1.1

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I sit, legs crossed, on stone just outside of the courtyard. Sixty of my brothers and sisters of various ages do the same, forming a loose perimeter around the hard-packed earthen circle in the center. Two of the younger students -a boy and a girl, around the ages of eight or nine- stand and face each other in the center. They slowly bow with hands clasped before them, faces expressionless, and then stand straight again, arms falling loosely at their sides. Silence reigns for a moment, before a shout rings out, echoing in the deafening stillness.

“Begin!”

The two children instantly blur into motion. The boy takes a more aggressive approach, sending a fist flying at the girl’s stomach; she easily intercepts and forces his arm to the side, pivoting around him. Undeterred, he half-spins, sweeping a kick to her leg, forcing her to back off. They both stand for a moment, warier of each other, before the girl slides in, snapping a loose fist at the boy’s face. He is forced to dodge back, her reach slightly longer than his, and is left off-balance enough for her to push the offensive, throwing out a flurry of punches and short snap kicks. Finally, a fist catches the boy in the jaw. He staggers, grunting and throwing a wild, off-balance hook that comes nowhere near the girl as she darts in for the kill. In the instant before her knuckles take him in the throat, the master calls “Enough!”, and all movement ceases.

They slowly pull back, bowing to one another again, and retreat to around the perimeter, taking up the two vacant spots. The boy looks resentful to my eyes but makes no great show of it. He knows the loss was his fault. Hopefully the shame of losing his cool in front of the whole group would teach him restraint.

Silence reigns again as Sifu An calmly makes his way to the center, calmly smoothing divots caused by the brief bout as he does so. He points to one of us at random and waits patiently. We all know the routine by now.

One of the more senior students, 13 at least, stands. “Their movements are rough but that is expected for their level of training. Li had the right idea of taking the initiative against an opponent with greater reach and more experience but failed to properly execute his attacks. His fatal mistake was the leg sweep; forcing a better opponent away and giving them time to launch a counterattack seals your fate. Allowing her to take his balance and falling back on wild blows were just compounding failure. Without a brilliant come back, the battle was decided after the first exchange.”

He stops as the master waits expectantly. Once it is clear he has no more to say, the master nods his head. “Incomplete, but accurate.” he says, and points to another student.

The child stands, barely older than the two who had just fought. “Hilde should have countered after she dodged his first hit?” he half-states, half-asks. Sifu nods, seemingly not expecting more. “Yes. Jin was not wrong that the match was decided in the first exchange. But it should have ended there, not dragged on further.” He pauses for a moment and addresses Runa directly. “You are skilled for your age but fight too defensively. Caution is important, but hesitation is a fatal flaw that has killed many practitioners.”

He clasps his hands, waiting for any questions. As usual, there are none. Most of the Sifu do not discourage us from speaking up if there is something important to ask, but this early in the morning and with so many bouts left to go, we are all either too busy stifling yawns or focusing on our upcoming matches to speak up. Expecting this, Sifu An does not wait long before calling on the next pair, and so on down the line. As the morning creeps by, the younger children start to become more restless and excitable, particularly before their own matches. The older students, like myself, are more used to the waiting. Not just in the monthly trials, but in all aspects of life here in Gao Shansi. The first lesson we are taught is that patience is one of the prime virtues, but it can take a while for that to truly sink in, especially among children so young.

As one of the few senior students, I am one of the last to be called. I stare impassively at my opponent, Ran, from twenty feet away. I try my hardest not to crack a smile, but a twitch of my lips betrays the urge. Ran and I fight nearly every month; there are only four students at our level in the temple, so even randomly chosen matches end up with us across the same student much of the time. My rivalry with her is one of the highlights of my time here, and the feeling was mutual. We had pushed each other to greater heights than I believe we would have achieved simply training for ourselves. I had a suspicion the Sifu knew this as well. We fought too consistently even for such a small group for it to be just chance.

The call to begin rings out, and we stare at each other across the way. Ran is the first to make a move, a short leap that carries her the whole distance between is, followed by a lightning fast jab with her left and near-simultaneous strike of the knee toward my midsection. I scramble to block, catching the fist in my right and twisting, using her own momentum to carry her into a hold…and the moment passes. We are still standing across from each other, Ran having barely twitched one of her legs.

Our minds’ eyes flash again, through several dozen scenarios. Some are taken from past bouts, and others new tactics we think of on the fly. A flurry of powerful, precise blows is deflected by Ran and summarily countered. She attempts a grapple, forcing an elbow into my back, but I flip and reverse the hold. An exchange of kicks from Ran sweep out with deceptive speed and reach, shattering one of my ankles, but leaving her open for one of the classic forms of the Snake: a swift jab to the throat that ends with her choking on the ground. On and on it goes, the offense becoming deadlier and the defenses requiring more creative counters until, finally, it ceases.

Ran bows to me from across the square. Barely a handful of seconds have passed.

“You have bested me this time, Xu. I should have expected you’d study up on your pressure point techniques after the way you lost our last match.”

I suppress a smile at the lingering sight of her body stiffening up and becoming locked in place. The Sifu aren’t against levity, exactly, but it was good to set an example for the younger children. Control over yourself was another of the prime virtues, and by far the hardest to master. Even those of us in the most advanced class did not truly hold complete control over our emotions.

“We’ll talk more later, and I’ll show you how to do it, if you haven’t figured it out already.” I offer. She nods politely and retreats to her corner, as do I.

Sifu walks back to the center and is ready to call on the final pair of the day but is interrupted. “I don’t get it!” exclaims one of the newest batch of students. She couldn’t be more than six; any older student would have witnessed at least one trial by now.

 If he is annoyed, he doesn’t show it, but gazes calmly at her. “What don’t you understand?” he asks, knowing full well the answer.

“They didn’t do anything! They just stood there!” she cries out indignantly. I suppress another smile as I remember the first trial I had witnessed. I had much the same response, feeling almost like I’d been mocked to my face.

He nods. “Yes, that is what it looks like.” He says, closing his eyes and nodding sagely.  He pauses long enough for the child to fume more and begin to open her mouth again before his eyes twinkle slightly and he gives her wide grin to let her know she isn’t being left in the dark, merely teased. The younger ones needed a softer touch, and Sifu An understood this well. The calm most of the Sifu and advanced students radiated could be off-putting to those not used to it, and a deliberate showing of humanity went a long way with them.

”Xu, why don’t you explain to her?”

I nearly blink in surprise as he addresses me. The Sifu almost never ask for a student, even one of the upper class, to teach. But I rally quickly, and step forward, feeling self-conscious at the sudden attention.

“Most of the more advanced techniques can be deadly when performed on someone,” I explain “It takes a true master to use many of them in combat with the precision to harm, but not kill the opponent. As a result, it becomes dangerous for students to practice them and many other techniques; joint locks and throat holds for example can lead to injury or death in the worst cases.”

“At our level sparring used to claim many lives at the school, before Sifu Jacque created the visualization techniques we now use in our last three years of training. We just visualize what our action will be, and send it to our opponent, where they respond in kind. It’s slow going at first, but once you get better at it you can have matches in real time, or even faster if you’ve got a real rapport with your opponent.”

Sifu An steps in and waves me back to my seat. “A good explanation, Xu. I trust that answers all of your questions?” he says. The girl opens her mouth again, but he simply lifts an eyebrow and stares at her. Children of that age always have more questions. These ones, however, are apparently not important enough to risk a Sifu’s ire, as she returns to her seat with a small pout.

After a short pause, Sifu commences the final match, between Thom and Chou, and it is over almost as soon as it begins. Thom clutches his head and glares at Chou. I’m surprised; he has to be truly annoyed if it’s worth breaking composure over. I’ll have to ask him what happened later.

Shortly after, Sifu An dismisses us. Individual reviews will come later, but as-is it’s after lunch and the children are getting antsy. I am too, truth be told. Counter-intuitively, visualization training took as much -if not more- stamina than physical sparring. I’d always wondered why that was, but the Sifu had never deigned to explain it, and most were not as receptive to questions as Sifu An. Maybe it’s because-

I jerk from my thoughts as Ran taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, are you going to eat lunch with us?” she asks, amused. I’d been standing in the doorway long enough for everyone to get their meals. Not that that took long; the eldest students tended to get served close to first, right after the youngest group. “Oh, yes. Of course. I wanted to ask Thom and Chou what happened in their match anyway. Let me get a plate and I’ll join you.”

Thom and Chou had already gotten a spot in the corner, in relative privacy. Another privilege of being the senior students, we tended to get the best seating, and out of the way tables allowed more freedom of expression. Within reason. Ran skipped over to join them as I picked up a plate of today’s meal. It was a simple, but filling meat and vegetable stew of some kind. It looked good and soaked into the rice I added well. Thoughts of conversation flew out of my head for a few minutes as I scarfed down the first few bites. I nodded my head in approval; goat wasn’t my favorite meat, but I was hungrier than I thought, and this really hit the spot. It felt like the trials were running longer every month. I cocked my head and put a fist to my chin. No, they definitely were running longer. We had more students than usual this year, I just hadn’t stopped to think about it since they’d been added so steadily. Many more and we might have to start splitting up the trial groups. That would be unheard of in my-

“-ou listening? Xu?” Ran said, poking me with her fork. I blinked and shook my head slightly to clear it.

“No, I was not.” I said honestly. Honesty was one of the lesser virtues, but one to follow most of the time. Besides, they were used to it.

Ran’s eye twitches. “You were the one who wanted to know what happened in Thom and Chou’s match, right? Is the stew really that good?”

“Oh, right, sorry. So, what did happen?” I ask. Thom immediately looks annoyed.

“She cheated!” he exclaims, though not loud enough he could really be overheard.

“I did no such thing! I just used an advantage of the training method. It’s not my fault your imagination is lacking.”

“Wait, wait, slow down. How did she cheat exactly?” I ask. Chou immediately jumps in “I didn’t cheat, I just- “

“Imagined something impossible!” Thom interjects. “She just sent an image of me being held completely immobile. And it worked! I couldn’t break out of it, no matter how hard I tried. My muscles were all completely locked.”

“It’s not cheating though.” Chou disagrees. “The point of the training is to defeat your opponent. Which I did, by your own admission.”

