After recovering from his injuries, Dakera’s attitude took a darker turn. He avoided going into Sengar Village proper unless absolutely necessary. He wore a scowl, often muttered to himself, and his eyes had lost much of their light.
One day he returned from a trip to see the elders. “Kai!” he called from the archive.
“Yes, Papa?” She hurried in to him.
Papa was pacing back and forth before one of the many shelves of scrolls and books. He stopped and regarded her with sorrowful eyes.
“I have news. First.” He waggled his stump of an arm. “The elders see me as a cripple now, unable to offer much to any sect, much less a clan. Out of honor, and before they could shame me by taking it, I gave up my place in the Mountain Giants.”
She hung her head. “I’m sorry, Papa.”
“Don’t be. I had planned to give it up anyway because of the way you’ve been treated.”
She gave Papa a solemn little smile.
“The second bit of news is that I told the elders what you saw… about the raiders with the map and how they seemed to know you should’ve been there. The matriarch believes you were mistaken and says there’s no reason for someone to be after you.
“Some of the others at least gave it some consideration. In the end, they dismissed it.
“They had more to say, also. We lost many mystics during the raid, the brunt of our warriors among them. The elders blamed this on the warriors being spread too thin among the many villages and farms across the entire valley.
“From today, their guards will only protect the Five Territories. Any person who isn’t a member of the Five Clans, who wishes to live within the territories, must pay a yearly tribute to the clans.
“Those who aren’t members of the Five Clans or sects must pay either two thousand gold chips, five hundred high grade zan stones, or two hundred and fifty essence crystals.
“Those not in one of the clans, but are members of the Five Sects, are required to pay half and render a service. The head of each family is responsible for furnishing the tributes.”
“What if person can’t afford to pay?”
“Then they must live in the Unclaimed Lands and rely on the barrier array as protection against Ascended Beasts and defend against the Satsuna however they can.”
Kai gasped. She’d overheard more than her fair share of horror stories about life in the Unclaimed Lands. Some parents used the threat of such a life to scare children.
“Can-can we afford to pay, Papa?”
“No, we can’t.” His shoulders slumped.
“I know what we can do to pay.” She turned a bright smile up to Papa. “We can go up into the Titan’s Leg to mine essence crystals during the day.”
Papa shook his head. “The mines belong to the Five Clans.”
“Then we make our own mine,” Kai insisted.
“We can’t, Little Flower. It would belong to the Five Clans.”
Kai frowned. “How? Wouldn’t it be part of the Unclaimed Lands? And since we claimed it, then—”
“It would still be theirs.”
“They own the mountains?”
“Papa, how’s that possible when the mountains are part of nature?”
“The clans have the power to claim anything they wish in Dragon Valley. If we were caught mining essences, it would be the same as stealing. They would be in their right to punish us.”
“Then we won’t get caught.” Kai shrugged.
Papa sighed. “I wish it were so simple, Little Flower.”
Kai’s brows drew together. “Papa, then can we become miners for the Five Clans?”
“Never. Those who volunteer to mine must give up everything. They aren’t allowed to return from the hidden villages. It’s how the village locations remain a secret. Some claim the miners live fine lives, but I have my doubts.”
“What will we do, Papa? We don’t have a home.” Tears welled up in her eyes.
Papa drew her close and ruffled her hair. “Home is where we make it. The elders are allowing us to live here for one more year. A reward for my sacrifice in the raid. Then, we will find another home.”
“Out in the Unclaimed Lands? But then how will I get to see the fights at the Grand Tournament?”
Papa knelt and wiped away her tears. “Don’t worry, Little Flower. Papa has a plan. We’ll be fine.”
Despite his one arm, Dakera turned his skills to alchemy and hunting Ascended Beasts for their cores, most often beyond the barrier array. He made enough chips to hire help to build a house.
Dakera chose Coiling Ridge for their new home, the ridge’s stone stained a bright red like a gaping wound. The location was deep in the Unclaimed Lands, sheltered in a cleft, far below the large twin peaks in the Titan’s Leg Mountains.
