Black-hafted spear in one hand, Kai increased her pace to a run, enjoying the feel of the wind on her face, the sound of it ruffling her baggy trousers and long-sleeved knee-length robes. At times like this she sometimes wished she didn’t keep her hair in cornrow braids.
Maybe, I should take them out when I get back. Wear my hair out for a while.
She giggled when she pictured herself with a massive dark woolly mane. The look reminded her of one of the large black lions that made their homes in the caves and rocky crags of the Titan’s Leg.
Constantly cycling by the Fire Gale for increased stamina, she reveled in the abundant zan all around her. The energy felt light, clean, and pure. Unlike her experience in Sengar Village where it tended to be sluggish and felt… dirty.
She knew the cause was the many mystics who were cycling at the same time, expelling miasma. Focusing inside herself, she felt those impurities try to cling on, but she pushed them out through her pores.
Following a red-stained switchback trail, she wound her way down Coiling Ridge, the rocks in the sack clacking a rhythm. When she grew bored or tired of following the trail, she leaped from one terraced section to the next, covering fifty to a hundred paces every jump.
Farmers waved at her from the adjacent slopes where they tended to plum orchards, or oat, barley, and quinoa fields. She waved back.
“Kai!” yelled scar-faced Hagar Agyare, hands around his mouth. “Tell Dakera that Shanjing killed six of my goats up the mountain last night. We’re forming a group to hunt that monster down.”
“I’ll let him know!” A memory of the bloodwolf attacking her sent a chill down her spine.
Despite the recollection, the news pleased her. Papa and Uncle Senbi would finally get revenge for her. But more than that, such a beast was certain to have a core that was excellent for use in artificing, alchemy, or to be sold.
Something round and red sailed through the air. She struck without slowing, her spear piercing the object. A plum.
“Thank you, Hagar.” She waved to the farmer, flicked her spear to dislodge the plum, and then caught it. She bit into the succulent red fruit.
“You’re welcome. Make sure you return before dark!”
She continued on her way, skirting small villages and homesteads until she came upon springs and streams that would join the nearby Red Scale River as it carved its way down the mountain. Running through the forests that hugged the river, she was at peace as birds sang medleys, and furry gardons leaped among the branches on spindly arms and legs and often hung by their thick tails.
It was early evening, the sun a golden coin in the sky, when she perched on a crag overlooking Sengar Village and the northern edge of Dragon Valley, the river a broad red snake, boats riding its back. An airship descended from high above them, heading toward Sengar’s docks.
Some vessels were fishing boats, while others belonged to traders, either on their way to Sengar, Zhoutang, or Ichibara to buy earth, stone, copper, or iron essence crystals from merchants of the Five Clans. Others had completed their business and were headed south into the lands of the Ixor Empire.
A ship at Sengar’s docks was offloading a group of people. Kai had seen the like on other occasions. They would be taken to a sect compound and then off to one of the five hidden villages. According to Papa, they were volunteers, less fortunate folk who had come to find a better living by working for the sects.
A mystic standing on an Empowered Sword lifted gracefully from another boat. The sword cut through the air and over the forest toward the village.
Lines of travelers from surrounding villages and farms headed to or from Sengar, the majority on foot. Others were in carts or wagons pulled by horse-like angonas. The occasional person rode one of the beasts.
Yet others rode atop gambas with special saddles that didn’t interfere with movement and allowed the riders to stay upright. The creatures reminded Kai of squirrels the size of an ox with eight legs and segmented shells.
When traveling slowly, gambas stretched to their full length. For speed, they curled into balls and rolled, the ground rumbling in their wake.
Sengar Village’s knit of tiled and thatched roofs sprawled below Kai, petering out to farms and orchards. The multitude of streamers and lanterns hanging in preparation for the Founding Festival gave the village splashes of color.
The festival was days away. Days before the majority of the people from every corner of Dragon Valley descended on the village for the greatest celebration.
Kai grew excited at the prospect of doing one of her favorite things. Attending a Grand Tournament. Accompanied by Hagar, she’d have to disguise herself as a boy, but the risk would be worth it.
Her gaze followed the road into the Heaven’s Hand District, home to all things of the mystic arts, the stone compounds of the Five Sects standing out among a forest of mostly wooden structures.
Though their purpose was recruitment and only basic training, the compounds were also a reminder of the power of the ruling clans. That power resided in the five mystic villages where masters and elders taught the most advanced and secretive skills of their sect’s Way.
Kai knew each sect well. Founded by the tiger-like Khafra clan, the Whispering Eagles practiced the Way of the Gliding Wind.