“No, the point is to show what we’ve learned to the Sifu and help hone our abilities; tricks like that won’t get us anywhere.” Thom argues back.

“I have to agree with Thom here.” I say and Ran nods along. “If the objective were just to win, we could just spar normally. People might die, but there would be a clear winner, right? But the visualization training lets us train ourselves without the danger, which is the point. The training is why we visualize, not the competition.”

“It was a neat trick though.” Ran says “And who knows, maybe it is something you can do. We hear all kinds of stories about the Sifu and what they can accomplish. Maybe you should ask Sifu An, or one of the others?”

Chou looks dejected for a moment, then twists her face in distaste. “Maybe you’re right. But asking questions outside of specific classes is always a pain, even with Sifu An. They’re all so…stiff.” She sighs.

“Fine, I’ll go ask Sifu An. Better to get this over with before afternoon classes start anyway. We’ll talk more at dinner?” she asks Thom, who gives her a nod back. “Yeah, see you then.”

After that we ate quickly; we don’t get much time in our lunch periods. As we shuffled off to our next classes, I couldn’t help but slip into thought again. Why were we getting so many new students? It was troubling, and not just for the class sizes becoming unwieldy. The students here were entirely made up of orphans the Sifu had found. And not just that, ones with exceptional potential for talent in the martial arts.

What is going on out in the world that so many are being brought to Gao Shansi?

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Interlude 1

Lord Aldrich Moltke takes a sip from his wine and scans the room. Much of Rolgaran nobility is here, those both important enough to be invited and not important enough to have anything of value to do. He sniffs disapprovingly.

The wealth on display is significant, but ultimately tasteless. The construction itself was of finely made, but subtle melding of marble and wood, befitting the tastes of its previous owners. But the adornments. Tapestries done in gold threads, urns in expensive metals, so studded with gems it was difficult to tell precisely what kind, and the food. He sniffs again. All imports, with not a traditional Rolgaran dish to be seen.

What is it the Caulvins call it? Nouveau riche? We should never have allowed the merchants to amass such wealth, no matter their contributions to the war efforts.

He politely takes a nibble of some kind of meat, covered in indecipherable spices. Despite himself he lets out a soft grunt in appreciation.

Well, I can’t say it’s all bad I suppose.

He feels a slight touch at his elbow as a passing acquaintance tries to catch his attention. She was wearing a fetching, if simple violet dress. It seemed to him it was almost out of place in the present company, even if the craftsmanship was exquisite. What was her name? Therese? One of the lesser houses I believe.

She begins speaking before he can quite recall. “Lord Moltke! What a surprise to see you here. You’re almost never in the capital!”

“Yes, I had the great…fortune to be away from the front when Mr. Gossler’s invitations went out. He’s certainly gathered quite a collection of the young nobility here, hasn’t he? Looking around I sometimes feel I’m the only one here who can even grow whiskers!” he says, forcing out a booming laugh. To his sometime regret, he’d cultivated a reputation as a loud, boisterous reveler at a similar soiree some thirty years prior, and shaking it would likely entail burning some bridges he couldn’t afford to. And so, appearances must be kept, even if his taste for fine food and alcohol had quite faded with a chronic case of the gout he’d suffered with for years.

His new companion throws back her head and laughs in kind, blonde hair flinging backward and almost escaping from its loose braid. She catches some scandalized looks from the other women around her, but if she notices them, she doesn’t deign to acknowledge their presence.

Still chuckling, she agrees. “There’s barely any real men among this group, it’s true. I’ve known most of them since I could barely walk and some of them haven’t changed a bit since!”

In a flash it comes back to him. Ah, the Wattenburg girl. I’d heard she was eccentric, but it hadn’t come across the last time we met.

“You bear no fondness for your peers, I take it?” he says diplomatically, though inwardly agrees with her assessment. Most of the young lords and ladies here came for nothing more than to get drunk on others’ wine and trade idle gossip. Certainly they might couch it in terms of ‘making connections’, but none her head any grand designs, or even particularly petty ones at that.

Aldrich feels a frown creeping its way onto his face again but stops before it makes him look more than mildly constipated.

“By your face you share my assessment, even if you will not do me the courtesy of agreeing openly.” Therese says, though more quietly. A flash of annoyance cuts through him, but he throttles it. He still remembers the zeal of youth, and the girl was barely sixteen, if that. Instead, he moves to gently admonish her.

“Speaking your mind is all well and good my dear, but know the time, place, and purpose. Quite honestly you’ve given me little indication you’re any different than your peers, save that you wear your opinions on your chest rather than keep them to yourself, as politeness dictates.”

She looks disappointed.

“I thought you might understand a little better. The way everyone talks you’re ‘no nonsense’ and ‘a real patriot’. Who cares about being polite to people like this?” she says, gesturing at the room. ‘They’ve never done anything for this country and probably never will. Except letting people like Gossler get fatter and fatter.”

Aldrich sighs.

“Not that I don’t agree with you, to a point,” he replies, keeping his voice low even as her own rises a bit once more “But you have to know how to play the game to accomplish anything. And not to put too fine a point on things, but again, what are you doing differently?”

She lights up, as if just waiting for this opportunity.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. My father says you’ve got a lot of pull in the army for a Major. I wanted…” she trails off, looking uncharacteristically subdued for a moment before rallying. “I want to join your company!” she declares proudly.

Aldrich is taken aback, expecting almost anything else to come out of her mouth. It takes him a moment to find a response. “I-“ he begins, before finding himself cut off.

“You? Join the army. You’re insane, Therese. Not that that’s any shock.” One of the ladies nearest her pipes up, putting on her best sneer. “Though if the rumors I’ve heard are any indication, spending your time surrounded by a bunch of-“

“Stop talking now, before you say something you’ll regret, Miss.” Aldrich interjects, finding his footing again. “I’ll not have you impugning the honor of one of your fellow ladies, nor the honor of the men under my command, for that matter.”

She turns the sneer on him, opening her mouth to reply, before a man -presumably her date for the event- puts his hand on her shoulder.

“Leave them my dear, it’s not worth it. Let’s go dance, the band is about to strike up again.”

Aldrich puts his hand to his head and indulges in a small sigh. This whole ordeal was always expected to be a headache, but not to this extent, and certainly not before he was inevitably drawn into conversation with Gossler.

“Your desire to serve this country is commendable Miss Wattenburg, but you know as well as I do that is impossible. The army is no place for a woman, much less a young lady like yourself.”

She bristles. “And who decided that?”

He is saved from having to respond for a moment by another interruption. “Champagne, my lord and lady?” a soft voice offers. Aldrich looks down to find the source, another frown coming to his face. Aldrich had seen several similar servants running around Gossler’s mansion. Sallow skin and slanted eyes marked them all as Daluni. This one was even shorter than his kind’s already short stature, and younger than the others he’d seen serving the guests. His bare fuzz of brown hair also marked him as out of the ordinary. He must be fresh from his homeland.

Aldrich feels a mixture of disgust and disappointment looking at the boy; he represented everything wrong with Gossler’s kind. Unchecked wealth, completely unconcerned with the common good. The expense of importing Daluni as servants was exorbitant, and actively took food out of the mouths of Rolgarans who would jump at the chance to serve at these events. The boy was as much of a trophy as all of the other gaudy accoutrements of Gossler’s estate.

Nevertheless, there was nothing he could do about it but take a glass and send the boy on his way. He gave Aldrich a short, fluid bow and took the Major’s nod as dismissal.

“Well?” a frustrated Therese demands, having barely taken notice of the servant.

“You know as well as I do that no one person decides these things Therese.” Aldrich sighs. “The closest is the king, and you overestimate me if you believe I have his ear, much less to the extent of convincing him that overthrowing the natural order of things is to the best interests of our nation.”

She bristles again, breathing deep as though about to launch into a tirade, but is again interrupted before she can even start as the band suddenly increases in both tempo and volume.

Our illustrious host has arrived, it seems. The Major thinks to himself sourly. He’d have a hundred conversations with idealistic, if misguided young people to stave off meeting the slug hosting this party, but it seemed the hour would soon draw nigh.

Gossler entered, descending the stairs at the head of the room. He showed more taste in the dressing of himself than his abode, but only slightly. If the golden threads trimming eye searing brightly died silks of many colors draping him didn’t speak to his obscene wealth on their own, the sheer amount of them required to cover his equally obscene bulk would cover any gap.

He opened his arms wide once descending the staircase, either pausing for effect or to subtly catch his breath, Aldrich wasn’t sure. Perhaps both.

After a moment, he speaks. “Welcome, friends, to my humble abode. I trust you’ve all been enjoying yourselves?” to that, a chorus of affirmation and raised glasses greet him, smiles real and feigned plastered on nearly every face. Aldrich didn’t bother; his dislike of Gossler was well known to the man and hadn’t stopped him from bother the Major yet.

“Dreadfully sorry I couldn’t make it here earlier. I would like nothing better than to spend every waking hour with such distinguished company, but alas, it feels as though there is never an end to the work to be done.”

A chorus of indistinguishable commiserations erupts at this. From a room full of people who’ve never done a day of work in their life. Aldrich thinks to himself. Begrudgingly, he must also admit that despite all of Gossler’s flaws, the man was no shirker. He likely was tied up in some business until just moments before. Reportedly the man slept barely four hours a day and worked almost every waking minute when he wasn’t attending one of these parties.

Gossler makes a show of scanning the crowd and Aldrich nearly winces. Despite almost certainly spotting him instantly with the way the Major’s stature stood out in this crowd, he does several sweeps before his eyes settle on Aldrich in mock surprise.

“Ah, and there he is! Our guest of honor!”

At this another round of applause breaks out, though it is decidedly lukewarm.

“Welcome, Major Moltke. It is always an honor to have you grace us with your presence. But, I have kept you lords and ladies from your revelry too long. Back to it, with my blessing!” he calls, clapping his hands. The band resumes their more sedate musical style, and after a moment the dancing resumes.

Gossler himself moves swiftly through the crowd, graceful despite his size. In a distressingly short amount of time he is before Aldrich, and Therese has made herself scarce in the kerfuffle. Finding himself without an excuse to put it off any longer, Aldrich addresses his host reluctantly.

“Greetings, Mr. Gossler. And thank you for your warm welcome. Though it is hardly necessary to single me out. I’ve never been much for people fawning over me.”

