With a gasp, Kai sat bolt upright. Sucking in deep breaths, it took but a moment to realize she was in her bed at home on Coiling Ridge. A lampstone was on the table beside her, the essences imbued into it illuminating the small room like daylight.
In that instant, she found herself thinking of the Earth and her other family. She hoped they were fine.
A tear trickled down her cheek as a sense of loss and longing threatened to claw its way inside her. Gritting her teeth, she closed her eyes and sought to focus.
There’s nothing you can do for them now, but you’re needed to save them later. That means you can’t afford to be distracted or fail. You’ve got to think about yourself. Whatever life this is, you’ve got twenty years to own it.
Kai turned the soul ring on her finger, her thoughts drifting to Keeper Netatia. The Keeper had said it contained her son’s Echo. Kai had no idea what that meant.
She inspected the ring. The dragon eating its own tail was done in exquisite detail, but there was no indication of anything special.
Thoughts of Quelserra led her to the Wraithlord. Her recollection of the battle coupled with her new knowledge brought on a shiver. That was the type of power she could only dream of wielding or dread to encounter.
The line of thinking brought her full circle to her past life on Earth. In an attempt to dismiss it, she thought of ways to clear her mind.
With her eyes closed, she sought the center of herself, her wellspring. In her mind’s eye it was a fist-sized translucent circular pool. Breathing slow and deep, she allowed herself to feel as if she floated.
In that floating space, she sensed zan around her. It was as if a breeze brushed the fine hairs on her arms, caressed her body. Her mind conjured it as misty threads.
She cycled. In ten cycles, which she estimated to be a minute, refreshment crept through her.
By the time she reached a hacule, or five hundred cycles, her mind cleared. She felt stronger, many times stronger than her old body. That one had been… feeble in comparison.
One with her body, she felt the soreness, the aches from where the Ascended bloodwolf had mauled her. The scars were on her stomach, her arms. Zan washed over them.
She noted the flaw in her wellspring. Even now, when she tried to force zan to stay in her wellspring, it continued to flow through. Every attempt to pool resulted in failure, reminding her of the countless times she’d suffered the same results, the pitiful expressions of the elders, their doubt, their ridicule.
Just like the doctors and other people who doubted me in my old life. The Lizzies, Marcuses, and the rest. Who knew a new life would have some of the same crap? She scowled. And then frowned. Had Netatia known about the flaw? She’s an immortal, of course she did. Then why choose this body? Was it some type of test?
Kai shook her head. The reasons don’t matter. You’re here now. Deal with it.
From her wellspring she felt for her soul, the reflection of herself within her body. She traced the channels that followed her soul like veins, taking special note of the nodes at her body’s vital points. Her new memories told her this was Perception, the third level of Seed.
She engaged the Fire Gale Flow, activating her battle energy for a few moments, increasing her rejuvenation. She remembered to be careful as too turbulent a flow could make her pass out.
Floating in emptiness, she relished the sense of well-being cultivation brought. Her mind became as crystal. She was able to bury the thoughts of her old life and find acceptance of who she was now.
“Kai!” exclaimed Dakera’s raspy voice from the doorway to the room. “The heavens have smiled on us. Senbi! Come. It’s Kai. She’s alive!” The grizzled, one-armed old man dashed into the bedroom.
“Papa.” Kai smiled, her heart filled with joy.
At the same time she realized neither of them had spoken English. The language had been a strange series of pops and rhythmic sounds deep in her throat, but it felt so natural the thought soon passed.
Dakera crossed the room and snatched her up with his single arm. Sobbing, he stroked her hair, all the while thanking the heavens, and whispering how much he loved her. Kai returned the sentiment.
“Ow.” She winced at a stab of pain along her stomach.
“I’m sorry.” Papa gently placed her on the bed. “I was so happy I forgot about your wounds.” He sat beside her, stroking her braids.
“I understand.” Kai grimaced slightly as the last twinge of pain subsided.
She ran her fingers over her stomach on the outside of her gown. The scars from Ascended Beast’s claws and teeth were fine lines. She caressed two on one arm. The raised flesh was longer than her fingers.
“The healer worked on you all night until sun up.” Dakera’s golden eyes took on a solemn light. “She did the best she could to mend your wounds, but not only had you lost too much blood, it had been so long before we found you that the bloodwolf’s poison had damaged your internal organs and corrupted your zan despite my best efforts to stop it.”
