children are left to starve in villages, why people suffer? Johannan punched his palm. “We can’t allow this!”

“The power is yours to expel them, Son of Nepal, but I advise that you must be patient.”

They approached a medium-sized house made of wood, just under the top lip of the cave mouth. Johannan’s attention flicked to a rustling of a tree outside.

“Look, Aneo! One of those creatures is eating all the fruits in this man’s field.” The casual turn of his head revealed that Aneo was not that interested.

“When you return here in seven days, you will see that his crop cannot grow. It is because of this creature.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“Once again you have exercised your talent to ask amiss. When you get here, call to the Master, and he will send a warrior to drive this beast away.”

The term “warrior” reminded Johannan of that dreadful being who almost killed Pema and Rinzen in the wilderness, the Origin of War.

“What are we doing here at this house?”

“This is the house of the man who will be taking care of Pema and Rinzen from now on.”

“What do you mean? I don’t understand.”

“This man will become Pema’s husband, and he will take care of her. The Master has seen the concern of your heart towards the child and her mother, and he has selected this man. His name is Liqin.”

Johannan was a bit confused. Every night since they started talking, all Pema had ever spoken of was her family and the loss of Rinzen’s father.

“But Pema still misses her family, I don’t see her getting married again.”

“Do not perceive amiss, this will not happen straight away. The Master will open her heart, and she will be comforted, then she will marry Liqin after two years. When you return here, you must call on the Master to drive the beast away, so that they may live in peace. Failure to do so will submit them to poverty.”

Johannan had grown used to the idea of travelling with Pema and Rinzen in the wilderness, but now it seemed like the Master wanted him to be alone again. Deep down, he could feel an unhappiness beginning to contaminate his being.

Aneo observed Johannan, and he could see the news of them going separate ways had bothered him.

“We must return for now, it is almost morning.” They left the village and walked back. Aneo maintained a few paces of distance ahead of Johannan.

“Aneo, what is this strange power I am supposed to have? I don’t understand what I’m meant to do with it.”

“You will learn of your role in time, Son of Nepal.”

Johannan came to a halt. “I need to know now, Aneo.”

Aneo sighed, pausing in his tracks, his forehead pointed to the ground. “Timing is everything but—very well. You are a Judge, the rare seventh level of the Master’s Ambassadors. There have been many Judges in history, all commanding different powers.”

Johannan stood there listening, his face revealing a deep interest in what Aneo was saying.

“However, you are different from the other Judges—”

“How am I different?” said Johannan

“The Master is with you at all times. This has never happened with a Judge before, and it has opened up another level of power that is available to man. Your predecessors had powers called Majestics. These powers allowed them to access the Majesty of the Muhandae.”

“There is so much to learn, Aneo. It is amazing, to find out that there were others like me, who were given different abilities.”

“All things are subject to the power of the Muhandae, and you have been granted access to that power. Over three hundred years ago there was a Judge who displayed the Majestics that commanded fire, and before her was another who demonstrated the command of the heavens. But history has waited a very long time for one who commands the Majestic of Judgment.”

The situation at Pema’s village came to Johannan’s mind. The power of Judgment wasn’t exactly the type of power that he would have preferred, if given the choice.

“Is that my power, Aneo, Judgment?” he said, hoping that Aneo would say no. But was there really a point in him asking? Even the Muhandae had said something along those lines. The problem was evident that the spirits Johannan had encountered loved to speak in mysteries, so that nothing was ever clear.

“Yes, and you have displayed another. The river bowed down before you, Son of Nepal—this was a manifestation of the Majestics of Water. The water bows before the Majesty of the Muhandae. You may have more abilities, but only time will tell.”

CHAPTER 27

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A glimpse into the future

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“Hurry, take ahold of my hand. The Master wishes to show you something else.” Aneo lifted his hand and asked the Soburin to take them to the next place.

