From a shroud of darkness in the far eastern hills, a wanderer appeared and made his way to the war camps. On foot, he walked across the rocks and trees at a surprisingly fast pace and seconds separated him from the tent of one of the greatest generals that ever walked the earth. The night was surprisingly silent, the soldiers sat like statues across the campfires, the horses did not neigh and even the fires did not hiss to not disturb the work of general Sun Tzu.
The guards caught his presence late as he seemed to materialise from the subtle breeze of air like a letter from Time. Even as he appeared, they reacted slower than their training for they were confused by his very strange attire. He did not look like any person in all of the seven empires. He was not wary and continued to walk to the tent and was met with a cross of spears.
The guards kept asking quietly, not to disturb their general, about the identity of the stranger. The wanderer did not answer but kept asking for a word with Sun Tzu. In between the flurry of words, steady footsteps were heard coming out of the tent and the soldiers fell silent. The tent opened and a small man with a mighty shadow appeared. The crow’s feet in his eyes and the lines on his cheeks indicated ninety years of wisdom, but all knew it was the effect of war, and the fifty years of his age burned like flames in his eyes.
The general contemplated the figure of the wanderer and, despite its eccentricity, he did not look the least bit flustered. He stroked his long beard as he gestured for the guards to stand down and gave permission to this stranger to enter his quarters. The wanderer followed Sun Tzu inside and was surprised by the simplicity of his tent. He watched the general sit down on his cushions with a small wooden table in front of him. Over the table, he had a couple of lit candles and a stack of written paper, a bottle of ink and a white quill. Perfect timing, thought the wanderer. He then sat down opposite to the general and waited for him to speak.
Minutes that seemed like hours went by and the general continued to write like he was completely alone in his tent. He gave no regard to the man in front of him and so the wanderer grew impatient and chose to break the heavy silence.
“What is it that you are writing, general?” asked the wanderer.
“A gift for the king.” answered Sun Tzu without looking up.
A gift for the ages, the former thought. “And how much are those words worth, to be fit as a royal gift?”
“The cheapest of wisdoms are worth more than gold and jewels. These words are worth the silence of a thousand soldiers, the ruins of a thousand cities and the drumbeats of a thousand battles. And what interest do you have in these words? You don’t look like a soldier.” questioned the general, showing the first interest in his visitor.
“I come from a realm where you are worshipped in every battlefield, where every general’s mouth utters your words and speaks with your voice. It only seemed fair that I see with my own eyes the might of Sun Tzu and the calamities he inflicted on his foes.”
“I hold no might nor do I inflict any calamities. I am only as strong as my officers and army, and the destruction written in my name is naught but the fault of my enemies. War is not a matter of dominance, it’s a matter of wit. I hate to see my name attributed with such monstrous terms.” said the warrior in a calm tone.
“If wit is what kills peasant boys forced into wielding swords by the men in power, then wit is evil. You cannot proclaim that killing hundreds in the name of one man is an act of wisdom.” exclaimed the traveller, but with respect.
“Lords play their game and I play mine. Do not take me for a politician, I am a man of war. Just like the peasant boy who was forced into battle, I am only a man who was chosen to lead them. They give me instruments and I try my best to break as little of them as I can. Give the same armies to a worse officer, and more will die. In a way, I am saving lives.” boasted Sun Tzu with a sly smile on his face.
“For every man that dies in your ranks, a dozen die in your foe’s. What I see is a man that punishes people for being born in the wrong empire.”
“I am only a man who defends his own. If that blood wasn’t on my hands, it’ll be on the hands of another general, leading another army. If peace was an option, do not doubt that I would choose it.” said Sun Tzu as the smile turned into a stern look that put a chill through the wanderer’s bones.
“Peace would be an option only if you chose it. You, and the general after you and the one after him. Do you not want to take the first step into a future with no death and no destruction?”
The warrior chuckled and said “only in heaven would your words be true. If I tried to pave the road to your supposed peace, others will not see the way. They would only see weakness in my kingdom, and there goes a grand dynasty right into ruins.”
“Destruction is certain, either yours or others’, so do you choose it?”
“Then let it be theirs. It is not destruction that I seek, it’s duty.”
The wanderer sighed and stood up. “It appears that words will not sway you, General. Would you grant me permission to show you something that might?”
Sun Tzu contemplated the eyes of the stranger as he stroked his beard in thought, and then his curiosity defeated his suspicion. He nodded and then stood up and both men made their way out of the tent to the sight of a hundred soldiers standing vigil to their general’s tent. Without a word, the two kept on walking to the far hills at an abnormally fast pace, despite the steady footsteps. It looked as if time accelerated and minutes shortened into seconds, as Sun Tzu and his visitor disappeared into a shroud of darkness.
