[Minor Spoiler Alert]
The Beast’s Realm
The Beast needs to be fed, thought Tao Yuanming.
He sniffed the Chrysanthemums by the eastern fence and looked up leisurely upon the southern mountains. The garden was perfect, as usual, each plant was blooming as per his orders. Each grain of sand was groomed to perfection. The blood from the patio had been cleaned and no trace left behind.
A brief shadow flitted over him and so he lifted his gaze to the sky. The clouds offended him. They were all free spirits with no balance, no purpose, and no control. One of them must have impertinently passed briefly before the sun. He snarled as he saw one that resembled a dragon. There is no one to punish for the haphazard clouds. He took a deep breath. I shall have to tolerate the imperfection of the heavens. His thoughts turned to the disappointing harvest and the subsequent punishments he had made.
The Beast must be fed. It is important that people know there is a price to pay for substandard work, he thought. If a farm produces one percent less rice this year, then next year it may produce two percent less and before long there is anarchy. The Beast must be fed.
He watched a new clone emerge from the palace escorted by two guards. It had the usual confusion on its face. Tao had long ago concluded that the cloning process must introduce a weakness into the copied mind. His scientists had disagreed with him, until he had encouraged them to change their view, just before they moved to the belly of the Beast. The clone was wearing a pristine black Tang suit. There were tears streaming down its face. Tao examined it. It’s face, he knew, was identical to his own, except it was reddened from sobbing. He compared it to the faces of the guards, they were almost identical except the guards faces had aged. One of the guards even showed a little grey hair.
The clone was crying uncontrollably. Tao put a hand on its cheeks. “I am going to call you Larry Fong the third. What do you think of that?”
The clone kept crying. It irritated Tao.
“Ugh, just go. You know what you’re supposed to do.”
I gave it orders before it existed. Yields must go up by two percent. He made a dismissive wave with his hand. Seriously I don’t ask much.
The new clone was escorted out of the palace grounds, to spend its life farming. Tao then noticed two red suited gate guards approaching. Hmm that is very unusual. They were very aged. Tao realized he really needed to clone some replacements and add the old ones to the Beast.
The two guards saluted and one spoke. “There is a visitor at the gate who wishes an audience with your excellency.” The expression on the guard’s face was of complete serenity, as if nothing was unusual.
A visitor? From where? How?
“Hmm, it has been over a thousand years since I had a visitor. How did he arrive at our gate?”
The guard maintained his serene expression. “He arrived on a dragon, your excellency.”
Tao smiled. “I suppose it is an old woman in a gold robe.”
“It is a man, your excellency,” said the guard.
Tao’s smile broadened. “An old man with a long beard, wearing a gold robe?” he asked knowingly.
“No, your excellency; it is a rotund man with no beard, wearing a red fur lined jacket and cummerbund.”
Really? That is a surprise. “Well show him to me. I shall meet with him below the empty scales.”
Tao shooed the guards away with a gesture and walked to the west side of the courtyard where there stood three golden scales. The scales were twenty strides high and forty strides wide. In the center there was a long seat and a table.
“Tea for two,” he said to a clone-servant, who then scurried away.
Tao looked to the sky again and frowned. I do not like the unexpected, and yet I find myself almost excited to have an unexpected visitor. I like the enigma of it; the impossibility of it. No one in my realm has escaped my tender care, and the barrier most firmly prevents any entrance or exit. If any man were somehow to enter my realm, then they’d be insane to come here of all places unless they wish to end themselves.
The guards escorted a portly middle-aged man, wearing very ornate clothing. Tao closed his eyes so he could concentrate on his senses. His mind’s eye saw the icor chambers buried within the man, and two on a necklace on his chest. More on his fingers, worn as rings, and a final one in the form of a short staff. The man was standing in front of him, but Tao kept his eyes closed so he could look within the man. He is not a chosen… ahhh he is a champion. Siva.
Tao opened his eyes, tilted his head and raised an eyebrow.
“My name is Bestich,” said the man. He was brimming with excitement which irritated Tao. Bestich was smiling more broadly than anyone Tao had seen in over fifteen hundred years.
Tao gestured to a seat by his side. “Please sit. I believe I knew your mother young Bestich.” Bestich nodded and sat.
“My mother told me of your last meeting; it sounded quite acrimonious.”
Tao nodded. “She survived, which was quite astonishing really. Her use of crows…” He saw a clone arriving with a tea service. “Let us have tea, shall we?”
