The memories and experiences spun like a windmill.
Papa spent more time hunting, foraging, and practicing alchemy. He limited his trips to Sengar Village, only visiting to purchase new books and scrolls or place orders with the merchants. A small renegade Satsuna band launched another raid, but this time Papa and Uncle Senbi defeated the ones who came to the house.
She’d wanted to help, but Papa told her every raider would be an Adept. Despite her skill in zanquan, she was a fly compared to a mystic at that stage.
“The raids are one reason I make you train and study harder than anyone you know.” Uncle Senbi watched her during a zanquan session lasting several thenules. “Should the day come that you must defend yourself, you’ll be ready.”
Every day her sessions grew longer. More difficult. Some days he wouldn’t let her stop until she collapsed, until her body could no longer call upon the increased stamina provided by cycling while training. Then, he would have her sit, meditate, cycle, and cultivate until she was refreshed and ready to go again.
On many occasions she trained until her hands were bloody from beating on the wooden man and its posts, her knuckles swollen like plums, or her legs had given out from practicing zanquan, her fingers stiff from holding a sword or a spear.
He spent days showing her the patterns in zanquan, the signs to look for in a fight, the weakness in various strikes. He taught her variations to forms she already knew as well as others not in Papa’s manuals.
Training within Hell’s Circle and the use of Shadowless Step advanced to weapons.
Keitaro had been destroyed in one of the raids, so Uncle Senbi assumed the golem’s role. Sparring against him was like fighting the wind even with Hell’s Circle and Shadowless Step. She had yet to hit Uncle Senbi once, not even with her spear, while his strikes left her bruised.
Since she was denied progress in shuzan, Uncle Senbi made her hone her body in more mundane ways, relying on rigorous exercises that left her sore for weeks. She carried sacks of stones on her back, waded against the rapids of the Red Scale River, and ran up and down the mountain. He delivered numerous blows to her stomach, teaching her how to harden her abdomen the moment before impact.
“If you lose your air, you lose the fight,” he said.
To strengthen her fists and legs he made her strike guanzo trees, whose trunks were like huge stems made of tightly rolled and packed leaves. The trunk gave way a tiny bit on each blow, exposing the layer beneath. She would continue beating the same spot until her blows had eaten it away.
Senbi insisted she did everything barefooted to harden her feet and toes. He made her climb the ridge and cliff faces in this fashion, saying it would also strengthen her grip. The first few months of climbing left her feet sliced and bloody.
Papa tended to her with his herbal medicines and healing potions, usually resulting in her being ready again the next day or two. Those were the only potions she was allowed to consume. After several more months, she no longer complained about the stones, the rough ground, or when the rocks grew hot or cold.
Though she’d been fearful at first, she grew to love climbing, the exhilaration of the heights and the danger below if she fell. She wasn’t deterred after suffering broken bones a few times when she’d fallen. Failure drove her to perfect her climbing technique.
In one training session, when they were at her favorite spot next to Coiling Falls, Uncle Senbi said, “I have no answers to your problems with pooling, but as one whose flaw was condensing, I know of a way to gain similar results. I think you’re ready.”
Not pausing her cycling, Kai opened her eyes. “How?”
The old master smiled. “Through cycling.”
Kai frowned. The answer couldn’t be that simple.
“You must have noticed your zan feels thicker as you cycle.” Senbi arched a bushy silver brow.
“That’s a form of condensing. Most mystics don’t use it because they condense in their wellspring, which is faster and more efficient for refining and progression. The next step is to increase the speed of each cycle by pushing zan through your channels.”
Kai balked at the idea. “Papa said pushing zan can kill or cripple me. The one time I tried, it almost did. He said I should always pull zan until I reach Neophyte when I can be certain my channels are strong enough to handle the strain.”
Senbi nodded. “Dakera is right. And yet, sometimes it’s pushing limits, placing oneself in extreme danger, perhaps even bringing oneself close to death, that forces the body, mind, and soul to attain new heights, to cross thresholds.
“The vast majority of mystics have limited themselves to the idea that a realm dictates what they can accomplish. It’s a teaching passed down through generations. As such, they rush to ascend.”
He shook his head, a distant look on his face. “Lost is the art in the mystic arts. Rush the brush, waste the paint.”
Kai sat in rapt attention as Senbi continued, “Realms don’t always decide what you can achieve. Constant practice over time can help you break limits, makes you stronger, more adept. Repetition is the mother of mastery.
