Treatment for the second month of withdrawal from “the Blessing” aka “steroids from heaven” was the same as the first: strenuous training. Today’s activity was digging a big bloody hole while wearing an unfashionable loincloth. Something more… engaging would have been preferable, except today I had the concentration of a testosterone poisoned teenaged boy. Sifu decreed today to be “mass displacement speed and capacity training”: digging a deep ditch as fast as I could.
“What’s wrong?” I asked when Sifu’s comment drifted down to me.
Sifu was wearing her Legion armor and full helmet. She was looking intently back towards the tower. “There are spectators with recording devices.” She kicked my clothes into the hole. ”Get dressed while I find out who they are.”
The latest iteration of the desert togs I was conditioned into appreciating plopped on my head. On the odd day when I could put together the thoughts to worry about what I was wearing, I lamented that my entire wardrobe consisted of an array of drab-colored long sleeve shirts, matching many pocketed pants and array of boots.
Most days I did not bother dressing, training in the briefiest of loincloths. Sivar made certain they were all bright red for some reason. It wasn’t a bad idea. My daily training included a lot of water-resistance work, and I was in and out of the massive lake-like pool in Sivar’s residence often during the day.
“Why bother,” Sifu had said over a year ago, at the start of training. “Clothes fatigue and tear. This way you can be frugal.” I think she was being somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
The optical injections of the Green Blessing were excruciating moments that became a prolonged, beneficial amphetamine rushes. My focus sharpened, my endurance yawned wide, and I became an engine, unaware of time until we stopped for the day and I barely made it to my rooms to collapse in a heap.
I can honestly say that I did not get to know my teacher. After the demon goo debacle, I plunged into a deep emotional withdrawal that was replaced by an obsessive drive to train and “get better” and “get stronger” so the bad men and women wouldn’t get me. By the end of the first month, the drive had become compulsive, and I really didn’t think about much else, trying to squeeze in as much time to train as possible.
In my head, that meant cutting out meals. It’s not like I needed prepared food, so I was ready to do without it. Sifu had been hilariously, egregiously scandalized when she decreed a meal break and I grabbed the nearest rock, took a few bites and went back to work. She sent for food, real food. When it arrived, she forced me to stop working, meditate and eat… slowly. It was horrible.
I think I may have been too resentful because it became a thing. At least once a day, usually at lunch, we would have a sit-down meal and Sivar would join us. We had useless small talk, and she and Sivar would ask me innocuous things about myself: favorite songs; what did I think of the city; how long had I been dead; have I been thinking about bedding any of the available men in the harem. In my turgid sphere of crazy, I began taking these interludes as an opportunity for another type of training: table manners, small talk, how to join conversation when I really, really did not want to. So, ultimately the food breaks weren’t so useless after all.
In the end we fell back to training. Sifu knew the Legion training techniques and expanded on them in an odd, mystical fashion that took what I knew and reaved the martial edges from the paradigm, generating a more fluid perception and application of divine force. She took Divine Blade, the two-dimensional blade technique, to ludicrous extrapolations. I found a sense of joy again, in Green Blessing’s halcyon emotion and cognitive bars. I embraced shadow and became less afraid of the dark. I learned to run and fly and not feel pain… although I was told that was a very, very bad thing.
“Pain lets you know when you are being stupid,” Sifu said firmly. “Do not stop feeling.” She disappeared for the rest of the day. “I need to meditate. Obey the Prelate.” Sivar appropriated me for a party that night. I was certain it was a cutting rebuke.
Occasionally, during lunch and dinner, Sifu would offer cautions. “The ability to wield the weapon manifestations of Chi is significant, but beware of those who utilize the interactions of Chi with the environment: those who wield Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, Wood, Metal, Lightning. They can turn the very world against you.”
“What do you do when that happens?” I asked.
“You turn to Shadow,” she responded. “Conceal yourself in darkness. Blind them with your shadow soul. Move into umbra of the dark sister of the world and out to render the battle turned.”
