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.”