“For years, you’ve done nothing but cycle, which tempered your channels and your Foundation well beyond a typical Seed. Now, use that same focus and try to gently push zan.”
With her eyes closed, Kai touched zan near her wellspring. Rather than pulling zan, she pushed against it. Zan responded, moving faster through the intended channels.
The moment she completed a cycle, which was twice as fast as a breath, something bloomed in her head, a sense of thickness, an impression of additional weight to zan.
Kai’s eyes widened. Tears streamed down her face. Warmth radiated throughout her body. Finally, she’d achieved one thing Papa had asked of her.
As the cycles sped up, her channels heated. It was as if warm liquid and wind gushed within her. Gritting her teeth, she fought against the uncomfortable sensation and memories from the Soul Test.
It wasn’t long before she had a constant zan flow performing in this fashion. As she completed cycles, the impression heightened. Increased thickness. Weight. Each cycle added to the impression by an increment.
Another sensation grew with each cycle. She felt refreshed. Stronger. She felt as if she’d slept for days on end and woke ready to take on the world, as if she’d trained for several thenules and had caught a second wind.
“You feel it, don’t you, the increase in stamina?” Uncle Senbi watched her with narrowed eyes.
“That’s a tiny taste of your battle energy. It’s provided by the increased zan. A typical mystic must reach Neophyte before they experience something similar. What you’ve just used is called the Fire Gale Flow.”
Kai grinned. She loved the idea of there being something special about her. She continued cycling by way of the Fire Gale Flow until her body throbbed. Her channels were as sore as if she’d cycled all day.
Eventually, the strain was such that she grew tired. She took a shuddering breath against the fatigue.
But her zan was several times thicker.
Uncle Senbi’s eyes were alive with excitement. “You’ve just completed what I call Divine Body Condensation. I was forced to create it when I was a Seed in order to keep up with mystics in my old sect.
“The setback is that relying on Divine Body to condense and refine zan is ten times slower than the combination of pooling and condensing in your wellspring. It also strains your body and soul channels, but it’s progress all the same. Should you push too hard, your body will warn you.
“There are many benefits to the Fire Gale Flow , including increased stamina and strengthening your channels. Master the Fire Gale and Divine Body.
“Whenever you doubt yourself, remember there was a time when all a mystic can achieve now was thought to be impossible. Then someone used the obstacles to his enlightenment to create the first Way.” Uncle Senbi strode off and left her to it.
With a renewed sense of purpose, she spent more time at Coiling Falls.
She was twelve when Papa called her into his alchemy lab at the back of the house for the first time. He’d warned her to never enter without him and stressed the fortune he’d spent on his collection of herbs and utensils.
When she entered, a medley of odors greeted her, sweet perfumes mingling with biting spices that made her nostrils twitch. She frowned at the size of the lab. It was much smaller than she expected and only half of it had roof.
Papa was sitting on a bench beside a long table on the roofless side. Shelves lined the wall behind him, rife with vials and bottles. He pointed to a door on the other side of the tiny room. “Go into the nursery. Show me what you know.”
Brows furrowed, Kai headed to the door. Dakera followed.
As she drew closer, she made out plants growing in a large roofless space. Sunbeams, where dust motes danced, illuminated neatly-lined plots of plants in rich dirt. Each plot was home to a different plant. On one side was a pool rife with waterlilies.
Chest puffed out, chin high, Kai strode through the door and over to the closest plot. The plant growing within it was green laced with white and looked like woolly hair. “This is marrow moss. It clots the blood and is good for healing.” She turned to Papa with a knowing smile.
“Continue.” Papa’s face was expressionless. “Tell me what’s in every patch.”
Kai’s eyes bulged. She cast her gaze around the lab, doing a rough count. She stopped when she reached forty plots, but there were still at least double that remaining. Kai’s shoulders slumped. “All of them?”
“All of them,” Papa repeated. “Alchemy is not a game. It can be the difference between life or death. I won’t allow you to brew or refine anything until you prove you understand the dangers.”
“Yes, Papa.” She straightened her shoulders and pointed at red mushrooms in the next plot. “Mindbloom. It induces a dream state.” She moved on. “Ragweed. A cleanser and catalyst for most concoctions. Foxleaf, boosts energy. Green lotus, a base used for many potions.”
Kai took several steps down the row of plots, her confidence growing. “Lifeblossom, so-named because it always cultivates life essences. Ion veil, grows in mountains or where lightning struck and must be reaped soon after.” She frowned. “How’d you keep it growing? Never mind.”
