Memories came swifter.
She continued to try to pool and condense, training tirelessly in zanquan fist, sword, and spear to improve her cultivation. Cycling became like breathing, so natural sometimes she forgot she was doing it. Nothing changed about her wellspring.
Although Papa tried not to show it, she could see he was depressed by her predicament. So was she.
“Don’t give up,” Papa often said.
“I won’t,” she promised every time.
During this period, she noticed something else about herself. She was smaller than any girl or boy her age. She added her size to her shortcomings.
As had become habit, she was on her way to the little hill across from her house where she’d train. When she crested the hill, she saw three children playing down by the river bank. The children, two boys and a girl, knocked a leather ball between them with kicks and strikes, all the while shifting into zanquan forms.
Seeing the children made her wish she had brothers and sisters. Or even friends. Anyone with whom she could play. Maybe they can become my friends. Smiling, Kai made her way down to the river bank.
One of the boys kicked the ball, and it hurtled in Kai’s direction. Instinctively, Kai shifted into a zanquan stance, tracking the ball’s flight. She flowed with the ball, leaped, and executed a spinning kick, which sent the ball flying back in the direction from which it came. Giggling, Kai chased after it.
The boy caught the ball. Then all three of them stood and watched with cold eyes as Kai approached.
“Can I join?” Smiling, she looked to the boy with the ball.
“We’re not allowed to play with you. We don’t want to catch your sickness.” With those words, the boy turned and ran off, his friends following.
Kai opened her mouth to shout after them, to tell them she wasn’t sick. She stopped. What if my flaw is some disease?
In tears, she ran home. When she got inside, she rushed to Papa in the archive. “Papa, am I sick?”
Frowning, he looked up from the book he was reading. “No. Why would you think that?”
She told him what happened.
He gestured for her to take a seat on his lap and wiped away her tears. “People will say all types of disgusting things about what they don’t understand. Don’t listen to them. You’re different. People don’t like different.”
“They can’t explain it. Things without explanations make them uncomfortable, so to feel better, they lie to themselves and to others.”
After that day, Kai avoided other children.
Months later, she attended her third Founding Festival, envying the mystics her age or a year older who were allowed to compete in the Grand Tournament or perform zanquan exhibitions. The ones they called prodigies were already Neophytes.
For Seeds, the exhibitions were limited to those who had at least achieved Perception, to those who a sect had recruited. Even the average mystics had attained Perception by six.
They competed for a chance to be picked as novices in one of the Five Sects. It was the first step to achieving the glory of being named to the sect’s corresponding clan.
If I can only reach their level, that will mean something.
Kai studied the fights and exhibitions, memorizing zanquan forms as well as the details from various Ways. She paid particular attention to fighters from the Five Clans or sects. Since their Ways were considered the best, she wanted to see their techniques.
“Look, Haru, it’s the lame.” Chuckling, the boy who spoke was behind Kai. “Even that old woman… what’s her name? The one crippled by blindness?”
“Mistress Anai, Favian.” The second boy sounded annoyed.
“Yeah, that’s the one. Even Mistress Anai has a better future than this lame.”
Kai stiffened. Words are but breath. A breath can’t harm me. Scowling, she turned. She opened her mouth, closed it, and took an inadvertent step back.
Looming over her were purple eyes filled with mischief in a leering milk-colored face. One of Favian’s pointed ears twitched.
Favian was perhaps ten and wore rich-looking blue robes and white trousers. His sash fell diagonally from left shoulder to his right side, the Divine Tree and its broad canopy embroidered upon it.
Kai’s eyes were drawn to his amulet. It was a three-branched sprout. The combination of sash and amulet made him an early stage Neophyte of the Divine Tree sect. Perhaps he was also a member of the Diakos clan.
Despite her immediate dislike for the boy, she found herself in awe of the fact he’d completed his Trial of Creation to form a kernel in his wellspring, ascending him to Neophyte. She wondered what a kernel looked like.
Haru stepped up onto the bench above his friend. Shorter than Favian, he had sun-baked skin, a nose too big for his face, silver hair to match his eyes, and an expression that radiated scorn. His sash was that of the Iron Cliff. He, too, was an early stage Neophyte.
“What are you looking at, lame?” Haru scowled at her.
She wanted so badly to insult him, maybe say something about his ugly nose. Don’t stoop to their level. They’re your seniors. Show them the proper respect.
Kai saluted with her palms pressed together in front her chest, dipped her head slightly, but kept her gaze trained on them. “Nothing.”
