Runic/Vire - Synaesthesia

It's an oldie but a goodie. One of my first short stories ever to hit the rough draft state. Think of this as the remastered version.

Follow the journey of Liko and his brother companions on their way through arduous trails towards Monkhood. Meditation, discipline, and sacrifice are the means in which to climb the ranks of this tightly wound order.

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Author's note

Edited by epiccake

1. Synaesthesia

 

 

The crisp morning air heightened his senses, silver in his lungs. He watched the sun peek curiously over the distant horizon, his arms burning under the weight of the two full buckets of water stretched out either side of him. A wooden bar pressed into the arch of his left foot. He easily maintained his balance. Not a drop of water was spilt. The nine other Khaolin students behind him were facing the same trial. He briefly wondered if any had failed their first task. The silence speaks legions, he realized. None of his brothers had failed yet.

Mahi admired the glistening dewdrops that clung to the strands of grass growing on the training ground, relieved with the knowledge of his fellow students’ present success. The enormous square of grass cut into the side of the mountain lay at the foot of the Khaolin temple. A single footstep of stone separated the edge of the grass in front of Mahi from the sheer drop beyond. Over the cliff, the Cerulean Plains stretched out in their eternally writhing beauty, reflecting the sun's graceful rays. Behind him, Mahi knew were endless valleys, between the colossal snow-capped peaks that tore through the skies. Somewhere out there, his family must be praying for him in their village. I am honoring them with my training. I must get my Crane.

The dew shone brighter as the sun rose over the horizon, pouring its full light over all ten Khaolin students and their overseer, Liko. Liko sat on the grass in the same orange silk robes Mahi and the other students wore. The chill air prickled his skin but Mahi had grown accustomed to the gooseflesh.

One slight move, one drop spilled and Mahi would relinquish the right to his Crane for an entire year. He would dishonour his family and force them to starve for another twelve months. Those Khaolin students who successfully completed the trials would receive the Crane tattoo on the back of their necks. Their families were compensated for their loss of a son by a jade plaque that afforded them access to grain and water stores. The black crane with wings outstretched represented their acceptance into the Khaolin monkhood. Five years of training had led to this day.

All ten students faced the waves and salty spray of the Cerulean Plains. Liko sat behind them, making them vulnerable to the agonizing scrutiny he endlessly perpetuated. Mahi felt Liko’s eyes on his back but he suppressed the instincts to rub the cramp from his foot, to throw the buckets to the ground and relieve his tired arms, to give up; to throw away his Crane. It was the one thought he couldn’t bear. Unmoving, his face expressionless, Mahi remained balanced on his left foot, his right ankle resting on his left thigh, his breathing, deep and even. The sun rose overhead, the orange ball passing over him and out of view. He closed his eyes. A bucket clattered to the ground. Black splashed onto Mahi’s eyelids. Water sloshed into the grass. Metallic turquoise dripped over the black on the amorphous canvas behind Mahi’s eyelids.

Silence followed. Silver rain fell through his mind washing the other colours away.

A few moments passed.

Footsteps, barely audible. The faintest white padded through Mahi’s mind as if an infant had walked through paint and left white footprints behind.

Making no outward reaction, Mahi mourned silently for whoever just lost their Crane. He had no idea what the other trials that awaited him would be but he didn’t let his mind linger on that fact. He stayed wholly focused on the task at hand and the world around him.

As he began to suck in another deep breath, two claps rang out across the nine students. Two students’ buckets clattered to the ground behind Mahi. Black, turquoise... silver flashed behind his eyelids. No footsteps. No white.

It was a standoff between the other students now. They were allowed to give up. Liko had signaled the conclusion of the first trial but still Mahi laboured, the buckets weighing heavily on his arms. Seven remained balanced on their wooden poles contesting him.

Two more dropped their buckets after a few minutes.

Another three in the next hour.

It was Mahi and another. Shulin remains, Mahi knew, He will not fall as long as I stand. I know it. The tiniest of smiles tugged at Mahi’s lips as he swelled with pride for his friend.

Two more hours passed, the light was sinking away behind the horizon Mahi couldn’t see.

“Enough!” Liko called out. They had other trials to complete. Mahi spun on his pole, still balanced, still not one drop had spilled. He faced his dearest friend Shulin who stood calm and composed on one of the poles in the furthest row from the cliff. Their eyes met, Shulin winked, his face still hidden from Liko. Mahi didn’t risk winking back. Dropping lithely off his pole, he placed the two buckets down gently on the grass without a sound. Shulin did the same. Mahi strode towards the waiting group of Khaolin students clothed in their orange robes that hung off their densely muscled bodies. As he passed Shulin they clasped forearms and pressed their foreheads together.

