ANN - Chapter 5 - My Useful Failures at Kung-fu
Alone, in the sunlight, I watched the waves create yellow reflections over the sea while seafoam washed onto the sands. With all the Night People asleep, my only sort of company was the distant Servants—working and seeming to occasionally stare at me—from the distant peninsula.
It didn’t take long before boredom took over, so I stopped and began to search for pieces of driftwood. When I'd found a few pieces, I began to toss them, one at a time, into the air and trying to punch them as they fell. I missed … and then missed again, and many more times. If these were my fighting skills, I was in serious trouble.
I continued this practice—trying to punch driftwood, throwing stones at stuff, and doing clumsy kicks—for a couple more hours. Eventually, however, I also quickly grew tired of this. The exercises seemed pointless; I felt like nothing I could do could possibly prepare me for fighting a monster.
I fell into lonesome sulking, trying not to think too much as I sat on the beach. So, I didn't really take much note when the sun first began to set, leaving a darkened purple sky.
My senses were suddenly alerted when, without warning, something hard smacked the back of my head with a loud ping. I didn’t feel pain; but I knew I had been struck hard by something. A bullet? The blades I had been unable to release instantly sprang from my forearms. I waved them around my body in a useless, panicked flurry—trying to defend myself from my unseen attacker.
After a moment of frantic flailing, I finally calmed enough to stop and look around. There was no Golem—only a wave of very young bats circling in the air above me. Several of them made distinct chattery noises that I knew had to be laughing.
A soft pink light unexpectedly began to glow on my face. With the sky darkened, my face was bright enough to light the sand a little. Apparently, I felt … embarrassed enough that my ‘face of light’ was showing it.
However, I also felt relieved that there was no real attack. And the moment I felt my frantic energy leave me, the blades retracted into my arms.
I found myself mostly grateful that the weapons were gone—even though part of me wished they would remain out until the Golems arrived. However, it was ultimately better not to risk shredding the Night People by accident. After all, what kind of god would that make me? (Okay. Fine—there were definitely a few ancient gods in human mythology who had appreciated sacrifices in the form of blood. It still wasn't a legacy I wanted to carry on.)
“Bassello,” Romalla said. She dropped to the sand from among the flying swarm of young Night People. Once a bit closer to me, she gave a much more practiced wave while baring her teeth. Instead of awkwardly wobbling her wing around like a crutch, she counter-balanced by leaning on one wing while waving with the other.
I waved back.
When I did so, Romalla looked upward to give the other bats a smile that seemed just the slightest bit … smug. She then faced me and said, “I have assembled the children of the Island to help you prepare for the Golems. I thought you might also teach them your kung-fu.”
“Oh,” I said, beginning to piece together why I had been hit by a rock. “So, your idea is to throw stuff at me?”
Romalla gave a large, fanged smile—clearly pleased with herself. “We Night People occasionally have to drop rocks on the large-toothed fish that go after our blood-bags. So we are certain that we can hit you.”
“Perfect,” I muttered and absently looked over at the bloodbags—lazing about further down the beach. One of them licked at a piece of beached seaweed but ended up with a mouthful of mostly sand. The fact that these creatures continued to breed astounded me.
I sighed and said, “Fine, but let’s do it one at a time with small rocks, and then maybe work our way up.”
“Of course!” Romalla said and then took flight to rejoin the swarm. I heard her shout brief instructions at the others. Their communication while flying was distinctly faster and higher-pitched—more screech-like than when they spoke on the ground.
I waited and took a sort-of crouching stance, trying to prepare myself. It reminded me of how it felt to stand in a batting cage—the anxiety of waiting for a machine to shoot a near-deadly projectile only a foot in front of you. I had no tangible memories of this, but it felt like the ghosts of such memories were there … and equally horrifying.
Without further warning, a small seashell was launched at me from the swarm. I ducked frantically and only narrowly avoided being hit in the face.
The attack made me feel slightly less alarmed than the first time I’d been hit. Fortunately, my blades didn’t come this time. However, something on the surface of my head made a clicking noise—startling me.
I reached to touch my head and figure out what had happened. The first thing I noticed was that my ears were no longer on the sides of my head. There was only a small hole … and grooves that led to my face. I traced the grooves with my fingers until I found—what I assumed to be—my ears covering my glass face. Feeling that the ears were not smooth, as they had seemed when I first saw them, I guessed that the black part of the solar panel was touching my face. This left the metallic backside of my ears at the front.
It was like … an automatic face-shield! I absently wondered if maybe this face plate was a little intimidating. Well, even if it wasn’t, it might at least prevent the Golems from seeing any probable expressions of fear.
I returned to my same ready-position, feeling a little more confident. I dodged another rock. Then a shell hit me in the shoulder … followed by another. After a couple minutes, I noticed that I hardly had time to rest between attacks. It wasn’t long before multiple projectiles were being hurled at once. Had the Night People already forgotten the whole ‘one at a time’ thing?