“Lame, did you just call us nothing?” Haru arched a brow and took a step closer to her. Favian chuckled.
Kai braced herself against the urge to back up. She kept her head down, her wary gaze following them, but she made no effort to answer the question. Doing so would be to acknowledge herself as a lame.
Words are but breath. When Kai spoke, she did so through gritted teeth. “My name is Kai Bree.”
The two boys looked at each other, clearly taken aback. Any sign of mirth disappeared.
“Are you correcting your seniors, lame?” The corner of Favian’s lip curled up.
Even as Kai opened her mouth to answer, Papa landed on the bench opposite Haru. “What’s going on here?” He slid his hands into his robe’s over-sized sleeves.
The boys’ eyes widened. While Favian’s milky face darkened, Haru’s paled.
“N-nothing, big brother.” Favian bowed from the waist and then straightened.
Haru copied his friend. “We were about to ask the-ask Kai if she was enjoying the tournament.” He licked his lips.
“I’m enjoying it very much right now.” Smiling, Kai stuck her tongue out at the embarrassed boys.
“Run along, then.” Papa waved them off.
Heads bobbing, the boys saluted with both hands. “Yes, big brother.”
They turned on their heels and hurried away, snatching worried looks over their shoulders. Kai wiggled her fingers at them.
Papa stared after the boys. “They were insulting you, weren’t they? Trying to shame and intimidate you.”
“Words are but breath, Papa.”
“Even so, you wanted to return the insults or strike them, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Why would that have been wrong?”
“They’re my seniors. It wouldn’t have been honorable.”
Papa nodded once. “Not only that, but since the difference between your realm and theirs is like a goat to a bloodwolf, you would’ve also paid for your mistake in pain.
“For people like those two, you’re in a winless situation. Best to keep your head down and show respect. They’ll leave you alone eventually.”
Kai arched a brow. It didn’t feel like the boys were going to stop if Papa hadn’t shown up. Something else nagged at her. “Is there no way a Seed could beat a Sprout?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you’re saying I couldn’t beat them.”
“Today? No. Tomorrow? Who knows?” Papa shrugged. “The other bigger issue is that Favian is a Diakos. Haru is a Hideki. Attacking them is like attacking both their sects and clans. The ultimate sign of disrespect. For one who has no sect or great clan, the punishment would be a beating, banishment, or even death.”
She frowned. “But you’re a Mountain Giant.”
“Yes, I am. You aren’t. Besides, the sects belong to the Five Clans.
“Being my daughter might save you from banishment or death, but I’d have to pay tribute in zan stones to their clans and sects as well as watch as the elders had you flogged. I’d be powerless to stop them.”
“But they were the ones not showing any respect.”
Papa let out a resigned breath. “Such is the way of the world. Power is all that matters. Power makes law. Power decides who rules and who kneels. If the weak wish to survive, they must always give face to those above them.”
Kai grimaced. “What if one of them struck me first?”
“Then you’d be within your right to defend yourself. That’s why it’s time to start preparing you for a real opponent.”
Kai stood at the center of a white circle in the middle of the training room, a circle whose size meant four strides in any direction would take her beyond its perimeter.
Papa stood outside the circle beside a new wooden man, but this one actually looked like a faceless person complete with a head, arms, and legs. It had six symbols drawn on it, one on its forehead, one below the navel, one in each palm, and the other two atop its feet.
“This is a golem.” Papa pointed at the symbols. “And these are its scripts.
“Scripts serve many purposes, from imbuing an essence property, effect, or to apply principles and rules to an area or item. We often use them for trapping, identification, alarms, boundaries, and barrier arrays.
“In fact, the valley is protected from Ascended Beasts by a barrier array.
“Part of a script imitates soul channels, delivering zan and essences to the item to power it. These particular scripts were done by Mistress Anai and allow the golem to fight by way of zanquan techniques imbued within them.”
Kai scrunched up her face. “Fight? It moves like a living thing?”
“Yes, that’s what makes it a golem.”
She didn’t know exactly how to feel about the revelation. Her emotions were a mix of awe, curiosity, and fright all at once.
“Don’t allow fear to rule you, to unbalance you.” Papa shook his head. “Displaying strength in the face of an enemy can be the difference between winning or losing, between life or death, in the same way that appearing weak can make an enemy overconfident and prone to mistakes.”
Kai nodded. “How does the golem work?”