Not that any in this crowd would, unless they wanted something from me.

Gossler waves a meaty hand. “Nonsense, Major. A soldier, nay, war hero such as yourself deserves such a welcome, and more.”

Aldrich grimaces but doesn’t respond.

“You know as well as I do that I was just doing my duty.”

“Perhaps, but sometimes that’s all one needs to do, and more than many would. People might go on about the value of duty, honor, and all of those other pretty values, but few actually live up to them.”

Privately Aldrich agrees, though he’d never admit it to the man. But he also wasn’t one to upsell himself on something he would have done regardless of the circumstances.

“Now, I do hope you’ve enjoyed yourself, but I was hoping we’d have a little time to chat about a certain business opportunity I’d like your involvement with.”

Aldrich is visibly surprised at this announcement. Gossler often invited him to these events, but never for anything substantial. Usually he only had to suffer through a short public discussion with the man and his being paraded around like a prize for a moment, and then he was free to leave these interminable parties.

As much as he dislikes the idea of spending time alone with the man, Aldrich has little choice but to agree.

“I would be…happy to, Mr. Gossler.” He reluctantly agrees.

“Excellent. I’ll have you brought to one of my private chambers in just a moment. I’ll send one of the servants to fetch you once I’ve dispensed with the requisite meeting and greeting of the other attendees.”

To Aldrich’s temporary relief he bustles off, and Therese likewise never reappears, though he’s sure he’ll run into her again eventually.

Just as Aldrich is starting to get even more bored than before Therese showed up, the young Daluni boy from earlier appears. Or at least, Aldrich is fairly certain he is.

“Master Gossler will see you now. Please follow me.” he says in subdued tones.

Aldrich nods. “Lead on, then.”

The boy obeys, gliding off. Aldrich frowns at the sight. Something about the way he walks niggles at Aldrich’s brain, as though it were familiar in some way but he couldn’t quite place it.

Aldrich doesn’t have much time to ponder it before the boy stands in front of a door, opening it outward for Aldrich to enter. The Major puts it out of his head for now. Whatever Gossler has to talk about is likely more important than a Daluni servant’s strange gait.

Gossler himself sits in a comfortable armchair in a surprisingly appointed sitting room. The air is cozy, with a fireplace burning lightly to the north of the room. The room itself is out of sorts with the way Gossler usually presents himself, the man’s current garb clashing with the subdued, refined atmosphere of the sitting room.

“Come now, don’t look so shocked, Major. I can’t have all my rooms appointed the same way I arrange them to amuse the children outside.”

“Quite frankly, Mr. Gossler, I had assumed the décor outside matched your own tastes.”

The merchant frowns. “I knew you held a dislike for me, but I’d thought you a more discerning man than that. Appearances are important, but I didn’t think I’d cultivated that one so well it would fool a man with more worldliness than my usual guest.”

He shakes his head. “No matter. Hopefully we can put that past us, as I do truly have something important to speak with you about.”

“And what is that?” Aldrich asks, though he’s half-figured the answer by now. Gossler was a war profiteer; a weapons merchant most commonly, but a procurer and purveyor of everything the military needed to keep running. There was little he’d want of an army officer other than to make a deal about some kind of weapons transaction, the only question was…what, exactly, he could be peddling that the army needed?

“You should know by now that I am a very rich man, Major Moltke…or may I call you Aldrich, to speed things up?”

“You may, if you have anything more to offer besides self-aggrandizement.” Aldrich says, a bit annoyed at the man’s stating of the obvious.

“Yes, of course. My point is that when you have as much money as I do, you need something to do with it. Once you’ve bought all the things you want, money that is left lying around is just valueless. Some find creative ways to waste their money, and others invest. In people, enterprises, ideas, you name it.”

“I am an investor, Aldrich, and I dabble in all three. In this case I come to you bearing the fruits of an idea: the results of years of research and painstaking refinement.”

“What would you say if I offered your company the honor of being on the cutting edge of military technology, going places no soldier has ever been able to go?”

Aldrich is intrigued, and doesn’t bother to hide it, but does his best to sound skeptical. “It sounds like something too good to be true, Mr. Gossler. And even if it were, you know I’d have to get special dispensation from the Lieutenant Colonel, or even the Brig for such a deal. Why not approach them directly?”

Gossler gives Aldrich an exasperated look. “We can dispense with the false modesty, Major. No one important is around to hear you underplay your influence. You and I both know that a recommendation from you is enough to sway most of the army’s hierarchy, even after your demotion. Your authority is diminished on paper, but barely so in practice.”

Aldrich gives him a wry look, but doesn’t challenge him. It was true enough that he was still trusted implicitly, even if his explicit commands no longer held the weight they’d had before his ‘war heroics’.

“Fine, let’s hear it then. What are you offering, Mr. Gossler?”

“Simply put, Major, I’m offering your company the ability to strike anywhere, at any time, without threat of retaliation.”

“And how exactly do you expect to accomplish that?” Aldrich asks, growing irritated at the beating around the bush.

“I’ll give your men the ability to take to the skies.” The merchant says with a smile.

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1.15

Strangely, I don’t feel fear at the man’s pronouncement. I’d already considered myself to be in danger from the moment I stepped outside the walls of Gao Shansi. Despite the Baron’s cordial demeanor, the danger was apparent every moment we were together.

That left only a clam sort of resignation. What do I do to make sure I get out of this alive? I can’t fight all of them. Perhaps one of the Sifu could, but my mastery of mental combat techniques was tenuous even under training conditions. I could certainly overpower Kotz and get out of the tent, but then what? The devices all of the soldiers carried killed things faster than the eye could follow. There is no way simple martial arts would be enough to take on more than one, maybe two in close quarters.

By the time I’ve finished the thought, those ‘two’ arrive, called by the Baron.

“Take the young man into custody. Try to be gentle, unless he resists.” He says, then turns to me. “Cooperate and you won’t be harmed. These men are going to tie you up and carry you deeper into the camp.”

They came closer, pulling lengths of rope they’d tied to their belts. Neither were carrying weapons; this would be my best chance to fight back if-

My thoughts are interrupted by a message. <Xu. The Eldest have…reached a decision. I am forbidden from saying more. All I can say is this: I will come for you, as I promised. Stay safe until then, whatever it takes.>

At this my blood curdles. I have no idea what it means, but it worries me more than any of the Baron’s implied threats. Sifu An was usually absolutely controlled even in mental communications, only letting what emotions he chose slip through. The fact that I’d felt concern saturating every inch of that message implied either Sifu An wanted me to feel it, or he’d lost control enough to let genuine emotion come through unfiltered. Neither boded well.

“You look pale, young Xu. I am sad to see your poise suddenly slip. As I said, you will not be harmed.” Kotz says, snapping me out of the trance I’d fallen into. The two men had surrounded me as I processed Sifu An’s message, and now began to tie the ropes around my wrists and ankles.

Halfway through the process, I felt…something. The sensation was subtle, almost unnoticeable. But it was familiar enough my worry intensified. Whatever was happening felt similar to our training with the hourglasses, but that knowledge seemed useless. I poured every ounce of will I had into fighting the effect but it was like trying to move a mountain with my bare hands. I had enough self-awareness to know I was being affected but no ability to do anything about it. The sensation was frustrating but passed quickly.

As if nothing had happened, since I doubt it was even perceptible to these men, they finished tying the ropes.

They picked me up, and Baron Kotz led the way out. He paused after pulling back the first tent flap, light spilling into the tent. The men carrying me looked at each other, and then at him.

“Sir? What’s going on?”

The Baron is silent for a moment, then begins to shake. After a few moments more, he throws back his head and laughs.

“Well, I suppose that problem is solved. Or at least postponed. I am a bit disappointed though.” He says, eyeing me.

“Untie his bonds. I doubt they’ll be necessary any longer.” The men look at each other in confusion, but do not question their orders.

As soon as they’re done I step forward, dread and disbelief warring in me. I vaguely feel he soldiers move to stop me, but the Baron waves his hand to allow me to pass.

I step outside into the bright sunlight; the sun has clearly been up for hours at this point. I let my eyes adjust and look up, knowing what I’ll find.

Where the temple once stood is a mountain, untouched by man. Gao Shansi is gone as if it had never been.

It hits me harder than I thought it would. We’d planned to leave in a few months, of course, but that was something in the future, and supposed to be a triumphant moment. Our success, symbolized by leaving our home and putting our training to use. This was…abandonment. I’d not chosen to leave but been forced out.

I try to contact Sifu An, but the thoughts only bounce around the inside of my own head. Why? Was there no other way? Or was it just the most convenient, for all he’d said about none of us being expendable?

Or maybe…

I trail off as I feel a tap at my shoulder and almost jump in startlement. The Baron looks at me with something in his eyes, though the rest of his expression is carefully schooled into what I’d come to view as his default expression: polite detachment.

“I imagine this must be heartbreaking for you, for your composure to slip so suddenly.” he says. I realize with shame that my mask has almost completely slipped, my bereavement naked on my face. Thankfully I’d not burst into tears. I’d never been much for crying.

“I wish I could give you the time you need, but we’re in a bit of a strange position now. Our goal has been completed to my satisfaction at least. Gao Shansi exists to be wooed another day, and your compatriots are out of our territories for now. Under other circumstances our business would be concluded, but I’m afraid I uttered a bit of a falsehood earlier.”

I painstakingly reconstruct my mask and face him.

“Only one?” I respond.

A flash of annoyance crosses his face. “I’ll let that go; you’re clearly not in control of yourself at the moment. But yes, only one. The fact of the matter is your organization were declared enemies of the state over a decade ago. The king was willing to let that go if we came to an agreement of some sort, so I presented it as a preventative measure rather than a removal of a sanction we had already taken long ago.”

I have an inkling what event had precipitated that, but keep silent on it. Instead, I turn to processing this newest information. What that meant was…what? What did that even change about my position? I was already a hostage. After a moment it clicks.

“Meaning I’m no longer just a bargaining chip. I am a captured enemy combatant.”

He grimaces. “You have the right of it, unfortunately. You and I both know you’re just a young man in over his head in this position. My cousin, however, would not see it that way at all. He’d want an example made of you, after everything you know had been painstakingly drawn out of you. Which I imagine would be very little of value to our glorious nation.”