“Well done, Brother,” Shulin whispered.

Mahi answered, squeezing Shulin’s arm and returning the wink now that Shulin was blocking him from Liko’s view. They proceeded to walk on to the rest of the students.

The soreness in Mahi’s arms had dissipated as he had set down the buckets. Rubbing his biceps and forearms, he tensed them as his fingers washed over the flesh. He felt the hardened muscles there that were like rocks beneath his olive skin. Some of the others did the same. Looking over the group of Khaolin students, Mahi searched for the one whose Crane had been forsaken. Liko noticed his sweeping gaze.

“Chun Li fell.” Liko’s voice was deep and smooth but Mahi detected a hint of sadness. I won’t disappoint you Liko, Mahi thought, not like Chun Li.

Without another word Liko spun away, his robes swirling. He sprinted away over the enormous field of green grass. The students followed. They were at the foot of the Khaolin Temple. A beautiful structure, its roof like falling feathers, curved inwards with a spire in the centre. Four white pillars held up the roof that stretched over the entrance; a flat sheet of rock where the Masters trained. Two of the Masters watched as the nine Khaolin students and Liko swept across the training ground. They were bald like all the Khaolin students and Khaolin monks, but the Masters wore red robes and had passed every physical trial. In their decaying bodies, the Masters only sought enlightenment in their lives now, spending days and even weeks in meditation.

Meditation.

Sweat broke out on Mahi’s forehead and the back of his neck. There was no way he would fail any trial of the physical form, no way that he wouldn’t get his Crane. But if there was mediation... I can’t think about that now. If it is in the trial I will beat it.

I have to beat it.

Mahi was on Liko’s heels, Shulin by his side. They weaved barefoot through the ranks of balancing poles set wide enough to practice a perfect split. The group passed at least forty individual poles. Mahi thanked Liko silently. Glaring at the short poles, Mahi thought of the hours of stretching he’d endured to perfect his split.

The Khaolin Temple was left behind them as they left the grass field of the training ground. The smooth, cold stone of Mount Kumu eased the cramp in the arch of Mahi’s left foot. He gazed up into the narrow pass that lay before them. Wei Pass was but a crevice in the flat wall of rock that flanked the left side of the Khaolin Temple. The Temple itself was nestled in the breast of Mount Kumu whose peak was white capped.

Liko stopped at the entrance to the pass which led to the Wei Pool at the peak of Mount Kumu. Mahi had tasted the icy waters only once but had ventured to the peak many times. It was peaceful without scent or sound. Meditation came easy to him while he sat by the Wei Pool.

The students grouped at the mouth of Wei Pass, an orange cluster of bald fifteen year olds. They waited patiently, none breathed hard or had broken a sweat from exertion. Liko’s robes dropped to the ground. He wore only a loincloth, his body was hardened and lean. He turned and ran into the pass, his bare feet crunching in the snow that lightly covered the ground. Nine Khaolin robes fell to the ground and nine Khaolin students followed Liko into the crevice. Revelling in the cold on his bare skin, Mahi let himself be rejuvenated and awakened by the chill. He followed Shulin who was trailing Liko and for a few moments they ran directly toward the heart of Mount Kumu. Liko darted to the right, around a bend in the pass. It looked as if the rock had swallowed him.

Familiar with the path, Mahi knew it snaked down the side of the mountain from its peak, zigzagging first right and then left and then back again, taming the gradients. Snow crunched under Mahi’s hardened soles where the ground was flat, but as the pass grew steeper, the Wei Steps pushed out from the rock floor between the narrow walls and there was no snow covering the ground. First year Khaolin students had the duty of clearing the Wei Steps every morning and evening. Mahi felt a pang of sympathy for those who had done it today but acknowledged the necessity of the job. The way would be treacherous and slippery if the smooth rock was slicked with ice and snow. It wasn’t so much a problem while they were contained between the two rock walls rising either side of the Wei Steps but those walls gradually shrunk lower and lower, the higher one climbed.

...

The wall to Mahi’s right had receded below his waist now. Beyond was oblivion; more snow-capped mountains poking from the earth like the jagged teeth of a carnivorous beast. The sun was sinking behind those nameless mountains pulling the moon into the sky in its wake. As Mahi gazed upon the immense beauty of the peaks, he marvelled at his insignificance in this immense material world. He thought back to the final Khaolin Trial he now faced. There will not be meditation in the trial. There rarely is. Liko told me the last time meditation was in the Final Trial was... A frown creased Mahi’s forehead, his black eyebrows speckled with white snow as he thought back to their conversation. ...five years ago? Liko wouldn’t lie to me.