During their visits up the ridge, Kai discovered her favorite place to train and cultivate. It was atop a crimson-stoned cliff beside Coiling Falls, overlooking the Red Scale River and the forests that hugged its banks.
She spent a few thousand cycles there every day, each thenule seeming longer that the last as she practiced zanquan within Hell’s Circle, and found comfort in the roar and force of the falling water, the foamy spray, the beauty of the falls, the chatter of frolicking animals in the forests, and the world beyond.
Nature was like music. When she was in her favorite place, the Unclaimed Lands didn’t seem so bad at all.
Before the house was finished, Mistress Anai had shown up one day. Papa had hired her to place a boundary around the house, an array to warn them of intruders.
Curious, Kai followed Mistress Anai and her assistant, who, at Mistress Anai’s direction, placed formation flags with intricate scripts drawn upon them.
Eventually, Kai drummed up the courage to ask the question nagging at her. She bowed from the waist to the blind mystic. “Pardon me, Mistress Anai.”
The old Onyx Adept turned to Kai with those unsettling, completely white eyes. “Yes, young lady?”
“How is it that you can’t see yet you drew these scripts and know where to place the flags?”
Mistress Anai smiled. “The eyes aren’t the only way to see. Smell. Hearing. Feeling. In ways, they’re all a form of sight. With them, you can picture a thing in your mind’s eye.
“Then there’s the actual sight I do have. I can see zan and the essences, the patterns they weave.”
Kai gave the woman a dubious look. “Still, when it comes to scripting, didn’t you have to know the different strokes, learn calligraphy? Master it?”
“All can be done by feeling.”
“Isn’t that much harder to do than if you could see them?”
The bent-back woman shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been able to see as you do.”
Kai’s eyes grew round. “Never?”
“Never.” Mistress Anai shook her head.
“I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like.”
Mistress Anai tilted her head, her attention focused on Kai. The scrutiny of those milky-white eyes made Kai fidget.
“If I had sight, I wouldn’t be as skilled a scriptor. Blindness gave me a better connection to zan and my scripts.”
“Do you really believe that?”
The old woman shrugged. “It is, so then it must be.” She cracked a smile at Kai’s frown. “If I could see, I wouldn’t be as attuned to the world, to zan, and the essences. People often think a disability makes a person less than them, makes them weaker.
“In my experience, it can do the opposite, particularly in the growth of Ways, techniques, and up here.” She tapped her head. “And in here.” She placed a palm over her heart. “It makes them more determined. Their bodies, minds, and souls are forced to adapt.
“A man with no legs becomes stronger in his upper body. A one-armed man, like your father, improves in his legs and his other arm. A blind person can feel, hear, and smell what a normal person can’t. A deaf person improves his other senses.”
“They might develop new techniques, walk their Way in new forms.” The old woman turned her head toward where Dakera worked, piling huge logs for firewood. “They could use reinforcement and harnessing to create a temporary limb.”
In place of Dakera’s missing arm was a reinforced one, harnessed from stone, the artiform larger than his entire body. Kai wished he could keep the arm, or the replica of the old one he sometimes created, but Dakera had said the strain of maintaining the technique was too great, a constant battle as zan and essences attempted to return to their natural states.
“Who knows what improvement your affliction will make for you.” Mistress Anai’s face lit up like the sun. “As for how people have treated you… they did the same to me when I was a child. Yet, here I am, having surpassed many who did. Use their ridicule as fuel.”
Kai bowed from waist, her spirits lifted by the woman’s words. “Thank you, mistress.”
Life on Coiling Ridge was hard, the days filled with tilling their field, growing crops, and harvesting. When Papa wasn’t out hunting or picking herbs for his alchemy, she’d help him chop wood for the fireplace. Woodcutting became a part of her training ritual.
Papa made arrangements with Hagar Agyare, a burly scar-faced man who owned a farm and orchards not far from their home. Hagar would take her to the Founding Festival every year.