The Joba clan created the Mountain Giants and followed the Way of the Titan’s Fists.
For the Zhang clan, there was the Vermilion Birds sect who championed the Way of the Firestorm.
Carving their homes into cliff faces, the Hideki clan founded the Iron Cliff sect and practiced the Way of the Blade Storm.
Finally, there was the Diakos clan with their Divine Tree sect and its Way of the Flickering Spear.
Other small clans and sects existed, but none could challenge those five in shuzan.
Memories rushed her as they often did when she stood in this spot. Raw memories. Memories of rejection, humiliation.
She was thirteen and had just achieved Perception. Delighted by her accomplishment, she’d been certain one of the Five Sects would finally recruit her. It would be a welcome surprise for Papa and Uncle Senbi. She’d run down to Sengar Village and presented herself at each sect compound, stating her new level.
Only to be ridiculed by the masters or laughed at by the disciples.
The first bout of laughter came because she’d proudly declared her achievement of a level even the valley’s worst mystics could reach by the age of seven. The second occurred when they had brought out the Soul Test artifact, forcing her to again reveal her flawed wellspring. She’d endured the abuse on five occasions that day, each time hoping for a different outcome.
Those laughing faces haunted her. The masters’ disdainful looks hurt even more.
Yet, they had made something rise within her. Teeth gritted, Kai cut off the recollections.
I’m the grass, bent but never uprooted. I’m a mountain; I weather the storm.
She stood and tucked her Seed amulet inside her shirt. Cycling to calm herself, she adjusted the straps of the sack on her back, picked up her spear, leaped off the outcrop, and bounded down toward the hard-packed dirt road leading to the northern entrance.
When she was close, she leaned the spear’s black haft on her shoulder and slowed to a stroll. A part of her thought about sneaking. But she’d learned the hard way that it was better to take the road with everyone else than to be stealthy. Stealth brought the attention she wished to avoid.
Absently turning her soul ring with her thumb, she hoped she didn’t run into any masters or disciples who might recognize her. Or that if she did, that they’d forgotten about her.
Keep your head down, mind your business, and no one will notice you.
It was what she told herself whenever she visited Sengar Village. Repeating the mantra, she used the spear like a tall walking stick and waded into the noisy throngs, glad for the ability to lose herself in the crush of people. She did her best to avoid those important enough to be wearing sect sashes.
Vendors shouted from the side of the road, imploring potential customers to visit a stall or a store. Some sold material for clothing, or other wares, while still others had fruit and vegetables, or hot food, the sweet aromas drifting on the air, clashing with the stink of unwashed bodies.
She’d become so accustomed to the ridge’s relative solitude that visits to Sengar often made her stare as if it was her first time. According to the books, Papa, and Uncle Senbi, the diversity of people was a reflection of the founding clans, who’d fled here from different kingdoms during the Third Great Devil War when enough power had been unleashed to reshape Avros, leveling mountains and drying up oceans.
Standing out among the crowds were the Khafra clan’s erenar, humanoid tiger-like nomads from the Plains of Forever.
The wild-eyed Zhangs hailed from the Zaisan Dynasty, west from the Spine of Heaven.
Pointy-eared and slender, complexion like milk, the Diakos’ first home had been the Aedirith Empire, northwest near the Dragon’s Bane Mountains.
The Joba clan, Papa, and Uncle Senbi claimed the Ixor Empire, whose peoples had dark skin that shone as if oiled.
Last of the founding clans were the Hideki, who were shorter than most, had skin like copper, and had come from the Yiral Empire south of the Severed Foot Range.
“Watch yourself, little girl.” A wide-shouldered Ruby Adept barged past Kai, dressed in brown and blue robes, the Vermilion Bird emblazoned on his sash.
As she twisted out of the man’s way, she hit a woman with the sack.
“Ow.” The woman rubbed her arm. “Mind where you’re going with that thing, child.”
“Sorry, mistress. Sorry.” Kai bowed several times to the robed woman, whose Mountain Giant sash was a deep brown.
The interruption to the flow of traffic earned Kai dark looks from those rushing about their business. Wanting to get away from the worst of it, she worked her way to a less crowded road and hurried along the cobbled streets and dirt lanes toward the Heaven’s Hand district.
She reached a street bordering the district when she encountered one of Mistress Anai’s classes. Children and adults gathered around the gray-haired blind Adept woman whose robes looked fit for a beggar. None of the onlookers wore sashes.
Mistress Anai’s son, Daisuke, stood beside the bent-backed old woman, his chest puffed out. Kai often thought of a stick figure when she saw the eleven-year-old boy. He was so thin a stiff wind might blow him way.
