The question hung in the air, unanswered. We just stared at each other for several minutes, at a loss for what to do.
“I have an idea for where to start.” a familiar voice rings out. We all look around, startled, and Sifu An steps out from the hallway.
“Planning to fight against someone where anyone could potentially hear you is dangerous.”
I open my mouth to protest. This place was out of the way, Ma would never follow us here! Or…why wouldn’t he? There was nothing stopping him. It was unlikely, but possible. I close my mouth with a frown.
“Do you make a habit of listening in on our conversations, Sifu?” Thom asks, more curious than annoyed.
“Only when I want to know what you’re up to.” he replies, face blank but eyes twinkling.
I lack a response to that. So do the others.
“What do you suggest then? We already know all of the Sifu know our ‘secret’ meeting places, so where is…” I trail off as the answer becomes obvious.
“Now you get it. The only safe place to conduct such business is inside your own heads. This is a valuable skill to learn not just for this situation, but in the outside world. From your conversation, you’ve all managed the breakthrough you needed to continue your training. As circumstances have changed, perhaps it’s best to change tracks as well.”
He pauses for a moment, thinking.
“Defending yourselves from mental attacks is important, but with the time we have you’d never be able to defend yourself from a Sifu. We’ll keep working on it, but our primary focus will shift from defense and attack to more useful tricks for now.”
“So you’re not going to be assaulting us every day from now on?” Ran says, relief audible in her voice.
I can’t help but share her sentiment. Since our first training session on fending off mental attacks, the practice had been the bane of our sessions. Sifu An didn’t hold back when facing us. Or if he did, I didn’t want to know. The ease with which he shattered or circumvented any walls we put up was embarrassing enough when it seemed like his full ability on display.
The current record time for fending off one of Sifu An’s assaults was held by Chou. By my count it was close to eight seconds, a figure that Sifu An dubbed ‘impressive’ for a beginner.
“Oh, don’t think you’ve escaped it.” Sifu An said, good natured malice oozing from his calm form. “But we will save it for the end of our training sessions. You’ll move to practicing among yourselves for the majority of the time, and I’ll mark your progress in the various things I’ll be teaching you.”
Everyone grimaced at the prospect, but it wasn’t unexpected. It wasn’t much different than our martial arts training, truth be told, though it galled deep down to be a rank novice again. The first four years of our training was drilling fundamentals, light sparring, and physical fitness. The idea of having to learn a second discipline requiring similar devotion to what I’d already devoted most of my life to achieving proficiency at was daunting, and with every day that passed the idea of learning everything we needed to in six months to a year sounded more and more ludicrous.
“It’s not all bad.” Sifu An says, taking in our expressions. “I remember my own lessons in these arts. They could be quite fun if you go into them with the right mindset. I encourage you to build on these fundamentals and experiment in your own time, within reason. I trust you by now know your own limits.”
The image of Sifu An as a student was a strange one to me. I know he must have been at some point, but I had a hard time picturing it. Our teacher hasn’t seemed to age a day in all the years we’ve resided at Gao Shansi. Picturing him as a child was just as hard as picturing him as an old man, rather than the bearded figure in the prime of his life standing before us right now.
He clapped his hands together lightly, shaking me from my reverie.
“Now, let’s begin. Chou, I want you to lead this exercise.”
She looks up at him, a quizzical expression on her face.
“Yes, Sifu? What do I need to do?”
“Open your mind as if you’re trying to create a mindscape with one of the others. Stop right before your mind touches whoever you choose.” He looks on attentively as her face slackens, eyes going vacant. It was an interesting thing to note the first time. Our mental abilities did not seem to largely rely on concentration, but the lack of it. A relaxation of sorts, though not quite. It was like…emptying your bladder. Letting go of something you didn’t even realize you were holding onto and straining just hampered the process.
I broke from that line of thought before it led to any uncomfortable imagery.
“Now, try to reach out and touch someone else without letting go of the initial unfinished connection.” Chou nodded loosely, brow furrowing before relaxing again as she fought against the paradoxical feeling of needing to do something while knowing that trying to do it would ruin the attempt. After a moment, I felt a light brushing at the ‘door’ of my mind.
Sifu An looks intently at us, nodding after a moment.
“Good, you’ve managed two. Can you create a third branch?”
Chou tries to nod again, and I feel the touch at my mind disappear for a moment, then reappear. She clearly struggles with herself for a moment and…her eyes cross and she puts her fingers to her head, just above her brow.
“Are you hurt?” Ran asks her, awkwardly half-reaching toward her to check.
“It’s like an itch I can’t scratch. It just gets worse the more I try.” Chou waves her off, then rubs her eyes. “It’s not painful, just uncomfortable. I can go again.”
Sifu An looks her over for a moment, but then nods. “Go ahead.”
She tries several more times over the next half hour, growing increasingly frustrated. By the end she’s barely able to make even one partial connection, and throws herself back on the ground, clenching her mouth shut as if stifling a scream.
Sifu An nods as if this is expected.
Thom blanches and gives it a shot as well. To his credit, he does nearly as well as Chou on the first three attempts. After that, things go downhill fast. By the end he looks like he’s about to explode.
Ran does about as well and when she’s done, she does scream at the ceiling, looking surprised and apologetic afterward.
My nerves are already shot by the time it comes to my turn. I steel myself and give it a shot.
The first attempt is difficult, but I quickly make partial contact with Chou, who I estimate is the most recovered. It takes me a moment, but I branch off to Thom next, who twitches slightly as he feels my mind on his. It’s difficult, but in the same way as performing a complex sequence of moves I’ve spent time memorizing.
Not too bad so far. I think to myself.
Then I try to include Ran.
