October 17, 2010

Don't Blink

Erwin jerked the steering wheel hard left, careening into the parking spot while narrowly missing the curb. Crap. I’m late. He’s going to make me stand. Clutch, first gear, keys, parking brake. Check. Erwin unbuckled the seat belt with one hand, unlatched the door with the other at the same time, elbow pushing open the door in the same motion without pausing to think. Right hand seized his pack. He was already scrambling out, backpack dragged out with his trailing hand, hips pushing the door closed as soon as everything cleared. Erwin made a run for class.

A few seconds shaved. It was all futile. Really.

Erwin could already see two figures standing in the basketball court at the neighborhood park. Sunlight filtered down through the old growth trees, casting light and shadows onto asphalt, rippling from weaving wind. Children’s laughter floated on the breeze. On the court, one as tall as a bear, was pushing around a stick of a figure, running through some basic drills. Erwin got to the bleachers, dropped his pack, and started pulling out everything from his pockets -- keys, cellphone, wallet, lint. Carefully turning around, he tried stepping away from the big man’s line of sight and snuck up to the center of the court.

“You’re late,” the big man said, without even breaking the current drill. It looked like some variant of Monkey. “Santi.” Without breaking the flow of the form, the big man pointed to a spot on the asphalt with a finger while sinking further into the armbar. The little guy did not look happy.

Erwin sighed. Well, at least he tried. He walked over to the spot his teacher had pointed to.

He aligned his nose and navel to the two struggling figures. Well, the shorter guy, a kid really, was struggling. Erwin planted his feet. Left leg leading, left arm leading, right arm covering, palms wide, spine lengthened. Sink. Santishi. Erwin started slowing down his breathing, trying to let his muscles hang down onto his frame and within moments, his legs started shaking. Yeah, Santi-shi hurts.

Erwin started up the first stage of the vision training. He tried focusing on his extreme left and extreme right at the same time, trying to see out of the corner of both his eyes. Since focusing left and right at the same time was impossible, it opens up the peripheral vision instead. Like a sudden spring shower, his vision expanded. The world was shaking badly as tension worked itself out while holding Santi-shi. Erwin breathed in the fresh morning air slowly, in and out, making sure the peripheral vision stabilized. Nightwalking Under the Stars.

Second stage. Now using his peripheral vision, he picked a spot in the far horizon. There. Some random red thing on the far side of the park, level with his head. This next part was tricky, trying to focus without focusing. Erwin had spent months trying to figure this out. Those months were terrifying. His teacher would ambush him with a spear with only a warning, “dodge this.” Ha. Every time he had tried looking at something, it’d break this all-expansive peripheral vision. It was even harder to maintain while staring at the spear point coming right for his head. He had finally figured out the trick. In the same way he used his focused vision to activate his peripheral vision, he now used the peripheral vision to focus on something without really focusing on anything.

Breath in. Breath out. Arjuna the Archer Takes His Aim.

Third stage. This was the hardest one. Erwin still didn’t get this one. Be mindful. Don’t blink, his teacher had instructed, then turn back the light. That is, instead of reaching out with his attention to look at something, he was supposed to “turn back the light” and receive it instead. What the hell does that mean?

It was easier not to blink. He can not blink. Erwin figured this was so he wouldn’t flinch if he ever have to use any of this. A blink is a very long time when movements are measured in microseconds. The first time Erwin had tried this, his eyes started tearing up. When Erwin had asked his teacher, he laughed and simply told him to “keep playing.” Very helpful. After several attempts, Erwin was finally able to stare long enough without his eyeballs burning. His teacher had mentioned something about the tears cleansing things out. Erwin didn’t really remember.

Erwin kept staring unfocused at the red thing, resisting the urge to blink. Tears started washing through. After a moment, he slipped into this calm, stillness. Though his body still occasionally shook from holding Santi-shi, there was still this curious stillness ...

The big man and the kid started to move through another set of drills. Erwin watched, taking in everything. He remembered the first time he met his teacher, Little John. Well, his real name is “Zhang” and he told Erwin to call him “John”. The “little” came later from the senior students. It was actually pretty funny, there was this one time --

John had suddenly disappeared and reappeared somewhere, as if Erwin had blinked and suddenly his teacher had moved elsewhere. The kid, thrashed about, surprised.

Don’t blink.

With an inward sigh, Erwin started again. Relax. Let go of the past. Open peripheral vision. Check. Unfocus on the red thing. Check. Watch and don’t blink. Check.

Hey. Wait a minute. I didn’t blink.

