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The open ocean is the largest ecosystem in the world, stretching from the sandy coasts all the way to the deep blue center. Away from coral reefs or any type of land, sunlight shines through to a certain extent until no light can pass any longer. Most plants and animals in the open ocean reside in this photic zone. Tiny animals, protists, plants, and bacteria drift around at the mercy of surface currents and wind. Some types of plankton, most notably algae, convert sunlight into food and thus begin the food chain.
Animal plankton eat the algae, small fish dine on the animal plankton, larger fish and birds eat the smaller fish, and the occasional shark takes down a larger fish. The living things that survive in the open ocean need to have a way to float or swim. There are many types of swimmers including fish, whales, and sharks. Some swim in schools, others swim alone. It is an unpredictable environment.
Luck, just as much as skill is necessary for survival.
For miles around, there may be no sign of life at all. A mass of krill on its daily vertical migration may be the only food source. For brief minutes, small fish will pick and nip at the swarm of krill while bigger fish hunt the smaller fish. On the surface, birds fly around and dive. Eventually a massive animal like a whale will ruin the fun by gulping the entire cloud of krill, using its baleen to flush out the water. Then, all the fun is over, and once again the open ocean returns to its state of desertedness.
It is truly survival of the fittest.
A week passed with no sight of land. The girl, the boy, and the bird settled into life at sea, wordlessly rigging up the masts for each long day of travel, conserving energy in any way they could. When it rained, they collected the droplets in a bucket and strained out impurities. Whenever they came upon a school of fish, they took advantage, catching as many as possible by spearing them with long poles or sending out Hunter. After a couple days, once Grace was comfortable with managing the sails, they decided to take shifts, taking turns sleeping and sailing to maximize the distance.
Her formal dress got in the way, so she tore off the tattered edges and used them to tie back her hair. The brutal sun tanned her skin and darkened her eyes. The constant splashes of water gave her an eternal scent of ocean. The coarse roughness of the main rope cut her soft palms, but the wounds quickly scabbed, broke, and scabbed again. The result was not an image of a rescued girl but of a hardened, gritty castaway fighting for her life.
The continuous effort needed for survival drained their energy. Most of the time away from the sails was spent curled up in the back attempting to squeeze in a few hours of sleep. Like the ocean around them, barely anything happened, and every day was intrinsically the same: wake up, sail, eat, sail, eat, sail, and try to sleep.
The only time for any leisure or relaxation, if it could even be called that, was during dinner. At dusk, the trio always lit a small fire and ate a meal together, sometimes they talked, other times they remained silent. The time reminded them of what it meant to enjoy the company of other people; it gave them a taste of what it was like to live a life that was remotely normal. As survival and the elements hardened their skin and tempered their aspirations, the time spent sitting together reminded them they weren't savages but individuals, that their destinies weren't doomed to roaming the seas for the rest of their lives. One day they would talk about the whole ordeal as just a fleeting moment in their pasts; they might even laugh about it. It was hope for some kind of future other than the present that drove them to keep moving forward.
The last ray of light set beneath the horizon. Grace let the rope go slack in her hands. Without saying a word, she tied up the sail, cracked her knuckles, and dipped her hands in the water. Even though it stung to let the saltwater into her blisters, she knew it was for the best.
If bacteria get into an open wound, you could get infected. Sickness is an agent of death when it comes to survival.
Wake's advice subconsciously echoed in her mind. She winced as the water burned her tender flesh, and then her grimace melted into satisfaction as the pain went away.
The ocean is a universal remedy.
Meanwhile, Wake built a small fire with strips of kelp and a piece of driftwood, which he earlier declared was a "gold mine." He layered the strips and driftwood to allow maximum airflow. Then he showered the pile with a burst of flares from the flint. The tiny sparks singed the kelp and smoke rose from the driftwood. With a medium-sized rod, he poked at the fire, making sure it progressed the right way. After he finished, he kept staring into its base, transfixed by the intensity of the flames.
Grace took her usual spot opposite Wake and watched the fire. Looking deep into the embers had a soothing effect on her eyes. Spending long hours with the wind blasting her face made her eyes tired and bloodshot, and the warming glow of the flames calmed her sight. Mollified, she blinked and took in a breath of fresh air.
She studied Wake.
The entire time he hadn't said a word, his expression a mixture of deep conviction and bitter dissatisfaction. His eyes burned quietly as he stared adamantly into the flames.
