Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Peculiar Quest of Mr. Zhang

(Part Two of Two.)

In the high mountains, an ancient temple stood, carved of marble and adorned with aged bronze. The white-haired monks that tended that place each bore vestments adorned with the sign of an oval containing a circle, and a staff capped with that same symbol; the idols which they polished were great orbs, each with a pair of concentric circles - one coloured, one black - painted on their front. This was the nature of that place, that most peculiar temple: it was the Shrine of the Eye. And its ruler named himself the King Eye; none knew a time in which he had not ruled that place, even long before the birth of the oldest man yet alive.

To this sanctuary Mr. Zhang arrived, clad in thick clothing to ward off the cold weather. His teeth chattered as he approached the gates, slowly slogging through the snow.

"Halt!" shouted one of the guards, turning his pike level. The other matched him, blocking off the gate entirely. "What is your business here, traveller? There have been rumours of eye-stealing brigands about; we desire no such criminals troubling this holy place!"

"Fear not," Mr. Zhang said, his voice cultured as ever. "I am only a harmless traveler, here on a pilgrimage."

"Ah," the guard said, lowering his pike. "Very well. You may enter; but do not dare to trouble the monks that live here, or any other person herein, for most certainly such a betrayal would bring the wrath of King Eye upon you."

"That sounds most unpleasant," Mr. Zhang agreed. "I will avoid it."

As he walked past the guards, Mr. Zhang noticed - to his surprise - that they were quite without eyes.

"Peculiar," he mused to himself. "Perhaps this is how they came to know of eye-brigandry in the area? Do I have a competitor? Or perhaps it is some religious rite. No matter - I will continue onwards."

Inwards he went, past sconces filled with smoking incense and faded mosaics depicting fractal eyescapes. The glory days of this place had passed; the priests wandering the halls were few and far between, and grown old without hope of replacement. Mr. Zhang stopped briefly, once, to ask one for directions; and on this occasion that he noted the priest, too, was blind.

"Perhaps it's ironic," Mr. Zhang thought to himself.

Then he came to the entrance to the innermost sanctum - a pair of great iron-sheathed doors, together forming, shockingly, the shape of an eye - which, rather more surprisingly, was in this instance guarded by a dragon.

"Who comes?" the dragon rumbled. "King Eye has secluded himself; he expects no visitors, nor desires those which come unexpected."

"Most unfortunate," Mr. Zhang said. "I will come another time, then. Let him know that a gentleman by the name of Zhang seeks an audience with him, and will be by tomorrow, and the day after; it is to be hoped that at some time, my desire for a meeting will be reciprocated in kind."

"I know no Zhang; nor, I think, does King Eye," the dragon said slowly. "But there is something in your voice that is peculiar. Are you one of those I robbed, before King Eye so terribly betrayed me, and rendered me his servant entire? Have you come for revenge upon him, or to retrieve the eyes that I took? In this case I will most certainly let you pass; for there is nothing in King Eye's treatment of me that engenders loyalty."

Mr. Zhang peered upwards at the dragon. "Why, you are that bescaled creature that stole my first eyes from me, and set my feet on that path which I now tread!" he remarked with astonishment. "I had nearly forgot, those eyes with which I was born; certainly I had no notion that they might be found here, in the sanctum of King Eye. But - how peculiar. You claimed yourself, then, mightiest of all living creatures; now you are humbled, terming yourself a servant. What has happened to you in the time of our separation?"

"All has gone for the ill," the dragon sadly rumbled. "When I met you, I was in partnership with King Eye, trading him the eyes of my victims to gain baubles for my hoard; but he tricked me, claimed I had cheated him, and took my eyes in compensation. Now I am his chattel, sitting in front of his door like a guard-dog. My axiom, I think, has served me ill; I must rescind all advice I gave to you as to its adoption. For the world is like unto a great wheel fixed on the side of some celestial ox-cart; and that which is presently mounted astride it will presently be ground underneath."

"It is a sorry tale you tell indeed," Mr. Zhang said, "And I am certain there are many lessons to be learned from it. But still I seek an audience with King Eye, and so I will bid you adieu for the moment - "

A voice came from behind the doors. "With whom doth thou converse, wyrm?"

"A traveler who calls himself Zhang, and seeks audience with you, O King," the dragon said with bitter humility.

