Ryk E. Spoor
This was a stupid, stupid idea.
Xavier glanced back. Of course, they're behind me too.
The oldest member of the gang was maybe two or three years older than Xavier; the youngest, maybe fourteen, a year younger. But there were at least fifteen or twenty of them, and only one of him.
"So is this where I say I don't want any trouble, and one of you says 'too bad'?" he said. There was a dumpster to one side. If I can at least get over there, the wall and the dumpster cover my sides. Of course, then I'm cornered and I'll have to beat all of them, or enough so they decide it's not worth it.
But I've got to do it. Otherwise that . . . monster . . . will have won.
"You're trying to be funny. If you just dump everything you've got—and it's enough—maybe we'll all laugh, and you won't have trouble," the obvious leader—a six foot three, heavily muscled boy with pale skin, tattoos, and brown hair down to his shoulders—said.
For a minute he thought about it. They probably won't take my ID, I don't have credit cards. But without the money, how can I get to California? How can I find out what happened?
But the chuckles around the slowly-tightening circle told him that "maybe" was an awfully frail hope for escape. If I get out of this, I'm going back, finding that bastard who told me about this shortcut, and kicking his balls right up into his oversized funny hat.
He was in the corner now, hard blue-painted steel on one side, bricks on the other. He unsnapped the strap, let his backpack fall. For a moment the others stopped, probably thinking he'd decided to give them everything they were asking for.
Well, I'll do my best to give them what they're asking for.
He dropped into a simple front stance and waited. A ripple of laughter went around the group. But the simple pose reminded him of that day, of the last hours he remembered being happy . . .
I can't wait to tell Mike! Xavier thought as he leapt easily off the bus and jogged towards his house. The glittering, heavy golden medal bounced off his chest with each step, and he knew he was showing off, knew that the sparkle off the medal in the late-evening summer sun would draw every eye.
"Mom, Michelle, I'm home!"
His older sister turned, then gave a little scream. "Oh my god, Mom, Xavier's got the gold!"
"Oh, my goodness! Hold on, don't move!" His mother, gold-haired like his older brother Michael, appeared, camera in hand. "Let me get a picture." She took even more photos than Xavier felt were entirely necessary—he could smell the roast chicken that was obviously waiting for his attention. Then she stood back and just looked at him for a long moment; he could see a shimmer of not-quite-shed tears in her green eyes. "Your father would be so proud."
As usual, he didn’t quite know what to say to that. Dad disappeared when I was, what, two? Don't even know what happened to him, some people say he ran off with another woman.
But Mom always talks about him as though he were just about perfect. Finally they were heading to the dining room! And she always ends up comparing me to him because I look a lot like him . . .
He glanced reflexively at the picture—one of only two photos of his father he knew of—on the wall. It did look much like him, sharp angles, a hawklike aspect to the face, and most of all the large, uniquely gray eyes, eyes that seemed to follow you from the picture. Never did like that one much.
But after dinner was the best part of the day. He went upstairs to his room and picked up the phone, dialed the number his brother had given him. Can't wait to tell him . . .
But this time there was an answering machine, telling anyone trying to contact M. T. Ross to call a different number.
That wasn't terribly unusual—as a freelance photographer and sometimes investigative reporter, Mike sometimes had to move quickly. And he did sound a little tense, something he was looking into sounded kind of bad . . .
Still, it didn't worry him as he hung up and started dialing the new number. Mike was as good a fighter as Xavier was, and bigger, tougher, and a lot more experienced. He'd been in war zones, walked through countries in revolution, taken pictures of erupting volcanoes from inside the crater, followed police on major drug busts, interviewed gang members, and walked a mile to the nearest hospital after being knifed in the back by someone from a different gang.
The phone on the other end barely rang before it was picked up. "Xavy?"
"Mike! Stop using that name!" It was an almost standard greeting—his childish nickname was annoying, but Mike refused to stop using it.
"Not a chance." Xavier could hear waves in the background. "You and Mom and Sis okay?"
The question wasn't unusual, but . . . Mike sounded funny. Too serious. "Sure. I have something to tell you."
"I've got something to tell you too," Mike said, and this time he was sure. Mike sounded dead serious, and tired. "But you first."
He shrugged off the phantom concern. "I got the gold in the tournament!"
For a moment the dark tone was gone. "Way to go, bro! I'll bet Shihan was happy!"
"He looked almost happier than I was, I think," he said, grinning again as he remembered Shihan Butler's ecstatic grin. "The team got four golds, six silvers, and six bronzes overall, but I was in the top rank, black belt, and the Japanese were brutal this year."
"But you still took 'em all down. That's my little brother. Congratulations." He was silent for a moment. "Look, Xavier—I don’t want to worry Mom."
That sounded ominous. "What? You're not going into a war zone again, are you?"
"No," he said, then hesitated. "Maybe . . . yes, in a way. I don't know."
"Mike, that doesn't make any sense."
"I've been tracking . . . something. I haven't been giving anyone the details yet because . . ." Again, a hesitation. "Dammit." The voice was hushed now, whispering, and Xavier felt a chill run down his whole body. Mike, the confident, carefree, invincible Mike, sounded scared. "Xavier, it's crazy, but I think I've found actual evidence."
"Evidence of what? Look, I think I should get Mom—"
"Not yet. I have—" he cut off abruptly, and the quality of the sound showed he'd pulled away from the mouthpiece. Where is he? A pay phone?
But Mike was saying something, but not into the phone. "I'm sorry, I'm in the middle of—GOD, NO!"
And then Mike screamed. There was a banging, a smashing rattling noise as of something being hammered against glass and metal.
"Mike! MIKE!!" he was shouting into the phone, but the screaming went on, a shriek of horror and agony that suddenly just cut off.
Xavier halted his own screams, listening desperately to the hushed, rhythmic waves. And then to the lilting, insane laugh, the laugh of someone who had seen something incredibly funny in the death of another human being. A laugh that died away into the wash of the surf, and then, even as he became vaguely aware of footsteps coming at a run up the stairs, a voice, a delicate, sweet voice. "Oh, so pretty, so pretty, the patterns in the moonlight. But oh, such a waste of blood."
His mother was there, staring at him, but he held to the phone with a deathgrip, and there was the unmistakable sound of a hand grasping the phone, and the girl was whispering, "Michael's quiet now. He says goodbye."
And the phone went dead.
"So the kid knows kung fu!" the leader said, and the voice snapped him back to now. The laughter had continued, and now they produced more weapons. Mostly knives, but there were a couple of guns. Forget the guns for now, if they shoot in this mess they're more likely to hit their friends.
Two of them lunged forward then, knives out. Xavier didn't bother to try the fancy trick of kicking the knife out of the hand; he simply moved slightly aside, caught and twisted the arm as it went by, and at the same time kicked sideways and down. He felt his gut tighten, nausea rise as he felt the knee break, cartilage and bone bending sideways with a green-stick crunch and a scream. Sorry, Shihan, I'm using what you taught me to hurt people. He knew self-defense was allowed . . . but this was still horrid.
No time to think, just do. He continued the spin and twist, brought the other boy's arm farther up, heard the pop as he dislocated the shoulder. I am going to puke after this, if I live through it.
But there were others already coming in. He tried a kick, caught one in the groin, but he was wearing something, a hard cup, kick probably hurt but not enough, the others are coming, block that strike, got to get away, maybe up—
He tried to leap to the top of the dumpster, but the one he'd kicked in the groin caught his leg, slammed him down. Xavier tried to roll but there were two others already on him, kicking, pounding. He felt a rib snap, knew the pain would hit as soon as his body realized what had happened. Then a new pain, a cold-flaming pain sliding through his gut, and he realized with dull horror that he'd been stabbed. They picked him up, threw him down, tumbling half-conscious and in agony across the filthy pavement, and as he twitched, trying to find some way to get control of his body, he saw the leader raise his gun. "Bye-bye, karate kid."
The voice cut through everything, even Xavier's foggy consciousness.
Standing at the far end of the alley was an old man. He was tall, with white hair that fell so it covered much of his face, and thin within the simple black shirt and pants he wore. He stood in a strange pose, arms parallel across his body, almost as though he had stopped in the midst of folding his arms.
"Enough?" The leader spun, pointing the pistol at the newcomer. "How about enough of th—"
And without so much as a pause, the old man was there, taking the gun from the leader's hand in a single motion. "I said that is enough."
"What the—take this asshole down!"
Xavier could not see—could not grasp—what happened next. It was a blur of motion, grunts of pain, screams, curses. But then two or three people ran past him, fear as plain across their faces as skywriting, and he could see, in his dimming sight, the old man standing above the unconscious—or dead—bodies of all the rest.
The man walked past the sprawled bodies and bent down. "What is your name, son?"
"X . . . Xavier . . ." he managed, hearing a faint gurgle. They must have hit a lung as well as my gut. I'm a dead man. And I've failed. "Can't . . . die . . ."
"All things can die," the old man said, and his arms slid under Xavier, lifting him so easily that it felt almost like floating. "But not you, not today."
