Winter Solstice 2003
AYBE THEY CHOSE ME. Even now, I'm uncertain of that. All I really know is, I was one of the first four beings off their world that the masters chose to train. And the only one to ... what? Win through? Battle my way to victory, like the hero of some action vid?
I suppose that's one way of looking at it.
But whatever, we humans are not the only race that fight. A few, most notably the Brethren of Osest, have eschewed violence completely. And the Soon-i-to appear constitutionally incapable of such an act. But -- out of the Sixty-Eight Known Species -- most have seen conflicts and wars. Most resort to force when there are no options left open. If we each have just one thing in common, after all, it's that we have all had to struggle our way to the tops of our respective evolutionary poles.
Many of those races, consequently, have developed forms of unarmed combat, some of them quite useless to us. We don't have claws, or barbed forearms, or mandibles. And they don't have the same skeletal joints, or nerve centres, or relatively thin skins.
The Krann, however, are a different matter.
I'd been in the Far East for the last five months. Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Hitchhiking and island-hopping. Taking part in every tournament that I could find, and walking away with some kind of purse as often as not. I wasn't there just for the fun of it, or for experience, or ego. Had a definite goal. Lived like a monk. Accepted free food and lodgings whenever it was offered -- which was often, since I had many fans. And by the end of those five months, I had saved enough credit for a ticket to Hastera.
I'd been reading about the planet ever since the age of six, when I'd started karate classes. A martial artist's dream. A whole world of beings built rather like us -- stockier and hairless, sure, with rounded silvery eyes. Who lived to fight. Who had strict codes of honour regarding such matters. And who had developed such a plethora of styles, sub-styles and fusion-styles, there was no way of numbering them all.
Right the way through my teenage years, as I'd progressed from basic Shotokan to Muay Thai, kickboxing, and kajukenbo, I had read, watched vids, watered the small plant that was my dream. It still hadn't withered by my mid-twenties.
So here I was at last, on the ship and on my way. It was eight more months before I met my first Hk'na master.
THE MAIN CONTINENT, SIRTATAT, has many cities, with a feyndor -- dojo, training hall -- on every street. I spent my first six months in the city of Gri'xa, learning maj, a grappling-groundfighting style, before I decided to try my hand at something livelier and moved to Cheness, by the coast. At any one time, there are about five thousand humans training on Hastera, the great majority of them serving military, polishing their unarmed combat skills. All that gung-ho posturing. All that shoulder-slapping and high fives. It just didn't sit well with my attitude to training, so I chose a style the soldier boys would not be too much interested in -- a sport-emphatic striking style called sevan, with the emphasis on high-kicking and speed. I fitted in well at the feyndor there, living in a tiny room above the actual hall, and by the end of two months, many of the Krann students were inviting me out with them. I had been accepted as an equal.
It was a typical Hasteran summer's evening, the heat alleviated by the breeze from the ocean, and the sun, redder than our own, bleeding out across the waves. Myself and my two new best friends, Dedan and Em'm'mo, strolled towards the row of taverns nearest to the shore. Krann buildings look like giant French loaves laid out on their flat sides, full of rounded openings as though huge mice have been at them. Most were packed this evening, and the narrow streets were thronged.
We found leaning room against a bar at a place called -- in translation -- The Storm's End after a while, though. Neither of the Krann would let me pay. Our conversation was of the day's training, the students who'd shown marked improvement and those who were struggling. Engrossed, we didn't even realize anything was wrong, until a hoarse roar came up through the background chatter.
I swung round to see a massive, double-headed axe being lifted above the sea of flat, bald faces.
Not brought down on anyone, thank God. Just brandished.
Dedan set his pitcher down. Em'm'mo grasped my sleeve with his short fingers, drawing me gently back. The two Krann seemed to realize what was happening far sooner than I did.
More weapons, spears, and a halberd-like blade called an ictra became apparent in another moment. And more angry voices added themselves to the first.
My Krannish was limited back then, but I heard obscenities and threats in all that shouting. And the penny finally dropped when I saw a fur-trimmed helmet bobbing closer.