Erwin frowned. He thought furiously. He was sure he didn’t blink, so what happened? He tried recalling how he felt. He remember thinking about his first time meeting John, and that’s when he saw John disappearing. I wasn’t being mindful and got distracted . . .

Erwin suddenly realized his teacher and the other student had stopped moving. John was looking curiously at him, the beginning of a smirk teasing his lips. “You look like you found something, Erwin.”

Erwin wasn’t sure how to describe this. He stayed in Santi-shi, looking at his teacher. “I ... saw you disappear. You didn’t really disappear. It was like I blinked and but not blinked.”

John’s smile widened. Now he was blatently smirking. The kid was staring as if Erwin had just drank some babble juice and went crazy.

I didn’t blink. I got distracted. Was that what he meant by “don’t blink”?

But wait, to take advantage of my distraction, he would have had to been following my throughts ...

Suddenly, Erwin noticed his teacher was still looking at him. Now his eyebrows are raised, as if saying, Oh? So you noticed.

Oh shit, he really is following my thoughts. Wait, so he was ... what, stepping in between my mental “blinks”? Angling between the gaps? Following my thoughts? Sticking? Wait, what?--

John grinned and walked away, kid trailing like a puppy.

Erwin stood there, stunned and stupefied. There was something big here. All sorts of ideas were blossoming.

And wait, I still don’t know what “turning the light back” means!

October 16, 2010

Dianca vs. Ghouls

While reading one of the battle scenes in R. A. Salvatore's, Canticle, I couldn't get my version out of my head. So I rewrote it. I wanted to see if I could write badass fight scenes like Jim Butcher or Brent Weeks. -- HH

“They are close about,” he replied, ‘too close.”

“How can you know?” Danica prssed.

Newander looked at her curiously, confusedly. “I . . . I cannot, “ he stammered, “and yet I do.”

“The curse?” Danica wondered aloud.

“My senses do not lie to me,” Newander insisted. He spun about suddenly, back toward the tunnel entrance, as if had heard something.

Just an instant later, a wave of hostility struck Danica like a lightning bolt, her body already flowing with and around the wave even before an animal scream of terror reached her from the mouth of the tunnel. She blinked in surprised, recognizing Percival’s cry. Percivel hurtled towards them in blur of grey fur. Hot on his heels came hunched forms, the sound of their hungry slobbers carrying all the way down to the monk and the druid. A wall of stench crashed over them.

“Run, Danica!” Newander cried, jerking around to flee, terror rising from him like heat waves.

Danica did not move. Earth. Master Turkel’s gravelly voice whispered out of her training. Earth is still and stubborn. Earth sinks deep like the roots of the tree. Earth establishes territory. Her muscles starts melting, hanging on her bones like wet clothing put out to dry. Her aura expanded outwards and downwards. The pressure of battle mounted. She could feel the fritzy, edgy chaos barrelling towards her and the terror emanating in waves out of Newander, yet she sank deeper into the stillness in between the stillness. The greater the pressure, the calmer she assumed. Earth is stubborn. I will not be moved.

Danica settled into wujishi. The Neutral Stance. To all outwards appearance, she looked relaxed out of proportion to the promise of violence. Her left arm and shoulder hung down, palms open, knuckles facing the walking flesh. Her knees were slightly bent. Her right arm held the guttering torch, flame licking up level with her head. And as her aura sunk lower, the embrace of the Earth rose up to embrace her, lengthening and straightening her spine, wrapping around her right arm and the torch. The stench intensified. She smelled all the hundreds of varieties of rotting flesh coming towards her, and some smell she could not quite place. Who would have thought one could be so discerning of rot? She opened up her feet on the ground, just so, and let the power conduct through the very marrow of the bones. It coursed through her marrows like cold lightning, sudden and insistent.

When it reached her skull, her vision exploded. That which was seen fleetingly out of the corners of the eyes came out in full. The Divine Eye, the gravelly voice whispered out on the side, sees nothing and perceives everything. The inexperienced focuses on the nose, or the eyes, or the hands. Danica focused on nothing and saw everything. Eight skulking shapes whose movements were wrong. Not the wrongness of the awkward youths or the deliberate swagger of bullies whose broken spirit twisted their movements. But wrong or not, these walking flesh have bones, and bones are joined together the same as people. Ghouls are dead, so striking pressure points won’t bother them. Hitting the artery on the side of the neck won’t kill them. Kicking them in the groin won’t stop them. But bones and joints will break just the same. A sudden insight flooded through her. Ghouls are Hungry Ghosts made flesh. Master had taught her about Hungry Ghosts.