Xavier blinked himself slowly awake. A room he didn't recognize. Carefully fitted stonework, painted in a pattern of sunset colors that made the room feel warmer, comforting. A soft bed under him, one that smelled new-washed. His head was slightly elevated, and looking ahead he could see the wall, also of stone with a polished wooden door—currently closed—in the center.
Just tightening his gut in preparation for sitting up warned him that was a terrible idea. A wash of sharp, ripping pain screamed at him to lie back down! He did so immediately; his training with Shihan had taught him to listen to what his body told him, and there obviously wasn't any emergency right now that justified taking chances.
For a moment he wondered if the last memories he had were some kind of dream or illusion. But if they were, how had he gotten out of that attack alive? No, it had to be real, ridiculous though it seemed.
The door opened silently, and the old man came in. He glanced over at Xavier and nodded. "Awake already, I see. You recover quickly, Xavier." He put down a tray which held a pitcher of water, a cup, and a bowl. "I will help you sit up, and then you can have some broth. Your insides are not yet ready for much else."
As the old man helped him up, Xavier noticed the IV drips in his arms. "This . . . isn't a hospital, but you've got IVs?"
"Such equipment is not hard to get, if you know how."
"Did you . . . sew me up?"
"I did." The old man frowned, putting deeper lines in his mahogany-colored face. "Such wounds are very dangerous, and demanded immediate attention. I have also made sure your rib is properly set, reinflated your lung, and attended to your other injuries."
"Are you . . . a doctor?"
He smiled. "I am. And other things as well." He picked up the bowl. "Now, let's see if you can hold this down."
Xavier didn't like being fed by someone else, but he liked pain less; moving his arms hurt the rest of him, although his arms themselves seemed fine. It was a pretty good broth. "That's . . . homemade," he said. "Not packaged bouillon."
"Your sense of taste, at least, is not dulled." Another smile. "Your mother cooks well, I take it?"
"She does, Michelle does, I do okay, and when Mike's home he . . ." He found he couldn't go on; once again, the realization that his big brother was never coming home again had ambushed him in the middle of a thought.
"Mike? A brother? Did something happen to him?" The man's voice seemed to hold genuine concern and interest.
Xavier opened his mouth, closed it, shook his head. "Sorry. It's nothing you need to worry about, sir."
"I apologize. As long as it has nothing to do with why you were in that alley, nearly nine hundred miles from home, you are correct, it is nothing for me to concern myself with."
Xavier winced, then his head snapped up. "How the hell do you know where I live?"
The dark-skinned hand pointed. Xavier saw his backpack lying there against the wall. "You carried more than sufficient identification, including your address."
"Er . . . yeah. Sorry." He looked away, then back. "Why would it matter?"
"I have saved your life from a rather unusual and perilous situation. Even traveling alone I would have expected a young man of your age and apparent social standing to have taken a rather different route out of Chicago."
He grimaced, swallowing another spoonful of broth the old man offered. "Yeah, I should have. But I'm mostly walking and hitching to save my money. This other old guy said you could get to a good road for walking that way."
His benefactor raised a white eyebrow. "He did? Interesting."
"Interesting enough that if I ever see him again I'll kick him somewhere painful. And you still didn't answer my question."
"Not entirely, no," the man agreed. "Because, in short, I would hate to have saved a life that is to be thrown away immediately afterwards. Where are you going, son?"
Xavier looked at him, then shook his head. "Sir . . . look, I'm not really ready to talk about it."
The white hair combined with mustache and beard made it harder to read his benefactor's face. The man merely studied him for a long minute while Xavier took a few more spoonfuls. The eyes behind the hair glinted green, a startling color in that dark face. "I suppose you can take your time, Xavier. You won't be moving for a while. I can make sure you recover, but those kind of wounds are slow to heal for even young men like yourself." He smiled suddenly. "Even young men who are in excellent shape. You acquitted yourself quite well in that confrontation."
"Well? I only got two of them, maybe messed up a third. You . . . Damn, sir, I thought I'd seen people who knew how to fight, but I don’t think even Shihan could have done that."
"You know him?"
He smiled again. "He is . . . quite well-known in the profession, and knowing where you came from, it seemed most likely. I have met him a few times, yes, some years ago. You have great fortune in having him as a teacher."
Xavier nodded, and finished the last few spoonfuls of broth. "He taught me and . . . and Mike. Mike was way ahead of me there, though, he could've been on the track for champion, which is one reason it makes no sense . . ."
"Ah." The white head nodded slowly. "No accident, but murder, then."
Xavier suddenly felt confused. What the hell am I doing here? How can I do what I have to do if a few punks . . . He looked up. "The police aren't going to find his killer," he said, as the old man began to stand, taking the empty bowl away.
The head turned, a white eyebrow raised. The man slowly seated himself again "Aren't they?"
"I don't think so." He realized he was committed now; if this man wished him harm, he could simply have let the gang finish him. Why not trust him? He had to tell someone. "I remember when I told them how my brother died . . ."
" . . . and that's all I remember, ma'am." Xavier felt numb, exhausted and every feeling except dull rage gone.
Lieutenant Reisman nodded sympathetically. "I'm sorry to have to put you through that again," she said, "but Morgantown PD is trying to do this so that—hopefully—you don't have to get flown out to L.A. to testify." She looked at him with an analytical gaze. "Are you up to a few more questions—ones you've probably heard before?"
"The voice—are you sure it was a woman?"
He thought about it. "Yeah. I'm sure. I could be wrong, but I'm sure, if you know what I mean."
She smiled. "Yes, I know exactly what you mean, and I wish more people could say things that clearly. You mean that your gut says it was a woman, even if you could imagine a man sounding like that."
"Yes, ma'am, that's it exactly."
"You mentioned your brother was on edge, more nervous lately, and that he said he had 'evidence.' Do you know what he had evidence of?"
He'd been going over that in his head for hours. "No, I'm sorry. All I know is . . . it can't have been anything ordinary. I mean, drugs or smuggling or something like that, he'd run into all that before, but whatever this was, it was weirding him out somehow. I never heard M . . .Mike so . . ." and the tears were trying to start again.
The police lieutenant put her hand on his shoulder. "Sorry, Xavier. Look, that's enough, I think." She shut off her recorder and straightened up. "We'll find the person who did this. I promise."
"But they didn't. Weeks went by, and eventually they found some guy, drug-related gang, and said he was the one who did it." The anger and bitter, acid disappointment rose in him again. "They said Mike had a history of investigations into drug-related crime, and okay, yeah, he did, but anyway they said somehow the cartel had figured out he was onto them and killed him."
The old man's eyes flashed green again from beneath his hair, but he said nothing for a moment. Finally, "But you don't believe they got the right man. He denied it?"
"No," Xavier admitted grudgingly, knowing how that sounded. "He confessed. Exactly the story they said it was, and he was going to testify about the rest of the gang. Found hanged in his cell before that happened, of course."
"Hmm. Still, he did confess to that crime. Why do you feel so certain this man is not the guilty party?"
Xavier started to reply angrily, but then it penetrated that his benefactor wasn't arguing; he was asking, quite seriously.
"I . . . a lot of little things. Partly it's just that I'm sure that was a girl I heard. Not some guy six feet two and two hundred pounds. And what the person said, that just didn't sound like someone doing a killing for a gang would do. Hell," he said with a small smile, "I just found out what a gang might do when they're killing someone."
The old man nodded seriously. "Go on."
"Umm . . . well, there was Michael's reaction. Before . . ." he didn't let himself start crying this time, but it was a close thing, " . . . before he screamed, that is. If some big guy had come towards him, while he was on a pay phone trying to avoid a drug gang, he wouldn't have been all casual about it. But he sounded like he was just trying to tell someone that he was busy on the phone—like maybe he thought this girl wanted to use the pay phone. He didn't sound like he thought this person was a threat until, well, they pulled out whatever weapon they used on him."
Xavier realized his eyelids were starting to droop. "Jeez, I'm tired. But there's other things . . . like, um . . . well, Mike wouldn't just scream like that if someone ordinary cornered him . . . plus Mr. Wood said . . ." It dawned on him that he was getting disjointed. "Sorry, I think I'm checking out."
"You should have gone to sleep some time ago," the old man said with another smile. "Strong will must run in your family. We'll finish talking, later."
Xavier tried to protest, but somewhere in the middle of that, sleep ambushed him.
The room seemed warmer and brighter when he woke up, and the pain in his stomach was of hunger, not the lingering agony of being stabbed. Cautiously, he tried sitting up. Hurts a little . . . but it's a lot better. In fact, it's a lot lot better than I'd have thought. Wonder how long I slept.
He was tempted to try to get up, but he restrained the impulse with a reminder of discipline. Don't want to undo anything that's been fixed so far.
The door opened and once more the old man came in, as though he knew Xavier had awakened. "How are you feeling?"
"A lot better. Better than I thought I'd feel."
"You slept a very long time, and I've been treating you to maximize your recovery." Xavier did not miss the fact that this didn't actually tell him a thing about how the stranger was treating him. "If you are hungry, I will give you something. It appears you sat up on your own, so perhaps we will even let you walk a bit afterwards—and go to the bathroom on your own."