“So you’re going to drag me back to your capital, torture me, then execute me?” I ask, focused on keeping a calm I didn’t feel. I don’t know why I even bother; he already knows I’m not quite in control of myself. And the pronouncement did strike fear in my heart…though not as much as I’d expected. Something just told me that my training still had value, even here.

The Baron sighs. “Follow me. You two, wait out here.”

At this, they do protest. “But sir! Leaving you alone with him is-“ they cut off as the Baron waves his hand, appearing irritated.

“I appreciate your concern, gentleman, but I do believe Xu and I have a rapport. In any case, you will be right outside. If I yell for help, simply be sure to come running.”

With that, he leads the way back into the tent, and gestures once more for me to sit. Seeing little other option, I do so.

Once settled, he continues.

“Away from most prying ears, we may speak openly. I’ll be blunt: allowing my cousin to get his way would be an appalling waste. We gain nothing from it, and a bright young man is removed from the world. I would prefer it not come to that. I assume you do not wish to die as well, yes?”

We sit there for a moment, the Baron’s face serious. It takes me several seconds to realize that wasn’t a rhetorical question.

“No, I would very much like to stay alive.” I respond, voice as dry as I can make it. The faint undercurrent of fear is still there, but is briefly subsumed by incredulity until I look at his perspective on us form the outside. We are secretive and train our students to suppress their emotions. I had read about cults in various parts of the world with similar practices, and fanatical loyalty to the point of willing suicide was common among them. I sit forward and adjust my tone.

“Gao Shansi does not train its students to throw their lives away. We are a school not a group of zealots.”

He smiles a bit. “I’m glad to hear it. If you go back on your word and bite off your own tongue later, I will be quite angry.”

It was still impossible for me to get a complete read on the man. Was that a joke, or a serious remark couched in a façade of amusement? Or some combination of both?

“So I get to live.” I begin again, feeling out my words as I say them. “And what do you get?”

“The perfect question, if a bit accusatory in tone.” He says, still smiling. After a moment he drops it, then sighs. “In an ideal world I’d take you as my apprentice, quite honestly. You have the core of a wonderful diplomat about you and with the right training you could be one of our nation’s most valuable assets.”

I can’t help it; I blink in surprise. It’s such a huge change of tack that I’m not immediately sure how to respond. He’d made mention of it before, but I’d assumed it was baseless flattery.

I’m saved from having to find the words by his continuing. “Unfortunately among most of the populace your people are not well viewed. Quite frankly you’re barely even seen as people by many.”

“Students of Gao Shansi? I didn’t realize we were so hated.”

He looks at me oddly again. “No…your people, the Daluni. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but you come from Dalu, yes?”

Again I’m thrown. It takes me a long time to realize that that was indeed the name of the country I’d been born in. My mother and the other adults had never quite pronounced it like that, but it was close enough to not be a coincidence.

“Yes. That sounds right.”

“I don’t know how much you know about recent history. The Expansion, particularly. I’ll try to explain succinctly so you know the position we’re in.”

I gesture for him to go on.

“Our country as it exists today is only about forty years old, give or take and depending on who you ask. Before then, the countries that now make up the nation of Rolgar were simply dozens of tiny, constantly feuding countries everyone was content to ignore, themselves leftovers of a different great empire.”

This much I knew already from Sifu An’s explanation, and what I remembered of history in the region. If he was trying to lie to me about this history, he wasn’t doing so up front.

“That changed when King Friedrich came to power in Rolgar. We were the largest of the old imperial nations still extant, and one of the few with a clear line back to the old imperial line, however distant. Friedrich used that tenuous connection to build a fervor in our people, a desire for the old empire to return. Long story short, he spent the better part of his life folding the other countries of the region into Rolgar, by diplomacy, force, or subterfuge where appropriate. By the time he passed away and his son – Friedrich II, the current king – took the crown, Rolgar was quite an influential state on the grand stage again.”

“My cousin, of course, was not satisfied with that state of affairs. With the advances in our weaponry we’d developed over the course of Friedrich’s conquest, King Friedrich II was certain we could expand even further, forging an empire that spanned from shore to shore at least.”

I continue to listen impassively. All of this, too, sounded plausible and lines up with what I know. I just wasn’t sure where he planned to go with this.

“He was probably right, but my cousin lacks the patience of my dear distant uncle. We attempted an armed takeover of one of the other nearby powers, and were repelled after both sides took brutal losses. The thing with technology, you see, is it tends to spread. Our advantage in the last expansion period was that our weapons were like none ever seen before and troops more driven to succeed. After nearly two decades of peace at that point, our weapons were only a bit better than our opponent’s, and they had the advantage of defending their nation from a group of half-hearted invaders. While we both licked our wounds, the king decided that now was the perfect time for a different sort of expansion. He wanted to secure a steady supply of raw materials to feed a new war machine.”

He looked at me a bit sadly. “Sea routes to Dalu were perilous, but the rewards were potentially staggering. Your nation was a font of useful minerals. Iron, coal, even gold in enormous quantities. What’s more, your people had never gone to war with mine, and lacked the guns and other weapons that had become commonplace in our home continent’s warfare. We tried diplomacy first, of course, but were rebuffed. Your people wanted nothing from ours that they were willing to trade for, and any promises of diplomatic or military support mattered little to a country so far away from ours. And so to conflict it came.”

“To this day we still hold most of Daluni territory and have secured the steady source of materials we wanted. But your people fought hard every step of the way. Particularly once we realized your high populations made excellent workforces for the mines and factories we set up there.”

My blood wasn’t sure whether to chill or burn. I had few memories of my time in Dalu besides the few memories of the Rolgaran invasion I had unearthed over the course of my training. The anger over the fear those events had caused me felt distant. I was still angry, but truth be told the losses did not burn in me like I’m sure they would if I remembered anything about my parents or friends. Instead I just felt…sad. It all made too much sense, and if what he said was true was probably inevitable.

“By the end of the grueling conquest, the soldiery had a deep seated hatred of your people, which the nobility of course made sure spread to the common folk. In Rolgar proper your people are rare, but not unheard of.”

“And, almost universally, your people are someone’s property.”

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1.14

I sit back in my chair, looking at things in a new light. From their perspective, then, we are the aggressors. It doesn’t excuse everything they’ve done but it makes their actions more logically sound than things first appeared. At some deep level I’d always known that must be the case; a government made entirely of short sighted and needlessly cruel people could never function, but I hadn’t thought to ask the right questions about why they were doing what they are. I had no reason to doubt him, since it would be a strange sort of lie, but I decide to confirm it with Sifu An.

I send a message toward him. <Baron Kotz claims we’ve done something with their emissary, that’s why they’re attacking us. Is there any truth to that?>

The reply I get is surprisingly terse. <Yes. Busy.>

Odd he’d be so short with me after ordering me to keep in contact. Something must be going on back at the temple. I itched to ask for clarification from him, but he would have explained if he had the time or ability. Frustrated, I try to reach out to Ran next.

I feel a spike of alarm run through me when I realize the connection to her is gone. As are the ones to Thom and Chou. There’s a good chance they’ve been gone for a long while. I’d found it strange that as worried as they were I’d gotten no chatter from them making sure I was fine and asking what was going on -I’d certainly be curious if I’d been left behind and Chou had gone, or something similar- but I’d been too distracted by everything to consciously make note of it.

“Is something the matter…” he trails off, cocking his head. “Apologies. I do believe in the confusion that it slipped my mind to ask you your name.”

I mentally kick myself, analyzing my actions over the last few minutes. While I’d kept my expression blank, my other mannerisms clearly hinted at some kind of distraction at the very least. I’d sat forward in interest at Kotz’ explanations, then slumped back, going quiet as I sent messages and thought on their implication. I try to recover as best I can, straightening my posture.

“My name is Xu, Baron Kotz. And no, I was simply thinking on what we were discussing.”

The man wrinkles his face in distaste. “I don’t suppose I could get you to refer to me by name where your teacher would not? Formalities have their time and place, but frankly slow down an already tedious process on most occasions. My given name is Manfred, in case it had slipped your mind.”

I ponder for a moment refusing, simply because Sifu An had done so. But I care even less about Kotz’s title than he had seemed to, and I was already tired of saying two names when one would do.

“Of course. If that is your preference.”

“Wonderful. In any case, you said you were thinking on what we’d discussed? I assume you mean the little matter of our disappearing emissary. What thoughts were you having, exactly? I’d be fascinated to hear your take on the matter from the other side.”

I almost contact Sifu An to ask what I should tell him before stopping myself. It’s unlikely that whatever was taking so much of his attention away from our predicament would have resolved itself by now, and I had no wish to inconvenience him more. The negotiations are up to my judgment, which doesn’t help my state of mind. Too many things are changing at once.

In the end, the truth seems like a good option.

“I was thinking it was strange that none of us ever saw your emissary or had heard of anyone who did. Students rarely go near the front gates without reason, but they are not so far from the living areas that everybody would have missed them opening, particularly if they were open for any length of time. And nobody mentioned seeing any new adults come into the temple either. That would have been even more noticeable.”

My own comprehension flares as I talk it out. It didn’t make any sense…unless one or more of the Sifu used their abilities to hide those occurrences. If what we were already capable of was any indication, the Sifu were more than able of affecting anyone that might have seen them with an illusion, or editing their memories.

“I see. The issue is, I am certain she went into the temple; she was not waylaid on the road or mauled by a wild animal. One of us must be mistaken, but where you have speculation, however well thought out, on your side I have the testimony of my own eyes to trust. You see my predicament.”

I hesitate for a moment, beyond caring what it might look like. I’m caught here, with no idea of the right path. The truth wasn’t an option this time, but I’ve never been a good liar. I open my mouth to try one anyway, then close it again.

Manfred leans forward and flashes a smile. “Ah, we’ve reached that stage of the proceedings, have we? Take your time, choose your words carefully.”

He was expecting a lie, that much was clear. Given his attitude he probably wouldn’t even be offended by one…but it didn’t move us any closer to solving this situation. I still couldn’t tell him the whole truth, but perhaps half a truth would work?

“The Sifu control many secrets that the students and normal teachers have no idea of. Perhaps one of those could have been used to spirit away your emissary?” I concede.

