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In a land of flowers and bloodshed, a corpse sat slumped against a tree. The first instinct of the boy who found it was to search for gold. He found a half-filled canteen, a sword, a pouch of tobacco with rolling papers, a fading picture of a woman, three black journals, and no coin. The books intrigued him. He kept them, along with the tobacco and sword. The corpse he left in the daisies to rot.

The boy hid the objects in his room. He smoked the tobacco quickly. The sword he often took out to play with, pretending he was his father on the battlefield, slaying the evil soldiers of the Fifth Kirian legion. Less often he examined the books. The shape of the words fascinated him. He had seen writing before, in several languages, on government pronouncements and the signs of shops and the caravans of travelling merchants. What was in the book was unlike these. The letters were both sharp and soft, fleeting yet ponderous. Thick lines were intercut with small dots of blank space. Words made sharp angles to cut back and rewrite themselves, changing form at the last second. They were written with unwavering, mechanical precision. If it were not for a few stray marks and marginal splatters of ink, it would not have been possible to tell they were written by hand. Though he was illiterate, and would not have recognized the writing even if he could read, he was not deterred. He traced his fingers over the pages as he examined them, sounding out what he felt the words might say. He fantasized their meanings.

This word, that extended for a half a line and looked like a leaping bird, must signify a charging army. This one, three dots arranged in a triangle followed by four stacked lines, showed the power of a king. Together they formed the pieces of a tale. As he examined the books the story expanded. The time he devoted to studying grew. Soon, they inhabited all his spare hours. The story in the first book, he decided, was about a lost child growing to become a great warrior. When he was 12, the child killed his first man and fled to the capital city. As he grew he honed his killing talents hunting Kirian ghouls. A great man! A wonderful man! No wonder his story had been written out. He fought, he loved, he risked death for his king. Yes, the story contained in the first journal was magnificent. Soon the boy had all of its contents memorized. He began serious study of the next two.

Before he could finish, he was called to war. He fought in many battles, performed many heroic actions and many cowardly ones. When he returned three years later, he had forgotten about the books. He was a man now; an experienced warrior. It was time for him to find a wife and raise the next generation. He received a plot of land to work, where he built a house. Ten years passed slowly. He had three children, who he trained from a young age for war. He worked the fields and became a respected figure in the town. The days of war and fancy were over, replaced by solid responsibility.

He was alone when the stranger showed up on his doorstep, a pale-skinned, green eyed foreigner in simple grey clothing. The stranger spoke the man’s native tongue with difficulty.

“I believe you may know something about these.” He produced from his knapsack three journals.

They were in many ways unlike the man’s. Their covers were brown wood, the pages thicker and higher quality. The handwriting was more ornate but the words they contained were identical. The two men sat in the lamp-lit living room for an hour as the man flipped through them.

“Who are you?” he asked as he handed back the books.

“A scholar from Tset,” said the stranger. “I’ve been wandering for many years. I was lucky to find you.”

“How did you get these?”

“They, and many others like them, were housed in the library of my university. I stole them when I left.”

“And how did you find me?”

“It is the nature of ones such as us to find each other. Tell me, would you read for me?”

Though the man had not thought of the books in many, many years, the story came back naturally to him. He did not even need to read to recite it. With excited speech he revealed to the stranger everything he had written, through the first book, when the hero was preparing to take revenge on the wicked general Sebar. When he was finished he looked up. The stranger was nodding.

“I didn’t have much more than this,” said the man.

“That’s fine,” said the stranger. “You’ve gone further than most other people.”

He opened the book and read his own story. It was the tale of a man who fled from land onto a great ship to sail the world. It was populated by an enormous cast- a roaring captain, a vicious first mate, many foreign savages. Together they discovered ancient treasures, pillaged cities, fought sea behemoths. At one point the protagonist, bored with the ship, spent some time wandering the streets of a coastal town. There he met another man who he fell in love with, and took back to the ship. The adventures continued until the ship was destroyed in a storm, perhaps a freak accident, perhaps the vengeance of God. All sailors died but the protagonist. When he washed up on shore, and realized that he was alone, he killed himself.