By ten, she’d learned and memorized dozens of zanquan forms. Each was the creator’s interpretation of the animal or aspect of nature for which the form had been named.
Her favorites were Hummingbird Rides the Wind and Swallow Courts the Dragon. They both relied on speed, agility, and counterattacks, but while the Hummingbird favored stabbing attacks with her hands like a beak, the Swallow’s moves required staying low to the ground while delivering kicks from acrobatic positions.
Still, even with her knowledge, she only managed to beat Keitaro a little over half the time.
“You’re predictable.” Papa was watching her battle the golem. “Like most mystics below Adept you fell in love with certain forms, sacrificing zanquan’s strength. Its freedom.”
When she finished, Papa replaced her in Hell’s Circle. “Watch me.”
With those words, Papa raised his hands and flowed into a zanquan session. Ever on the move, he unleashed strikes from multiple directions and angles.
However, each attack or defensive move belonged to a different form. A fist from Swallow Courts the Dragon became a kick in the Black Lion Hunts, which turned into a blow from Qilin Sweeps the Heavens. That became a Turtle’s Guard parry, which evolved into an angled kick from the ground in the Phoenix Rises.
Her mouth fell open. When Papa finished, he’d gone through strikes from almost two dozen forms.
He paused for a moment. “Now, pay careful attention.” He dropped his hands at his sides. “Begin.”
When Keitaro attacked, Papa didn’t respond until the last moment, either to dodge, parry, or deliver a blow. Sometimes, he’d touch Keitaro’s wrist or elbow or foot, in a circular motion, redirecting the intended attack so it missed him.
Focused on Papa, Kai frowned. While she discerned the forms of Papa’s responses at the very moment he delivered them, they were a mystery to her beforehand due to the moment he reacted.
“End.” Papa looked to her. “What you just saw was Shadowless Step, passed to me by my master, Senbi Asim. You achieve it by seeing zanquan in your mind’s eye, bringing the forms to life in your head to keep your intent hidden from your foe. Mix your forms to create confusion.
“Shadowless Step will help prepare you for the many techniques at your disposal when the day comes that you cross into the Adept realm.”
“Yes, Papa.” She smiled, her chest swelling with pride because Papa believed in her despite her flaw.
Months later, a renegade Satsuna band raided the Unclaimed Lands. The warning boundary worked to perfection, allowing Kai and Dakera the time to flee farther up the mountain where they hid in one of the many caves Dakera used as shelter when he was out hunting. When they were finally able to return home, they found their house was ransacked.
One day, Papa took her far west beyond the crimson rocks of Coiling Ridge, up the mountain, past Lotus Lake, to the valley’s barrier array. While the boundary at her house was invisible, the barrier looked like a heat haze, spreading into the sky and in either direction as far as she could see.
“I wanted you to see where it begins.” Papa stood beside a red banner, a formation flag as tall as he, its silversteel pole reflecting the sunlight. A variety of shapes and lines formed scripts stitched into the flag.
He pointed to another flag a few hundred feet away. “There’s a pair of formation flags every few miles, enclosing Dragon Valley. The barrier itself is about two miles wide.”
“What happens if an Ascended Beast tries to get past the barrier?” Kai craned her neck to stare up at the flag.
Papa pointed to the barrier’s far side. “If it’s third grade or above, and tries to cross from outside, the beast activates the Radiant Shadow Tempest technique produced by the array’s scripts.”
Kai frowned. “The technique doesn’t affect fourth grade Ascended Beasts?”
Papa shook his head. “Those are only a bit stronger than a Neophyte and easily handled.”
“Has any powerful Ascended Beast ever made it to this side?”
“A first grade once did. But it left the valley soon after. There was nothing here to benefit its advancement to Divine.”
Kai breathed a sigh of relief.
“It’s not unusual for a beast on our side to ascend to third grade,” Papa continued. “That’s why they’re hunters like me. We either kill them or lead them beyond the barrier.”
