The Plateau

Chapter 1 - Orrin's 15th Ring

Questions.

There is no greater building block towards the need for adventure than the existence of endless questions. They inspire us. They drive us. They may even haunt us, from time to time. But it is the question that pushes us to find the answers. And the answers always lead to more questions. It may be the greatest spark that life has to offer when it comes to true fulfillment. And the only true knowledge of this realm is the realization that our knowledge is greatly limited. There is nothing else.

My father, Terion, once told me that any man who believes he knows it all, knows much less than all who surround him. Here, in a decent sized settlement outside of the kingdom of Solomon...we are all taught to pursue knowledge and experience relentlessly, without ever falling into the delusion of claiming to know more than we really do. They way he put it...

“Standing still...you can only see three sides of a single tree. The fourth side is a mystery. You must explore and experience to find the fourth side. And even if you discovered it yesterday...something may have changed since then. Always continue to learn, and to grow. Know all you can. And then...keep searching for more.”

It was a mantra that I always kept close to my heart as a young boy. But now that I have gained in years, my thirst for knowledge has become an obsession. It keeps me awake at night. It causes me to lose focus during the daylight hours. The realm in which I live is constantly telling me to be patient. To slow down. To not skip ahead of any lessons that might be learned as I attempt to race towards adulthood before my time. But I’m anxious to keep going further! I hunger for it like a wild animal. I’ve learned so much, and I just want to learn more. As much as I can for as long as I’m alive. So that when my time comes, and I do end up leaving this physical realm...my spirit can rest knowing that I sampled it all. That I never spent a day taking my life for granted. And that my soul will one day rest peacefully...

...On the Plateau.

I fell to the ground with a thud. The dust washing up over me until I was forced to cough it out of my lungs. My father seemed to be getting a laugh out of watching me consistently fail through my training. I swear he was knocking me down on purpose.

“On your feet, Orrin. Try again. Remember...you have to hold your sword steady. Don’t anticipate. React. The moment you guess wrong about your opponent’s movements is the moment you find yourself with your stomach split wide open.” He said.

“I don’t know this stance. These moves are so foreign to me...”

“You have to readjust your balance. Remember?” He stepped forward, and held my hands together to grip my wooden practice sword tighter. “What I am showing you is a Ruminian technique. You need to learn this before we expand your experience ring into their territories. Ruminians are a good people, but they have fierce tempers, and are easy to provoke into an altercation. Their fighting style isn’t like anything that you’re used to. In order to defend against a possible attack, youmust learn how to combat against this fighting style for yourself. I know that it seems awkward, but you have to remember to reset your balance, each time. Ruminians have a third arm and their wrists are double jointed, so their very mechanics are very different from yours and mine, but with time and practice you can learn to guard yourself from their unpredictable techniques.”

“I’m not going to get into any fights with a Ruminian.” I said, trying to catch my breath.

“You may not have a choice.” He told me. “Now...try again. Remember...dominant foot backward, chest extended...the power of balance is all in your ankles. This is what all of those exercises were for. Move as though you had a third arm. Roll your sword at the wrist, and strike at a different angle. Be swift, but calm.” I was going to try, but this is one of the most difficult fighting styles that I’ve had to learn since my father began training me to venture further out into the world around me. “Are you ready?”

“Ready.” I said, staring my father in the eye and attempting to take his advice on balancing my stance.

“And...BLOCK!” He said, swinging his wooden sword from above and getting me to quickly thrust upward to defend myself. “Dodge, block, spin, parry, low block, side block, spin, and...” Before I could remember the last movement, I felt the sting of my father’s weapon strike me on my knee, swing back to slide across my belly, and then he held the third attack against my exposed throat.

I was too slow. Too inexperienced.

I failed again.

I threw down my practice sword in frustration and sulked as I walked away from him to sit in the dirt, leaning up against the side of our house. Defeated. Almost teary eyed.

Terion, seeing my heartbreak, dropped his practice sword as well and walked over to sit down beside me. I heard him sigh out loud, and was too humiliated to look him in the eye. I brought my knees up and rested my elbows on them as I lowered my head. “I’m sorry, Father. I forgot the low block. My wrists were sore.”

But he only put his arm around me and gave me a pat on the knee. “Some battle techniques are more difficult to learn than others. You’ll catch on in time.”

“But...I have to step into my 15th experience ring in less than a fortnight. I don’t want to be stuck here in my 14th ring for another birthday. I want to explore. I want to learn more.” I told him.

“One problem is that you keep trying to rush towards a reward that doesn’t exist, Orrin. No matter how far you travel...no matter how fast you run...there is no end to what you can learn in the here and now. You have to learn to take your mind off of the future.”

