Master Que and I were early to register for the tournament the next day. We’d gotten to bed late the night before but, without temple visits to make we didn’t have to get up quite so early. We also didn’t feel as much need to keep my face hidden these days so, like the majority of fighters, I didn’t put on my mask until I was about to enter the building where the tournament was to be held. I was slightly disappointed that my mask was still almost just a plain oval. There was some indication of cheekbones, some minute changes around the eyes and a hint of eyebrows, or so I hoped. There were times when I coveted a mask as complicated and detailed as Master Que’s, but it just didn’t seem to be happening.
We weren’t the only ones who turned up early for registration. We were there fifteen minutes before the registration table opened and I was the fifth fighter in the queue. “It’s always a big tournament,” Master Que whispered in my ear. “It looks like this year is going to be no exception.” By the time registration opened there were another six fighters behind us. By the time we’d registered I thought it might turn out to be the largest tournament I’d entered so far and I was glad we’d turned up early because they were assigning changing rooms on a first come, first served basis. Because we’d been early, I had a small room to myself, complete with a working shower and hot, running water. Compared to some change rooms at some of the tournaments I’d been in, this was practically luxurious despite the hoseable concrete walls.
When we emerged, fully changed, they were closing new entries to the registration queue and total entries were over a hundred in my division. The officials for the professional competitions seemed to have matters well in hand though and the first round draws were up in short order. The amateur side of things didn’t seem quite so well organized, but I was concentrating on my own competition.
My first match was against Wang Ku Liu, a Qiantung fighter about ten years my senior. He wasn’t someone I’d faced before but dust is not the friend of coherent light and I was able to put him out of the ring with a leg sweep coupled with a shake and ripple of the floor. My next two opponents were both Laosung.
The first, Han Mei Wing, I’d fought before and I expected that I’d have a harder bout against her this time. It was harder; she counteracted the attack I’d used last time we fought before I used it and made it almost impossible for me to use any of my dust attacks but those weren’t my only options. I pelted her with balls of shadow and made the floor ripple backwards under her feet. She tried ignoring the balls when her winds couldn’t affect them but my shadow balls sting when they hit, so that didn’t work well for her. In the end she stumbled backwards out of the ring.
The second Laosung opponent was one of the fighters Master Que had exchanged cards with on the first morning of the festival. His natural name was Chang Sung, while his professional name was Zhu Hung Ti, and he had been wearing a peacock-themed robe when we’d met him at the temple. It had been rather magnificent. Here his most noticeable feature was, of course, his mask. I didn’t know what it was supposed to be but I thought it looked rather…magisterial. It was a face that looked firm, determined with a touch of kindness, no hint of cruelty and a completely fantastical set of eyebrows. His fighting was neat and measured, with short buffeting bursts of air from varying directions. That made him hard to block because I couldn’t see a pattern to the direction changes for his attacks, so erecting a shield was pointless. That gave me an idea and I put up multiple shadow shields around me, and then melded them into a sphere. I could still see and fight but I was no longer being pushed towards the edge of the ring. Zhu Hung Ti’s response was to try and get his wind around my feet and up inside my shields. I bounced dust off the floor up into his wind. Lots of dust. Enough dust to turn it into a dominance battle between us over who was controlling those bursts of wind. After I managed to break his concentration for a moment by using a leg sweep on him, I was able to push him backwards to where I’d gotten that dust from – a section of floor that now had a surface like polished glass. One more little push while he was trying to get his footing, and back he went, upright and on two feet, out of the ring.
My next match was against a Taozhu, Chou Zhu Ma, who had the posture and stance of a classic beauty. She also used water like the ribbons in a ribbon dance. If I hadn’t been facing her in the ring, it would have been fascinating to watch. As it was, however, I was what she was trying to hit with those ribbons and open mouthed fascination would just get me bundled out of the tournament. She was occupying the air with her water ribbons, so I came up from the ground with shadow tentacles. While I was dodging her ribbons, I was moving her backwards across the ring. She started slashing at the tentacles, which freed me up to throw shadow balls at her. Those, with the tentacles, knocked her out of the ring.
My fifth match was against another Laosung, Qin Lao Feng. He attacked first, using not wind but a basic leg sweep, testing me on the simple moves I hadn’t faced in this tournament so far. I jumped over the energy surge that sent at me and rippled the floor at him as I landed. It didn’t throw him off balance but I followed it up with a volley of darts which he dodged, except for the last one which sliced through his sleeve and grazed the skin over his bicep. He still had a shocked expression on his face when I sent a volley of shadow balls at him and he barely managed to dodge them. I followed them up with a leg sweep of my own and then, while he was still in the air, another volley of shadow balls. He came down on his back with the line bisecting his torso. When his shoulder blades touched the ground, the referee declared me the winner of the bout. Qin Lao Feng still looked stunned.
