Shortly after Sekliâ€™s convalescence, she began her preparations for primary school. She could already read simple texts, figure numbers up to two digits, and convey herself in a properly respectful manner at dinners, but she had much more to learn. Her older brother, Sesus Decher, volunteered to begin her initial instruction.
Decher was a typical Dynast in his early twenties who did not Exalt: he was quite depressed and rather bitter. However, Decher was also a caring individual who had watched his younger sister suffer under his motherâ€™s stern hand. He did not care to see another sibling cast aside by a Dragon-Blooded matron with an underdeveloped appreciation for her children. His own dreams of Exalting and attending the Heptagram were distant memories, but he could at least do right by others whose dreams were still ahead of them.
Sekli had seen her brother numerous times at family dinners, where they had both sat at the table for the mortals. She had not had many words with Decher until he showed up and told her he would start teaching her everything she needed to know to be a Dynast scion of House Sesus.
â€œSo, you know everything, then?â€ doubted Sekli.
â€œI know enough. More than you do, anyway,â€ smiled Decher.
â€œAnd mother agreed to this?â€
â€œOf course! Iâ€™ve spent most of my life studying. Iâ€™ve cultivated a variety of academic interests and have tutored my fellow students for years. Besides, I might as well put all that work to good use.â€
â€œYou havenâ€™t Exalted yet?â€
Decher sighed, â€œNo, Sekli, and I never will. But you might.â€
â€œMother doesnâ€™t think so,â€ Sekli pouted.
â€œSo Iâ€™ve heard. But only the Immaculate Dragons know for sure.â€
â€œI doubt it,â€ said Sekli, still bitter about her brush with the demon.
â€œMy, what impiety,â€ her brother chuckled, â€œYou are far too young to be so cynical.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s sin-ick-el mean?â€
â€œNevermind. But Iâ€™m curious, Sekli, why donâ€™t you believe the Immaculate Dragons know whether you will Exalt?â€
â€œBecause they didnâ€™t save me when I was in trouble. And the demon said they were false gods.â€
â€œAh, I see,â€ mused Decher.
â€œAnd they didnâ€™t make mother send for the healer when I got so sick.â€
â€œAnd I prayed at the shrine every day for two months and they never gave me the doll set I prayed for!â€ shouted Sekli.
Decher nodded sympathetically.
Sekli was breathing hard from her outburst. She was frustrated at how she got winded all the time. She was still angry at her mother for letting her suffer. She wanted to hate her mother. She wanted to hate the Dragons, too, but only because it would shock her mother. She glanced at Decher with a sidelong look. He didnâ€™t seem outraged by her words. She wondered why.
â€œWhat do you think about the Immaculate Dragons, brother? Are you angry at them?â€
â€œNot usually, but I have my days,â€ he shrugged casually. â€œBut Iâ€™ll tell you whatâ€”I believe in them.â€
â€œWhy? You didnâ€™t Exalt.â€
â€œWell, the way I see things, you should believe in the gods because theyâ€™re powerful and good, not because they have, or have not done anything for you. So what if they didnâ€™t choose me to be Dragon-Blooded? That only means that I have to work hard in this life, so that next time I will be closer to them.â€
â€œBut what about that demon I met? He said the Dragons are not real gods.â€
â€œHah! He would say that. Do you know about the demons, Sekli?â€
Sekli shook her head fearfully. She wasnâ€™t sure she wanted to know anything more about them than sheâ€™d already experienced.
â€œDo you want to know why he said what he said to you?â€
Sekli shrugged sheepishly.
â€œYouâ€™re afraid of them, arenâ€™t you? Is that what youâ€™re always having nightmares about?â€
Sekli nodded shyly.