“I, honestly, don’t know if I can.” I said. “There’s so much that I don’t know. So much that I haven’t seen. I crave the opportunity to travel beyond the 14th ring and discover something new. I feel stagnant. Trapped. The years simply aren’t passing by fast enough.”

There was a long pause between us. I know that my father could sympathize with my desire to race forward...but this is the way that things have been done for centuries in this realm. Who was I to question the tradition?

Finding a slight break in my current mood, he said, “Do you remember why the ‘experience rings’ exist, Orrin? Why they were created?”

“To keep the corrupt old kings in control and suppress all knowledge from the youthful and the strong?”

I got a light slap on the back of my head for the snotty comment. But my father did it with a playful smirk. “That...is conspiratorial nonsense, and you’d do well to tell your little girlfriend to stop filling your head with it.” He said. “The rings are for your protection, Orrin. The outlands are a very dangerous place. Filled with monsters, and war, and horrors that you can’t even fathom right now. Our ancestors and the ancestors of all the other races and cultures surrounding us agreed upon creating rings of travel and experience to keep us safe. To educate us. With every birth cycle, your ring expands. At first, your ring had you pretty much confined to your crib. By your fourth cycle, your mother and I had taught you enough to give you free reign around the house. By your tenth cycle, it expanded to include the front and back yards and part of the woods. You found your boundaries, and you accepted them. Respected them. And because of that, you’ve proven to me that you were ready to move forward and learn more. Don’t think that I haven’t been unbelievably proud of you and your achievements during that time. And now, at your 14th cycle, you can even go into town all by yourself now, without worry of ever leaving your circle. If you learn what you need to learn now...your ring will expand even further. But you have to be ready first. You must learn to explore and appreciate the knowledge you already have, and live for the moment, before moving out into other territories that you aren’t yet ready to understand. This is a delicate process that cannot be rushed or pushed aside for curiosity’s sake.” He said. “Please don’t be too eager with your need to learn it all. There IS no learning it all. And you can’t absorb anything new without first appreciating what you’ve absorbed so far. Stay within your circle. Learn everything you need to learn here before moving on to the next lesson. You’ll find the adventure that you’re looking for eventually.”

“Great.” I pouted. “By the time I reach my twenty fifth birth cycle I might be able to go somewhere further than the stupid marketplace.”

My father merely chuckled to himself. “Better than being confined to an infant’s crib, wouldn’t you say? That’s progress.” He didn’t get the gleeful response from me that he was expecting. So he lifted my chin and turned me to look at him. I tried to resist at first, but that only would have made things worse. “Let me see your eyes.” He said.

It’s an unfortunate trait of the Quidarian race...but my eyes change colors in order to openly express how I’m feeling emotionally. It’s not something that I can control. It’s a part of me. While normally brown...my eye color might change twenty or thirty times a day. It makes deception a pointless pursuit for me to even attempt, much less succeed at.

“Deep blue.” He said. “Sadness.” I wish my eyes would allow me to hide once in a while. It’s highly uncomfortable to have my feelings on display at all times. “I know that you feel as though you are ready for excitement and adventure, my son. But, believe me...the tragedies of the world outside of Solomon will come crashing down upon your shoulders much sooner than you think. Do yourself a favor, and take this precious time to learn all you can to prepare for it while you still have the chance. Because some mistakes, when committed, cannot be reversed. Take the slow and steady path towards learning how to avoid them with some foresight. Ok?”

More talk about slowing down. About suppressing my need to know more about the world than what he is willing to allow access to. It bothers me to know that he’s so convinced that I’m unable to handle what the realm has to offer me...both good and bad. How am I ever going to know if he doesn’t loosen the chains that he’s put upon me? How can I prove myself worthy when he won’t let me?

I want to travel as far as the eye can see. I want to meet all of the realm’s tribes and study their cultures and religions. I want to see the magical places that I’ve only heard stories about, witness the kingdoms that were built from grand battles and built into something magnificent. I want...

...I want to escape the idea that I’m not allowed to question the world around me, or challenge the beliefs that have been drilled into me back when I was too young to know any better. Why can’t I evolve? I’m ready! I SWEAR...I’m ready!!!

I’m no longer the baby that my father wanted to keep confined to his crib. I’m more than that. I just wish he could see that.

My father didn’t see a change in my eye color, and he stood up, offering me a hand to stand in front of him. “I have an idea...” He said. “...You’ve gotten to be wise enough to go to the market, and you seem to be feeling the need to wander for a bit...why don’t I give you a few pieces of silver, and you go out to get us something to eat for supper? You can pick whatever you’ve got a taste for.”