A pained expression crossed his face. “Your heart stopped beating. And the strength of your soul kept fading until it was gone.
“I didn’t see when your soul left your body, but the healer was certain it had. It’s common for the soul of a Seed to vanish at the moment of death.”
Dakera’s face contorted. Tears trickled down his cheeks. “Senbi and I stayed here, waiting, hoping. But we knew… I thought…” He burst into sobs. “I’m just so glad my Little Flower’s alive. The heavens smiled on us.” He shook his head and wiped at his eyes.
“I’m glad too.” She held out her arms to him. “But I’m not a little flower, Papa.”
He smiled. “Ah, yes, you’re a little mountain. My Little Mountain.” Papa hugged her.
“Exactly.” Kai snuggled into Papa.
“I love you, Little Mountain.” He ruffled her hair.
“Love you more, Papa.”
That feeling of love coursed through her. A father’s love. His physical presence.
She’d hadn’t felt anything similar in over five years in her old life. On many days she’d wished for one more hug from her parents. She would dream about it at night. Imagine it. Yearn for it. And here, her wish had come true.
Taking a deep breath, she cherished Papa’s musky scent. The feel of him. His warmth. Been a long while since I’ve been this happy. She wept.
“I knew you were too stubborn to leave us.” Uncle Senbi’s voice rumbled like low thunder from the direction of the door. “Giving up isn’t in your soul. Even the heavens agreed.”
At the sound of her master’s voice, Kai wiped her eyes and looked up at him. Dressed in tan robes cinched at the waist, the ebony-skinned bald-headed man stroked his silver beard. He was smiling, but the lampstone light reflected the wetness of his emerald eyes. Senbi joined her and Papa.
They laughed and cried, reminisced about things she did when she was younger. Senbi told the story of the time she sneaked into one of the celebrations during the Founding Festival and spiked a large gourd of wine with a concoction she’d invented.
The flatulence of those who partook was like a band of horn players. People ran from the hall, hands cupped over their mouths at the stench.
“Putting my alchemy to work.” Smiling, Kai shrugged.
One of Papa’s tales was about when she chased after a butterfly. In an effort to catch it, she’d leaped off Coiling Falls, a drop of at least a thousand paces to the churning water below. He and Senbi had been distraught. They thought she was very badly hurt or worse.
Until she popped up from the water, laughing.
“Years of training paying off.” Senbi chuckled.
“When can I start training again?” Kai looked to them with hope in her eyes.
Papa appeared thoughtful for a moment. “After we’re certain the poison hasn’t left any lasting effects on your soul and channels.”
“Tomorrow?” She arched her brows.
Smiling wryly, Papa shook his head. “One more day of rest.”
“Yes, Papa.” She dipped her head. Struck by a sudden thought, Kai frowned. “Papa, did you manage to kill the Ascended bloodwolf?”
He shook his head. “We were more concerned about you. By the time we went back, any trace of Shanjing was gone.”
“Shanjing? You named the beast?”
“The people did.”
An image of the Ascended Beast’s slavering jaws bloomed in Kai’s head. She could smell and feel the heat of its noxious breath. Her gaze fixated on the patch of white fur above Shanjing’s glowing ruby eyes. Squeezing her eyes shut, she took a deep, shuddering breath and banished the image from her mind.
Papa jostled her braids. “You must be hungry. I’ll bring you a bowl of lotus fruit soup and then you can get some sleep.”
“Thanks.” The mention of food set her stomach grumbling.
Dakera and Senbi left together. Papa returned soon after, carrying a bowl filled with steaming soup and handed it to her.
Papa leaned in and planted a kiss on her forehead. “Goodnight, and sleep well. I love you, Little Mountain.”
“Love you, too, Papa.”
With a bright smile, Papa turned on his heels and left.
Kai gobbled down the sweet soup. The chunks of lotus and bits of vegetables were as tasty as she remembered. When she finished, she set the bowl down on the table beside the bed, snuggled under the blanket, and drifted off to sleep. Her dreams were filled with all sorts of adventures.
She spent the next day in the archive, refreshing her memory of the world. When she discovered a map in a book on Avros, she was fascinated by the floating continents and islands.