Eyes narrowed, Kai asked the obvious question. “Beyond the barrier? As in lead them through? Wouldn’t the array’s technique kill them?”
Papa shook his head. “The scripts allow passage from this side. When the elders created the array, they didn’t wish to prevent any Ascended Beast from leaving.”
“Why would an Ascended Beast just leave if it can find easy food here?”
“They are naturally drawn to areas that better support their growth, that provide a challenge, most often in the form of combat. Come.” Papa gestured, and they headed through the barrier.
Kai felt nothing as they crossed. But within the barrier itself the air appeared cloudy.
“Stay close to me.” With those words, Papa wove his way deeper into the forest.
Kai’s heart fluttered as she followed him. Her mind conjured images of vicious Ascended Beasts watching them.
Finally, Papa stopped and crouched beside the trunk of a massive tree. He pointed at greenish white moss covering huge roots. “This is marrow moss. It can stop bleeding.” He collected a bit of the moss and put it in his pouch.
He slid over to a stalk with a line of blue buds. “Ragweed. Mixed with marrow moss, foxleaf, and charcoal, it creates a Potion of Sanguine Purification, which cleanses most poisons.”
“Could you teach me alchemy?”
Papa glanced up and smiled. “What do you think I’m doing right now? The first step to becoming an alchemist is herbalism.
“Your proficiency in herbalism will eventually determine the quality and quantity of ingredient you can pick from a particular herb. It will even affect the use of more powerful recipes.”
Papa inspected a gummy substance near some red mushrooms growing between the roots. It was a deep purple like bruised flesh. “This is condensed miasma, or what some call miasma crystals, left behind after ascension when a body is remade. It’s richer in dark and death essences than the miasma we release while refining zan.
“When the day comes that you ascend to Adept, never cultivate essences from miasma. And avoid death essences even if you develop a layer for them in your core.
“Nothing good has ever come to those who cultivate death. And you wouldn’t want people to mistake you for a deathfeeder.”
Moments later, the miasma dissipated like ash.
He indicated one of the mushrooms that was brighter than the others. “Looks like that mindbloom ascended.” He plucked it. “Mindbloom induces a dream state. This and marrow moss are used in elixirs and pills, which give an infusion of zan and are particularly helpful in breaking through bottlenecks to another realm. They’ll fetch a good price.”
Papa stood and looked up into the deep green ocean of leaves through which sunlight lanced. “This Ascended Tree is one of the reasons I brought you past the barrier. Some of the most useful plants and herbs grow near Ascended Trees.
“Sometimes, trees become rich in nature or life essences simply because they’re a part of nature, an effect of essences being drawn to like essences.”
“Is that what I feel sometimes?” Kai arched her brow. “Like zan is pulling at me, calling to me?”
Papa nodded. “I’ve watched zan and essences respond to you, particularly when practicing zanquan. You can’t see essences yet, but you have an affinity to nature.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Yes. It will help with your Way when you advance.” He walked around the tree, pausing while peering up into its thick canopy.
“What are you looking for?”
“Zan or essence fruits. Ascended Trees can produce fruit infused with pure zan or the essences they cultivated. Such fruits are coveted by mystics and alchemists.
“I was certain this one was due. A bud had been forming. Unfortunately, it appears as if it’s already been harvested.”
Kai copied her father, hoping to see a fruit he’d missed. “Papa, if elixirs and pills can help breakthrough bottlenecks, couldn’t they help me reach Perception?”
He shook his head. “I wish it were so simple. First, such pills and elixirs cost at least several thousand zan stones or essence crystals. I could work for years and never afford one or the grade of cauldron required to brew them.
“Second, and more importantly, if your Soul Root, wellspring, and channels aren’t strong enough, the powerful infusion of zan is likely to rupture them, which can lead to your death.
“Even if you survive, your Foundation could be ruined, limiting the realm you to which you can ascend. It’s the reason such consumables aren’t recommended for anyone below Neophyte.”
“What’s so special about Neophyte?” Kai frowned.