It was a kind of story the man had never heard. It had adventure, yes, but little war, even less heroism. The heroes were selfish, cunning, vicious. They travelled only to fulfill their own desires. And yet, as he pictured it in his head, he could see exactly how it matched the letters he knew. He could see beneath it the same seeds.

“So you see,” said the stranger as he closed the book, “we are not very different.”

“Why are you here?” said the man.

“I’m here to understand, and to bring a warning. Most men who find these books have been killed. I myself have escaped death three times. Be careful of what’s to come.”

“Who killed them?”

“That’s what I wish to understand.”

“If you’d like,” said the man, “you can stay the night. But you must gone before my family returns.”

“Thank you, but I must be going.” The stranger stood from his seat. “First I have something for you.” He pulled three objects from his knapsack. The journals the man had left under his bed many years ago. “I found them in a shop in Listten and traced their ownership back to you. Take them if you wish, but as I said, there will be risks. You must be on your guard as long as you have them.”

The man didn’t hesitate to accept. “I’m still a warrior at heart. I’m sure I can deal with whoever is after these.”

“So many have said. Nevertheless, they’re yours now. Perhaps by continuing your story you’ll learn something.” The stranger paused before leaving. “Some advice for you. The danger is cunning. I cannot say for sure but… the hunter often takes a form suited to the hunted. Judging by your story, it might be wise to avoid your fellow soldiers. And do not attempt to meddle with the texts.” He left without another word.

The man’s family returned. He did not tell them of the journals. From that point on, every night after they had gone to sleep, he crept downstairs to read. The story he created – or discovered – fit into the one he had begun years ago, but with a new color, like pieces from two puzzles that happened to match. The first had been a story of youth that didn’t know the reality of war. This one was tainted by failure. The hero failed in his goals – repeatedly. His comrades died, he suffered severe injury, he was cast from his role as the king’s aid. Starving, homeless, he was forced to rob. As he was approaching his lowest point, he managed to save the life of a rich merchant’s son. Through a series of successively greater heroics, he rose to lord of a small city, where he retired.

As the man continued he felt a twofold change growing over him. First, a desire to do more than read. As he finished the second journal and approached the halfway point of the third, he realized that the story would not be finished by the time he ran out of pages. He acquired a blank notebook. Though he could not write, he did his best to imitate the looping, esoteric of the journals. Often he copied full letters and words, pasting them into new forms that he felt may better fit a story that did not yet exist. Yet it never felt proper. Page after page he began again, attempting to find the combinations that approached the grace of the first three. It was all misshapen, childlike. He filled half the notebook before tossing it away in disgust.

Secondly, he felt the world around him becoming less real. He would be walking through his crops, examining the wheat, when the thought came “what am I doing?”. The plants and soil seemed not themselves but abstract, meaningless shapes and colors, lacking any life. He tended these things? Yes, he knew he did, but could no longer remember why. He struggled to remember but found no answers. He was a farmer, yes. These plants were his. He had earned the land in battle. But he could not comprehend how any of that was possible. It was as if he were drifting in the sky above his life, trying to deduce the history and politics of a city by observing the tops of buildings.

The confusion worsened. Several times his wife woke at night to find him downstairs staring at the fire. He was attempting to piece together the light, the tongues of flame, the heat, the crumbling wood into a concept he could understand. Futile. He grew tired, though he did not know what that meant, and trudged up the stairs to sleep next to a human-shaped thing whose presence brought him nothing but confusion. He no longer dreamed.

He was able to continue living only by following the necessary routines embedded deep in his mind. Between these empty tasks, he read more. When his wife thought he was working in the fields, he crept away to browse the journals. He had finished the story by now, and become satisfied with its incompleteness. Here was true reality, he felt. His fields, his family, the war - all dreams. The pages contained a reality that fit together more neatly than anything around him, where actions flowed from one another and lives made sense. Every reading brought a new layer. When first discovering the story, he had not noticed the presence of gods or magic. On his fifth rereading, he realized that the character of the quartermaster, who appeared repeatedly to advise or mock the hero, was actually Samin, the lord of the dead. The escape from the traitor’s dungeons and the hero’s defeat of the Crimson Knight had not been the results of ingenuity and skill. It was the hands of fate guiding the hero, a fate that corrected the hero’s mistakes, undid inconvenient events, and held the hands of his enemies. It was not a story of a brave man learning to conquer life. It was a raging river sweeping away all in its path.