He blinks and sits back again, smile growing a bit wider. “I must say that’s not what I was expecting. They really didn’t send me a politician, I thought for sure you were some old hand disguised as a young man, given your Sifu’s appearance.”

It’s my turn to be surprised again. “What made you change your mind about that, exactly?”

He waves his hand dismissively. “That game is over now, stop trying to make moves in it. No career negotiator would ever outright admit the potential for guilt like that. Hint at it, perhaps. Slip me a note wanting a more secret meeting, certainly. Even admit that it had been done and challenge me on what was to be done about it, if their government is in a strong enough position to back up that kind of boldness. But admitting both that you truly are not certain what’s going on and that I might be right? Unthinkable for anyone steeped in politics. You gain nothing by it.”

That makes a sort of sense if I think about it, not that I particularly want to. Reading that much into someone’s words and actions sounds incredibly tiring.

Then again, on second thought it fit well into our own teachings. Control of yourself eventually leads control to things outside of yourself, directly or indirectly. For all I’d mocked the man’s expressiveness he’d certainly made more use of his exuberance than my blank face to get closer to what he wanted, without needing to outwardly do anything.

I searched the still faintly smiling face, looking for any clues as to the man’s real emotions, for certainly he was hiding his true agenda as much as I was: only in plain sight.

“Unfortunately, that leaves us in a bit of a predicament.” He says, looking thoughtful now. I begin looking over his expressions more closely, trying to read his eyes, but his technique is certainly more effective than anyone at the temple would ever give credit for. If even half of his expressions were faked, how would you ever tell when he’s being genuine or not?

“What kind of predicament is that?” I ask, fearing the answer.

“Were you truly a diplomat in disguise, you and I could come to some kind of arrangement to take back to your leaders, and we could resolve this whole thing. Being a genuine student, unfortunately, takes that option off the table. As much as I feel you’re a reasonable person and I’d be fascinated to talk more with you, the sad fact is you have no power. You couldn’t bargain with me even if you wanted.”

His face cycles through a combination of emotions too fast to follow before settling on another smile, this time with more teeth. “That leaves your only value now as what you were presented as: a hostage. Downgrading you from bargainer to mere bargaining chip is something I’m loathe to do, but it seems it’s what I need to do with time running so low.”

He makes another face, wiping the strange smile off. This one at least appears to be distaste.

“We run low on time. That leaves me with few options, and none I particularly like the shape of. Your ‘Sifu’ are quite cold blooded, putting the noncombatants on the lower floors where they’d be more susceptible to assault. It protects your leadership and turns away the squeamish. I suppose I can understand the logic.”

I nearly open my mouth to defend the Sifu, but realize my heart isn’t in it, and moreover it would be dangerous in my current situation. I hadn’t felt this kind of dread since…well, the last time I’d seen the darker side of the Rolgarans a few nights ago.

“Storming your temple will probably lead to the least loss of life. We could burst the gates and attack on foot, but we run afoul of our time limit that way. Leaving an option we try first: do you think your Sifu, An would come running if we threatened your life?”

I focus hard on exuding an aura of calm that I certainly did not feel. “Absolutely. He promised me he’d come for me.”

Manfred gives me a strange look but does not comment.

“So, you went into our initial encounter already planning to become my hostage? How interesting. Your people are shrewder than I gave you credit for. I suppose that explains why you volunteered so quickly, without any discussion.”

I’m puzzled again for a moment before I feel a chill run down my shrine. I’d completely forgotten Sifu An had never said that out loud.

“In any case that’s good to hear. It means you have worth, which is a positive for both of us.”

For once my mouth moves faster than my brain. “I’m very glad to have my worth affirmed by you.”

A brief small from the Baron is quickly subsumed by his more ruthless mien again.

“Ah, if only you’d been born Rolgaran. You have potential. Hopefully you’ll live long enough to reach some of it.”

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1.13

It takes all of our collective willpower to stop from showing a reaction to that declaration. It wasn’t so much the words as the tone and mannerisms. The casual tone and clear lack of empathy as he discussed murdering everyone I’ve ever known as a political statement.

He held the pose he’d struck for a moment, an inoffensively pleasant look on his face.

Sifu An just looked at him for a moment, showing as much emotion as a stone wall.

“I see. You understand I cannot make such a decision on my own, correct? I would need to confer with the other Sifu.”

“Oh, yes. Of course.” Baron Kotz says, before scratching his chin pensively as he looked to the sky. “There is one minor issue with that. While I am in charge of ambassadorial affairs, Captain Fleischer  holds unequivocal sway over military matters. I can stop him from attacking for so long as I can show clear progress toward an amicable solution, but were talks to break down, he would no doubt countermand any of my order and recommence the siege.”

<That sounds like a bald faced lie to me.> Thom sends. <There’s no way he can call down the Captain and insult him like that and then claim he’s not in charge.>

<You are most likely correct, but whatever the case we need to play the game. Sometimes that’s what you have to do when dealing with people outside the temple.> our teacher confirms.

“And what would you propose to avoid that?” Sifu An asked.

“It’s very simple, really. So long as I am still in negotiations with someone from your temple, the good Captain cannot make a move. Leave one of your fellows with me to maintain an open channel of communication and everything should be fine. They need not even talk about anything important, so long as it appears things are going smoothly.”

Feelings of surprise and apprehension bleed out through the mental connection, and it becomes impossible to separate who is feeling what.

Sifu An’s ‘voice’ rings out to all of us at once.

<I had feared something like this. But it must be done. I’ll ask for a volunteer, first. They will most likely not hurt you unless they definitively don’t get their way here. The Rolgaran government is often ruthless, but not sadistic, no matter what this man projects.>

There is a pregnant pause as all of us take time to think things over.

“I will stay with you.” A voice rings out after that moment. I’m surprised to find it’s mine, as is everyone else.

<What? Xu! We could have talked this over first!> Ran sends. <You pick now as the time to be the first one to blurt something out?>

<She’s right, we should have talked this over.> is all Thom says.

<We should have determined who was the most expendable of us.>  Chou sends, a strange, sad undercurrent to her thoughts. <If things go wrong, whoever is held hostage probably won’t make it out.>

‘Hostage’. The words send slight shivers down my spine, even as I already knew that’s what I was to be in all but name. The label made it much more terrifying.

Sifu An’s ‘voice’ cuts through the connections. <Enough, it’s done. We can’t afford to go back on it now. All of you would be in the same danger, and none of you are expendable. Xu will go.>

Sifu An nods permission to Kotz, with less than a second having passed.

“Excellent. It’s always good to see the youth so committed to peace. Follow me, and we’ll let your Sifu get back to business, yes?” he looks up at the sky again, and tilts up one of his wrists, something gleaming there. “You have three hours to decide. I’m afraid I can give you no longer than that.”

<That wasn’t even part of the deal!> Ran’s angry voice comes through. <That-> she manages before being cut off again by Sifu An.

<He wants us to decide before dawn, if you’ll recall. This doesn’t come as a surprise.>

There is a short pause, and he continues, for me alone. <Keep in contact. Let me know if anything happens. I will come for you.> he says, before stepping back for me to follow Baron Kotz.

The Baron gestures with a hand, leading me out flanked by two of the bug-…Rolgaran soldiers. I couldn’t think of them as ‘bug men’ any more, and I was ashamed I ever had.

We’re a hundred paces out and the gate is closed behind us before it hits me that this is the first time I’ve set foot outside of Gao Shansi in twelve years.

*****

Gao Shansi, as always, is set atop a nearby mountain, this one with a convenient trail leading toward the summit. The Rolgarans have set their camp not far from the door to the temple. Most still have on their…I’m not sure what to call it. Uniform? Equipment? That makes them look like insects.

The few that don’t are busy building campfires, cooking food in large pots, and simply relaxing. It’s a jarring contrast to my initial thoughts of these people as some supernatural creatures, or even the second impression I’d gotten of some faceless threat. Seeing them sitting around and laughing with each other brought a mix of surprise and anger to me. They weren’t monsters, but they were still attacking my home. And they didn’t seem to care.

Baron Kotz turned to me, sweeping his arms over the camp.

“Well, what do you think? It’s not much, but this little patch of ground is our home for the evening.” He gives me a smile, which I do not return.

“It’s certainly not what I expected.”

I’m off balance, opting for as much of a neutral phrasing as possible.

I take a closer look at the camp as he turns and walks a bit more, noticing how orderly it all was as we strolled toward the center of the camp. Tents raised in neat lines, fires lit at what seemed to be fairly precise intervals. Even as the soldiers relaxed, I could see some quickly and without apparent complaint get up, dust themselves off, and move off to patrol he outside edge of the camp as others returned from doing the same.

“It’s all very new to me as well, truth be told. I don’t deal much with our own soldiery in my line of work, you see.”

“Which is an ambassador, correct? You travel around threatening people your country has a conflict with?

He turns and gives me a strange, almost pouty look. These people are like children, wearing every stray emotion they have on their face for all to see. It was off-putting after so long in the temple. Even me and my friends in unguarded moments were less obvious about our feelings.

“Now, now. We only resorted to the stick with you lot because the carrot was repeatedly rejected without even being looked at. Most of our dealings with our neighbors go much more smoothly these days.”

Despite myself, I’m curious. “Why is that?”

“Well, we’ve fought off all aggressors, claimed our birthright, and spread word of our glorious empire to every continent in the world, earning the respect that is our due.” He says, waggling his finger with a look of mock seriousness on his face.

 “Or, at least, that’s what the official story is. Quite frankly the truth is much simpler: we were growing too big, too fast, and making too many enemies at once. The major forces of the region formed coalitions and backroom deals to unite against us if our expansion wasn’t checked, so we found it prudent to slow things down and repair some of the diplomatic damage that we caused over the years.”

It was good to know that there were countries that could stand against this ‘Rolgar’.

“It seems odd for a diplomat to be so openly defiant of his country’s wishes.” I note.

“Ah, but you see…hold on. We’ve arrived.”

I look around myself, having been distracted by our conversation. We stand in front of a large tent, clearly made of higher quality materials than the ones the common soldiers were using.

“Come in, sit. We have some time yet to converse.” He says, gesturing to the tent’s flaps. I move inside, and am glad he’s behind me. My eyes betray the shock I feel at how many luxury items are packed into the space. A couch, several chairs, a table, multiple chests, a bureau, and other furniture leave little room to walk around.

