Tzesira wondered where all her masters had informants - they seemed to know she was coming back long before she'd actually arrived at the monastery. This time she'd been met by a young monk she didn't recognize, but who had likely recognized her from her distinctive tattoos and scarring. The girl had bowed and informed her that she was expected to participate in the monastery's regular training regime, led her to her cell, and that was that.
The distinction between night and day in the Shadowfell was muted, and life was primarily ordered according to the temple chimes. She'd had the ill luck to arrive at what had been midnight in Nerath, but was nearly Rising here. With little to unpack, she'd let herself slip into a shallow meditation to kill time, reminding herself of the reasons she'd returned. Despite the passing of cycles - months on the prime plane - the low tone of the gong snapped her to immediate attention, and she was on her feet and headed to the door before she was aware of her action.
The routine was not physically challenging. She focused on making her movements more precise, on each tiny part that completed the whole: a shift in weight or balance, the precise alignment of her limbs, the re-centering of her energy within each sequence of breath. It was not possible to focus a conscious thought on any of these details - it was a matter of simple awareness of the self. 'From self-knowledge,' she heard Master Dzen's words in her mind, recalling her last visit, 'comes self-control. You lack both.'
But her time away had been busy. She'd spent more of it questioning, pushing her mind as much as her body. It had been difficult, and she'd been caught for a time in the deep currents of the Shadow, dragging her to nearly fatal depths. The answers had been hard, but in the face of death, she'd learned much. The self was a tricky, fluid thing, she'd found, and it was difficult to grasp, or to hold on to. Like the Shadow, you had to learn to move with it, through it. You could not hold your self apart and study it for answers. Like the daily routine, awareness came from action, from being. Tzesira's self-awareness was tenuous at best - a fledgling thing she had not yet learned to nurture.
One thing she knew about herself was that she was not a naturally patient person. She had not returned to slip into mindless routines, or to give herself back over to the regiment of monastery life. She'd come to see and speak with her masters, and her instincts warred over whether it was better to be obedient and wait, or to be bold and seek them out. In the end she chose to seek other challenges to channel her energies - there were plenty to be had at the monastery, after all.
The Temple of H'rih'keth was a sprawling maze of narrow passages opening into unexpected courtyards. The monastery used only a fraction of the space for training and housing its initiates, and much of the remaining complex was left unused and seemingly abandoned. When she was younger, Tzesira had been willing to accept the obvious explanation - that there were too few monks and other trainees to need all of the available room. The order had been much larger in ages past, as everyone in the Murkmire knew, but as the world of Arth had opened itself to the Shadar-Kai, their people had dispersed. Many turned their backs on more traditional ways of life. They sought other arenas for proving themselves, and had forgotten to whom and for what they strove.
Having left provided Tzesira with greater perspective, and she had wondered. Curious, bored, and suspicious, she devoted time outside the regiment of training to exploring the grounds. Inside the temple proper, she knew, lay the guarded rooms of H'rih’keth himself - the Consort's Hall, forbidden to all but the highest ranking of her order and, in a twist of some well-designed irony, the rankest initiates. These were assigned the menial tasks of keeping the Hall in perfect order, under strict supervision of one of the masters. They all learned with great precision exactly what was meant to go where, how often the rooms were to be swept and dusted, how to care for each object and artifact within. But as soon as they began to understand the significance of their tasks, they were removed and barred from further access.
She'd made her way around to the far side of the complex, exploring and testing her skill at climbing along the old walls. Most remained smooth and sheer, but the challenge of navigating a path helped focus her concentration. She doubted she would have time to make her way back before the next Rising if she followed the same route, but was confident she would be able to navigate through the empty halls instead.
This part of the complex was clearly infrequently visited. Upon reaching a narrow window on one of the upper levels, and seeing no further viable route to progress any further along the wall at that point, Tzesira slipped inside. There didn't appear to be any traps or wards guarding the area, and she lept down to the floor, landing with a soft thud in a cloud of dust.
There was no question that the place had been designed by Shadar-Kai architects - softly glowing whitestone panels along the walls emitted just enough light for her keen eyes to penetrate the gloom. The chamber she was in was empty, a little larger than her cell, and from the spacing of the other windows at this level, she assumed the rest of the external rooms along hallway to be the same. The door creaked slightly as she worked it open, stepping out into the corridor. These must have been private chambers for monks or priests or perhaps temple visitors at some point in the distant past. Stories of the history of the place came to mind, and she populated the little rooms with their characters - soldiers bunking three to a room while the armies massed for Battle of Jikaerhet, dignitaries arriving to negotiate the Surrender of Mag Turaeth.