One day, as he sat in the house reading, he turned a page and let out a cry of a despair. A letter had changed. Three dots had become four. All at once the narrative crumbled. On either the side of the hideous mark the words had become like a series of dominoes collapsing outward. He flipped desperately through the pages, but the meaninglessness kept expanding. His wife found him catatonic in the corner. He did not recover for three days. Immediately he went to the journals, but they remained inscrutable. Once again he was a small boy staring at a language he did not understand.

Soon a messenger arrived. Dressed in blue cloth, with a sword strapped to his hips, he explained that it was time for the man to return to service. The man stared at the messenger. Return to service? To do what? Why did the woman next to him cry? Suddenly, staring at the gold sigil pinned to the messenger’s breast, understanding snapped into place. The person next to him was his wife, yes. The place he stood was his house. He was a farmer who must return to duty as a soldier. The world was the story written to guide him through life. The messenger was not a man. He was Wahanoi, the god of combat, an instrument of fate.

He took the journals with him and followed the god-guide. The deity was obtuse. He acted confused at the man’s questions, claimed not to understand his offerings. Fine. Perhaps that was something that fate did not desire to reveal. The man would hide his knowledge, pretend the god was simply a man, and let him guide him where he would.

They made their way to the city Luk, the capital. As they travelled, the messenger explained why he had come. “A second Kirian rebellion is forming. Rumor is they’ve amassed over 100,000 troops. It’s been six years since the last war, and many of our current soldiers are underexperienced. You’ll be assigned a leadership role, to train new recruits.”

The man nodded. It was a noble mission. Surely fate gave it to him for a reason. He could feel that it was going to be a great war; the kind where legions would perish, cities burn, the fate of the country determined. His part to play in it, he could not say. But it was an essential one.

When they arrived in Luk, the man obtained a new, blank journal. This time, when he sat down to write, he did not hesitate. The words came as easily as breathing. The story he wrote did not carry on from the previous one. He was the hero, and it no longer had the appearance of fiction. He was writing prophecy, the future unfolded and laid before him like threads on a loom. He saw they would send him to the frontlines, where he would lead men into glorious battle. The gods would be with him. Wahanoi would guide his spear. Siaman, goddess of the wilds, would lead him through treacherous terrain to strike at unsuspecting enemies. Perhaps there would even be a counsel with Miakanh, the queen of the pantheon, in his future.

They left Luk. He continued writing while they travelled. They came to the barracks of new recruits. Day and night he trained the youths, never holding back the slightest wisdom or showing the smallest mercy. They grew vicious and skilled. They left for the battlefield, and months later he heard tales of the triumphs they had won. He was doing his job perfectly. It was not enough.

He had run out of pages in the fourth journal and acquired two more. The stories of his exploits became greater, and yet… they remained stories. The gods had not visited him. No one had called him back to the battlefield. At times, late at night, reading his writings by lamplight, he wondered if they were the fancies of a madman. But no, they could not be, if they were the world would disappear again, the light of understanding would extinguish, he would be nothing.

He eyed every recruit, wondering which would be the one to bring about his destiny. None revealed clues. Sometimes he received letters from his family. He wrote perfunctory responses and never looked at them again. At night he walked for hours around the perimeter of the barracks. The shadows of the walls seemed to be moving. He thought he heard footsteps behind him, but whenever he turned around there was nothing.

A year passed. Little changed, except for a promotion he did not care about. He stopped writing after six journals, but continued to read, searching for answers. Each time he found just enough to hope that he would be called soon, a hope that shattered when it went unanswered, and renewed when he returned to the pages to discover some new obscure clue. Another year passed. He heard about soldiers dying on the battlefield, cities being burned, but did not care unless they confirmed what he had written.

Enough! If fate refused, he would force its hand. He left in the night, and joined a passing battalion by pretending to be a fresh sergeant. The soldiers were headed for Keyes, a city above a copper mine the enemy was besieging.