Over the last year, the euphoria of the Blessing kept everything at bay. Life outside of training had been reduced to a gallery of nice snapshots. But now, the supply she had brought was two months gone. Now, the joy was gone. Now, I was in pain all the time and she wouldn’t let me stop until I reached limits only she perceived. Now, I was digging ditches instead of making water dance.
I was usually clothed when we flew down, but the moment we were in the desert, I was in my bright red smallclothes. One of the personality ticks I had developed since the withdrawal set in was a thorough dislike of clothes. It was not a problem at home… well, in Sivar’s palace (except at parties), but I was obliged to when we left the palace.
Cursing our intruders under my breath, I shrugged on my pants, socks, and boots. My shirt hung open and I pulled on the hooded petitioner’s robe, which I wore when I tested. Sivar had kept it and presented it to me in front of far too many people at some function. It was supposed to be something to be cherished, and it was considered gauche to walk around in it.
I levitated to the edge of the hole to peer out, and saw the reflection of sun off of something peeking over a mound of sand about three hundred yards away. I looked directly upward and I saw the faint, small silhouette of something lazily circling the area.
The scent of the air around me changed, infused with the scent of Sifu’s prana. “Vycta, take off your robe and come to us please. We are just over the dune.”
I folded the robe and tucked it into my belt under my shirt, which I buttoned before arcing over to them, under a transparent bubble of purple prana.
“At least you’ve gotten away from those fucking pansy little disks on your feet,” said a voice. His name was Thud, one of the Rangers that served as witness for my induction. Tall, blonde crew cut, square-jawed, cornfed. In life he was a fighter-bomber pilot in Vietnam, where he died.
“Jealous?” I smiled. “Just because I could fly out of the shell and you had to learn….”
“Hello Yrek,” Desdemona purred. She was dangerous, which meant I had a firefly’s attraction to her flame. Her mutations had given her feline attributes. It was obvious she started as human, but she just did not move right: too smooth-jointed; too quiet; too aware. And she was fast, without using prana to augment her speed. She made my skin crawl and I could never put my finger on why. She was also a Ranger.
The unspoken question was, were they here to hunt demons?
Sifu stood aside from them, smiling slightly.
“Yrek is dead,” I said automatically. “But it is nice to see you as well Desdemona.”
“You say ‘Yrek is dead,’” she purred, her voice a smooth, rolling contralto, “But he is standing right in front of me.”
I started taking off my shirt.
“A floor show!” Desdemona said with mocking glee.
I showed her the brand, “Rewrote everything down to the Book. Yrek is dead.”
“Long live Vycta” Thud said rolling his eyes. “Dramatic much?”
“It was a dramatic situation, yes,” I replied. “What are you doing here, spying on us behind sand dunes?”
“We were paid to,” Thud replied. “Can’t tell you who, though. We weren’t told to keep it a secret, but I’d not tell you on principle.”
Desdemona abruptly turned to Sifu. “Are you Qin Wei-Lin?”
Thud’s head snapped around so hard, I heard the vertebrae in his neck strain.
Sifu became still. She was ‘I’m going to fuck this chick up’ still.
Desdemona bowed deeply to her, going to her hands and knees. “If you are, then we are part of the Sisterhood that was formed when women and outcasts fled the old Principalities of Man to seek our own destiny apart. Well, at least until Olympus fell and your great-great-grandmother returned to your home Principality to conquer and rule until this day.”
Desdemona spoke again a different language. The tension continued to sing in Sifu, but without its deadly intent.
Finally she said, “Please turn off your cameras.”
“Do it, Thud,” Desdemona ordered.
“We can work this,” Desdemona replied. “I need to do this.”
He sighed. “I will be over here making the drone look at the nice hole Yrek dug.”
Desdemona continued to keep her head bowed and Thud wandered off.
“Should I go, Sifu?” I asked.
“Stay,” Sifu said to me before turning back to Desdemona. “Sister, rise, this is not the Principality of Qin.”