She passed soon out of the empty row of chambers to a junction leading further back into the temple and turned that way. The shadows danced along the wall in front of her, her light footsteps raising puffs of thick dust despite her care. The whitestone illuminated some further branches into what seemed like additional quarters and she pressed on ahead instead. Under the dust and grime of disuse, the stonework became more elaborate as she progressed, with carved panels bearing reliefs of unfamiliar crests, tessellated ravens, the arms of H'rih'keth and other symbols of his office and tributes to the Raven Queen. There was an energy here as well, something that sharpened her senses and increased her awareness of even the smallest detail of her surroundings.
For all of that hyper-awareness, Tzesira found herself suddenly and unexpectedly flung to the ground, pinned on her back by a heavy weight on her chest. Her limbs were free, but they too felt heavy - as though her bones were lead and the flesh of her muscles dissolved into air - and she could not will them to move. She gasped, forcing open her eyes to see one of her masters - Master Dzen, of course - towering above her. He removed his foot from her chest, frowning, and the weight drew back with him.
"Get up, Tzesira Rhob, and explain yourself."
"Yes, Master." She was shaken and off balance, and rose slowly while she reinstituted control of her limbs. Dzen waited with his usual impassive patience - she always though secretly that he seemed bored, and wondered whether for all his talk and power he lacked any real challenge or inspiration. Once she'd raised herself to standing, she gave a formal bow. This was not Nerath, not the Guild, she was not among friends or allies or even with her peers at the temple, so she spoke carefully, minding her tone and words. "Master, I was exploring along the temple walls and entered through a window when I came to a place where it was beyond my skill to progress further."
The last time he'd asked her to explain herself had been in much less specific circumstances. She'd returned for Queenswake, the winter festival, her ego inflated from her first few months of action with the Explorer's Union. She'd held her own well enough at the moot, but afterwards she'd been drawn aside for a conversation that had left her shaken, questioning her capabilities, her choices, and her future. It might have been wise to wish to avoid a repeat, but it was such a conversation, or something like it, that she’d returned to seek.
“You have no leave to wander freely. I’m sure you won’t tell me you were pressed to return for the morning’s training.”
She took a slow breath, wrapping her mind around this test, and shook her head. “No, Master.” She struggled with her meaning, discarding a number of answers when they didn’t bear up under scrutiny. Dzen stood patiently, black eyes gazing down at her impassively, his arms crossed across his broad chest. His thick grey dreadlocks were pulled back up in a knot at the back of his head, covered over and bound with a black cloth. He wore his usual loose-fitting trousers and tunic, these in a shade of dull grey that may have once been green or some other bright colour before the Shadowfell bled it all away. Black ink designs trailed down the left side of his face from a scar on his cheek, twining around the temple’s mark on his neck, and into other patterns carelessly hidden by his simple clothing. She wondered for a moment what he had been doing before he appeared out of nowhere before she dismissed the thought as a distraction. “I wanted to see what was here. To see what would happen if I came, and if I could get in at all.”
Dzen didn’t respond right away, but nodded after a moment. “And what do you think you have found?”
She could have talked about the challenge of her climb, the dust and empty rooms, the strange energy she still felt, or how the place was clearly better defended than she’d realized or understood. The truth was simpler though: what she’d found right now, she hoped, was an opportunity. She bowed again, keeping her body formally lowered. “Master, I hope I have found a chance to speak with you and seek guidance.”
Again silence while he considered. She held her pose, aware of the adjustment of each muscle as she battled herself for stillness.
“Get up, and come with me. Do not stray from my side.”
By the time she’d raised up out of her bow he was moving along the corridor, and she hurried to catch up. She focused her attention on him, noting his certain familiarity with every twist of their route, though it was clear no one had passed that way in ages. The strange energy permeated the air, growing stronger in some areas and weaker in others. She thought there might be a pattern to it, but she was paying too careful attention to her master - taking care not to stray from the path he set or let herself be distracted by her curiosity. Still, her heightened senses took in much of her surroundings as they passed through wide empty halls and archways and back through winding corridors. If he hadn't seemed so certain of their destination she might have wondered if he was lost, but instead she suspected he was deliberately trying to confuse her.
They finally passed through a door in an archway that seemed indistinct from others they had passed before, only the room beyond was not empty and her breath caught in her throat at the sight. Dzen turned to regard her as she took it all in, moving to sit on a low wooden bench. The chamber seemed to be part shrine, part living area - all clean and well-ordered. The walls and whitestone itself were carved elaborately with cultic designs and, she suspected, ritual markings. Dzen seemed to be comfortable there, but he seemed comfortable everywhere. He gestured for her to sit across from him, on another low bench framing a tapestry. A table sat before it, holding a lit cone of sweet-smelling incense and an icon of the Raven Queen. She sat, feeling calmer despite her master's extended scrutiny.
"Tzesira. You hoped to gain our attention by your boldness. This was foolish of you. You cannot impress me with your actions. I do not care who or what you kill, or why, what other feats you accomplish, what scars you earn, or whose teeth you decorate your face with. Do you understand?"
