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Gage and the woman known as the Great Master labored on a winding, icy path. Frigid spring winds bit at their exposed faces and burrowed through their clothes. The path disappeared under frost and snow for miles when it wasn’t a long river of compacted ice.
Mercenaries and suspicious caravans with armed guards frequented this path.
It was not a path for the causal traveler.
A few altercations had happened. Gage and the Great Master had won, but not without consequence.
“Amie,” Gage said.
The Great Master didn’t respond, apparently lost in thought.
“When we get to the villages of the Paix and Librens, what will we do?”
“How? We’re only two people.”
“Opportunities present themselves.”
They fell silent.
Gage had learned that his traveling partner was not overly verbose about such things, although she could talk for hours about flowers.
And she had.
But few plants beyond the expanses of silent evergreens were seen. A time for blooming was far off.
They reached the top of a butte and surveyed the path ahead.
“There.” Gage pointed. “There is the next town where we can re-supply.”
“What should we expect there?”
Gage had spent a great deal of time in the Deep North because of his prior occupation.
“Much the same as the last two towns.”
“Yes. And high prices. Lots of haggling and the willingness to use violence.”
“Or actually use it.” The Great Master rubbed her side.
“How are you feeling?” Gage asked.
“Mending. And your shoulder?”
They fell into eye-gazing. Then burst into laughter.
The Great Master looked south. “What place is that?”
Gage followed her view. “Don’t know. Looks like some old ruins.”
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Two plumes of frosty air exhaled out from her nose. She opened her eyes. “Let’s look into it.”
Before Gage replied, she’d changed course. A couple hours later, they arrived looking at a stone archway over an snowy, icy rock walkway. A few blades of grass had sprouted, and old dead vegetation lay matted on the ground in some places where the snow had reluctantly receded.
“Xerxes,” the Great Master read the name etched in the stone.
“Sounds familiar,” Gage responded.
They walked in, both with hands on their weapons. Hers lay on her sword, Vérité. His hands stayed close to his throwing knives.
No one stirred. Only the harsh wind moved, bearing down on them from the cruel northwest.
Most of the buildings had fallen to the ground. A few stone houses and the central mansion in the town square still bucked the erosive powers of time and the elements. At the town square, the pathway became an intersection with one long north-south walkway split by a long east-west walkway. They spanned out for miles.
“This was a place of great influence,” she commented.
They went into the great house to escape the wind. Leaves, pine needles, dead vegetation, and dirt caked the floor, empty window sills, old iron candelabra, and other parts of the building. They roamed through the place, searching for clues. But any book, parchments, or tapestries had long since decayed.
The Great Master wandered into a small room. She stooped to pick up a rock resembling a bear. On one side was a faded carving of…a name? A benediction?
It was hard to tell.
She walked out and found Gage in the community/dining hall–at least that’s what they guessed it was for. He stared at the rafters.
She looked up. Faint but still visible in the main support beam read, “The Just Rule Here.”
“I know what this place is!” Gage exclaimed.
“The Bloodless Empire.”
She raised her eyebrows in question.
“This was one of the original empires.” He smiled, as Gage enjoyed a bit of history and had collected stories of all kinds in his years. “They did not spread through war. And they did not spread the way these new nations are doing it.”
“The new ones want everyone to believe the same,” the Great Master commented.
“The Bloodless Empire spread through charity and helping their neighbors. They spread through generosity.”
The Great Master unrolled her sleeping mat, sitting down to listen.
“Leaders from other cities, towns, clans, and places came to them for council on tools, governance, irrigation, sanitation, just about everything. They swore allegiance to them in compensation and of course traded more of their goods with the people of Xerxes,” Gage remembered.
“They ruled the rulers here.”
Gage nodded. “It’s a shame it did not last.”
“Nothing does,” she replied.
He shrugged and began to arrange his things to settle in for the night, as dusk had crept up on them.
The two found a few last bits of very old wood from fallen support beams in other rooms. They started a fire in the great hearth of the community room. A blaze lit up the vacant room, returning a warmth to a place that had become hollow and cold for a long time.
Gage watched the light illuminate the Great Master’s face. Still so young, he marveled at her depth and wisdom. When he looked into her dark eyes, it’s there that the sense of youth disappeared into…into…a kind of vast well of realization.
“This place needs to be rebuilt,” the Great Master said.
He half-stifled a laugh and asked, “How?”
“An opportunity will present itself, Engagé.”
She said no more and lay down to sleep. Gage looked around at the great house and wondered what might yet be.
Interpretation of the Ruins
Again, I’m going to offer minimal interpretation as the Great Master is part of an-overarching set of stories that pulls together the whole Jim Tolles Extended Universe. 🙂
But there are a couple of things that I want people to notice now.
If you go over to Wikipedia, you’ll find out that Xerxes roughly means ruling over heroes. It’s a concept that will have different meanings and levels in the coming stories and will be linked to who the Great Master Is.
Also, I’m bringing in this concept of the nation.
What Is a Nation?
A nation is a national identity–a national ego.
According to my history professors back in college, it was the French Revolution where the concept of creating a national identity really took hold. Before then, there were lots of fiefdoms and clans, but there wasn’t a nation like France. Nor was there really a “Germany,” “America,” “Britain,” and so forth in the sense of identity
That all changed after the French Revolution, and nation-building dominated much of the 19th century in Europe.
We are still living in a new age around creating uber-ego identities–bringing together disparate groups of people via shared ideas. That can be a nation, the Marvel cinematic universe, Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, Tough Mudder, van-life, Woke culture, having a gun, and so many other things that bring vastly different people together around an idea/identity
Like any unconscious ego identity, they can be dangerous, as we’ll be seeing in this fictional world.
And there is so much more going on here in this story. I hope you stay tuned as I continue to share about the spiritual path through these stories. Be sure to read the Great Master’s earlier stories. Lots going on!