Desdemona brushed herself off. “We were sent to look out for you by Prelate Sivar. Well, we were sent to look out for him.” She jerked her head at me. “The folks gunning for Yrek’s head have been using inter-principality politics and legal maneuvers to try and get access to him. They would not try a direct conflict especially since you, his ‘bodyguard,’ is clad in Legion Dreadnaught armor, meaning you could break a starship in half.”
Desdemona began pacing. “Sivar contacted me because something different is happening. Something big to do with Qin. I checked with some contacts and found out an armada including the Second-Royal Royal Junk left Qin through blackspace a week ago. Yesterday, it arrived at the the Northern Primate Observatory at the ‘north pole’ of the solar system. The ships dropped someone off and are headed back through blackspace, on a grand tour of prominent principalities. This is one of the planned stops.”
Sifu or rather, Qin Wei-Lin, was very very still. “Your contacts are very informed Sister.”
“Hippolyte and I are close; while she violently rejects a place in the Primacy, her visions are still sharp. She sees that your sister will come here. Not necessarily for you, for Sivar will have much pomp and celebration for a fellow female Prelate. No matter how distracted your sister is, her proximity is a danger to you Wei-Lin.”
Sifu paled. “I’m sorry Student, but I must end our time together.”
“Your… sister… is the Empress of Qin?” I asked.
“My twin sister is Qin Ann-meh, the Queen’s only surviving grandchild and heir. She speaks with my grandmother’s voice.” Sifu replied. “I must go.”
“The boy is still suffering from withdrawal from the Blessing,” Desdemona said. “Will he be able to manage without you?”
She sighed, radiating nervousness and fiery anxiety. “Not this early in the process.” The calm focus I used was flaking away in its flames of fear. She stepped into the sky and cried out, wincing and gasping around what seemed like physical pain. “I swore an Oath to help you completely through withdrawal didn’t I? I can’t believe I was so idealistic.”
Her armor hissed as she unsealed her gauntlet, baring her smooth jade-green hand. She made a reaching motion and produced, seemingly from thin air, an elephantine syringe with a comparatively tiny needle, filled with a blue fluid.
“Sedative,” she said. “Just in case you ever lost control.” She cleared the cylinder, ejecting the contents onto the sand, and began chanting under her breath. The local prana field shivered and shifted under the command of her Will. Divine power rushed into her accompanied by a tinnitus-like roar that I wasn’t sure if I was hearing.
After ten minutes or so, she jabbed the needle into her wrist and pulled back the plunger. A very brief splash of red blood sprayed the wall of the syringe followed by a steady gathering pool of glowing, bright green fluid. The rushing sound only seemed to get closer.
She drew a deep, shuddering breath and withdrew the needle. “Come here, Student.”
I defied her, standing still. “Sifu?”
She smiled wanly. “This will cure your withdrawal.”
“But the side-effects?” I asked.
“Your chi will spike and settle,” she replied. “But for the next year or so, any attempt to try and grow stronger will be met with pain. The cure will also keep the Blessing from working again during its time.”
“For how long?”
“A year,” she said.
“That means that I’ll break even?” I replied.
“No,” she replied. “This is not breaking even. With the blessing, you trained for eighteen to twenty hours a day, and were able to subsist on three to four hours of sleep a night. There is far more than a year of training within you and this is not a setback. You can still practice your finesse. Finesse is sometimes more important than raw power.”
I hesitated. “I can do it on my own… I don’t need this.”
“Give me your arm,” she replied. I shook my head and backed away. “Student, do as I say.”
A familiar sinking feeling crept into my gut, “No, just leave. Please, not again.”
“‘Not again,’ what?” she asked.
“A teacher betraying me,” I said.
“Yrek!” Thud interjected.
“They sent Paulos to kill me, Thud,” I replied. I turned to my tutor. “Do not do this. I can stand on my own.”
She reinserted the needle, chanted under her breath, and drew out another layer of blood. “I am sorry. Now, come here. You are not a match for me.”
She was right. “This is going to knock me out, isn’t it,” I said coming to her. “When I wake up, you will be gone.”
“It cannot be helped,” she said.
Unable keep the dejection out of my voice, I said “Yeah.” I steeled myself and gave her my left arm. “Goodbye Sifu.”
