There was no need to eat, no need for sleep. Everyday bodily functions and necessities didn't exist. Just training. Learning and self reflection. Meditation. And he had all the time in the world, because it didn't exist either. Time or the world? He pondered to himself the very real possibility of being dead. Especially after recent events had been unveiled to him.
"You aren't dead, Tony." A familiar voice chimed in. The old man was sitting by his side, both of them with their eyes closed and expected to be in a deep state of meditation. Clearing the mind of all interference, both from outside and within. He was obviously struggling with the latter. "How many times must I tell you?"
"As many times as it takes for it to sink in apparently." His mentor grunted. He could imagine his smooth brow creasing while making a disapproving expression. "Tony and the Bald Man, coming soon to a temple near you. Reserve your tickets now." He didn't have to hear the words to know that The Dragon was silently scolding and hoping he would shut up.
If he wasn't dead, he was stuck in some never-ending lucid dream. One that appeared vibrant and alive with its cheery disposition, a safe haven. But it was also a place, he learned, that could suddenly become twisted and bloated, full of raw negative emotions. A hellish nightmare of horrid visions and fear.
"Your own nightmare, fueled by your own fear. And your own truth." The man's thick accent expressing emphasis on repeated words.
The Dragon knowing all his thoughts and feelings at any given time wasn't exactly fair, but he should have known better by now how to manage his thinking. Train it like a muscle. At times it felt like he was actually making progress, while at others as though he had just taken three steps back. An ongoing struggle. Ever since coming face to face with some of his own truths, however, it became a constant downward slide. Truths he thought he could handle. And now, despite always feeling entirely vigorous, there was an aura of exhaustion surrounding him.
The words came as a shock to Tony. He snapped open his eyes and prepared to engage his teacher before he could slip away, leaving him with nothing but questions. It was one of The Dragon's favorite pastimes. But when he opened his eyes, they were no longer outside in the temple gardens, sitting on their meditation boulders. He was instead perched precariously on an etched tombstone, the old man — always draped in his red flowing robes — stood a few paces ahead of him.
"What is this?" he asked The Dragon.
Graves stretched out in all directions. Some impressively massive, but most modest. Marble and stone slabs of grey and black jutting up in uniformed patterns among a sea of curated green. He hopped off his makeshift seat, feeling a bit rude, and stood next to his companion who was watching a funeral taking place a good distance away. He couldn't make out much detail beyond black suits and dresses.
"Someone you know?" Tony was curious if he was finally being given an opportunity to learn something about his enigmatic mentor.
"Someone you know," The Dragon repeated.
"I'm not sure I..." Tony's words caught in his throat.
He was bombarded with the same sense of dread that periodically attached to his emotion streamers at moments when he tried to dredge up memories. Vibrating off in the distance, tethered to him, but always out of reach. It was usually accompanied by a sharp stabbing pain in his head when attempting to address it. A phenomenon within a phenomenon that seemed very misplaced in the overarching theme of peace his current timeless place of residence promoted.
But it was back, the source of origin being the funeral proceedings. He watched as a small group of people, heads bowed in prayer, listened to a pastor read what he assumed were scriptures from the Bible. Tony couldn't hear them, but it's what he'd always known to take place at funerals. At least from the shows and movies he'd seen, never actually experiencing one himself.
There were pangs of sadness beginning to well up, a tightness gripping his chest.
"What is this?" he asked to no one in particular, already knowing the answer deep within the recesses of his mind. Tony was unable to look away from the scene. Thoughts of his friend Samson brought on the searing knives. They assaulted and mutilated his ability to think, to rationalize. To process.
"I'm sorry." The Dragon was looking over at him as he spoke, but he refused to divert his attention. "But it's time."
"Time... Time for what?" Tony sputtered his question against the involuntary sobs fighting for their release. Pools of tears formed and began streaming down his face. His head felt as though it was being used as a punching bag by a prized, champion boxer. A string of poundings and jabs he had no defense for. He forced himself to remember his friend's face. His smiles and the jokes he always told. Forced it through the blinding torment. "What... is going on?" He felt his knees growing weak.
"Time to face your demons. Your truths." The Dragon's voice lowered to an almost inaudible level. "To avenge your friend."
Anthony felt not only his knees buckle but his legs go completely limp, crumpling him to the grassy earth. Panic seized him at the realization he had lost motor function in them, he could feel his body from the waist up begin to quake. He propped himself up on his shaking elbows, spitting out tears and snot that had streamed into his mouth, gagging and heaving.
He sought out his teacher, only being able to see blobs of colors through blurry eyes. He squeezed them tight, trying to expel the salty rivers to regain his vision. When doing so he realized that it wasn't just a blockage of tears obscuring his sight, but that everything around him was shimmering and beginning to melt. The sky's multicolored mural split away and drained towards the horizon, leaving nothing but a black gaping hole in its place. The darkness expanded as the scenery dispersed, Mother Nature throwing a bucket of turpentine on her masterpiece, erasing any trace of its existence.
The old man was gone.
The ground beneath Tony began rippling and buckling, headstones raising and falling along with him as one wave after another threatened to launch him into the air. He closed his eyes, but the throttling was already churning his insides. A thunderous, gushing sound drowned out his screams. His hands clawed at the grass and dirt, desperate for any semblance of a handhold.
His instinct was to channel his fear. Mold it into anger and hate, what he would always resort to in times of need. Even if he wouldn't be able to control it.
"Find your center, harness your inner peace."
The instant The Dragon's words echoed through his mind, he did as commanded. Everything around him ceased. The ringing in his ears faded until there was nothing but silence. He was alone in a glowing, pulsing blackness, unlike the darkness he was witnessing just moments ago. Tony stood in the pitch. Standing completely on his own again, though knowing the real him was still crawling, fighting violently for dear life. But in this space, he was in complete control. For the moment.
With a thought, his mentor materialized in front of him, a projection pieced together from his memories.
"Is my friend dead?" He didn't waste any time, sensing that for the first time since his arrival that time was short. He was answered with a nod, the man's eyes filled with sorrow, face solemn. "Murdered?" Another nod. Tony hadn't considered the fact that he may have already made enemies after exposing himself. "Because of me? Who?"
There was a pause. "Both are unknown."
There was a tremor that resonated around them. The calamity of the world outside was breaching though his concentration. It wouldn't be long before he was sucked back into it. Into whatever was left.
"You are waking up. The illusion is collapsing."
"What does that even mean?"
"You need to listen to me." The Dragon's image suddenly began to morph following another tremor. "It's important that you are able to control your power." The man's bald head began sprouting dark stalks of hair. His face melting, drooping and peeling, revealing smoother darker skin underneath.
"What the hell..." Tony could feel his focus slipping.
"Still your mind and concentrate on my voice. It's time to wake up." Tony made the attempt to resist slipping back into the other realm. His teacher's figure continued to distort, his voice losing its thick, foreign accent. "My name is Zachariah. I'll be waiting for you." He could hear the deep bellows creeping in, starting as sharp whistles as it seeped through cracks of his control and growing in crescendo as it filled his space. He forced The Dragon's new voice to drown it all out. "It's time."
After a moment that seemed to last an eternity, The Dragon — now almost completely unrecognizable — clapped his hands together, creating a spark of light.
"Open your eyes."
Anthony Carver did as requested.
* * *
(To Be Continued...)
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