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.