â€œNo wonder. Sekli, the demons are truly horrible creatures. Some of them can rip a grown man apart with their bare hands. By accident! But the worst thing about the demons is that theyâ€™re always trying to convince you to surrender to them. Thatâ€™s how they like to win, by getting you to give up! Because once you give in to them, theyâ€™ve done something worse than kill you.â€
Horrified, Sekli whispered, â€œWhat do they do?â€
â€œThey claim your soul. When they get your soul, you never move on to your next life, and you will never meet the Immaculate Dragons in future generations. I donâ€™t know about you, but that sounds worse to me than simply dying.â€
Sekli looked downward, â€œI donâ€™t know if I want to see the Dragons, anyway.â€
â€œWhy? Because they didnâ€™t save you? Or give you what you asked for?â€
â€œI wouldnâ€™t be so sure that they didnâ€™t help you out. From what I heard, that Immaculate monk saved you just before you were really hurt.â€ Sekli stared. Decher sighed and continued, â€œMaybe they donâ€™t always do the little things for you, but I believe the Immaculate Dragons are there when you really need them. And also, they give you tough challenges and hard work just as often as they give you rewards. Life isnâ€™t supposed to be easy, Sekli. Enlightenment is supposed to be hard to reach. Thatâ€™s why the Immaculate Dragons didnâ€™t kill all the demons in the first place. If there wasnâ€™t risk to your soul, improving your soul wouldnâ€™t be worth anything.â€
Sekli shuddered, â€œDid the demon take my soul?â€
â€œOh no, donâ€™t be silly. If he had, you wouldnâ€™t be you anymore.â€
Sekli sighed in relief.
â€œBut next time you might not be so lucky. Thatâ€™s why you canâ€™t let them do it. No matter what they say, you canâ€™t let them bully you into giving up. As long as you can resist their attempts to corrupt you, then they have no power over you. You can beat them, even if you have to die doing it.â€
Sekliâ€™s eyes were wide and intense, â€œYou can beat them?â€
â€œYes, you can. And yes I have.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve met demons before?â€ Sekli asked, awed.
Decher nodded. â€œIâ€™ve even summoned them.â€
Sekli gaped in admiration.
Decher laughed softly, â€œIt sounds like you want to learn more about demons. Thatâ€™s something I can teach you, if you want.â€
Sekli nodded, â€œMaybe if I learn more about them, I wonâ€™t be afraid of them anymore.â€
Decher grinned, â€œMy thinking exactly. Letâ€™s begin your first lesson.â€
The rest of the day, Sekli was entranced by Decherâ€™s explanations of the demons and how the Dragon-Blooded Host cast them out of Creation at the beginning of time. It comforted her to know that they had already lost the war and that, even though they were still dangerous, they were like beaten bullies that only had their wounded pride to keep them comfort.
That night, Decher entered his motherâ€™s private study to confer with Alon, as ordered.
â€œBy your command, I have come, mother,â€ Decher bowed.
â€œAh yes, thank you for your promptness, my son. How was your lesson with little Sekli?â€
â€œIt went very well, mother. She is eager to learn. More than I was at that age, I daresay.â€
â€œIndeed. You know my wishes: she is to learn all that is proper and expected. In yourâ€¦ enthusiasmâ€¦ be sure not to neglect your duty.â€
â€œOf course, mother,â€ Decher said, bowing again. Alon smiled and turned back to her studies, but Decher continued, â€œI would ask for permission for an unusual subject, however.â€
Alon raised an eyebrow, â€œYou know what I think about defying tradition, child.â€
â€œYes, mother,â€ Decher said, and he bowed his head and lowered his eyes and waited.
Alon frowned in thought. She considered dismissing the boy, but she remembered that his teachers had always spoken highly of him. Perhaps he had some use yet for her other than a marriageable son. â€œWhat is it, then?â€
Decher raised his head and suggested, â€œOld Realm, mother. You will remember that I earned high marks in the subject. I think Sekli might enjoy having some knowledge about the demons and other spirit creaturesâ€¦ what she calls monsters. It might take the edge off her night terrors.â€
â€œInteresting theory. I would ordinarily suggest she learn Low Realm. Dynasts who do not Exalt need a way of talking to the other mortals, after all.â€
â€œShe can always learn that later, mother, if she doesnâ€™t Exalt.â€
â€œLike you did?â€
Decher struggled to keep himself composed against his anger. He simply nodded.
