At long last, I had found him. Torenguir, the last of the Shashincti Paladins. The greatest warriors of the Halfdimir. At the battle of Holfindore, in Cygnus X-1, they had all been vanquished. Al except Torenguir, who had drawn the short straw. The legends I’d read on the Halfdimir told me they had a policy, that in any battle one must be left behind to rebuild the order if all is lost. On that day, all was lost.
Cygnus X-1 fell to the Republic. If you could really call that rabble of savage monsters a republic. We had lost all rights to self-rule as a species that day, our kind deposed, our customs ripped from us, and they had the nerve to call us barbaric. Our streets aren’t even patrolled by humans anymore, or at least few among their brutal police force are.
The Separatist Alliance sent me, one of their most skilled soldier-spies, to find Torenguir. We have been moving in the shadows for decades now, but fear without the powers of Shashincti we cannot succeed. They were the stuff of legend. For thousands of generations, wars were decided by the side the Shashincti chose to support. Experts with blades, rifles, even spacecraft, but perhaps most prized of all, it was said that they could read minds, speak telepathically, and even see the future. The most extreme legends stated they could even project into the future or past.
The intelligence value of these powers was immeasurable. If humanity and the allied races were to free themselves from the yolk of Republican oppression, those skills must be re-claimed. The Shashincti must return, and I was chosen to be the one sent to do it.
I climbed the unmarked path on the sacred mountain of Koran-Ba. It looked no different from any other hiking trail on Earth, although as I rode, it became more treacherous. Sections had eroded away and crumbled down the slope’s sides. Near the top, trees bent, branches all blown north-eastward, and the tops slumped as though feet of snow lay atop them, even now in late spring.
Near the summit, I found what I was looking for. A shack wedged into the side of the rock wall. Above it was a faded painting of the Shashincti eye. A flat area with a fire pit beside a small garden containing herbs, fruit and hursini plants were nearby. Seven or eight chickens and a rooster wandered freely and appeared to have a coop on the side of the shack.
I’d learned the route here from the villagers below, who brought the man food and water weekly. They told me I was not the first to come, and that those before rarely stayed more than a week.
Above the door knocker was crudely scrawled, “What is the only truth?”
“Don’t just stand out their gawking, come knock,” an old voice called from the shack.
I approached the door and swung the iron clanger, which was improvised from the shoe of some sort of hooved animal.
“Hello, yes, I’m over here, un-observant brute.”
I turned around to see an old man on his knees pruning the garden.
“No. Torenguir’s gone.”
“When will he be back?”
“Oh, I suppose there’s a legend somewhere about the sun shining green and the dead rising to claim the earth, but excluding that nonsense, I’d say, never.”
My heart sank.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Salomath. And I’m guessing you must be called ‘impolite’.”
“Sorry… I’ve had a bit of a—”
“Years long search to even find this place and then a nice stroll through the woods capped off with the disappointment of finding the one you sought died thirty years ago.”
“He was nearly seventy when Holfindore fell, you know.”
“I’m sorry. From the stories I’d assumed…”
“We don’t all stay young forever, although some hold on to it longer than others.”
“Did you know him well?”
“As well as any gardener knows his client, probably better, considering he left me the property.”
My heart sank again. He was just a simple gardener.
“I take it you expected some Paladin Master, Jorkun.”
“Well actually… wait… I never told you my name. How do you know it?”
“You told me it.”
“Just thirty seconds ago. Right after I told you mine.”
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t.”
“I dunno, but how else would I have known it? You feeling alright?”
“Besides spending two years tracking down a dead end.”
“Yes, I suppose your commanders at the alliance will be rather disappointed.”
“Ok, I definitely did not tell you that. How do you know this?”
“Not many people feel compelled to make this trek.”
“Perhaps you’re right.”
Or perhaps I’m in your head. A voice said to me.
“You hungry? I’m about ready for lunch.”
My stomach growled, reminding me I’d just spent six hours climbing a mountain without stopping. My lunch had consisted of an apple I’d purchased on my way out of the inn. “I suppose I could eat.”
“But do you want to eat?”
“Yes,” I said, exasperated.
He brought out a mildly rusted Dutch oven from his shack, then began stuffing it with onions, potatoes, a bit of what looked like a salted rabbit, and some seasonings while I set about building a fire in the pit next to the garden.
“What was he doing here, anyway?”
“Letting the universe go. War had taken everything from him. People looking to be students came. He had no desire for students. They all left.”
“Brought him food. Tended the plants, cooked, kept him company.”
“Did he take you as a student?”
“He took no students.”
Although I did learn all that he knew. The old man’s voice said in my head.
“Do you know the ways of the Shashincti?” I asked bluntly. I didn’t care for this dodging.
“So direct. But I have already said, neither I nor anyone else was his student.”
