In the darkness, the Buddha is a light.
Cast not a shadow, and align your soul with what is right.
Such was the verse inscribed above the entrance to the Chamber of Light, hidden a mile within the Kitala Mountains. Alaria knew that those words were a fleck of eternity, cast upon the ever-changing canvas of the world. Yet the verse was not just a remote, noble truth, but a command. Although the gilded bronze in which it was written was like garish face-paint over the enduring stone, it helped train Alaria’s mind on her task as she followed the four monks into the chamber. The thin brown cloak over her naked body provided little warmth in the ancient mountain air that sat motionless beneath the cliff faces. Yet the mountains too were illusory—indeed, the entire world was. The only truth was the Buddha: everything else was no more than reflections in an infinite pool of water.
Alaria had to remember that, to feel it to be true. For her test would reveal if she was ready to leave the world behind. If she was truly greater than the phantasmagoria of life.
When they entered the Chamber of Light, Alaria’s bare feet met the tight black linen sheet covering the ground, giving some relief to her numb toes. It was dark in here, though she could see well enough to determine that the ceiling was only a few inches above Farilon’s head, the tallest monk of the group. The only items in the room were instruments for the test on a wooden bench next to the wall on Alaria’s right. There was also a brass lantern, which Farilon retrieved and held in both his hands.
The other monks went to examine the instruments, whispering faintly amid their curtains of long, pale hair that concealed clean-shaven faces. Alaria waited at the center of the room. She held her cloak tight at her neck, resisting the urge to flick a trailing lock of her dark brown hair from her eyes. When Farilon bade her, she faced the other wall. He stood between her and the wall, the lantern held up to the level of his chest where the eight-pointed star and surrounding three orbs of the Levantra sect were stitched in silver thread onto the breast of his earthy brown robe. His usually tranquil eyes regarded her severely.
“Alaria Trivol,” he began, “initiate of the Travera Temple, seeker of the Buddha, and of light.”
At his last word, he turned a knob on the lantern. Its four faces tilted slightly so that the light within became visible in hairline shafts. The lantern, called the Daivara, was suffused with a pure white glow like a smudged fingerprint of moonlight. Farilon’s face was as white as a skull, his long nose the polished beak of a white raven. The room, with the black cloth covering the floor and walls, was like the inside of a jewelry box, empty but for that one brilliant jewel, the Daivara.
Alaria could hear the other monks behind her, the soft thump of their bare feet on the cloth, the clinks and windings of their instruments as they set them on the ground behind her. She looked at Farilon in the eyes, and the man gave a single nod. It was time. She removed her cloak and handed it to him, her bare skin prickling with goosebumps. She felt like curling into a ball to hide her naked body, but she had at least known the details of the test from her sister Reyli, so had somewhat prepared herself for it.
The lantern was then opened fully. Alaria closed her eyes, for the light was nearly intense enough to blind her. The backs of her eyelids were splotched with orange and white.
Let me be ulnor, she thought. Or at least violet. Nothing less than violet. She knew it wouldn’t help though: whatever light came through her would do so based on her achievements of the past months, not a fleeting wish of the moment.
She listened intently as the monks examined their equipment, could hear the telltale chirrup as gavor rays were detected with a lintin device, though the rest was more speculation on Alaria’s part. She imagined the black plate of obdoron whitening with the outline of her bones, and the glass of pressurized water beginning to drip as mirava rays heated the fluid. She hoped that the penvara crystal would glow with that eerie purple-azure light from ulnor rays, though that wasn’t very likely. The monks then proceeded to examine the spots with their thick magnifying glasses.
Violet, Alaria thought again, holding her breath.
“Red. Orange,” Serion spoke behind her.
“Green,” Maline added.
There was a pause as they hunted for the more difficult colours, those that may have only one or two tiny dots present, as opposed to, say, red, that would have been sprinkled about her shadow copiously.
