I look around myself, judging the mental state of the others. The fact that I can do so at all doesn’t bode well. Thom looks visibly agitated, particularly as we pass through some of the darker corridors on the way to the Chamber. Ran is oddly energetic, and aggressive as she looks at Sifu Ma’s back.
Chou…has her mask on, firmly. Whatever composure she’d lost yesterday seemed to have been regained. If it weren’t for how stiffly she walked, I could believe she was fine.
I can’t see my own expression, but I imagine I’m similar to the others. I feel…off. Fluttery, and not just because I haven’t eaten all day. A formless anxiety gnaws at me and colors everything.
I don’t think I was this frightened on our very first foray into the Chamber of Mirrors.
Despite our compromised mental states, our bodies are mostly fine. Well rested, at least. We make good time and arrive at the Chamber only a few minutes later.
It lives up to its name, a great mirrored dome that reflects all our failings back at us a hundredfold. Every twitch, every shift in expression, every unhidden thought that crosses our minds and makes it to our faces is on display from every angle.
We all knew what was coming next; we’d be whipped and chastised for every shift in expression until our masks were firmly cemented on our faces. I feel an initial shock of fear, and it must show, because Sifu Ma turns and smoothly pulls a cat-o-nine-tails from somewhere in his robes.
“Strip to the waist. You should remember that much.” he orders. We do so, and kneel, eyes forward.
Even expecting it, the blow that comes immediately afterward stings, drawing thin lines of blood from my chest.
I surprise myself by needing no effort to hide the pain. It was sharp, and stung, but hurt much less than the broken bones and bruises we’d often suffered in training, or the horrible agony certain pressure point techniques could inflict in the image training.
My mind instead wanders. Does Sifu Ma always keep the whip in his robes? What purpose could he possibly have for that? Discipline, or his own pleasure? Unbidden, an image of Sifu Ma half-naked and torturing himself with a grim smile on his face comes to me, mirroring Sifu An’s remarks about Sifu Ma’s self-image.
Sifu Ma’s eyes narrow almost imperceptibly behind me, and I realize I’ve let an entirely different mask slip.
Some combination of anxiety, fear, and the absurdity of it all finally gets to me.
A sharp bark rings out in the domed chamber, and it takes me a moment to realize it came from me. By that point it’s too late to stop. “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” I let out, laughing against my will.
“I see Sifu An’s influence is even more insidious than it seems.” Sifu Ma says, and begins laying into me with the cat.
The first strikes are startling; I’d almost forgotten why we were here. Before long I’m laughing harder, curling in on myself. The pain, eventually, does start to get to me, and my laughter turns to pained gasps, interspersed with involuntary chuckles. Everyone else looks on in amazement, then horror as Sifu Ma continues his frenzied whipping. Technically he’s well within his rights not to stop until I gain control of myself.
Ran is the first to make a move, standing up and taking a stance.
“Stop!” is all she says, giving him her best menacing look. Sifu Ma disinterestedly flicks the whip toward her, but her hand catches it before it can strike her face.
At this, he gives her his full attention.
“Sit back down, or I will be forced to carry out proper discipline.” I hear through ears rushing with the sound of my own blood leaving them as I calm slightly. I feel better, for a moment, the anxiety passing, before the pain hits me. Sifu Ma couldn’t have been attacking me long, but he’d clearly put his all into it. My back burned with the pain, blood running down to soak the floor beneath my hands; I hadn’t even realized I was bleeding.
Ran stands her ground, taking a Crane stance and facing down the Sifu. I try to tell her to stop, but my throat is raw from the laughter and pain.
She hops forward, feinting a quick jab at his face before shifting smoothly into a Tiger position, aiming a palm for Sifu Ma’s solar plexus. It is a good strike, swift and powerful.
It gets within a hair’s breadth of Sifu Ma before he retaliates. We barely see him move, but suddenly he’s just not where he was, the attack shifting from being dead on to missing, and Sifu Ma being left in the small hole in Ran’s guard from the strike.
He begins to move again, deceptively slowly, and before Ran can react, grips Ran’s arm under his left armpit and slams her elbow inward with a sickening crunch. She drops, screaming, arm flopping uselessly at her side, bent at an angle the joint was never meant to.