Anger and indignation rose in her breast, but she knew they would not serve her, and set them aside, feeding them to the Shadow. Dzen was brutal, but she was determined that he would not leave her badly shaken this time. The muscles in her hands tightened, but this was not a test her strength could help her best. "I..." She cut her answer off, scowling for a brief moment. Uncertainty would not serve either, and she knew its dangers. If she was wrong, he would correct her, but she didn't think she was wrong. "You don't care what they are, or what they are for, Master, but you still sent me to earn them."
"Is that why we sent you? To build your legend?"
"Not just that, Master. I know you want more of me."
Dzen's mouth tightened, and it took her a moment to process that he was smiling, very slightly. "I hope you have learned something worth my attention." He stood, slipping to his feet with a fluid grace, and slipped into a defensive stance.
His intentions were clear, but Tzesira was still caught off guard. She'd wanted to talk, about what had happened when the Thunderbolts had been captured by pirates and dragged into another pocket of the Shadowfell. She'd felt strong, then, despite the setbacks, and despite the crushing influence of the Shadow. When she'd returned to the monastery it had been similar - she felt close to that balance, and though she had not quite achieved it she knew it was not out of reach. She rose, more slowly, squaring off to face him. She was trying to think of how to show him this when she realized it was not at all a matter of thought.
Dzen wanted her to be the aggressor, and though this was less about showing off her technique, it was not something to neglect. She opened strong with an attack meant to target multiple opponents, knowing how damaging it could be. Dzen did not move to evade her assault, simply shrugging off the effects of the combination of punches and kicks and brushing aside the focused energy that accompanied them. Not waiting to see if he would react, she took the next opening she saw, lashing out with a controlled kick that channeled the extra aggression and anger that combat always drew out of her. She connected again, and this time Dzen's mouth tightened again. She shifted back, but it wasn't far enough - there may not have been anywhere far enough in the room. He moved closer, but the motion was incidental to the force of energy that slammed her to the ground.
Rage bubbled in her breast, and she used it again, pulling herself into a low crouch and springing up with a punch that failed to connect as he shifted just so, precisely enough to evade her fist, and no more. This was a test. His skills far outstripped hers - any opening she had was given, every blow she landed was allowed, not won. This was not about her martial skill, not about defeating him. She pitted her comprehension against her frustration, channeling it even as it grew, in to stronger harder hits still subject to her control and precision. She intercepted his next attack somehow, letting the energy move by as harmlessly as the blows themselves, retaliating with cool control into the void she'd created. It should have been enough to drive him back and knock him off his feet, but this was her master, who had taught her teachers all they knew, and he was not so easily thrown off balance. His next blow was simpler, connected more solidly, and she felt her ribs crack.
The pain fed her rage, and she distilled it even further in her next hit. Dzen still did not bother to evade, taking the punch to his jaw with a grin. He spit blood, and laughed. "That's enough, Tzesira Rhob."
The rage was harder to manage when she had nothing to channel it into, and despite his grin she was aware of his scrutiny.
"This is the hardest part," he told her, recovering his impassive demeanour and crossing his arms. "You have always struggled with this excess of spirit. You need it, you must use it, but it will fight you; it will let the Shadow in; it will destroy you if you cannot best it. Remember your breathing, and find your center."
Tzesira nodded, breathing in deeply, stepping out of her fighting stance into a more neutral pose. The air was her energy, moving through her, pushing away all that was not necessary. She felt the Shadow inside her seeking a stronger grip, and she let it have her rage, turning it hollow - muted and powerless. Dzen nodded as she breathed out, and bowed.
"You are not ready to return here."
"I know, Master." She looked up, meeting his impassive look with one of her own. "I don't want to, not yet. I don't want to be ready."
The shift in his attitude was palpable rather than visible. "Your arrogance demonstrates the irrelevance of that concern. You are not yet winning this battle - you are still only learning how it is fought. Return to Nerath, to your team there. They will provide you better challenges than you will find here. When you are ready to take up responsibilities, you will have no doubts or questions. Now come with me."
"Yes Master." He offered her his hand, and she bowed again before taking it, finding herself whisked back to a quiet alcove on the training grounds, watching the others monks, clerics, paladins, and other temple recruits move through their morning routines. Dzen did not release her from his grip immediately, and kept her fixed in his gaze.
"Tzesira. You may think it bold to push the boundaries you have been given here, to explore, but it is not your time. It will come, if you continue on this path, but if you persist with such infractions I will not protect you from the consequences of your foolishness. Seek me boldly, directly, when you are ready to return to Arth, and we will speak again."
He bowed his head to her, and released her arm as he turned to go, with no acknowledgement of her further shows of respect. After a moment of contemplation, she allowed herself a grin of satisfaction, and to savour the feelings of relief and vindication that passed through her. Finally, she turned to the training yard, making for the group she'd been assigned to train with for her stay. Her grin broadened as she slipped into stance, and she muttered to herself as her body began to flow through the controlled movements - "Fuck yes."