I didn’t even have time to protest as I was repeatedly hit by a barrage of sticks, stones, and shells. I ran and dove, to avoid the onslaught … mostly failing. With one particularly clumsy attempt at dodging, I tripped and fell into the sand. Shells and sticks hit me with humiliating pings. This resulted in more laughing from the children.
Romalla, I assumed, made a sharp screech at them that sounded very scolding. Then she landed in the sand next to me, looked at me with a small smile, and—in a gentle tone—said, “Bassello, perhaps try not to fall and be hit by shells.”
That was how most of the night went. Awkwardly trying to defend myself, receiving ‘help’ from Romalla about what I was doing wrong, and being pelted with rocks from giggling children.
As much as it sometimes felt like a waste of time, I eventually decided it wasn’t. For one, I figured out new things about my new body, beyond the face-shields. None of the shells or stones did even as much as scratch the metal that comprised my body—which meant I was at least a little durable.
Also, my skill at catching objects with giant metal hand coated in rubber quickly grew—it felt a lot like catching a baseball in a deluxe catcher's mitt. My hand-eye coordination gradually improved throughout the night. Also, being rock-proof probably made me less scared of the projectiles, so I was able to keep an eye on them as they were hurled at me.
After some hours, the children grew tired of the game and demanded that I teach them kung-fu, as Romalla had promised. This put me in something of a bind because I—again—did not actually know kung-fu. It was a movie thing that I remembered liking. On the other hand, I was pretty sure that the Night People would have no qualms if what I taught them would not be considered valuable by any real martial artist.
So I decided to start with a sort of practice-game, instructing them to fly directly above me, fall feet-first, and strike my oversized forearm with downward kicks. This turned out to be fun for them, as there was no need for them to worry about my safety. To my surprise, their quick succession of kicks made them a fairly efficient bombarding team.
Energized by how well it was going, I began to try to think of ways to make their moves even more powerful. Most of these ideas didn’t work at all … and I had decided my good luck as an instructor had worn out.
Romalla, however, piped up and said, “I know what might work!”
“Like … for kicking?” I asked.
Romalla opened her mouth, looking like she was about to answer. The younger bats approached to listen as well. She paused, drew in a breath, and tried a different sound—only to stop again. She then wrinkled her face.
I realized she was having difficulty and said, “Or you could show me.” I lifted my arm to her as a target, as I had done for the younger bats earlier.
Romalla gave a toothy smile and then took flight. She gained some distance and elevation before turning to target me. She began a very rapid dive—only pulling up when she had nearly hit the ground. Then, to my surprise, she tucked her head and feet into her wings, rolled in midair, and then reversed the direction of her body with a quick flip. I realized that she was now flying feet-forward, with her knees bent. When she hit my arm, her legs sprung out—almost like a donkey kick! The blow had surprising power; it jostled my arm and sent her tumbling in the sand.
I rushed over to check on her. “Are you alright? That was … a lot.”
Romalla stood up, looking a little dizzy. She was now covered in sand but had a fanged smile across her face. “It was good? I didn’t think I’d fall.”
“Well, I mean, I think you could probably learn to keep flying afterward,” I said, now understanding what she had envisioned, finishing the attack by bouncing upward with the kick and returning to regular flight. “Plus, I think they go the idea of what you were trying to explain.”
Romalla turned and saw the young Night People already taking flight –following the same loop in the air that she had taken. She seemed encouraged by this and joined in for a second go. Sure enough, as soon as I lifted my arm, the bats began to try Romalla’s attack, one at a time.
I was glad we were on the sandy beach because, inevitably, each of the bats ended up taking a tumble in the sand. It was a few turns before one of the Night People got it right. The youngest brown bat hit my arm, bounced straight back in the opposite direction, and did a sort of corkscrew to right herself.
Her victory must have encouraged the others because they kept at it for hours. Gradually, more of them—including Romalla—learned to right themselves after kicking. Just in time, too. The sun had begun to rise and turn the sky gray. The young Night People began to lightly complain about sore feet and hunger, before dispersing.
Then it was only me and Romalla left on the beach.
I walked inland just a bit—to the sand dunes—and sat down on one. Even though my body didn't seem to need rest, it still felt nice to sit after all my running, diving, and blocking. It had grown quiet with the absence of the young Night People, so I could predominantly hear the soft splashing of the waves. The bloodbags were resting quite a distance away from us, seemingly to avoid all the commotion we had been causing.
“Aren't you hungry, Romalla?” I asked as she hopped next to me.
“Camolla or one of the other Night People will see to my food before I go to sleep,” Romalla said, clawing at the sand with her wings. “It is my job to serve the gods, lead my people, and do what is needed for the whole island. Currently, that means helping to prepare for the downfall of the Golems. So, I do not worry myself with food.”
I hunched over a little, wrapping my arms around my legs. From the sand, a blue crab-like crustacean emerged and scurried toward the beach, allowing me to briefly notice that it had four small pincers—one smaller pair over a larger pair. Weird.
I returned my attention to Romalla and asked, “What about, like, hanging out with friends?”