“No matter, you could’ve learned through observation and imitation.”
“I suppose, but imitation and repetition are not understanding.”
What makes you think you are worthy?
“I’m sorry. It’s just a shame for the knowledge of an ancient order to die.”
“There was a question he asked the hopefuls who climbed this mountain, and it always stumped them. They demanded an answer, and he gave them none, saying that he was no teacher of students.”
“Ask me then?”
“What is the only truth?”
I sat there, puzzled. One truth? So many things are true. I could think of limitless facts. That I was a human. That objects were pulled to each other in a force related to mass.
As the food cooked, I grew more frustrated. I couldn’t come up with one truth. I could think of a thousand! A million maybe!
“One truth?” I blurted. “What dogma is this? The sun is a ball of burning gas? Each light in the sky is a ball of fire like it, except the few that are balls of rock or gas like ours? I am standing on a planet called Earth? Is that not truth?”
“You do not know those things are true. It all could be an illusion. It could all be delusion. How do you know those things are true? He would’ve said to you.”
“Because I’ve seen them! I’ve been taught them, every schoolchild at least knows one plus one is two? Is that not true?”
“I do not teach students, he would’ve told you.”
“That crazy old man, he killed his own order and accepted his failure, leaving us to the tyranny of the republic.”
“Frustration will not bring you to the one truth,” he said, laughing. “Food’s done.”
Then he murmured something unintelligible and excitedly brought out some plain clay plates.
“You weren’t his student, either. You probably don’t even know the answer.”
“I know the one truth, but I was not his student.”
“Then tell me.”
“I do not teach students. I merely show people the path. Not that anyone has found the first step yet.”
“One truth…” I muttered, exasperated. I bit into a potato. “This is actually pretty good,” I said. Happy that at least my journey wouldn’t end with a raging appetite to add to my disappointment.
“That may be true, but it is not the one truth from which all other truth springs.” He said with an annoying laugh.
I took that as a hint. By one truth, he did not mean everything else was false, just that there was one fact which needed to be true for any other fact to be true. I sat in silence, thinking about the riddle. When it grew dark, he told me he was going inside to think, and told me there were extra beds inside.
“It gets quite windy on the mountaintop at night,” he told me.
Inside, I found the shack connected to a cave of sorts, although it appeared to have been hollowed out by man, and then insulated with the cheap sort of foam used on the roofs of most peasant homes. He showed me to a room with three small beds, each with a chest at the foot. They were covered in dust, with simple blankets. I elected to sleep in my bag atop of one. I pondered the question all night.
In the morning, over a couple of fried eggs, I stared at the world around me. This mountain had a strange eeriness to it. As the sun warmed, the morning dew steam danced in it, as though the entire world were smoking. I shuddered, thinking of how cold I felt, when an idea popped into my head, and I attempted another answer.
“But what is this I you speak of and how do you know it exists?” he asked. “Perhaps you are just a part of some greater thing.”
“Me, this body walking the world.”
“Perhaps that body is an illusion. You could just be part of a dream, or a character in some idiotic fictional tale, a figment of a psychotic’s delusion.”
I sat stumped. He brought out a bowl of rice and I mixed it with the yolk of my egg, still frustrated. I knew I was close. Then, as I scraped the last grain from my plate, I got it.
“My consciousness exists. Even if it is part of some other undetectable thing, my stream of thoughts and ideas exist.”
“And that,” he said, “is the first step of the path.”
“The next,” he continued, “is finding other truths from it.”
I replied, “I suppose then, that anything which affects something that exists, also exists, not as a thing, but as its effects on the things that are real.”
“And you see…” he paused before continuing, “that then, everything which you have learned, which you were taught while you were a student, is false.”
“No, it is all still correct, it is just wrong in that there is no matter, no real substance, everything is an effect, there are no objects, only actions being done to my stream of thought.”
“What then, are good and evil? Do they exist?”
I pondered for a while, before speaking. “In my mind, there are urges. Urges to do things compassionately or selfishly. To love or to control. Those, then, must be good and evil.”
“There was a time when the Shashincti taught students. When the order grew to immense size and power because we gave the one truth to any who sought it, and trained and passed on the power through practice and repetition and mantras, and in the end the order was destroyed, because while they could recite the truth, they did not know it. That is why he swore never to teach students ever again. We do not need those who learn without understanding. We need masters who discover the powers themselves.
“If you seek this power and knowledge for glory, power, war or death, then you are unworthy of the abilities it grants. I have shown you the path. Now you must walk it, or turn back,” the old man said. And then with a smile, he vanished. I was left alone on the mountaintop. I searched the shack and its attached cave, but it was empty. It appeared no one had been there, except in the guest room, for many years.
But there, carved in the door near the knocker, was just the phrase, “What is the only truth?”
Is this really the only truth? Comment below.
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