Alaria relaxed slightly when blue was called out, but she still felt tense. It was one thing to stand naked in a dark room with four monks around her, but quite another to have one of them shine a light brighter than Krinlar, the life-giving star, at her while the others analyzed her shadow.
It seemed that violet was not forthcoming. Serion announced deep blue, but apparently, it wasn’t the right hue to be considered violet. Alaria felt like asking how he determined one shade from another, but when she squinted her eyes open, she saw the white face of Farilon, his eyes closed next to the Daivara like the face of a corpse, and she was again reminded of her purpose. That’s all I need to do: die properly to get to the next world. But she needed to be ulnor first. She needed to be as enlightened as the monks of the Inner Temple, to have not only visible light pass through her body, but ulnor rays as well. Yet even that was only the first step. She could ascend upon attaining ulnor, but some of the monks were striving to cultivate their minds until all light could pass through their bodies: to have no shadow whatsoever. Cast not a shadow.
At last, Maline announced, “Alaria Trivol. A soul of the sea.”
The sea. Blue.
Farilon, his eyes still closed, gave a brief nod of recognition before turning the knob to shut the lantern. Alaria opened her eyes immediately, though all she could see were orange splotches on black. She felt fabric touch her arm, and grasped her cloak, sweeping it around her shoulders. She felt the edge of it hit something, but couldn’t see what it was in the dark—probably Serion, because he would have been too discreet to say anything about it.
Alaria heard the monks return their equipment to the bench, and when her eyes readjusted to the dark, she saw hints of white on the obdoron plate. She was content that at least nearly all the kesla rays had passed through her, revealing only blurred outlines of bones.
She turned back to Farilon. He inclined his head slightly, though his features remained unreadable, so Alaria couldn’t tell whether it was a congratulatory gesture or one of pity. After all, she wasn’t even violet. Both she and her sister would remain in Travera.
She inclined her head in turn, and they set off from the room. Although this ceremony was held in the most sacred regard, the moment they were out of the Chamber of Light, Alaria couldn’t help but turn back to Farilon and whisper, “Does this mean I can study with the Great Light Felzar?”
A flicker crossed the monk’s tawny eyes, though he kept walking at a measured pace. “You will see,” he said. “He will decide if you are worthy.”
“It’s not bad, the forest,” Alaria was telling Reyli. “Just think: a month ago, you had no spots at all. And green is closer to violet than it is to red.”
A half smile crossed Reyli’s thin lips. She didn’t believe Alaria, of course. But then again, Alaria hardly believed herself. She was trying to encourage her sister about her test result, and she’d told Reyli that she’d only just attained blue, even though she was on the brink of violet.
They had met in the meditation hall with an open wall overlooking the mountains. Here, cool air whipped around the monks, testing their concentration, their resilience to the cold. It was Reyli’s chosen place of devotion, but Alaria never went there unless she had to: her red linen robe wasn’t nearly warm enough for the mountain air, and her toes would always freeze up. But whenever she walked by the hall, she couldn’t help but watch the monks sitting on the cold marble floor, their long hair flapping about them and the sleeves of their robes billowing as if they were about to take flight.
When Alaria had found Reyli, the two of them set off toward the Great Light Quarters where Alaria was to speak with Great Light Felzar—or rather, he was to speak to her, for she didn’t imagine that she would be allowed to do much talking.
“Next year—” Alaria began, but a touch from Reyli’s hand silenced her.
“Do not speak of next year,” Reyli said, her voice faint, as if it were far away in the mountains. “There will be none.”
“The White Eye hasn’t found Travera yet.”
They were nearing Felzar’s chamber, halfway down the hall of white marble with its columns of dark stone. Alaria hadn’t said half of what she’d intended to say and had said a great many things she hadn’t wanted to, but Reyli had become more distant recently, more apocalyptic about the fate of the world. So when they reached Felzar’s chamber, Alaria hadn’t told her sister about how she’d felt during the test, how serious Farilon had been, and how she had probably smacked Serion with her cloak in the dark.