While Grace manned the sails, Wake usually occupied himself with fixing some kind of boat part or talking to Hunter. Sometimes he'd shout to her with different forms of advice.
"Keep your attention forward!"
"You need to stay focused!"
After a week though, she began to notice things about Wake that she hadn't before. When he initially rescued her, he was so kind, patient, and caring: he did whatever he could to help. She could tell he truly was a compassionate person, putting others before himself, but at the same time he was severely reserved. Although he was quick to make a joke or light conversation, not once had he ever brought up the topic of his past, or any type of personal details. Whenever it was his turn to take sail, she observed the way he kept his eyes on the skyline and never looked back. It was as if this trip wasn't just about survival.
He was searching for something.
"It's kind of ironic," she laughed under her breath.
"Right now I was supposed to be on a boat heading towards a new life, a life full of opportunity. And now that I think about it, I'm on a very different boat than I expected. Not so long ago, I was living a happy, comfortable life, and now I'm out here just trying to survive."
Wake didn't say anything; instead, he chose to remain silent and listen.
"My mom used to tell me the true measure of a warrior is how she can adapt to change. At the time, I was so young, so clueless, but now I think I'm beginning to understand. It's not about fighting people, or any kind of enemy even. It's about fighting to live each day. That's what it means to live by The Way of the Sword, and I never realized it until these past few days."
"Jian Dao is much like any other philosophy; it can't be described with simple words. It needs to be understood through experience, observation, and perception."
The words held new meaning to her now.
My training has only just begun.
Her focus returned to the dimly flickering fire and the slight night breeze.
He lifted his eyes to hers.
"We're going to make it."
His expression was resolute, his eyes fierce in agreement.
When trying to sleep, one doesn't really pay attention to the utter darkness behind their eyelids. They choose to simply relax and fade into the softness of the bed, while the absence of light soothes the heaviness of tired eyes. Breathing deeply, all the pressure and tension of the day melts from their faces, and their arms and legs grow heavy until they no longer feel the touch of fabric. Soon, the heart slows as it focuses on pumping more oxygen to the brain, and as a result, the limbs numb and become useless. By then, the recognition of having a body no longer matters because everything exists in the mind. It's hard to tell the distinct moment when one passes through the barrier of awareness into the world of dreams; it just happens.
Thoughts - things that carry some kind of significance - flash to the forefront of the mind. One thought leads to another as images form and fade in a subconscious flow. Perhaps sensory details noted by the brain during the day reemerge: the taste of a moon peach, the woody trunk of a tree, and the cold sensation of running on stone. The reality of lying in bed dissolves into a new world created entirely by the mind. Painlessly and unknowingly, the mind walks the bridge between awake and asleep. By the time it reaches the other side, the colors, sounds, and feelings, figments of the imagination are reality.
Sikhi couldn't get past the blackness.
No matter how hard he tried to fall asleep, the tiniest disturbances kept holding him back. He couldn't get past the slight itch that popped up in a new place each time he scratched; first it was his arm, next his leg, then his toes, and finally the nether reaches of his back. It seemed like the itches' sole purpose was to deter him from falling asleep.
The worst part was it was working.
It wasn't just the itches, however, for some reason he felt like his blanket was too light, even though it was the same blanket he always used. Then, he kept feeling a need to toss and turn. Each new position was comfortable but not quite perfect. In a seemingly endless ordeal, he sought after the perfect sleeping position, one that wasn't too curled up or too stretched out. Seconds and minutes ticked by as he lay in bed, unable to fall asleep.
He decided to try something else.
Perhaps letting my mind go completely blank will work.
Each time he attempted to empty his mind, dumb little thoughts found their way. The sad truth of the matter was that by trying to think about nothing, he couldn't help but think about something.
Freaking reverse psychology.
He took a deep breath and emptied his mind of all thoughts.
"Stay focused! Think about nothing," he said out loud, exasperated.
He resumed his experimentation with thinking about nothing, but his senses seemed to be hyperactive. The smallest creak of a door or rustle of the wind crashed loudly in his head. Then, as a result, his mind latched onto ideas like "door" and "wind." One thing lead to another, and the next thing he knew he was thinking about everything from meditation chants to Jifu rubbing his eyes. By that point, he made up his mind that he was too energetic to sleep and he needed to let loose some steam.
He tossed his blanket aside and kicked out of bed. Immediately, he dropped down and started doing pushups. He made sure his chest went all the way to the stone floor and he kept his elbows tucked in. Gritting his teeth, he counted in between exhales.