Alon smiled approvingly. â€œI will need some evidence that she is ready to learn such a difficult language before I give you permission. This evidence must come from her. Go now, son. I believe you have work to do.â€
â€œYes, mother. Hesiesh bless you.â€
Alon waved her child away. Perhaps his use had not ended with his prospects for Exaltation.
Over the next several weeks, Decher sat with Sekli, showing her pictures of various demons and helping her pronounce their names. He told her about their natures and talents, and what to watch out for. He was pleased that she was so eager to learn. But she was unable to concentrate for very long, and her impatience encouraged her to give up too easily before finding an answer to a problem. What she lacked was discipline. He had an idea.
One sunny day, after Sekliâ€™s physical training, Decher brought out a Gateway board. He made certain the board was perfectly level on its stand, and positioned the center of balance directly over the pillar supporting it. With great care, he assembled the tiers and lined up the pieces in order of their hierarchy. Sekli watched this with interest.
â€œDo you know what this is, Sekli?â€ asked Decher.
â€œOf course, brother. Itâ€™s a Gateway board. Iâ€™ve played a few games with the cousins already.â€
â€œOh?â€ said Decher, surprised. â€œYouâ€™re a bit young to play with the cousins, arenâ€™t you?â€ he wondered. He remembered how cutthroat and conniving the cousins were in their â€˜friendlyâ€™ games and matches.
â€œI can hold my own,â€ she grinned. She did not mention that she had yet to ever win.
â€œAnyway, yes this is a Gateway board. But did you know there are other games that can be played with the pieces?â€
â€œNo,â€ she said interestedly.
Decher explained to her the rules, meanings, and goals of the variant game, Spirit-Frog. Not a true â€˜gameâ€™ in the strictest sense, it was designed for only a single player. The goals varied depending upon the playerâ€™s interests for that game, her knowledge of religious principles, and her philosophical reasoning skills.
â€œWhat a stupid game,â€ remarked Sekli.
â€œOh, I donâ€™t know. Itâ€™s catching on all over the place, so it canâ€™t be that bad.â€
â€œMaybe for a monk.â€
â€œNow Sekli, thatâ€™s no way to talk yourself.â€
â€œWell, since Iâ€™m going to test you on your expertise in Spirit-Frog, you might want to be kind towards people who are good at it.â€
â€œAw, please brother, donâ€™t make me waste my time with this.â€
â€œSpirit-Frog is a serious subject, Sekli. But, if you learn nothing from it, I guess Iâ€™ll be forced to agree it was a waste of time and just have to grant you extra free time instead.â€
Sekli smiled in anticipation of earning more free time when she showed her brother how worthless a game was without competitors.
Three days later, she was frustrated and stumped by the same game she had criticized. Once she had learned the rules about moving the pieces, she figured it would be easy to get them arranged in the final position that Decher had taught her. This was not so. She had spent hours every day fiddling with the pieces, and had even â€˜cheatedâ€™ by arranging the pieces in the ending arrangement and tried to work backwards. But she could just not figure out the order and direction to move the pieces to get them where they needed to be. She had to ask her brother for help.
â€œNot as easy as you thought it would be, is it?â€ he smirked.
â€œItâ€™s still a stupid game. Itâ€™s not designed so you can win.â€
â€œOh? Watch this,â€ her brother challenged, setting up the pieces for a game, like he had shown her. He began with a series of normal moves that brought all the movable pieces to the edge of the board. Then he had them all switch places with one another before advancing on the pieces in the center. In short order, he had the larger pieces captured and the largest, center piece surrounded and unable to move.
Sekli blinked. It had taken her brother only five minutes to do what she had struggled for days to accomplish. Her brother was gazing down at the board with satisfaction.