A mob of veszuga had just come into the bar. Outlaws. Or, more accurately, fighters who'd turned renegade. Logically, a stupid thing to do, on a planet where most prepubescent teenagers can break your arms. But the veszuga, usually very skilled themselves, never go around in groups of less than thirty, and their sharp-honed weapons do not leave their sides.
The clientele around us shrank back as the helmet drew closer. Dedan and Em'm'mo drew me with them. We were still wearing the uniform of our feyndor, a common enough practice here, and these renegades loved to pick on the students of formal schools.
There were more than fifty of them, I saw as they reached the counter. And the wearer of the helmet, obviously their leader, was a massive fellow in a yellow cloak, clad in chain-mail armor and with warpaint on his face.
From his lips hung a smouldering stick of eneth, an herb that grew wild round these parts. No respectable Krann ever touches the stuff -- its smoke has a powerful amphetamine effect, and increases aggression.
Several of the characters behind him, I could see, were smoking the stuff too.
There was no one left to serve them drinks, by this juncture. All of the tavern staff had escaped out the back. So three of the armed hoodlums vaulted the counter, and helped themselves and their friends.
Maby of he customers around us had already filtered away, off to alert the authorities, no doubt. But the crowd had been split in two by this sudden intrusion, and a good number of Krann were still trapped up against the far wall, separated from the door. One of them wore the red tunic of a joi'she school not far from ours.
It was this poor fellow that the veszugas' attention turned to now.
The ones nearest the chieftain stared at him a short while, their hands on their hips. Then, one of them stepped forwards, spat. A challenge was issued. And, before the Krann could take in what was happening, he was being dragged in amongst them and roughly shoved around.
He was only small, and wearing a beginner's belt. My fists clenched, my shoulders tensed. I tried to move forward.
Dedan and Em'm'mo held me back.
I turned to protest. A loud slapping noise brought me sharply back around.
The Krann sat on the floor now, blood pouring from his flat nose, the chieftain standing over him and laughing.
Anger took me over, driving sense away completely.
And I was about to yell out a challenge ...
When the trapped crowd at the far side parted for a second time.
FOR JUST ONE FIGURE.
I'd never before seen a uniform like the one that he wore. It was soft and baggy. Armless, like a Southern Chinese outfit.
And it was completely grey. A pale, dove, misty grey, with no insignia at all that I could see.
The belt was pale grey too.
The whole crowd -- veszuga included -- fell completely silent. Still.
To my eyes, there was nothing special in the least about this new arrival.
Average height and build for a Krann. His age, I guessed, about fifty. The only remarkable thing at all about him, save for his dress, was the expressionlessness of his face. As though part of his conscious being was not even there.
He held himself extremely still. Stiller even than the crowd. His round eyes barely seemed to blink.
He just ... stood there.
Several of the younger renegades were by now edging off towards the door.
The chieftain, though, seemed to have been smoking too much eneth to allow retreat. After the initial surprise, he took another pull of smoke. And, his axe out in front of him, advanced towards the figure.
He planted himself in front of the grey-clad newcomer, and snorted.
"Gavan ke narath? Meshuta."
I knew this phrase, a traditional challenge. 'Ask yourself. Is this your day to die?'
The new arrival didn't move a muscle, though his silvery gaze appeared to tighten.
"Meshuta. Meshuta! Gavan ke narath?"
Receiving no answer, the chieftain suddenly swung his great axe back. Then brought it forwards with such speed, I was certain the grey one's head would be completely severed from his shoulders.
But one moment, the newcomer was just standing there, the blade practically on him. And the next, he'd moved out of its range, faster than my gaze could follow.
I thought I saw the blur of an arm reaching out.
Then, there was a hard metallic clunk.
The axe's shaft snapped in two, though how I couldn't tell. The iron head now lay on the floor, stuck into the boards. And the veszuga chieftain held a useless two-foot pole.
He tried to stumble away, his own eyes widening, his mouth coming open in a yell.
And -- once again, too swift to follow -- the grey figure was upon him. Simply ran a hand along his centre line, vertically down his chest.
The chieftain wailed, fell to the ground. There was blood everywhere, by this time.
Two of his drugged cronies reacted to that, coming forwards themselves with their spears. But the grey-clad figure stepped in between both their thrusts. His arms blurred a third time.