Percival had ran by her by then.

And here she’d make her stand. A fierce feeling of protectiveness expanded out of her chest, resonating with the power coursing through her bones.. Percival, the squirrel, was her friend. Dao De, her master whispered, is the Power of the Way. Wu De is the Power of the Heart. A Warrior’s Code of Honor flows out of love, not the other way around. The frozen lightening running through her bones started thrumming.

“They are undead,” the druid tried to explain. Dianca felt his terror leaching into the ground as she invoked Earth. He sounded steadier. Besides, it was too late to run. The druid gagged as he took another breath, but forced it out. “Ghouls. Do not let them scratch you. Their touch will freeze the marrow of your bones.” Dianca decided not to tell him her marrow was already freezing from her initial invocation. She nodded instead.

Ten heartbeats had passed since that first scream. And now the ghouls arrived.

Even as she heard the start of a Druidic chant, Dianca took her first step. A slow, deliberate walk, perfectly balanced. Earth Walking. The first undead entered her territory and leaped toward her. She let the weighted head of her torch fall, and with no break in her stride, casually guided it to a particular place, right above in line her hips. Where the undead’s eyeball happened to be. The undead’s momentum carried its rotting flesh straight into Dianca, impaling its head into her torch. The unique smell of burning, rotting flesh filled the air. I move last, yet I arrive first. The ghoul shrieked, sending a unnatural thrill through her bones like the discordant note.

Her left foot made contact with the ground. Power surged instantly through Dianca’s bones and reached through her hands, through the wooden torch, and exploded within the undead’s head. Not that anyone else can see it. The ghoul’s shriek suddenly cut off, though its echoes continue as if it can be heard from a shadowy plane. Still continuing the smooth motion, she delicately guided the momentum of the now very-much-dead undead into the ground behind her as if the torch were glued to the corpse. Earth is stubborn, so Water adapts, her teacher’s voice floated like clouds. Water flows, water embraces and water sticks. Lujin. Sticking Power.

Vines had entangled three of the ghouls in the back and broken the attack tempo of two more. Dianca thought she heard the druid wheezing. She resisted the temptation to hurry. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. The Way must be tread firmly. Her left leg having rooted, her right leg was already scything around, turning her in a full circle. Inside Single Palm Change. Power still extended through her body and into the torch, the guttering flame swung up and happen to catch the next ghoul under its jaw. Its tongue had the misfortune of lolling around at this inopportune time and was promptly severed. Don’t spit in the wind. Don’t argue with the rain. Don’t leave your tongue hanging out in the middle of a battle. Ah, ghouls.

Dianca continued the upward motion, letting the torch stick against the ghoul’s head, ever so slightly tilting it back. Lujin. Sticking Power. She used the ghoul’s forward momentum to arch its spine backwards. She was already stepping past the ghoul, its whole torso exposed and bent like a giant bow when a ball of flame slammed into the ghoul. Grandmaster says, it is good to have friends. She kept her smooth stride, already angling her body away towards the next ghoul, letting the tip of her torch slide over the ghoul’s head while maintaining a downward pressure like a bad day. Twisted beyond its tolerance, set on fire, the ghoul suddenly dropped to the ground thrashing. Dianca was already past it and stepping into the third ghoul’s territory. The Way must be tread firmly.

Seeing a meal, the third ghoul reared its right arm back big to take a swipe at Dianca. It was too big, too slow. Chimpanzees, the master whispered, flail with big, overhead strikes. You learn Piguaquan to refine this instinct yourself and to defend against the desperate and untrained. Master never said they smelled, too. She had already stepped past the most dangerous part -- the tip of a flailing attack -- and inside the space, the flaming end leading, her left hand loosely covering near her ear in case the ghoul followed through. Lion Parts Its Mane. It wasn’t necessary. The torch head had happened to make contact as the ghoul opened its mouth to scream. A surge of power through her bones, and her rooted leg in the front was suddenly swapped with the rear leg. Chicken Stepping. Torch aligned straight ahead, her rear leg drew another surge of power. She added a twist to flowing power. She felt the stone cracking beneath her rooted leg even as the torch drove the ghoul against the wall at an angle, pierced through the back of the skull, drilling into the stone. Crushing Fist.

Without stopping, she quick-turned smoothly away from the wall, leaving the ghoul pinned to the wall. Outside Single Palm Change.

Another ball of flame streaked by in front of her to catch the ghoul on her left.