She glared at Decher for awhile before finally asking, â€œHow did you do that?â€
â€œWell, itâ€™s easy once you see this arrangement of pieces for what they are. These larger pieces in the middle are the Anathema, and the pieces facing away from them at the start are the Wyld Hunt. Because the Hunt is facing away from the Anathema at the start, they canâ€™t see they are there\. They have to get some distance to turn around. Then, you have to match each Aspect to the Anathema they are best at opposing, and finally close in. The Anathema donâ€™t have a chance to even move.â€
â€œBut you didnâ€™t tell me this was a Wyld Hunt when you explained this setup.â€
â€œNo, I didnâ€™t, but thatâ€™s part of the game. Learning how the pieces move is only the beginning. To win, you have to figure out what the story is, first.â€ Decher began rearranging the pieces to a new starting configuration while he continued, â€œWhen you have an idea about what the board represents, you test that theory by moving the pieces according to their purpose and intention, as well as the rules. If youâ€™re right, youâ€™ll figure out the ending configuration eventually, with enough trial-and-error maneuvering. If youâ€™re not getting anywhere, you can have the pieces try a new strategy. Or better yet, go back to the beginning and figure out a new interpretation for the arrangement.â€
Decher finished setting up the new board and explained how the final configuration should look.
Sekli examined the pieces. The smaller pieces began in a circle around the larger piece, facing it. She had to surround the large piece with the smaller pieces without capturing the large piece. Meanwhile, the large piece also had a turn in which it would always move away from one of the specific smaller pieces.
â€œSo, I begin with a theory of whatâ€™s going on?â€
â€œItâ€™s better than blindly moving pieces, as you discovered previously.â€
Sekli stared at the board for a few minutes. She could imagine several different interpretations, but didnâ€™t know which to start with. â€œHow do you know when youâ€™ve got the right theory?â€
â€œThatâ€™s easy. When it works.â€
Sekli stared at the board for several more minutes, trying to pick which interpretation to try first.
Decher interrupted her thoughts. â€œIâ€™ll leave you with this one in a few minutes. But first, let me give you one more tool to help solve Spirit-Frog boards.â€
â€œWhat is it?â€
â€œQuiet. You needed to practice eventually.â€
â€œI know,â€ Sekli sighed. â€œI was just hoping Iâ€™d only have to do it for temple.â€
â€œBecause itâ€™s boooring!â€ she said in a sing-song way.
â€œHah, thatâ€™s only because youâ€™ve never done it right. Meditation isnâ€™t about sitting still and keeping quiet while the monks preach. That IS boring. No, itâ€™s about focusing your mind in a specific way.â€
â€œWhat way is that?â€
â€œAny way you want to. With a focused mind, thereâ€™s no limit to what you can accomplish. After years of practice, the secrets of the universe will reveal themselves to you. But before you get that good, the inherent patterns of Spirit-Frog may show you the meaning behind some of the arrangements.â€
Sekli scrunched her tiny face in thought, â€œBut does it work?â€
â€œWell enough. Iâ€™ve solved dozens of Spirit-Frog boards with the help of meditation. The other aspect is to have the correct theory. Sometimes you need to study the Immaculate Texts, history, and spirit lore, and other subjects to learn new theories.â€
Sekli now understood how to master Spirit-Frog. But the one thing she did not yet understand was why she needed to.
â€œWhen I exercise, I get stronger. When I dress up and practice manners, I get better at presenting myself to adults. What do I get out of Spirit-Frog?â€
Decher let out a triumphant sound, â€œThatâ€™s the best question Iâ€™ve ever heard from you! And hereâ€™s the secret about Spirit-Frog: if you understand the pieces and you understand the boards, you learn about the world, and you learn how to manipulate the world.â€
â€œI think I understand, but can you give me an example?â€
â€œCertainly. If you Exalted, trained for years, and joined the Wyld Hunt, what would happen if one of your fellows on the Wyld Hunt became an Anathema? Or if they were corrupted by one?â€
â€œI see. You would have to get far enough away from them mentally so that you could turn around and see them for what they are,â€ she said, referring to the first Spirit-Frog board Decher had shown her. â€œAnd then youâ€™d still have to defeat them.â€
â€œI have some work to do.â€
â€œGet to it, then, Sekli. Hereâ€™s four more boards,â€ Decher said as he pulled out a piece of parchment with starting and ending board configurations. â€œYou have two weeks to figure them out before I test you. This is in addition to your other studies.â€
â€œYes, brother. I wonâ€™t fail you.â€
â€œGood. One more thing. If you can do this, something youâ€™ve been wanting will happen.â€
Sekli was curious to know what reward she would get, but concentrated on passing the test. Her brother had yet to be very easy with his tests, or forgiving of failure.