The dimmed radiance from Aneo’s robes flickered like a flame visited by a tender breeze. Then the room lit up, almost as if a dark curtain that hid the sun was drawn. Johannan scanned around to see that they were standing on a dusty hill. Aneo pointed towards the sky, and Johannan saw a motioned image of himself covering the entire ether. He was walking, with an unwavering confidence, towards an army of horsemen. Johannan noticed he was carrying a conical hat and a long bamboo flute, both strapped to the mid-sections of his back. Something was different, if not, odd.

Soldiers, honed from the trials of many battles, stood tall, like a fortified wall of spears, swords, and arrows. Johannan felt that the image was nothing like him, this couldn’t be happening. After all, he wouldn’t be silly enough to stand defiantly before an army of dangerous men, the way this image was suggesting.

There was a middle-aged man on horseback standing at the forefront of the army. Observing the intricate detail and colours of his armour, he appeared to be the general.

“Is this what you want to use to protect your village with? A mere boy with his flute?” shouted an offended voice, addressing the unarmed people who cowered behind Johannan.

“Surrender your village, or you must all pay. Bring us the women, food, and lots of wine.”

Johannan’s image spoke for the first time. “Oh?” he interrupted, his hat tilted back as he folded his arms, all too calm for this situation. “I take it by your dazzling armour that you are the general,” he said, releasing one arm to knock the dust off his clothes. “What are these people going to pay you with when they can barely survive on their own?”

He bowed in thought. What if this man had approached my home and asked to take Ayushi by force? The thought angered him.

“And leave their women alone, they are all taken! They are people, not dolls for your men to play with.”

“You dare to speak to me like this, you insolent dog!”

“General Zhen, right? I was just making a valid point. Perhaps you should consider taking your men and leave. There is nothing here for you—can’t you see that these people are poor and tired?”

Johannan’s bold confidence had offended the general, and the high shrill of a sword drawn from its sheath with the experience of a skilled hand resounded in the fields. The general grunted, his sight narrowed on Johannan. Anger churned deep within the general, tight spasms and contractions moving from his belly to his neck.

“Where did you hear that name, boy?”

“You do not want to do what I think you are trying, Zhen,” said Johannan, throwing up an opened palm towards the general.

Zhen forced a pitiful chuckle. “And why will that be? Boy! You will regret this day. The bodies of thousands lie in my wake, slaughtered for lesser actions,” said Zhen, steadying his horse. The animal seemed to be in sync with his emotions.

“Let me show you something first, and then you will see what it is that I am trying to say.” The image of Johannan raised one hand to point towards the ether.

“Whatever you must show to me will be your last display of foolishness.”

“Words are not enough in circumstances such as these.” A caressing gale tugged the excess hair that dangled free from a band bound to the back of Johannan’s head. If you knew who it was that had told you to take your men and leave, you would have run for the hills, but alas, fate is against you.”

General Zhen laughed, “Did you hear that, my men?” He glanced back, and the soldiers chimed in with laughter.

The hairband on Johannan’s head freed itself, snatched by the invisible hand of the draft. The roots of his hair began to transform, to house the flickering jolts of blue-white colours only seen in a leaping spark.

There was an awaking sound of many gasps and whispers, a wall of intimidation behind the general, closing in and surrounding him.

“The gods have abandoned us!”

“So it is true, the white-haired demon does exist.”

“I always thought it was a myth made up by those cowardly peasants.”

Zhen’s horse whinnied.

“Shut up!” said the general, turning back to face his men. “Can’t you see this is a trick, you dammed fools! How embarrassing.”

Johannan’s eyes burned into a blue-violet shimmer. “General, I can assure you, this is no trick.” He thrust his arms into the heavens, and a whirling vacuum materialised high above them, sucking the clouds into a colossal black hole. It was a sight of splendour and dread. The grass and shrubs of the field fluttered, and volumes of dust dispersed as agitated horses trotted on the spot. The others took the behaviour of an untamed horse and galloped away with their riders. The men held on to their belongings. The updraft that manifested from the ground surged towards the black hole.

