'Life without children is an unsavory gravy.'
He wrapped his mind tightly around those words. Far away from his roots, afraid to be discovered. He felt so powerless and alienated. Like a twig which could snap at any moment.
A man like him shouldn't be relying on some fortune-teller's half-baked notions of finding answers. He knew how to wield a sword blindfolded or ride a horse at lightning fast speed. Yet here he was in a dusty, raggedy cloak fumbling through a necromancer's map like his life depended on it.
Fire flowers glowing at his right and the cemetery he just passed by told him he was moving in the right direction. But instead of a sacred grove greeting his eyes, a peculiar structure stood facing him. It resembled a hollowed out tree trunk from outside and gleamed silver under the full moon. He knew better than to rub his eyes and make it disappear like a dream.
Curiosity brought him here. More than that- desperation. He couldn't have second thoughts about his journey. He had nothing else to turn back to.
His distressing plight let him conquer his fear of being seen. He inched closer to the odd piece of architecture and felt relieved as its enigma started washing away. A large timber door and few mossy windows were perceptible. Definitely it was some sort of tavern.
He squared his shoulders and clutched onto his sack just a few feet away from the tavern's front steps. But before he placed his feet on its stony stairs, a voice shrieked out from the dark.
He responded instinctively and crouched so low that his forehead almost grazed against sharp flints. In a split second something flew past him and landed at some distance with a thudding sound. He got back on his feet, dusted himself but couldn't make out what it was that tried to hit him.
'That's a polite way of greeting visitors,' he remarked, his voice filled with no small rebuke.
'Only new ones. You can never be too careful.' Someone giggled in the dark.
He couldn't react like he used to.
He shouldn't react like he used to.
He gulped down his irritation and briskly walked inside. As soon as he entered the hall, his ears picked up a strange noise. Like leaves rustling in the wind. He looked around the room but couldn't find any plants. Or any gust of wind. Just funny looking people sitting around round tables, exchanging words and drinking muddy water. They seemed to behave like he was invisible. There was no fire crackling in a hearth or lamps visible anywhere. Yet he couldn't complain that the air wasn't pleasant or that there wasn't enough light to see.
He settled down in an empty corner table with his gunny sack. He tried hiding his restlessness. Before he could stretch his legs or notice anything else, a girl came up to him. Tiny white spots freckled her face and whatever part of her skin could be seen.
'Good evening sir. It's always lovely to find a new face on this side of town.'
He managed to curve his lips into a very brief smile. He sensed no malice or mockery in her words. But she let out an unfamiliar odour.
'I imagine you haven't traveled this far just to take sips of Sludge Aqua?,' she asked with empathy.
'I wouldn't mind some clean water and food. But meeting someone called Mr Kao is my most pressing need,' he whispered.
'Let me see what I can do,' she replied and headed towards the bar which had jars of beverages the kind he had never seen before.
What he saw next was either incredulous or simply a trick of the eyes. A boy seemed to grow out of the floor as the waitress spoke to the air around the counter. He could swear there was nobody!
Although the young lad looked perfectly human, he felt there was something more to him. He walked towards him and sat facing him. Nonchalantly. He had never seen such fiery red eyes.
'I apologize on behalf of my staff. My folks rarely see new people. They need to be reminded every now and then how to greet people,' he spoke in a tone that could be either apologetic or mocking.
'May I know what tried to hit me on the stairs?,' he tried to keep his displeasure at a bare minimum.
The fire in the boy's eyes turned autumnal orange.
'Nothing serious. Just a large, sturdy log that could split a skull into two,' he remarked casually. Like someone raising a friendly toast. Then he became dead serious. Like a tomb.
'Baby's Breath just informed me you are looking for some Mr Kua, Kaw-'
'Mr Kao. I have heard he is tall like a tree and his silver beard reaches the ground.'
'And what do you seek out from this Mr Kao?'
'Magic. I mean I chronicle tales of superpowers. I have heard he has healing powers,' he replied, pointing to a quill and some parchment papers in his bag.
The boy quickly came uncomfortably close to his face. Like he was reading an incomprehensible document. And as swiftly withdrew himself.
'You must be a scribe.'
The boy yawned and added, 'You can certainly meet him. Very soon. He is the innkeeper of this tavern. But there's just one condition: you must first listen to a story.'
He pressed his hand affably upon the scribe's knuckles for taking him into confidence. Although he found the young boy unpredictable and unnerving, he feigned acquiescence.
Immediately the dexterous chap went and stood in the middle of the room where the moonbeams etched out a luminous circle.
'Folks of Mother Earth, may I have your attention?'
The room fell silent.
'We have a new guest in our midst with the same old quandary. He is here to meet an old man tall as a tree whose beard can sweep floors.'
He imitated a gravelly voice and caressed the air beneath his chin like he was pulling at his imaginary beard. The tables roared with laughter.
The scribe hid his face further inside the cloak, feeling embarrassed and turning red. He felt like leaving but seeing a tray of food in the waitress's hand, he calmed himself down. He could do with some humiliation if there was even the slightest possibility of meeting Mr Kao.
'You see Mr Scribe, it's one thing to believe in an old wives' tale. And completely another to end up in an unknown part of the world in search of it.'
Then his voice and facial expressions turned grave and the crowd immediately calmed down. He was preparing the guests for an extraordinary story.
Tales of superpowers are like rivers. They travel far and wide, eternally changing their courses through time and space.
Our story might well be as old as an eternal tree. Or a new flower bud just preparing to bloom. Centuries ago where this inn stands there was a forest like paradise. Anyone who passed through it was spellbound by its otherworldly plants and mysterious creatures.
But how long can something remain pristine in the presence of mankind? Man always thinks of conquering what is free and innocent and tries to stamp his ownership upon it.