“Good luck, Alaria,” Reyli said at the doors. Despite her previous aloofness, she tucked a loose strand of Alaria’s hair behind her ear.
Alaria waited a few moments as she watched her sister depart, her bare feet silent as if she were no more than a phantom. She then pulled on the cord of crystalline venla stones hanging next to the door. In only a short moment, Farilon opened the door, not half as grim as he had been this morning in the Chamber of Light, but not particularly amiable either. He raised an eyebrow as if he hadn’t expected to see Alaria so soon. Indeed, most monks would have spent the rest of the day after their test meditating.
Farilon stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind him softly. “You did well today,” he said.
“Really?” Alaria wondered how standing naked under a Daivara light could be performed well or poorly.
“Not all monks take it with such equanimity.”
“I see.” She wondered how Reyli had fared. “Well, I’d like to see Great Light Felzar. Now.” She had to specify “now,” or else the meeting might be set for a week or two.
“Is it True?” Farilon asked.
Alaria just regarded him firmly. Although she had been here for less than three months, she was qualified enough to call for a True meeting with one of the Great Lights.
“I will announce you then,” Farilon conceded. “But if he does not wish you there—”
“Then I will be brief. Really, Farilon, you’re his student, not his bodyguard.”
“True.” Farilon smiled and returned to the room, though he didn’t shut the door behind him.
Alaria peered inside. It was a tall room with shards of venla hanging from the upper arches of the ceiling. Their surfaces winked in the sunlight whenever they shifted from the slight wind that came through the square windows near the top of the walls. Beneath these starry gems sat Great Light Felzar, his crimson robe rendering him a spot of red in the bare room. Farilon stood next to the door, and after inclining his head to his master with his palms faced upward at waist level, he departed.
Alaria approached the Great Light and stopped halfway across the room. She licked her lips, the cold silence pressing in on her ears. Perhaps she had been too rash coming here. The reason she had chosen Felzar was because he was the only Great Light who had spoken to her before. It had been shortly after she’d arrived, and he had told her, “I see a noble light within you. We shall have to hunt it out, shan’t we?” But Alaria now wondered if he said that to everyone who came here, and so wasn’t sure what to say to him now.
Although Felzar wasn’t exactly imposing, whenever Alaria made eye contact with him, he seemed capable of reading her thoughts with his white-blue eyes, bright skies stretched with white clouds. His white hair settled in ringlets on the floor about him. He was not so old in years as he was in his soul, though if Farilon was correct, Felzar had lived here ever since he was two years old.
“I see your light, Alaria,” Felzar said, his voice rising like mist, sending a shiver up Alaria’s spine.
“And I see your light, Great Light Felzar.”
“It seems you have passed your test.”
“No, I’m only blue.”
“What were you when you came to Travera?”
“Only the usual rays could pass through me. Only gavor, some kesla, and raimir. So I don’t suppose I was anything.”
“Nothing,” Felzar said with a touch of sorrow. “Come sit.”
Alaria walked until she was a few paces from Felzar and sat cross-legged on the floor, resting her hands on her knees.
“If you are once nothing, you will forever be nothing,” Felzar continued. “If you are once something, you will forever be something. You know why?”
“Because time is an illusion.”
“Indeed. Yet even if it were not, what you will become is already within your soul. You have grains of starlight hidden in there, waiting to surface.”
“Will you teach me?”
Felzar smiled. Alaria felt that she was somehow being slighted, but didn’t say anything about it, even though she was sure Felzar could understand her thoughts. That was, of course, one of the reasons why she wasn’t ulnor yet: she couldn’t control her thoughts.
“You are a fine teacher, Alaria,” was all Felzar said.
“But I’m not—”
“I believe it is time for your study of the leminas.”
Of course it is, but this is more important.
Felzar raised an eyebrow as if he had heard that, so Alaria just said, “Yes. I shall depart, Great Light.”