Two loud cracking noises sounded almost simultaneously, as the thugs' necks were broken.
The rest of the band piled through the door after that, dropping all their weapons as they ran. And taking most of the remaining crowd with them. My friends hustled me away.
I managed to snatch one last glance of the dead renegade chieftain just as I was bundled out onto the street.
He was on his back now, staring up expressionlessly at the ceiling.
And his chain-mail vest had split open right down the middle, where the grey-clad fighter's hand ran.
"Who was that?" I asked my friends as we made our way back to our feyndor.
They both ducked their heads at first. Seemingly unwilling, or afraid, to answer. But I kept on at them.
"Hk'na master," Dedan said at last. "Not from around here."
He didn't meet my eyes as he spoke, and his voice was very hushed and low.
"Hk'na? What is that? I've never heard of it."
And I thought that I'd read everything there was about the Krann and their martial arts.
"Very esoteric. Very rare. No one talks about it much."
"But -- what that guy did! The way he handled those thugs!"
Both their faces came up at that. Their grip on me tightened.
"No, Lewiskane!" Which is what they always called me, running fore- and surname into one. "Not for the likes of us, or you. Hk'na training is ... highly demanding. More than you could ever imagine. The commitment it requires is ... better not to talk about it. Leave the thing alone."
They were perfectly serious. More so than I had ever seen them.
But I feigned illness the next few days, cut my sevan training to the bone. Went out, asked around town. Hk'na.
Hk'na. What was it? What did it mean? Nobody would tell me that.
Okay, then. But where do you go to learn it?
And by the end of the week, I was on my way again.
HK'NA WAS TAUGHT IN one place only. On the smallest of an island chain on the far side of the planet from Sirtatat. What that particular master had been doing in Cheness was anybody's guess.
But it was at least a thirty-hour journey before the swift airship I traveled on descended -- towards a small patch of green in the blue ocean.
That gave me some more time to consolidate the thinking I'd been doing all week. Trying to understand why I'd never heard of Hk'na until now. Obviously, the practitioners were few in number, and did not stray much. An occasional human might see an occasional grey-clad figure slipping through a crowd, and not find cause to even comment on it.
As to seeing them at work ...? I guessed that almost never happened. The quite obvious reputation that they carried with them? And the wounds that average-looking Krann had dealt out? Who would be stupid enough? The bandits had only tried to fight him because they'd been stoned.
There were no buildings on the island I could see, except for one, at the peak of the highest and most central hill. A massive, smooth white dome, completely unadorned. That had to be the feyndor.
The whole island was wooded; I saw little waterfalls and sprays of bright wild flowers. I was the only passenger to disembark, all of my belongings in a bag over my shoulder.
And, as the ship lifted away again, two motionless figures stood where there had been no one before. Both as deadpan as that first master I'd seen, and in identical uniforms.
Arms folded, they stared at me without expression. They were obviously here to greet me, but I wondered how they'd known that I was coming.
Without uttering a word, they turned their backs to me, and started up along a path, at the far end of which I could make out steps. I hung back for a moment, puzzled.
Then I followed them.
THEY IMMEDIATELY LED ME to a bare cell, smaller even than the one I'd occupied in Cheness. Ushered in.
"Your clothes?" they both said.
They held their arms out to receive them. I stripped down to my underwear.
"Everything. And your ring? And that chain around your neck?"
Slightly bemused, I handed them over.
One of the Krann walked around me, studying me closely.
"That's good. You have saved yourself some initial pain."
He stepped out through the doorway.
"You'll get your new uniform tomorrow," the other one told me.
The door suddenly banged shut. I heard a key turn.
Went up to it. Shouted "Hey!"
But the only answer was their soft footsteps retreating.
I turned round.
The only light in this cell came from a tiny opening high in the wall, completely out of reach. Otherwise, not a single feature. And ... they'd said tomorrow? What was I expected to do until then? It was still only mid-afternoon.
Dusk had passed by several hours before I realized they weren't going to feed me either. And that this small island became pretty cold at night. A chill wind had sprung up, came gusting through that now-dark opening.
What exactly was all this? Some weird purification rite? I scrunched myself into the corner furthest from the draft, huddled up into a ball. And somehow, after a long while of shivering, I fell into a doze.
