Fifty Three 

It can’t all be dominance, there are things to be done, like get a report from the eagle. I don’t know exactly what they mean by overhead sun, I’m out at my spot for eleven thirty.
Straight up noon, I hear the whisper of wings, then I’m staring at one of the more ruggedly beautiful birds in the world, a bald eagle. An owl’s stare with its occasional blink reminds me of Dasha, the eagle’s sharp intensity makes me think of Nikko.
“Thank you for coming.”
“They say you hunt Dark Ones.”
“I do, then my flock kills them.”
“Disgusting creatures, they make normal humans almost bearable.”
“We have similar views about the bulk of humanity.”
“Some are helpful, the ones who work in the forests, they wear the same feathers.”
“Park rangers, yes, they protect the animals, make other humans keep their distance.”
“One found my mother injured, she helped her heal then released her. You wish me to take you to the Dark Ones.”
“Yes, do you know how many?”
“A pair, and a pair, and one.”
“We were told it might be five. Have you observed them?”
“Of course, they are predators. If we don’t attend to predators, we die. How can you follow me, you do not fly.”
“I have a machine, up there,”
I point, “it’s several hundred feet up.”
“I see it, it can follow me?”
“Yes, it can fly quite fast, much faster than the falcon’s dive.”

She shifts from talon to talon, I’ve noticed this behavior when they think things over, like the rocking of an autistic child. Are birds autistic?
“When?”
“Now.”
“How will you know where the machine is?”
“It has a system that feeds us the location, and it remembers.”

Her head twists side to side, “Humans make the most magnificent machines, then you kill each other with them for no reason. How are you smart and stupid at the same time?”
“We’re not smart enough to see our stupidity.”
“I have young to feed, I will take your machine, then I must hunt.”
“Of course. And there is no need for you to get close, circle the place once or twice and take off, we’ll find it. Thank you again.”
“My thanks will be seeing them dead.”

She lifts off with one down swipe of her amazing wings, up and off. I notice she circles the drone, curious, perhaps cautious. She must be satisfied, she zips off to the west, the drone is over her and just behind.
In the room, girls are watching the eagle fly.
Amaya, “Grace B is sending the feed to the children, actually everyone, but we are getting a stream of the children in the dorm as they watch.”
I see Tasia, “She is so beautiful, how gracefully she flies.”
Uma looks into Kota B’s eyes, which are also the video cam, “Tetya Dafna talks to birds.”
Amaya, “It is simple for her, one birdbrain to another.”
The children find that hilarious.
Nadia, “You are only jealous Tetya Amaya.”
“Nonsense….well, a little, but I need only look in my mirror and envy disappears.”
The children groan, Zofia says, “Tetya Amaya is always looking in a mirror, the house has mirrors everywhere and she looks at herself in every one.”
“I certainly do not.”
Chloe giggles, “You don’t miss a single one dearest.”
Amaya smiles, “The mirrors adore my visage, they call out to me, ‘Allow me to gaze on your perfection,’ they cry. It’s the least I can do, they always sparkle afterwards.”
“That might be because you’re always wiping every tiny speck of dust off them.”
“Showing my appreciation for their appreciation.”
Karol, “Tetya Amaya is gorgeous and weird.”
The children laugh again.
Nikko, “Enough comedy, Daphne’s pal is circling a house, from the looks of the area, a lonely house, practically hidden. What are the coordinates Grace B?”
She reads them off, “Not in this county, not even on the two lane, a dirt and gravel road four miles in to noplace. The road is near impossible to see from the blacktop, it passes through a wooded area, then the house. One would have to spot the house like we did, from a bird’s eye view.”
“They picked a good spot. Take a snoop around, let’s see what we’ve got.”
The drone circles, she’s out five hundred yards, anyone looking would see a speck and write it off as a bird. The cam zooms, it’s like we’re on the front porch, she corrects back a few feet, slowly circling, looking for an open window, or at least open curtains.
Janah, “Place like that, there’s going to be a cellar, and the cellar will have an external exit so items to be stored don’t have to be lugged through the house.”
Just then, the cam picks up an angled flat square, looks to be five by five, split in the middle like any exterior cellar door.
Grace B, “The material is a steel alloy, not wood. As you can see, it is also barred. Whatever is in is not getting out.”
“Get a mike on it, or the house, they must talk sometime.”
Zi, “Will it work through a steel door?”
Grace B, “This bitch will work through anything solid, water is a problem but most people don’t have walls made of water.”