Thinking back, Xavier could vaguely remember a few times where he was awakened, at least one of them involving a bedpan. He winced. The idea of some stranger helping him go to the bathroom really bothered him. "Yeah, let's do that."
"First, we'll see how well you handle your food."
It was food this time, of a sort anyway—pureed stuff, mostly. But it wasn't just clear liquids, and that bothered Xavier. I was stabbed in the gut. That should take a while to heal enough that anyone wants me putting something even vaguely solid through it.
On the other hand, again, this guy clearly had saved his life and seemed to know what he was doing; Xavier had absolutely no doubt he'd have been dead even if the gang had decided to leave him alone after that wound. So he ate, and felt that vague shakiness of someone who hasn't eaten for a long time fading away. The old man waited patiently until he was done.
"Do you remember what we were talking about before you slept?"
"Why I didn't think that guy killed Michael."
"Clearheaded enough. Do you need to use the bathroom?"
"Very well. Then let us go on. Were there any other reasons you can recall?"
Xavier tried to remember where they'd left off. "For me I guess the clincher was when they sent Mike's stuff back to us. He used to keep a lot of stuff on his laptop, but he also took notes in paper notebooks. He showed me how he organized his stuff before, and one habit he had was that he took down each major investigation or job in a fresh book, and then copied things into electronic files afterward.
"Well, there wasn't a current notebook. The stuff they found on his body didn't include it. And the notes on his laptop talked about other jobs he had, but nothing about a current investigation on his own."
"Ah. You mean that he had other freelance work?"
"Yeah. Mike was in pretty good demand, so he always had jobs on for someone."
The old man nodded. "And that meant, of course, that there were entries of work being done—no obvious gap of time in which he was not working."
Xavier felt a rush of gratitude at the fact that the old man seemed to be taking him seriously. "Exactly, sir. But I just couldn't believe it all, so I took the machine to this guy who lives near us and runs an information service and I paid him to have it checked out.
"So Mr. Wood comes back and says that in his opinion someone did a lot of erasing. He couldn't recover much but he found enough to tell him that there were a lot more notes on the drive during the last four months than we found." He looked up. "Er, I need to go to the bathroom now."
The old man helped him get up; it hurt a lot, but Xavier didn't feel that sensation of something ripping, or about to rip. The door on the lefthand side of the room opened into a large and elaborate bathroom—what Xavier guessed were literally marble floors, hand-cut stone counters, décor he'd only seen on television. This guy . . . he's either rich, or he's got a serious bathroom obsession.
A few minutes later he came out under his own power and sat back down on the bed. He decided not to lie down yet, even though his gut ached, and so did his chest now. "I asked Mr. Wood to see what he could find out about Mike's last few months, and he found out a lot of interesting things. Like there were a lot of big gaps in his location—he was mostly around Los Angeles, yeah, but Wood had a hard time tracing exactly where and what he was doing. In his opinion, that meant that either Mike was being real covert, or someone was covering their tracks, or both."
"Getting a professional to do that for you must have cost something."
"Cost a lot, actually, yeah. And at that point Mr. Wood said I needed to go hire a professional investigator, because it was getting too much like a criminal case for him." He took a deep breath, ignoring the pain. "And then I found the pictures. He had one of those miniature digital cameras, a Lumiere SilentShot 2100, and that wasn't on him when he was found—but I was trying to . . ." he suddenly found himself unable to speak, and his eyes stung again.
Breathe. The pain helped this time. "I was trying to salvage his coat, you know, it was something I might be able to keep, and when I was trying to work the stains out I felt something hard. It was a memory card for the camera. He'd shoved it into a hidden pocket I hadn't seen and I guess whoever killed him hadn't seen it either. The card was mostly empty . . . but it had three pictures on it. Pictures of a girl I'd never seen before, still don't know who she is, but I can recognize buildings and things around her—and the timestamps are from the day he was killed."
"You brought this evidence to the police?"
"Yeah," He grimaced. "Lieutenant Reisman agreed with me that it looked funny, but the L.A. police felt they'd closed the case and no one wanted to reopen it." He shook his head, and he couldn't keep the fury out of his voice this time. "They were going to let that monster who killed my brother walk, they didn't even care that she was still out there, that she'd laughed right in my ear when she killed him! Didn't care that my mom was like a total wreck and my sis wasn't much better, that I couldn't . . . couldn't even . . ." he stopped, tears of rage once more on his face. "So if they weren't going to do anything, I was going to."
"I see." The old man looked at him for a while, then stood, offering his hand. "Let's walk a bit before you lie down again."
Xavier found walking was painful, but he was curious about this guy's home. Through the main doorway there was a wide, carpeted hall, going in a gentle curve in both directions. They walked slowly, coming to another door every so often; sometimes his host would stop and open one of them, letting Xavier get a glimpse. The kitchen was brightly lit, white countertops and stainless steel and efficiency glittering on every sparkling edge, with multiple appliances spaced across the counters. There was a separate dining room, actually smaller than the kitchen; Xavier guessed that this guy didn't have many guests. Another door opened to show a library—a real library, which extended so far that there were actually three separate doors at widely spaced intervals leading to it. Those doors were all on the left; when he saw a door on the right, it was clearly an elevator.
Something was bothering him about the setup, though. The old man seemed to notice, because he smiled. "What have you noticed?"
What is it? he asked himself. Something about the rooms seemed . . . off, as though there was some essential feature missing. But what feature would you expect to see in all the different—
"Windows. You don't have a single window anywhere here."
"Very good, Xavier. You are observant."
"You still haven't told me your name, either."
"That, also, is true. I have been pondering that for quite some time."
"Pondering? What's there to think about? What should I call you?"
"A name can mean many things," he said. "My question to you is quite simple: when you are well, what do you intend to do?"
"Finish my trip. Hopefully with fewer stabbings this time."
"I see. If I understand you correctly, you have set out—yourself—to find your brother's killer and bring her to justice." The man was looking at him with a quizzical expression on his face, one eyebrow raised in amusement.
The flippant phrasing stung. "Well, no one else will!"
"Perhaps not. Still, allow me to put it this way: you have disappeared from your home to seek this revenge, leaving your mother and sister doubly bereaved, to hunt down a person—or, more likely, persons—whom your brother was still tracking, and about whom there was some secret that made your brother disbelieving, nervous, or even afraid. You are doing this on your own, with no help or backup, and if you are successful, you will be confronting someone who managed to kill your brother—who, you yourself imply, was a more formidable man than you are—with apparently little effort at all. Have I described the situation correctly?"
Xavier found himself simultaneously infuriated at this old bastard's coldhearted summary and appalled at himself. What the hell have I been thinking? Mom's going to be going crazy! 'Shelle too!
He sagged against the wall, the pain in gut and chest trying to take over. "Yeah. Yeah, you have, and I'm such a moron. I . . . I guess . . . I guess I'll have to go back."
The old man nodded slowly. "But can you?"
Xavier thought about going home, admitting what he'd done . . . staying home. And his gut twisted, this time for nothing having to do with being stabbed. "I guess I could. But . . . I can't stand the idea that she's going to walk. I can't! I hear that laugh every night! She thought it was funny!"
Another nod. "So you would destroy yourself in the process if you were to return without having at least finished the effort."
Boy, that makes me sound like some obsessive psycho. But—well, yeah, maybe I am. "Maybe I'd be okay. People get over stuff like this, don't they?"
The man sighed, and suddenly he did look old—not just white haired, but ancient as though the whole world weighed down on him. "Some do, Xavier Ross. Others . . . others can only 'get over' it by finishing the job they begin. I said to you that I did not want my work wasted. Tell me as honestly as you can: if I bring you back to your home, will Xavier Uriel Ross find his way to healing?"
Xavier wanted to say he would. He thought of his mother, and sister, and wanted to be back home with them so much it hurt. But he thought of just going back to school, of letting that past go, and that high, delicate laugh echoed through his head and he felt his teeth grind, his stomach boil, his chest and gut scream as he tensed. "I . . . I don't know. I don't know, sir, I really really don't."
The old man looked at him for a long moment, then extended his hand, helped Xavier to stand fully upright again. "So it has to be, then. You have asked what you shall call me."
He turned, and his back was once more straight, the white hair cascading down in perfect verticality. "You shall call me Sensei."
"Er . . . what?"
The man was leading him down the hallway. "You will not be yourself unless you see this through. Yet even you now realize that you have set yourself on a course that cannot help but end in death, the way you are now.
"So the only choice is that you become the weapon you wish to be, Xavier Ross. You must become more deadly than your brother, faster, more capable than he was or ever could have been. You need to pass into secret places without being seen, learn truths hidden even from your police, and in the end you must be able to trace through those truths to the ultimate confrontation that you seek—and survive that confrontation—before you can go home again."
The two were in the elevator, going down, and Xavier felt a chill as he stared at the mysterious old man. He suddenly realized there was something much stranger going on than he had ever imagined. "You . . . you know who she is, don't you?"