When the door clanked open again, jolting me awake, it was morning, but not fully light as yet. The same two who'd greeted me were in the corridor outside, one with a grey uniform folded across his arm.
I got up very stiffly, rubbing at my neck.
"What the hell was that about? I'm freezing!"
But they met my anger with the same lack of expression as before.
"There are only two rules here. One, you must obey completely. Two, you may leave any time you like."
They handed me my new garb. Still shaking, I hauled it on as quickly as I could.
It had a bright red belt in place of the grey one.
"There are only two ranks here," the one who'd given it to me explained. "Student, and master. Come, now we train."
How about 'now we eat'? I wondered. I felt as hollow as a sea-shell. But their backs only retreated from me smoothly. Were they trying to scare me off from the outset, make things far too daunting to continue?
Not as easily as this, I immediately decided. I wanted what they had far too badly.
And so, once again, I followed after them.
OUR TRAINING HALL, UNDER the centre of the dome, turned out to be as white and featureless on the inside as it had looked from above. Ten arched doorways at regular intervals led away from it. The floor was of bare grey stone.
There had to be eighty practitioners in here, ranked in six rows. And the first thing I noticed, to my sheer surprise, was that three of them were human. I found out later they'd been training on one of the nearby islands, and had seen a Hk'na master fight a day sooner than I had. Of all the bizarre ...
Or was it? Had they decided they were ready to try humans out?
One of them I didn't know, but by his haircut, I immediately placed him as a military man. He was standing upright, staring straight ahead, like all the others. But there was a bad look of discomfort screwing up his face. Two sections of his right arm were wrapped in fresh white bandages. I remembered what my welcomers had said, about tattoos.
And the other two? I recognized them in a flash.
One was a woman. And her face and figure adorned posters on the bedroom walls of half the adolescent boys on Earth. Sondra Jarre, from Paris. Top-rank action vid star, and an excellent fighter in her own right, holding titles both in boxe savate and taekwondo.
Oh my God, the other. I had always dreamed of being in the same dojo with him. What real martial artist would not? Shaggy-headed, six foot six, one hundred and ten kilos of pure German-Irish muscle. Carl 'The Mountain' Morrison, five times Heavyweight Full-Contact Champion of the World.
I completely forgot all my hunger and my stiffness. Morrison was here!
The rest in the hall were Krann, some of them wearing grey belts, the majority red ones like us human types. Three spaces had been left at the back for myself and my new tormentors.
I took my place, standing straight. There was no sign, as yet, of an instructor at the front.
But everyone seemed to be waiting patiently, and so I did likewise.
Another minute passed before the Krann who was to lead the training finally walked in.
He was rather like the one I'd first seen in the tavern. Medium height and build, and entirely unremarkable, save for his quiet, impassive features.
He walked until he stood centrally in front of us. Then, without formality or signal, the training began.
We followed everything he did. Setting our feet wide apart, bending our knees to adopt a low, arduous horse stance. Opening our arms wide and moving our hands in broad, slow rhythmic motions. After a few minutes, I realized what these exercises were. The equivalent on Earth is known as 'qi gong' or 'chi kung', though the arm movements were different here. It's a health and inner-strength thing, though it has some fighting applications. Harnessing the body's inner energy, the 'chi.' Directing it where it is needed. Opening the routes through which it flows around the body.
These had to be opening exercises, a mere warm-up, and I followed them all patiently enough. But when, after a dozen sequences of them, the teacher repeated the first, my puzzlement started to grow all over again.
Where were the fighting moves I'd seen? How about the rest of Hk'na training?
I wondered how the others were reacting to this, quickly glanced around.
And looked back, startled, at a sudden movement just in front of me, a shadow on the floor.
A moment ago, the Hk'na master had been at the front of the class, five whole ranks away. Now though, he was standing right in front of me, peering at me coldly.
Then, his upper lip curled back.
"Look to the front, Lewis Kane."
He was the only Krann I'd ever met who could say my name right. But that was not what surprised me. I had not as yet told him, or anybody else here, what my name was.
I was painfully aware of being the center of attention by this juncture. Although, naturally, not one of the other students dared to turn their head.