"...let him enter," the speaker announced.

The doors swung open; slowly, with a dignified step, Mr. Zhang entered.

The room immediately inside was darkened, especially in contrast to the bright-lit outside; Mr. Zhang had to blink repeatedly to clear his vision. Even after acclimating, the figure of his host, King Eye, was difficult to see clearly; he was wrapped in a long coat, and shrouded in darkness.

Also - Mr. Zhang squinted - the coat was covered in eyeballs, with two especially large, reptillian eyes on King Eye's shoulders.

"Fascinating," Mr. Zhang observed under his breath.

"Zhang," King Eye spoke. "What quest bringeth thee to mine door?"

"I came for something of yours, Your Highness," Mr. Zhang said with a gentlemanly bow. "The country-folk tell that in your possession is an eye that can see into all hearts and uncover all falsehoods; this is a thing which, for my own reasons, I much desire the use of. I therefore would propose this; that I, for some fee or service, might have the use of your eye. A mutually beneficial arrangement, to be objected to by none."

"Would to be thought that mine chattel outside might have informed thee as to the risks of entering into any arrangement with mineself," King Eye said, "but 'tis an obstacle more fundamental to your proposition: behold!"

With a violent gesture, King Eye opened its cloak wide. Mr. Zhang averted his gaze, wincing, and then slowly turned back; and started at what he saw. For, in addition to residing at the center of an eye-shaped temple to the eye, wearing a cloak covered with stolen eyes, and being named King Eye,

King Eye's body was, in its entirety, an exceptionally large, floating, eyeball.

(Mr. Zhang's fears of him being a flasher were simultaneously averted and confirmed.)

"This is the eye thou wert told of, Zhang," the Eye King said - despite not being posessed of a mouth, he had no difficulty in verbal communication, perhaps aided by those same arts that allowed him to levitate. "This is the eye thou sought, that can see into any heart. And now, uncovered, I look with it into thine own - and see the perfidity therein. Thou didst not seek equitable agreement when thou came here - thou came as the boldest thief, and only the example of that wyrm that lurketh outside didst deter thee!"

Mr. Zhang shrugged. "The truth of the matter is closer to that than any other," he admitted, "though I'd argue I have more need of thine - er, your - eye than you do. You lurk here atop a mountain, alone but for your monks, your guards, and your pet dragon. I am a man of the world, forced to deal with all the woes and troubles of modern life - such as, for example, a certain lady who refuses to answer her correspondence in a timely manner," Mr. Zhang said with some frustration in his voice. After a moment, he recovered his composure, asking: "What use do you put the eye to?"

"What use have I for it?" King Eye asked, outraged. "I am it, foolhardy wretch! Thou wouldst abscond with not only mine property, as thou planned at first, but mineself?"

"As't may be," Mr. Zhang said. "But I think - what sort of creature is a floating eye-ball? Perhaps that is you, yes. But perhaps you are no more than a clever marionette, held to the ceiling by cleverly concealed wire-work, hidden in the darkness..."

"A puppet to cow a dragon?" King Eye asked. "Thine propositions are insane, all the sooner to accelerate thy waiting doom!"

"Perhaps, perhaps," said Mr. Zhang, waving a dismissive hand and begin to walk. "I do not dismiss the possibility out of hand. But if I am correct - if you are a tool and nothing more, terrorizing that dragon by trickery and not strength - then there must be, somewhere..."

Mr. Zhang stopped in his tracks, holding his hand against the wall. "A man behind the curtain!" he cried triumphantly, and pulled at the wall, revealing another blind monk, wires hanging all about him, an orb displaying a smaller, distorted image of Mr. Zhang before him.

A sword was in his hand, and he was already lunging.

"Ah!" cried Mr. Zhang, rather distressed, and fell backwards, recieving nothing worse than a glancing slash. The monk pursued, harrying the fallen Mr. Zhang, but that worthy had already retrieved his own blade from its sheath, and now mounted a furious defense. The sound of steel on steel resounded throughout the sanctuary; the dragon poked its head inward. "Mr. Zhang," it said, "If you are presently about an assassination, please be careful of my eyes. I would like them back, when you are done!"

