Fall: 18 years at the Monastery, One year after building the Range
Sunar woke to a change in Meesha’s breathing as the first rays of dawn glistened off the mountain tops and the reflected false-dawn lit his eyelids. He lay still and kept his breathing even so as to allow her to leave. They’d said their goodbyes last night: a goodbye that still tingled on his lips. Today was not a day for sentiment, however. Today was a day for trial.
A gentle brush of fingertips on his cheek and she was gone. He smiled inwardly. A last touch goodbye, and letting me know that she knows I’m awake, but that she is respecting the Ritual.
He listened to her pad down the stairs to get ready, and vaulted from his back into the sky as soon as he heard the door close. The rush of wind beneath his wings still filled him with wonder, but the feelings were almost lost in the complex mass of emotions involved in knowing he’d be leaving home – and what he had to do before he left.
I chose this – I chose the Ritual. Master Ikthan would not have faulted me if I’d chosen a more modern form of send-off, no one would. But… he bears the brand, so does Master Thalon. It is their steps I follow out the Gate today, so I may as well do it right.
He made a slow circuit around the meadow, his eyes on the home that had sheltered him – had been his world – for eighteen years. I could stay. I could even be happy here, with Meesha and a handful of kids. Happy after a fashion, anyway: My eyes would be forever turned beyond these walls, and my heart would always wonder what I could have become. Maybe I will return one day, after I have learned, after I have accomplished… something, whatever my heart is leading me to. Master Ikthan did, after all. Maybe Meesha will still be waiting for me then.
He finished his circle and considered doing a set of aerial katas, but decided against it and just did a few moves to stretch and make sure he was limbered up for the task ahead. He then took his favorite position, atop the Gazeebo, and watched the sun rise over the plains below. His doubts and warring desires still nagged at him, so he settled into trance, stilled his mind, and watched dawn light up the mountains an inch at a time.
Shortly after the sunlight hit the Dawn Court behind him, it started; the beat of drums, so slow at first that there didn’t seem to be a rhythm at all. Duthum. Over a minute’s pause, then again. Duthum. A few seconds less pause, and then again. Duthum. The staccato base of large kettle drums reverberated through the Monastery.
He’d never seen this Ritual: it was performed less and less often in modern times. Few monks left the Temple, and most of those who did were not leaving to go questing, and most who intended to go questing felt the ritual to be outdated. Duthum. He looked over his shoulder to see everyone gathering in the courtyard before the main gate, with a space between the crowds and those who stood in the two lines he had to walk between. Duthum.
He raked his eyes, one last time, across his home. It is time. He spread his wings and launched himself down towards the courtyard. Traditionally monks rode the walls down from the heights, but traditionally monks couldn’t fly. Duthum.
The drumbeats came faster, more urgent, announcing his challenge to the world, and the Monastery’s challenge to him.
He timed it perfectly, arriving at the courtyard just as the drums reached a constant roll. He decided to keep with the last of the tradition by landing atop the wall for the Entry Court and sliding down it. As soon as his feet hit the floor the drums gave a final, last, loud DATHUMP! and went still.
Two lines of his fellow monks formed a path from where he stood to the Entry Gate. The lines stood about twenty feet apart, enough space to give everyone plenty of room.
At the end, in front of the gate’s open sally port, stood Master Ikthan. Sunar could see the smoke from the brazier behind him.
Ikthan’s voice rang through the sudden silence. “One of our best wishes to leave us!”
The crowd answered, “Why Does he Go?”
He put a tiny bit of ki in his voice, “To test myself against the world, and to bring some measure of our peace to the world Out There.”
Ikthan answered, “Who do we send forth from our number?”
The crowd replied, “Only our best, who can survive us all.”
Ikthan’s voice rang in his ears, “You, Sunar, believe yourself worthy to carry the Four Peaks to the world? Then walk to me with open hands and prove your worth!”
Sunar saluted with fist-in-hand, and began to walk forward. The drums started again, and kept time with his step.
Shelga came first. She ran at incredible speed with only her hands. I must continue forward. She came at his side, a powerful right-handed at his nose a feign to distract from the left jab at his kidneys.
He brought his hand as if to guard his nose, then grabbed her left hand instead, shifted his weight, and used her momentum to toss her to the ground. He continued to walk.
I must not falter.
Lenar came at him next, wielding a pair of nunchucks. His friend walked at a normal pace while moving the chucks in a complicated pattern. The pattern changed when they got close: one nunchuck sped up and went high over head. His attention went to that chuck for an instant, then he realized the trap and looked down to see the other sail through the air at his feet.
He took a half-step forward, caught the chain with his foot, spun around, and sent it back where it came from. Lenar took an instant too long to react, and found his own ankles wrapped in the weapon.
His friend hit the ground, then looked up at him with a lopsided smile and a shrug as he passed.
I will keep my pace.
He walked a few more steps, and looked to the other side to find Sierra looking away from him. What is that? She is wearing her old tail! No, it is a new one, fit to her size. Why…?
She suddenly turned and ran, an exceptionally sharp-looking sword pointed straight at him. A trace odor came on the wind. Intara extract, painful if injected. But how? He reached out to deflect the sword and suppressed a smile. Of course.