It all happened suddenly for the general. In the blink of an eye, he found himself on a giant mountain, with the sun blinding him from the east. Sun Tzu never believed in magic until this very second, he looked at the sight with an open mouth, in absolute disbelief. The wanderer did not wait for him to ask, but quietly said as he looked at his watch, “we are in what you call the Land of the Rising Sun two thousand years after your time. I suppose now they call it Japan. And that small city you see in the far distance goes by the name of Hiroshima. And we are just on time.”
Sun Tzu fixed his eyes on the city for a while waiting for more magic, and that is exactly what he received. A flock of giant birds flew over the city and what looked like a boulder dropped down from the bird who led. The boulder fell down on the city with frightening might and when it landed, a gigantic cloud of smoke exploded and engulfed so much of the land that the general thought it would swallow the earth, and then he heard a powerful bang louder than all war drums beating at the same time from the far east of the world into the far west. The blinding sight and the deafening noise made tears rain down Sun Tzu’s cheeks for the first time since he was a child.
“You see that giant bird? A man leads it. The man who leads it and the man who gave the command both studied your words in the military. What do you take from that?” asked the traveller with a grim look on his face.
“This…this monstrosity is not what I teach! This is the devil’s work, this is not war. What kind of animal read my words and concluded this?” yelled Sun Tzu, baffled.
“It may not have been exactly what you preach. But when it comes to chaos, mankind has a strong tendency to read between the lines. I hope this taught you something.”
After staring down the calamity before him, he wiped his tears and asked to go back to his camp and without answer they both turned their backs to the explosion and started walking down the mountain and the sunlight started to dim and the peaks started to flatten and once again they were walking down the chinese hills beneath the night sky. The wanderer stopped and watched Sun Tzu run into his tent in a hurry. He smiled and walked away, knowing he changed the greatest strategist of all time to the better.
Sun Tzu pushed through his soldiers who saw their leader flustered for the first time in their lives. He quickly sat down on his pillows and dipped his quill in ink and grasped his papers like he was holding to dear life. He knew war would never be absent from this world, so he chose to at least make it gentler, smarter. He believed in the art of war. And so his ink started flowing.
“The supreme Art of War is to subdue the enemy without fighting. In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to capture an entire army than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entirely rather than to destroy them.”
Written By : Saihi Hachem.
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Chapter 1 : Persephone , Caged spring .
I have been staring at these three doors facing me for longer than I can recall. Curiosity has been eating me from inside out, but I just couldn’t decide if the risk is worth taking.
Until now, everything about this place has been bizarre. And as I weighed in all the possible horrors that would happen to me if I stayed here, I decided that cowardice wasn’t the way to go.
I took a deep breath in. And with slow steps, I started heading towards the door facing me.
The air hung heavy with dust and silence, and a bead of sweat strated making its way down my chest. Only one step to go now. I reached for the door knob, a rusty bronze. And I …
“Where were you when Pandora opened that box? She could have used some of your willpower.”, a chilling voice echoed from nowhere.
My hand came to a halt, hung mid air between me and the door. The sound of my heart was tearing at my eardrums. I turned my head slowly, until my eyes caught her.
Nothing about her was intimidating per se. She was beautiful, and iridescent. But something deeply haunting was lying beneath her calm appearance. It radiated from the way she moved, a painfully slow pace, a dead silence and piercing eyes that were studying me from head to toe.
One thing was sure; she knows something that I don’t.
“You people usually get jittery after the Charon cruise. This is quite refreshing.”
With every word that she uttered, she took a step closer to me. But my body was no obeyer of mine and my tongue grew heavy with terror. I stayed put, lowering my gaze instead, praying for gods I don’t know if I believe in.
“You know, I’ve taken an interest in you. Everytime I walked by this hall I made sure to check if you were still here. Thank god you finally moved, you were starting to fade into the background.”
She let out a long shriek. Shivers ran cold through my spine.
The hollow sound echoed through my head, waking me up. I have to do something, anything, to save my neck.
“My lady, please, have mercy! Charon implied that my visit was expected, but he left any kind of details out and…”
She looked down at me. And for the first time, I saw a glimmer of sympathy in her eyes.
“Hmm, should I take you to the man in charge then, human? Perhaps he’ll help you figure out whatever it is that you want to know.”
A storm of thoughts was raging in my mind. Would she mean harm to me? If not, what would she gain from helping me? But by then, I was too desperate to get out of that place…
“- I… yes… I mean, would you do that for me? Would you take me to him?
