Post-Apocalyptic Relic Hunting Strike Force

The Ground of All Existence

Zarathustra was examining an uncomfortable feeling in his gut. He centered himself in his breathing and contemplated the feeling in non-judgment. This was made more difficult because Zarathustra was rocketing through the sky at high speed. Down in the mountain valleys the early spring air would have felt a bit chill, but up here the wind cut through his skin like freezing fire. He flew behind his traveling companion, Henry Joy, letting the scout create a draft that sliced through the stiff gusts. Slightly to their left flew the youthful monk Wally, and drafting behind Wally’s muscular frame was Blaine, the tiny gnomish wizard. Zarathustra wondered what the isolated villagers in the valleys thought of this traveling quartet. Only a truly keen eye would have even noticed them, flying at remarkable speed many feet above the ground. The spell that propelled them on the wind also cloaked them in a translucent camouflage, mimicking the bright morning sky above.
The really massive peaks were behind him, but Zarathustra and the others had to bank back and forth to avoid the smaller mountains. The frigid wind buffeted them harshly. Zarathustra knew that somewhere, far ahead, lay the mountain monastery that he called home. But Blaine and other wise folk told Zarathustra he had been away from his monastery for many years. Perhaps the land has changed, they suggested. Perhaps the monastery is there no longer, they posited. Sometimes the things he was told were difficult for Zarathustra to believe. Zarathustra examined his spirit. Was this unpleasant feeling in his gut confusion? Or fear? In the stillness of the gale Zarathustra knew it to be fear. Fear of what?
The mountains were giving way to foothills. Henry Joy straightened course and began angling almost imperceptibly downward. They slid past the tops of a row of foothills, coming so close to one hilltop that Zarathustra could have grazed the craggy peak with an outstretched hand. Henry was getting near his homeland and he must have known each hill and valley by sight, Zarathustra thought. The air warmed; first slowly, then in sudden blasts. Zarathustra perceived that the heat of the sun was reflecting off the earth; and as they descended the party was blessed with this warmth. They were nearing the desert flats now. Zarathustra could see the hills dying into scrubland ahead. Off to his right some gaunt villagers, small as mice from this distance, filled baskets with red berries from trees on the southern hillsides. If any were still alive, the monks of his monastery would be finishing their morning chores by now. Zarathustra sighed. Such thoughts led to desire for his home, which led to suffering. He recentered his attention on the present moment.
The warm whipping wind felt almost hypnotic. Zarathustra found he could close his eyes and still draft behind Henry Joy by feel. The scout flew so straight that Zarathustra need only adjust himself back into Henry’s wake by the pressure of wind resistance alone.
With his corporeal eyes closed Zarathustra used his inner eye to imagine that he flew far past the ruins of Henry’s village. Further north, Zarathustra flew above the scrubland as it turned into overgrown forest. Zarathustra continued north, envisioning Alfonso, the halfling casino magnate and gray market entrepreneur, in a small clearing. With his inner eye Zarathustra saw Alfonso in perfect detail. Alfonso was rehearsing with some barbaric-looking elves. The elves may have been dressed as savages, but sat primly on stumps and logs, staring into tiny mirrors and reapplying makeup while sipping from silver flasks concealed in their loincloths.
“We want savage, but not too savage. The safari tourists expect noble innocence, not actual cruelty. Understand? Violence yes, cruelty, no.” The elves nodded attentively. One of the savages was taking notes with a quill pen on a vellum scroll book. Alphonso clapped his little hands together with gusto. “Now! Let’s run through the scene again.” As Zarathustra sped past he saw the elves assume a choreographed struggle for dominance, including leaping kicks and perfectly timed dodges and parries. Quite convincing. Henry Joy might have felt admiration at the elves’ dexterous faux-dance. Wally may have felt anger at the thought of others being duped by Alphonso. Zarathustra simply observed in non-judgment. He flew on before the combat ended.
Speeding low above tangled foliage, Zarathustra saw with his inner eye to the east what appeared to be a small mountain tipped nearly to one side. Gnomes were bustling about the base, making calculations and muttering about gravitational force and levitation magic. Zarathustra passed them by.
To the west Zarathustra passed crumbling ziggurats of another time, grown over with vines and creeping plants, ruled only by goblins. Zarathustra flew on. In the woods Zarathustra saw packs of Krenshar scaring prey by pulling back the skin from their faces before devouring them. He flew past the ruined huts of long dead hermits, inhabited now by unknown horrors. He saw with keen clarity isolated families of demon-worshipping cannibals, waiting for the next lonely traveler. His inner eye showed him a large army of many races decamping after a winter stay, moving north and east, burning villages.