“Touching the golem and cycling feeds a small amount of zan into it, activating the scripts.”
“Is that something I could do?”
“Yes. Anyone who has learned to combine One With The Body and Mind can activate this particular script. You did the same to the Soul Test artifact. Other scripts might have different requirements.”
“How will the golem know I’m ready after it’s activated?”
“Just say ‘begin’. To stop, you say ‘end’. Ready?”
Kai hesitated. “Can I at least name him? I think I’ll feel better if he has a name.”
Papa smiled. “Of course. What will you name it? I mean, him.”
“I like it.” Papa nodded. “Why’d you choose that one?”
“It sounds like mine.” Kai shrugged.
Papa chuckled. “Fair enough. Ready now?”
“Hmm, hmm.” Bringing her hands up, Kai focused on the golem.
“Oh, I almost forgot. This is a sparring session to ten points. A point is scored whenever a clean blow lands.”
“That doesn’t sound too hard.”
Papa smiled slyly. “It doesn’t, does it? Except you can’t leave that circle. If you leave that circle, you lose a point.”
“That’s not fairrr.” Pouting, Kai dropped her hands.
“A fight is hardly ever fair. A person might have a weapon when you have none. Or be stronger than you. You must still fight.”
“Can I have my spear, then?”
Papa shook his head. “Crawl before you walk.”
“Fine.” Kai assumed a ready position and embraced zan.
“This will teach you discipline. It will also hone your ability to react. Just say the word when you’re ready to start.” Papa jutted his chin toward the golem. “I already activated Keitaro.”
“Begin.” Even as she said the word, Kai shifted into the zanquan fist form, the Black Lion Stalks The Mountain, which relied on stealthy blows, the ability to dart in and out to strike.
The golem brought its hands up and sidestepped, its movements a glide that Kai recognized as the Swallow Fishes, based on stabbing offensive strikes by way of the fingertips. When Keitaro darted forward, Kai let out a screech, leaped back and out of the circle.
“End.” Papa chuckled as the golem froze in place. “One point to Keitaro.”
Papa picked up the golem and returned it to the starting position. “Remember, strength in the face of an enemy.”
Shoulders slumped, Kai returned to the circle. She assumed a ready position once more. “Strength in the face of an enemy,” she whispered. Out loud, she said, “Begin.”
This time she was able to hold her ground. Fully into Black Lion Stalks The Mountain, she dodged two kicks, parried a stabbing four-finger strike, and countered with a three-move combination of a side kick and a palm strike into a spinning back fist with the same hand.
Or at least that had been her intention.
Pain shot through her midsection at the very end of the back fist. She gasped for air. Her vision blurred.
In that same instant she made out the golem beneath her attack point, its fingertips driven into her midsection. And then she dropped to one knee.
“End.” Papa’s voice sounded far away. “The pain from the first hit is always a shock. Take your time. Breathe nice and even.”
She was trying to, but her side hurt. The pain radiated outward. Finally, the pain subsided, and she climbed to her feet.
Grimacing, she looked to Papa. “You didn’t say this was going to hurt.”
“Now you know. Do you wish to stop?”
She shook her head.
“Good. Expecting to fight without pain is to expect to stand in the rain and not get wet. The good news is that eventually your body will adapt.”
Kai frowned. “I’ll stop feeling pain after a while?”
Papa chuckled. “One can only wish.” He shook his head. “Getting hit is always going to hurt. You’ll simply be able to manage it. Want to feel less pain? Try not to get hit.”
She gave him an incredulous look. “But I can’t leave the circle.”
“I know. It’s why this technique is called Hell’s Circle. You’ll feel as if you’re in eternal punishment, in one of the many hells, but once you’ve learned to fight within it, everything becomes easier.
“Eventually, you will learn to draw the circle in your mind’s eye, and it will move with you, as you are the center of circle at all times. Ready?”
Kai took a deep breath and nodded.
The session lasted for a hundred and fifty cycles. She lost every round, sometimes because she was so used to zanquan’s flow she’d step out of the circle simply by employing its movements.
At other times she found herself outside of it when she tried to avoid a blow she thought would be particularly painful. When the session ended, she hurt in too many places to count.
“Are you certain you don’t want to stop?” Concern shone in Papa’s eyes.
She nodded and glowered at Keitaro. “I have to hit him at least one time.”