Throwing his eyes back to Shulin’s feet, Mahi concentrated on the Wei Steps; focused on the present, on what faced him in the current moment. Fears, doubts and worries are manifestations of the mind. Mahi chanted the Khaolin mantra in his mind as he climbed and climbed and climbed, pushing away all other thoughts. The cerulean in the sky was peeled away to reveal the sparkling stars that freckled in the night beneath. The stars lit the group’s way as they climbed the steps of the Wei Pass. It took Mahi a whole day, from dawn till dusk to get to the Wei Pool at this pace. He had made the journey many times and he had a feeling it wasn’t the Wei Pool they were going to tonight.

The pass twisted and turned constantly, some parts were steeper than others and occasionally the path even took them down the mountain before it rose steeply at the completion of the descent. Occasionally to their left were clearings of rock and they even passed the small niche in the mountain where the First Year Khaolin Students designated to the duty of clearing the Wei Steps slept. The two small doe-eyed boys huddled in the alcove had nodded to Mahi as he ran past. He smiled his thanks to them briefly, a glint of sadness in his eyes as he realised his little brother Yuko must be about their age by now. He can’t come here, Mahi thought, knowing that he could not forgive his parents if they sent Yuko in his wake. A year can be an eternity for a starving family. Mahi knew only too well. Yuko was their only other son. If I don’t succeed they might be desperate enough...

Mahi couldn’t let that happen.

He and the other Khaolin Students could have maintained the pace Liko set all day but they didn’t need to. Close in front, Liko was swallowed by the mountain again just as Mahi glimpsed the glowing moon directly overhead. Shulin was consumed by the rock face as well and Mahi followed in their wake.

Passing through the doorway of rock that was cut into Mount Kumu, he found himself in a cavernous room. He stood in a cavern that had been carved from the black rock of the mountain by age old Masters. There were three rooms like this on the Wei Pass. They had passed one on the climb; this was the second of the three. Icy sleet prickled his toes as he peered into the thickening darkness to the back of the room. The end of the cavern was lost in deep shadow, but as he stepped further into the blackness, the snow beneath his feet deepened. Ankle deep in the ice, Mahi paused, watching Liko push through to the back of the cavern, slowly being swallowed by the darkness. The Khaolin overseer waded through waist deep white snow with Shulin close behind him.

Somebody squeezed past Mahi. With a short gasp Mahi pushed himself onwards cursing himself silently. I can’t stop and gape like a First Year. This is the Final Trial. He grinded his back teeth together, angry with himself as he overtook Monhu, the student who had pushed past him. Running had kept him warm in the freezing air despite his only clothing being his loincloth. The cool fingers of wind had caressed his burning muscles before, but now they grew sharp. Sharp and merciless with a tightening and icy vice like grip.

As he stepped into the snow and pushed onward into the dark cavern, the ice leeched all the heat from his legs. He watched Liko stride on through the snow until the overseer disappeared around a bend in the black stone walls. Mahi followed, the snow gradually rising to his abdomen as he reached the pitch black bend where the cavern was so narrow he could have touched both sides if he stretched his arms out. He pressed on, listening to Shulin who was labouring through the snow in front of him in the fading light. The way was not made easier by following close behind Shulin; the snow fell back into place as quickly as Mahi’s friend pushed it apart with his body.

The light leaking through the doorway to the cavern ran out as the walls narrowed and curved to the right. As Mahi reached the middle of the bend in the hallway of rock, the darkness blanketed him. Lifting a hand from the snow and passing it in front of his eyes, Mahi saw nothing. He was mildly amused by how easily he could tell whether his eyes were closed or not. For when his eyelids drew together, the cavern seemed to be illuminated with colours. The chattering of his own teeth sent clicks of black across the black of his eyelids. Sliding across the black flashes were strips of grey that faded and thickened with the sound of skin sliding across snow. His breathing sent puffs of silver that shimmered and dissipated with the rise and fall of his chest.

The black canvas melted into carmine red as the darkness eased and eventually lifted. Mahi’s eyelids drew apart as the cavern opened up again. A round room was illuminated by a hole in the ceiling. Liko stood shivering in the circle of moonlight that leaked into the cavern, the snow up to his neck. Shulin joined him, teeth chattering, and neck deep in the freezing cold ice. Mahi followed and stood with them, the snow around his collarbone. The rest filed in and they stood in a circle under the moon in the dark cavern.