She continued to rattle off names and uses, learned from years of reading tomes, scrolls, and studying the land itself. She finished in three hundred cycles, identifying over a hundred plants and flowers. Grinning, she turned to Papa.
His smile was broad and bright. “Excellent, Little Flower. You’ve advanced from apprentice to journeyman in herbalism. My compliments.”
Kai swelled with pride. “Thank you, Papa. And it’s Little Mountain, now.”
“So it is.” He beckoned to her. “Now, we begin.”
Papa returned to the lab area. “The first thing to remember is that like the Ways of shuzan, there are countless recipes, and many plants have multiple uses.
“But there is one constant to alchemy. One constant to all crafting, foraging, or mining. And that’s the constant of compatibility. There is an innate connection between raw materials, zan, and essences.
“For alchemy, that constant is a reflection of life. One plant might not like another, or be a natural enemy, or it might be diseased. A plant might cultivate essences that is rejected by another. For any consumable to work, the plants must be compatible.”
“How can I tell which plants are compatible, Papa?”
“By way of the Heart of Harmony. But that’s a lesson for another day.
“Right now, I’ll teach you the basics for potions, that which you can handle, using known recipes. You mustn’t deviate from them or use any ingredients on your own until I give permission. Understood?”
“Follow me.” He strode over to the end of the table.
Two ornate stone containers sat atop separate brick-lined fire pits. The smaller one resembled an over-sized gourd with handles on the side and had three legs. The other was like a giant pot with four legs, intricate shapes adorning its surface.
Papa indicated the small one. “This is a pill furnace, and can only be used to craft pills.” His finger shifted to the large container. “That is a cauldron, for brewing and refining elixirs and flasks.
“Recipes may mention a grade requirement for one of these. You can’t brew a higher grade consumable in a lower grade utensil.”
“How can I tell the grade of a utensil?”
“When you reach Adept, you can identify an item’s grade simply by touching it and cycling.”
The air went out of Kai. Here was yet another thing to hold her back.
“Don’t be sad, Little Flow—Little Mountain.” Papa stepped over and ruffled her hair. “You can watch me and learn, get a feel for it. That way when you reach Adept, you’ll be more than ready for high grade refining.
“Besides, there are more than enough potions for you to learn and brew between now and that time. While pills, elixirs, and flasks must be refined by way of zan or essences, most potions only require you to have the ingredients and the vial.
“However, there are details you should never overlook. Consistency of each ingredient, determined by the number of pestle strokes; temperature of the liquid; the exact amounts of each ingredient, either in weight or quantity; and having the right catalyst. Those are all vital to the intended effect and potency.
“How about we start with a Potion of Unbending Will? It increases your mental fortitude for thirty cycles. You gain better concentration and some resistance to stuns and illusions a realm above you and below.”
Kai smiled, her shortcomings forgotten. She was already envisioning the potions she might be able to brew. Perhaps there was even one that might fix her wellspring.
Papa relayed the ingredients to her and handed her a mortar and pestle. “For this recipe, each plant must be ground for five hundred strokes.”
Kai groaned. There were five plants in the Potion of Unbending Will. However, she did not let the requirement deter her.
Kai set aside three or four thenules every day to improve her knowledge of alchemy. She worked harder at herbalism, spending time in the nursery and roaming the Unclaimed Lands.
A few months later, Papa called her into the lab once more.
“Time for you to do a brew on your own. I’ve already made certain the herbs are compatible, but you must pick them.” He handed her a scroll. “Here’s the recipe.”
Kai unrolled it. Her brows rose as she read.
Hardens the imbiber’s skin, giving them resistance to cuts, crushing blows, slashes, stabs, and many elemental effects and damage, particularly from fire, heat, cold, ice, water, ion, air, stone, earth, and metal. Effective against low-level Adept attacks and below. The effect lasts for a hacule.
One finger of fireweed ground for 400 strokes
One waterlily petal ground for 400 strokes
One ion veil leaf ground for 300 strokes
Three blades of gale grass ground for 500 strokes
Two fingers of stonevine ground for 600 strokes
Three pinches of earthmoss ground for 300 strokes
One blade of winter’s grasp ground for 150 strokes
One blood lotus as a catalyst ground for 200 strokes
Six vials of water
Combine all ingredients in a silversteel mixing bowl. Place bowl over a fire, bring to a boil, and brew for 120 cycles. Remove from fire and allow to cool. A properly brewed Stoneskin Potion will be the color of clay.