"Sorry isn't good enough. Are you such a moron ape you cannot keep your attention fixed on one simple matter for a short while?"
I felt my cheeks flush, half with anger. And a cruel, delighted smile spread itself across the features before mine.
"You do not like that?" he enquired, bringing his face much closer. "Being spoken to like that? Then try to hit me."
What? I stared back at him blankly. His expression did not change.
"Try to hit me," he repeated, more emphatically this time.
And was this some kind of test?
My mind was full, by now, of what the first greybelt I'd seen had done to those renegades, back in the Cheness tavern. Had it been a fluke, a one-off? Now was the time to find out.
It was obviously no use simply striking at him -- he would be expecting that. So I took a tiny step back, shook my head and raised my palms, as though I were declining his offer.
Then suddenly changed pace and direction, feinting and then lunging at him.
My fist should have at least grazed him.
But it didn't even come close.
In an instant, he stepped off to the side, right out of reach. And in another ...
The instructor moved in again, striking at my hand with just two fingers.
Pain seared down my arm like fire, and I had to clench my teeth not to cry out.
I clutched at my injured hand. Already knew, from past experience, what the damage was. He'd broken one of my fingers. The index, by the feel of it.
Calmly and without remark, he returned to the head of the class. Started demonstrating the moves all over again.
He only looked at me once more after that, but it was a long, hard, challenging stare. The message of which was obvious.
I was expected to continue training.
WHICH I DID. I'VE had about a dozen broken fingers in my career, and the injury in itself didn't bother me too much. The pain died down to a hot throbbing in another five minutes or so, and there was nothing to prevent me from continuing the class.
What did bother me was -- why'd he done it in the first place? I'd known a few teachers before who got rough with their students. Who tongue-lashed them, forced them to work far beyond sensible limits. Even slapped those who offended, or hurt people in the sparring.
But to break an actual bone? I had never heard of anything like it, not even here on Hastera.
The whole mood of the class changed by this time, I could feel rather than see. All of the redbelts, I supposed, were wondering the same kinds of things I was.
Not that, as it transpired, my experience was unique.
Over the course of the next couple of hours, as we repeated the same twelve exercises over and again, the master picked on eight more students for some very small transgression. Injured each.
Each time with an insult first. And then the identical challenge.
"Try to hit me."
One time, it happened right in front of me. A Krann, who'd been doing the third exercise wrongly.
The master's limbs turned into a blur once more. And, this time, broke his wrist.
Five redbelts, including that Krann, walked out of the hall at that point, never to return.
The rest -- all of the humans included, I was pleased to note -- braved it and stayed put.
There had to be a point to all this. I felt positive of that. Though no telling what it was, as yet.
My broken finger had gone mercifully numb by now.
There was little way of keeping track of time, save for a small window in the domed roof. The sky above had turned fully light quite a while ago. And I was wondering for how much longer we'd have to keep doing this. Remaining in this low, wide stance was making all the muscles in my legs burn badly.
And I thought I had my answer when, two repetitions later, all the greybelts suddenly stood upright, began walking to the front. But a couple of the reds who tried to follow received the same kind of treatment I'd had meted out.
The master's challenge had become as ominous as thunder, by this stage.
"Continue!" he ordered us, as the greys filed out of the room.
We were left staring at a blank wall, doing the strange 'chi' exercises like machines.
Every so often, from the opening they'd disappeared through, I could hear the greybelts as they went through what I assumed was their advanced training. The sounds of bare feet scuffling on the floor, or a heavier thump as somebody was thrown or overbalanced -- though never the tiniest moan of discomfort.
Some while later still, there came the irregular clack of wood on wood, the sharper clang of metal. They were practicing with weapons. And, bored and uncomfortable as I was right now, I'd have given more than just a broken finger to see that.
Every once in a while, our teacher would poke his head around the doorway to check up on us. And give out the same punishment, if he saw anything which even vaguely displeased him. I could not look around me, to the sides. But, by what I supposed was midday, almost half the students directly in front of me had given up and left.
I began the sequence of moves for what felt like the thousandth time.
And started noticing something quite peculiar.
I'd done 'chi kung' before, the 'iron shirt' variety which toughens your outer body against blows. Understood quite a bit about the subject. And knew that it was quite common to feel tingling sensations in your arms and fingers, as the exercises did their work.