“The kernel a mystic develops in their wellspring during ascension to that realm. It’s an additional place to pool and condense, providing greater zan control, and acts as a buffer against possible damage.
“It also allows for storage of more zan and essences. Having a kernel gives a mystic a far better idea of their limitations.”
A screech pierced the air. Papa grabbed her, pulled her close to him, and pressed his back to the tree trunk.
He harnessed his stone arm, the limb growing from the stump of the missing one. His meteor hammer appeared as the hand formed, the stone chain coiled in a circle.
“Make no sudden movements and be quiet. That’s the cry of grand eagle out for a hunt.” Lifting his normal hand slowly, Papa pointed to a space in the canopy where she could see the great bird circling in the sky. “But this one is a third grade Ascended Beast. Its prey is usually another Ascended. When strong enough, some of them hunt us.
“On rare occasion, an Ascended Beast becomes a Devil, consuming not only zan, but also miasma, just like a deathfeeder.”
Wide-eyed, Kai followed the grand eagle’s path. “How can you tell it’s Ascended, Papa?” To her, the massive bird looked the same as any other.
“Its size and aura. Only things that have ascended possess auras. Human mystics gain their auras at Neophyte, and their aurasense at Adept. Aurasense is one of two ways we can determine the strength of anything our realm or below. The other is by way of their souls.
“For anything above our realm, we simply sense that it’s stronger, but only if it wishes us to do so. Mystics at Adept and above can also mask their souls and auras to anything below their realm. This grand eagle is at least as strong as I am.”
The grand eagle screeched again.
“We’re in luck. It has found a meal. Watch.”
Bushes rustled at the far side of a nearby clearing. A red bear ambled out. Even on all fours the bear was taller than Papa.
Wings folded, the grand eagle dropped like a rock. It grew larger as it dived. Soon, Kai realized the bird was twice the size of the bear.
As the grand eagle’s shadow flashed across the clearing, the bear snapped its head up and turned to flee. But it was too late.
The grand eagle unfurled its wings as it pounced, its claws tearing into the bear’s back. The bear’s roar became a plaintive cry. A battle of fang and feather ensued, but the eagle never relinquished its grip even as it drove its beak down repeatedly.
In moments, the bear ceased struggling. It gave a final spasm.
A translucent white bear rose from the carcass. It was a replica of the dead beast but as if made from mist. The replica roared. The grand eagle tore it apart and gulped down the mist.
“That was the bear’s Aspect, a reflection of its soul,” Papa whispered. “Now, the eagle will devour the core. The most potent zan is contained in both of those.
“Consuming them is the same as if you’ve cultivated for months, years, depending on the potency. But, as it is with elixirs and pills, such an infusion is deadly to a weak Foundation.”
Hunkered down over the carcass, the grand eagle ripped into its midsection. Something glowed a faint whitish blue. The eagle plucked it out and swallowed in the same motion.
The third grade Ascended grand eagle continued to tear at the meat for a while longer. When it was done, the eagle beat its massive wings and took to the sky.
Papa watched it. “What you witnessed is the cycle of predator and prey. One day that eagle might end up as food for something more powerful like a drake or a dragon. Strength rules.”
His harnessed arm and weapon dissolved. “We have an old saying: There are always mystics beyond mystics, heavens beyond heavens.”
“There has to be some way to counter strength.” Kai tracked the grand eagle’s flight until the bird disappeared in the mountains.
Papa tapped his head. “Strength isn’t just physical. If your enemy’s stronger than you, you must be smarter than him.”
“What if my enemy’s stronger and smarter?”
“Then you must be faster.”
“And if he’s smarter, faster, and stronger.”
“Pray to the heavens.” Papa chuckled.
As Kai considered his words, a thought struck her. “Papa, when we die, do we have Aspects?”
“Something similar. A person below Adept leaves a part of his soul that quickly vanishes. Most people can’t even see it.
“At Adept, we leave behind a Resonance, which contains zan and properties from the main essences we cultivated. That, you’ll be able to see. Avoid a Resonance should you come across one.