Consume and cycle.
Kai placed the recipe atop table, picked up a herb bag, a small herbalist knife, and headed into the nursery. Dakera had added many new plants, but it didn’t matter, Kai was able to identify the ones she needed. With supreme confidence, she strode among the plots and picked the required ingredients.
She returned to the table in the lab, grabbed the mortar and pestle, and set about the tedious job of grinding. Once finished, she followed the remainder of the instructions, counting off normal cycles in her head. When the brew was complete, she poured the concoction into a vial.
Arms folded, Papa nodded his approval. “My compliments on your first complete brew.”
“Thank you.” Kai dipped her head.
“Another thousand different brews will see you advance from Apprentice to Journeyman. Now, all that’s left is to drink it.” Papa smiled.
Intrigued by the potion’s effect from the moment she read the recipe, Kai unstoppered the vial and downed the contents. The potion tasted like dirt and felt like sludge easing down her gullet. When the sludge touched her wellspring, she cycled, dispersing it throughout her body.
As the Stoneskin Potion shot through her channels, she felt her skin tightening, growing within her flesh and outside of her. The sensation was more than just uncomfortable, it was as if she were being trapped with herself, enclosed by a new layer.
She lifted her arms as the sensation flowed down them. Her skin was changing. A slate like color mingled with her walnut skin. She pushed against the transformed area on her mid-bicep. Her skin, her flesh, was like a layer of stone.
“Come with me.” Papa strode toward the door.
She followed him, marveling as the change swept through her, but also becoming worried. She was growing heavier, undeniably sluggish. Each step required effort, whereas before, walking was as natural and easy as breathing.
He took her outside to the training area at the back of the house then turned to face her. “The potion has worked its way through your system by now, revealing its side effect. Many potions that offer a boost have one.
“Alacrity, for example, makes you quicker, increases the speed of your attacks, but causes to become weaker, lighter, and puts extra strain on your channels and soul. This is because potions rely on your body unlike properly refined pills, elixirs, and flasks which call upon essences.
“There are also a few other issues. The first is that last line on the recipe concerning effectiveness against low-level Adept attacks. That only applies if you were a Neophyte.”
Kai frowned. “Why?”
“A Seed’s body is remade when advancing to Neophyte, increasing their strength in body and soul.”
“Then potions weren’t made for Seeds,” she concluded.
Papa nodded. “They weren’t. Using a Stoneskin Potion would allow you to handle a Neophyte’s blows. Nothing more. An Adept’s strike would break every bone and send you flying.
“While there isn’t much you could do about that but dodge, there is something you can do about the increased weight.”
“And that is?”
Papa smiled. “Practice. Train while under a potion’s effects. Do so every day and your body will adapt.” He gestured for her to begin.
Determined to rise to journeyman alchemist, Kai often brewed several potions on any given day. As her body grew accustomed to different side effects, she turned to taking more than one potion.
One day, she meant to brew a Mighty Lung Potion to boost her stamina for training. However, she added a bit of nature’s grasp root, rather than stranglevine. When she drank the potion, her stomach hurt.
The result was a training session that involved her passing the vilest vapors.
On her thirteenth birthday, during a cycling session at Coiling Falls after a storm, zan refused to condense. Its thickness and weight remained constant no matter how much she cycled and refined. Intuition told her she’d reached the condensation peak of One With The Mind.
Rather than stop, Kai pushed even harder with the Fire Gale Flow. She cycled longer than she had at any other time. It felt as if zan was urging her to do so.
Her body hurt, the pain such that she had to brace herself and grit her teeth with every cycle. Her channels burned. A part of her yearned to stop.
Keep going. Don’t give in. Keep going. Push your limits.
Something bloomed within her. A translucent white mist.
Is that what I think it is? Even as she asked herself, she knew it was zan, flowing through her channels and nodes.
But zan wasn’t only within her, she could see it in the world itself, coiling, swirling, drifting, flowing, pausing here or there before zipping away.
I’ve achieved Perception.
A sense of awe washed over her. Grinning, she ran off to tell Uncle Senbi and Papa she’d attained another level.
She stopped before she got home, sparked by another idea. Changing her mind, she headed down to Sengar Village to the sect compounds.
That decision still haunted her.
When she returned home, she didn’t tell them about her ordeal. She only told them of her progress.
“Heavens blessings on reaching Perception.” Papa ruffled her hair. He removed her Seed amulet, carved a third line into its surface, then handed it back to her.