"One, two, three, four, five..."
He counted until his chest and triceps burned and fatigue prevented him from going any further. Then, he simply sat on his bedside and surveyed the room.
It looked the same as it always had: stone floor, stone walls. Unlit candles set on the small wood table in the corner. The window on the far side beckoned him to take a look outside. Fresh air flowed freely through the oval opening in the stone that was his window. The joints of the bed creaked and lurched as he rose to his feet and shuffled over to the window. The cold night made contact with his skin.
Stars twinkled clearly in the sky because of the temple's high proximity on the mountaintop. That was one of the most amazing things about living in the temple. Above the clouds, everything was so different. The air was always clear and crisp.
At night, the world was silent.
There were never voices or lights, no signs of activity anywhere. Everything was completely devoid of motion and noise. The giant white moon hung in the sky, bathing the mountainside in delicate light. Nothing ever obstructed the view of the sky that radiated endlessly in every direction; the humbling vastness put things in perspective. He thought that after growing up on the mountain his entire life the view of the sky would seem at least a little bit pedestrian, but this was never the case. He still found himself staring in awe at the way the sea of clouds rolled underneath and the blackness expanded infinitely above.
Instead of reminding him of his inability to sleep, the night sky enlivened him with quiet wonder. Without a second thought, he slipped on his sandals and wrapped a cloak around his bare shoulders. Relying solely on the natural gleam of the moon and stars, he felt the sides of the smooth stone hallways as he descended the winding flight of stairs.
It was an odd feeling - hearing only his footsteps and nobody else's.
This observation gave him cause to pause and stand still. He wanted to see what the world was like thoroughly black and utterly noiseless.
With his arms at his sides, the only attachment left to the world were his too feet planted firmly on the stone stairs. Other than that, the blackness made it seem like nothing else existed besides him. He knew there was solid wall only a foot out of his reach, but the blackness bended his depth perception, creating the illusion of boundless space. In this state of blindness, the darkness bore down on him from all directions as if gravity ceased to exist. Only when he contacted the physical wall with his hand did his grasp on reality return.
He continued down the flight of stairs, comfortable with the positioning of the steps he'd walked over and fell down countless times. When he entered the meditation pavilion, his steps echoed quietly and passive moonlight draped the mosaic tiles. He wrapped the cloak tighter around his shoulders and passed the large pillars that supported the roof.
He was outside.
He craned his neck at the steep tower, and he could scarcely make out his room. Then, he turned his attention back to the path before him. On one side, the temple carved into the mountainside looming in the shadows. On the other, the sleeping forest swayed in the autumn wind. The boy walked the line between temple and forest, his eyes locked intently on the heavens above.
Millions- no, billions of stars dotted the sky like black ice stained with cracks of violet and blue.
He experienced the world differently at night than he did during the day. The solitude of the night hushed his thoughts and demanded a certain level of reverence. Because of this, he tread gingerly over the moon cloaked tiles and paid respect to the statues of his ancestors. It was as if his childlike energy faded away once the night set in. The feeling wasn't one of loneliness, isolation, or emptiness, but one of detachment.
When he experienced the night, he felt detached from the world.
He let his mind and spirit be free as he continued along the path. All earthly desires vanished because there was simply nothing that compared to the bright stars embedded in the darkness. Moments like these made him feel trapped on earth. He wished he could break away from the ground and fly, fly high into the sky, past the atmosphere and into the stars.
It's the curse of being human, reaching and wishing for perfection from the broken ground below.
The snap of a tree branch startled his attention from the sky. He didn't expect any type of noise, but sure enough a rustling came from the bushes at the edge of the forest. Immediately, his heart pounded against the cavity of his chest, and his eyes froze in fear.
Once again he felt so utterly human, so scared to die, so scared of the unknown.
He widened his feet and assumed a fighting stance, keeping his sight firmly on the forest. It's not like he actually knew how to fight, being a pacifist and all, but he figured doing something of the sort would improve his chances.
The branches shook violently and more limbs snapped. Whatever made the disturbance was massive and angry. Situations ran through his mind at hyper speed.
It could just be the wind.
What if it's blind and can't see me?
If I stay completely still maybe it won't notice me at all.
If it tries to eat me, maybe I can out run it!
As these thoughts ran frantically through his head, a shadowy, dark form burst from the forest and attacked. The vicious collision knocked him directly in the ribs, and his skull impacted hard on the stone.
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