The largest was the mainland, Edgemere, where she was currently. Five were called Reaches. There was Heaven, Zephyr, Rime, Emerald, and Cinder. Apart from those was the Edge of Insanity and the clusters of Sky Islands.
Was everything the same as Edgemere in those other lands? Or were they more exotic?
Eying the depiction of rivers and oceans falling off the side of the continents, disappearing into a soup of white mist, she wondered where the water went, if there was land under the mist.
Enthralled by it all, she took a look out the window. She could make out one of the distant Reaches. Turning her head toward the twin peaks of the Titan’s Leg, she took in the numerous specks that made up the Eastern Sky Islands.
Imagine if I could tell Karina about this. She wouldn’t believe me. I wouldn’t believe me.
However, when she considered how she’d gotten to Avros, none of it seemed far-fetched. Not even the similarities between this world and Earth.
Not in a place where mystics could travel on flying swords; where others rode atop drakes, grand eagles, or the wind itself; where they could conjure weapons from essences, fling fire, shards of ice, or lightning bolts; where they could use the Aspect of a divine bird to sprout wings; or harness spirit essences to dreamwalk or dreamweave.
Seeking confirmation for some of what she’d read, she took the book and ventured outside to where her father sat in a chair, sunning himself on the veranda. “Papa, what’s the world like outside the Five Territories, beyond the Titan’s Leg? Is it as wonderful as the stories?”
“It is. But like in the valley, it’s also a savage world ruled by powerful mystics, clans, and sects. People who could slaughter us with a glance and face no repercussions.
“Only two things might stop them. Someone more powerful. Or honor. Their peers would look down upon them for slaughtering flies.”
“Sounds like the weak aren’t given justice.”
Dakera shrugged. “Justice is the realm of the strong. It isn’t given, it’s taken.”
Kai furrowed her brow. “And if a person’s too weak to take justice?”
“Then their fate is to be crushed by the strong. The weak have no rights and must always give face to those above them.”
“Papa, do you really believe that?”
He turned a stolid gaze to her. “It doesn’t matter what I or you believe. What matters is reality. This is the way of things. Don’t forget it.”
After all she’d endured growing up, she couldn’t forget it. “No matter how strong I become, I won’t treat others like that. I won’t let power change me.”
“You wish to become a legend, then.” Uncle Senbi stepped outside the front door behind Kai.
“What do you mean?”
The old master clasped his hands behind him. “People who stand fast to their beliefs, who defend their convictions to the last breath, most often in defiance of greater powers, become the heroes or villains of stories we tell our children. They become legends.”
“I don’t know about all of that. I just want to do what’s right.”
“Because you’ve been trained and raised to be honorable.” Papa smiled at her.
Uncle Senbi nodded. “Honor and discipline are at the heart of the arts, both martial and mystic. The man who lives without discipline dies without honor.”
“True.” Dakera nodded. “But for every three honorable men, there is one without. Not even shame bothers such a man.” He looked toward his daughter. “That’s why you’re better off here where the only things we need to worry about are the rare Satsuna raids and the occasional Ascended Beast.”
“At the same time, it’s why we push you in your training,” Senbi said. “So you can be your strongest self. One never knows what the fates and heavens have in store.”
“Indeed.” Dakera leaned back in his chair and basked in the sunlight.
Saddened by their words and more determined than ever to advance despite her flaw, Kai returned to the archive to research.
A passage in a collection of legends piqued her interest. It chronicled the experiences of Hattori Hisoka, a Luminary who’d traveled far northwest to the Dragon’s Bane Mountains where he’d found a Divine Forest and had fallen asleep.
When I woke, I was beneath the great branches of Jinshushu, one of the six World Trees. How do I know it was Jinshushu? The World Tree’s voice was in my head, telling me who he was, and to be calm, that he’d brought me to his grove.
I sat up at the sound of other voices. And was amazed at what I witnessed.
Less than two hundred paces from me, the Elder Divine Dragon, Iblis, leader of the silver dragonwing, was teaching a class of Ascended Beasts. Silver essence crystals grew from his very scales. All I could tell from his aura was that he was beyond my realm, and so were many of them.
Iblis was telling his students of the differences between the human races, beasts, and plants, that humans were born with these strange things named wellsprings and produced something called a kernel before they could form a core. He considered it a human flaw.