Felzar nodded, and Alaria inclined her head before departing. When she closed the door to Felzar’s chamber, she decided that with or without his guidance, she would be ulnor by the end of the month. Which, she quickly calculated, would give her exactly thirty-two days.
So she set off to the Kelsar Chamber to study the leminas with the other initiate monks.
Alaria and Reyli hadn’t had any delusions about what would happen to them at Travera. They would be preparing themselves for death. They would be killed—or, as the monks put it, “released”—as soon as they were ready. Each step they took, each prayer they whispered, every time they sat down to meditate, were all strands of events braided by hands of fate and their own intentions, tethering them to a realm beyond the world. Although here, they would only remain as corpses, there, they would live. That is, if they passed the test. If a monk was killed before attaining ulnor, they would only be reborn in Rey again, for their soul wouldn’t be sufficiently enlightened to be drawn to a higher world.
Alaria often wondered how the monks had figured it all out, but it made sense to her, and it was the only hope she had of escaping the White Eye’s reign of terror. She wouldn’t return to the world, that place of strife, of blood dripping from tower walls, staining the cobbles of the streets so that when it rained, pools of rainwater were stained a rusty hue. From her bedroom window, Alaria had often seen stray wolves drink from those pools at night, gaunt shadows slinking into town, drawn by the scent of blood. If there was a corpse left on the streets, it would always be found half-eaten by morning, its stomach a mangled pit of blood and muscles.
But none of this happened at the Temple. The armies of the White Eye hadn’t found Travera yet, cloistered away in the haunts of the Kitala Mountains. But they knew that over two hundred people had vanished, and a hideaway was suspected. So it was only a matter of time. Time to die properly, to leave this world once and for all before its foundations crumbled beneath the monks, sending them spiraling into lives of despair without hope of escape.
The next few weeks passed like an eerie reflection of moonlight skimming the surface of a tumultuous sea, never penetrating its depths. Life seemed to be passing outside Travera, evinced from stories told by the messengers who brought supplies to the mountain temple. And yet, that life of bloodshed and deceit was no more real than the life lived here.
Having determined to make the most of her time to purify her mind and soul, Alaria spent her days meditating in that shaft of moonlight, hovering above the toils of the world. Whenever her concentration wavered, she drew her thoughts toward the Buddha and the true nature of the world. She knew that Rey was one of countless worlds within countless Buddha-fields, some of whose inhabitants followed the Buddha, and others who were still ignorant of the truth.
She seldom saw Reyli, for Reyli was nearly always in the mountainside meditation hall, even during the monks’ meals. Indeed, it was two weeks since Alaria had last seen her sister, and when she did, it was in the hallway before Reyli’s chosen meditation chamber. Alaria called her sister’s name, and Reyli stopped, a bit too suddenly. Alaria caught up with her, and when she saw Reyli’s face, she couldn’t help but exclaim, “Reyli! Are you sick?” For her sister’s face was more sharply featured than usual, her cheeks were hollowed, and the skin around her eyes lined.
“Why do you say that?” Reyli asked.
“You’re… pale. And thin.”
Reyli shook her head. “I am well.” She then turned to leave.
“Wait.” Alaria placed a hand on Reyli’s shoulder. She felt the knobby bone of her shoulder sticking through her robe.
“What?” Reyli’s voice was flat, uncaring.
Alaria removed her hand and said, “I’m doing my test in three days.”
“As am I.”
“Maybe we could, well…”
“Alaria, I must return to the hall.” She waited a moment for Alaria to respond, but when she didn’t, Reyli turned and left.
She’s preparing to leave, Alaria thought. She hoped Reyli wasn’t trying to perform the ancient practice of self-mummification, when monks would turn themselves into living corpses by starving and drying out their bodies. By the time they inevitably died, their bodies would be preserved, and, as those of the Levantra sect used to believe, would prevent their souls from reincarnating. The only problem was that if the monk in question wasn’t sufficiently enlightened, although light might pass through their emaciated body, their soul wouldn’t ascend as they’d planned. It would remain in Rey as an unembodied spirit neither able to interact with the world nor depart from it.