Now, I was starting to feel a prickling, almost a faint burning pain.
But it was nowhere near my hands. It was around my heart.
And it appeared to grow as I continued. I just couldn't understand it.
"Student Jarre!" The master was back in the room again, and marching to the spot where the vid star was standing. "Do you have a problem? Are you too weak for this class?"
I couldn't see her from where I was, but could hear her voice clearly enough. The first time I'd heard anybody answer this Krann back.
"How much longer do we have to keep on doing this? There are no fighting moves in this stuff!"
My whole body stiffened as I heard him utter, once again, the brief phrase, "Try to hit me."
And the next sound was of the Frenchwoman colliding with the floor, hard.
Though, to her great credit, she just scrambled back up to her feet again.
I met her in the dining hall just after dusk, when we were finally allowed to stop. There'd been a trip to another room, to get crudely patched up, before we had been led in here; my finger was now in rough splints, several hours too late. And Sondra?
The Hk'na master, I was shocked to see, had broken her nose. Her beautiful and famous face now sported plasters and two broad black eyes.
"Bastards didn't even set it right," she mumbled. "I'll have to get it re-done when I'm back on Earth."
My gaze swept across the rest of the group. Out of those that had begun this morning, only half were left. Some, the soldier-boy included, had got their wounds treated first, and then gone on their way.
This was crazy. Crazy. What exactly had I gotten myself into here?
But even as the thought of leaving took hold of me, the sight of that Hk'na master in the tavern came rushing right back. It wasn't just the ambition to fight like that that was driving me now, I realized. However unpleasant all of this might be, I yearned to know their secret.
Morrison came across, introduced himself, and shook hands with us gingerly -- his ribs had been strapped up where they'd been fractured.
"Jesus, I thought I'd been in some tough places, but this...!"
And this from the man who'd spent two years in the notorious Lu-nan Training Camp, just outside Bangkok -- the only westerner to ever last the course.
"Maybe they're just trying to weed us out initially, scare the weak ones off?" I offered.
Morrison just shrugged. We could only hope that was the case.
The strange burning sensation round my heart, I could feel, still hadn't diminished.
A bell sounded. All the greybelts squatted on the floor immediately, and we followed suit. And Krann servants began to circulate among us, passing out large bowls of what appeared to be a dark green, oily soup.
The greybelts tucked into theirs, drinking from the plain earthenware. I raised mine to my nose.
And then jerked my head away. Sondra Jarre and Morrison both did the same, as did a number of the Krann around us. This was like nothing I'd ever smelled.
"Drink!" the master's voice came booming over, though I could not see from where. "It is the only food you'll get!"
And my stomach was reminding me, by this time, that I hadn't eaten since the airship, yesterday afternoon.
I screwed my face up, swallowed as much of the stuff as I could manage in one go. Its taste was even worse than its odor. Bitter and stale and rancid, all at the same time. My stomach was burning now, as well as my heart. I wanted to be ill. My head swam.
But I was led back, alone, to my cell, a short while later, by the same two who had greeted me. And that cold draft hit me as they opened up the door. I couldn't quite believe it. Did they expect me to spend the night in here again?
More than that, as it turned out.
"Your uniform?" said one of them.
I stared back at him incredulously. He held out his arms.
"You may not sleep in your uniform. You may leave if you prefer."
Fierce resentment started to boil up in me. I did as I was asked, though. Undoing my red belt, handing it over. Then stripping the rest off.
The door clanked behind me, plunging me into pitch darkness once more. And I wound up as I had done last night, huddled in the corner, shaking, trying to get some sleep.
Every sensible bone in my body cried out to leave this place. But a new thought, now, was stopping me above all others.
Those who wore the greybelt. They, presumably, had endured all of this. And gone on, subsequently, to fantastic heights.
They were no better than I was. I was quite certain of that. And if they could do it ... so could I.
I would not be put off.
FIVE MORE OF THE Krann students did not show up for training the next morning. What the teacher's violence had not achieved, the miserable discomfort of another freezing night had managed.
Morrison and Sondra were still here though, I was pleased to see.
As before, there was no breakfast. We just got into our uniforms, and started up again.