"I do not know. But your story gives me reason to suspect not who she is but what she is, who she serves and why, and how a young woman of such slight stature could so easily overpower and kill a man such as your brother."
The elevator had two sets of doors, Xavier realized—one on the side by which they had entered, another opposite those, like some he'd seen in hospitals. The second set opened as the old man finished speaking.
Xavier stared, openmouthed. It was clear that the hallway's curve encircled this entire area, a single cylindrical room that was over a hundred feet across and a hundred high. The center was dominated by a slender column that rose three-quarters of the way to the ceiling and ended in a wide, flat platform whose top he could not see. The column seemed covered by projections of metal and glass and wood.
The rest of the room was filled with equipment—barbells and weightlifting machines, balance bars, vaulting horses, climbing projections on the walls, a complex wooden sparring dummy, sandbags, practice mats, racks of wooden swords, poles, other weapons, some of which Xavier didn't even recognize. There were real weapons, too, glittering with steel edges or unpadded, polished wood, a set of the plum flower or Mui Fa Jong poles, other equipment more exotic than anything he had ever seen. "Holy . . ."
"I did not find you by accident, Xavier Ross," the old man said quietly. "The one who sent you down that alley knew precisely what he was doing. He intended you to be caught by that gang—not because he intended you to be killed, but because he knew that the confrontation would draw my attention, that I would intervene."
Now Xavier transferred his stare to the old man. "You . . . you know who that guy was?"
"Know, yes, and I also know he would do no such thing without pressing reason. He saved your life, albeit in a most . . . roundabout and painful manner. I know this, and I . . . owe him certain favors.
"So here you will stay, Xavier Uriel Ross, until you are ready to continue your quest . . . or until you find enough inner peace that you find you can let that quest go."
This is . . . a storybook moment, Xavier thought, and wondered wildly if he was going to wake up in a minute, with Michael alive so he could laugh at the ridiculous fantasy. But another part of him knew it was real, very real indeed, and that terrified him, because if stories like this came true, the world was something much scarier than he'd ever imagined.
But the old man was waiting, and Xavier knew why. He swallowed, knowing that in a way the decision had been made a long time ago, the moment that someone laughed into a phone with blood on her hands. "Yes, Sensei."
Fifteen . . . sixteen . . . seventeen . . .
His arms quivered, his back ached, and his gut—especially the still-tender cut—seemed to be on fire. But I'm not giving up yet . . . three more . . .
At the twentieth push-up he let himself collapse face-first, breathing hard. I used to be able to do fifty of those in a row, at least, on a bad day.
"You are doing well," Sensei said.
Xavier rolled over to face the mysterious man. "Glad you think so. That was pretty pathetic, I think."
Sensei chuckled. "Despite the treatment I have given you, most people in your position would probably have given up after one or two." He looked off into the distance, as though thinking. "Are you able to get up?"
Xavier forced himself to sit up, stand, trying to look as though it didn't hurt, that his arms didn't feel like they were made of rubber and his knees didn't want to buckle like a cheap end table sat on by a St. Bernard. "Sure."
"Then come with me."
His legs slowly steadied as he walked across the floor of what he thought of as a dojo, following Sensei. But it's not exactly a dojo. Not a traditional one. It's different.
The room wasn't even round, as he'd originally thought. It was a septagon, a seven-sided shape a hundred feet or maybe more across. And some of the symbology in here . . . doesn't look like anything I've ever seen before.
His Sensei wore an outfit that was similar to a gi or other light training robes, but subtly different, and again not like anything Xavier had seen before. He was also barefoot and appeared to stay barefoot most of the time unless he was venturing outside.
They stopped near the towering central column, studded with points and edges and rings and pendants of glass, metal, and crystal; Xavier found an area wide enough to lay his hand flat on, pushed; the column swayed slightly, tinkling along its length like crystal raindrops falling. "What do you want to show me, Sensei?"
"I have been thinking a long time about what I must teach you, and how, and how to be sure we reach a clear end to your training," the old man said after a moment. "Were you simply here to learn, we would have all the time of our lives to take in the teaching. But you have both enemies and family waiting for you, and so we cannot take forever or even half of forever to train you.
"So I must . . . specialize your instruction, customize it to give you the skills you will need, even if it skips over aspects of the training I would prefer covered under other circumstances. Those abilities you need will be several; the ability to be unnoticed, the skill to pass where locks and guards would bar your path, and the ability to strike down even those things which ordinary weapons cannot harm."
Xavier shot a glance at Sensei, but there was no sign of a smile. "Sensei? What . . . things?"
"Things that live in the shadow between reality and fantasy," the old man answered after a moment, looking at the column as it finally stopped swaying. "Surely you realized, when you agreed to stay here, that the world you knew was not the whole of the truth."
He hesitated, but . . . "I think I realized that when Michael died."
Sensei studied him for a moment. "Yes, I suppose you did, in your heart. You sensed something, and it was that wrongness, at least as much as the voice of a girl-child, that told you the police had not found, and probably could not find, the killer of your brother."
Yes. Xavier didn't speak; the subject was creeping him out.
"Call them monsters, Xavier, or demons. Werewolves and vampires, ghosts and basilisks, things that are perhaps weaker than they once were, but still hide themselves behind the shadows of the mind and away from the eyes of daylight."
"Michael was killed by . . .?" He remembered Mike's last words, the ones that hadn't made much sense. " . . . it's crazy . . . but I think I've found actual evidence . . ."
"I think so. Given where it happened, how he died, what you heard . . . yes. And so you need the ability to hurt that which cannot be hurt by ordinary weapons. You need to become a weapon that can hurt them." Sensei gazed up the column. "At the same time, we need a way to tell when you are done." He pointed up. "This will be your . . . graduation exercise. You may attempt it at any time."
"I have to climb to the top?" Xavier looked uncertainly at the spiny column. It looks like a magnified view I saw once of a nettle stem—covered with so many sharp points that it looks almost fuzzy!
"Not merely climb," Sensei corrected him. "You must climb it noiselessly, reach the very top, and retrieve what I have left there. When you can do that and I do not know you have done it until you present what you have found to me, then I will know you have mastered everything I can teach in our time here."
Xavier stared at Sensei, then at the column. It sways when I touch it, and it's covered by noisemaking things! "I . . . Sensei, I don't think that’s possible."
Sensei smiled at him—a startlingly gentle smile, not one of annoyance or superiority. "I know, it does sound quite ridiculous. Yet . . ."
Sensei closed his eyes, took a breath, opened them . . . and stepped up and began climbing. His hand gripped a bladed edge of diamond; his foot stepped up, rested on a sharp steel projection like a steak knife on its back . . . and he climbed.
The column did not sway; it moved not a hair's breadth. The white-haired man continued swiftly, confidently, up the column, and there was hardly a whisper of any sound, just the faint, faint hiss of cloth on cloth. He climbed around the column, disappeared for a moment . . . and then appeared atop the platform, looking over the edge and down.
How . . . I've seen that platform many times now. It goes all the way around, sticking out something like eight feet in all directions! Was there a trapdoor or something? There's no way to climb up without using a trapdoor, the underside is just smooth wood, nothing to grab onto!
He ran around to the other side to see if Sensei would come through a hidden trapdoor . . . but in a moment Sensei reappeared from the first side, climbing down as easily and silently as he'd ascended, and Xavier was absolutely certain that there couldn't be a trapdoor hidden in the part he'd been just looking at.
Xavier stared as the old man dropped the last foot or so. "How?" he said, finally.
Sensei's smile acknowledged the simplicity of the question addressing something that was hardly simple. "You will learn how, in time," he answered. "This martial art is called Tor, and it can take lifetimes to master. I . . . believe I can teach you some very advanced techniques much faster than any lifetime, even though it will of course leave . . . gaps in your education.
"But before we can do that, you need to learn mental discipline and focus—learn it at a level you have never before imagined."
"Shihan Butler said I was very good at such things." He wasn’t bragging, he hoped. Shihan had often complimented him on this.
"Good. Then I hope that you will be able to master this discipline soon." Sensei pointed to the mat, and Xavier sat down. "Look at your hand."
Xavier did. His hand looked as it always did—slender, long-fingered, skin that his mother had always described as coffee with not nearly enough cream, some hairs growing on the back, faint veins. On the other side, creases from long use, calluses (there were some of those on the knuckles, too), the swirls of fingerprints. "All right."
"Now close your eyes." Once he had done so, Sensei said, "Now, without opening your eyes, tell me how many hairs are visible on the first joint of your index finger."
"What? Um . . . I dunno. Twenty?"
"Seventeen," Sensei said. "Look and count."
Xavier did. Seventeen. "You've got good eyes."
"My eyes are little, if any, better than yours," Sensei answered. "What I have are trained perceptions. This is the first—and to many students of Tor, one of the hardest—exercises in training those perceptions. It is called Hand Center, and in it you will look at your hand and practice visualizing your hand until you can visualize it in perfect detail in any position, so that were a photograph taken from your memory and compared to the hand before you, there would be no visible difference."
Xavier glanced at Sensei doubtfully. "Well . . . okay, but what's the point?"