I knew that it was a sucker’s prize. A gesture done more out of pity than anything else. But, feeling restless...I decided that it was better than nothing. If nothing else, it would give me a chance to clear my head on the path into town. “Anything I want?” I asked.

“Anything that will fit the silver you have in your pocket, yes.” He said. “Bring it home, and I’ll start a fire and bubble up a nice broth by the time you return. Ok?”

I smiled casually. “Ok.” I said, and took the silver as I began the long walk to the Dermian market place. Hopefully, there was some kind of excitement going on there. Maybe a storyteller, or a troop of talented performers, or musicians from outside of Solomon. The Dermian market place could be full of surprises sometimes. Better to experience those surprises, first-hand, instead of hearing the tales of what went on there from somebody else. It just doesn’t have the same effect.

I took his tidings and brought a bottle of water with me, just in case I got thirsty along the way. My father wouldn’t allow me to ride a horse just yet. He says that I would probably ride it right off the edge of a cliff if I had access to one of my own. But deep down, I think he’s just afraid that I’d use it to go outside of my experience ring and travel off into lands that he hadn’t trained me for yet. He’s obsessed with keeping me close...but he won’t be able to hold me hostage forever. One day...the world will be open to me. All of it. Without boundaries. Without limitations. And I love my father...but we both know that the day is going to come when he’s going to have to let me go.

I was walking through the forest, approaching the road that led into town...when I suddenly felt something brush against my cheek...

I thought it was a low branch or a falling leaf at first, mildly swatting it away from me. But then I felt a brush on the opposite cheek, and looked up to see a quick shadow drop out of the tree above and land behind me. What the…? I spun around but the shadow was too quick for me to focus on, it kept running behind me, moving so fast that all I could see was the hint of a blur out of the corner of my eye before it dashed back into my blind spot. I didn’t have a real weapon with me to defend myself...just my practice sword. So I grabbed it from my hip and began to swing it around to ward off whatever it was that dared to attack me. It rolled and jumped and dodged so swiftly that it was hard to keep my eyes on it long enough for my brain to tell me when to strike. It was all around me, and just as I raised my foot up to kick it off of me, it swept my standing leg from under me...and I was sent falling backwards into the dirt...suddenly feeling an added weight on my chest as I coughed and sputtered from having the wind knocked out of me.

I opened my eyes to see the wide smile and bright greenish yellow eyes of my friend Tionna sitting on top of me. “And here I thought you were ready for the next ring!” She grinned.

“Ugh! Get OFF of me! What are you doing?” I grunted.

“You’ve been practicing at home so much that I hardly ever see you anymore. I wanted to see what you’ve learned.” She replied, then she rolled off of me, getting back on her feet. “Not much, from the looks of it. It’s still extremely easy to catch you off guard.”

Tionna is a ‘Ferran’. Mostly a male dominated species, but when a female comes along, they often prove to be more fierce warriors than their male counterparts. Her eyes are larger than most, and wide. They reflect light in the dark, and the sides of her face are covered in a very thin layer of orange colored fur. As well as her neck, arms, and legs. And a tail that nearly touches the ground...but not quite. She’s two circles beneath me. Only thirteen years to her credit. But Ferrans are known to mature more rapidly than many, and their rings expand much further than ours do. Lucky for her.

“I wasn’t caught off guard. You cheated.” I said.

“Everyone cheats whenn it comes to battle. They do it to catch you off guard. And YOU...were caught of guard!”

“Oh yeah? Well what if I...” I swung my practice sword in her direction, but she grabbed my wrist and twisted it, wrapping her legs around my neck and spinning around until I found myself on my back again! “DAMMIT!!!”

She laughed at me. “Don’t be mad, Orrin. I’m just playing around.”

“Whatever. I have to go into town.” I said, dusting myself off. My body wasn’t nearly as hurt as my pride. Another defeat for the day. I hated it.

“Hey! Wait up!” She said, and rushed to my side as I headed towards the path into town. “Sore loser...”

I tried not to let her sneak attack get to me in such a way that I treated her poorly. Tionna has been my faithful companion for years now. When she was training herself to be combat ready, she always came over to take me out in the woods and teach me everything that she knew. And I tried to do the same for her. We bonded over time. She even kissed me once. Something that I found exciting and new...something different...but it didn’t take long for me to realize that it wasn’t the sort of kiss that I was longing for. I can remember wrestling with that idea for days and days...unable to understand why my head and my heart weren’t in sync like they should have been. I spent many starlit nights trying to discover what was missing between us. A spark. A fire. A craving. I felt as though I should have wanter her more. The way she claimed to want me.