I’m at a loss for how to describe the sensation. I’ve never experienced something like it before in my life. It’s difficulty in a way that almost feels sadistic, only comparable to some completely inane task meant to stretch someone’s coordination to its limits. It feels like the mental equivalent of standing upside down on one hand while trying to pass and throw a ball to someone else and write your name with your feet. None of the tasks is particularly difficult on their own, but added together they feel nearly impossible.
My concentration collapses. It does so on the second attempt, and the third, and so on until I lose track. After a while, as with the others, I feel like I’m making reverse progress; getting worse with each attempt. As if I used to be able to pass and catch the ball with ease but now barely struggle to stay balanced on my hand.
A bubble of pure, inexpressible frustration fills me, and the laughter I’d let loose when confronted by Ma threatened to return to the surface.
I lay back, defeated, coughing as though my lungs are filled with fluid. I feel better, a little.
Sifu An looks at us appraisingly. “Not bad, for a first attempt. We’ll break for two hours, and then continue.”
We stare at him in horror, but say nothing.
After eating a meal and sitting around in the last bright rays of sunlight for a while, we felt better. We had decided to gather in one of the orchards, out of the way of our usual spot in the main courtyard. Ma was unlikely to track us here, and those assigned to pick fruit from the trees were ending their days and getting ready for their dinner.
“Well, when you think about it, it wasn’t really that bad.” Ran opines, slowly peeling an orange she’d plucked from one of the nearby trees.
We all look at her incredulously, but after a moment’s thought I find myself inclined to agree. There was no lasting harm, I don’t feel tired or sick like I sometimes do after training, and the only physical pain is the lines left by the cat-o-nine-tails. Reminded by the pain, I slowly begin going through Mistress Anya’s assigned stretching routine.
Wincing, I voiced my agreement.
“I do feel ready for another try. I think I can do it this time.”
The others nod, hesitantly at first, but more enthusiastically after a moment.
“Yeah! We’ve got this.” Thom yells, and even Chou looks perked up.
I collapse again, once more ready to dissolve into a mess of frustrated laughter and tears.
I was so close on the first attempt, but my own elation took me out of the proper mindset and the setback ruined all future attempts as well. I felt like this set of tries had been even worse than the first overall.
I notice I’m breathing very quickly, and concentrate to level it before opening my eyes and looking at Sifu An. His face is reassuring, which irrationally makes me even more angry for a moment, mostly at myself.
“Believe it or not, this is good progress. This is one of the more difficult skills to learn at a baseline; everything else is easy to achieve basic proficiency in even if it does take more time to master. Be patient.”
Sensing that has not assuaged our frustrations; with him, ourselves, and the entire world, he continues.
“I have something just as important but perhaps more enjoyable for you to work on next. When you sleep tonight, employ the dreaming technique you used to access your blocked memories. Avoid delving deeper into your past for now. Too much, too quickly could be bad for you, and they could return en masse if you’re not careful now that the primary block is gone.”
“Instead, just have fun with it. See what you can change, or affect in your dream.”
It does sound interesting, and he’d mentioned this before at the start of our training. Still, I had to wonder what the purpose of this was. As usual, someone else beat me to actually asking.
“Would you mind explaining why we’re doing this, Sifu?” Ran asks politely, still a bit abashed by her earlier outbursts.
“Lucid dreaming is a fundamental technique that helps you hone many related abilities inside of a mindscape. Either your own, or someone else’. It is in many ways the foundation of mental combat, memory manipulation, and a number of other useful skills it wouldn’t be helpful to mention at the moment.”
We all had our own unique looks of confusion that we employed at that statement, but Sifu An did not elaborate.
“Suffice to say that it is an important skill you will be able to gain measurable progress in. Consider it a useful confidence builder and palate cleanser for today’s lesson. Now, to rest.” he orders, and walks out of the courtyard.
I have no idea what to dream about. In the end, I just let my mind wander and see what comes to me.
This is a mistake.
My traitorous mind immediately wanders back to the most distressing thing it can think of. I find myself back in the woods.
This time I view myself from the outside, a reconstructed mental picture leading up to our confrontation, if you can call it that, with the bug men.
I see myself, so small. Though the face is fuzzed out. I don’t remember what I used to look like, and this is no crystal clear recollection of events.
We run, and I wrench my eyes away from our desperate flight. As if the word is taken as a command, I find myself lightly floating above the ground. On noticing it I stop floating, as if I never were, feet firmly planted in the deep piles of leaves. That gives me something less upsetting to focus my attention on, and I gladly take it.
It takes a little practice, but I soon find myself soaring through the air, underneath a bright full moon and a sky full of stars. The vision is only marred by the flames and green haze that cover my old home below me. I concentrate for a moment and the flames fade, leaving me to enjoy the night air, just hanging in the sky with my eyes closed, a sense of contentment washing over me. I feel a faint sense of vertigo as I realize I’m still aware of everything with my eyes closed, and view myself from the outside, and the disorientation snaps me back to my self.
I drift for a while, before coming to a blank. More of a…blur, I suppose. I’ve never been anywhere but my two homes; Hé Biān and its immediate surroundings, and Gao Shansi. I wouldn’t even know what to imagine. Are other towns like Hé Biān? They wouldn’t have the river, surely?
In my studies I’d learned of other places. Vast deserts with scattered, isolated cities. Jungles that span inconceivable miles, inhabited by primitives. Cultures I had a scant knowledge of but no real grounding for understanding them.
As I look down on my old home it occurs to me that my life is very small, especially compared to the world as a whole.
The brief wonder of flying never quite returns, but in its place an excitement takes root.
Outside of Gao Shansi’s walls might be some horrible threat, monsters and unknowable things…but surely it couldn’t be horrible everywhere. And maybe seeing all the things I’ve never seen would be worth the dangers.