“Take your pick of any of the seats. I assure you they are all quite comfortable.” I hear from behind me.

Mastering the widening of my eyes, I move to take a seat on the nearby couch. “You always travel with so many items?” I ask. If the soldiers had to lug all of this around all the time, it was no wonder Erik hated the Baron so much.

“More, usually, and a bigger tent.” he shrugs, taking his own seat in a cushioned chair. “We obviously were in a bit of a rush this time, so I only got to bring what was left unpacked from my last trip. I just arrived back from meeting with one of the Sultans down south, you see.”

I nod my head as if I understand. I knew from our history lessons that the Sultans of the many city-states in the deserts toward the center of this continent had a reputation for decadence, so the need for so many comforts while traveling isn’t completely lost on me. And from Baron Kotz’ attitude the Rolgaran nobility were also quite soft. What confuses me more is why he’d bother bringing so much for a mission that wouldn’t last longer than the night.

The Baron watches me as I think. Belatedly I remember that I didn’t even try to make a mindscape to accelerate my thoughts, so I’ve been sitting here for several seconds in silence, clearly contemplating something.

“I assure you it’s not for my own convenience, if that’s what you’re thinking. I won’t deny I enjoy my comforts, but I could have made do with just one of the couches and a chest, if necessary for the week we’ve been here. Truth be told I’d hoped to actually get a more in depth meeting with several of your Sifu, and have meaningful negotiations about how Rolgar and your temple would interact in the future.”

“The Sifu wouldn’t be impressed by all of this in any case.” I say. “Part of becoming a Sifu is letting go of any want for worldly comforts and beginning to trim down everything in your life to the bare necessities to live.”

He nods along, before pausing. “I won’t pretend to really understand it, but I’d heard something like that from my sources. Still, ‘better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it’ as they say.”

I mentally grimace. Not at the quote itself; it made a lot of sense to me. But at the memories it brought up of those torturously long philosophy and literature classes we’d had to sit through.

I open my mouth to continue that line until something he’d said struck me.

“You’ve been waiting here for days now? I thought you would have just arrived. You were so worried about us leaving after all.”

He looks at me, clearly puzzled. “No, as I said, we’ve been sending emissaries to your temple for a while now. The most recent was yesterday.”

“That makes no sense. The temple moves on a daily basis.”

Again, the confused look. “We had thought so too, but you’ve been here for over a fortnight, now. At first, we sent someone to treat with you every day once we arrived. It’s why we were even able to get here at all, for once. We’re days from the capital here.”

It takes all my willpower to keep my expression blank, but anger still leaks into my voice. “And so you decided to attack us because we turned your emissaries away?”

Kotz’ own expression changes, his demeanor becoming more serious. “No, the king ordered us to attack because our last emissary never returned from your temple’s gates.”

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1.12

We followed cautiously behind Sifu An in a loose group.

“It doesn’t really matter where you stand as long as you’re behind me, out of each others’ ways, and look confident.” he suddenly says.

We all look at each other. “What do you mean? Why do we need to look confident?” Ran asks.

“Link. We don’t have much time.” he orders, ignoring the question. We obey before finally getting our answer, instantly transmitted and understood.

<They haven’t breached the front gate yet. We’re going to speak with the men outside.>

<Speak with them?> Thom’s incredulous ‘voice’ rings in our heads. <They’re trying to destroy our home!>

<Which is why we need to be sure they don’t, for the sake of everyone in our care. We are the guardians of Gao Shansi, but that does not mean our first response to any provocation should be violence. Do you think your fists can deflect one of those explosives?>

Our silence is enough answer for him.

<Just so. So we speak with them. See if we can resolve this peacefully. And if not, we attack them with overwhelming force while knowing the measure of everything they have.>

A question comes to mind after a moment of silent walking. <What are these ‘explosives’ you mentioned? Those are what are destroying the temple?>

He spares a glance back and nods.

<They are weapons that have been in use for some time in other parts of the world. No one is quite sure who developed them first, but they spread like wildfire to neighboring countries. Once they were done blasting each other to pieces, a single united country emerged from the ashes. They’ve been trying to expand their territory for years, with pushback from the other nations of the world.>

I can’t begin to form a response. If that’s what they were, then…

My thoughts are cut off as we arrive at the gate. We arrange ourselves behind and around Sifu An, doing our best to look menacing, or at least not as anxious as we felt. Ran looked clearly uncomfortable leading with her left, though at least her arm was no longer in the sling. She could move it well enough for normal purposes, but fighting was out of the question. Hopefully whoever or whatever we were speaking with wouldn’t pick up on that.

Sifu An approaches the gate and calls out.

“Step away from the gate. I’ve come to negotiate.”

There is a slight shuffling from outside, as if several people are stepping away.

A muffled voice comes through.

“So we finally got your attention? I’ll get the captain.”

‘Got our attention’? That’s what they call attacking children? I clench my fist, anxiety forgotten and replaced with anger.

I have time to cool down in the intervening minutes, shoving that rage down and forcing myself to keep a level head, adopting the blank, serene expression we’d had beaten into us. A quick glance around shows the others have done the same, no doubt struggling with similar feelings to my own.

Sifu An likewise is as blank as when he taught us as children. If these men were anything like us when we’d first been adopted into the temple, they’d find the expression unsettling. I hoped it was the case, it was the least of what they deserved to feel.

Some time later a different voice rings out through the gate. “I am Captain Erik Fleischer of the Rolgaran National Army. Have you finally decided to parley?”

“If it will stop you from putting our children in harm’s way, yes.” Sifu An replies coolly.

“It didn’t have to come to this.” the man replies after a faint pause. “We sent other envoys, but they were turned away.”

This was the first I was hearing of anything like that. Then again, I rarely if ever went near the gate.

“You may come through with anyone you think you need to feel comfortable. I and my four companions will be waiting.”

That said, Sifu An stepped to the gate, pulling at the heavy bar. Belatedly we realize he cannot lift it by himself, so Thom, Chou, and I move to help him. The thick bar on the gate was immense, only dwarfed by the size of the gates themselves. It had weathered assaults from entire armies in the past, if only for half a day at most. It was unclear if the explosives would be enough to destroy the door, but Sifu An seemed to think so. After how easily the stone ceiling of the outer temple had been smashed I had no reason to doubt it.

With some effort the door was opened, and we stood back. It takes every ounce of willpower I have to prevent my expression from changing to show the shock and fear I feel.

A large force of the bug men stand on the other side of the gate. Intellectually I know I shouldn’t be surprised. The sounds of the explosives were similar to what I’d heard ripping through my home town from a distance. But seeing them standing here, where I’d always been safe save for in my dreams was a shock.

Even more so was when the lead bug man stepped forward and pulled off his head revealing a normal, if severe looking man underneath. On closer inspection this too shouldn’t have surprised me. Flesh was visible near the necks of the four men following him, and had been all the while. Thinking back the hints had been there even as a child, but the events were so frightening and happened so quickly, with so much running in the dark that the clues were obscured. They were no monsters, just people in strange clothing.

Captain Erik passed a piercing gaze over us, our expressions schooled to perfection, or so I hoped.

“Your ‘companions’ are these kids? They’re as green as our newest recruits.”

“And yet better trained than your veterans. And with far less innocent blood on their hands.” Sifu An shot back, expression and voice as calm as ever despite his biting words.

“Don’t try to play the victim here. You and your leadership caused this situation. We’ve tried diplomacy for years with you people, but you always turned us away and then disappeared to come back later. You forced our hand.”

“So you were just following orders when you put the children under my care in danger, then.” Sifu An says. For some reason this nettles the man.

“Yes. I was.” He bites off, visibly angry.

My eyes catch sight of something moving in the crowd of ‘bug men’, their ranks parting to let another man pass.

“Enough, Captain Erik. Clearly your style of…diplomacy is lacking here.  As I expected.”

Erik’s face goes blank in a pale imitation of our own masks, clearly trying to hide some ill feeling toward the newcomer.

“Yes, Baron Kotz. It appears you were, as always, correct.” Erik says, biting off each word as though they pain him.

“You shouldn’t strain yourself so much.” is all the Baron replies, patting Erik on the shoulder and motioning for him to step away. 

He moves forward, bowing his head slightly to Sifu An.

“I am Baron Manfred von Kotz. I would ask whom I have the pleasure of negotiating with this evening.”

“An. Sifu of Gao Shansi.” is the clipped reply.

“Ah, wonderful. One of the mysterious Sifu themselves has graced me with his presence. We’ve heard some of you from various sources, but nothing concrete. I’m afraid I do not know how you prefer to be addressed. By your title or name?”

“I am An, to you. Unless you wish to become my pupil.” The stone faced mask remains, but Sifu An conveys an undercurrent of amusement to us, though it is laced with caution.

<This man will be polite so long as we give him no pretext to feign offense. If he asks you your own names, bow and respond but say nothing further.>

<Understood, Sifu An.> we all chorus as one.

The brief exchange takes only as long as the Baron needs to process Sifu An’s introduction.

“Perfect. You may call me Manfred if you prefer, to keep things simple. I imagine my titles mean little to you, yes?”

“I must admit I’ve given very little though to them, Baron Kotz. Your country is yet young, and the significance of your titles elude me.”

<This is the most polite and wordy I’ve ever seen Sifu An be to someone.> Ran sends, her disgust apparent in her thoughts. <I know why he’s doing it, but it feels wrong.>

<I can’t help but agree.> I send back. The lack of response from the others tells me this is a private message. <But maybe we can end this night without bloodshed.>

Our attentions snap back to the conversation, not having missed anything of significance.

“Well, unfortunately as much as I’d wish to educate you on the finer points of our country’s etiquette and aristocracy, I’m afraid I’ve come with much direr business. Your temple has been flagrantly violating our country’s laws for quite some time. Unlawful entry of our nation on multiple occasions. Kidnapping with multiple offenses as well. Housing enemy combatants, and initiating raids on our military personnel. Serious charges, but nothing that couldn’t have been handled peaceably in the past.”

I very nearly blink in shock at the accusations. Thom even moves to respond, fingers twitching briefly into a fist before he restrains himself.

<Is he serious?> he sends to all of us.

<Deadly, it sounds like.> I respond.