But that spark never happened. Instead, I found myself more fascinated with the novelty of the act itself than I did with any genuine connection to her. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that...but I didn’t have a conscious choice in the matter either way. So why bother making an inner quest out of it?

“You haven’t been to classes lately. I miss having you there to talk to.” She said, licking one of her arms to clean herself.

“I thought it would be better to use my time training to reach my fifteenth circle. It’s harder than I thought it would be. Besides...classes disgust me. I don’t know if I ever want to go back.”

Tionnna rolled her eyes. “Are you still afraid of the bullies at the gate? Bolodor, and those other boys? How is it that you can let them chase you away from your classes? Those heartless scavengers are hardly anything to be fearful of.”

Looking down at the dirt road beneath our feet as we traveled forward, I said, “They call me names. They hate me for being a halfbreed. I’m just sick of hearing about it is all.”

She told me, “Who cares what they think? You’re better than any one of them, Orrin. You just have to believe in yourself. Halfbreed or not.”

“It’s not just them, Tionna. It’s everybody. They know. They know that my mother was a part of the Vengrel nation, and they despise me for it.” I said, sadly. “Bolodor goes around telling everybody that Vengrels were spawned from demons. That they’re all evil and malicious, and that’s why most of them were wiped out. He says it with such venom in his voice. The other kids...they believe him. They were all taught the same thing. So they look at me as though I’m something vicious. As though I should be ashamed of the blood running through my veins.”

“And…?” She asked. “Are you ashamed?”

“I don’t know.” I replied. “I shouldn’t be...but sometimes...I think I am. Sometimes...I just want to be like everybody else.” My Quidarian eyes turned colors, and gave my vision a slightly dark blue tint as I looked away and tried to hide them from Tionna.

“Well, if you ask me...I think we should beat them all down into the dust and show them what REAL shame looks like. There’s not a single one of them better than you. Not a single one.”

Good ol’ Tionna...always ready for a fight. Then again, she comes from a long line of savage warriors...so I’d expect nothing less from her. Still, she went from being my first kiss, to my close friend, to my baby sister. I believe she still has feelings of great infatuation for me, but she keeps them hidden when we’re together. Maybe not as well hidden as she would like to believe, but hidden well enough to keep our interactions from being as clumsy as they probably should be.

We entered the Dermian market, and it was full of villagers, buying their wares and filling the pockets of every merchant that was selling their talents to the public. Music filled the streets, and I caught site of a few jugglers, acrobats, and a couple of wandering bards who captivated an audience by telling wild tales of worlds that didn’t exist anywhere but within the context of their story.

“And the first lad said...’I love you, Ryan.’ With the second boy replying, ‘I love you more.’ And with a kiss, they were both locked in a moment of bliss that they preyed would last forever more.” The story teller said. “That’s all for now, folks. I will be back tomorrow with the next progression.”

Entertained, but frustrated, the gathering crowd mumbled with disappointment. “Awwwwwww!!!”

“I know, I know! But any story that’s worth its weight in silver can’t be written overnight. Hehehe!” The storyteller said, and he collected whatever coins he could from the crowd before they dispersed and made plans to come back the next day to hear more. “Come back tomorrow, and I will be here to inform you of what happens next. Don’t miss it! You’ll never catch up, if you miss it.”

There it is again. That tiny little tickle in the center of my heart. I know that he is known for telling tales of boy lovers instead of typical romance that we have become used to...but I’ve kind of found myself drawn to his particular brand of verbal theater. Something about it felt ‘familiar’ to me. I enjoyed it more than I ever thought I would. It spoke to me.

How is it that none of the other storytellers really speak to me this way?

As Tionna and I walked through the market place, inhaling the delicious scents of cooked meats and fragrant oils...our vision, dazzled with the colors of woven blankets and painted masterpieces...our ears tingling with the sound of talented artists, strumming their instruments with a hypnotic rhythm...I found myself appreciating the fact that my experience ring allowed me to venture so far into town. I knew my limits, but it still felt like independence to me. I can’t wait to see what the 15th ring is going to expose me to when I’m ready.

Ugh! A fortnight can’t come fast enough!

My stomach began to rumble as the tasty essence in the air around us tempted my hunger into a frenzy, and I began to look for something that would satisfy both me and my father for the evening. And possibly Tionna, as I doubted she’d want to leave my side for the rest of the day. But it was when I was looking from one functional stand to another...that I caught sight of something...truly amazing.

Something...that left me speechless.

If I had any doubt, whatsoever, as to what was missing when trying to get my heart and my head in sync before...

...It only took that one moment to make that mysterious gap vanish forever.

A single glance...and the puzzle had found its missing piece. It all came together. And immediately...life made sense.

Beauty reveals all...