“Very well. But first.” Dakera directed Kai out of the circle and stood within it. “Zanquan is as much in your mind as it is in your movements. While repeating the movements helps with the forms and your connection to zan, they can be done mentally. To do so, you must learn to relax, even in the face of death. Begin.”
As before, the golem shifted into the Swallow Fishes. Papa’s hands didn’t leave his sides. When the golem darted in, Papa matched its movements as if they were joined at the hip.
The golem attacked with a snapping kick to the midsection, quickly followed by a finger strike directed at Papa’s neck. But Papa had already sidestepped the kick, turned his head away from the strike, and delivered a palm to the golem’s side that sent it flying into the wall.
“End.” Papa brought his hands back to his sides and breathed out slowly. “Now, you try again. Feel the flow of your opponent. Be one with it. Find its rhythm, the rhythm of the battle itself, the rhythm of the world, what we call the Heart of Harmony.
“That way you can move with their attacks, negating some of its power. It gives an edge to a person like you who’ll most likely be physically smaller and weaker than your opponent.”
Kai returned to the circle. This time, as she watched the golem, she connected its movements to zanquan’s principles, repeating the mantra in her head. Fluid as the Flows. Violent as the Streams. Hard as the Forms. Obscure as the Abstract.
The session went as badly as the first. But at least she was getting a feel for it. If it was the last thing she did that day, she was going to land a blow. She was going to find the Heart of Harmony.
She finally achieved both goals in the eighth session.
The Heart of Harmony was unlike anything before. Previously, she’d felt a rhythm to her movements and her connection to zan. The Heart was an awareness of many more details.
It was the way the wood at Keitaro’s joints shifted, the hitch in his gait, a creak when he kicked, clacking fingers when he punched, the impact of his footsteps, the pattern of his movements.
In the Heart, Kai felt as if the fight played music in her head, as if she were dancing and Keitaro was her partner.
After that day, sparring by way of Hell’s Circle became a daily routine. She also studied any zanquan manuals she found in the archive.
She and Papa were near some wooded foothills in the Unclaimed Lands, a little over a mile beyond Joba clan territory. After all the stories she’d heard about the wild animals and Ascended Beasts living in the Unclaimed Lands, she’d been frightened to be here.
But Papa had reassured he would keep her safe.
Feet dangling over the side of a massive tree stump, she watched in awe as Papa trained in the Way of the Mountain Gale.
Shirtless, his skin covered in a layer of stone, Papa had also harnessed a stone meteor hammer with spiked dual heads the size of his own. The six-foot length of stone chain connecting the heads was wrapped around his body.
With a quick motion, he unwrapped the chain and flicked one spiked head out as if the thing were weightless, the artiform cutting through the air with a whoosh. Papa yanked the head back toward him, spun, and as it reached him, he flung the other end out.
Papa moved like the wind, twirling and leaping, direction ever-changing as if he danced. All the while, the hammer chain and heads were in constant motion, streaking out at imaginary targets.
Kai picked out the patterns to Dakera’s flow. As with the sword and spear, they mimicked zanquan’s movements.
An instant after a back-handed toss, Dakera’s open hand formed a claw, and he made a quick upward motion. Dozens of wooden poles sprouted from the ground like leafless bamboo, formed a caged globe, and snap shut.
Papa made a flinging motion with the same empty hand. From where he stood, a swath of grass leaned as if caught in a strong gust, rippling in a path toward the wooden cage.
Kai gasped. This had to be a channeling technique.
The channeled power sliced clean through the tops of the grass and cut the wooden cage in half.
Papa hauled in the meteor hammer and saluted his imaginary foe. The stone melted from his skin even as the artiform hammer and the wooden cage dissolved.
Grinning, she clapped. One day, I’ll be just like Papa.
But, on her eighth birthday, nothing had changed. She spent the day sobbing where Papa couldn’t see. When he gifted her with her favorite plum cake, she couldn’t hide the tears any longer.
Papa hugged her. “Everything will be alright, Little Flower.”
“No, it won’t Papa. I’m not a prodigy.”
“Not everyone is born a prodigy. Some don’t advance to Neophyte until their eleventh year.”
“But prodigies are special. I want to be special.”
He ruffled her hair. “You are special, Little Flower. You’re smarter than anyone your age, smarter than many who are much older, and you work harder than anyone I know.”
“It’s not the saammme.”
“It might not be, but it’s still special. Just continue training as hard as you have been, and everything will work itself out.”
“You sure, Papa?” She sniffled.
She took a deep breath and set a new goal. To advance by the time she was eleven like the normal mystics.