The Hk'na master began demonstrating exercises. Exactly the same ones as yesterday.
Two more of the Krann students immediately walked out, at that.
And, an hour later, Sondra got into another confrontation with our so-charming instructor.
"You don't like our training here? You don't see its use?" There was a pause. "Then try to hit me."
I don't know exactly what he did to her. But I could hear her limping out a minute later, never to return.
My insides felt heavy, as her footsteps disappeared. Only the fact that I was in the shortened front row by this time, standing right next to Morrison, helped to alleviate my sadness.
I got challenged and hit again halfway through the afternoon. The master fractured a bone in my right forearm this time, and for the whole remainder of that session, going through the moves was agony.
Morrison, I found out in the dining hall, was now sporting a fractured cheekbone, one whole side of his face swollen.
Our eyes met, held, as we squatted down and drank the filthy-tasting soup. Did they really believe that this was going to stop us? we asked silently. It was pretty damned awful, certainly. But we were both professionals, had lived with countless injuries. Part of our vocation. And pain? Mostly in the mind.
To hell with them. Just to hell with this whole crowd! We weren't going anywhere. We'd get our greybelts from them, whatever it took.
It was difficult in the extreme to keep my pride and anger up, however, right throughout my third night in the cell.
And it wasn't even the pain of the injuries that bothered me most.
After a whole second day of training, my heart was burning so fiercely it felt like it might burst.
I SUFFERED ONLY TWO more breaks in the course of the ensuing week. Any more, and I'd probably have had to be hospitalized. One in my ribs, so that it pained me every time I breathed. And the other? A small bone in my foot, where the master stamped on it. Walking, even standing still in that low horse position, just sent waves of torment right up through my leg.
I'd developed a hacking cough, too, from my nights in the cell. And had to have lost nine, ten pounds.
By the end of the week, I was in a mild state of delirium, which was probably the only thing that made the whole experience bearable.
By then, there were only seven redbelts left.
I was glad that Morrison was one of them. If only to assure me, now, that there was someone worse off than myself. He too had four breaks and fractures. However, that was not all the master was doing to us, by this stage. He continually rained blows on us which broke nothing, but felt as though they had. Punches, and fierce slaps and kicks, aimed mostly at our nerve centers, filling our heads with a harsh blinding whiteness, leaving us still giddy and shaken several hours later.
And the big man seemed to be getting the worst of it. Singled out for the lion's share.
And the twelve 'chi' exercises went on. All day. Every day.
Of my various body parts, my heart seemed to be hurting worst of all. It felt, by this time, as though it were being squeezed by some sharp-taloned claw.
I was still alive, though. And still here. I could take it. Keep on going.
There were no mirrors in this place. And, gazing at Morrison in the dining hall that seventh night, I could only wonder if I looked as awful.
He was less than a shadow of the man I'd first met. A shadow's afterthought, perhaps. Hunched over, his soup bowl held gingerly between his swollen fingers, his head bowed. His massive frame was thinner, and he was shivering like a stray dog. Most of his visible skin was covered with bruises.
As I watched, he began coughing, his whole frame convulsing. Had there been internal damage? The coughs sounded wet.
He refused to look at me, or even speak.
Halfway through that next night, however, I was woken by the first sounds I had ever heard since sleeping in the cell. Very, very distant. Echoey. A voice raised in wild babbling.
It was human, but so high-pitched that if you had not known who it belonged to, you'd never have guessed. And it got louder, more insistent, for a while. Until there was the faint clang of a door opening.
The raving stopped.
I pressed my ear against my own cell door, but could hear nothing further.
A new sense of triumph helped to overcome my own coldness and pain. Because I knew exactly what had happened, now.
Morrison, incredibly, had broken.
Morrison was gone.
Even he had not been tough enough to stand the course, become a Hk'na master.
But I was!
THE NEXT MORNING. ONLY two redbelts left, by this time. Myself, and one Krann.
We started the twelve exercises, just as we had done on all the previous days. The burning round my heart was so intense, by now, it overrode even the worst of the other pains.
We kept it up continuously for an hour. Then, without any warning, there was a loud thump from beside me.