My sixth opponent was another Hoshun. I couldn’t pick Tzu Gian Fu’s gender and he/she didn’t broadcast his/her moves either. We performed an interesting dance of floor rippling, shadow balls, and dark tentacles in what was my longest bout up until then. In the end the judges declared time and the match was awarded on points. That happens so rarely…and it was awarded to me by a margin of three. I didn’t know what to do at first, then I bowed to my opponent, the referee, the judges and, lastly, my teacher. I was into the final bout of the tournament.
Tzu Gian Fu and I had gone on for so long that my opponent was ready to begin, however the bout was delayed for me. I had fifteen minutes to visit the bathroom, grab a quick drink and maybe a bit of food. I decided to pass on the food and was ready to take my place in the ring at the allotted time. I thought the stands were fuller than before, but it was the last bout of a large professional tournament so a larger group of onlookers was only to be expected.
My opponent was a Chiangshi, Kwong Lo Gee, whom I’d never fought before but whom I knew of by reputation. A few years ago he’d moved up into the professional circuit from the underworld of cage fighting and every few bouts someone would suggest that he deserved to be sent back there. He was rough, but I hadn’t heard him described as vicious. Mind you, I hadn’t been opposite that red sneer of a mask before either.
We honoured the referee and each other, then a snake of fire was crawling up my leg. Pulling dust up off the floor through it and into my hand was enough to douse it, then I threw the dust directly at Kwong Lo Gee’s face and ran so that I wasn’t where I’d been when he closed his eyes. That was a good thing, because he started throwing fire balls the size of both my fists together before he opened his eyes again and having moved gave me enough time to have a shadow shield up before one of the balls was aimed directly at me. The things were not only hot, they had weight and the impact of each one on my shield was moving me across the floor. Roughening the floor underneath me reduced the movement but didn’t stop it. I dropped the shield after he’d thrown one of his fireballs and rolled to one side, sending a whip of darkness at his ankles as I went. He jumped that and sent a larger fireball into the floor in the direction I was travelling and blew a hole in it. As I went to go back the other way he blew a hole in the floor in that direction too. Before I could get as far as hesitating, Kwong Lo Gee used both hands to blow a hole in the floor in front of me and I was left on a small platform of floor surround by smoking craters and the edge of the ring.
Those craters were deeper than I was tall and just, problematically, too wide for me to jump. Kwong Lo Gee started throwing fire balls again and I could see myself exiting the ring very soon. Needless to say, I didn’t want to. Batting the fireballs away with my shield wasn't terribly effective and my problem was space – I didn’t have enough of it. Then something occurred to me and I felt my eyes widen in surprise.
I laid a floor of darkness across the ring, including the craters, and then I ran across it. There was a collective gasp from the audience. My flurry of shadow balls caught Kwong Lo Gee by surprise and he stumbled sideways towards the edge of the ring. He was working on another crater-making fire ball when I finished him with a dust ball to the upper chest that moved his centre of gravity enough that he had to step backwards to stay upright and that put his foot over the line. I had no idea why the crowd was roaring like that when I left the ring.
Master Que told me quietly, “Answer no questions about the bout now. We’ll discuss it later.”
I nodded my head in agreement, despite having no idea why he was telling me that, and followed him to where the presentations were going to be made. The crowd seemed louder than usual and there was a man who introduced himself hurriedly as a member of the press and kept shoving a microphone at me. After the first few questions Master Que pushed him aside but he followed along behind us, continuing to ask questions. By that stage I was finding all the sound around us to be just noise. A small part of my mind noted that I was tireder than usual and wondered why.
The rest of my mind, well the rest of my brain because I’m not sure the rest of my mind was working, seemed to be increasingly busy with staying upright and putting one foot in front of the other. I would have liked to sit down but that would have been a breach of protocol and the judges were waiting for us. I couldn’t keep up with Master Que and the distance between us kept growing. The reporter behind me seemed to be getting more insistent about something and ahead of me I saw Zhu Hung Ti reach out, touch Master Que’s shoulder and say something. Both men looked at me then Master Que came back and took me by the arm.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I hadn’t realized it was catching up with you this quickly. Lean on me as much as you need to. We can go and sit down after this.”
Master Que matched his speed to mine after that as we made our way to where the judges and the other place and points winners were already waiting. As we passed him, Zhu Hung Ti and Master Que nodded at each other while I just felt slow because I couldn’t quite grasp what the exchange was about. I kept feeling slow in my head all the way through the presentations and I handed my prize purse to Master Que almost immediately because I didn’t want to risk losing it. When the judges withdrew our obligations were over but, much as I would have liked to sit down right where I was, there were too many members of the audience and the press present – if I did sit down I wouldn’t be allowed to just sit quietly but would be expected to answer questions and sign autographs.