Mahi gazed up into the night sky, the moon was directly above them shining its brilliant light upon their freezing bodies. The same moon shining on Yuko, he thought, reminiscently. Mahi settled himself as best he could into the snow but as he found a position where the snow supported his weight the cold ice made him feel incredibly tired. He stood up as tall as he could and tensed every muscle in his body. A little warmth seemed to emanate from deep within him. Tall and tensed Mahi stood amongst his Khaolin Brothers hoping Liko wouldn’t make them stay here too long. We will die if we remain still in this ice, he thought, wondering how this trial would work. It is a trial of will, Mahi realised. If any leave before Liko, they will trade their Crane for warmth.

Liko’s whisper was a thunder crack in the silence.

“Some of you will last longer than others.” The overseer let the words hang in the air for at least a minute.

He made eye contact with every one of them before continuing in a whisper that echoed in the cavern.

“We leave when the moon passes over us.”

That would be hours, Mahi thought, horrified. His blood would cease its pumping in that time. The ice would freeze them all into corpses.

“If any of you pass into unconsciousness or stop shivering, it means the cold has taken hold and you will die...” Liko paused again looking each one of them in the eye, “...unless you are removed from this cave.”

Nine Khaolin students stood silently in the moonlight, the only sound the chattering of their teeth and the quick breaths of mist that escaped between their azure lips. They looked at each other wide eyed. They had heard of deaths in the Final Trials of the past. Many of them had dismissed the rumours as false; thinking they were designed to scare the students and test their mental steel.

Liko spoke again. “I will not save any of you. Even if it is my dearest desire to prevent one of your deaths, I will refrain from doing so until the moon has passed from our view.” He looked up into the tube of rock that was carved out of the ceiling as the trial was truly laid before them. “If you choose to save one of your Brothers from death, you sacrifice your Crane.”

No. Mahi met Shulin’s eyes. They had the same thought.

With that, Liko shut his eyes, leaving the Khaolin Students to their trial. Each of them watched the others intently in case somebody stopped shivering and was still. If they weren’t shaking, death would soon follow.

After few minutes of agonising cold, Liko opened his eyes, surveying each of them slowly. Bald heads, olive skin and purple lips greeted his view as Mahi knew but everyone was still shaking. As Liko’s gaze swept over the last of them he went back to the first and repeated this process constantly, never letting his eyes close again.

Looking out of the cavern toward the moon, Mahi craned his neck up to see its progress across the sky. As he did, so did seven others. The moon had barely moved. We are all dead, Mahi thought once more, resigning himself to the chattering of his teeth and the involuntary shaking of his body.

Liko’s voice, an explosion after the many minutes of silence.

“Monhu.”

Mahi’s heart missed a beat. Monhu was beside him, his chin half concealed by the white snow.

His eyes were closed.

No. My Crane. Yuko. My family. It can’t be me.

The eight Khaolin Students’ eyes darted around in their heads, appealing to one another to save their Brother. They shared a mild dislike for Monhu, but none wanted to see him die. He had been their Brother for the five years since they had been taken from their families. He was their family now. Their Brother.

It can’t be me. It can’t. I can’t save you Monhu.

Mahi looked to Liko. Liko had shut his eyes again, his teeth chattering, he would not help Monhu.

Mahi pored his gaze into Shulin’s face, unable to read the internal battle he knew was raging within his friend. Shulin’s eyes were riveted on Monhu. Don’t do it Shulin. I will barely see you for a whole year if you do, Mahi silently pleaded, Shulin... DON’T.

Mahi knew Shulin’s values. Above all he valued friendship and life. The Crane meant a great deal to him, but not more than Monhu’s life. Mahi thought back to his own third year as a Khaolin Student.

...

Shulin stood during one of their meditation sessions. Ignoring the vehement chastising of a Khaolin Master, Shulin walked to the corner of the room to pick up a rat that had entered the Temple. The creature was on the brink of death. Its ribs pushed through its skin, its neck so thin Mahi thought it would snap under the weight of its head which was fleshless; a skull with deep set, beady black eyes hanging from its shoulders. None of the other nine Khaolin Students had moved to support Shulin as he slipped his fingers gingerly under the rat and lifted it from the cold floor.

None except Mahi. Mahi had no care for the rat but would share in his friend’s punishment. He had questioned Shulin on that moment for weeks. The only reply he had extracted from his friend after weeks of asking was the outburst, “It was suffering and I could help, Mahi! I had to save it.” The rat had slept with Shulin, shared his meals and hid in his robes as he trained. For months he nursed it back to health before finally it leapt free of his robes during meditation one day and scurried out of the temple, fat and pink, never to return. Shulin’s countenance expressed a happiness so deep and genuine that Mahi had never seen such joy in his friend since.

...

Shulin... no...