As he flew further he saw a familiar sight; a mountain, not the mountain of his monastery, but a low, old mountain with a small path heading toward a ruined tower. Zarathustra had dreamed about this place several nights ago. Now he saw it in his mind again. As Zarathustra used his inner eye to explore the mountain in detail, he recalled an echo of a memory from long ago, hundreds of years ago, if that were possible. It was the arch of a cliff that triggered it. Something about the shape pulled on a long forgotten memory. The watchtower. This was the southern watchtower for his monastery, placed on the mountain just next to his, to warn of any large attack from the Hanguk. He observed the tower now. The roof had collapsed and trees grew up through and above the crumbling walls. The path was still maintained though.
Zarathustra shivered in thrilling anticipation when he recalled where that path led. He flew further north still, rounding the slope of this mountain, following the path to the ancient road. The road was still there. He sped on, quickly now, toward his mountain, the mountain of his order, his monastery. And stopped abruptly.
There was no mountain.
Zarathustra recognized the surrounding landscape. But the mountain had been replaced with… nothing. Not even a field. There was a hole, nearly a mile wide and many feet deep. Smoke rose from this crater and the glow of lava could clearly be seen from a small tunnel at the base. Many other tunnels were dug into the sides of the crater, and track had been laid so that large metal carts could be pushed about. His mountain was now a mine. The mine looked dwarven in make but goblins were laboring to bring up slag from the depths of the tunnels. A bored ogre with a whip leaned on a piece of track, using the least amount of effort to lash the backs of goblins who slacked. The monastery was gone. Only the road remained, no doubt for use by the goblins and ogres.
Zarathustra felt the knot in his gut tighten. Fear. Definitely fear. That was what he had been feeling earlier. Fear of exactly this revelation.

Zarathustra opened his eyes. He was no longer flying behind Henry Joy. But he was also no longer hovering above the mine that replaced his monastery. Wisps of golden fog wrapped around his ankles. Diffuse light shone from an unseen source, but Zarathustra could see nothing of substance. Was he still floating? Or standing on a very soft surface? Zarathustra centered himself in his breath, reaching out with his senses in the present moment. Almost imperceptibly, a sitar began a multi-toned drone, low and quiet. Zarathustra noticed a feeling of uneasiness begin within himself. He examined the feeling in nonjudgment. As he explored the feeling, he perceived a figure slowly solidifying from the golden fog. The figure became more substantial and Zarathustra perceived his own apprehension increase. He sat with the feeling and readied his body for a quick response, should one be necessary. As the figure materialized the sitar grew and changed in tone. The figure appeared to be human and was dressed in simple cloth robes, but as Zarathustra watched, eight arms extended out from its torso. Last to appear was the being’s face. Or, in this case, faces. To Zarathustra it appeared as though many unique faces came into focus in quick succession. The faces were almost hypnotizing. Zarathustra tried to ground himself in the moment, listening to all his other senses, but they seemed to be dulled by the droning music and the softness of the light in the room. Zarathustra observed as his gaze was involuntarily drawn to the being of many faces in front if him. Zarathustra recognized that his apprehension was a gut feeling that what ever stood before him now, was an entity of terrifying power. Acknowledging that feeling as fear, Zarathustra let the emotion fall away from his body.
“Greetings Zarathustra.” The voice had an accent he had heard before, many years ago, from monks of a certain region far to the east.
Zarathustra did not know who this being of many faces was, but he knew he wanted to dictate the tone of their conversation.
“I know what I see with my inner eye to be true. My monastery has been destroyed. And I have let my desire to see it turn to fear."
The being’s many faces appeared to smile kindly, each in rapid succession. “You speak the truth. But are you not curious who We are, or where you are now, or how you came to be here?”
Zarathustra bowed his head and stated, “I am here in this moment. You also are here. I do not require any other explanation.”
The being’s head bowed ever so slightly in response, as if Zarathustra’s answer were anticipated. “And do you also not wish to know how or when or why your monastery was destroyed?"
Zarathustra’s pulse quickened imperceptibly. His muscles tensed a bit. He sat with that uncomfortable feeling for a few breaths before replying.
“Please to do not tell me these things. I have learned my lesson from the sight my inner eye has shown me. My desire for these answers is a hindrance to me.” Again the being’s many faces smiled, thousands of smiles occurring not quite in unison.
“We remember you thus. Your learning spirit is why We chose you.”
The being’s shifting faces slowly settled into a single, wrinkled, tanned visage. The face’s eyes were hidden beneath deep, smiling brows. A single letter had been branded onto the face’s forehead. That scar was red and angry; impossible to ignore, impossible to forget. Zarathustra recognized the face from a time far away.