“It’s a mindless thing filled with the instinct to kill. Some claim it’s because they envy the living.”
“Come, I’ll show you more useful plants and how to identify and differentiate between the tracks of wild and Ascended Beasts. Spend some time every day improving your connection to nature.
“Always remember that the land is the harshest judge. It provides what you need only if you know where to look, how to listen, when to run, how to fight. If you lack any of these traits, it takes your life in exchange.”
Though dangerous, the wild or Ascended Beasts were not the most worrisome things in the mountains. Storms held that title. The first storm she experienced had shook the house despite the shelter offered by the cleft and ridge walls around them.
Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled like immortals bickering, and the wind was a howling beast. She’d clung to Papa the entire time.
After the storm, she and Papa went outside to find trees uprooted, red-stained boulders had tumbled down the mountain to land not far from the house, and water run off had scarred the ground.
Without even trying, she could feel the pull of zan all around her. When she cultivated, zan was not only much thicker than before, but it was also cleaner.
“Papa, why does zan feel like this?”
“Part of the world’s cycle.” Papa closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. “Just as we rely on cultivation, so does the world.”
“The world’s cycle?”
“Yes.” Papa pointed to a blanket of clouds. “The world breathes out moist air, causing clouds to form. Within those clouds, more air and water essences are drawn to each other and condense, bringing storms and rain, feeding the world with water, which it pools in oceans, lakes, and rivers. The world breathes that out into air and water essences again, giving birth to new clouds.”
“Ah.” Kai nodded.
“Everything is in a constant cycle of transformation as zan and the essences gather by way of active cultivation or by pooling over time.
“Active cultivation would be a waterfall becoming force. Air becoming wind. Wind becoming a storm. Pooling is wood becoming earth. Earth becoming rock. Rock becoming metal.”
“Essences becoming essence crystals, which become essence stones,” Kai added with a smile. “And essence stones becoming primals, which can eventually form natural treasures.”
Papa arched his brows. “Exactly. I haven’t taught you that. Did you realize it on your own?”
“Some of it. But I’ve also been reading the Principles of the Essences and Zan.”
“Ah, by Sage Tendaji Abara. A very good book.” Papa nodded. “Keep reading, you’ll discover how he rose to Luminary in a Divine Forest filled with Divine and Ascended Trees, branches laden with zan or essence fruits.
“Divine and Devil Beasts eventually flock to such forests, where they’re hunted for their cores and Aspects by Sapphire Adepts who wish to advance.”
“Now, where was I?” Papa’s brows drew together. “Ah, yes, cycles. They’re all around us. Ever notice the similarities between a new born babe and an old man? Bald heads, missing teeth, lack of speech?” Papa looked to her. She nodded. “A cycle.”
Papa gestured to the forest. “Trees grow, leaves fall, feed the ground, become dirt, which help trees grow. A cycle.”
“It’s a pattern,” Kai exclaimed.
Papa smiled. “Exactly, Little Flower. Everything in life and in shuzan has a pattern, a rhythm, and within that rhythm lies the Heart of Harmony.”
He pointed up the slope, which was still covered in brush and grass that appeared more alive now than ever. “I know things have been hard for you, but the struggle is a key part to your Foundation and growth.
“No matter how hard things become, you must always progress, never stop. Bend but never break. Be like the grass, bending with the wind but never uprooted. Be like the mountain, weathering any storm.”
“I will.” As she made the promise as much to him as for herself, she had another thought. “Papa, I don’t want to be a flower anymore.”
He turned to peer at her. “What do you want to be?”
“So be it.” He nodded his approval.
Two weeks later, on her eleventh birthday , an ebony-skinned wrinkle-faced man with a bald head and a beard the color of the moon showed up at their house. Papa introduced him as Uncle Senbi Asim, not only an old friend, but the man who’d trained Papa. Senbi Asim would be her new master.
This time, she didn’t cry at having not advanced. She had expected it.