She sheathed the needle in prana and pushed it home. “I am no longer your Sifu. I sever our associations. I will not call upon you again and you will not call upon me.” My world flipped, turned, and went dark.
I woke up wracked by nausea, fading pain in my right arm. A wide eyed Chinese man in a vermilion robe decorated with gold leaves at the cuffs, collar, waist, and hem was backing away, holding a syringe of gold and glass still dripping with the remains of an injection of Green Blessing.
A door clanged shut. Clanged? I sat up, immediately processing what I was seeing: bars, wooden walls, a prison? Nausea boiled up, alerting me of an impending eruption.
I pinched myself, homing in on the pain and focusing. The fiery plume of vomit emerged, melting the door.
“That’s never happened before,” a vaguely familiar man’s voice exclaimed. I located him in the hall: bare chested, wearing vermillion breeches, tucked into polished black boots with golden fur around the edges, idealized Chinese features. I recognized him: a nameless denizen of Sivar’s harem.
“Where are the Rangers?” I asked.
“We ask the questions here!” the red-robed man replied. “Where is Princess Qin Wei-Lin?”
I stood up. I was naked except for a filty loincloth. “Where in the hell is my robe?”
“I told you,” the man in the red robe replied. “We ask the questions. Where is… “
I squinted my eyes shut. The room was being actively evacuated of prana. To get the power necessary to teleport, I would need to eat… a piece of wall was handy.
The red robed man muttered, “What in the seven heavens… “
The young man’s voice grew shrill. “This was a bad idea! I knew this was a bad idea!”
I stepped into darkness, emerging in my closet which had been set up as a long range blackspace teleport beacon. Arriving in the the closet was also useful because the piss rag on my hips was getting on my nerves.
I dressed quickly. Throwing the rag into a corner and locking my room on the way out, I ran at full speed to Sivar’s chambers. She was not there. A servant who seemed very surprised to see me said she was in her throne room.
I flew through the halls, outside to the ornate false gardens, and finally to the cathedral-like edifice where she was holding court.
I entered quietly, but the proceedings were noisy. A crowd of people was watching while a man in a silk robe with gold leaf read off a list of grievances to a bland faced Sivar, who was clutching a white robe in her hands. The rest of my clothes lay in a pile at her feet.
She noticed me and smiled.
I flickered, appearing behind the functionary, and punched him in the back of the skull. “Motherfucker.”
While he squealed and rocked back and forth on the floor clutching his head, I said, “Sorry, your Eminence, but you have a spy in your household.”
“I am glad to see you are safe,” she said simply. “Guards, take Lord Shen to the dungeons. Vycta, your fellow Rangers are in the palace hospital. They did not fail you.”
I bowed deeply. “Thank you, your Eminence.”
“Were you having an affair with Qin Wei Lin?” she asked with cursive directness.
“Never,” I replied. “I never gazed upon her with the reverence or the wonder which I have when I gaze upon you.”
“You were seen in her company several times without clothes,” she replied.
“And?” I replied. “I was exercising. I prefer to preserve my clothing from that kind of wear and tear. Besides I was not naked, I was in a fundoshi.”
“She was touching you,” she said firmly.
“Instruction,” I replied. “Nothing more.”
“So you say.” An aggrieved note crept into Sivar’s voice. “A Prelate for a Princess, eh?”
“No, your Eminence!” The dance of the drama began to intensify and I knew the beats. No one was lying. She was making assumptions threading the line between knowing she was only my teacher and hinting that impropriety could be inferred. She was preparing to save herself from the situation.
She stood and my things floated over to me along with some other things I did not recognize. I clutched them to me, “Sivar… “
She blazed, “I am Prelate Sivar, not some down-below plaything! I will be addressed properly!”
“I would not know how, since you are indulging in gossip like a wasteland drudge.” It was a risk.
“I hereby revoke your favored status. You will leave this property immediately! Get out of my sight!”
I froze, real fear on my face. I had not expected… that. My fear hardened to resolve. “As you wish.” (by Hank T Cannon)