A silent tinge of silver and grey glazed the atmosphere with a message of impending doom. Dislodged helmets flew around and collided with each other. The cowardly villagers watched from afar; they were not coming any closer.

A mighty and terrible tone echoed from the depths of the black hole.

“Johannan!”

Johannan fixed his gaze on the hole. “Master, I am here.”

A dancing star descended. A spasm of stretched beams of energy pierced the heavens. Seven multi-coloured stars orbited the main star in a way that made the sparkling assembly resemble the movement of an atom. The soldiers focused upward and saw something different: instead of a star, they saw the Soburin. He was floating, toes pointed toward the earth, his arms folded, his bluish robes rippling like a wind-beaten sail. Broken colours of ash and slate swirled high above him. The men had seen something—it wasn’t a god, but it was the majesty of something the small words of a man could never describe.

“Woe unto you, if you can behold the terror and might of my image. I will deliver to you death and sudden calamity. When the hand of my Judge falls, your homes and your vast people will be destroyed, and all the works that you have accomplished under the sun will be undone!”

Everyone had heard the words of the Soburin detonating from the ether. The men displayed a fear that possessed their bodies, and they jumped from their horses and fell to their knees. General Zhen pleaded with Johannan; he was humbled but still tried to show a form of courage.

“Boy, keep that hand up! I will leave and never come back!”

The image of the Soburin waited, not moving, not saying anything. A shining glory, like a midday sun.

“Please, boy! You hear me, please! My men . . . they have families!”

Johannan’s face expressed painful stress. Trickles of sweat had assembled on his forehead.

“I-I can’t hold my hand up much longer, General. Help me!” shouted Johannan, his arm felt so weak that even a soft breeze would have thrown it down. “I’m getting tired, my hand is about to drop.”

General Zhen raced over to Johannan and supported his arm, a handful of men saw what happened and rushed over to assist. Seeing the general behave in such manner was no different from a god becoming a mortal.

“I knew I should have been a farmer. I can’t believe I’m here,” said one of the soldiers.

“We need you to stop this thing. How long do we have to support your hands, boy?” asked the general. Ignoring the complaints from his soldier was something he’d never tolerate under normal circumstances, but he had no choice; he had to dismiss it.

“I don’t know, General. Wait until the Master is gone,” shouted Johannan above the thrusts of air. Almost three hours passed before the image of the Soburin faded away. The men thought they were all going to die, but when the Soburin had disappeared, they all ran in separate ways back to their homes to check on their families and loved ones.

“Thank you! I will leave this village in peace, and I will never return. That is a promise.” The general nodded. It was the type of nod and facial expression that gave a guarantee.

“Make sure you remember that promise. You have been very fortunate today because it was the Soburin who appeared. If it had been the Muhandae, you all would have perished. Go in peace and don’t return.”

Not long after, General Zhen departed from the field. The vision in the sky had stopped.

“That image doesn’t act anything like me, Aneo. This can’t be true.” said Johannan.

“This is a vision of the distant future, Son of Nepal. It is to reveal to you the type of man you will become.”

Johannan held his head down; he was in doubt. The confidence the image portrayed in the Master’s power was something he could not get familiar with.

CHAPTER 28

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My Ayushi

“There is another vision of the future the Master wishes to share with you.”

The sky above illuminated a picture of his home from the view of a soaring falcon. Wisps of smoke billowed from the ovens into the sky. He could hear and see the river running. Comet, the goat, was bleating away.

Johannan’s chest pounded. “That’s my home, Aneo—my home.” He touched his chest. What is the Master showing me? The racing beat of his heart, the feeling of warmth rushing to his head . . . Is he trying to torment me? With a flick of his hand, he turned away and sobbed, his body becoming limp with sorrow and emotional pain. Aneo held his shoulder and hoisted him up, with an arm around his waist.

“Son of Nepal. You must look. It is important.”