She moves the drone to a hundred yards out then ducks it into the trees, finds a direct line to the door and flips on sound.
A child’s voice, “Mommy, are we going to die down here?”
“No, they feed us, there is a bathroom, be nice if there was a shower instead of washing over a sink. If they were going to hurt us, or let us die, they would have done it by now.”
A man’s voice, “We’ve been over this a thousand times Lizzie, we don’t know what they want.”
A boy’s voice, “They call us the bait.”
The man, “Which means, for whatever reason, they believe someone is looking for them and they captured us to try and trap whoever it is. It also means killing us doesn’t help them.”
Nikko, “A good guy concocting a correct rationale to make the others feel better.”
Janah, “Twenty four people in a cellar for, how long has it been Grace B?”
“Four months, maybe a few of them longer.”
Nikko, “They’re losing it soon, surprised they haven’t lost it already.”
Janah, “The Shadows, strange as it sounds, are keeping them sane, planting hope in their minds. The captives are no good to them dead, dead bodies need to be dealt with or it goes nasty. If we don’t make an appearance soon, they’ll go to the next step.”
Nikko, “I’m not sitting here letting Shadows further ruin families with incest and child porn videos. I’m going now.”
“Take a breath samurai. Of course we’re going in, and today. First we reconnaissance. We can’t just drive up the road, that’s precisely what they want, the cavalry rides in, storms the house, if the enemy isn’t in the house, it’s outside. They circle and pick us off or the place is wired and we get shredded by shrapnel. I’m not my best in shrapnel.”
“We can fight off five Shadows.”
“In a head to head, you and I can fight off five Shadows. They went to great lengths to get us here, I doubt they think they can simply Qi us into submission. If Janah’s right and it’s a Shadow ego thing, great, that makes it simpler. Remember Oceane’s warning?”
“Powerful, something she would not say lightly.”
“Exactly. We came to kill Shadows, not to get slaughtered in the process.”
“Got any thoughts, you mentioned earlier you had an idea, did seeing the site change it?”
“The Judas goat bit is dicey. Having him walk around town and hope we stumble on him is farfetched. They might have him walk the abduction sites, thinking we’d go and snoop around. Still, it would be dumb luck for us to show up at the same time and place, there were six abduction sites.”
Sarah, “There are five Shadows, what if they all play Judas goat?”
Grace B, “Wouldn’t work. Without the others the Judas goat bit falls apart.”
Sarah, “Duh me, of course, there’s no Shadows lurking when we attack, they’d be at the other houses.”
“The possibility of explosives is worrisome. We have no way to check. We have to find out if Shadows are in the house at all. They may show up to feed the captives. Then again, the eagle took the drone straight here. Here’s the plan.”

Fifty Four

We saddle up, both SUVs, two drones, Sarah and Mani with laser guns and semi- autos modified to shoot our pharma pellets.
We’re halfway, the others are watching the drone feed, Nikko says, “A man is coming out.”
Grace B zips the drone up a few hundred feet and zooms in.
Janah, “Small man, maybe fifty, won’t be one of the captives.”
“The others, Shadows, are either inside or in the woods. That’s a long shot, they have no reason to believe we’re even aware of them, much less driving to the house. Grace B, fly the woods and let’s see if we spot anyone.”
She does, a ten minute search yields trees, no people.
“Okay, in the house, which precludes them blowing up the place, Shadows aren’t going to kill themselves to kill us, they aren’t religious and they can get all the virgins they can stand right here on Earth.”
Nikko, “Doesn’t mean there aren’t other kinds of traps inside.”
“Quite right, tune in the house Grace B.”
Mike clicks on, first voice, a woman, “Maybe they haven’t heard yet.”
Second voice, male, “The missing family story went national yesterday, they’ll figure it out soon enough.”
First, “Still could take a while, they have to hear the story, suspect there’s more to it. We’ve been up here for months.”
Third voice, female, “Cut the shit Janelle, we went over this a year ago. We needed to establish ourselves, fix up the house, seal off the cellar, then hang out until we started collecting hostages. It’s a two year project. If the fucking priest doesn’t show in a month, we jack up the action. Besides, we all get a chance to go into town and screw around, hit a bar or restaurant, fuck with the locals.”
First, “Yeah, and in this trusting small town finding a cute little girl to suck my cock is….child’s play,” he laughs at his grubby entendre.
Forth voice, male, “Frank’s right, I don’t like ‘em as young as he does, but there are teen farm girls that spread their legs on demand. After I fucked the last one, I got her dog to lick her pussy, video of the happy mutt right on her phone and messaged off to her contacts.”