“I am fifteen years old, older than many who are already married,” Romalla replied, perhaps a little defensively. “As a priest, I cannot afford to be distracted by friends … or marriage for that matter. Being a priest requires full-time work, prayer, and vigilance.”
“Oh,” I said, nodding quickly and trying not to upset her. Still, I wanted to know more. “Um … what about your mom. Do you get to spend much time with her?”
Romalla’s hard expression softened a bit and she looked away. “Camolla brings me food and worries for my well-being.” She turned to look at the Wall, and her gaze seemed momentarily more … intense. Her suddenly quieter demeanor, unmoving eyes, and impatient breaths gave me the impression that she was frustrated—not at me or even at the topic of our conversation.
Just … at something.
After a minute or so, Romalla continued, “It takes time to listen to the words of the gods. I have little time outside of my duties. Camolla … does not understand. She does support me in her own way—I suppose—with her faithless worrying.” She darted her gaze around at nothing in particular.
“My parents,” I began to say, as the ghost of a memory made me feel sure that I had something to relate to her with. Then, it was gone. And the further I chased the thought in my mind, the further it escaped me. I sighed.
There was a moment of silence. We listened to the waves crashing and watched the wind move on the surface of the water.
“Is your mother, Ragalla, like … the mothers of the bats?” Romalla asked.
“I don’t exactly remember, but maybe … like some of them,” I said, not really sure how to explain. To me, Camolla seemed like a particularly good mom … compared to what I somehow subconsciously expected for some reason.
“But your mother will never die,” Romalla whispered and looked up at the stars. She blinked several times in quick succession before drawing in a long breath that stilled her.
Another moment passed, and the wind continued to lightly blow.
I didn’t know what to say.
Romalla took a shallow breath, and her face became expressionless. “Sometimes I don't sleep because the spirits speak so loudly that I can't. Other times, I can’t sleep because my inner spirit is loud. I'm not stupid, unlike most of the others my age. All of the people I could care for will die. Krogallo is old and will die soon. Then Camolla. Sometimes I wonder why the gods…” Then, she suddenly became very silent.
“Yeah?” I asked, wanting to know.
But Romalla shook her head and said, “They're heretical thoughts. Besides, you are here now, proving everything Krogallo has ever told us. To think faithless thoughts anymore would be stupid. The gods really do live among us … you live among us.”
Her words made me sick to my stomach. Just by waking up, I had quashed her very reasonable doubts and probably deep existentialist questions that she needed to explore. Was I hurting her just by being here? It seemed so … and like Camolla had been very wrong in wanting me to stay with Romalla.
I wanted to say something. However, I didn’t know what to do without coming across as offensive or crazy. I felt like my only choice was to stay quiet … so I did.
“Bassello, I wish you could remember what happened before you came here,” Romalla said. “I wish you had some of the answers to the things I've been thinking about. I've listened for … for those who have passed on. However, I’ve never heard a voice I recognized.”
Her words, though filled with no sort of malice or anger, stung. This didn’t exactly make sense to me, since I had firmly denied thinking that I was a god from the spirit realm. Still, I wished more than anything that I could have fulfilled her expectations and given her some kind of comfort. I also wondered exactly what it was that the priests could hear … as I was truly beginning to doubt that their divine communications were just made up.
Romalla continued, “Krogallo says that the spirits of Night People passed see things that we don't—that they don’t speak to us for a reason. But Krogallo says lots of things when he doesn't know the answer to a question.”
All I could do was nod. I could have explained my own faithlessness—defended myself from being thrown in with the gods that she thought controlled all that had happened in her life. But it seemed like a particularly bad time to reinforce my own doubt … to destroy Romalla’s hope of seeing her loved ones again in this moment of vulnerability.
My helplessness made me feel greatly inadequate … as a friend and as a god. I wondered if it was like what Camolla had felt at not being able to give me food or a place to sleep. So, like Camolla had, I did the only thing I felt I could do. I placed my hand next to her, resting it palm-up in the sand. It felt a little weird to me, but my experience with her people had taught me that touch was … meaningful to them.
Romalla stepped on it and exhaled heavily—visibly seeming to drop a slight amount of emotional weight. I wasn’t sure how much my gesture helped … but it seemed to at least be a small comfort for her.
Finally, a thought occurred to me of something I could day. Something honest, but something that wouldn’t feel like a knife in her back. “I don’t know about the spirit realm. And I … think a lot of faithless thoughts too. Maybe it’s good to think those kinds of things sometimes. Maybe it’s good to be angry because things really aren’t fair. I just—I know I don’t have the answers. But you can talk to me about whatever … if you want.”
For a moment, I thought it would work. I had communicated exactly what I had felt, without pushing my thoughts onto her. However … it unfortunately did not have the effect I wanted.
Romalla’s demeanor changed a bit and she bared her teeth a bit in a show of confidence. “No, Sleeping God—I mean Bassello—you will remember in time. I know you’ll have the answers someday. It will just take patience and faith on our end”
I sighed and said, “I … if I do remember anything about who I am, you’ll be the first person I tell.” I felt defeated—though I very much meant my promise.
ANN - Chapter 9 - Our Terrifying Descent
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