Unarmed, her territory had shrunk. So Dianca deepened her inhale, and on her next exhale, let the edge of her aura become light and fluffy, flowing forward like a scout. Wind, her master whispered, holds onto nothing yet touches everything. It filled the space in front of her, around the ghoul, blending in with its hate of the living. Two steps. The ghoul suddenly leaped high for her head, mouth leading as if it couldn’t wait to bite her head off. But no surprise. She was already slipping between what sentience the ghoul had. Wind Stepping. It didn’t realize she wasn’t where it smelled she was. Power flowing through her bones intensified in the first two fingers of her right hand, and the whole hand plunged through the ghouls socket. Black Viper Flicks Its Tongue. Disgusting. Dianca released the surge of power and let it explode out, severing whatever unholy magic animated the ghoul; its body was already a dead weight.

Pulling her hand out now was too slow. Dianca continued her stride and smoothly quick-turned back to the middle of the corridor, the corpse now pushed in front of her like an oversized shield, hips guiding the rotten corpse to add leverage as if she were throwing a real person. Outside Single Palm Change. The meat shield caught the sixth ghoul’s flailing claws. It tried to tear her hand off, but a subtle twist, a sprinkling of Wind, and the ghoul’s unnatural strength pulled her hand out of the corpse for her. Arigatou gosaimas. Grandmaster says, always be polite to your enemies. Still carried by the momentum of tearing away the corpse, the ghoul exposed its face. Dianca stepped in. Her hand snaked to the ghoul’s jaw, pinning it before it could bite at her. Her right foot made contact with the ground, another surge of power flowed through her. She extended the power through her bones into the ghoul’s structure. Bone is still bone, alive or undead. And now, she controlled the undead’s body.

Another ball of flame whizzed by overhead. It caught on something, lighting up the entire tunnel.

Moving to an unexpected angle, still walking an unbroken stride, she carried the head one way and used her extended power to lock the ghoul’s body in place. Wind is tricky, Master whispered, Wind changes direction. It stretched out the ghoul’s body like a bow and hyperextended the neck. It happened to be in the way of another ghoul trying to attack her. The other ghoul’s attack landed on the ghoul in her hands, breaking the joint between skull and spine.

The ghoul was still trying to thrash though. Looks like a broken neck wasn’t enough. Dianca continued her step to another angle, this time exposing the other side of the skull cradle while evading the other ghoul’s hungry swipe. Crack! She reversed the angle again, and stepped to another corner. Charred remains of the eighth corpse stirring weakly crossed by her line of sight, interrupted by another failed attempt of the surviving ghoul. Crack! Another part of the cradle broken. And once more, she stepped to the last corner and twisted. The ghoul’s skull came off the corpse. She showed it to the surviving ghoul. Shiva Presents His Head. The ghoul was unimpressed. Of course. Dianca continued the motion, letting the power ride through her bones in what was normally a double palm strike. It threw the formerly undead ghoul’s head to its companion’s face. Tiger Catches the Swallow.

The ghoul batted the skull out of the way. Dianca didn’t expect it to do any damage, but no need to get sloppy now. She had already dropped down into a variant of the Diety’s Stance, rooted leg suddenly dropping from under her with the outflung leg catching the distracted ghoul in the side of the knee. Knees are not supposed to bend sideways. This ghoul’s knee bent sideways. It went down, still flailing, trying to eat Dianca.

Her body was already swinging around and coming up for some reason. Power flowed through her, and she flowed with the power. She didn’t question this. Her foot continue sweeping around. Inside Single Palm Change. Facing deeper into the tunnel, she saw movement. A long, wooden object was flying towards her, Newlander still posed in an overhand throw. Two unmoving piles of charred body parts lay in a heap near him. She continued the motion, just as she was taught, caught the staff and carried her momentum, aiming the tip at the ghoul’s eye socket. She breathed in deeper, and power from the skys above crashed through her like lightening, driving the staff through the ghoul into the stone underneath. Thunder not heard shook the spirit, cleansing the soul. The staff burrowed into the ground like a standard-bearer planting his flag, a web of cracks radiated out through stone.

It was suddenly silent.

She used the last of her momentum to spin around and come up smoothly, breathing in deeply. Her arms raised high above her, then palms touched as they floated down, as if she were ending one of her kata or maybe praying. Wei Tuo Offers His Vajra, Chases Away the Demons of the Heart. From her very first step to her last, from beginning to end, it had been one, single, continuous motion. She let all of it out, slowly, on her next exhale.

The world had waited with bated breath. Now Time started flowing again.