The snow was gentle on that day. It fell to the ground in lazy spirals, blown about by the remnants of the wind. There had been a tempest last night, but today only a quiet whisper blew through the high peaks of the Tierra Denai.
Cold wind. Hard stone. The roar of avalanches and of storms. These were all that the Traveler had known since he’d begun his journey, for it was a dark world. Paths were few, roads fewer. If many traveled, so did many fall prey to robbers and thieves. Yes, the world was a violent place. A place in which the Traveler did not belong.
At least today was a little better than those prior in terms of weather. Traveler lifted his nose to the sky and sighed a long breath. He was almost at what most would call their destination, but for him it was just a waypoint. A brief visit. And then he would leave, passing through like a leaf in the arms of the wind.
Never staying, never settling, always searching.
His feet grew numb in their boots. Numb from a thousand steps in frigid snow, numb from a thousand on unyielding rock, and numb from a thousand more treacherous steps up the lonely pass he climbed. Snow, melted and refrozen into sheets of ice, hazarded his journey. Every time his soles met the snow, there was the risk that he might slip on hidden ice, and then he would travel no more.
Traveler wasn’t sure if death truly was the ultimate destination. He’d never met anyone who’d come back from there in good enough shape to talk about it. Is there any such thing as resurrection? He wondered. If there was, I would have to talk to the people involved.
But it was a pointless thought. The kinds of people who might know things about resurrection did not mingle with the half-frozen footsores who frequented icy mountain passes in the middle of fall.
Maybe, at the monastery, things will be different.
He needed a new view of things—another perspective from which to look.
Traveler kept moving, forcing his legs to churn despite the sluggish cold that begged him to stop. Stop and rest, it said. Come and lie down. Let all of your troubles and your pains evaporate. It enticed with the smooth words of a confident seductress. Our embrace is sweet, sweeter than honey and softer than cream. In us are found the answer to your question—all you have to do is accept it!
No! Death was not the answer. There was something more; some meaning and some purpose. All of life could not be meaningless. He would not believe it. Traveler would keep walking, and keep searching, no matter how many miles it took.
How sweet would rest be?
There could be no rest until he answered his question.
But oh… how sweet would it be.
Traveler shuddered against the chill. His feet were unsure on the slick ice, and he kept his eyes to the ground for fear of slipping. As he watched, the ground turned from ice, into sharp gravel and treacherous talus.
At least it is not slick.
And then Traveler was over the ridge. He’d arrived, finally. Ahead was the monastery, a cluster of solid stone buildings huddling in the shadow of the Great Peaks. High above they towered, snowy princes and granite kings meeting gracefully in an enclave called Tierra Denai.
But there was no peace for those who dared to walk their paths and climb their flanks. Traveler knew this well, and he was beyond glad to have arrived.
Gladness led to hope. Maybe this time would be different from all the rest… The Herran monks are rumored to collect knowledge from across the world. Surely they have what I seek. Traveler had hardly dared to hope, but this journey had taken him clear across continents. Through magnificent forests and across raging oceans he’d traveled; if these men did not know, then who else would?
New energy pumping through his raw muscles, Traveler crossed the final stretch of the ridge between himself and the monastery.
Their gates were wide open, welcome to all who could come. Their thankful embrace led into a cobblestone, and there Traveler was greeted.
“Greetings, sojourner.” The speaker was a small man in a dull grey robe that Traveler thought looked a little drafty. “My name is Saul. You are our first pilgrim in months; we are wont for news of the outside world.”
Traveler lifted his voice to speak, clearing away the cobwebs of two months’ worth of silence. “I have come far in seek of an answer to my question. Though I carry no news, I will answer what I can.” Was his voice really that raspy?
The monk gave him a gracious smile. “No, my friend, I would not pester a weary traveler after such a trial as you have come through. We will get you food and warmth, and then we will do our best to answer your query. It is clearly a question worthy of our order, given how far you have come to ask it.”
Traveler spoke huskily, words shaped by cracked lips. “That would be… most appreciated. I have not had a hot meal in…” He couldn’t remember. That was odd.
How long have I been traveling?
The monk put a hand on his shoulder and began to lead him towards one of the buildings. “No need for words, my friend. No one comes here without a journey, and no journey is completely free of scars.”
And that was that.
After shedding his heavy pack, and his many layers of furs and fabrics, the monks fed him. Traveler was given a hot meal of thick stew, and a piece of dark, grainy bread to go with it. He thanked the monks, trying to be polite and not piggish, but received only eager encouragements to get eating. It was the best thing he had ever eaten, on all of his journeys and all of his travels.
After he’d eaten his fill, Saul tried to lead him off to a bath and a bed, but Traveler resisted.
“I cannot rest. Not yet. I must know whether you have the answer I seek.”
Saul raised his eyebrows. “Surely you must be sore and tired beyond belief. How long has it been since you’ve slept on a real mattress?”
“Too long,” Traveler admitted. “But I cannot sleep when I might be so close.”