The Hk'na master hadn't done it, hadn't moved. Of course, I dared not look around. But a short while later, I could hear bare feet approach, and then the sound of a body being dragged away.
The last of the Krann students had collapsed, his strength giving up on him despite the fact his mind would not. I was the final one left, out of all of those who'd started.
My delight was short lived, though. Because the rest of the greybelts halted their own training then, and formed a ring around me. Watching me impassively, arms folded, as I went through the routine.
What in God's name were they up to now? I struggled to ignore them.
Then, the two who'd dragged the Krann away came back, holding something else.
A huge, smooth, rectangular plate of reflective metal. Which they propped up on a stand, directly in front of me.
I could see myself at last. See what this training had done to me. See what I had now become.
There was almost nothing left to recognize as Lewis Kane. My hair was matted to my scalp, my body filthy. All my ribs were poking through. My limbs were like sticks. And the bruising covered me like a mottled second skin.
I drew to an involuntary halt. Kept on going just in time. Did the first exercise perfectly. The second. Then the third.
I hadn't thought the pain in my chest could grow any worse, but it did.
Keep on ... keep on ... keep on going now.
Then, the greybelts all did something I would never have expected in a million years.
Softly first, then growing in intensity, they all began to laugh at me.
They were pointing. Clutching each other. Their mockery ringing all around me.
I couldn't believe this. But it didn't make me stop.
I hated them now. More than I had ever hated anything in my entire life. I would show them! I was as good as they were. Better than they were! They would have to give me that grey belt!
I just focused straight ahead, on my own ghastly reflection. And ran smoothly through the motions, on and on.
Until, at last, the Hk'na master raised a hand for silence. A hush fell across the others, and they all stood back.
He walked up to me. I was half expecting him to strike at me again.
But when he laid his fingers on my shoulder, this time, it was gently.
"Kneel," he whispered.
I did what he said at once.
He stood over me. Took hold of my chin with one hand. And then cupped the other around the back of my head.
A new fear started to invade me. Never had a real chance to take root.
Because -- the very next moment -- he'd tightened his grip. And jerked my head around savagely to the side.
I heard a sharp, awful crack as my neck broke.
Pure white filled my head for just an instant.
And then ... nothingness.
WHEN I REAROSE, A minute later, I was whole again. All my pain and bruising gone. My broken bones mended. I'd even gone back to my original weight, I could see in the mirror.
And I know what Hk'na means now.
We humans get some things right, even in our legends. Some of which tell how -- if a person dies in enough pain and suffering, in enough humiliation, with sufficient rage -- then his soul does not leave this plane but remains earthbound for all time.
And I know what Hk'na means now.
Another of our legends is correct too. It's the one which tells of creatures who live on beyond their normal span. Who are utterly deadly, can move incredibly fast. And who no merely mortal force can ever hope to conquer.
And, oh yes, I do now know what Hk'na means. The entire point of my ordeal makes perfect sense to me.
It means Undead.
It is two months later, now.
HERE ON THE ISLAND, we take turns training each new batch of students, and this is my first week in that role. As I walk into the training hall, I realize that, of all the redbelts, more than a quarter are human this time. Word has obviously got around of my achievement. I can imagine all the magazines I used to read, filling up with news of Hk'na. And news of myself.
I study them carefully from the doorway. Taking in their stances, their expressions. Apprehension. Fierce determination. Hope.
Feelings that, personally, I can barely recollect at all these days. There is none of that in Hk'na. Certainly no fear. And no compassion.
Most of these people are nondescript enough. But one I recognize, from the old magazines I used to read.
Short and dark and very stocky. Bearing scars on both his cheeks. Bobby Mor„es, Brazilian groundfighting champion and all-round wild man. The scars come from his love of fighting capoiera-style the old way -- like a pair of bantam cocks, with blades strapped to the heels.
As I walk in, his eyes fix on me, looking me up and down. And his lip curls back in a sardonic sneer.
His whole expression seems to say, Man, you don't look like much to me!
So I walk across to him.
Stop in front of him, easily within his reach.
And I say, "Try to hit me."
© 2003 Tony Richards, all rights reserved
Winter Solstice 2003 Issue, Updated January 8, 2003
BLOOD ROSE is Copyright © M. W. Worthen.