"There are two major points to this exercise, Xavier," the white-haired old man answered. "First, a test of discipline. If you can manage that level of focus and dedication, you will find that other similar tasks of focus become far easier, and will have proved—to yourself as well as to me—that you are capable of the immense feats of personal focus that will be required to achieve your goals.
"Second, to understand such perspectives with pure accuracy gives you a view of the reality that surrounds you that few others will ever have; you will be able to visualize not merely your hand, but eventually your body and surroundings, with a detail and accuracy that will seem to others to be supernatural. Counting the hairs on someone else's hand that you have seen at close range many times will seem utter child's play to you." He grinned. "But you will be cursing the tedium of this meditation for a long time before you unlock its secrets."
Studying my own hand until I have it memorized—at that level of detail? Yeah, you're right there. But he had no doubt that this strange old man knew exactly what he was teaching, so . . . did Xavier have any choice? "All right," he said, and settled himself down more comfortably. "I guess I'd better get started."
Xavier opened his eyes. His hand stood out against the light, exactly where it had to be to block the pinpoint-bright lights he'd set out, one light with each of his five fingertips. The shining light picked out exactly the number of hairs he had imagined, standing up in exactly the way he had been sure they would.
With a whoop of joy, he leapt up. "I did it!"
Sensei stuck his head into the room. "Did what?"
"I think I've got it! Hand Center! I mean, I really think I do!"
Sensei's eyebrows rose. "Really? If so, that's . . . astonishingly fast. Gratifying, but still . . . let us test that."
Xavier closed his eyes as directed and felt Sensei take his hand. "Now, I am going to move your hand in various ways and ask questions about what you would see."
He felt his fingers being gently repositioned. "Now?"
He laughed. "I'm giving the classic peace sign—first and second fingers forming a V. The way you're holding my hand, I can see the back of my hand."
"How many creases are visible on the first joint of your pinky finger?"
"The way you're holding it? None. I can't see the pinky from that angle, it's folded down."
"Describe the creases on your index finger."
"Well, first there's the main crease at the center of the first joint . . ." he went on to describe the multiple creases in detail.
The test went on for several more poses, and then Sensei dropped his hand. "Open your eyes."
Xavier looked up, to see Sensei's own eyes shining with pride. "You have indeed mastered the Hand Center, Xavier—one of the most challenging tasks in the basis of Tor—and done so at amazing speed. You have leapfrogged many of the other disciplines which are usually taught. This will weaken your knowledge of the entire art, yes, but we will backfill part of that later, and this allows you to progress onward."
"So what are the other disciplines?"
"In the standard order, they are Fast Center, White Vision, Heart Center, Red Vision, Hand Center, Clear Vision, Deep Center, Wind Vision, High Center, Water Vision, Mind Center, Flame Vision, Body Center, Dark Vision, Tor Center, and the Final Vision, also called The Space As I."
"And how many of these are you teaching me before, well, you think I'm ready?"
"By the time we are done you will have learned, in addition to Hand Center, White Vision, High Center, Body Center, and specific techniques which will have given you pieces of others. Some of what I hope you will learn will be exceedingly advanced, normally not learned by any who have not dedicated, quite literally, decades—or centuries—to the art. But I know teaching techniques which, I believe, will allow you to gain these skills far more swiftly."
Xavier didn't like the word "centuries" in there, even if it was followed by Sensei "believing" that he could learn more quickly. But again, he didn't have much choice. And mysterious old master was mysterious, so he probably wouldn't get much out of asking something like "how long will this take?"
But he really did want to know something to, well, look forward to, and the thought of how much time was implied by Sensei . . . "I know how long it took me to learn what I learned under Shihan. I don't have years—I can't stay away that long!"
"You have more time than you think," Sensei answered. "And for the techniques you will need, you must take the time, or your quest is doomed to failure."
"O . . . kay," he said reluctantly. "But . . . look, Sensei, I hope this isn't being rude, but I'd like to see what I'm working towards. What are these techniques you said would . . ." he thought back to one of Sensei's earlier speeches, " . . . would let me go unnoticed, pass through whatever may bar my path, and strike down things that can't be hurt by ordinary weapons?"
Sensei chuckled. "I suppose a demonstration of the goals would not hurt—although I warn you that you may doubt your senses at first." Sensei stood—and disappeared.
Xavier sat staring openmouthed at empty air for a minute, then looked around with, he suspected, a goggle-eyed expression like a hungry goldfish. "Wh . . . where? How'd you do that? Where are you?"
From behind him, Sensei spoke. "Here, Xavier."
"Aaaagh!" The shout wasn't very coherent, but the total shock of having someone appear behind him without warning was, Xavier thought, a reasonable excuse for that. "What . . . what did you just do?"
He shook his head. "The answer to that question would mean little without more training. Now, try to strike me."
Xavier straightened up and got into the parallel-arm stance that Sensei had taught him. "Any way I want?"
"Any technique at all."
By now Xavier was sure there wasn't anything Sensei couldn't block, and Xavier felt fully healed. So he did a sudden leap-kick that would strike the old man in the head, if he permitted it.
Instead, to Xavier's utter shock, his foot passed right through Sensei's head, throwing off Xavier's balance and landing so much that he collapsed in a heap on the ground. "What the hell?"
Just to confirm the impossibility, he rolled to his feet and directed more kicks and punches towards his master. They passed through the apparently solid Sensei as though there was nothing but air there—until Sensei raised a hand and caught Xavier's fist effortlessly.
That last bit proved that this wasn't an illusion. For a minute I was wondering if it was some trick with light, holograms or something. But he changed from ghost to solid in the space of less than a heartbeat. "Jesus."
"And the final technique you asked about . . ." Sensei whirled and struck one of the sandbags nearby with a shout in some language Xavier didn't know.
There was a flash of white light and the sandbag hurtled away, impacting with the far wall so hard that Xavier felt it through his feet; Xavier knew his eyes were bugging out of his head.
What? I mean . . . WHAT? That's . . . that's some anime video-game finishing move crap there! That can't happen in real life.
But the same was true of people suddenly turning invisible or intangible. He found himself staring speechlessly at Sensei.
"Are you satisfied, Xavier?" The smile showed that Sensei understood full well how utterly gobsmacked Xavier was feeling.
"Uh . . . I . . .. Yes! Yes. But . . . I'm going to be able to do that?" A part of him didn't believe . . . but a part was rising up with incredulous joy, bouncing up and down like a child given the gift of a dream.
"I think you shall, yes. It will be as hard as you think, and harder, to learn, but I will teach you, and if you try as hard as you have already been . . . these skills will be yours."
The excitement was shifting, merging with a solemnity that he didn't understand at first. But then he did. "It's going to be that bad? The things I go against?"
"Yes," Sensei said gravely.
"And you can't help against them directly?"
"No. I have other requirements and commitments, which I am delaying as much as possible to teach you. Once I am done, I must leave, and swiftly."
Xavier took a deep breath and nodded. "Well . . . it's my job anyway. And with great power and all that."
"Indeed. You understand the responsibility?"
He thought, and the temptations of the powers he'd been shown were suddenly clear. "Ew. Yes. Yes, I do. There's a lot of skeevy things I could do with those. But I promise I won't!"
Sensei nodded. "Good enough for now. As time goes on, I will hope you continue to think on these things, for you will be confronting things that threaten far more than just you and your family . . . and you will be in a position to cause just as much harm as they." He turned. "Then come. With your mastery of Hand Center, we'll have something of a little celebration . . . and then back to work."
Xavier bowed and followed Sensei, who he'd already learned was an insanely good cook in addition to his other talents. I'm gonna miss that part of this too. None of that "live on rice and pure thoughts" here.
But I'll have to cultivate the pure thoughts anyway. Because he's right about what I could do wrong with those powers.
I want to be the hero. And I will be. I promise myself. I promise Sensei. And most of all, I promise Michael.
"You are a natural with the vya-shadu," Sensei said, parrying Xavier's twin-sword blow with one blade. "You progress swiftly. Very swiftly."
Xavier continued his assault, but managed a grin. Sensei is always precise with his compliments . . . or chastisements. So when he says something like that . . . "Thank you, Sensei. But I have a feeling that even being a natural won't let me beat you any time soon."
A flash of a smile as white as the hair. "No, I admit I would expect that you would have to devote considerably more time to the art before you reach that level."
After a few more practice runs, Sensei had him put the katanalike swords that he called vya-shadu away. "We shall train much more with those, and there are a number of other techniques to learn. But you have mastered the Centers and Visions needed, and you have practiced them enough to begin on the advanced techniques you need to learn."
At Xavier's eager glance, he smiled again. "Yes, it is time to see if you can learn to cloak yourself from sight, shield yourself from the touch of others by remaining somehow both there and elsewhere. The technique was called Hirlana by those who knew of it, long ago."
"So the same technique allows you to be invisible and untouchable?"
"The two are very closely related, but not identical." Sensei led him to the center of the room, close to the column. "Perhaps better to say that there is one technique which gives you both, but that it takes more discipline and practice to learn to separate them—to be visible yet intangible, or tangible yet invisible. Of the three possibilities, the latter—invisible yet tangible—is the hardest."