Uncle Senbi chimed in, “Soon enough, you’ll reach One With Zan, giving you the ability to see and control the nodes at your vital points. When that day comes, heed your soul’s warnings while cycling.
“If you don’t, you can rupture your channels. Ruptured channels can lead to death if not treated properly and in a timely fashion.”
A year later at Coiling Falls, she reached her peak and crossed the threshold into One With Zan. She studied the nodes at her vital points throughout her body, which in her mind’s eye were like little valves. The Twelve Supreme Nodes that circled her wellspring were triple the size of the others.
Along with a change in her channels and nodes was a change in the world externally. She now sensed the essences as a presence other than zan. They were an unidentifiable haze interacting with everything around her.
Thinking back to the Principles of the Essences and Zan, she noted the increased density in specific places. Air was drawn to air whenever the wind gusted, which also created force. Water pooled to water in the river, dark to shadows, lumen to sunlight. She longed for the day she could actually see the essences, for the day she gained an affinity to one.
She decided to experiment with her node control. Flaring her nodes, she activated the Fire Gale Flow, pushing more zan through her channels, which had grown wider and thicker.
A rush of energy shot through her like wildfire. She’d never felt anything like it. It was dizzying. Euphoric. She felt as if she could run up the mountain and back down again.
Ignoring the heat, she flowed into a zanquan stance. Or at least that had been her intention.
In the next instant, she found herself down on her knees, chest heaving. Her channels felt like they were ablaze. Her entire body burned. Steam rose from her skin.
And she was several feet away from where she began amid the spray of Coiling Falls.
What happened? How’d I get here without realizing I moved?
At that moment she noticed her zan. It was depleted, a thin flow when it was once thick. She shuddered, overcome by exhaustion.
Kai folded her legs and closed her eyes. She made certain her nodes were normal and then cultivated a small amount of zan, cycling it, grimacing at the soreness and pain as the flow eased through her. After a few cycles, the pain faded, but her channels remained tender.
Soon enough, zan reached an acceptable level within her. She continued cycling, allowing her channels to fully recover. The ordeal made her wish she had a normal wellspring with the ability to pool.
When she regained her stamina, she flared her nodes again, but to a smaller degree. A tingling sensation crept through her. Prickles eased across her body.
Battle energy rose once more, but the effect was less than when she had flared the nodes and used the Fire Gale. However, it was more potent than the Fire Gale alone.
Curious, she climbed to her feet. And frowned. She had the disorienting sensation that she’d risen too quickly.
Brow furrowed, she shifted into a zanquan stance and eased through a few forms. Her brows shot up. Her movements were faster, sharper. Not by a great deal but still noticeable, enough to make a difference in a sparring session.
Intrigued, she narrowed the nodes. The tingles eased. When she practiced another form, the difference in speed and strength of her strikes had diminished, returning to normal.
Cautious, she flared the nodes a little wider. Lightning shot through her, straining her channels and soul to such a degree they felt as if they might burst.
Kai narrowed her nodes to normal, breathing heavily as the jolts subsided.
Again, she cycled normally and allowed herself time to recover. She continued to practice flaring her nodes at the first level until she became accustomed to the tingling sensation.
When she was certain she could handle the feeling, she began a zanquan session with her nodes flared to the first increment. At the end, she was more exhausted than from any normal practice. Her zan levels had decreased.
Kai sat with her legs crossed, cultivating and cycling until she’d replenished zan. Once she’d rested enough, she began another zanquan session. Choosing the moment she performed strikes or parries, she flared the nodes to the first increment, then narrowed them when only moving.
Soon enough, she found a harmony between the two, using zanquan’s natural rhythm. By the fifth session she had better node control, resulting in less debilitation.
For the next few sessions, she flared her nodes in the same fashion, but she also cycled to absorb more zan. When she felt comfortable, she flared to the second level once more.
The jolts of lightning returned. Dizziness swept over her. Breathing heavily, she stopped. She resigned herself to only using the first node level.
When next she recovered, she downed two potions, Mighty Lung to increase her stamina, and Unbending Will for twenty percent more mental fortitude, which was usually meant to be used against illusions but had the additional affect of helping concentration.
Then she focused on controlling the nodes associated with the specific body part involved in the action. Her eyes widened when she accomplished the feat. For several thenules, she practiced until she barely noticed the tingles and she had a reliable grasp of One With Zan.