Third, “That was a stroke of genius, she’ll never remember you of course, right?”
“Jesus Lois, we do that shit all the time, you think I’m going to leave my description in her memory? I could show up at her place tomorrow and she’d be blank. All she remembers is sex, doggie style,” he laughs hard again.
Second, “I dearly wish I could find out what happened when her friends got video of her snatch licking mutt. What kinda dog?”
“A lab, real friendly, he got a sniff of the stuff and just kept at it. She’s laying on the bed with her legs hanging off the side, up on her elbows watching the dog and moaning, mouth open, tongue on her upper lip. Cute little cunnie too, not a hint of hair, just a sweet slit.”
We see the little man go back inside, the mike picks up the door opening and closing, “Dead as our souls out there. Len, you tell ‘em about the girl’s new boyfriend, Fido?”
Laughter, “Yep, I may go back and check the fallout. Make her do it all over again. Course, daddy probably took her phone away. Maybe I’ll get daddy to fuck her and video it on his phone, his daughter begging him to cum in her mouth, then message his contacts.”
Nikko, “Let’s do this before they wreck more lives. They have twelve children in the basement, how long do you think it’s going to be before they decide they don’t need to shop elsewhere, the candy store is right downstairs.”
“Grace B, I need you to multi-multitask. Keep the drone up, launch the second one and monitor the front and rear door. Go to the exterior cellar door and laser the restraining bar. Get the people out and herded to the woods, someplace where they can’t see our cars and out of sight of the house. Ideally, they see only you and Mani. Keep them calm, tell them help is on the way. Figure out a story, we’re a private security service hired anonymously, blah, blah. If a Shadows escapes, cut him down. You can cover all that?”
“While I count to the billionth decimal of pi and update the family’s investment accounts.”
“Stick to the matter at hand for now.”
“Mani, you’re in the cellar as the captives come out. If the interior cellar door opens, kill whoever opens it, it will be a Shadow and it will grab your mind. If that happens, you’ll shoot yourself, one of us, or start killing captives.”
Janah, “I’ll go with Mani, I can deal with the Shadow.”
“Better.”
“Next, soon as the captives start to leave, Zi, Nikko and Sarah will be at the back door. Valeria, Chloe and I will be at the front. Amaya sticks with the cars. I’ll mental Nikko and Janah, Sarah blows open the back door while I kick open the front. If they haven’t gotten to the inside cellar door, Mani can laser the lock and come in from wherever, likely the kitchen. Gun girls, you get a clear shot with the Oblivion pellets, take it. Ideally, this isn’t messy, we don’t need blood all over the place or all over us. The drug kills almost instantly, hearts will quit pumping.”
Sarah, “We’ll cauterize the wounds with lasers anyway.”
“Excellent. We’ll get them airlifted out after we’re history. Bad way to put it, after we’ve dealt with the Shadows and are on our way.”
Grace B goes off with Janah and Mani, we wait until we see the cellar door open, sprint to our places and get busy.
The distraction of muffled activity in the cellar keeps the Shadows from catching onto Zi and I, the hated Shaolin, until we blast in the doors.
Janelle, “Well, well, shithook Shaolin, the goddamn plan worked.”
Little Man, “Two of them, a fucking bonanza.”
Sarah shoots Janelle, I clock Little Man in the throat with four straightened fingers and a load of Qi. Geez, harder than I’d wanted, my fingers are inside his throat. Blood gushes, so much for the plan.
Sarah has the laser out and zaps the gash, smell of burnt Shadow hits the atmosphere.
A quick body count shows two more, Valeria is in between Lois and Sarah, no shot.
Lois, “You’re under my control now little cunt.”
Valeria head snaps to the right, to distract her, Chloe whacks her ribs with a broom handle. The Shadow folds but turns to Chloe and raises her hand. Before she can muster a Qi shot, Valeria points a finger at the Shadow and the jolt of electricity sends Lois to Shadow Hell, nasty black crease runs up her face to her forehead. Fried body scents the air.
The forth, name unknown, has his hand out to Nikko, a blast of energy, wrong target bubba, Nikko is snake fast. The energy blows a hole in the front wall. Zi sidekicks his spine, his head whiplashes back, neck exposed. Sarah’s automatic punches a hole in the side of his head at the same moment Nikko’s blade severs it. The head bounces off the floor. I suppose no mess was a bit much to hope for.