She was nine, and she’d not too long returned home from the Founding Festival.
Papa barged into the house, breathing hard, eyes frantic. A sword was in his hand, its blade stained with blood. Screams and yells resounded from outside.
“Kai, grab your spear and get into the escape space.” Papa dashed toward the archive.
Heart thumping, she snatched her spear from beside her bed and ran to Papa. He’d already slid aside the small rug and had the trapdoor open.
“Get in.” Papa motioned to the hole.
Hand shaking, Kai handed Dakera her spear then climbed down. Her feet touched damp earth, her toes sinking in. Her upper body was still above the floorboards.
She crouched until she was on all fours, the smell of wet earth and mold filling her nostrils. Up ahead was darkness disturbed by the occasional line of the evening sun through the planks at the edge of their home.
The spear eased down next to her. Papa tilted the spear and fed it in until it rested beside her. She grabbed onto the spear, glad for its familiarity.
“No matter what you hear, don’t come out. I’ll be back for you.” Papa paused. “If I don’t return, wait until there’s complete silence before you try to leave. Straight ahead is another door in the side of the house near the ground. Push and the planks will fall away.”
“Papa, I’m scared. Don’t leave me.” She trembled.
“I must, Little Flower. I have to help drive off the Satsuna raiders. It’s the only way to keep you safe. Be brave for Papa. I promise I’ll return.”
“I promise.” He jostled her hair.
Kai took a deep breath, trying to calm herself.
“I know you’re afraid. Cycling will help.”
Closing her eyes, Kai breathed long and slow. Emptying her mind, she reached into her wellspring for her connection to zan. She let her senses roam outside and guided zan into her. Calmness suffused her.
And then the trapdoor closed, leaving her in darkness. Fear threatened to surge, but she focused on her cycling. The feeling dissipated.
Papa’s footsteps retreated. Glancing up, she saw him through the slits in the floorboard. She prayed for the heavens to keep Papa safe.
Not long after Dakera left, Kai grew sore from maintaining such an awkward position. She rooted around in the damp ground until she was flat on her back, looking up at the floorboards.
Time passed, the screams, cries, and shouts intensifying on occasion. Steel clashed on steel. Roars and crashes abounded. Running footsteps clattered by outside the house. The evening sun filtering through the cracks became moonlight.
Where’s Papa? Is he okay? Is he hurt? She tried her best not to worry, but it crept in all the same.
Footsteps entered the house. First, one set, then another. Kai’s spirits lifted.
Until the owners entered the archive, and she caught a glimpse of them through the tiny slits between the floorboards.
Dressed in long-sleeved hooded tunics and baggy trousers, the Satsuna raiders were tall, faces hidden by blood-red masks, swords gripped in pale-skinned hands. One stood at the door while the other stalked inside.
Kai held her breath, the floorboard creaking as a raider passed over her, causing dust to fall. She kept her gaze locked on the other raider, praying he wouldn’t look in her direction. Her hand tightened on her spear.
Another raider entered the archive but remained at the door with their counterpart. This one spoke. “There’s no one here, Jian. Check the map again.” The voice carried a sing-song lilt and belonged to a woman.
“Yes, Meilin,” answered the raider beside the woman, his voice was a croak, low and rough as if something was stuck in his throat.
He sheathed his sword, pulled out a scroll, unrolled it, and paused. His finger traced a line on the parchment. “We’re in the right home.”
“The child must have fled.” The voice above Kai sent a chill through her. It was like a knife sliding across a whetstone.
A distant horn bellowed. The three raiders rushed out. Their footsteps faded.
She tried to make sense of what she’d heard. It sounded as if the raiders knew she was supposed to be there. How could that be?
The night dragged on, its silence broken by the occasional shout or cry. Fighting back a growing sense of panic, Kai lost herself to cycling. She was imagining herself practicing zanquan when footsteps approached.
Her heart soared when she saw two disciples wearing Mountain Giant sashes. Papa was behind them.
When they took her out of the hole, she rushed to Papa and flung her arms around his leg. “I missed you so much, Papa. I was so scared.”
“I know, Little Flower.” He stroked her head.
She leaned away from him. “Three raiders came inside. I was brave and didn’t move.”
“Yes, you were.”
“Papa, they knew a child was supposed to be here. They had a map.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes.” It was then that she noticed Papa only had one arm, the other a stump at the shoulder and wrapped in bloody bandages. Kai burst into sobs.