“Tell Us who We are."
“You are the convicted killer, Kato,” Zarathustra stated matter-of-factly. "You joined our monastery after you were released from prison. I was still a young boy at the time. I believe you died only a few months later.”
The Kato-being smiled benevolently. “We did die soon after. But We toiled hard in those months before death to undo the many hurts We created in the world. And when We were reborn, We were given over to another monastery as a child, and became a Master, experiencing enlightenment. And the fires of desire having been completely extinguished, We broke free of saṃsāra. And We joined the other souls in eternal videhamukti, outside of time, in blissful egolessness.”
The sitar was now almost imperceptible, a deep low hum that hung just on the edge of perception.
With intense deliberation, Zarathustra looked away from the Kato-being, fixing his stare at a place in the soft golden clouds several feet to the left. Zarathustra breathed once, then nodded casually.
“You are Brahma, the Ground of All Existence.” Zarathustra said the words to the space a few feet to the Kato-being’s left, as if he had just commented on the weather.
The Kato-Being’s smile shrunk to wry smirk. “This one knows the name of the Godhead. This one knows how to address ten thousand enlightened Masters. This one does not grovel or bow or quake at Our feet. This is why We chose this one. Zarathustra- When We joined the brahma in moksha We brought Kato’s knowledge of your learning spirit with Us.”
“And… you froze me in suspended animation for decades.”
The Kato-being morphed back into the being of many faces. They all nodded pleasantly, slightly out of sync with one another.
“And you, Zarathustra will not ask. Because you fear that to ask Us why your friends keep saying they have seen many different versions of yourself, many different Zarathustras, would stoke the fires of your desire, desire to understand all that is happening to you. So we shall tell you without you needing to ask. But let us start at the beginning.” Here the being of many faces used all eight of its arms to politely cover different mouths as it cleared its throat. It then continued.
“We are the small part of wisdom that exists in all conscious beings from deities to the lowliest insect. We are outside time. We transcend good and evil. And We usually do not interact with mortals. We have taken you outside of time to impart sacred knowledge. There are many beings in the Outer Nothingness of whom mortals know little, and this is as it should be. Some of these beings are so large that they are capable of devouring entire planes, but, being outside of time, We do not usually trouble Ourselves with these entities. However, over the last few millennia, three of these world-eaters have banded together to destroy twenty-seven material planes. In every instance the heroes and gods of those planes have failed to stop them. The three beings have become very adept at annihilation. They entrance and convert natives on the material planes to become their cultists, who then help assist the beings in breaking through the natural defenses of the plane. There is a real possibility that left unchecked, they will devour all Matter, leaving only void. Destruction and Nothingness by themselves are neither good or evil, and they are fine tools with which to contemplate saṃsāra. But every time these entities devour a plane, hundreds of enlightened souls simultaneously join the Godhead. The experience is very nauseating and generally unpleasant for Us.”
At this, Zarathustra, who had been heretofore listening dispassionately, found one of his eyebrows arching upward of its own accord. Was judging The Ground of All Existence’s motives as petty and self-serving the path to enlightenment? Unlikely. Zarathustra took a deep breath and returned his focus to the voice of the Godhead.
“Naturally, being outside of time, We no longer are able to interact with these world-eaters Ourselves. We needed a way to inform the sentient folk still trapped inside saṃsāra of the danger and mobilize them to action. Having carefully observed them successfully consume twenty-seven material planes, We believe We have discovered a weakness; that the very tactics used by these three entities may present an opportunity to not only repel them but to kill them. Listen carefully, Zarathustra. This is why we have set you apart from the others. Prior to each planar invasion, these creatures expend considerable energy from their homes in the Outer Nothingness tempting mortals to worship them. In doing so the world-eaters must disclose true aspects of their nature. Often this drives their worshippers insane, but it also makes certain than no other abomination from the Void sneaks in through a rift meant only for the three devourers of planes. Their names act as keys to the rifts in the fabric of existence. It is conceivable that heroes of sufficient power, armed with the secret true names and aspects of these entities, may defeat them… if the world-eaters are first forced to expend large amounts of their energy entering physical existence. Too many cultist followers on your plane assisting the creatures will make their success inevitable. Also,” here the being of many faces used all eight arms to sheepishly scratch its many different necks, “even if the entities are defeated, doing so may annihilate this material plane. Or it may save millions of lives.”
Zarathustra furrowed his brow. Still looking respectfully away from the being of many faces, he calmly stated, “I understand. So annihilation is possible regardless. This is a metaphor for the uselessness of desire. I am being tested to determine my true nonattachment to all Matter. I will observe in nonjudgment as the plane is devoured and then hope to achieve enlightenment."