Johannan shook his head. “Aneo, I c-can’t, I have tried so hard to forget that place,” he said, covering his eyes.

The sorrow in Johannan’s heart was deep. To manifest at such a level in the Everplanes was something even Aneo found surprising. Aneo smiled, he seemed happy. Johannan wondered, Why? Why is he so joyful?

“This will give you much needed rest, for you are weary. Please look, and do not be afraid. The Master has charged me to protect you from any harm.” Aneo patted him on his back. “Do you remember when you were a captive in Pema’s village? Do you remember the cage, the rain falling late in the night, and the warmth you felt, even though the fellow prisoners were wet?”

Johannan nodded, downcast in spirit, his head still facing the earth.

“It was I who sheltered you, from the Everplanes, and kept you warm.” Behind the imprisonment of a sad face, Aneo could see a smile fighting to escape. He thought he’d encourage Johannan further to set that smile free.

“Do you remember the desert? And the man on the camel who appeared to give you water?”

“Was that y-you as well?” said Johannan.

“No, it was the Master. He was testing you.”

Johannan flicked his head as a jolt went through his system. “That was the Master? The Soburin Master who has brought us here now? That old man on the camel who laughed at me when I said I was searching for the Great Spirit?” It was hard for Johannan to imagine the Master being this humorous old man.

“Yes, Son of Nepal.” Aneo beamed with delight as he watched the shock on Johannan’s face. “We have been here all along, protecting you from death and harm.”

Johannan felt a slight lift in his spirit.

“Now look up, Son of Nepal. I, myself, have waited for you to see this as it pleases me when you are happy.”

Johannan stared up into the sky, and the vision revealed Ayushi. She was very well dressed, as Mama always made it a point to show off Ayushi with the fine clothes she made. She sat down by the tree next to the river.

Johannan felt his heart beating quickly again. “My Ayushi, Aneo—that’s her!” He clapped his hands. He instantly noticed her body had matured, she was not the same girl he’d left at home. She was curvier, fuller in the hips. He took in a sharp breath. Something about her was different. “She looks like a grown woman, Aneo.”

The vision continued to play. Johannan saw the image of himself walking along the river to where she was. When he saw her sitting on the grass next to the tree, a panic gripped his upper body. Humbled by the sight of his beloved, it became harder to breathe and challenging to move. He scrunched the chest area of his clothing and fell one knee to the floor.

“It has been so long,” he muttered, “I cannot even look her in the face with the strength to stand.”

He wiped away a tear and proceeded towards her. He could smell the enchanting wafts of rose oils that Mama rubbed into her hair. He could feel his body trembling like an old horse cart about to give way. It was home again, a happiness he had longed for and something he felt he would never let go again. Let me see if she still remembers me after so long. Let me see if she still loves me.

“H-hello,” he stuttered. “How are you?”

“I’m fine, just listening to the waters,” A rich but polite womanly voice replied. Johannan could feel a wave of heat flowing through his body; she sounded different. She didn’t seem to recognise his voice. Has it been that long? wondered Johannan. He wasn’t aware that his own voice had deepened over the years. He removed the hat from his head, and went to sit beside her on the ground.

“H-have you forgotten me, Ayushi?” he stuttered.

Her head dipped and turned to the side, “Who are you?” It didn’t seem to be a voice that she was familiar with. “You don’t sound like you are from around here, and I don’t know anyone from outside the village.”

Placed on the ground close to her, he could see the flute he made for her as a child. Johannan dipped his chin. A soft sigh followed, “I’m sorry, so very sorry, Ayushi.”

There was a building confusion in Ayushi’s mind. It was bizarre that a stranger would come apologising. “What are you sorry for, traveller? You have done nothing wrong.”

“Years ago, I left my home. I was just a foolish boy. I left my mother and the woman I cherished more than anything.”

Ayushi’s head quivered. She reached out to grab the air in front of her. “Is that my Johannan? Is that you?”