Alaria instinctively turned to the stairs that led to the Great Light Quarters. She knew she shouldn’t be fretting, and in truth, her mind wasn’t truly distressed, for she had attained much in these past few weeks, and peace came more readily to her. But she couldn’t just let Reyli perish and remain trapped in the spiritual planes of this world for eternity.
Alaria was admitted into Felzar’s room without complication, for as her test was to take place in only three days, these might very well be her last days in Travera. And on Rey, for that matter.
As usual, Felzar was sitting cross-legged on the floor amid his cascades of white hair, and Alaria sat across from him. After bowing, she was quick to ask, “What happens to souls trapped without a body? The ones that don’t ascend.”
“No two souls are alike,” Felzar mused.
“Do you know why I am here, Alaria?”
There was a silence. Eventually, Alaria said, “No.”
“It is to show you what not to ask.” He smiled. Alaria could tell that he wasn’t telling the whole truth. “To not ask, but to have faith, is your duty now. You will discover when you are ready.”
“There are some, though, that might never be ready.”
“That is why I am here. We remain in this world to teach, for otherwise, how else could seekers hope to ascend? Some must stay behind. Even after Travera is captured, some must remain, or Levantra will be lost from the world, and all hope with it.”
Alaria shivered. It wasn’t from the cold, for she was more or less used to that. She felt as though Felzar were asking her a question, and she dreaded to answer it. I’m leaving this world soon. I need not think of what remains. Yet at the same time, she couldn’t help but imagine Felzar sitting in the dungeons beneath the White Eye’s tower, his beautiful hair cut raggedly short, streaks of blood the same colour as his crimson robe crossing his face. And yet, he was still tranquil. He was waiting for the right time.
“Yes,” Alaria said softly. “Someone must remain.”
Sometimes, reviving herself from a deep concentration, Alaria felt as though she were being born anew into the world. She would walk into the dining hall, gazing about, wondering what a strange place the physical world was. How solid and permanent it seemed! And at the same time, she saw it as ephemeral, for at one command from the Buddha’s highest followers, the bodhisattvas, it would reveal itself to be no more than dust, floating back into the formless void. That was why she couldn’t become attached, couldn’t become too caught up in the world. Because if she did, whenever that time of dissolution came, she would drift away with that dust, her soul trapped and sleeping forever.
In truth, Alaria had hoped for violet from the test, for it had only been three weeks since her first test. So when the test arrived, and Serion and Maline called out not only violet, but that the penvara crystal was glowing with ulnor rays, Alaria felt as though she had broken a glass around her, that she could finally be free. True, the penvara crystal glowed only faintly, but to Alaria’s eyes, the haunting purple glow was beautiful, and more importantly, enough for her to leave the world behind. She had to find Reyli first, though wasn’t sure if they would end up sharing in a common joy or commiserating in a failure.
Reyli wasn’t in the meditation hall, nor was she in her dormitory. After Alaria had encircled nearly the entire complex of Travera, she began to notice that her heart beat quicker, and that there was a nervousness in her mind. It was as if the nervousness was sitting there, detached, no longer a part of her. But she still sensed it, and her suspicions were only confirmed when she met Farilon and Maline speaking in the hall.
When Alaria asked them about Reyli, Maline said, “She is in the Chamber of Ascension.”
A peculiar look crossed Farilon’s face.
“She was ulnor, then,” Alaria continued. “But was it True?”
“One can only speculate,” Farilon said.
“And what are your speculations?”
“She was very thin.”
Thin—but thin enough to be mummified? Enough to have ulnor rays pass through her not because she was enlightened, but because her body was drifting away?
Although Farilon’s answer was hardly satisfactory, Alaria knew she didn’t have much time, so she hastened to the Chamber of Ascension—of ‘Death’, it should have been called. It wasn’t too far from the Chamber of Light, so she imagined that Reyli must have gone there right after her test. But did she really want to leave so soon that she would have left without so much as a word to Alaria?