Desiring to see the difference in power, she found the nearest guanzo tree at the edge of the forest. This one was older, its trunk a mixture of brown and dark green.
Standing before the tree, she flared all the nodes to the first level, allowed battle energy to build, and then delivered a punch. Her fist sunk into the thick stem-like trunk. The blow left a vague indentation.
She returned the nodes to normal.
Taking a slow breath, she cycled by way of the Fire Gale. The warmth of the increased zan washed through her, bringing with it the first mild effects of the Gale’s battle energy.
She flared the nodes in her arm to the first level, warmth becoming heat like the sun beating on her exposed skin. She punched.
Her hand whipped out shockingly fast. When her fist connected, it blasted into the guanzo trunk.
Narrowing the nodes, she pulled her hand back, the heat subsiding. She’d left an imprint of her four fingers and knuckles.
With a smile, Kai assumed a zanquan stance and lost herself to an intense session. When she finished, she stood there with bloody hands, chest heaving, sweat pouring down her face, soaking her clothes, her channels sore, feeling as if fire flowed through them.
Her blows had eaten through a quarter of the guanzo trunk. Normally, it took dozens of sessions over a few weeks to accomplish the feat. From her pouch she removed the last potion she’d brought, a Bodybond Potion, to accelerate her healing.
While the skin on her knuckles re-knitted, she reached for one of the Twelve Supreme Nodes, noting that unlike the regular ones, which were always partially open, these were all closed. The Supreme Node slipped from her grasp.
She tried another and failed. Repeating the process for each, she discovered she could grasp six of them.
For an instant, she thought about flaring one of the Twelve Supreme Nodes. She quickly dismissed the thought as she recalled Uncle Senbi’s warnings about listening to her body and soul.
Whistling, she skipped home, the moon a big silver and blue gem. When she reached the house she relayed all that had happened to Papa and Uncle Senbi.
“What you’ve discovered on your own, by flaring or narrowing nodes, is called the Limit Gate Flow.” Uncle Senbi puffed up his chest. “When you flare the node at a vital point, you’re opening a Gate. Restraining a node is to close a Gate. You’re the first Seed I’ve met who could accomplish such a feat.”
Kai puffed up her chest, proud of her accomplishment.
“You also have a sense of the risk of using both the Fire Gale and Limit Gate together, what we call the Stormrage Flow. Without proper node control you might be left unconscious or even damage your channels.
“Before Adept, avoid flaring your nodes so wide during the Limit Gate or the Stormrage that you feel as if lightning and fire are at war within you. That’s a sign of a possible channel rupture. For Neophytes, that means never going past the first level in either flow.”
“Yes, Uncle Senbi.” She bowed, showing humility despite her master speaking to her as if she were a Neophyte. “Uncle, what about the Twelve Supreme Nodes?”
Senbi’s eyes narrowed. “What about them?”
“I can manipulate six. Is it alright if I open any?”
Papa and Uncle Senbi stared at her, mouths agape. Then they eyed each other, a knowing look passing between them.
Papa spoke sternly. “I’m glad you didn’t open any of them. You shouldn’t have been able to touch them before Adept.
“And while advancing to Adept usually gives access to them, they require the completion of channel tempering at Jasper, which advances a mystic to Onyx, to be certain the mystic doesn’t die when he opens the first one.
“Never open a single Supreme Gate before then. Don’t even try. Doing so will kill or cripple you.”
Kai frowned. “Then why-”
“I know what you’re asking.” Uncle Senbi cut her off. His eyes were intense. “Why can you manipulate any of them if you can’t use them as yet. I don’t know the answer.
“What I can tell you is I once had a student who could touch them at Neophyte. Opening one Supreme Gate made his body burst.
“I know I told you not to confine yourself to thinking that a realm dictates what you can accomplish. When it comes to the Twelve Supreme Nodes, forget what I said.”
Their warnings didn’t just temper her joy at her latest success, they terrified her.
Two days later, Papa called her into the lab. “Now that you’ve reached One With Zan, you should have an excellent grasp of the Heart of Harmony.”
She wanted to say she had an excellent grasp long before then, but Papa didn’t like when she boasted.
“Do you remember what I told you about the constant of compatibility?” He arched a questioning brow.
Kai nodded. “For any consumable to work, the plants must be compatible.”
“Good.” Papa pointed at his collection of plants. “From where you stand, I want you to enter the Heart of Harmony, look at the plots, and tell me what you see.”