A dose of Oblivion, a snapped spine and a decapitation, that’s the deadest Shadow yet.
I hear a heavy series of thuds from the kitchen, Janah and Mani walk out, “Mani plugged him as he came down the steps, big brute, I felt his energy going for my mind. He seemed puzzled that nothing was getting through, at least for a second, then he was bouncing down the stairs.”
Janah looks around, “Nobody hurt?”
“Not a scratch.”
Mani pokes the head with her foot, “Not on us, appears Nikko gave him a rather deep scratch.”
When there’s a headless corpse, chances are good Nishiko had a hand in it. Wasn’t even a katana, but it was a deadly sharp eight inch blade and lightening quick hands.
Zi, “Do we torch the house?”
Janah, “No, I want them found. The names will be fake, but other Shadows may recognize them under those names. Probably should have kept one sentient until I grilled him but we have twenty four people that need to be rescued.”
I check in, “Grace B, is it under control?”
“Duh. Keep Janah out of it, these people are something between ecstatic and in shock. They saw nothing.”
“Good enough, pick out whoever seems to be the most coherent, explain that you have to disappear. Help will be here in less than a half hour. Be forthright, tell him the people who abducted them are out of it and under control, do not under any circumstances return to the house. Their story is ‘somebody they don’t know’ let them out. They don’t know what happened in the house, they don’t know why they were abducted. Was anyone abused, I mean physically?”
“No. The Shadows hardly spoke to them, one family picked up the bait thing from an overheard conversation while they were being transported to the house. I already warned them about the house, not a problem, none of them want to get near the place.”
“Leave it, if they tell the bait thing to the cops, it doesn’t affect us. Bring the drones in, we need to split so these folks can get help.”
Janah, Mrs. Pearson, calls her FBI contact, staties will have helicopters in the air in ten minutes. Grace B calls Transportation, we’ll be home for five.

Fifty Five

I ditch my bloody gloves on the way to the hotel. We change out of work clothes and shower off fake tattoos and makeup, Valeria’s Goth look washed down the drain, sullen and mysterious, I kind of liked it. On the plane, we’re the selves we look like on our fake ID. 
Janah will have to wash out the mouse brown I’d temp dyed her pure white hair now that we’re home. Morshchiny’s done her Daphne check, when she thuds those massive paws down on my shoulders I have to stiffen to avoid collapsing. The children are kissing the returned traveler’s, extra attention to big sister Valeria.
Tea is long past, girls line up for cocktails, as per policy, we don’t recap anything.
“Did the Zycyryn show up, we didn’t see them, or the sparkles?”
Devona, “They were there, if you didn’t see them, it means they saw no reason to interfere. We will dance tonight to thank them.”
“Are they going to tell you what happened?”
“Only if we ask, which we will not. It is not hard to figure out.”
I go to the bedroom to deal with the suitcase, when I’m done Janah comes out toweling her hair.
“What do we do about the poor girl and the dog?”
Janah, “Not sure. It’s not an FBI issue, it’s not anybody’s issue because letting dog lick you is not illegal..”
“Let’s anonymously contact the parents, with the news bound to hit about abducted families and five captors, we can use the hypnosis excuse. We did it once before and it worked. Wait…we don’t know who the girl is, do we?”
“Good point. Ask Grace B to see if she can search for the video posted via IPs around Alliance. We have no idea about the phone so that’s out as a source.”
I find Grace B in the kitchen setting out appetizers, Swedish meatballs in brown gravy, butter crackers accompany.
“We need you to see if you can locate the girl in the dog video, quietly please. Janah suggested looking through IPs in Alliance, you may have other methods.”
“Emma B has it already, there is one problem.”
“I’m afraid to ask.”
“She is a suicide.”
I sigh, “We should have jumped on it right away.”
“She was dead before we knew it had happened at all.”
“Somehow I don’t feel better.”
“Feelings are immaterial, you took out her tormentor and when the news hits,  it will filter out to Shadows. You create fear, even if they will not admit it, and they will hunt you with even greater hatred.”
“I hope it doesn’t occur to then to start attacking random Shaolin.”
“Think about what you just stupidly said.”
“I know, live in hope, die in despair.”
Janah come along, “Suicide?”
“Yep.”
“It crossed my mind.”
“It was before we knew.”
“Doesn’t help much. I’m going to call David Li…no Chan…and Black. They need to know we may have stirred the hornet’s nest and Chan will want to contact the temples.”
“Let’s go now and get it done.”
Emma B has them both on split screen.
