The Best Lesson by Nicole DragonBeck

For Lisa Barry, who would make it through the Emerald Forest with her ultimate power of nil 🙂

I have the will power of nil.

Fedra chanted this to herself, a mantra as she searched for the inner peace that it named, clarity of mind where she could do anything. She opened her eyes a crack. The pile of sticks and stones were as jumbled as ever, evidencing she had once again failed to achieve nil. Sighing, the young woman stood as quietly as she could in order to not disturb the others who were seated in the customary repose of the search for nil. Judging by the neat piles of various natural odds and ends, some of them had come closer to finding it than Fedra had.

In that one moment, examining a pile of stones that had been moved into a neat circle in front of another student, a boy not yet five years of age, Fedra decided she had to go to the one person in this place who would give her something other than vague platitudes about nil and the proper technique for its attainment. Unlike the others, Master Seje was cheery and had a sense of humor that was almost as annoying as the others serenity. As old as the stone that formed the walls of this place, his mind was quick and nimble with a grasp of nil that Fedra could only dream of matching.

The master lived in a small cabin at the edge of the little village that housed the students, apprentices and Masters. It had one room with a window that was filled with the green of the forest. The Master was sitting on the woven mat in front of the tea brazier, putting a pinch of dark green leaves into two small mugs.

“You look troubled.”

Fedra didn’t know how Master Saje could know that; he was blind.

“Nil imparts gifts that are more than enough to make up for my eyes,” the Master smiled. The smile faded as Fedra seated herself across from him on the mat. “Ah. And we come to the problem.”

“I cannot find my center,” Fedra said. “And so I cannot find nil.”

Master Seje was silent for a long time. Fedra tried not to fidget as she waited. She looked up sharply at the Master’s inhalation.

“My child, nil is a very personal thing,” he said carefully, pouring boiling water into the mugs, not spilling a drop. “But would you like my advice?”

“That is why I came here,” Fedra said, accepting the tea.

“There is a reason our place of teaching is within the Emerald Forest.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The best teacher is the forest itself.”

Fedra was horrified. “You can’t mean for me to go out there?”

“I wasn’t suggesting you look at the trees from here,” the Master said mildly. “Spend a few days with them. See what you find.”

The forest was a dangerous place. The Masters of nil kept the powerful creatures and other things that roamed the shadows beneath the ancient bows away, and the caravans that brought likely students were alway well protected by apprentices, those who had found nil but had yet become Masters.

“But…but…” Fedra couldn’t get the words out. “That’s suicide!”

“And yet you could die within these walls, no closer to achieving nil.” Master Seje smiled. “Drink your tea.”

Fedra took a sip, and then spat the vile liquid out. “What is it?”

“An experiment,” the Master said, looking sadly at his untouched cup. “Ah well. There is always tomorrow.”

“I don’t know why you don’t just use nil to give you the perfect combination of flavors,” Fedra muttered. “What’s the use of having it if you don’t use it?”

“The forest,” Master Seje said. “Come see me when you get back.”

“I haven’t decided…” Fedra stopped when she realized that she had decided.

Master Seje smiled.

Fedra put a few simple necessities into a pack and slipped out of the school before the second meal. She did not want to be dissuaded or pitied. Neither of those would be part of true nil, she was fairly certain. But then, she didn’t know what nil was, so who was she to say? She crossed the distance to the outer trees of the Emerald Forest with long strides, settled herself under the first tree she came to and sat there all night, within view of the comforting lantern light.

When Fedra awoke alive and well the next morning, she felt a little bit more certain about her future. She ventured further into the trees, but looped back every hour or so to get a reassuring glimpse of the school. The second night she went back to the closest tree and slept. The second day she didn’t come back to the school once, even though she wished she could. A grand total of nothing at all happened as she wandered through the trees. When the sun went down on the third night, Fedra seriously considered going back to her tree, then took a deep breath.

“I can do this,” she told herself. “I can do this. I have the will power of nil.”

She spent precious minutes of the dying light of day debating whether it was safer in the branches of the tree or among the roots. Finally she decided she would climb to a low branch, high enough off the ground so that nothing could get her from there, but low enough that it wouldn’t hurt her if she had to jump to avoid a denizen of the canopy.

That night passed without incident, though it was considerably less comfortable for Fedra. She woke the next morning with sore muscles and a crimp in her neck, but still very much alive and devoid of nil.

“This is not working,” she said aloud as she tried to massage the lump in her neck away. “I could spend a thousand days out here, and I will not find nil.”

She searched the sky for an answer and found none, so she decided to go back. Walking eased the tenseness out of her muscles. It was a lovely trip, until Fedra tripped over something. She lay sprawled out in the leaves, then picked herself up. What had caught her foot was a shattered wheel. Fedra frowned. There were other bits and pieces lying around. She followed them, stepping carefully, until she came to the main wreckage of a caravan.

Bile rose up when Fedra saw the corpses. Blood soaked everything from slashes. Something in the forest had done this. Perhaps it was still around. Fedra looked up, every sense on alert. The thudding in her ears prevented her from hearing anything else. Breathing deeply, she calmed down. Then she heard the whimpering.

Following brought her to the source, a little boy curled up under the half-standing caravan. He was transfixed by the carnage, and had blood smeared over his face. Fedra crept forward, and gave him a comforting smile.

“Hello.”

The boy looked at her with wide eyes, his whole body shaking. Fedra saw the gash in his side through the rip in his tunic. She paled at the sight, her stomach protesting, but she couldn’t not do something. She held out her hand and he flinched away.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she coaxed. “Let me look at that.”