She did as Papa asked, becoming one with zan, the sunbeams, the slight breeze through the open window, the trembling leaves, the colors of the various plants, the dirt itself, the potpourri of scents permeating the air. Deep within the Heart’s rhythm, she focused on a particular plot.
The translucent white mist of zan coiled and swirled playfully between one plant and the next. Sometimes, it lingered. She frowned, not quite understanding what she should be looking for.
And then she saw it. She felt it. Her eyes widened.
Zan’s movement repeated between each plant, forming a pattern. The pull she’d experienced so many times, but to which she’d become accustomed, resonated among the plants. They were drawn to each other by the pattern in zan.
She inspected other plots. While the pattern of impressions differed between one plot and the next, it remained the same between plants of a particular plot.
Her gaze fell upon a plot that differed. Zan was volatile, roiling. It pushed away between some plants, while drawing together among others.
She made note of the various plants. Fireweed, iceblossom, bloodroot, stoneroot, dragon’s tears, star flower, netherblossom, deathbloom, gale grass. Of those, there were two pairings of plants that were drawn together. Fireweed and dragon’s tears. Netherblossom and deathbloom.
She relayed all she’d seen to Papa.
He nodded his approval. “The ones drawn together are compatible. Many times you’ll find compatible plants growing near other.
“You can often tell when some aren’t compatible even without looking at zan. If certain plants are dying while others are thriving, then that’s a sign. Come here.”
When she reached the table, he pointed to a collection of five herbs resting atop it. Fireweed, dragon’s tears, ragweed, foxleaf, green lotus.
“What do you see?”
“They’re all drawn together but for the ragweed. It’s…” She frowned. “It’s zan is pushing them away? No. Wait. It’s more than a push. It’s like an explosion.” She looked to Papa.
He smiled. “Perfect. That explosion tells you the ragweed is a working catalyst for this particular combination of ingredients. An implosion means the catalyst would fail.
“There’s one additional type of compatibility. And that’s in essences. You’ll be able to see that when you reach Neophyte.”
Papa reached out and ruffled her hair. “All of this was a test to see how much you’d grown. Being able to see a catalyst means you’re now accomplished in herbalism. My compliments.”
“Thank you, Papa.” Kai grinned, her heart bursting with joy that at least she was good at something.
“You earned it.”
“Papa, what happens if I try to make a potion with plants that aren’t compatible?”
He shrugged. “Besides passing smelly vapor?” He grinned mischievously then shrugged. “It depends. Some mixtures can be so volatile they cause an explosion. Or the ingredients might melt.
“As for drinking such potions? For some, you may as well be drinking air. Others might result in your stinking vapor experience, or cause a headache, a stomachache, vomiting, or have you emptying your guts through your backside. In the worst cases, you poison yourself or damage your organs.”
“Alchemy sounds so dangerous.” Kai sighed.
Papa shrugged. “Life is dangerous. Everything worth doing involves risk.”
On days she was allowed to rest, she retreated to Papa’s archive and researched for any possible solution to her flawed wellspring. But few books, scrolls, or tablets covered the Seed realm in great detail. The ones that did revealed nothing new.
As far as the matter of future advancement, if a mystic didn’t reach Adept by sixteen, they never would, or so the books claimed. According to some teachings, people like her were worthless and shouldn’t even be considered mystics.
Through all of it, she clung to one thing. None of the accounts mentioned a wellspring like hers.
To curb her disappointment and dejection, Kai lost herself in books with stories from across Avros. Tall tales that made her dream of adventure.
Her favorites were stories of the Elder Divine Dragons, how they’d ascended above any other creatures or mystics and formed the Six Dragon Empire that still ruled to this day. Some tales claimed the dragons were really Divine Trees that had gained sentience and their power by practicing shuzan for a thousand years.
In other stories, it was said the dragons could change forms and had given a common language to the world. Some claimed they were immortal.
She imagined she ascended to the legendary Sage realm like her idol, Tendaji Abara. Like him, she commanded Divine Beasts and Aspects and hunted deathfeeders and Devil Beasts.
At fifteen, she reached the peak of Seed, gaining the ability to use the second level of the Limit Gate and Stormrage Flows. She was also able manipulate the rest of the Twelve Supreme Nodes.
That last was the source of great frustration as she struggled every day to not flare any of them, to heed the warnings of Papa and Uncle Senbi. Whenever she considered it, she imagined her body as it burst apart.
Over the next year, she tried many different things to break through to Neophyte, from pushing the Fire Gale to her limit to brewing potions and refining low-level elixirs that were supposed to increase condensation.