I didn’t quite stumble my way to the changing room but I’m sure that without Master Que’s help I would have. Zhu Hung Ti, with his mask off, met us in the corridor outside the room and handed Master Que a packet of something and then went off to get changed himself. As soon as the changing room door had closed behind us Master Que put me in the room’s only chair and said, “Take off your mask.” When I did so he went on, “You’ve managed to overstretch yourself with that last match, but I think you’ll be fine after a rest, some food and water.” He handed me the packet Zhu Hung Ti had given him and I almost laughed because it was a packet of candied fruit from one of the concession stands, the sort they stock for children at all sorts of events. I couldn’t recall ever before having one I hadn’t had to share, so I ate the apricot piece first.
“Let the sugar into your system before you have more,” advised Master Que as he handed me a glass of water. “Have a little to drink and then you can tell me what you did out there in the ring and how you did it.”
I drank and said, “It occurred to me when I was running out of floor space that the material world is illusion.”
“Yes,” Master Que nodded, “that’s a fairly standard teaching. As I recall it comes up in every basic class on religion.”
I nodded, “So it occurred to me that if the world as I perceive is an illusion, then I could make some choices about how I perceive it.”
Master Que raised an eyebrow as I nibbled on the candied fig. “How?” he asked.
“I decided that in my version of the illusion, the ring still had an intact floor.” I finished the fig and had some more water.
Master Que didn’t say anything for a few moments, then remarked, “I think we should both read Wu Jen, well reread him in my case. I first looked at his work years ago, but it didn’t do much for me back then. You though, might get a lot out of it and, now I know that what you did is possible, I might get more out of it this time.”
“Who is or was Wu Jen?” My head was already feeling clearer and I could feel my mind beginning to work again.
“He was a sorcerer philosopher during the reign of the Obsidian Regent,” Master Que told me. “He wrote a number of books but Thoughts from the Floating Mountain is considered the most accessible. As I said, I didn’t get much out of it when I tried to read it but he discusses the nature of perceived reality. If you can get through Thoughts and want more, then I understand that Breezes on the Celestial Plain should be the follow up.” He grinned. “Cho Ki was always more my style – I should probably get you to read him too. Oh, and eat some more of that fruit.”
I obediently attacked a piece of pear. “So, if I overstretched myself, should I not construct my own version of the illusion again?”
Master Que shook his head. “You’re still maturing and your strength hasn’t reached its full measure yet. This may well be something that, with time and practice, you’ll be able to do easily in the future. We’ll work on it,” he promised. Then he went on, “However, I think we should plan for a later start in the morning than we were intending because you’ll need a good night’s sleep tonight. I’ll check the train times and the tournament schedules – we may go to Lin Bao instead of Hsiang.”
After I’d finished the entire packet of fruit and had another two glasses of water, I showered then changed back into my blacks before donning my mask again so that we could leave. Zhu Hung Ti, also dressed in his street clothes but without his mask, was loitering in the corridor. He asked, “How are you? Over the wobblies?”
“I think so.” I was uncertain because that had never happened to me before.
“She’s over the worst of it,” Master Que agreed, “but I’ll make sure she has a quiet night tonight and a good, long rest. We’ll probably leave later in the morning than we’d planned.”
“That would be wise,” agreed Zhu Hung Ti. “I’ll walk with you to end of the street in case not all the press has gone off to file their stories.
“Thank you, that would be kind,” agreed Master Que.
We left the building as a threesome. Zhu Hung Ti led the way, I followed him and Master Que brought up the rear. The few people loitering outside were clustered in fannish knots around some of the better known fighters. I assumed that the journalists had gone off to file their stories and was quietly relieved that I wasn’t going to have to even consider answering questions. I wasn’t quite right – one popped up just as Master Que and I were removing our Masks but was sent firmly on his way by Zhu Hung Ti who told him that I still required rest before I could consider giving him a statement or answer questions. Master Que glared at him then and I think that must have decided him because that was when he left.
We parted ways with the most kind and excellent Zhu Hung Ti shortly afterwards. Master Que took me back to our hotel where I slept for two hours before he woke me to go out for a late dinner. We ate in a hole-in-the wall bar where I had short soup, chicken and vegetables redolent of garlic and chilli over noodles, and ginseng tea. Master Que had wonton soup in the local style followed by a beef and onion dish with his noodles that he washed down with both tea and strong liquor.
When we’d finished eating, Master Que took me straight back to the hotel. I went back to my room, washed again myself before I poured into bed, and then I slept.
This is followed by Time Progresses.