Shulin was red faced; furious. He glared around at the others who hadn’t moved to help Monhu as he trudged through the snow. Even at Mahi. The guilt plastered on all their faces spoke of how much they cared about their Cranes... and how little they cared for Monhu. It had only been moments since Liko had spoken Monhu’s name but it had felt like an eternity as Mahi watched his friend, wordlessly begging him not to surrender his entry into the Khaolin Monkhood.

It was done. Shulin dragged Monhu through the snow with astonishing speed. The rage in his eyes was implacable. Shulin disappeared with Monhu’s unconscious form in tow through the dark bend of the cavern.

Seven students and Liko stood shivering in the neck deep snow.

He left me. Mahi’s throat was clogged with guilt and sadness. I’ll still be able to see him... if I don’t get my Crane, Mahi thought, toying with the idea of leaving the cavern to be with his friend. I can’t. Somewhere out there Yuko is starving. Shulin’s departure had made Mahi near inconsolable. Tears threatened to fall from his eyes, he clenched his teeth so he wouldn’t sob his anguish out into the night.

I can’t leave now. I need my Crane. I’ll be a Khaolin Monk with my Crane... like Liko, Mahi thought. The mere prospect of training his own Khaolin Students and being able to drink from the Wei Pool any time he wished... was a dream. A dream where his family was fat and we would finally be at peace.

A dream worth more to Mahi than Monhu’s life.

Mahi listened to Shulin drag Monhu over the snow. As the sound faded from his ears, Mahi looked up into the night sky, not to look at the moon, but so the tears welled up in his eyes didn’t roll down his cheeks. A minute passed.

Liko pushed through the seven bald heads that still poked through the snow. Looking at the others, Mahi waited for them to follow Liko and exit the cavern. They slowly moved single file in Liko’s wake. Mahi saw only the backs of their heads. He poked his hand through the snow, wiping the tears from his eyes. Standing under the moon, Mahi mourned the loss of his friend, before clawing through the snow, his legs working hard to push through the ice that might have killed Monhu.

...

Emerging back onto Wei Pass, Mahi followed Tenyo, his Khaolin Brother out of the cavern. Mahi’s loincloth was as soaked as his legs and chest. He enviously watched Tenyo walk free of the snow completely naked and pick up a loincloth from the entrance of the cave which he now held by two fingers. He must have stripped before entering the snow, Mahi realised, admiring the idea.

Pulling off his own loincloth, Mahi stepped lightly up the steps behind Tenyo whose lean backside reflected the moonlight. Where are Shulin and Monhu? Mahi thought worriedly. His mind was put at ease as Tenyo slowed and the walls of the pass opened up. A fountain of water stood in the centre of a small stone courtyard. Mahi rushed past Tenyo to stand beside his seven Brothers who stood around Monhu’s prone form. Shulin had stripped Monhu of his loincloth and lay naked beside his Brother.

Liko had stood waiting for the last of the nine students to enter the stone clearing. Water trickled quietly from a leaping Koi fish's gaping mouth into another Koi’s mouth, but the second was half submerged in the pool of water at the base of the fountain. The leaping Koi was made of white marble, the submerged, of black marble. Mahi got a glance of the familiar tableau before Liko’s voice broke the air.

“All of you with dry silk, give the material to me now,” he ordered.

Four Khaolin Students strode forward and handed their loincloths to Liko.

“The rest of you strip down,” he continued, “and all of you get yourselves dry.”

Liko placed the dry material on the edge of the fountain so they stayed of the cold, wet ground. No snow had fallen this night but traces always remained on the stone floor of the Wei Pass. It could not be helped. Liko sprinted up the pass leaving Shulin and Monhu behind. Mahi followed him and the six other students followed Mahi. After a few minutes of the wind passing over his moving body, Mahi watched Liko stop and turn around to face him. The Khaolin Monk beckoned for Mahi to do the same and the seven Khaolin students proceeded to run back down to the stone clearing where Shulin lay shivering with Monhu.

First of the students to leave the clearing, Mahi was the last to return. The others were crowded around the prone forms of their two Brothers as he re-emerged beside the trickling fountain.

He’s dead! Mahi thought, abhorred at the sight of Monhu’s body. Monhu’s chest did not rise or fall. Gaping mouths and tear filled eyes gazed down morosely at Monhu. Liko stepped in front of them and clapped his hands together with an exploding SNAP!

“Mahi, Rhyu, Tenyo. Flat on your stomachs,” Liko commanded loudly, his voice cracking in the icy wind. “NOW!” Liko bellowed, his voice the loudest, and angriest Mahi had ever heard it.