Xavier stopped where Sensei indicated. "Now what, Sensei?"
"First, bring yourself through Hand Center, White Vision, High Center, and Body Center."
Xavier closed his eyes and focused, first visualizing his hand, then letting that dissolve to pure nothingness (and boy, had that been a hard exercise, visualizing pure white nothing), emerging into the perception of all around him from above, and then descending into pure and focused awareness of his entire body—the rise and fall of his chest, the shift of his clothing at his every move, the tiny movement of his hair in the faint breezes that moved through the training area, the precise pose of his body with the angles of arms and legs and hands and feet.
"Very good. Now you are prepared. First you must bring together the High Center and Body Center: perceive both yourself and the space in which you exist, in all detail."
Wow, you don't ask much, do you? But he only thought that, didn't say it. Not that he'd get in much trouble for doing so—Sensei wasn’t the kind of guy who'd hit you for making a mistake, or even yell. But he'd be disappointed, and Xavier didn't want to disappoint him.
Keeping his own body in mind, he built up his mental model of the world around him, moving out from the floor at his feet to Sensei himself, only a few feet away, and then the great Column with its multiplicity of sharp projections behind him, and then the workout equipment . . .
For a moment, he realized just what he was doing, and it awed him. I can visualize all of that?
And immediately the dual center collapsed.
Sensei shook his head. "If you become too aware of the process—too focused on how difficult or impressive or impossible the feat is—you will find even the simpler acts beyond you."
"Sorry." He guessed what threw me off. Sometimes Sensei is scary that way. "Okay, trying again."
This time he managed to keep his introspection focused and not derail himself. It wasn't easy. But finally he was standing before Sensei, visualizing himself and Sensei and the entire room around them. Slowly he opened his eyes and looked at Sensei. "Okay, I'm ready."
Only then did it register to him that he was, indeed, looking straight at Sensei, who was in precisely the pose he'd visualized . . .
. . . but not the pose that Sensei had been in when Xavier closed his eyes.
Of course, with that startlement, the visualization crashed down, but he was too excited to care. "What . . . what did I just do? Sensei, I didn't hear you move—I don't think I did—and even if I did, that wouldn't have told me you had your chin cradled in your one hand, and—"
"And now you begin to realize the actual power of the visualizations and sense training, yes," Sensei said. "Properly done, with the right training and preparation, you do not merely visualize the world around you; you perceive the world and incorporate it into your vision."
"So . . . if I do this right, I could find my way around in total darkness?"
"Walk through a cavern without the aid of light, find stepping stones across a lightless river, yes, or see a blow coming from behind you when an assassin seeks your end. In fact, now that you have learned this capability, you and I will be doing many of our training sessions in total darkness."
"Wow." The word wasn't adequate, but Xavier wasn't sure he knew any words that were adequate. After a minute he shook his head. "Wow," he said again. "But . . . okay, back to work."
A third time he brought himself to the dual center, and managed to maintain it even as he perceived Sensei walking around him. "Very good, Xavier. But now I have a real challenge for you."
"The others weren't challenges?" It was really hard to talk and maintain the dual center, but he wasn't going to let it go now.
"Oh, there was some challenge, indeed. But this will be of an entirely different order.
"Maintaining the rest of your vision, I want you to remove yourself from the visualization."
Xavier considered that. "Ohhh. I think I get it. Since my visualization shows the world as it really is, if I can remove myself from my own visualization, my own perceptions, I'm saying to the world 'I'm not here, ignore me.'"
For a moment, Sensei was silent. When he spoke, there was a note of mingled surprise and gratification in his voice. "You have it almost exactly, Xavier . . . and I have never before had a student, knowing so little of Tor, make that leap of deduction."
The surge of pride almost unbalanced his focus, but he held on. That didn't prevent a huge grin from spreading over his face. "Well, my friends and I watched a lot of cheesy anime and wuxia films, and that kinda sounded like something they'd say."
"For whatever reason you may have thought of it, I remain impressed. Now, let us see you do it."
That was, of course, the problem. He knew he was standing there. Now that he knew that his visualization wasn't just a static construct but an actual perception of the actual state of things around him, he could feel himself in that visualization.
He tried to ignore himself, but all that did was show the wrinkling of his forehead, and knock him out of the dual center again. Xavier refocused and tried again . . . and once more got knocked out of focus.
Dinnertime came, and nighttime, and a day or two passed, and still he wasn't getting it. He lost track of the number of times that he almost felt he had succeeded, and then ended up with nothing but a headache for his trouble; more than days had passed, weeks maybe, longer? Finally, he came to the conclusion that it all boiled down to one simple question:
How could he not visualize something he could see? And something that he did see with Body Center, as completely as he was now seeing everything around him with High Center?
Well, the easiest way to remove him from that picture to just visualize the area around him. But that was High Center. If it was that simple, he'd already have been invisible. So why didn't that work?
"Because," he told himself, "High Center is centered on ME, and assumes me as the viewpoint. Body Center has some other viewpoint—in my case, I chose something at a sort of security-camera angle viewpoint—focused on me. It's all about me.
"So . . ." he continued muttering to himself, "I have to have Body Center focused on something that isn't there?"
That sounded almost right. I have to visualize the whole area—including the area where I am—exactly as it would be if I weren't there, if there was nothing there at all.
But how . . . No, wait. What was that thought? If there was nothing there at all . . .
If there was NOTHING there!
This would have to be a triple visualization, and the third would be a paradox. I need White Vision in between High Center and Body Center, erasing perception of myself from the world around me.
He tried focusing the white nothing visualization onto his own Body Center mental construct. Doing that took hours and many repetitions, but in the end it didn't work; all that did was make a white hole in his visualization the shape of himself, not a blankness.
Still, he was sure he was on the right track now. Sensei had only taught him certain things, so those few things had to have the keys for figuring this out.
In the afternoon of what must have been a month or two after Sensei first put the question to him, Xavier began again. But this time, he started with Body Center, then brought up White Vision.
It was incredibly hard to maintain both. There was nothing to see with Body Center when everything was gone to blankness—not even a shadow of perspective from his mind's eye camera. All he had left was a sense of something there, of a continuity of spirit, perhaps. He held that blank something in his head and slowly, slowly started building up the High Center visualization, but this time starting from as far out as he could sense and moving inward. The walls, festooned with weapon racks and climbing grips and other equipment. Free standing equipment, mats on the floor; sparring area and the exercise weights. The great Column and the floor around him, bare, polished, closer, closer . . .
Now he had one final piece, one more part of the visualization that had to be perfect. With absolute focus he built up the last piece of floor—the part underneath him, that was utterly invisible as long as he stood on it—and made sure that the lighting showed not a trace of his shadow.
For long, long minutes he maintained this bizarre visualization, feeling his heart thumping rapidly, fighting the faint headache that such concentration was engendering. Then, very slowly, he opened his eyes.
The world around him was . . . faded, was the only word for it. It remained clear and detailed, but the colors were muted, sepia tones like an old-fashioned photograph sitting too long in an old drawer. Everything was dull yet clear, and the sounds of Sensei's stronghold were quiet, reaching his ears like careful whispers. He turned slowly.
Brilliance came into view, shining like a sparkling sun. The figure was humanoid, but the light that poured from him was like nothing Xavier had ever seen before. Yet in High Center, what stood there was . . .
The figure turned, looking . . . and the gaze went right past Xavier. A moment later, Xavier saw the eyes widen and heard a distant, triumphant shout.
That was enough for Xavier. The concentration broke and he collapsed, exhausted, on the floor. But Sensei was there almost instantly. "Oh, well done, well done, Xavier Uriel Ross! You finally figured out the key!"
"First Body, then White, then High, huh?" His head hurt, but that wasn't important now, not when he'd just succeeded.
"That is one way to do it, yes, and I think the best."
"When I was . . . invisible, most things looked dull, colorless . . . except you. Why?"
Sensei smiled. "Because while you have faded from the realm of the physical, you still maintain a connection to the world through your spirit; you must, elsewise you might find yourself going . . . elsewhere. Thus, you see clearly the spirits around you, those who have not hidden or cloaked themselves . . . and even those would find it hard to truly become unseen by someone in the Hirlana."
He gripped Xavier by both shoulders and looked down at him, and Sensei's gaze sparkled . . . with perhaps a hint of tears that surprised Xavier. "I am very proud of you," he said. "You have managed something that many masters of Tor have taken many decades to learn . . . and some never learn at all."
"Am I that special, or are you that good a teacher?"
Sensei's laugh was loud and deep, somehow younger than he appeared. "An excellent question. Perhaps it is some of both, in truth. But come, let's celebrate. You've made the second and perhaps third major steps in your training. You'll need a lot of practice to master that trick, of course—a lot of practice if you hope to use it in dangerous circumstances—but now you know how, and that, my student, is the most important thing of all."
Xavier followed his Sensei, feeling a combined sense of pride and wonder. And with this, I'm that much closer to going home.