– Well, given our current circumstances, that would be me you’re looking for. My husband is fully booked, for two or three decades at least, give or take!
– Your husband?”
Her lips twitched, clearly amused by my confusion.
“- Forgive my ignorance my lady, but I haven’t the slightest idea about who you and your husband are.”
She stared at me for a moment too long, then looked at her hands. As one would do when he wishes to hide whatever his eyes were telling.
– It’s alright dear, call me Persephone. I’ll tell you all about our tale as we stroll through this room. It is quite a long story.”
She offered me her arm, and I held on to it. It was cold to the touch at first but we started walking and the warmth was setting in.
“As you may have guessed by now, I am a goddess. daughter of two olympians. However, my birth is a happy memory for only one of them. See, father was a god of many powers. He was mostly known for his never ending conquests, at his poor wife’s dismay. And although he was intelligent and knew a plethora of words, one never made it into his dictionary. After all, who would ever dare to say “no” to the almighty Zeus?
One day, my mother caught his eye, and from that moment the pursuit was on. But Demetra isn’t one to be swayed with sweet words and kind gestures. He was her younger brother and as such, she knew him well. Despite his relentless efforts, his constant courting and begging, she kept giving the same answer, and he started to run out of patience. One day, he decided his ego couldn’t take another rejection, and he will get his way whether she likes it or not. I can assure you she did not like it one bit! She still gets bitter at times when that memory resurfaces.
Fortunately, she never took out her anger on me. On the contrary, she loved me like no mother has ever loved her child. She was constantly looking out for my best interest, going to the greatest lengths to protect me by threatening and killing any possible menace to my being. She herself has seen how dangerous this world can be for vulnerable little girls, and she swore she would never allow anything of that sort to happen to me.
It was sweet at first; the reasons behind her protectiveness were clear to me, but I was starting to grow bored and constrained, up there on mount olympus. Tending gardens and running through landscapes can only be fun for so long. I wanted to get out and see the world, and as it turns out, someone from another world took an interest in me.”
A small smile unveiled a fondness that I haven’t noticed before. And she carried on with her story:
“My Hades was always the shy type. People like to pin him as a bad guy in all of their stories; no matter who’s involved, he’s the go-to scapegoat. All because he runs the underworld! As if he tortures the souls himself. That would be way too much work to do…. But I digress. He came on mount olympus one time to attend some business, and I happened to be in the garden with some friends that day. Right place at the right time, although back then it didn’t seem like it.
He took an instant liking to me, and he went straight to my father asking for his blessing. Granted, it is an uncomfortable conversation to have with your brother, but what can I say? Chivalry wasn’t dead yet back then. Father granted him the permission to pursue me and gave him a few tips of his own, saying things along the lines of “take her by surprise and show her to your world she would absolutely love it” or “whisk her away, she won’t know what’s coming for her”… All of his brilliant ideas involved abducting me while Mother wasn’t looking in some capacity, for he knew her rage would be boundless. And my poor suitor, seeing just how successful his brother was with the ladies, decided to take his advice to heart.
That’s how my lovely evening spring came to an abrupt end with a blindfold and a hellish carriage ride to the world of the dead. And sure, Hades tried to make my stay alongside him as enjoyable as he could. He made sure to give me his most luxurious suite, with servants bearing foods and gifts daily. He was showering me with unprecedented love, unwavering under the swarms of hatred I was sending his way. He would try to satisfy all of my wishes, promising me everything but liberty. But nothing was enough to stop my wailing and hailing. I was insufferable and unconsolable.
I spent most of my first week there banging at the walls with my weak fists, spitting threats and curses, calling him every name of the book. No matter how hungry and greedy I got, I would never accept any of his peace offerings. I have never spent more than a day without Ambrosia before, and the more I stubbornly refused to eat, the more unhinged I became. He even brought me pomegranates, my weakness, as a way to tempt me. It was all probably a ruse, I have heard before that consuming anything from the underworld would bind you there forever. I simply couldn’t give in. The only thing that kept me going was my rage, fuelled by my blind faith in Mother, that was certainly moving heaven and earth to get me out of there. And she was!
I won’t bore you with details, but from what I’ve been told, she went berserk. Plenty are the people she trampled to find me, gods and mortals alike. And when she finally found out the truth about my whereabouts and couldn’t make Father get me out of there, for he was fearing Hades’ potential response, there was no mercy left. She held out the harvests, abandoning her work on the crops, and left thousands of innocents to perish. Her message was clear: bring me back my daughter, or else, no mortal would be left alive to worship the lot of you.