“Good evening guys, hope we didn’t disturb.”
Black, “If it wasn’t important, we wouldn’t be on a conference call.”
Chan is a blank, Chan is always a blank, except with his wife Ning or his children, now adults, David Li and Miyako.
I relate most recent Shadow encounter, I don’t need to explain the potential fallout.
Chan, “The Chinatown temple in New York has taken precautions since Shadows began to proliferate. There have been incidents, but the Shadows have been mostly inexperienced. Now that we are in San Francisco, I visit the temple here occasionally, not often. It is a gung fu school, not a monastery. Shadows are only concerned with priests, not students, disciples or even ordinary Masters.”
Black, “They’re going to get serious now, tried twice to trap you, what is it, eight dead in San Francisco and five in Nebraska. Plus more along the way, do you keep a count?”
“Janah probably knows, we don’t look at it as a body count thing. I’m guessing thirty or forty.”
“Yeah, Chan and I were involved in a few. You have more efficient systems now, we used to get pretty beat up.”
“Not sorry to see that part go away. Yes, we have drones and drugs, a few girls who are handy with deadly weapons,” I tell them about Valeria’s new trick.
Black, “Hold up, she shoots electricity like Shadows shoot Qi?”
“That’s it, unlike Qi, there’s a visible arc, like a lightning strike.”
Chan gets the slightest hint of grin, “Never dull at the Sylk Compounds.”
Black, “She use it yet?”
“Fried a Shadow yesterday.”
“She’s just, what…fourteen?”
“Fourteen forever.”
Chan is the central office for Chinatowns around America and Canada. Not that he runs things exactly, more like referees. When life flows smoothly, he’s invisible. When there’s conflict, he appears, listens to both sides and suggests ways to find common ground. Agreements are reached, they don’t need much enforcement, nobody wants to buck Chan. He’s not a killer, doesn’t have hired guns. The intransigent will simply find all cooperation disappears, no one will do business with them, they can’t get loans, rent space, buy supplies. The loss of face is intolerable.
Black runs a gung fu school with over two hundred students. He’s got kids’ classes, women only, with only female instructors, mixed adult classes, family classes. Naturally he doesn’t teach all of them, but he’s there, onsite, watching. He does personally instruct advanced disciples and has final say on who qualifies as Master.
Black, “When can I get Master Sylk down to instruct? Susan comes twice a week when she isn’t traveling, the kids adore her, the women’s class gets intense.”
“I’ll bring Valeria.”
“The children are welcome.”
“Appreciated, but they’re pretty insular, more than that, if they take on another activity they’ll never sleep. I’ll come next week, the class schedules are on the website, am I limited to women?”
“No, better if you show up a few of the men, we get the talented who start thinking invincibility. They expect me to beat them, but they don’t think a woman can.”
“Sounds fun.”
“Not for them.”
We click off, I’m glad he mentioned it, it helps to take on physically stronger opponents, I can ratchet up my game, maybe find out someone else has better game.
I check in with Valeria, she’s usually in the kitchen, “We’re going to Black’s school in LA next week. The mixed adult class, a separate woman’s class trains at the same time, you can choose.”
“Da, I will practice every day.”
“We can get in an hour or so this afternoon, two thirty.”
She nods, focused on a sauce of some sort, meunière from the rich scent.
Janah, “What’s for dinner?”
She noses around the pots, “Smells divine, meunière, yes?”
Valeria, “Fried trout with lump crab. Cauliflower au gratin, Brabant potato.”
Janah smiles, “Dessert?”
‘Devils’ food cake wiz almond buttercream icing, Ellen made it, we are waiting for it to cool to add icing.”
Janah kisses her cheek, “Our chefs are splendid,” decides Valeria’s neck needs a smooch too, then goes off to the bar where Amaya is cracking open a crispy cold Sauvignon Blanc.
Valeria, “Tonight Janah will come to my room Daphne.”
“Of course, she deserves the best.”
“You may kiss me,” she turns her head up, we kiss intimately, God she’s scrumptious.
“What can I do?”
“We have sixty filets to bread and fry, Dasha will help, au gratin is ready to heat, when Ellen finishes with the cake, she will do the potatoes.”
Sixty can only mean one thing, we’ll have Eggs St. Charles for breakfast tomorrow. Fried trout, poached egg on top, hollandaise, bit of lump crab to finish. Accompanied by Dasha’s fat buttermilk biscuits. Preceded by a tasty Milk Punch, rum, vanilla, milk and a dash of nutmeg. Yeah, we’re having trout with lump crab tonight and trout with lump crab and a different sauce and egg tomorrow, ask if anyone cares, answer, don’t be ridiculous.