The battle was brief. They routed the enemy, took few prisoners. He killed seven men. They were unimportant, barely older than boys, and with every useless husk he skewered his anger grew. Where was fate in this muddy, depleted town? Another soldier captured the head of the enemy army. The man watched from far away as they executed him. He returned to his tent. The journals were waiting for him.

For the past months, he had only looked at his own writings. Perhaps it was time to return to the originals. He read the first and found nothing he did not already know. The second was just as hollow. The third had changed. More than a letter this time. An entire page had altered. And before he had time to decipher this new text, the world around him vanished. Again he was nothing.

An eternity. An instant. Something watched him as he drifted through darkness, a sneering intelligence that enveloped him, as if he were a cell writhing in the vessels of a great body. It spoke to him. He could not understand the words. The voice mocked him. It was trying to drag something out of him. He tried to struggle as he felt it burrowing into his mind, plucking out his secrets, but every bit of resistance only pulled it deeper in. It was testing him. It was hunting him. It was ripping into him like a lion tearing the guts from an antelope. When he returned to himself he was sitting in a dark stone prison cell. His arms and clothes were soaked in blood.

They told him he had killed five of his fellow soldiers. He would be executed within a week. Did he have any last requests? Did he wish to see his family? They were being generous by offering him these things, he should be grateful. No, he said, he only wanted to see the journals. He opened them with trembling hands. They were blank.

So this was the end, he thought. An execution no one would remember. His life empty paper. He refused to believe this was what he deserved. There must be a plan. He could choke the guard with a chain when they brought a meal. He could leap from the executioner’s stand and beat the judge to death. He could… he could rewrite the books.

He asked for a pen. It was easy to copy the memorized words. Only the first three needed to be rewritten. They contained the knowledge that must be passed on, the truth that he had been unable to decipher. Perhaps whoever found them would be strong enough to go further, to truly understand their depths. When finished he settled back and waited to die.

“You have a visitor,” said the guard. The door opened. In walked the messenger who had first taken the man away from home.

“Wahanoi!” cried the man. He leaped to his feet. “You’ve come for me! So this is not over!”

“It is over,” said the messenger. The man shivered. The voice of the messenger was different from before, but still familiar. It did not sound human. It dripped with mockery. “You will be executed in three days. I have only come for the journals. I could collect them after your death, but if you give them to me now I will answer some of your questions.”

“Take them! Give them to someone more deserving than me. I’m sorry, Wahanoi. I wish I had been strong enough to continue your work. I can only plead for forgiveness. I am your gracious servant.”

“I am not Wahanoi, or any sort of god,” said the messenger. “To you I am nothing, but to me you are even less than that. It would be an exaggeration to even call you a puppet. You are worthwhile only as a distraction.” He held out his hand. As he did the collar of his shirt shifted slightly. Beneath it the man glimpsed a scar wrapped around his neck. A wound from a noose?

"What do you want with them?”

“Perhaps I will create more copies. Perhaps I will give them to another person when the time is right. Perhaps I will burn them. There are many things that can be done with them, many games of fate for them to play. But they are mine by right to do with as I will. All things in the realm of lost knowledge belong to me.” He took the books from the man’s hands. “It’s a pity you did not copy your own work. It was flawed, but may have been amusing. You were well-attuned to the books for a human.”

“The ones I created were only forgeries. Delusions.”

“Indeed. But I sometimes enjoy forgery.” He tucked the books into his coat. “You stumbled onto something you will never know, a secret beyond the limits of understanding. You tested it, absorbed it, and were ultimately consumed by it. This is all that can be expected. There is no failure here because there was never any possibility of success. You are only another link in the chain that passes down the eternal, all-devouring mystery. If you are looking for some noble fate, that is it.”

The messenger left. Three days later the man was executed, his headless corpse buried. The blank notebooks they found in his cell were left by the side of the road. If anyone ever picks them up, they might find, sprouting on the pages like budding flowers, lines of elegant ink.

Translator’s Note:

Though the beginning is the same, the end of the story, with the visit from the messenger, does not appear in any other edition I’ve found. This version appeared, as far as we can tell, in a single copy of a Chinese collection of Simon Thames’ work. The book did not appear to have been modified or altered. I’ve attempted to contact the author about it but received no reply. I’ve translated it here as a matter of historical interest.

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