She remembers, she still loves me! Johannan smiled, taking her hand into his. “It is, my love. I am back to stay.”

Ayushi trembled, tears began to roll down her face. “My heart, my love, my Johannan, you have come back from the dead? I love you so much.”

The image of Johannan turned to the side. He noticed the river was running uphill. He is here!

Further down the river, villagers rushed about, alerting the others to the amazing phenomenon that was taking place. Johannan could hear their expressions of awe. Some of the villagers were even frightened to go near the waters and wouldn’t let their children near it. Johannan knew what it meant. The Master was present.

“We must go and see Mama,” said Ayushi.

“Wait! It is not time yet.” He held both her hands. “I know you won’t understand me, but please do this—for me.”

“What is it?”

“Close your eyes,” said Johannan.

The people further down the river turned to see the glowing white-haired man who was holding onto Ayushi’s hands. You could hear their voices as they spoke without discretion amongst themselves.

“Is it him? The wandering hero of China? Are the stories true?” said one villager.

“It is him! It has to be. Look at his hair, no one has hair like that.” replied Nanda, a dear childhood friend of Johannan.

Ayushi closed her eyes. “M-my eyes are tingling.”

“I have travelled over the whole of China, wandered the Gobi desert, and faced many trials, all for this moment.” Johannan released his hand. “Open your eyes, my love.”

Ayushi gingerly opened her eyes. “What is this?” She stepped back, looking into her hands. “W-what? I can see different colours. And moving things. I can see my hands.” She reached out to feel Johannan’s face. “I can see you, Johannan. I can see you!”

Remembering all the pain and sorrow he had endured, Johannan felt the finger of weakness poking at the joints in his knees. He fell down and wept. The vision faded away.

CHAPTER 29

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The old traveller returns

“Aneo, I don’t know what to say.”

Aneo continued smiling. He had waited a long time to see Johannan happy. “There is more, Son of Nepal. I also see you will gain another Majestic.”

Johannan’s eyes opened wide with surprise. “More to see?” He looked down to search his thoughts. “What more happiness can the Master have in store for me?”

“Let us look. Here comes the last vision, and then we must return.”

The sky lit up again to reveal his home. The children were running with colourful ribbons that set the village alight in a joyful splendour. There were the sounds of music and laughter from the older couples dancing. A great crowd surrounded two people, Johannan and Ayushi.

Johannan grabbed onto Aneo. “That’s a wedding. It’s my wedding! I’m marrying Ayushi.”

The vision continued to show them both in each other’s arms. The villagers cheered as they threw flowers and petals over the young couple. Mama cried, no one had ever recalled seeing her that happy.

Then all of a sudden, the people stopped cheering. Johannan’s hair began to change colour. It hadn’t happened for weeks. Johannan even wondered if the Soburin and the Muhandae had departed from him, now that their agreement had been fulfilled. The villagers knew why his hair could change colour, through all the stories he had told them of his travels. The heavens opened to release feather-light clusters of snow that glided on the welcoming breezes of Nepal.

“Your Master is here, Johannan. He’s here!” said Ketan, pointing at Johannan’s hair.

“I can’t believe it! The Great Spirit has attended the wedding. What an honour. What an amazing honour,” said Raman, clasping his hands and bowing.

Johannan saw the geese circling above them. “Yes, he is up there.”

He began to wave, the children followed, and before you knew it, everyone in the village was waving towards the sky.

Through the crowd, Mama spotted someone she hadn’t seen in a very long time. It was the old traveller, who had given her the two children. What is he doing here? she thought. She struggled through the crowd, leaving Johannan and Ayushi behind. She searched the village for him, but didn’t see his ambling movements until she approached the river.

“You again!” she said, raising her voice so the traveller could hear her further upstream. The traveller turned around and saluted her.

With rapid movements of her hand, she beckoned him, “Come, so I can talk with you. I have plenty to tell you.”