That dinner is a hit is a given, chatter around the tables is constant, no talk of Shadows or murder, lots of talk about the progress of the children’s play.
Amaya, “They are coming along splendidly, thanks to Chloe. We had a dry run of the first act, we shall learn parts of the subsequent acts in order. There is no reason to have them learn the entire play in one bite. Besides, they have to do it in Japanese and English, almost like learning two plays.”
Britt, “When is the performance?”
“Two days, in Japanese. When we return to Malibu, they will perform act one for the parents in English.”
“We should invite Black and Sonia, Chan and Ning are up in San Fran, we can stream it for them if they can’t make it down.”
Nikko, “We’ll be finished with the new wing, and four more bedrooms completed, enough space for four more before we start eating into the new workout area and gym.”
Lauren, “What did you do with the old workout room?”
“Made it a bedroom since it’s part of the original building. When we return to Malibu, work starts here, a bedroom for Dahlia and Clarissa, we had four guest bedrooms, but Valeria took one of those. For now, we aren’t expanding further here until we use up the three guest rooms. I’ll worry about it if it happens. At least she didn’t bring home girls from Nebraska.”
Janah giggles, “You got lucky, they were with their families.”
Nikko, “You’ve collected a remarkable flock of girls over the years, soon we can start our own country.”
Grace B, “Not without more damn bots, you get more girls, you are going to fry our chips.”
Eloise, “I’m constructing a new one now Grace B, both to assist Kota B with the children now that there are Dahlia and Clarissa, you will be able to assign tasks to her as well.”
“Emma B and I are grateful for the assistance.”
Emma B says to me, “She will love having a bot to boss around.”
Grace B, “I heard that, Brit twit.”
Emma B rolls her eyes.

 Fifty Six

Amaya backed up the first performance of The Scarlet Princess of Edo a couple of days after she added a set piece that Eloise, Daria and Lauren would have to construct. One end of pool area looks like ancient Japan.
This evening, Valeria and I are off to Black’s school. It is located in an industrial park, most of the businesses are closed in the evening allowing for plenty of parking for the students.
Shaolin Gung Fu 少林功夫, on a crisply simple black and white sign over the entrance. No dragons, no pagodas.
We’ll have a late night, class runs from seven to eight thirty, nine if there’s sparring. Women who prefer women’s only classes are in a separate hall with a connecting door that remains closed during classes. 
Black, “Welcome, come in, I see you’re already set,” we came dressed in basic uniforms, black, viscose blend of synthetic silk and cotton, soft and light. Valeria has a green sash, not quite intermediate rank, I’m a black sash but I never added the small Master symbol to the belt. Black’s student wear the more traditional saffron tops and black pants. We wear Adidas adi-luxe training shoes.
We slip off street shoes, no shoes on the mat except training shoes, not to be worn elsewhere.
The mixed adult class has perhaps forty students tonight. Black makes no introductions, we get the common curious glances, nobody rushes over to chat. He takes us to the door to the women’s class, we go through and there are twenty women and girls, age twelve and up. Younger kids take the children’s class which happen in the afternoon three days a week and Saturday mornings.
Women are in various knots by rank, practicing forms I’d done a few thousand times. The instructor comes over and bows.
Black, “Master Sasha, this is Master Sylk and student Valeria,” we return bows.
Sasha seems stuck, then, “Master Black, the woman who comes to teach, she is also Master Sylk, this is her sister?”
I grin, “My mom will be pleased.”
Sasha, “Your mother? Well, I’m treading on embarrassing myself.”
“Susan wouldn’t think so, you’ll be her new bestie.”
Black, “Which class Daphne?”
“We’ll warm-up and do the introductory routines here. If it’s okay, I’ll shift to mixed in the middle.”
Black nods, goes off to the mixed adult class. He’s not going to hover around watching us, less intimidating for his instructors when there is obviously a personal friend of the Master in class.
Sasha, “I’ll get one bit right, Valeria is clearly not your daughter.”
“No, she lives with our family, as do her mothers.”
Mothers is a common situation today, as is dads, the absurd homophobia is left only to the unwashed and simpletons.
Sasha, “And you are related to the legendary Master Sylk from the Shaolin Temple in New York Chinatown, yes?”
“Yes.”
“We’ve heard stories, she is still active?”