The tone of her voice calmed the boy, and he inched out from the wreckage. He allowed Fedra to examine his side. It was long, but not deep. Fedra pulled the first aid kit from her bag, and began her ministrations.

“What is your name?”

“Reld.”

“And where do you come from Reld?” she asked, keeping his attention on her and off his wounds.

“I live in the Floating City.”

“Ah, I have heard of it.”

So named because it both floated off the ground and traveled around. The Floating City was a vast city of tree tents and bridges stretched between great bows, a fortunate haven for any who were lost in the forest. If they found it. The people of the City would take their tarps and their walkways and travel a distance in any direction that caught their fancy, then rebuild their city.

“I lost it.” Reld started to cry. “I went out and when I went back, it was gone. What am I to do?”

“First I will take you back to my home. There are real Healers there who will see to your wounds. You may even surprise yourself and find the power of nil there.”

“What’s that?” the boy asked, wiping his eyes.

“Well,” she said, blowing the hair from her eyes. “You’ll know it when you find it, or so I’m told.”

“Oh,” Reld said.

“What are you doing out here?” Fedra said, looking at the caravan.

“I heard them,” the boy said. “I thought they could take me home. But then the monster came.”

“What kind of monster?” Fedra said, trying to still the sudden rush of fear.

“It had teeth and claws and scary eyes.”

“Most monsters do,” Ferma said softly, tying the bandage tight. “Come. We must go now.”

Reld stood up with difficulty, and clung to Fedra. They made their way through the trees towards school. They hadn’t gone very far when they came into a small clearing. Fedra looked at the sky, determining the directing to come. Reld’s hand tightened on her arm, drawing her eyes down.

“What is…” she started to ask Reld.

His eyes were trained on the monster standing on the other side of the clearing. It had the muscled body of a lion and the face of a woman. It was also covered in blood. The boy whimpered, and the sphinx took a step forward.

“Don’t come any closer,” Fedra said.

That drew the attention of the Sphinx, and it paused. The moment the wild, tawny eyes of the sphinx fell on Fedra, she froze. Everything fled, and her mind was left black. Not one single thought came to her, just the mesmerizing gaze of the sphinx. When the eyes blinked something triggered inside Fedra. She took in a deep breath and blew it out.

It was small, a glimpse only at the vast possibilities of nil. Upon realizing what it was, Fedra became so excited that she lost sight of it for a moment. When she relaxed she recaptured it. Despite an angry sphinx staring her in the face, she smiled. So this was why Master Seje was so carefree. If this was truly nil, or a shadow thereof, she had so many more questions for him now.

But first the sphinx.

“What is this pretty little morsel doing?” the sphinx purred. “Wasn’t in the caravan. But she still trespasses. So I’ll eat her too.”

Fedra saw her way out. “But first you have to ask me a riddle. Only if I fail to answer can you eat me.”

“Already passed, already trespassed,” the sphinx growled.

“Doesn’t matter, those are the rules,” Fedra said.

“Not fair. I was distracted.”

“I don’t make the rules,” Fedra said.

“Then I ask you now,” the sphinx said.

“That is agreeable.”

Sphinxes were fearsome creatures, but not very bright. Between the entire species they possessed only a handful of riddles, none of them at all clever. The sphinx gave a feline smile.

“What walks on four legs in the morning…”

Fedra already knew the answer, but she bit her tongue to keep from answering, clinging to the sliver of nil she possessed to give her patience. The dumb and fickle creature would be sure she had cheated, and no amount of logic would convince it otherwise.

“…three legs at night?”

She made a show of deep thought, counting on her fingers, and glancing at the heavens for divine aid.

“Could it be,” she said carefully, “a man?”

The sphinx looked surprised, then disappointed. “Yes. It is.”

“I’ve guessed correctly!” Fedra exclaimed. “Now you have to let us go!”

The beast considered for a moment if it should just eat them anyway, but habit won out and it waved them away. Fedra didn’t waste a moment. She took Reld’s arms and pulled him out of the clearing, avoiding the clearing with a circular path. She pulled the boy as fast as she dared.

A rustling in the brush was all the warning she had. The jilted sphinx flew out of the leaves, face twisted in a howl. Fedra reacted without thinking. Shoving the boy away, she grabbed the nearest thing she could find that would make a good weapon.

“You answered the riddle. But the boy didn’t. So I’ll eat him!” the sphinx snarled.

“Run!” Fedra ordered Reld.

Brandishing the pine branch at the circling sphinx, Fedra considered her options. The sphinx feinted and Fedra stumbled back, falling and landing on her butt. The sphinx pounced. Fedra held up the pine branch and ignited it.

The sphinx got a face full of flames and twisted back, crying piteously. Fedra stared at the smoking branch, still not entirely sure how she had done that. The sphinx was pawing sparks out of its eyes. Fedra took the opportunity to run after Reld. She caught him up and ran harder. The sounds of the sphinx crashing behind them spurred her on.

Just as she thought she could feel the hot breath on the back of her neck, she burst out of the trees, with the school in front of her. She didn’t stop running until she reached the walls. Master Seje was waiting for her.

“Well?” he said pleasantly. “What did you find?”

“A little boy,” Fedra said. “He needs to see the Healers.”

“Anything else?” the Master pressed.

“I found a sphinx,” Fedra said.

“Anything else?”

Fedra smiled. “Have you perfected your tea yet? After I bring Reld to the healers, I’ll come around for a cup to see how the progress is going. I have some questions for you.”

 

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