But she could see why Daisuke was so full of pride. An amulet of a three-branched sprout stood out on the skinny boy’s chest. He’d ascended to Lower Neophyte.
“Us humans love to claim we make the greatest mystics.” Mistress Anai’s voice rang with strength. “We boast of the feats we can accomplish that beasts cannot. Yet, the dragons rule. Why is that?”
“They’re the most powerful,” shouted a little boy, no older than five.
Mistress Anai smiled in his direction. “Yes, they are. Do you know why?” The boy shook his head. Mistress Anai raised her head a little, as if she could see the crowd with her milk-white eyes. “Does anyone have an idea?”
No one answered.
Mistress Anai continued, “It’s because there are countless possibilities to what can be accomplished in shuzan. No species is superior. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Being different doesn’t mean inferior. In the same way that being born less gifted than another doesn’t dictate your future.
“Remember, a prodigy is born with all the ability in the world, but a hard worker has the mind and perseverance to find a way. Now, arrange yourselves and follow me in a session of zanquan fist.”
Kai set her spear down, got into a ready position, emptied her mind, and found the Heart of Harmony. She waited for Mistress Anai to begin.
From the very first move, Kai flowed with her. The crowd did also, shifting this way and that, stepping to the right, the left, spinning, blocking, striking, soft then hard, hard then soft.
Slightly flaring a few chosen Limit Gates, Kai increased the flow of zan. She closed her eyes and basked in the feel of the cobbles beneath her feet, the slight breeze, the scents around her, the day’s warmth, and the movements.
She envisioned opponents around her as she countered their attacks and exploited every opening. They were wispy souls, materializing before her. They appeared and attacked faster and faster.
But she was in tune with them, matching them at every turn.
When she’d struck the last one down, signaling the session’s final movements, Kai opened her eyes. Her mouth formed an ‘O’.
Every person was watching her. Even Mistress Anai, who was smiling. Silence hung like a thick blanket.
And then Mistress Anai applauded. The others joined in. Their applause resounded.
“That was amazing, Kai!” Hayashi Daisuke was standing a few paces from her, clapping vigorously. “My mother’s the only other person I’ve ever seen perform zanquan with such grace. And your speed… truly amazing. The way people spoke about you, I didn’t expect—sorry.” He bowed.
Feeling hot in the face, Kai bowed to the skinny boy, then to the crowd in three directions. She bowed deepest of all to Mistress Anai. Then she picked up her spear and rushed off toward the supply shop.
You fool, you’re supposed to keep your head down. Not draw attention to yourself.
She shot glances over her shoulder to see a few people pointing at her and talking amongst themselves. At the first intersection she veered into an alley and broke into a jog among long shadows. When she finally reached Master Meriti’s shop, she let out a relieved breath.
Master Meriti Aginor Khafra’s shop was a three-storied wooden building, each floor dedicated to a craft. Artificing took up the first floor. Scripting belonged to the second. The third specialized in alchemy.
Streamers stretched from the shops roof to other nearby buildings. Lanterns hung from them.
At the second story level was a large wooden sign with letters in black acrylic, the sunset giving it an orange glow. Meriti’s Mystic Supplies.
Kai was glad Meriti’s shop wasn’t the most popular in the Heaven’s Hand district. But she was still wary of running into a sect elder or disciple. With that in mind she turned down an alley and circled around back to the delivery yard.
As the Heavens would have it, Meriti Aginor Khafra was in the yard overseeing the offloading of a wagon. Unlike most erenar, his fur wasn’t mainly orange or tan, but was white with black stripes.
Though he was considered a member of the Khafra clan, he was not of the Whispering Eagles sect. He wore no sect sash at all and even preferred not to use his clan name.
Kai wondered if his lack of a sect stemmed from him being an adult who hadn’t risen beyond Neophyte. She couldn’t remember seeing a single adult member of the Five Sects who wasn’t at least Pearl Adept.
“Ah, there you are, Kai.” Master Meriti turned to her, voice a soft purr. He looked to an evening sky where dark clouds scudded, then pulled out a round timepiece from his tunic pocket. “I expected you a few thenules ago.”
“Greetings, Master Meriti.” Kai saluted him with her palms pressed together. “I meant to arrive sooner but got distracted.”
The erenar smiled, a fang showing at one corner of his mouth. “Was it Mistress Anai again?” He shook his head. “When will you learn, child?”
“I apologize, Master Meriti.”