<They’re trying to paint everything Gao Shansi has done for us as some kind of attack on them.> Chou sends at the same time, a strange feeling of tiredness following her words.

“In the past?” Sifu An says, responding only a moment later to the Baron’s charges. “I should hope our talks here are more than a mere formality, else what was the purpose of agreeing to parley?”

“Ah, perhaps I misspoke. But it is true that your actions over the years have forced our hand. The great state of Rolgar is left with only two options; we must either declare you an enemy of the state and dismantle you by force, or come to an agreement which leads to the dissolution of your organization in a peaceful manner.”

“You would have us ‘dissolve’ an institution more ancient than any of the countries which spawned you, just like that?”

“Indeed. I suppose a third option is on the table, just between the two of us you understand.” The Baron leans forward, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “If you were to leave Rolgaran lands and promise never to cross our borders again we would of course not be able to pursue you. This is all unofficial, you understand. My cousin, the king, wishes to make a harsh example of you. But it would not be hard to smooth over his anger were I to explain that we simply could not stop you from leaving. Once you have moved your temple halfway around the world it is quite impossible to pursue you, after all. Leaving now would be a token of good faith, and go a long way toward opening further peaceful relations in the future once things have calmed down, of course.”

“And if we refuse, we will be declared ‘enemies of the state’, correct?” Sifu An asks. “What exactly would that entail?”

“Ah. I’m afraid that is where the unpleasantness with the mortars would begin again. We’ve been given orders to raze your temple to the ground before you can leave at the dawn, using whatever means are at our disposal. Any survivors would be captured and tried as war criminals, either executed or serving out the rest of their days repaying their debt to society in the iron mines.”

He shrugs and throws up his hands dramatically.

“Politics, you understand.”

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1.11

Days have passed, maybe weeks. It all runs together now. Wake up, eat, morning routine, training with Sifu An. The training takes somewhere between minutes and hours, in one place and multiple, and by the end, if it even has ended, exhaustion sets in. Eat again, sometimes while the sun is up and sometimes while down. Evening routine. Perhaps I’ve forgotten some events, but it is impossible to tell.

Our training has proceeded well, I think. My thoughts are no longer so concrete. Thankfully we have stopped the lucid dreaming training every night, Sifu An told us at some point that it was too much with what else we were doing, and redundant besides. It would make sense that he said that early in the training, but it’s so hard to tell.

I lay, staring up at my ceiling, barely visible in the darkness with the curtain drawn. I feel tired, but I can’t sleep. It feels like it was only a few hours ago that I last slept, but I doubt that’s true. My body craves rest but my mind races, panicking, trying to determine if what I’m seeing and feeling is real or just another illusion.

The only upside is I no longer dream of that night.

*****

In the end I don’t sleep, not that I recall. But one moment it is dark, and the next faint streamers of light are filling my room. It is time to wake up and start the day. Probably. I meet the others for breakfast. At some point we decided that eating apart had more potential for harm than letting something slip in front of Ma. We didn’t have the energy for much conversation or enthusiasm in any case. Besides which, nobody had seen Ma for days. Weeks? Probably not so long. We all agreed that nobody had seen him. Most of the time if we all perceived something it was likely to be true. Sifu An took pity on us if he affected all of us at once and told us afterward, or so he said. The deep paranoia that nothing was true never left, but we all trusted Sifu An. We could trust him more than ourselves at the moment.

*****

I don’t remember walking to the training hall but I find myself here. We looked around for signs we’d been tampered with constantly in this room. Sifu An wasn’t here yet, not that we could see. Though that had ceased to matter once this training had started in full force. Sometimes he would be standing right in front of us and we’d never see him. Sometimes he’d never show up at all, to keep us guessing. The only mercy was he no longer grinned eagerly when we did see him. The thought that this hell was amusing to him might have made me completely snap. Which I hadn’t yet, probably.

Through the tiredness I scanned my surroundings. Not with my eyes, but with the technique Sifu An had taught us. Connecting to a single person we could see was easy, but limited. We could instead reach out wider, feeling if any minds were in the area, and focus on a single one once it was found. The range was short but the technique was invaluable.

Sifu An was not here, I determined. There were only four minds within my range. The correct number. Ran, Chou, Thom, and myself.

It took me a moment to retrace my thoughts. Yes, four minds. Ran, Chou, Thom…one more? No, I had imagined it. There were only three. I shouldn’t count my own.

I looked around the room and found myself alone, as usual. Sifu An’s one on one lessons were especially draining, but the progress I’d made was astounding, or so he said. Still, it was lonely being the only student in the class. None of the others had-

I paused, confused. I was alone, as usual, but I felt four minds. Mine and three others. Or was it four others? Can I even feel my own mind?

Someone must be hiding themselves from me. A group, even. We were meant to protect ourselves from invisible attacks. Or, I was. I lashed out at one of the minds at random, throwing myself at their defenses. They kept their mind slippery, splitting off false trails so entering their mindscape was impossible without trying each in succession.

I countered by splitting my own attention, applying only a small piece of what I could bring to bear on each trail. Within seconds I’d latched onto the strongest of the signals and focused on it full force. I blazed to the end of the trail and…found myself lying on my back, looking at the ceiling. My jaw hurt.

Thom was standing over me, looking concerned. “You okay? You started attacking me so I punched you to jog you out of it.”

I looked around. Everyone was still here. Ran, Chou, Thom, myself, and Sifu Ma.

“Training is over for now. Return to your normal routine and report here tomorrow at the same time.” He ordered with his customary coldness.

We’d all gotten used to it by now. He wasn’t so bad once you got past the chilly exterior. He had our best interests in mind, even if he never showed it.

*****

I was feeling much better after doing my exercises and eating a light lunch. I was strangely energetic for how I’d felt just after training, so I did another round of exercises. Then a third. I still wasn’t tired, but it was time for bed by the time I was done.

I laid down in the grass, enjoying the sunlight streaming down and smiled to myself.

*****

When I woke up, it was morning. Apparently, I’d been more tired than I thought. I crawled out of bed, yawning, and left my room.

Off in the distance I hear a faint sound, buzzing at the periphery of my senses, but can’t quite make it out. I shrug and move on. It’s time for training.

I arrive at the training hall to…the sound’s getting louder. It sounds almost like-

*****

Screams pierce the night as the bug men march us through the streets. I cry, shrinking closer to my mother. They’re bringing us to the town square. Off in the distance I see lines of people, kept in check by the bug mens’ power, all of them afraid of being snuffed out like so many others.

Something catches my eye to my left, something shining out of the dark of a small alley between houses. I don’t even have time to react before one of the bug men behind us is thrown to the ground, one of the men of the town on top of him. A blade stabs downward, glancing slightly off of the bug man’s shell but taking it in the armpit. It screams in its gurgling language, but all of its companions are hit at the same time, the ambush working against such a small number of them.

I see my father as he fights off one of the creatures with his long knife he used to gut fish.

“Run! We can hold them long enough!” he shouts. My mother hesitates for only a moment before sprinting off, tugging me along behind her. Already more of the bug men are coming from the square.

I don’t look back as we run, too occupied with keeping up. Several more of the cracking sounds ring out behind us, and when we reach the edge of town, we find not everyone made it out with us.

*****

I awake again, but the screaming never stops.

“-up! Wake up Xu!” I hear, and a pounding at my door. Apparently I’d barred it last night, but I don’t remember doing so. The sound of children crying and the smell of smoke still linger. I’m almost used to it by now, after seeing the dream every night.

I open the door to Ran’s frantic pounding and look around.

The courtyard is on fire.

I move to close the door. This isn’t the first time I’ve woken up to something like this.

What’s new is when Ran’s left hand strikes me across the face and I feel the sharp sting in my cheek. The courtyard is still on fire.

“It’s real this time! Help me get Chou and Thom up and we can help everyone else!”

I stand there, shocked for a moment. It has to be real, at least partially. Pain doesn’t register properly in an illusion or dream; it wouldn’t hurt this much if it were fake.

That doesn’t mean some other trick isn’t at hand, but the fear starts to set in almost immediately. If it is real, this would be the first time since we’d been taken in by the temple that it was attacked.

I quickly wake up Thom, Ran and I giving them the same treatment they gave me. We immediately start gathering up the children and funneling them toward the inner areas of the temple.

We catch eyes with Sifu An as he directs the teachers and younger students on what to do, giving us a nod as our eyes meet across the lines of bodies.

“Take the children and retreat inside the main temple hall and dining hall! Teachers, you should know which areas your class is designated for! Do not stop unless it is absolutely necessary!” he calls, raising his voice to be heard over the screaming children.

This isn’t the first time in however many centuries Gao Shansi has existed that it had been attacked. There were plans in place to repel any kind of assault. The strange thing was less that we were being attacked and more the form it was taking. I saw no soldiers anywhere, or anything that may have started the fire. Catapults couldn’t reach this high up on the mountain with any reliability, so what was going on?

The more I thought, the more this seemed like an elaborate illusion. But Sifu An couldn’t conjure something so detailed that involved so many moving parts, right? The most he’d ever done was make us relive a day we’d already gone through, or something similar, or manufactured short term assaults that fell apart under scrutiny.

This was well beyond the scale of any illusion, and yet it didn’t make any sense. It didn’t make any more when a whistling rang out over the sound of the crowd, followed by a sickeningly familiar distant thump. More screams rang out from the back of the line as part of the ceiling of the temple collapsed behind us, burying the farthest rooms under piles of rubble.

Panic truly set in for the crowd at this point, even the older children shoving one another aside in a frantic attempt to get to safety before more of the temple collapsed on top of them.

It reminds me of riots I’d read about in the history books we had, detailing flights through packed cities from invaders, civilians trampled underfoot as people lost all reason. I try to shout over the crowd.

“Calm, everyone! Slow down, don’t hurt your fellow students!” I shout, but the sound is swallowed by further panic, and I’m swept along in the tide.

It isn’t until a louder voice rings out that the crowd calms.

“SILENCE!” Sifu An roars, and the screams and cries of children instantly snuff out. I can feel his pressure on my mind, suffocating. From the expressions of everyone around, even more terrified if possible, they felt the same thing.

“Move now. Orderly. You have time.” He says, more gently. The pressure eases, and the crowd tentatively begins to move again.

He points to the four of us, looking out over various parts of the crowd.