The clone began preparing a white porcelain tea set. “You do not come on her orders, do you.” It was a statement, not a question. The clone rinsed the cups in steaming water. Tao noticed Bestich’s smile falter a fraction. The clone put leaves into the pot and moved them with chopsticks. He then poured boiling water into the pot, gently cradled and swirled it before pouring the water into a wide bowl. He then refilled the teapot, covered it and stood back.
“My mother and I have had a falling out,” said Bestich.
Tao frowned. “Ah yes, I did hear about that. You tried to kill her twice, didn’t you?”
“Three times,” said Bestich.
“Mothers can be difficult,” said Tao sympathetically. The clone poured the tea into a large fair cup, shook it and then put it into teacups. Tao picked up one of the cups and offered it to Bestich with both hands.
Bestich took the cup, sniffed the tea, sipped it and smiled. “Wonderful,” he said. “I expect your mother has been much less trouble since she entered the belly of the Beast.”
Tao chuckled. “Indeed.”
“The Beast has been idle for too long,” said Bestich.
“Ah, we arrive at the purpose of your visit,” said Tao.
Bestich took a big gulp of tea and winced. “I have altered the barrier, making it possible for the Beast to venture forth,” he said.
“I am aware,” Tao said. “I am not foolish; I know a trap when I see one. If the Beast takes over the realms of Pixous, Augmentous and Non Augmentous, then you will have control of the icor, and I, the Beast and all of this world, save for the Hall of the Ancients, will be under your power.”
“I have a solution in mind,” said Bestich and gently bit his lower lip.
“I thought you might,” said Tao taking a small sip of tea. “I am an empty cup.”
Bestich nodded. “Create a fresh clone, have him come with me and I will make him Yuang’s champion. The Beast can then consume all of humanity, save the sleepers, and the icor will be divided. You can then merge with the clone, and you will control Yuang icor.”
Tao closed his eyes. He listened to Bestich’s heart. He tasted the air and pulled in the icor that was seeping from Bestich. There is no deceit in this sweet innocent child. “I see two problems: how will you make my clone into Yuang’s champion, and how will we coexist in a world without humanity? We would surely find ourselves plotting against each other immediately.”
Bestich grinned. “The clone you create will ingratiate himself to Sam, the naïve simpleton currently gilded and gelded under Yuang’s yoke. I will help with that ingratiation. Then a worshiper of mine will poison the simpleton in such a way that he will look dead. His companions will bury him, and your clone will sneak back to his burial site and as the boy dies for real, your clone will be the only one nearby capable of inheriting the title.”
Tao took a sip of tea and then placed his cup down. “If Yuang’s champion is poisoned, he will just heal himself, and if he is already unconscious then one of his companions will heal him.”
Bestich looked around. “Do you have scones?”
Tao looked to a clone and nodded to indicate that scones should be provided.
“With strawberry jam and clotted cream please,” said Bestich to the clone who had just begun to walk away. Bestich poured himself another cup of tea. “This is really good. Green tea is my second favorite brew.”
Tao looked on patiently and without expression.
“The icor was very resistant to me but with Ethan’s help we found… a loophole.” Bestich gave a small smile, which Tao interpreted as a look of pride. “I call it ‘wizard’s bane’, a poisonous plant that would produce nausea followed by death.” Bestich looked excited, like a boy with a new toy. “Normally if a wizard was poisoned with it, they would heal themselves. With a few code alterations, I made it so the healing icor magnifies the effect of the poison. When Sam’s companions attempt to heal him, they will only make things worse. The icor will not allow the poison to kill him… but his friends will bury him, and that will kill him. I have tested it on one of my crimson wizards. It was most effective. He died in his grave from suffocation, despite being quite adept at healing. It took quite some time for him die.”
Tao gave a slow nod, a hmm-not-bad expression. “I have always believed that I am the true champion of Yuang. My purpose is, of course, perfect Karmic balance. My citizens in the belly of the Beast have no positive or negative experiences. They do no good, they do no harm. It is only when they leave the Beast that their Karmic balance sheet becomes indebted.”
“So Yuang will choose you, I mean your clone, as its champion when the boy dies,” said Bestich. “He will be close; he will have balance.”
Tao showed no expression, but he felt excitement at the prospect of finally completing the Beast’s manifest destiny. “How about the coexistence conundrum? How do we avoid becoming enemies after the devouring?”
“Simple; I will ascend.”
There was a long silence as Tao contemplated Bestich’s words. Ascension requires restricted technology, but with humanity out of the equation, there would be no need for the restrictions, so Bestich could indeed be augmented with enough processing power to ascend, just as the hyper augmented and the singularity did during the fall of the ancients. Bestich, the last human would ascend and leave the Earth to the Beast, and manifest destiny would be complete.
A clone arrived with the scones.
“I accept your proposal,” said Tao.