Mahi fell to the ground, his right shoulder pressed against his brother Rhyu’s. Tenyo was positioned identically, on the opposite side of Rhyu. The three Khaolin Students lay side by side on their stomachs, their muscular shoulders touching. A bed of warm flesh.

“Shulin, help me lift Monhu onto them,” Liko said.

Together, Khaolin Monk and Student lay Monhu on Rhyu’s naked form. Rhyu lay in the between Tenyo and Mahi.

“The rest of you on top of Tenyo and Mahi!” Liko’s voice rang out over the trickling of the fountain.

As the four other Khaolin Students clambered onto their Brothers who flanked Rhyu, Liko placed one loincloth over Monhu’s feet and the rest over his still body.

It’s useless, he’s dead, Mahi thought sadly, struggling to breathe beneath the weight of two of his Brothers. Their bodies built a shrine of warm, dry flesh around Monhu who lay unmoving.

“Shulin, with me,” Liko instructed as he positioned himself laying across the two stacks of bodies to form a ceiling of flesh above Monhu, careful not to touch the Khaolin student’s chest which was barely moved. Shulin followed suit, completing the shrine of Khaolin flesh.

Warmth seeped through the group despite the freezing air. Colour returned to their lips, their faces blushing slightly red. They lay there encasing Monhu until the moon fell over the horizon. A box of anxiety; of worry for Monhu was trapped in Mahi’s chest.

It wasn’t until the fresh light of dawn warmed the air that Monhu’s eyes opened. A fit of coughing wracked his body. He spoke in a weak, scratchy voice, “What happened?”

A collective sigh of relief seemed to release from all of them and Shulin burst out laughing. The box in Mahi’s chest broke apart and he started laughing too. The relief that burst free from the box gushed through him like liquid sunlight. The laughter of the group lasted only a few seconds as the shrine of flesh collapsed apart and Monhu was helped to his feet by Liko.

Monhu’s arms were slung over the shoulders of Shulin and Liko. The seven other Khaolin Students who had watched Shulin save Monhu’s life without a word or a movement to help him stood in a semicircle surrounding their Khaolin Brother.

“Shulin,” Liko muttered, “take Monhu back to the monastery. Tell them of what happened. Stay with him until he regains his strength.”

Shulin moved off towards the Wei Pass again, supporting his Khaolin Brother who had nearly frozen to death and was heavily leaning on his shoulder. As the two took the first step, Shulin cast a glance over his shoulder at Mahi, whose eyes were threatening to overflow with tears.

Liko’s next words were too much. “Monhu, Shulin...” He let their names hang in the air for a few moments as they both turned their heads, knowing what they would hear. “...you both failed. Speak to no one of this until I return to the temple.”

They nodded their heads sullenly before turning and melting into the darkness of the Wei Pass. Tears rolled down Mahi’s face as he watched Shulin disappear. I won’t see him for a year... maybe more. Mahi turned his head away from Liko and wiped away the tears with the back of his hand so the Khaolin Monk did not see. Saying nothing for a while, Liko simply stared at the group of seven bald, naked, shivering boys before him. His own bald head and bushy black eyebrows were drawn into a frown that was bordering on a scowl.

“Shulin and Monhu will receive their Cranes upon their arrival at the monastery,” Liko told them.

He maintained his piercing gaze at the group of Khaolin Students. Some glared back defiantly while others hung their heads in shame, remembering their dying friend Monhu. Mahi did neither. His gaze fell down the Wei Pass, behind his best friend. Shulin got his Crane! Mahi had to suppress a smile. The happiness glowed inside him and he knew in that moment that he would get his Crane as well. Mahi was certain. Nothing would come between him and Shulin and his monkhood and the safety of his family.

Mahi threw his gaze back to Liko just as Liko turned back up the Wei Pass. The remaining Khaolin Students followed him up the dark, narrow path away from their two Brothers. No, not Brothers. Overseers now.

Khaolin Monks.

...

They climbed and climbed and climbed through the night, their bare skin freezing in the icy teeth of the wind that became even colder the higher they ascended. The steps grew steeper and steeper and they could no longer run. So steep did they become, the steps were like a wall. Mahi’s hands pulled him further up Mount Kumu. A thin layer of ice slicked the stone steps that were cut from the mountain and Mahi’s fingers were freezing up. The wind howled about his head, its ominous whistle dripping with molten gold as his eyes drew shut. For a few moments Mahi closed his eyes letting his instincts take over the climb. He followed a ribbon of gold that twirled behind his eyelids as if some tiny invisible ribbon dancer spun inside his skull. Ice crunched overhead. The ribbon of gold weaved between tiny exploding brown clouds. Mahi’s eyes opened.

