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The next afternoon, Achara went out to the gardens to enjoy the warmer air from the day before and the sunshine. A slight breeze blew back the tendrils on her face. She found the gardens located behind the central cluster of buildings that housed the residences and the scriptoriums used for lectures. She walked through the neatly kept gardens that were even charming with the cold weather setting free from leaves and debris. Some of the resident monks were assigned the duty of keeping the gardens neat and growing food and planting flowers. They also kept the beehives that were used by the meadery. For Achara and many others, the gardens offered a place of solitude for meditation or reading.

Achara found a quiet gazebo near the back of the gardens that was freshly painted white and had many trellises on the sides covered with rose vines that had climbed up the side. While the vines were not in bloom, they still held their leaves. There were a few benches for sitting, so Achara took a seat. She removed a book from underneath the monk’s robe she was wearing, and she opened it. The book itself was leather-bound and had a latch, and the text was handwritten in elegant script. She began to read and read for the better part of half an hour before putting the book down.

“Try and see what you hear,” she said under her breath. She closed her eyes and began to listen intently to what was going on around her. She heard the breeze rustling the leaves that remained on the trees, and the occasional bird chirp, and she would hear the skitter of a squirrel nearby. The birds’ and squirrels’ images naturally came to her mind as she tried to imagine what the birds looked like or what the squirrels were doing.

“Reach out to the images,” she said to herself as she imagined the animals in her mind. She tried first reaching out to the birds, each one that she heard. At first, it didn’t seem to matter, but as she began to concentrate on one bird, she could hear its chirp in her mind loud and clear. It was a small titmouse perched on a branch overlooking the garden. Achara listened to the bird for a while, then attempted to express emotions to the bird, who would reply with chirps whose mood matched her feelings. Achara smiled gleefully. She then switched to the squirrels around her, trying to reach out to them. After a few attempts, one finally responded with curious squawks coming from the animal. She saw the squirrel in her mind – it was puffy with reddish fur and a short tail. The little squirrel would occasionally cock its head left or right as Achara interacted with it.

“See what they see, feel what they feel,” she said next. At this point, she stayed with the squirrel. She reached out even more so with her mind to the squirrel. Its form filled her mind, and eventually, she saw nothing but the squirrel. After a few moments, images flooded her mind. She saw as the squirrel did from its perch on a branch high in the trees next to her. She could see the gardens and the rooftops of the buildings beyond in the bright sun. The little squirrel’s vision was jerky for Achara, but she got used to it after a few moments. The squirrel then went bounding across the tree branch, then leaped to another tree, then another. Achara could hear the wind rustling past the squirrel and felt as if she was flying through the air with it. The squirrel went several trees over near the road that Camon and Achara had come in on. She could see the road and the travelers passing by. The squirrel perched on the branch and looked down at the road. It then glanced back and forth at a clearing in a grove of trees near the road.

Achara didn’t notice at first, but then she saw something in the clearing. A man was sitting on the ground next to a horse that was grazing. Achara couldn’t make out any facial details, but she clearly saw the man was an Inquisitor from the cloak he was wearing. “What are you trying to tell me, little guy?” she asked the squirrel. The squirrel glanced back and forth a few more times, then climbed down from the tree and went in a little closer to the man. The Inquisitor looked at the squirrel but thought nothing of it. The squirrel then scampered off back away from the man and back up a tree. “You’re trying to show me the Inquisitor is there?” Achara asked again. The squirrel didn’t answer, but she got the impression that the squirrel was indeed trying to show the man’s presence. Achara stayed with the squirrel a little while longer before opening her eyes.

“Intense,” Achara said to herself again. She picked the book back up and started rereading it. She read for another half an hour before she tucked the book away in her robe, and she stood up. She left the gazebo and went into the forest adjacent to the garden to inspect what she had just seen. She walked through the woods, carefully choosing her steps to minimize the sounds she made. After a few minutes of walking towards the road, she could finally see it. She then took a turn towards where she thought the clearing was. After walking one hundred yards, she saw the clearing and could see the man and his horse sitting there. Achara did not go any closer; instead, she turned back and went back to the gardens where she had entered the woods. “A first time for everything,” she said to herself as she was reminiscing about the experience of seeing through the squirrel’s eyes.

“Now, don’t just see, feel,” she said. She went back to the gazebo and sat down again. She looked at the book, then closed her eyes. She let the feeling of the cool air soak over her, and the breeze blow around her. She sat in this manner for several minutes as her mind drifted from thought to thought. She then opened her eyes again and breathed in deeply, trying to feel the air and focus on the feeling rather than let her mind wander. She felt the cold, mostly on her ankles. She allowed the cold sensation to overcome her thought as she could feel not only the place where she was the coldest but everywhere she was cold. The slightest breezes blowing past her face, hands, and feet intensified the sensation. She stayed this way, trying to tune out the sights and sounds around her, focusing only on what she felt to where she was almost in a trance-like state, then she broke her concentration. She repeated the exercise several more times, each time starting with a different place on her body and letting the feeling sensations dominate her mind, and nothing else. Each time, it became easier to become immersed in the feelings.