The dojo was pitch-dark, unlighted; set this far underground, it was as dark as any cavern on Earth. Yet in High Center Xavier could sense everything around him. Two throwing knives sped towards him from behind, but he was already spinning, his swords striking the blades aside. He leapt from one of the plum-blossom poles to another as he sensed Sensei's approach, barely reaching the next pole as Sensei's vya-shadu tore through the air he had just vacated. For long moments they traded blows, dual swords dancing, evading each other's strikes with jumps from one towering pole to the next, kicks parried by hilts or legs, a ballet of death and skill that sent a chill of distant awe down Xavier's spine. I can't believe I'm doing this. How much I've learned, how many impossible things I've seen and been shown how to do—
Wham! Straight through his guard, as though he wasn't even trying, Sensei rammed through a kick that took him directly in the gut and sent him plummeting off the pole, to land with an icy splash in the water at the bases of the poles.
Sensei laughed from above, and the lights came on. "Well, you weren't focusing all of a sudden, Xavier."
"No, you're right, 'sokay, I'm fine!" Xavier snickered as he climbed out of the water. "I was thinking how awesome it was, what I was doing. So you just took all the awesome away."
"Not all of it, I hope."
"Not any of it, really," Xavier said, more seriously. "That kick . . . it didn't hurt, at least not any more than it could have before. I'm really totally healed."
"And have been for a while. You said you had something to show me after this workout?"
"Yeah, um, let me go get dried off first, though."
A little while later, Xavier led Sensei over to the target area, where they'd practiced throwing knives, shuriken, and pretty much everything else. "Now, of course, I'm gonna screw it up now that you're watching."
Sensei's eyes glanced at him sideways. "Xavier, what have I said about belief? You should understand by now that it is even more true than your mother ever knew that the right attitude determines success."
"Sorry. Just . . . preparing myself in case it doesn't work."
"And by that you are preparing your own failure. Focus on what you have to show me and nothing else. Eradicate thoughts of failure and uncertainty."
Easy for you to say, Sensei. You've been doing all this for . . . how long? Long enough for you to talk about centuries, and even though that sounds impossible too, somehow I think you really might be that old.
But he closed his eyes and focused. Body Center and White Vision, and he felt that awareness of spirit and nothing else. Holding that awareness he passed on to Hand Center, curling his hands together, cupping them with space between as though he held some tiny, delicate thing within. Then the discipline Sensei had taught him a few months ago, feeling the rush and ebb and flow of his blood and the strength it carried.
And my spirit flows through me too, guiding every motion, every thought, every action. I can slow down and speed up my heart, even—now—cause blood to flow less or more to parts of my body at will.
So with my spirit perceptions, I can feel the ebb and flow of my essence, my spirit, my chi. And guide it . . .
That sense was strong now, he could perceive his true self, the spirit that could stand between two perceptions of the world and understand them both, and now he focused that perception through Hand Center, between, imagining, visualizing, and making real the thought that the power was there, between his hands, his own spirit manifesting, a power that could bridge between reality and thought. He imagined himself pouring into that hidden hollow, and felt tingling warmth between his palms, and the tension of his arms and hands pressing in, no longer relaxed but tight, holding in something that struggled for release . . .
Slowly he opened his eyes, maintaining an absolute focus, certain of what he would see.
Between his cupped hands seethed something, something shining so brightly that brilliant beams of light were escaping through the tiny seams between his fingers and hands, something swirling so violently that his arms vibrated like cables in a wind. But even as he saw this he was extending his arms, letting his fingers flower open as he commanded his spirit to fly.
A streak of pure white light erupted from his open hands and struck one of the sandbag targets, blasting it asunder in a detonation of sand and shredded leather, continuing on to hammer the steel wall like a piledriver.
Xavier tried to give a triumphant leap, but wobbled instead, collapsing to his knees, head spinning. Sensei caught him as he started to fall on his face.
"How . . . was . . . that?"
Sensei's face wavered, and the room seemed slightly gray, before it slowly solidified again. "That was brilliantly done, Xavier. But I think you see why you should not do that again."
"Ever?" He didn't object as Sensei carried him over to a seat.
"I would never go so far as to say you should never ever do it. There are times for the use of anything, howsoever desperate. But to do what you did required much of your spiritual strength, and it will take some time for that to be recovered. Body and spirit are closely linked—and for those of us who practice Tor or any similar disciplines, that link only becomes more close and vital. You will notice," he said, smiling, "that even I only used the power of my spirit as an enhancement of my strike—by hands or through weapons I find suitable to the technique."
"So, I can't make my soul strong enough to do that regularly?"
Sensei tilted his head and was silent for a few moments as he prepared some herbal tea and what seemed a veritable mountain of snacks and set them before Xavier. Finally he said, "You can improve the strength of your spirit, certainly. It is in fact stronger by far now than it was when you entered. Partly this is due to your letting go of the immediate fury, fear, and hatred that were combating your sense of responsibility and your guilt. A spirit that is fighting itself is weakened. But partly it is in fact an essential strengthening, and as you continue to learn and practice, you will grow stronger.
"Now, if you were to find yourself in certain other places—places where the powers mostly lost to the world are stronger—then you could take much advantage of the power that lies on the border between magic, the divine, and the human spirit. And it is possible that you may, one day, find yourself in such a place; power and possibility, I have found, have a way of coinciding."
He nodded as Xavier ate and drank. Once started, Xavier realized he was ravenous, and by the time he stopped eating he realized he must have consumed half again as many calories as he usually ate in a day. "Holy crap, that did take it out of me."
"Yes. Now, you are fortunately so far along that it will take me only a little while to show you the much more efficient—and easier—technique of channeling the power through your hands or other objects. Be warned, though, that ordinary weapons and items are not made to survive such channeling."
As usual, Sensei knew what he was talking about; with the sense of the spiritual flow he'd gained, it took only a little while to learn how to make that power flow along his hands in a strike or even out and around a blade. Sensei left him to train with that, heading upstairs to do some of whatever work he did in his library.
Wow. Here I am, channeling chi or ki or whatever through a sword—his blade whistled around and cut entirely through a section of log a foot thick—and able to go invisible, pass through walls, all this stuff that Sensei said I needed to learn.
Everything he said I had to learn . . .
He glanced over at the towering column. He'd tried climbing it a few times, but it was just as impossibly sensitive as he'd thought, leaning and chiming even at a pressure that wouldn't support a cat, let alone a human being. He could walk through it, but being intangible had drawbacks. You couldn't touch things—like steps and handholds—when you weren't solid. And even leaving aside the noise, a lot of those so-called handholds were like goddarned knives.
At least now he did understand how Sensei could reach that top platform. There weren't any hidden doors. He'd just gone right up through the bottom of the platform in Hirlana.
Wait a minute. But then he'd be standing on those supports in Hirlana. Which means he'd be intangible and should be falling down until he hits the—
The dawning of understanding hit him so hard that he found he had literally just let the swords drop from his hands.
How stupid can you be, Xavier?
He looked over at the plum-blossom poles. A perfect test.
Xavier walked over to the poles and looked at the floor around them—or rather, at the floor-level pool, dotted with water lilies (that really shouldn't be growing underground either, but . . .), that provided both a soft landing and a somewhat punishing reminder of failure for anyone falling off.
He went into Hirlana and concentrated on removing doubt, hesitation, clearing his mind as he had before he'd done what he liked to think of as his "Spirit Cannon" trick. Hey, if it's going to look like a super anime finishing move, it should have a name like one. Sensei's reminders always applied widely. If he thought about what he was doing and how it was impossible, it would be impossible.
Then he simply walked forward, eyes closed. But in High Center he saw himself walking until he stood in the middle of the plum blossom poles—walking, without falling or sinking.
And that's the answer.
He turned and walked back across the water to the floor. I was thinking that Sensei should fall back and hit the floor. But if he was intangible, why would the floor be any more of a barrier to him than anything else? Shouldn't he either just stay at one level . . . or just fall to the center of the Earth?
Which means . . .
He strode to the column and looked up, still focused, still clear. I'm going up.
He put his foot on the first bladelike support . . . and he felt it this time, solid, supportive. Yet he was intangible, so whatever force might be exerted on that metallic blade would be infinitesimal, the interaction of steel with soul. He stepped up, grasped, and climbed. As smoothly and easily as Sensei had, he progressed up the column without it swaying in the slightest, without a whisper of sound, and passed through the wide top of the column, and found himself standing atop it, gazing around at the dojo from an entirely new vantage point.
Before him, in twin, elaborately worked sheaths, were two swords, the only other objects on the platform. He picked those up and saw they had a harness that could be used to strap them on, so he did. Then he descended.
Sensei was sitting in the library bent over a book that must have been two and a half feet on a side, studying some kind of diagram that Xavier couldn't make out. Xavier just approached and waited.
Sensei glanced up—and his eyes widened. For just an instant, Xavier saw a complex series of expressions cross the old man's face—surprise, gratification, pride, resolution, sadness, and hope. The smile that followed was not mixed, however. Sensei stood and bowed, still smiling, and waited as Xavier returned the bow.