An enormous block of ice slid off the face of Mount Kumu, grating along the rough black rock towards the group of Khaolin men. Mahi pressed himself flat against the wall of ice and rock to his left as he watched the block pass cleanly overhead. Wei Pass was designed narrow to protect any Khaolin men from avalanche or ice fall.

The group pressed on up through the pass. Mahi knew where Liko must be taking them. Kami Al Hen Dojo. The dojo above the clouds. Each time Mahi travelled past the dojo, he marvelled as he passed through the puffy white ceiling of the sky. His eyes locked on a Khaolin Brother’s calloused bare foot as it moved off the step above him. The first time I made this climb my feet bled. The memory made Mahi feel stronger. His body had hardened from his training over the years and soon all of it would amount to the honour of being a Khaolin Monk. The honour and the peace. No longer would Mahi lie awake at night, his mind in turmoil as he worried about his family and wished for the Final Trial to arrive sooner. The Final Trial had come and now he must prove himself.

The pass became so steep, the steps were just hand and footholds Mahi used to pull himself up. Looking high above over six naked forms also labouring up the mountain, Mahi saw Liko. He watched as Liko was engulfed by a heavy grey cloud. The Khaolin Students were swallowed in turn.

Pushing his head into the cloud, Mahi stuck his tongue out and felt the moisture fill his warm mouth. He swallowed the few drops of icy water, thrusting the rest of his body into the cloud as the cloud itself trickled down his throat. Hours of climbing had passed since they left the clearing with the Koi fountain and with each step Mahi left behind he grew more confident he would receive his Crane. The thick, wet mist of the cloud encompassed Mahi, his eyes met nothing but a wall of white in every direction.

Mahi’ reached his fingers toward the next step. They met warm flesh. The column had stopped. Liko must have reached the dojo, Mahi thought, returning to the climb as the foot he had touched began moving up the mountain again.

Glancing around him at the clouds that stretched out across the sky in every direction, Mahi stopped for a brief moment. They appeared as solid as the rock beneath his feet. He locked the familiar image in his mind as the steep wall of steps ceased and he pulled himself bodily over the final one. It was a flat sheet of pitch black stone large enough to fit two men. To Mahi’s left was a clean cut doorway that led into the dojo. As he stood at the dojo entrance, looking back down at the steps he had just ascended, a queer image of his broken and bloodied corpse tumbling end over end down the sharp rocks invaded his mind. He turned quickly into the dojo, dipping his head under the doorway; a clean square hole which had been cut out of the rock. The entire dojo was a hollowed out cavern within Mount Kumu.

The third room on the Wei Pass.

The room was large. Mahi counted eleven Khaolin Monks meditating on the bamboo mats that covered the black stone floor. His heart sank as his stomach rose into his chest. NO! Their legs crossed, feet resting on top of knees. The ceiling was low, illuminated by candles that were lit along the furthest wall. NO. The air was smokey and a thick, sour smell filled Mahi’s nostrils making his eyes water and a red hot coal burn through his left big toe. Grimacing in pain as the smell tugged his left foot forward by the burning coal, Mahi’s eyes widened in disbelief. NO! NO! NO! As he jolted forward, he masked the movement quickly by striding around the group of unclothed Khaolin Students. Mahi stared disbelievingly at his foot as the intense burning lingered. Some of his Khaolin Brothers set their eyes on him questioningly. With each breath, some invisible force pulled at his toe. It can’t be... Now this pain too?! He thought despairingly. Only with an immense effort did he keep his foot under control, his calf muscle tensed and bulging from his leg.

Meditation. No... it can’t be meditation.

Liko led the seven Khaolin students past the meditating monks in silence, their bare skinned bodies cloaked in the foul smelling but strangely warm smoke. Following in silence, Mahi grit his teeth against the burning pain in his toe. Fists clenched, in white-knuckled balls, he forced himself to sit on the bamboo mat amongst his Khaolin Brothers. Liko sat facing them, his eyes closed, his feet resting on top of his knees.

I have to close my eyes, Mahi realised as he stared at Liko, red faced, veins bulging on his forehead as he fought the pain in his toe that was slowly spreading through the rest of his foot. Mahi knew Liko would open his eyes and watch them. If he saw so much as a movement, the meditation trial would be failed and a Crane would be lost. Clenching his teeth so tight it was painful, Mahi let his eyelids close and tried to take deep breaths. Crimson dripped, azure flowed, silver puffed and gold twirled. Cerulean slithered, incarnadine streaked and white left footprints on the black canvas behind his eyelids. Thousands of hues of colours danced erratically as if someone had poured different coloured paints down an enormous ants nest and the ants had fled in an array of colours. So quickly and confusingly did they move, that Mahi’s eyes rolled around in his head instinctively and unavoidably. A throbbing ball of agony began to form in the centre of his skull, growing larger and larger as his body filled with more of the smoke. A frown creased his forehead as Mahi fought the pain. I can endure maybe minutes of this... Mahi thought, anguished and distraught, tears streaming from the gap between his eyelids. Tensing his entire body, Mahi dared to open his eyes before the pain grew so bad he would be forced to scream.