He waved a thick white paw. “No need for that. There’s still time for you to get home before dark if you head directly there. You already suffered one attack from Shanjing. You might not be so lucky a second time.”
Kai’s hand tightened on her spear at the mention of the Ascended Beast. She bowed. “Yes, master.” She untied the pouch of chips and handed them to the erenar.
“Do you have lampstones just in case?” Master Meriti arched a furry brow.
Kai patted her belt pouch. “Yes.”
“Good.” Meriti pointed to a nearby shed. “Master Dakera’s supplies are in there. Bottom shelf to the left. His name is on the bag.”
“Thank you.” She often wondered why Uncle Senbi and Papa kept Senbi’s presence a secret, but she didn’t ask about it. They’d given her instructions. That had been enough.
“Daron.” Meriti beckoned to an older boy, a Neophyte, with a shock of dark hair. “Give Kai a hand. It’s the bag for Master Dakera.”
Kai wanted to say she didn’t need any help. Instead, she bowed to Meriti again. “Many thanks.” Then she followed Daron to the shed.
Daron grabbed Uncle Senbi’s bag by its two straps and dragged it to the door. “This is heavy. You sure you can handle it?” He arched a questioning brow.
Smirking, Kai took the bag of rocks off her bag. She made a show of holding it up with one hand. Then she let go. The bag dropped to the ground with a resounding thud. Daron’s eyes widened.
“I can manage.” Kai shrugged.
She picked up the bag of artificing supplies, slipped her arm through one strap until it was on her shoulder, and then shifted her body, flinging the bag onto her back and her other arm through the next strap until the bag was comfortably on her back. No heavier than her old bag, it felt like an extension of her.
Daron stared at Kai as if she had three heads. She smiled smugly, bowed, and left him there.
Kai stopped near the shop owner. “Thanks again, Master Meriti.”
He turned to her. “You’re very welcome. Tell Master Dakera he must visit soon so we can have some wine. Now, hurry, a storm’s brewing.”
She dipped her head. “Yes, master.” With those words, set off down the road.
Choosing once more to avoid the main streets, she’d gone about three quarters of the way into an alley, three-storied buildings rising on either side of her, when voices echoed from ahead. Boys’ voices. Knowing these alleys near the shop as she did, she could tell the boys were in a small garden at the end of the building on her left.
“You’ll bow to me from now on whenever you see me,” demanded a shrill, vaguely familiar voice. “And you’ll share any pills or elixirs your mother gives you.”
“I-I.” The second voice trembled.
A slap echoed. The second voice cried out. Several other voices burst into laughter.
This doesn’t concern you, Kai. Walk away. She made to turn around.
“The answer is yes, I will, Senior Kazuo.”
Kai froze at the name. Heat boiled up inside her.
“Yes, yes, I will Senior Kazuo.”
The second voice was brittle but Kai recognized it. Hayashi Daisuke.
Disgust rose to match her anger. When she last caught a glimpse of Kazuo, he’d been wearing the four-branched sprout amulet of a late stage Neophyte. Even if he hadn’t advanced to Adept, he would still be half-step above Daisuke.
She imagined how Daisuke had to feel, how she’d felt the many times no one helped her, how she’d had no one but Papa to turn to when the villagers and disciples had treated her like dirt, when Kazuo had beat her. How no one had stood up for her when Papa was wounded. How she’d wished someone would.
But what can you do? You’re worse off than Daisuke.
Maybe all I need to do is let them know I’ve seen them, and they’ll leave Daisuke alone.
Or maybe you should follow your first instinct and walk away.
Even as she considered it, she recalled Papa’s words. ‘Power decides who bows and who kneels. The weak have no rights and must always give face to those above them.’
She ground her jaw. That very attitude created beasts like Kazuo, Haru, and Favian, who grew up to be monsters.
Walking away wasn’t an option. She’d never forgive herself if she did.
Kai took a deep breath, strode past the end of the building, and turned to face the garden. Her heart hammered in her chest. With a thought, she began cycling, which helped to calm her, but not by much.
Kazuo stood over Daisuke, who was cowering on his knees. The other two boys looked no older than Daisuke.
The skinnier of the two was a Seed and wore an Iron Cliff sash over his tunic. The other was pale-skinned with dark hair. He wore a Divine Tree sash and a three-branched sprout amulet.
Kazuo glanced over at Kai. He broke into a bilious gap-toothed grin. “Look, it’s the lame I once told you about. The heavens have smiled on me today.”
For a moment, Kai considered reaching for a Potion of Alacrity and a Stoneskin Potion. She dismissed the idea. I’ll beat him on my own.