The being of many faces paused for a moment, frowning many unique frowns.
“No Zarathustra. One must engage with the world to achieve liberation from saṃsāra. Also, you may be interested to know that the first manifestation of these creatures on your plane included an extraplanar meteor shower that destroyed your monastery.” A thousand eyes cast sidelong glances in Zarathustra’s direction, waiting cautiously for a response.
Zarathustra centered himself in his breath. He replied, respectfully looking away from the being of many faces.
“My monastery has been destroyed. Vengeance will not change that. Destruction is part of rebirth. I will accept my fate and hope for moksha."
The being of many faces threw up eight hands and then raised its voice in exasperation. “Look. If you seek enlightenment, it is highly likely that your selfless act of sacrifice to save this and many other planes by destroying these world-eaters would extinguish your fires of saṃsāra."
Zarathustra turned to look at the many faces directly. Irritation seeped through his face. “Are you… bribing me with enlightenment?"
Eight hands slapped many faces in exasperation.
“Zarathustra. Moksha is a spiritual process by which souls join Us, a natural consequence of shedding karma. We do not have any control over which souls make the journey. Also, We are becoming rather annoyed by these entities from Outer Nothingness. Their planar destruction causes a nausea which is mildly bothersome to Us. So fine. We are asking that you and your companions destroy these entities as a personal favor to the Godhead. It is likely you could join Us afterwards in eternal blissful egolessness, but We cannot guarantee such an outcome. So no, this is not a bribe.” A thousand eye rolls, just slightly out of sync.
Zarathustra smiled excitedly. “Oh! I think I understand now. I shall return to the realm of Time and use the many other Zarathustras to preach about the dangerous cultists. That will alert some heroes to seek the forbidden knowledge of the names of these beings and deal with the issue, while I and the many Zarathustras can meditate in prayer for their success.”
The being of many faces put eight hands on its hips. “No. We are asking you and your companions, like the gnome Blaine, to save the plane yourselves. Blaine and his friends actually already have one of the names of the three world-eaters; Supreme Purity Shan-Ching, Worthy of Numinous Treasure, Custodian of Sacred Books."
“Oh! I think I understand now. You will tell me the other two names, and me and my companions will fight the creatures from the Outer Nothingness."
The being with many faces looked a thousand times over its shoulder. “Listen. It turns out that The Ground of All Existence cannot, uh, easily reach back into to time for this sort of hidden information. You will need to follow the instructions of the insane ghost Rusty to find the next two names. Rusty already has led Blaine to a fae in Diera who disclosed the first name. Rusty still has another friend, an undead sailor nicknamed The Fool. He was last seen in Diera as well. He holds the second name."
Zarathustra’s heartbeat quickened and his breath became difficult to control. “Now you listen, Brahma, or whatever you are. None of what you just said made any sense. This whole situation is… perplexing and bothersome!"
The being of many faces smiled a thousand unique smiles. “Not so certain of the right path now, hmm?"
Zarathustra grumbled something inaudible.
“Good! Then you are ready. Use your inner eye when you are unsure of the path. And remember, you were chosen for your learning spirit.”
Zarathustra perceived the golden smoke and sitar to be fading from his consciousness. He was leaving.
“Confound you many faced spirit! Wait! Wait! You told me you would explain about all the other Zarathustras! Am I supposed to… do something with all of them? What is their purpose in your ridiculous plan?”
The being of many faces’ voice echoed out from the realm of Timelessness with a mischievous, yet unconcerned tone.
“Oh, them. Well Zarathustra, as you said before; You are here in this moment. They also are here in this moment. You do not require any other explanation.”
Was this some sort of koan on which to meditate? Or was the Ground of All Existence being… sarcastic with him?
Zarathustra was still trying and failing to examine his confusion in a spirit of acceptance and detachment when he realized he was in some sort of a gnomish temple. Zarathustra got the distinct feeling he was again bound by the rules of time and space. People bustled about, cleaning up what appeared to be the destruction of an earthquake or some other disaster. Blaine, Wally and a well-dressed halfing in a cooking apron were speaking with a pair of important-looking gnomes. Henry Joy was not there. A dog sauntered over and nuzzled its snout into Zarathustra’s palm, sniffing curiously.
Conversation had stopped and everyone was staring at Zarathustra. Well, he thought ruefully, I am here, they are here; they do not require any other explanation. Best get to work.
“Guys! I know how to save the multiverse! Also, who is this prophet Rusty?”_


ThomasCarroll ThomasCarroll

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