Sifu Ma looks at her. “You’ll live. A mercy, given the ancient punishment for a graduate attacking one of the Sifu.”
I almost start laughing again.
“So we rank as graduates now? I thought we were being held back?”
Sifu Ma answers as he returns to whipping me, Thom looking on unsure, and Chou as stone faced as she was when we entered, while Ran stifles gasps of pain and stares at Sifu Ma with naked anger.
“You should have finished your training and been released by now, if it weren’t for An and his Egotists wishing to coddle you. And look where it’s gotten you. Driven by emotion. Composure thrown away. Still half-trained and already complacent, content to lay about as if this is some kind of inn.”
His expression doesn’t change, but the disgust is evident in his voice, particularly on the unfamiliar phrase. “Egotist”. So that’s what he thinks of Sifu An’s faction. I suppose it makes sense the Traditionalists wouldn’t call their rivals by a chosen name that makes their own faction sound frivolous.
In my detached, half-conscious thoughts, I almost miss it.
A hand snakes up behind Sifu Ma, gently but firmly holding his arm still and deftly plucking the cat-o-nine-tails from his hand. Sifu Ma’s eyes don’t betray what must be his shock; being snuck up on in a room full of mirrors is either an impressive feat of concealment or an astounding lack of situational awareness.
When he sees who it is, however, I catch a glimpse of what truly lies beneath Sifu Ma’s mask for the first time. It’s only a chink in the armor, a narrowing of the eyes and tightening of the face, but the clenched jaw and gritted teeth speak volumes in a man who prides himself on absolute composure. Pure, unfiltered hatred radiates from Sifu Ma as he looks Sifu An in the face.
“Why are you interrupting another Sifu’s disciplinary measures, An?” he asks. It was conspicuous before, but the lack of using Sifu An’s title directly to his face truly sold the measure of contempt that Sifu Ma held for him.
“I believe they’ve been disciplined enough, Sifu Ma.” Sifu an says calmly, but with an edge hiding under his serene façade. “One will need to be taken to the infirmary quickly if she is to regain full use of her arm. I’m sure you would not wish to ruin a promising student so close to graduation, correct?”
Sifu Ma looks at him, hatred shining in his stiff, graceless movements as he turns and walks away without another word.
“Thom, grab Xu and carry him. Chou, help me with Ran. We want to keep pressure off of her arm to avoid tearing ligaments.”
“I’m…fine, Sifu An.” I say and rise to my feet. I’m startled as I hit the ground face first a moment later. I don’t remember slipping.
“Clearly.” he says. To his credit, not a hint of the obvious sarcasm colors his voice. I feel embarrassed, but apparently I’ve lost too much blood for a flush to come easy, so I’m saved from even further embarrassment. Thom picks me up, looking troubled.
“Sorry I didn’t try to help you like Ran did. But the way he took her down…” he trails off. I weakly wave my hand in negation.
“I think it was a good reminder of even the difference between the best student and a true master.” Sifu An chimes in, apparently having overheard.
“Never underestimate an opponent, but particularly never attack one you know is better than you without expecting to lose.”
We -technically they- walk in silence the rest of the way. For obvious reasons, the infirmary is not far from the Chamber of Mirrors; it is roughly equidistant from most places students often get injured.
Thom quickly moves to lay me on a bed as Mistresses Anya and Jie, and Master Ben see to Ran at first. I whimper slightly, biting my lip to hold back a scream as he lays me on my back on the rough cot. Mistress Anya rushes over, leaving Ran in the hands of her two subordinates.
“Thom! Foolish boy.” She scolds, shooing him away before turning me over on my side. “Blood all over the sheets, I’ll have to change them…” she mutters, looking over my back.
“This is the worst whipping I’ve seen in years.” The matronly head of the infirmary says and tuts disapprovingly. The healers and custodians of the youngest children were exempt from the usual rules about showing emotion. Mistress Anya in particularly was not shy about making her opinions known.
“I have an ointment for this, which you’ll need to have someone apply every night for at least the next two weeks.”
I nod, wincing as that pulls some of the lines running from the back of my neck.