Sierra used his deflection to turn faster and made to bring the sword around, then arrested the turn and whipped her hips in the reverse direction. The tip of her ‘tail’ arced around her, a small needle sticking out from the tip ready to prick him. He moved inside the tail’s arc and caught it just behind the tip.
He stepped back and gave it a hard jerk. A satisfying look of shock crossed his sister’s face as the tail yanked her around and onto her rump. He continued walking.
I will not waver.
Seben had advanced to stand in his path, a mace in each hand. He kept walking towards the dwarf, who simply went to stance and waited.
He entered striking range and Seben just stood firm, so he threw a punch towards his friend’s face. The dwarf brought one mace in to take the blow, and he managed to grab the haft of the weapon instead of bashing his hand against it. The other mace sailed wide and started inwards on a rap shot aimed to crack him in the back of the head.
He put his other hand over Seben’s on the first mace and spun away from the second with all of his might, using the force of the second mace to his advantage. He pulled Seben off balance and the man went crashing to the ground. His friend looked up at him with a toothy grin, nodded, and saluted with a mace.
He walked on, towards the one man against whom he’d never prevailed.
Fear is a crashing wave.
Meesha came at him next, a bladed fan in each hand. She approached from his left, and sent one splayed-open fan to boomerang behind him as she darted in to stab him with the other. He jumped over her to get away from the pincer she’d put him between, but she reached up and managed to graze his calf with a blade.
He kicked, blind, straight back when he landed, and his foot in her stomach let her know he’d guessed her movement right. She let out a breath and folded over his foot. He nodded to her as he turned to continue his walk. She blew a strand of hair out of her face, shot him a glare, then a rueful smile and a wink.
He continued on.
Fear is the file of the mind which sharpens the senses.
Gorshun came next, running in from his right at speed. He felt his friend gathering ki as he ran, but he wasn’t using that ki to go faster. The Halfling threw a shuriken just before he got into range. Sunar watched it fly towards him and prepared to catch it out of the air, then did a pass-through-walls step four feet to his left.
He came out of the between to find Gorshun had done the same. The Halfing now stood on the opposite side of the place he’d been, with a foot sailing through the space he had just vacated.
Sunar swept a foot at Gorshun’s leg, and made contact the same moment that Gorshun’s head turned to face him. His friend’s eyes went wide as his foot came out from beneath him and he fell to the ground on his shoulder. His friend sat there a moment looking bewildered. He soon recovered, looked at him, shook his head, and gave him a half mocking salute. Suanr continued on.
I will ride my fear as a bird rides the gale.
He stepped forward again and another classmate came at him. He caught a swing for his head and used the blow to throw him out of the way. He continued to walk.
I will own my fear, and it will become my strength.
One after another his peers, then his teachers, came at him. He sidestepped, ducked, parried, jumped, and otherwise moved past them. Finally, he stood with one obstacle between him and the Temple gates.
Master Iktan stood with one hand behind his back, the other partially extended with elbow pointed at the ground and fingers pointed at the sky. The master did not move, just stood in the way. He gives me a chance: he will only use that one hand, and maybe his feet. I will do this.
Sunar closed fast and delivered a left-left-right combination strike, which the Master blocked without so much as moving his feet. He came in again, leading with his right hand in a straight punch, but didn’t wait for the Master’s block before he started another punch with his left hand.
Ikthan surprised him by fading away from the right-hand strike while blocking the left. Ikthan’s hand smacked into his left with just enough pressure to push it out of the way, then darted out – already inside his guard – headed right for his chest. He could feel his Master’s ki in the blow: it had enough power behind it to end his walk.
He shifted hard to his right, began a spin on his right foot, and let the blow hit his left shoulder. The force of it blossomed into pain, but he directed the force into his spin and snapped around while his tail sought his opponent.
CONTACT! He felt his tail hit Ikthan’s knees, so he wrapped around them and used the last of his spin to pull as hard as he could while his left hand swept out – with his spin – in a blow with all the ki he had left behind it. Ikthan brought his hand up to block the blow, but even directing most of the force upwards did not save him.
The Master fell sideways, his feet flying out from under him. Sunar released his hold on Ikthan’s knees, and the Master’s hand shot out at the ground. Ikthan did a strange sort of one-handed handspring, and had returned to a standing position by the time he stopped moving.
Sunar stared for a moment: the movement had taken Master Ikthan several steps to the side, and he no longer stood between himself and the sally port in the temple gate.
Master Ikthan gave him tight smile, then saluted with fist-in-palm. He returned the salute, and turned to find most of the temple crowded behind him. All of them saluted, with heads bowed over hands.
He returned the salute, bowed low, then turned to face the gate. A brazier full of hot coals stood between himself and the outside world. The brazier had to handles off to either side of it, all still cast from the same metal. He put his forearms under the handles and lifted the brazier.
Flesh sizzled and faint smoke rose from his arms as he lifted the heavy bowl out of his way, and the handles branded the four dots of the four-peaks temple into his arms. He set the thing down on a stand to the side of the gate, and moved through it.
Beside the gate sat a small sack with the traditional send-off from the temple: three days of hard food, enough coin for two night’s lodging, and a journal book. He picked up the bag and prepared to launch himself into the air, but thought better of it. It is called the long walk, after all.
He slung the bag over his shoulder and did something he had never – in all his years at them temple – done before: he walked to town.