Liko met his eyes.

No... no. Liko please... please... my Crane... my family...

Liko shook his head slowly. Disappointed.

Mahi felt his insides burst and writhe. FIVE YEARS AMOUNTED TO NOTHING. MY FAMILY STARVING. I WON’T SEE SHULIN FOR A YEAR. The conflagration that burned within him consumed everything, engulfing his entire being. Mahi stood, tearing at his head and clawing at his skull until there was blood beneath his nails. Crimson dripped over his cheeks as he stepped through his Brothers, turning and staring at their placid, calm faces, none of them even struggling to fight the colours and the burning and the pain in their skulls.

“How!” He screamed, pulling away skin and blood. None of them even opened their eyes as his voice thundered through the silence of the dojo. “How do you fight it brothers!” The flaming rage that tore through him died. Its last glowing embers fading out as Mahi collapsed to the bamboo mat, weeping uncontrollably. As he lay there sobbing, his blood dripping onto the mat, Mahi felt truly alone. Defeated. Hopeless. Lost.

Yuko will face this torture now because I failed. They will all starve and they will send him in their desperation. Mahi had only been ten, but he remembered. The thin gaunt faces of his baby brother Yuko, his mother Pisyn weeping for her children from dawn till dusk. His father Hyun’s hard, emotionless face, a skull covered in paper thin skin. Their emaciated bodies... His emaciated body. They had placed their faith wrongly. I’ve dishonoured them all, he thought as he picked himself up from the bamboo mat. His sobbing ceased, but the tears cascaded down his face in endless rivers of agonised anguish.

Hurrying toward the stone cut doorway, Mahi cast a glance behind him at his Brothers who would receive their Cranes. I was right to mourn for Chun-Li, Mahi thought as he cast one last glance at Liko, ashamed of his failure. A single tear rolled down Liko’s cheek.

Mahi turned away and hurried from the dojo, letting the steel teeth of the wind tear through him as he emerged into the night on Mount Kumu. Enormous snowy peaks were gently illuminated in the moonlight before him, poking through the clouds proudly. Proud in their strength and their unity. Proud like a Khaolin Monk among his Brothers.

Proud like Mahi would never know.

His family was out there somewhere. Out there freezing and starving beneath the same moon as he. Out there waiting for a jade plaque that would tell them of their triumphant son. Mahi could not face the dishonour for an entire year beside Chun-Li. The sleepless nights and arduous training. I will die before I see Yuko become a Khaolin student. He would leave this place and search for them. A man now, he could support and provide for them.

Footsteps behind him. Mahi spun to face a stranger in faded orange robes, his eyes deep set among the wrinkled folds of skin that hung off his face. His thick lips moved but Mahi heard nothing, the words carried on his wispy breath stolen by the wind.

Wiping away the tears half frozen on his cheeks, Mahi stepped closer to the man in the doorway. The ancient-looking man leaned forward, pressing his warm lips to Mahi’s ear.

“They do not fight it because they do not feel it. The smoke is an ancient weapon, Mahi. It works only on dangerous elemental beings that faded into legends... legends that were lost among the ages. The Synaesthesians...They are weakened by it.”

The Khaolin Monk pulled away from Mahi’s ear, staring into his eyes with two bottomless pools of swirling colour. The ball of agony returned, paralysing Mahi and lacerating the fabric of his mind as it exploded in his skull.

The pain ceased, replaced by a soft warm glow.

He saw a boy huddled by Pisyn, his mother, shivering on a small bed inside a tent that rattled in the howling wind. A tiny baby lay curled up between their gaunt bodies. Yuko, he realised as he recognised his grown up little brother and what must be his baby sister sleeping between them.

The agony returned, ripping through his head and he was standing on Mount Kumu, the man’s eyes, two swirling abysses of millions of colours were before him again.

“You will not be able to save them. I have been searching for you for a millennia. You are the last Synaesthesian Mahi. You are a weapon.”

An uncontrollable, implacable cold rose from Mahi’s throat and the man before him turned to mist that flew into his mouth, filling his chest.

And I will unleash you upon the world.

 

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