Over the next several days, she spent many hours studying the board Decher had started her on. She tried all the theories she had first come up with: dancers celebrating around a hero, children playing around their parent, a victim staying away from the leader of the bullies, and variations on those themes. None of these ideas worked. The large piece was always able to stay far enough away from the one piece it avoided, so that the others never had a chance to position themselves surrounding it.
Although inexperienced, she tried meditating on the game board. She asked for extra help with meditation from a cousin staying at her household who had recently graduated from the Cloister of Wisdom. He disapproved of the casual direction she was applying it towards, but he relented when Sekli reminded him that Spirit-Frog boards often taught principles of understanding the Immaculate Texts. He showed her how to silence her mind with concentration, and then focus it on the object of her meditation. After she had learned how to meditate on the wind and the leaves and a candle and a stone and a pool of water, she turned her attention back to Spirit-Frog.
Meditating on the configuration for two hours, and remembering one of the lectures of her monk-to-be cousin, she came upon the idea that the large piece was a god who was basking in the attention of prayers. The piece it was avoiding was an Immaculate monk who was trying to enforce the proper place of gods. By forcing the god into a corner of the board, and allowing the worshippers to get close to protect the god, the monk could close while the god was caged in by its worshippers.
By the end of the week, she completed the other four boards.
Sekli proudly displayed her solutions to her brother. Decher, for his part, praised her mildly for her accomplishment. He indicated that these were relatively simple boards. He showed her an entire book of Spirit-Frog boards to play through, as well as several variations of classic board setups in which pieces were facing different ways or had slightly different movement rules. Decher encouraged Sekli to keep playing Spirit-Frog but told her he would not test her on it again.
Sekli found that she enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment she felt when she intuited the correct interpretation. And the strategic challenge of manipulating the pieces correctly according to their interpreted purpose was good practice for traditional Gateway. But more importantly, Sekli found that she greatly valued a pastime that she did only for herself. Without the mean-spirited competitiveness provided by other players, she could enjoy the process as much as the outcome.
For his part, Decher met his requested audience with his mother with great pride.
â€œSo, my son,â€ asked Alon without turning away from the figures she was calculating in a ledger, â€œYou have evidence that Sekli can learn the difficult language of Old Realm?â€
â€œYes mother. Here,â€ he said, holding up the test sheets on which Sekli had scrawled in her unpolished hand the answers to the Spirit-Frog boards.
Alon glanced over and examined the tests for a moment before returning to her figuring.
â€œAnd what does that prove?â€
â€œMother, I believe that this demonstrates the metaphorical thinking necessary to interact successfully with demons or gods. There is little need to learn Old Realm unless one plans on dealing with spirits.â€
â€œWhy did you not simply see how quickly Sekli could learn the characters and grammar of Old Realm, first? Or perhaps another language?â€
â€œI thought that her ability to begin a subject had no bearing on her ability to master it. Whether or not she can master Old Realm is nothing compared to her ability to use it effectively. Mother,â€ Decher bowed humbly.
â€œI agree. And furthermore, I have now seen that you are a worthy teacher of this subject. You may begin with my consent, my son.â€
â€œThank you mother. Hesiesh bless you,â€ and Decher turned to go. But before he reached the door, he turned once more and bowed his head, lowered his eyes, and waited.
â€œSomething else, Decher?â€ Alon asked disinterestedly.
â€œIf you please mother, I am curious. When you were deciding whether or not I should teach Sekli an unusual subject, were you wanting proof of Sekliâ€™s ability? Or mine?â€
Alon smiled and met her mortal sonâ€™s eyes, â€œYour perceptions serve you well, Decher. But your discretion does not. Be wary of your manners and never quest the intentions of your betters. Go now.â€
â€œYes, mother. Hesiesh bless you.â€