As time went on, I was starting to get calmer, and quietly accept my fate. Mother hasn’t swarmed the underground yet, nobody seemed to be coming to my rescue. Maybe it was time to stop denying the bitter truth. I started getting out of my room, despite my fear of the dead, and started wandering about these halls. I went to Asphodel fields and talked with newcomers and long-time spirits alike.
They told me about their pasts. They shared with me their grievances and their hopes for future generations. And I watched the pearling tears at the mention of loved ones, bitter gulps of regret, crimson tints, as crimson as a ghost can get, here and there at the mention of past mistakes…. I had never known how much suffering one could bear in a single lifetime before conversing with them. There was so much more to the world than the endless spring I was accustomed to. How could I have been so blind? So ignorant?
I now look back at my former self, knowing what I know, and all I feel is pity and shame. I used to be so weak and vain, it’s almost laughable.
Ultimately, after spending so much time under the earth, I started to pay attention to Hades for the first time.
His sunken eyes were what I noticed first; dull and devoid of any light, weary from reading names and looking around in this constant ruckus. Then, it was his infinite patience, not only with me and my frequent outbursts, but also with Charon and the Furies and everyone under him waiting for him to give out orders. Under his gloomy exterior, he was nothing but a lonely god, surrounded with nothing but darkness, monsters, and whiny spirits. Nothing about him beside his stature gave away his godhood. He wasn’t exuberant and reveling in his power like Father and the Olympians I grew up around. In fact, the only times some resemblance of life was breathed into him, were whenever I caught him gazing at me, in ways no one ever could.”
Our walk came to a halt. Persephone turned away from me, letting go of my arm. For a moment too long, we stood there in silence. I, staring at her long hair, gleaming in the light, and she, lost in the waves of her memories.
“I am used to being looked at, growing up a beautiful child”, her voice a soft whisper. “But there was something in his gaze I had never found anywhere else until then. He chose me, although in a rather unusual fashion, but he did choose me ultimately. To ease his loneliness. To make this hell hole a little more bearable. As I was slowly starting to get used to this idea, the war Demeter was raging up on earth was finally taking a turn. Zeus conceited to her demands and sent out the god Hermes to retrieve me from my prison. As word of my delivery got to me, a sudden realization dawned on me. The thought has been brewing in the back of my mind for a while now, but this return to reality made it all the more clear.
The real cage that trapped me all along was the sheltered life I have led on Mount Olympus. I remembered who I was, running aimlessly through the gardens: an airhead. Just another spoiled princess parading in her parents’ castle, oblivious to anything that didn’t revolve around her. I couldn’t let this be. I couldn’t go back now that I have opened my eyes. I had to act on my feet and make it quick. I had to find a way to stay.
I started ransacking my room, looking for the fruit of my salvation. And when I finally found it, I started eating the pomegranate seeds at everyone’s dismay.
That forbidden fruit… I suppose you can relate to how sweet and tangy the first bite feels, how the more you succumb to temptation, the less you’re quenched. I ended up eating 6 of them. 6 heavenly bites of freedom. I thought it would be the end of it, how wrong was I. Mother wasn’t going to accept my fate and fought it with all that she got. In the end, she and Hades decided on a custody agreement, stating I would spend half of the year with her on earth, and would go on to spend the remaining months alongside my future husband. She wasn’t happy with this deal. And she stated her displeasure yearly by forbidding the trees to bear fruit and the grass to grow for the cattle to eat. Nevertheless, I was overjoyed with the situation. I wouldn’t want to bid farewell to her forever, no matter how hard I want my freedom.
All and all, she feared the darkness, how it would forever taint my soul, but I have grown accustomed to the shadows by then. If my life had stayed an eternal spring, I would have slowly grown to resent its warmth, my existence would have gone stale. And I would have sought out the darkness myself. It gave me power and perspective on matters beyond my understanding.”
She looked my way, enticing me to pay attention.
“You know, there’s a great deal you can learn from the dead. Especially when your movements are boundless.”
When I reverted back my eyes in front of me, I found myself facing the same three doors from before. But this time was different, this time I knew what I had to do.
Persephone is the queen of the underground, and her riddle skills are unmatched. My question was left unanswered, nobody enlightened me on my purpose here thus far, but something deep inside of me changed. I know now that my presence isn’t accidental, that the answers I’m seeking can only be found behind these doors.
Taking a deep breath, I looked at her for the last time, then waving goodbye, I opened the first door and jumped right in.
Written by : Eya Belkhodja .