“It will scar, but I will give you a routine of stretches to do every morning. It will keep the scars from restricting your motion. Make sure to do them every morning or do not complain to me about how you cannot move like you used to and your scars ache when it rains.”
Without further ceremony, she begins applying the ointment. It stings, at first, but not nearly as bad as the actual whipping had been, and the pain was soon replaced with a merely uncomfortable numbness.
“Thank you, Mistress Anya.” I manage to say.
She moves around in front of me, placing the small jar of ointment onto the table next to me and rummaging through a cabinet for some bandages. “I am tempted to give whoever did this, and that-“ she says, gesturing to Ran’s arm “-a piece of my mind. There is a line between disciplining a student and mutilating them. It was nearly crossed with her. Sifu or not, we aim to raise you children, not torture you. He is one who has forgotten the difference between strictness and barbarism.”
“Mutilated? Is Ran going to be okay?” I ask, allowing worry to creep into my voice as I crane my head to look at her. She seems to be in great pain as they ask her to move her fingers.
“Oh! Yes. Don’t you worry.” She says, giving me a smile as she gives a quick look at their progress over there. “She will not be allowed to move her arm for weeks, but we’ll have her in top condition again in a few months. Joint breaks can be very bad, but none of the bone broke the skin, so it will be an easy fix.” Her frown returns “Still, if it was just a bit worse, or she had been alone and tried to use her arm, or fallen on it afterward, it could have been bad. Even with our healing tonics, we can only speed the healing, not fix what cannot be fixed. She could have been left with a twisted limb forever. Especially bad with her dominant hand.”
Anger boils in me, burning away the pain for a moment. I’d never liked Sifu Ma, but I always thought he came from a genuine place. That he wanted to help us be better, even if we could never live up to his standards. Even, maybe even especially, after Sifu An’s analysis of his character, I’d believed that.
But this…I don’t know if Ran avoided disaster through Ma’s design, or just by coincidence. And the hatred I’d seen in him as he looked at Sifu An made me think it didn’t really matter, in the end. His emotions boiled closer to the surface than any of ours, he was just better at hiding it. The thought that Ma had actually lost control in that encounter was chilling.
If it was true, Ma was dangerous. Unworthy of the title Sifu, for all his skill. Having emotions is one thing, showing them is another, but letting them drive you to such lengths of callous cruelty was unthinkable for someone of his position.
What was worse, we lacked the means to do anything about it. We didn’t have the power to fight back and avoiding him was impossible; he was one of the few Sifu who chose to interact with the students. That had always struck me as odd, given his attitude. Sifu An was clearly around because he enjoyed teaching us, and several of the others that came down from the higher chambers on occasion did so for some specific purpose or for a change of pace once every few years. Was Ma here to look for reasons to attack the students? But, no. That doesn’t seem right. There’s no way that kind of sadism would have survived the trials of selection Sifu went through without coming to light. And he didn’t make a habit of harming students this badly. Not that I knew, anyway.
There must be another reason.
I pondered it as we filed out of the infirmary. Ran had her arm in a cast, and was clearly still simmering with anger, but had regained a modicum of composure. Chou’s expression hadn’t changed since this morning, and she remained unreadable. I was worried for her; she’d always been composed, but never this blank. And never as silent before now.
Thom…I still couldn’t get a proper read on Thom. At first he seemed fine, but his face grew paler as the sun began to dip below the horizon, and he let out a slight shudder I only noticed because I was keeping a close watch on him as we entered the darker halls on the way to our new training room. We had all wordlessly acknowledged we’d be getting no sleep tonight, at least not so early after having slept the whole day away. Particularly not with the shirt of my gi sticking to my back and my wounds burning as I moved.
We moved into the room, finding comfortable places to sit on the soft ground. We just stared at each other for a while, nobody wanting to make the first move, or say the first words. The events of the day hung between us, but it was more the events of last night that stilled our tongues.
Ran, characteristically, is the first to break the silence.
“So. Monsters, huh?” she says, trying for a sarcastic tone. It falls flat but breaks the ice.
“Yeah.” Is all I manage, thinking back to the brother who up until now I never remembered.
“We all…saw the same thing?” Chou asks, seeming ashamed for some reason.