“I cannot, I must be on my way. It was just a flying visit, after all.” He paused, stroking his long beard. “How are the children treating you?”

“They are all grown up now. I want to thank you for them. I want to thank you for bringing them to me. They are my everything. I wanted to thank you for the kindness you have shown.”

The old traveller laughed heartily, “Did I not tell you that they were special? That they were made for each other.”

“Yes, you did, old traveller, and you were right. Please, if you must go, at least do us the honour and come and stay with us for a meal before you travel again.”

“Ahh . . . honour,” he rubbed the sides of his cheek and nodded. “I like that!” he finished and stretched to the heavens to release a yawn. “The thing is, and you may not understand when I say this, but I have been with you all the time, and you have treated me most well indeed. But the time has come for me to move on. Your boy, Johannan, he’s quite something, aye?” He dipped his head in the form of a courteous bow. “Send my regards to him and his beautiful bride.”

Mama sobbed, placing her hands over her heart. “He’s my mischievous boy, and I love him with all my heart.”

The traveller laughed again, “Ahh yes, love . . . Well, that’s that then. I have a feeling we will see each other again, but until then, farewell.” He pivoted and began to walk away.

“How do you know that, old traveller? It has been years since I saw you last.”

He paused in his steps, his cloak swirled to chase an abrupt turn. He thrust his index finger against the sky. A notable gust of wind made its presence known in the trees. “It is the will of the heavens,” he said, raising his tone.

He took his hat off to expose his long, majestic powder-white hair and waved goodbye as he revolved to face the upstream. Mama began to walk towards the village. She wanted to get one last glimpse at the old man who had bought her such happiness, but he was long gone—disappeared. Very quick for an old man, she thought.

The vision stopped. Johannan was astonished and lost for words, but he felt a joy he had thought he would never feel again.

“We must leave now, Son of Nepal, the morning approaches. We must return to Pema and Rinzen.”

CHAPTER 30

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Back on the mountain

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“Johannan! Arise and go to the Kweilin.” The audible voice of the Soburin slashed through the sheet of silence.

Hundreds of bar-headed geese were scattered around him. Three years had passed since he was the boy who left home, and he desired deeply to return now as a man. The resounding commands of the Soburin were a frequent occurrence in his adventures.

His hair glinted with brilliance as the Master descended from the heavens. A lingering draft only strong enough to blow a few strands of his hair grew into a powerful orbiting gale. Johannan got up and stretched his arms to yawn. “Lead the way Master. I will always follow you.”

The surrounding geese took off and began to ride the currents of the Himalayan glory that orbited him. A whirling cyclone of birds surrounded his body to form a column that stretched from earth to heaven. Moving quilts of mist a few feet down from the summit began to climb the grounds.

Johannan could feel the tingling sensation of the Muhandae all around him. His power and presence were like warm oil trickling down the whole of his body. The blanket of crawling clouds tore in two, rolling back into a heap of swirling wool that formed a pathway in the direction he should travel. He scanned the road made by the Muhandae and beheld the distant emerald and forest greens of the earth beneath. He put his sedge hat on and grabbed his flute, a dear parting gift from Pema. Not knowing where the Kwei was, or what he was going to do next, he ambled off onto the pathway.

******

This was the account of the wandering Judge Johannan.

A seventh-dimension Ambassador, who had been given a tremendous power through his extraordinary relationship with the Soburin. He became the young man who befriended the highest reaches of the universe, so it was granted that he matured into a living legend. He was identified as the man with the white hair, a prodigy wandering the lands of Asia.

Legends heralded Johannan’s presence, and though many searched for him, only a handful knew the identity of the man with the lightning-white hair. He was loved and greatly feared by many. In fact, whenever Johannan would lift his hands and wave to the sky, sing a song, or cry out from the pain inflicted by his enemies, the Soburin would respond by bringing about the dreadful judgment of the Muhandae.