“Very well then.” Saul’s smile held no begrudging. “I shall call my brethren and we will set about this question. I doubt we cannot, at least, point you in the correct direction, though if I’m being honest, I have not yet seen a question asked that we could not answer outright.”
Traveler’s heart rose. This is it. I will finally know! “Then let us have no delay—where shall I wait?”
Without another word, Saul led him to an adjoining building. Here a few tiers of seats rose a central platform.
“Sit there in the center,” the monk told him. “From here we will hear what you have to say.”
Traveler sat and watched as the gray-robed scurried off. In his mind, he prepared what he would say. The long hours of walking had afforded him no little time to think, and no small speech filled his head.
No, this is silly. What was the point of a speech when you had no one to impress? These monks did not seek to judge him, but to answer the questions of the world. I will just ask, then. There is nothing better than simplicity.
Over the next few minutes, monks trickled into the seats, maybe three dozen in total. They were of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and wore robes of as many hues as Traveler could name. Purples, blacks, reds, browns, grays, yellows, and greens.
The last one to arrive was Saul, who came through the door out of breath, but grinning nonetheless.
“We are all assembled; masters in every field of art and science. Our mission is to answer the questions of the world, and we believe each one is important.” He took a seat and fixed his eyes on Traveler. “Sojourner, what is your query?”
This was it. This was the moment.
Traveler stood up, cleared his throat, then spoke in careful tones. “I wish to know the meaning of life. What is the purpose behind all of this? Who created it all? Why do we have convictions, but no way to explain them? Why do we sometimes do evil and sometimes do good? Man holds to logic, truth, right, wrong, love, and our ability to believe these things, yet none of them can exist in the world according to our five senses. Who can say that they have tasted love or touched truth? No one. Far and wide I have searched, without rest or respite, and no one can give me an answer. This question has consumed my life. Please, give me an answer.”
His words were met with silence.
Perhaps I have offended them somehow?
That was a bit more of a speech than Traveler had meant to give. But it was out now. There it was, the same quandary he’d posed to dozens of others. Monks and philosophers, wise men and religious leaders. No one could give him a real answer.
“Even a new perspective would be valuable.”
No one spoke. As Traveler’s eyes jumped around the room, he saw more and more faces marred with sadness and confusion.
His heart was already sinking as a monk in a pure black robe stood up. His features were grizzled, and his frame frail, but the monk’s voice was strong. “That is the very question that we have sought the answer to since the founding of this monastery. It was what motivated Bente Grigio to found our order in the first place, and we have searched for decades to no avail.”
Another monk, clad in purple, stood. “Along the way, we have found the answers to innumerable other questions of time, space, and philosophy. Natural science, and the arts are within our purview, but what you ask… we aren’t sure man can ever answer.”
A third monk rose, this one draped in red. “This question is so far beyond us that no one of our members has even begun to grasp its enormity. To say you even fully understood the question being asked is to give in to the arbitrary whims of man.”
A grim faced green spoke up. “The only one who could ever answer this question, would be God himself. Not someone subject to the failings and whims of humankind, but a true god, eternal and omniscient. Omnipresent and omnipotent would have to be among his attributes as well. Only a being with infinite knowledge, infinite strength, and infinite presence could create and sustain such a world as we live in.”
A monk wearing red was the last to stand. “And no such god exists in the religions and philosophies of the world. All of them are invalid, contradictory, and arbitrary. Many do no even possess all of these attributes. Even if there were an “unknown god” such as this, who has ever seen him? Who has ever heard his voice and listened to his speech? Why would a god such as this want anything to do with us, for there is no light in darkness, and no man can claim to be free of darkness.”
The first monk spoke again, each word a hammer pounding on the lid of Traveler’s coffin. “We have no answer.” The grave was dug. “Nor any inkling of where you might find one.” The coffin was shut tight. “The world is a tale. A tale told by broken creatures.”
At this, Traveler went numb. All along, he had known this would be the answer. The fool in him had dared to hope, dared to believe that these men might have a new perspective, something he’d never seen before, but… they were just as clueless as he.
His voice shook, as if it might suddenly crack in two. “Thank you for your time. I must be going now.”
As he turned to leave, Saul called out. “Wait, traveler, have you spoken with the Hodai Ca’Kri yet?”
He had. They had no answer either.
“What about the Yeleni wise men?”
Traveler did not halt his departure.
Other monks began to chime in, each suggesting different sources of wisdoms, and founts of knowledge he might try. Religions, philosophies, ideologies and thinkers; Traveler had tried each one and found them lacking.
The world is empty of the one thing that really counts. He thought bitterly.
As Traveler hoisted his pack unto his shoulders, and set out back on the journey he’d come, he had but one thought;
Maybe what I seek truly is just an illusion. If no one has an answer, then what is point of continuing to seek.
That old monk was right. The world is a tale.
A tale told by broken creatures.
And with that, the man who called himself Traveler left the monastery, even more empty than when he’d come.