"I will attempt it!" Mr. Zhang said gamely, glancing towards the dragon's eyes, still mounted on the cloak "King Eye" wore. Then a thought struck him; gaining his feet with the time provided by a very clever riposite, Mr. Zhang backpedaled, then turned and ran towards "King Eye". The sword-wielding monk came close on his heels, crying, "Spite will avail thee naught, Zhang - touch not the Eye!" But nonesuch was Mr. Zhang's intent. Instead, reaching the Eye, he sidestepped once - watching it turn towards him - and then reached out and spun it -

"Augh!" cried the monk, disoriented and nauseated, staggering about the floor. Mr. Zhang, carefully and precisely, stepped up to the monk and clubbed him over the back of the head with the hilt of his sword. The monk fell.

Then Mr. Zhang stole his eyes, for good measure.

"Dragon!" Mr. Zhang cried, looking towards the doorway. "The monks will certainly have heard the sounds of fighting, and will be coming this way. I have no desire for them to catch me here, especially with the burden of carrying this rather large Eye. Therefore, I propose this bargain: carry me safely away, to a destination of my choice, and I will return your eyes to you when you are done. Are you agreed?"

"I will do this thing," the dragon rumbled, "for I greatly miss that sight which once was mine."

"Very well, then," Mr. Zhang said, tearing the wires from the Eye. He held it, wrapped in the eye-covered cloak, in his arms, and took it to the dragon, which he mounted even as the monks - and the guards - entered the courtyard. "What transpired here?" the guards challenged, levelling their pikes. "Where is that stranger which entered our gates this morning?" But the dragon beat its wings, once, twice - and was gone.

Epilog the First.

Mr. Zhang landed in a small clearing, not far from the city they named Boss Town. Carefully, he descended one of the dragon's legs, letting out a soft breath once he was safely upon the ground once more. (A blind dragon's flying abilities are remarkable, for that they do it at all - but, perhaps, are something most safely experienced from some distance.) The dragon's head curled around, pointing roughly in the direction of Mr. Zhang. "I have held my part of the bargain," the dragon rumbled. "Now, do the same. Return my eyes to me!"

"Very well," Mr. Zhang said, drawing forth his sword. "I will cut your eyes loose from the cloak on which they are fastened - " slice, slice went his sword - "and hand them to you. Here," he said, delivering the eyes into one of the dragon's very large claws. "And now - I must be off. Adieu!" he cried, and then began to run.

The dragon, tenderly, carefully, fit the eyes back into their sockets. "It has been so long... " it crooned - then the pitch of its voice changed. "Wait. What's this? I still can't see. There's something - my vision - it's red..."

"ZHAAAAAAAAAAANG!" the dragon roared, shaking every tree of the forest. "YOU HAVE BETRAYED ME, ZHANG! YOU HAVE DESTROYED MY EYES EVEN AS YOU GAVE THEM TO ME! YOU WIL PAAAAAAY!" It thrashed, bringing ruin to a large area of woodlands - but Mr. Zhang was already gone.

"It seemed unwise to restore such a creature to its full, deadly majesty," Mr. Zhang justified. "And besides - had I not the greater strength? Certainly the creature's own morality would justify me." He continued on, satisfied.

Truly, Mr. Zhang is the most honourable of all Gentlemen.

Epilog the Second.

Mr. Zhang lurked in a window, peering downwards through the Eye. He squinted.

"There she is!" he remarked, some significant excitement in his voice. "Now, at last, I will learn why she never replies to my communications - or so very tardily, at best! I will learn the truth that I have burned for..."

"Oh," he said, a moment later.

"She... thinks I'm weird?"

"And creepy."

"And obsessive."

"And she thinks I should probably get a haircut that isn't a mullet."

Mr. Zhang looked sadly at the Eye.

Then he threw it out the window.

"It was probably defective," Mr. Zhang concluded. "After all, it thought I was a liar. The gall! The truth must lie elsewhere. Perhaps a love elixir..." he pondered.

Finis.

4 comments:

Calvacadeofcats said...

what a passionate tale of revelry and honour and valour and courouge

Calvacadeofcats said...

i cried at the end

Calvacadeofcats said...

what a masterpeice of the most nikolousish sort

Cavalcadeofcats said...

It is very nikolasish! Glad you liked it, probably.