“Last time I looked,” a subject change is in order, “time for class then?”
She gives me a perplexed look, trying to figure out what’s what. Susan is quite talented, but legendary would be stretching it. In Sasha’s eyes, I’m far too young to be the same Master Sylk. So who’s the legendary Master?
Opening sequences are all too familiar, Black trained with me in the temple, most of the routines are the same. Some of the more esoteric practices are not taught, this is about basic gung fu, which is known around here as kung fu. After the first common exercises, the class breaks up by rank to practice the form for that rank. There may be light sparring at the end, advanced students will have a separate full contact night from time to time.
“Valeria, I’m going to the mixed class, come over when this wraps.”
She nods, comfortable on her own, Valeria doesn’t intimidate much less get self conscious. 
I enter the mixed class and join a small group of advanced students doing mantis, one I know upside down and backwards.
It’s simple stuff for an advanced student, but requires flexibility and speed, a couple of airbornes and a lot of wrist action. After the first run, instructors make a couple of individual student corrections, then we give it another go. On the leap and back flips, I restrain myself, still wind up higher in the air which gets the attention of the rest of my group.
Black comes over, “Master Sylk, would you be so kind as to offer a demonstration. I would like them to get an idea of the possible.”
He’s telling me to go for it, oh well, Shaolin show off.
My arms spin too fast to follow, the first leap is higher than my head, the subsequent back flip seems to be in slow motion, and the last leap and back kick would have hit Black’s nose, six and a half feet off the ground had he been standing there. I wrap and bow.
Black laughs, my group is silent, a few with their mouths open staring.
A brown belt mumbles, “Nobody can do that.”
A red black woman turns to him, “We can’t do that, she just did.”
Black, “Everything is possible with practice. I was fortunate to observe Master Sylk during her time in the temple. She was never not practicing. Students there had the luxury, the hardly luxurious luxury, of being in training of one kind or another all day every day seven days a week. You have jobs and other commitments, it speaks well of you that you come here rather than sitting on a couch, now, sparring, full contact, gear up.”
This is America, not a closed Shaolin temple in Chinatown, full contact is by gender. The idea that women wouldn’t spar with men would never have occurred to the Chinese masters in our temple. What smaller monks lost in bulk and power they were expected to make up in speed and cunning.
The all girl class is over, some women come in to watch the matches, others participate, Valeria joins me sitting on the mat. 
“How was it?”
Valeria, “Easy.”
They run three matches at a time. In gung fu, sparring includes throws, not just fancy footwork, kicks and punches. Kicks to the head are permissible, not punches. Students wear headgear and mouthpieces, they aren’t trying to disable anyone.
As most students have been in a match, I notice that two men have not been called on. I presume they’re lined up to take on each other. One is a big brute, not as big as Black, nobody is as big as Black, the other is shorter, my height, five ten, slim. Can’t tell if he’s muscular, the uniform is loose and covers everything but head and hands.
The matches close, Black steps to the center of the hall, “Now a full contact demonstration match, one round six minutes. Disciple Glynnis, Disciple Majors, please step forward. The two men high five and saunter out to the center. They wear the black sash, black belts, but he did not use the term master, a far different designation.
Black looks at me, “Master Sylk will demonstrate how to deal with two opponents.”
Glynnis, “Uh, Master Black, full contact, I mean, she’s…”
Black, “Got a problem Disciple Glynnis, want to sit it out?”
Glynnis’ face shades, then a half sneer, “Just asking sir.”
Black, “How about you Majors, you good to go,” he hadn’t used his designation, Disciple, a kind of rebuke.
Majors, “Always…sir,” he exchanges glances with Glynnis, there’s a knowing smirk between them.
Black, “Master Sylk…,” he stretches his arm and opens his hand in invitation.
Valeria leans into me, “Kick ass.”
I rise from my cross legged position in one flowing motion and face off my opponents.
The common approach of two opponents is to either go to the right and left, or front and rear. It doesn’t matter to me. They shift into the pre-contact gyrations, waving hands, sweeping feet, I gave that stuff up a long time ago. I stand stock still.
Glynnis turns to Majors, “She’s frozen.”
He steps in, arms flapping, hands doing their gung fu dance, he strikes with his left, I step aside and he hits air. He turns for a low spinning sweep, I step back and he sweeps only mat.
Majors rushes with a quite decent display of dips and kicks, he’s pretty fast. Again, I step to the side and while I’m unoccupied, I deliver a back kick to Glynnis, hard in the gut. He folds and falls on his butt.