"And so you have completed your final task, your graduating exercise."
Xavier snorted. "I should've completed it weeks ago, maybe months. I can't believe I didn't realize—"
"It is only an obvious solution in hindsight, Xavier. Others have taken longer to realize what you did. And even had you thought of this solution beforehand, you would not have used it until now."
"I wouldn't?" He thought a minute. "Oh, yeah. Because I would've known there were things you hadn't finished teaching me that you said I needed to know. Right?"
"Well," he unfastened the harness and held it out. "I guess now you have to show me the way out of this place."
Sensei took the harness and looked down at it pensively. The smile faded but remained at one corner of his mouth. "Have you not already guessed that exit?"
Xavier smacked his forehead. "Oh, right, duh! That's why no one has a chance of finding it! You don't have any doors. You just walk out through the top of this underground fortress until you reach the surface." He glanced at the small ventilation ducts above. "Must have some really bizarre way of keeping air fresh in here, though."
"It is unusual, yes." Sensei was suddenly solemn. "Xavier Uriel Ross."
The older man bowed again, and then extended the swords in their harness. "Take these with you. They have lain too long unused, and in your quest, you will have need of the finest blades possible. These are those blades."
Xavier could see how seriously Sensei took this, and was careful to accept the swords in their scabbards with proper reverence. "Were these . . . are these your swords?"
"Those were the vya-shadu I wielded when I was much younger, yes," Sensei answered, and his eyes did not seem to be seeing Xavier and the room around him, but something immeasurably farther away in space and time. "For many years I wielded them, but I have not done so in . . . well, a very long time indeed."
He reached out and drew the one that would sit just over the right shoulder when the harness was strapped on; the blade shone a delicate spring-leaf green, like no metal that Xavier had ever seen. "This is Ianakala, Starcleaver in English." He returned Ianakala to its sheath, drew the other, also the silver-green of new leaves. "And this was named Lurinakala, Soulcleaver." He resheathed that sword and bowed once more. "They have been waiting for someone who would take them where they are needed once more."
"I . . . thank you, Sensei. You didn't have to—"
"Yes, I do have to. You are not the only one who has benefited from your presence. I have been awakened again, I think. To see them in . . . in your hands, this will help carry me forward in days to come."
Sensei stepped forward and gave Xavier a quick but emphatic hug. "We will probably not see each other again, Xavier. But I will think of you often."
Xavier saw the look of Hirlana begin to appear in the old man's eyes, and shouted, "Wait! Wait, Sensei, you don't have to rush—"
"I am afraid I do," he said. "I told you that the moment I knew you were finished I had business to attend to, things that I have delayed long in order to see to your training. Take what you will from here; I leave this, too, to you, if ever you have need of this hidden haven." He smiled, a brilliant light that warmed the room. "Good luck, Xavier Uriel Ross, and my blessing on you, your quest, and your family."
And he was gone.
Xavier didn't quite remember what he did the next couple of hours. The rooms seemed larger, emptier, without Sensei's presence, and after the first few minutes of just staring at where the old man had been, Xavier busied himself with preparing to leave—packing food, taking an assortment of the real weapons that Sensei had left, selecting the outfits which would be most useful and packing those too, and finally putting on the backpack over the sword harness. The swords would be awfully noticeable ordinarily, but he thought he might be able to make people just not notice him much—not so much being invisible as less important. Worth trying, anyway.
Putting himself into the intangible, invisible Hirlana and the same confident state of mind, Xavier ascended through layers of stone and earth—something that felt very peculiar, and he held his breath while going up and through—to finally emerge into the dull sunlight warmth of a Chicago June.
He glanced around, realizing with a start that this was the very same alley he'd almost died in. That did help, in a way. He knew which way to go to start heading home.
He emerged from the alley and glanced around. No one was looking in his direction. If he went in that direction he ought to—
He hesitated, and wondered why.
If Sensei had taught him anything, it was to try to understand himself. Why was he hesitating? Didn't he want to go home?
Instantly he felt a yes in his soul, an affirmation so strong he felt the sting of tears in his eyes at the thought of seeing his mother and sister again, even knowing the apologies he would owe, the guilt he would feel.
And yet he knew he was hesitating.
Why? I want to go home so bad I can taste it, so why . . .
And suddenly it was obvious, so obvious he almost hit himself in the head for being an idiot. If I go home now, I'll have to leave again. Leave to hunt down Mike's killer. And they'll be sitting there again, wondering if stupid Xavier's going to get himself killed.
Right now they would have accepted he was gone, or at least figured out how they were dealing with his disappearance. To go home, then put them through that again? No.
Reluctantly, he turned around. "California, here I come."
"Ah, Xavier Uriel Ross. I see you have come to the inevitable conclusion."
Xavier whirled and stared, blinking in disbelief, and then felt his fists tighten reflexively. But before he moved he forced himself to take total control. Don't do anything too stupid.
Still, it was hard not to just charge right up and deck the towering figure in the five-sided hat. "You son of a bitch," Xavier said quietly as he reached the man.
"Not precisely, but your sentiment is not unexpected. And not untrue, in its essence."
"You sent me down that alley to be killed!"
"I find it difficult, nay, impossible, to believe that the one who has taught you failed to explain that I in fact sent you down that alley to ensure that you lived." The deep voice of the other was calm, assured, and absolutely certain. It was also definitely amused.
"You don't know I would have died."
"On the contrary, I knew that you would die, and most likely die long before you reached California. Had you reached California, your targets would have swiftly learned of your presence and killed you. There was absolutely no chance you would survive. Given what your teacher has taught you, and undoubtedly warned you about, do you truly believe you would have lived, had you continued on?"
Xavier glared up at the huge man with his shadowed face, and found he couldn't answer. One thing Xavier had always been was honest with himself, and much as Xavier didn't want to admit it, this old man was right. "You could have just delivered me to him."
"And you would not have accepted the situation so easily. The brush with death was, alas, necessary, to teach you the mortal seriousness of your situation. Now follow me."
"Why should I?" he demanded, nonetheless finding himself following the man in his white, blue, and brown robes.
"Because your talents are and will be desperately needed now. You are not yet ready for your hunt, but you must become so. Once you are ready, you will be returned, and then you may complete that mission you have planned for so long."
"And what if I decide to just go this on my own? Sensei thought he had taught me everything I needed to know."
"He taught you everything he needed to teach you," the white-haired man said. "But there is much more you will need to know to complete my mission."
Xavier stopped and gave him a disbelieving look. "Your mission is not my problem, whoever-you-are."
"My name is Konstantin Khoros," he said. "And I am afraid that you are wrong."
Abruptly, Xavier became aware that there were no longer buildings surrounding him, but towering, brooding pines with mist twining through them, as they stood at an intersection of roads that showed two castles before them—one to the left, one to the right. He stopped, gaping in disbelief.
"As you can see, my mission is now most certainly your problem. Unless you know how to find your own way home?"
Xavier whirled, but he already knew what he would see—or rather, what he wouldn't see.
Behind him the trees and mist stretched into grayness.
He turned back to Khoros. "You son of a bitch. If Sensei were here he would kick your ass."
"Undoubtedly he would. Which is why he left, so he would not be forced to do so. He recognizes my value, and the necessity that drives me, and has thus avoided a confrontation. Which, by itself, should tell you how important this task is, Xavier Uriel Ross."
Xavier clenched his teeth against an explosion of anger that wouldn't accomplish anything. Much as he hated the idea . . . this Khoros guy was probably right. Sensei said he knew who Khoros was, and knew he'd been manipulated. If Sensei thought that was something he'd put up with . . .
"He knew you had this . . . mission."
"And trained me knowing you'd be coming for me."
It was one of the hardest things he'd done yet, but Xavier took his anger, applied White Vision, and erased everything, eradicated his fury and disappointment, and finally opened his eyes. "So . . . Sensei knew I needed this mission . . . to finish mine."
"That would be my belief, Xavier Ross."
"Okay. So tell me."
"About the mission?" Khoros chuckled. "Soon enough. First you must meet the others."
"Others?" He stared at Khoros, then looked ahead, and felt a tiny smile tugging at his mouth. "Don't tell me. Four others."
Another chuckle floated through the twilight. "Eventually, yes."
Xavier shook his head and found himself laughing. "All right, you old bastard, lead on."
"And what amuses you so, Xavier Ross?"
"I just realized what's going on," he said. "Almost killed, trained by a mysterious sensei, gained powers beyond the lot of mortal men." He grinned up at Khoros. "I've just finished my origin story!"
Copyright © 2016 Ryk E. Spoor
“Training and Truth” takes place in the Zarathan multiverse of Ryk E. Spoor’s Balanced Sword series, with latest entry Phoenix Ascendant. Ryk’s solo novels for Baen include science fiction Arenaverse series books Grand Central Arena, and Spheres of Influence, contemporary fantasy Paradigms Lost, and epic fantasies Phoenix Rising, Phoenix in Shadow, and Phoenix Ascendant. He is also the author, with Eric Flint, of books in the best-selling Boundary Series including latest entry Castaway Planet.