Nothing worked. She could go no farther. Not without the ability to pool.
That shortcoming led to another. Without advancing in the mystic arts, her alchemy and herbalism stalled. She could not advance past a journeyman alchemist or accomplished herbalist.
Soon, the memories were a blur as Kai experienced every intricate detail of this new yet old life.
Days after her sixteenth birthday, she was on one of her usual runs up beyond the ridge to an area not far from the barrier array. She rounded some giant mossy boulders and froze, not even daring to draw a breath.
Facing away from her was a crimson-furred bloodwolf several times larger than any she’d ever seen. Its size meant it was an Ascended Beast.
Lips trembling, heart pounding so loud she thought the bloodwolf would hear, Kai took one step backward. Then another. She prayed to the heavens that the Ascended Beast wouldn’t catch her scent.
On her third step, she returned to the other side of the boulders. With her back pressed against the stone, she took in a deep breath and quietly expelled it.
She wiped sweat from her forehead and scanned the slopes below for an escape. There. Her gaze settled upon a rope bridge across a canyon some two hundred feet away. The bridge was only wide enough for one person.
Summoning courage, she eased away from the boulders, keeping them between her and the bloodwolf. Kai skulked her way downhill toward the bridge.
She’d gone about a hundred feet when a deep growl made her snatch a look over her shoulder.
The Ascended bloodwolf was standing atop the boulders, staring at her. It threw its head back and howled.
Kai broke into a run, a mad dash toward the bridge. Reliving the horror of the Ascended grand eagle tearing apart and devouring the bear, the bridge became her world.
Cross it and I’m safe.
Throwing caution aside, she cycled by way of the Limit Gate Flow’s second level. Zan blazed through her channels. Her arms and legs pumped faster.
The distance to the bridge closed.
Chest heaving, blood roaring in her ears, she pushed herself harder. I have to make it.
Something slammed into the ground beside her. The impact flung her from her feet. The world spun as she tumbled, stars dancing in her vision.
She cried out against the pain knifing through her. When she finally came to a stop, her only thought was of the Ascended Beast.
Groaning, Kai climbed to her feet. She shook her head against the ringing in her ears and her blurry vision. She tasted blood in her mouth. Her sight cleared at the same moment that a low growl resonated in front of her.
A shadow fell over her. Heart hammering like a thousand drums, she craned her neck to look up into the crimson-furred face of the gigantic Ascended bloodwolf.
Her mind registered slavering fangs, a black nose, and red eyes, one with a patch of white fur around it. Then the beast’s head streaked down.
Screaming, Kai threw her arms up. The Ascended bloodwolf snatched her by her arms and chest. Searing pain scoured Kai as fangs tore flesh.
Driven by sheer desperation and excruciating pain, Kai punched at the beast’s nose as hard as she could.
The bloodwolf yelped and tossed her aside.
Kai landed several feet away and bounced a few times. Somehow, she stumbled to her feet.
She found herself at the edge of the canyon, facing the wide Red Scale River. Without a second thought, she leaped off the edge.
The fall felt as if it lasted an eternity, then she plunged into the water, feet first, the impact driving her beneath the surface. The frigid water shocked her system. Instincts made her kick for the promise of air above her.
When she surfaced, she gasped for breath. That single breath added to the agony wracking her body. A whimper escaped her lips as she treaded water, the current carrying her downstream.
A howl sent a shiver through Kai. She glanced up toward the sound to see the Ascended bloodwolf loping atop the canyon, following her. Then a rock face blocked the bloodwolf’s path. The beast howled again.
Even as she closed her eyes at a slight sense of relief, she became aware of two other sensations. The river current was picking up its pace, and a numbness radiating through her. A numbness she recognized from Papa’s teachings.
She scanned the opposite side of the canyon and picked out a rock strewn shore with tufts of grass, rising to a gentle slope. Grimacing at the pain from her numerous wounds, she swam toward the area.
When she dragged herself onto the shore, she inspected her body. She gaped. Not at the sight of the rents in her robes, but at the throbbing gashes and holes in her flesh from which blood leaked.
A jagged spiderweb of purple and black lines extended from each wound.
She’d scarcely had the thought when her pain spiked. She cried out. A wave of nausea followed. The numbness crept a little farther into her.
Kai flopped onto her side then rolled onto her back, staring up at the sky.
“Heavens help me.”
Those were her last words before the world faded.