The scribe's ears pricked up like a rabbit as he took a bite off a large loaf of sugar, the only edible piece of food on his plate.
The woods had a formidable guardian. In its presence, no one could pluck a single flower, let alone axe a tree. However it had a forgiving heart. It overlooked innocent trespasses but if someone intentionally tried to harm any sylvan creature, it is said he turned them into stones.
The opposite was equally true. Kind and gentle souls received special boons. One such person was a young widow who would come and sit under the shade of a mighty oak. She would talk to the forest beings like they were her own babies. The plants swayed to her songs of sorrow and the flowers shed tears. She would lament the loss of her only child and tend to the grove and planted new seeds. The guardian listened to her although it was unfamiliar to human life.
It came to her dream one night and told her to plant a seed under the soil where her child was buried. She woke up confused but found a blue seed next to her pillow. She took it in her palm and when no one was around, she went to the burial ground and planted the seed where she had buried her son. After she almost gave up hope waiting, her son pushed himself up and out of the soil. It seemed like he had been sleeping. He didn't appear like a ghost or anything unnatural.
Overwhelmed by inexpressible joy, she didn't think twice what her village would assume about such magic. When she returned back home with her son, the villagers were terrified of her. They chastised her and declared her to be a witch. They burnt down her house as she fled to the grove with her son.
All this while she had not called on the guardian. But as soon as she was about to enter the forest, she thought of it in her prayer. Someone sprang at the boy but a log appeared out of nowhere and knocked the stranger unconscious.
But it was late. The boy was bleeding. She called out to the forest spirit but its magic worked only once. She howled and cried to the skies. Her boy didn't come back this time. Some say after that she tried to kill herself but the spirit brought her back as an immortal tree.
Aghast with grief and anger the spirit became uncontrollable. It sent one windy storm after another to the villagers, making their lives unbearable. However its wrath also turned against its own kind. Some flowers turned into ashes wherever he stepped while some are still said to be blazing bright like the fire flowers outside.
The villagers realized what they had done. They fasted and knelt in prayer to appease it, built a shrine. It eventually calmed down and the storms ceased. For many years after that the people took it upon themselves to safeguard the forest. They won back the spirit's trust with their devotion.
The spirit became attuned to human ways of living. It grew very fond of children. It found great joy in their innocence and naturalness. People who couldn't bear children came in search of the spirit. They would go back home and spend sleepless nights, desperately waiting for blue seeds next to their pillows. Those with benevolent hearts weren't disappointed. They would plant these seeds in the backyard and after nine months they would find a human baby born from the womb of Mother Earth.
The villagers started revering the guardian as a demi-god. They spread his name far and wide. Seeing their devotion, sometimes the sentinel disguised itself as an old man and roamed around its paths. Wherever he walked, the poor never went hungry again.
On such a day when it was away from its woods, a wicked man whose prayers to sire off-springs went unanswered entered into the forest stealthily. He couldn't tolerate the boons given to others. He took out his rage on the innocent beings of the forest and lit it up with fire. When more than half the forest had burnt away and the beings disappeared into dust, the guardian came back. It saw all the grotesque embers of crimson reflected upon its eyes.
The scribe had begun to sense something terrible.
That night when the wicked man slept, he saw a surreal dream. There were trees all round him whispering like humans. He woke up with a seed redder than blood near him. He didn't even inform his wife and hurriedly planted it in a place where no one ever went. He tended to it day and night. After nine months when he looked into the soil, he heard a shriek and a strange giggle. Nothing came out.
He crouched on top of the soil and placed his ear upon it. Then suddenly terrifying animate roots emerged out of the ground. He was horrified. Before he could run, the roots tangled him and muzzled his mouth.
No one knew what happened to him. Some say his soul was trapped inside a tree for eternity. He was alive but had little human resemblance anymore. Ever since it lost most of its woods, the guardian turned capricious and tricky. It played with mankind's feelings and hopes. It permanently turned some of them into immortal plants or shrubs so that their suffering never ended and they understood how difficult it was to be something which provided life but couldn't protect itself from danger. They could come back to their human form only on full moon nights with no memory of who they were or what they did.
The scribe sat transfixed on the stool, sweating and shaking, even though the room wasn't humid. He was both afraid to look around at the tables or make eye contact with the boy. He felt paralyzed as the boy approached him, growing tall with each step. He stopped short of reaching his table and spoke in a thunderous voice.
'You are no scribe. Just a cruel and vain conqueror unable to beget children. You have traveled this far to get magical seeds to continue your ancestral line. But you have mercilessly cut down thousands of children of Mother Earth without hesitation. You are a god among your people which is no less than a superpower. But you have only been unkind and cruel. Look at me you wretched soul!'
The scribe's face automatically rose to face what stood towering above him.
(Mr K-A-O. Or a Mighty O-A-K.)...
He woke up twitching and screaming and almost fell off his bed.
'Your Majesty! Are you all right?,' a soft female voice spoke in a hushed tone.
It took him some time to come back to reality. Even a king has no power to control his dreams.
'You have been having bad dreams these days my love. But soon all our troubles shall disappear. Our fortune-teller's predictions never go wrong. He told me last night that we should be expecting a prince or a princess pretty soon. Life won't be an unsavory gravy anymore. '
The king's heart was racing with fright but he couldn't show it to the queen. His mind was filled with disturbing images of talking trees.
'What makes you say that my dear?,' he asked.
'The Baby's Breath we planted in our royal garden is in full bloom. It looks breath-taking, its tiny white spots floating like clouds. It's a really good sign for fertility. You should see them under the full moon light.'
The king looked away from her face, alarmed and unsure of how to respond.
The queen spoke again.
'My love, why do I find such pretty looking seeds next to your pillow? Could you please tell me if they are blue or red? My eyes are seeing two different colors at once!'