“Now grow your sphere and feel beyond what you can touch,” she said to herself. She was able to quickly find herself in her feelings this time, and once she was there, she not only tried to feel what was touching her skin, she tried to feel the presence of her skin. She quickly became cognitively aware of her physical form, only feeling her form and nothing more. She removed the sensations of the air, the wind, the sound, and the sights around her, and she focused on her form in her mind. She was colorless and without any sort of dimension other than herself. She felt weightless, adrift in a void with no apparent up or down, left or right, forwards or backwards. She then tried projecting herself as a more extensive form relative to what she was, and her form began to grow in volume and size relative to what she had been. When she felt that she had grown sufficiently, she broke her concentration. She felt a little dizzy after the fact, immediately feeling the effects of gravity.

She worked on the expansion exercise for many more iteration before attempting to add context. In her first attempt, Achara felt herself in the gazebo sitting there. She tried to expand her form beyond that, but it wouldn’t work. “Size is of no matter here,” she told herself. She attempted a second and third time but to no avail. On her fourth try, she focused on her form in the gazebo again. Instead of trying to grow herself, she attempted to shrink her perception of the world around her in her mind. At first, it was subtle when she felt like she passed through the trellises on the gazebo. However, as Achara gained more awareness of what was happening, she realized that she saw the world pass through her. Each tree, branch, leaf, and bird gave a distinct sensation as she could feel herself expanding over the immediate surroundings. It was a flood of new and unusual feelings that came her way, but her intuitions quickly sorted them out.

As she pushed her form further, she brushed against the buildings, then a person who gave her pause for a moment. The presence of the person was unlike anything that she had felt. While the animals had a warmth about them, the person had a complex array of physical traits and emotional traits. Achara quickly withdrew, then reset herself, this time trying to filter out some of the feelings from the natural surrounding and focus on the person, whomever it was. Upon reencountering the individual, she realized that he was much closer than before. She deduced from the physical traits whomever she had encountered was a man. More interesting to Achara was the emotional projections he emitted that she could feel – friendship, comradery, acceptance, love, and security. She stopped and restarted a third time, but this time she realized he was near the gazebo, so she stopped entirely. Upon doing so, she could see him in plain sight now. He had blond hair and dark eyes with a close-cut beard with his monk’s hood down.

As he approached the gazebo, he was oblivious to Achara. Achara slipped her book under her robe just as he entered. When he saw her, he stopped, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t see you there,” he apologized as he turned to walk away.

“Oh, no mind,” Achara said. “I was done anyways.”

“Meditations?” asked the monk.

“Yes, you could call it that,” she said.

“Wait. You’re the one that came with Camon, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Yes. I’m Achara.”

“I’m Sunan. Please to meet you,” he said.

“Camon seems to be somewhat of a legend around here,” Achara said.

“Camon?” Sunan said. “Yeah, you could say that. He’s been coming and going from these parts for as long as I’ve been a part of this school. He graduated from here, you know.”

“What about you? What’s your story?” Achara asked.

“Mine?” the monk asked incredulously. “Nothing too exciting. I’m studying to be a priest, just like everyone else here.”

“Well, yes,” Achara said. “But why be a priest? Why here?”

“For me, it was pretty simple, I guess. I’ve always wanted to help people. I’ve thought that maybe when I finish here, I’ll go somewhere far away – perhaps beyond the West Watch or to the Island Colonies to the east where there’s a need for priests,” he said. “Have you traveled much?”

“Not really,” Achara said. “I’ve only recently been traveling with Camon, and that has only taken me in and around the North here, and I grew up here.”

“My quandary though, is I like it here,” he said. “I mean, I like the monastery. It’s like a brotherhood. Everyone cares for each other and helps each other here. It’s safe.”

“I get that vibe,” Achara said. “I can understand why Camon loves to come back here. It’s like going home for him.”

“I can’t say that for all monasteries,” Sunan said. “But I had heard that about this one, which is why I chose it. It’s small and not one of great renown, but I can trade a reputation of prestige for a place where I can learn and do it in a place where I don’t feel like I’m in a contest with everyone else.”

“What’s your job?” Achara asked.

“I’m a groundskeeper. A gardener,” he said. “I was making my rounds through here before vespers when I found you.”

“Providence would have us meet then,” Achara said. “I enjoy these gardens. Thanks for making them a place that we can all meditate. I think the birds, bees, and squirrels all thank you too.”

Sunan laughed, “Why yes! Yes, they do.”

“I suppose we ought to go back to the chapel for vespers then. It’s about that time,” Achara noted. With that, she stood up and walked with Sunan out of the gazebo back to the chapel. Upon entering, the pews were filled with monks and their instructors. Achara and Sunan sat down near the rear of the Cathedral and waited for vespers to begin. After some brief recitations and liturgies, Chak got up in the lectern and gave a short homily about the importance of work. All the while, Achara probed the people’s presence, gathering intention and projections of emotions from those present. It was hard for her to sort out which ones belong to which individuals. However, the subtleties were not lost to her. She was able to feel ones longing for adventure while another pined away with homesickness, and a yet another growing impatient with Chak’s homily content. At the end of the homily, the monks dispersed. Some went to study while others sought comradery in the rectory over games and mead. Achara went back to her room, contemplating on the newfound abilities of the day and trying to understand the scope and scale of everything that she had learned and what it all meant.

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