Johannan was unstoppable. No one or nothing could stand in his path, whether it was a king from below or a god from above. Not even the elements could fight against him, and when the chilled winds would rage against his body, the Soburin caused Johannan’s cloak to grow in size. Even when it came to Johannan’s very nightmares, the Soburin heard the cry of his heart and entered his night visions to rescue him from his deepest fears.

This is the story of the young man who deserted home in search of a cure for his fiancé’s blindness. This is the beginning account of Judge Johannan, the legendary Son of Nepal.

THE END

EPILOGUE

“State your case, Teki!”

“Great One, it is with great distress that I bring this to your attention.”

“Speak!”

“Asia has reached its mark, and the tillers have corrupted themselves again. One whole third of the population, much greater than before. Allow me that I may go and chasten the land.”

“How will you do this?”

“I will release the God beast Tuphana from the depths of the ocean, and he will bring the plague.”

“There has been an objection, and the population has been lowered. They are just under the threshold, therefore I cannot grant a warrant for this.”

“The work of the young Judge?”

“So you already know of him.”

“Great One, why do you insist on bestowing your infinite power upon a mere tiller? Are they not corruptible?”

“He is from the clan of Aliqxis—my promise to her people is his birthright.”

“I see—but did he not judge the children of Wenling to the north? Which still leaves the lands to the south open? Let me go into the land, and I will straighten the disorder that the tillers have made. I will send Tuphana!”

GLOSSARY

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Ambassadors—The selected people who can petition the Soburin through songs, and who also qualify for the Soburin’s Majestics power

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Asian Manifest—One of the three manifestations of the Soburin. The Asian Manifest is the Soburin with Asian features.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Bar-headed goose—One of the highest-flying birds in the world, known to be able to fly over the world’s highest mountains.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dimensions—An expression of the many different levels of Ambassadors.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Everplanes—The spirit realm. A world that exists parallel to our reality.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Jinns—The evil gods that serve and follow Teki.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Judge—The seventh dimension of an Ambassador.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Kweilin—A place in the south of China now called, Guilin.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Majestics—A power over something that’s given by the Soburin. A type of contract overriding the laws of nature.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Origins—A group of the highest-ranking Watchers.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Petition—A plea or appeal to the Soburin, sometimes in the form of a song or poem.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Watchers—Servants of the Soburin and Muhandae, and caretakers of the universe.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Whisperers/Whisps—Mischievous, evil spirits that serve the Jinns and Teki.

Acknowledgments

Thank you, Mrs Kesha Savory-Farodoye who supported me during those times. Joel Scott, who is to me what Aneo is to Johannan, my greatest supporter. Meatball aka Dalila Abreu, Johannan’s biggest fan. Tyrone & Sophia Sylvester, Dean Herrelle, and Simon Maxwell who read the drafts many times.

Special thanks to the brain box, Dean, who gave me brilliant advice, love you man. Michael Hall, for his wonderful work on the promotional video, and Michael Mclean (Ketan) who has been an unwavering rock throughout the many years of our friendship. He is as funny as the fisherman and as life-saving as the man on the camel.

There are so many people I could thank, but there’s seriously not enough space. So, last of all, thank you to everyone who has helped and supported me.

J.J Sylvester

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The Son of Nepal

In 1460 Nepal, A young man troubled by his fiancé’s blindness embarks on a journey across China to find the mysterious Great Spirit that has the power to restore her sight. Traveling across the infinite plains of the Gobi desert he learns that the Great Spirit is not who he appears to be. The Son of Nepal is a story of the love between a young man and woman in its utmost form. A story that draws on the ideas of heavenly matchmaking, purpose and the plan of destiny. The book reveals the spirit realm of the, Everplanes, where powerful spirits climb to godhood and pull the reins of man through the ages. It is the first book of the series called, The sons of Thunder.

  • Author: J.J Sylvester
  • Published: 2017-01-29 20:35:20
  • Words: 36926
The Son of Nepal The Son of Nepal