“Come with me. It is time we put your training to good use.”

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1.10

The tension mounts as we walk forward, everyone silent save for a few muffled sobs coming from us. The town itself is making enough noise for everyone, the crackling fires and distant screams and thumps making each step harder than the last.

I breathe deeply and start coughing from the smoke. My mother slows a bit to check on me, but is shoved again for her trouble. She looks back, worried, but keeps moving. I’m fine. We’ve got more to worry about than me coughing a little.

In the distance is the town square, where others have been taken. We’re forced toward it, and every-

*****

My eyes jerk open and I take a shuddering breath. The knocking that woke me before comes again, followed by a soft voice. “Xu? It’s time to go.”

“Just a moment.” I respond to Chou. I must be running late. The memories pull more deeply than any dream I’ve ever had.

I lay for a moment, feelings mixed. I’m half annoyed that the memory was interrupted. I was on the cusp of something, gaining something my mind was searching for. That annoyance is drowned out in turn by relief that it’s over for now, I don’t have to feel and see those things any more.

Both are shoved aside by practicality; I need to get dressed and ready. If I hurry maybe I’ll have time for breakfast.

*****

After quickly downing my breakfast of porridge and eggs, I proceed to our training hall. Sifu An pulls me aside not long after I arrive.

“Chou tells me you were hard to wake this morning. You’ve been delving into your memories again, I assume? It wouldn’t be like you just to sleep in.”

I nod in assent, an apologetic look on my face. “The memories suck me in deeply. I lose all track of time.”

“I won’t tell you to stop; it’s important you see and process those memories. Already it’s clear you’re handling them better than the last time. But don’t push yourself.”

He gives me a look to make sure his words sank in and goes back to where he usually lectures from.

The rest of the day passes uneventfully. We’re in a stage of training where reaching competence in our current skills is more important than piling new ones on.

That night I try to delve back into my memories, but they slip away from me every time. Tired, I finally give in and fall into a normal sleep for the first time in over a week.

The next week passes similarly; training, refining our grasp of instantaneous communication, manipulation of time inside the mindscape, and the other basics. The memories continue to elude me, similar to the first time I tried to break through the wall. Deep down I can feel it; I don’t want to see them, some part of me refuses to let the rest learn what lies in my past, even as other parts tug me towards the memories. Once I figure that much out, the connection is made. It’s similar in a lot of ways to our experience with making multiple connections. Sifu An advising me to not force it wasn’t just worry, it was advice. Trying too hard just made it more difficult. I resolved to simply relax and let it come to me when and if it did when I first woke up this morning.

The twinkle I saw in Sifu An’s eyes when we all arrived at training made me glad of that resolution.

Our one on one time with Sifu An had changed my estimation of the training methods of some of the other Sifu who occasionally came down from higher on the mountain to grace us with their presence. They were universally cold and distant, though none displayed the same disgust as Ma habitually did. It was disconcerting as a child, to be told I was inadequate when I failed in passionless terms, the Sifu explaining exactly what I did wrong and how to fix it in excruciating detail. Even as I grew older and the mistakes grew less common, the ones I did make were torn apart with the same cold thoroughness.

Still, it was comforting in a way after a while. As I progressed in training the anger and frustration passed; I always knew the Sifu simply wanted me to be better. There was nothing personal to their criticism. It was meant to build me up, not tear me down. Repeatedly losing in the rare sparring matches with Sifu who preferred a hands on approach similarly didn’t sting like losing to a peer would. They didn’t go all out and demolish me to shame me, only to show me how far I had yet to go.

Sifu An’s more emotionally open approach was in many ways even better. I could tell he cared a lot about us as individuals, not just our learning. But the look of restrained, but clear glee on his face when he had difficult training in mind had already etched itself into our brains. Just seeing the corner of the Sifu’s eyes and lips tighten made our hearts quail these days.

“I believe it’s time we resumed our training into mental assault and defense.”

We all paled as one. He cracked small smile at that.

“Come now, it wasn’t that bad last time, was it?”

Our faces gave him all the answer he needed.

Stifling his amusement, he continued.

“I think you’ll find you’ve learned a lot since then. You can form connections faster, you can maintain them through yet more strenuous activity, and you can do more with your connections than you could when we first started, yes?”

When he put it that way, it was comforting. We could form connections between up to three of us in under a second now and maintain a full sprint while doing so, though taking a hard hit still jogged us out of it. Manipulating time was almost second nature, though slowing our perception on the inside was still torturous and changing the space inside the mindscape was fairly simple, if time consuming.

“Everything you’ve learned can be used, if not in the same ways, to disrupt an opponent’s movements. It is one of the key advantages graduates of Gao Shansi have over other fighters. Let me demonstrate. All of you attack me at once. Pay close attention.”

We all hesitantly get to our feet and array ourselves around him. An idea strikes me, and the rest of my friends seem to have the same idea. In just a moment we connect and begin forming an attack plan.

<Ran, try to crowd him and restrict his movements.> Chou starts.

Ran makes a face. <Fine. But if I see an opening I’m taking it, broken arm or no broken arm.>

<Like that would ever happen.> Thom ‘says’ <I guess Xu and me will come from both sides, one after another? I’ll try to grab him, and maybe it will bind him up enough Xu can get a hit in.>

<If you try to get him in a head lock or something maybe I can get hold of one of his arms and throw him down. If that doesn’t work, maybe he’ll be off balance enough for Chou to sweep his legs out from under him or something?> I suggest. We all seem to be in agreement that denying Sifu An his footing is our only real hope.

<It’s as good a plan as any.> Ran sends, shrugging. We all give a quick nod, Sifu An’s amused smile returning after seeing our expressions.

“It’s good you’re taking this seriously.” He calmly says as we dart towards him.

Instantly I feel something is off. Thom reaches towards Sifu An, aiming to throw himself in a tackle at him. I move to step in as well, aiming my own grab at one of Sifu An’s arms, held loosely at his side…but before I can, his foot slides into mine, sending me into a stumble!

I blink, confused. Thom’s grab goes wide, as Sifu An simply isn’t where he was when we started, instead having shifted, without our notice, a few feet closer to me. Ran keeps with the plan, favoring her broken arm as she edges closer to Sifu An, snapping jabs he easily dodges. While he’s focused on those, Chou slips behind him, stamping one of her feet between Sifu An’s to trip him up, almost simultaneously twisting to press her arms over his torso.

Any other opponent Chou would have been able to smoothly fold over her outstretched leg, bringing them to the ground.

Sifu An blurs into motion. His speed defies belief as he stumbles slightly, recovers instantly, and pivots his entire body to the left, rotating out of Chou’s throw, hooking his right foot behind her left, and pulling her off balance. She stumbles forward, but he doesn’t capitalize on it with a follow up.

We all look at him in amazement. We’ve all sparred Sifu before. Sifu An, even, on a few occasions. He was always good. Far better than us, and we could never lay a finger on him. But his movements were always understandable before. He was clearly anticipating our attacks and moving to counter them before we’d even started, throwing our rhythm completely off.

This was different. He had clearly reacted to Chou’s throw, slipping out of it with an inhuman reflex.

We stared for a moment, before bowing as one.

“You win.” Ran is the first to say.

“Not that there was ever any doubt.” Thom follows it up, shrugging.

“So how did you do that? The trip clearly affected you. It was the first time one of my moves has ever hit a Sifu, even with such a small impact.” Chou sound the most confused of all of us. I simply wait for his response.

“Your minds were open, so I did a little tinkering. That’s it, really.” He says.

Comprehension blooms as he keeps going.

“The mindscape is something inside your head, but your brain controls all of your perceptions. Time, distance, motion, memory, it is all determined by this here. The brain.” He says, tapping his right temple.

“If you allow an opponent to enter your mind, they can tamper with all of it. Even a relative novice can do what I did today, turning a mediocre martial artist into a mind bending, incomprehensible force to the untrained eye. How do you hit an opponent if you can’t trust your sense of distance? How do you land a hit or block an attack from someone who has dulled your reflexes without you even noticing, slowing your perception of time? Even a tenth of a second delay can be the difference between victory and defeat.”

“So how do you even do that?” Ran asks.

“It’s fairly simple. You extend your mind toward the target as though you’re making a connection. Then, instead of waiting for them to accept, you reach farther. It’s the easiest thing in the world against an unaware target.”

“Then how do you defend if it’s that easy? Obviously the closing of the mind we learned so you can’t just casually read our thoughts isn’t enough.” I say, feeling a bit of frustration. I’ve always hated this feeling of being half-taught in something and having yet more I don’t know dumped on my head. It’s inevitable with the time crunch we’re under, but it still strikes my nerves.

“It helps a little bit against clumsy attacks, but you can brute force past any static defenses like that. The Eldest tried many mental ‘walls’ over the centuries, but none ever worked out. Eventually we stopped being taught more than the basic mental blocks, trusting to politeness to hold off on mind reading while we were taught more active defenses.”

“The thing you need to understand most about defending from mental assaults is that you must first be aware you are being attacked before you can defend. This requires you to be very aware of your own mental state at all times, whether your feelings and perceptions are genuine. The first step in this is being able to manipulate your own perceptions, which is what we’ve worked on the last couple of weeks. The next step will be harder, and build off of those skills.”

“There is one simple exercise I want you to practice: hold onto a mindscape’s image while remaining aware of your surroundings. This is similar to what you’ve practiced with maintaining mental connections between you. Get a feel for what slowing down or speeding up your perception of time is like outside of your own head. The same goes for changing your view of surroundings.”

He hesitates for a moment before going on, our attention rapt on him.

“This can be dangerous, but it’s the fastest way to learn this. The old methods require years of direct schooling. This can be learned on your own time if it comes to it. The effect of changing your own perception that way is similar to madness, in a way. It becomes difficult to separate reality from fiction. If you go to deep and lose yourself, it’s hard to find your way back.”

“Do not practice this on your own. You are only to practice in my presence, in this training hall.”

There was no chance of me disobeying this decree, and I doubt any of my friends felt differently. We’d all felt it sometimes. The tugging of our brains, idle thoughts changing our surroundings in a dream, unsure if anything actually changed or we were remembering things wrong. The thought of that happening in the real, waking world was terrifying.

We broke for the day after that, attending to our physical maintenance, and went to bed.

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