“Running through the woods? Horrible creatures attacking us? Our parents dying? If so, yeah.” Ran says, again trying to keep the tone light. As if we couldn’t all picture the events as clear as day.
Only Thom looks puzzled.
“Huh? Monsters? All of you had the same dream?”
We all nod, confused for a moment. Then remember Thom wasn’t there.
“Yes. I saw something weird, too. When I passed out in my dream, I shared Ran’s memories for a while. Not sure why.”
Ran nods her head as if something suddenly makes sense to her, but it’s Chou’s turn to look puzzled.
“I didn’t see anything like that. I actually don’t know how you got to Gao Shansi. The last I saw of you, you’d fallen down that hill with your…” she trails off, eyes downcast.
I try to speak up, but there’s a sudden lump in my throat. Ran spares me from having to fill her in myself.
“I saw. He woke up with a concussion and walked back to the mountains. His brother…didn’t make it.”
“Yeah.” I confirm, hoarse.
Thom looks around. “Um. Sounds rough.” he says. He winces and his hand twitches right afterward. “Sorry. That didn’t come out right.”
Chou just looks more and more dejected through all of this, and mutters something to herself I don’t catch.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it.” She says, shaking her head and looking up.
“I don’t want to pry, but are you all right Thom? You’ve looked jumpy all day.” Ran asks.
“It’s…fine. I didn’t see any monsters or anything. It was just dark, that’s all.”
“It was just dark?” he looks at me when I ask and waves a hand as if to blow it off.
“Yeah. That’s all. It was just dark all night. I couldn’t see anything, or…” his breath catches, and he takes a few deeper ones to calm himself.
“It was just dark. I’ll be fine.”
We all look at him with worry but decide not to push it.
We sit in silence for a moment, drawing strength from each other’s company. It felt good to be able to meet somewhat openly, without wriggling uncomfortably into a little cubbyhole, or sharing a larger space with a dozen other students younger than us.
“Wait. That’s it…” I mutter to myself after a few minutes. I don’t realize I’ve said it aloud until Ran questions me. “What’s it?”
“Oh. I was wondering earlier. Why does Ma stay down here, on the lower levels, when he’s clearly so unsatisfied? With us, and himself if Sifu An is to be believed.” My dropping of his honorific does not go unnoticed, but no one challenges me on it.
“Because he’s a psycho who likes hurting people?” Ran throws out, glaring at the bindings on her right arm. “He’s always been off, maybe he’s finally lost it completely.”
“I thought that at first, but it doesn’t make any sense. He would never have been raised to the rank of Sifu if he could slide that far into depravity in just a few years.” Relatively, anyway. He’d been down here for nearly a decade, but Sifu measured time differently.
“Then what?” Chou asks, curiosity breaking through her quiet reverie.
“He was sent here to be a counterbalance to Sifu An. The Traditionalists need someone from their camp to keep an eye on him. Sifu An is friendly for a Sifu. Approachable. Likeable. But none of the other Sifu like to come down for long; they’re too wrapped up in their meditations, trying to reach a new plateau of enlightenment. Sifu An would have free reign to ‘corrupt’ us with his ideas. Unless another Sifu from the opposite camp was here to punish any transgressions beyond the norm, make sure the children had a clear and ever-present reminder of the type of discipline we’re supposed to keep.”
“But why Sifu Ma? Why not someone more…” Chou trails off, grasping for ideas with her hands.
“Controlled? Poised? Because those are usually the older Sifu. Ma has only been one for twenty, maybe thirty years. And they probably wanted someone who had enough contempt left in him to make an effective enforcer.” The more I talked the more my own ideas made sense.
“So. He’s here to stay. He can’t leave even if he wants to.” Thom surmises.
“Exactly. And we are probably the first graduate class Sifu An has taken so directly under his wing, since the Sifu are in a stalemate about what to do with us. He’s probably afraid we’ll come back to Gao Shansi as firm members of Sifu An’s Pragmatists.”
“Well, he’s right.” Ran says, looking defiantly at the rest of us, as if challenging us to disagree. We all nod instead.
“Exactly. Which means from now on he’s going to be gunning for us. We can’t fight him directly, he’s not going to leave on his own…so what do we do about it?”