A monk was standing at the door to the Chamber down at the end of a hall darker than the rest, with fewer windows along the top of the walls. Alaria didn’t recognize the monk, but he seemed to know that she was expected here, for he immediately placed his hand in a horizontal slit in the door. A mechanism inside was released, and the door swung open on greased hinges.
Upon passing through the door, Alaria was overcome with the scent of death—not exotic flowers from a nobler world, but this world made all too real around her. It was dimly lit with glowing red stones embedded into the walls. The floor was not white marble, but the same dark granite as the walls. To hide the blood, Alaria couldn’t help but think. She then realized that she didn’t actually know how the monks were ‘released.’ A sword thrust? No, that was too brutal. Poison, then?
She quickened her pace, not sure where the hall was leading, but eventually, she heard voices. There were two doors at the end of the hall, each a rectangle of smooth, dark wood with a simple brass ring as a handle. Alaria stopped, trying to determine which room the voices were arising from. She couldn’t be sure, so chose the one on the right and pushed it open quietly. She knew that she’d picked wrong when she continued to hear voices through the wall to her left. Yet there were still people in here—at least, what had been people.
Alaria felt her throat constrict as she walked through aisles of corpses. They stretched far back into the heart of the mountain, further than she could see in the dark, for the only light arose from a single glowing stone next to the door. The corpses near the front of the room showed no signs of decay, each lying on a separate stone platform that just fit the length of their body. Their hands were folded across their chests as if in prayer, and although their eyes were closed, Alaria felt that she was being watched through dozens of eyelids, wondering why she, ulnor herself, hadn’t yet joined them.
It took her a moment to realize that the door was being opened, and that, in this place of death, she was an unwelcome intrusion. She quickly ducked behind one of the stone tables that held a woman with long white hair and a tight jaw. Peering around the edge, Alaria saw two monks, a man and a woman, carrying a body on a cloth stretcher between them. They carefully set it down on one of the tables close to the door. The female monk arranged the dead monk’s hair and robe, and set the corpse’s hand across her chest, while her companion dusted a white powder over the corpse’s skin from a spherical glass jar. Alaria felt her heart beat keenly in her chest: she knew who the corpse had been. Its long, dark hair, its emaciated frame, its sharp cheekbones that looked like bones beneath the white dust. Alaria bit her lip. Why did they even bother? Why did they keep bodies that were no more than husks, when the true person had fled? Perhaps it was a remnant from the self-mummification rituals, to keep the body as a talisman on Rey, preventing the soul from reincarnating.
After the two monks left the room, Alaria approached the table. This isn’t Reyli, she told herself. She brought a hand close to the corpse’s face, let her hand hover over Reyli’s eyes. In her mind, Alaria said, Wherever you are, sister, may your soul be in the Buddha’s light.
She let her hand drop, and felt a chill creep up her bare feet to her legs. She looked out over the lines of corpses. How many… she wondered, how many are still here, trapped as spirits…
Alaria saw a flicker of movement across the wall to her left. It floated down the room like a shadow before vanishing in the darkness.
It was then that she decided what she must do.
“As I told you, you are a fine teacher.” Felzar smiled at his new apprentice, his cloudy blue eyes dappled with a bit of sunlight.
“Well, I wasn’t then,” Alaria said. It had been three months since she had passed her test as an ulnor. Three months to realize that there was so much more to learn before departing, and most importantly, so many more initiates to guide from this world.
“Ah, but what is time?” Felzar asked.
“Nothing at all.”
“So do you have a shadow?”
Instinctively, Alaria peered to her left, where a shadow of her sitting figure was cast upon the white marble. “I don’t,” she said softly.
For she knew that one day, her shadow would vanish. And if she was once enlightened, she would be for all time.
In the darkness, the Buddha is a light.