Majors, who has demonstrated an ability to dance around alone, turns and see Glynnis, sitting down, then lays on his back, rolls his hips up and does the showy bit where he whips his torso forward and leaps to his feet. I kick him again and he’s back on the floor. I turn to Majors, cock my head and raise my eyebrows, hold my hands out palm up and wiggle my fingers inviting him to come in.
He’s wisely wary, moves to my right looking for an opening. He eyes flicker over my shoulder, I’ve already sensed Glynnis coming. I step to Majors, crack him across the jaw with my foot, spin and lift off, crack Glynnis on the side of his head with the same foot.
They both stagger, to their credit remain upright. Circling, Majors on my left, Glynnis on my right, they move in. Majors is closer, his hand in an arc headed to my neck, an illegal blow, but we’re past that now. My owl claws take his wrist, yank him into me, levering his own motion, drop my hip and send him sailing over my shoulder right into Glynnis. They land in a heap on the mat.
Glynnis is pissed, but he maintains self control, he appears to have gauged, correctly, that he’s in over his head. To his credit, he gives it another go. 
I stand stock still, Glynnis spins, misses with his kick, but he intended to, he comes with a front kick. I let him catch me in the gut, I’m all Qi’d up and ready for it. I don’t move, bend or gasp, he falls back on the mat like he’d kicked a brick wall, which is kind of what he did. In fact, he’s holding his ankle with a pained grimace on his face.
Majors has collected himself, he starts to come, looks at me staring, looks down at Glynnis, bows to me, walks off and sits.
Absolute silence, then the class stands as one and bows.
Black, “And that is how you do that people. And before Glynnis and Majors cry too hard in their beer, Master Sylk has never been defeated after hundreds of matches. She is not only a Master of gung fu, she is a 5th degree black belt in taekwondo and a Master of hapkido, Korean judo. I am privileged to call her friend, you have been privileged to see the most accomplished martial artist on the planet.”
“Thank you Master Black, too kind. Please understand, if I had to fight in a ring with rules, say one of the MMA matches, I would have my hands full to say the least. I’ve watched those fights for years, they are incredibly talented and tough. My advice to you is the same as I give to all students. The last thing you want is to fight. Always walk away unless walking away is not an option, then run away. Your ego will recover, a smashed skull is a different matter. Practice your art, spar to learn that a few punches and kicks won’t kill you, that you can keep going. I don’t know if I have answers, but I’ll do my best to answer questions if any.
A woman, “You’re what, twenty four, five? How did you learn all that?”
“I started when I was five, you can pick up a lot of stuff in twenty years. Hapkido and taekwondo overlapped, I was taught both by the same master. As Black told the other class, I lived in the Shaolin temple, practiced seven days a week for hours. It was a lifestyle, not part time. You guys come here after a day’s work or school, in a way you have it harder than I did, at least as far as learning the art.”
“What’s the most important thing, in training I mean.”
“Train, as much as you can, there is no substitute for doing it. You don’t have to be an A student in everything, but you can be an A student on one thing. It might be just one form, or Shaolin history, or sparring. Learn one form so well you own it, you can do it backwards. I promise, one day all of it will fall into place, and you will do the moves with no thought, an empty mind.”
“When you took down Glynnis and Majors, what was the strategy?”
“Nothing, my brain was empty as air, all of it was unconscious reaction. You can’t fight and think at the same time, thinking is way too slow. Train, train, train, when the time comes, a match in the hall or a confrontation on the street, shut down and let your training take over.”
Glynnis hobbles over, “Kicked my ass, I got a lot of learning to do, been coasting on my size. One thing, I clocked you good and wound up spraining my ankle, what’s the deal?”
“Qi, I’m sure Black has talked about it.”
“All the time, I just never…well…”
“I get it. The whole thing sounds like oriental voodoo, and you’ve no doubt seen those fakey videos where some alleged master throws around his students while never touching them.”
“Yeah, like wrestling, fake.”
“Exactly, and most of it is, but Qi is real.”
“How do I get it?”
“I had to sit a lot of hours, just intending to make it act, intentions is everything.”
He bows, “Thank you for your instruction Master Sylk.”
Time to go, I’m having a final word with Black when Sasha comes over.
“Valeria is talented, none of my business but perhaps more than green sash talented?”
“Yes, she’s my sole student and it never occurs to do rank, she doesn’t care. At home she wears a black sash, but only for our practice, she isn’t a black yet either. She picked up the green sash on her own, I think she likes the color.”

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