Beasts and plants only had cores. He said it was the reason beasts and plants lived far longer than humans, but it might also be the reason humans ascended faster than other living beings.
I learned that Divine and Ascended Beasts and plants gave birth to other Ascended, rather than normal beasts or plants. Iblis said this was how the dragons came to be. Other species as well, like the erenar, whose progenitors were the great tigers before they became Divine.
He brought the class’ attention to me. Then he asked me for a chronicle of my advancement. When I told them I was fifteen but had ascended to Adept at nine, attained Ruby Embodiment within months of ascension, had gained Diamond Embodiment by ten, and rose to Luminary by eleven, they were amazed.
Kai’s brows shot up at the account. To have risen to such a realm at so young an age was incredible.
But something else nagged at her. She frowned.
If beasts and plants didn’t have wellsprings, then how did they ascend?
She continued to read.
I asked their ages. Not a single one of them was less than five hundred.
Intrigued, I described our process for ascension and inquired about theirs. While for us, rising to Neophyte and Adept means surrendering to zan, becoming one with it, theirs is violence. A battle. An explosion. I couldn’t begin to fathom how such a method could work.
If any mystic tried such a method, I’m certain they would destroy their channels and soul.
At this point, Hisoka delved into the various abilities the Ascended Beasts displayed, even claiming some of them could bind humans into their service or could themselves be bound. Kai continued reading, hoping to find something she could use. Only to have those hopes dashed.
In another book, a Diamond Adept spoke of a tournament on Zephyr Reach, where mystics challenged Imperos, a Divine Wind Elemental. The reward for victory was a legendary artifact, a tenth grade empyrean cauldron that allowed the winner to refine themselves, giving them a new body and pushing them over the threshold to Luminary.
Kai thought it was nothing more than a wild tale. Yet, she couldn’t help but wonder if something like that existed for a Seed.
The Adept mentioned he would need to use an Elixir of Divine Fortitude to strengthen his channels before using the cauldron if he won the tournament. Excited, Kai read quickly, hoping to find a recipe for the Elixir of Divine Fortitude. Or a list of ingredients.
She discovered neither.
With a sigh, Kai finished the book and moved to the next. Whenever she came across any alchemy, she searched in earnest, hoping to find a reference to the Elixir of Divine Fortitude. But the elixir had been in that book alone.
In other books, she encountered stories about various pills, elixirs, flasks, Divine fruits, all used to boost cultivation, helping mystics advance many times faster than they would naturally. In some accounts, what would take several decades could be done in a few days or weeks.
But not only were such consumables incredibly expensive, some said to be worth as much as a kingdom, none of them could be used by her. Kai filed away the information for a day when it would prove useful.
Eventually, she delved into books on other topics to make certain she didn’t miss something important. She read until late into the night, reveling in stories of the Great Devil Wars between dragons, beasts, humans, Devils, and deathfeeders.
But she discovered no answers to her problem, no chronicle of anyone who was like her.
It took everything she had, a combination of both lives, for her not to wallow in self-pity.
Her training began the following day when dawn blushed the sky. She was looking forward to the experience until Uncle Senbi handed her the brown Seed amulet. She hung her head but still placed the leather string around her neck, letting the amulet rest on her chest. Pushing away melancholy, she focused on her master.
“As usual, we’ll be working on your Foundation.” Senbi tucked his hands into his robe’s sleeves. “A tree is only as strong as its roots. I won’t be too hard on you today, but it will still be a test. First, is the warm up.”
He put her through a series of stretches for what felt like an hour and a half, or a thenule, in Avros’ time. As she worked, Kai found her mind drifting to life on Earth. She wondered about Ray, Karina, and the others. She imagined they were in mourning over her death.
Her heart grew heavy. She missed them so much. Trying her best not to dwell on the past, she lost herself to the exercise. When she finished, Uncle Senbi had her run up the mountain.
This doesn’t seem so bad. It’s like training for track.
Cycling, she reveled in the feel of the wind, the sight of lush forests and expansive plains, the numerous rock formations, but the beauty around her was soon forgotten as Senbi pushed her until exhaustion washed over her.
Then he demanded more while insisting she cycle by way of the Fire Gale. When she showed she had control of it, he had her open the first level of the Limit Gates.
While memory said she should be accustomed to this, the experience took everything from her. Training for track was a pittance in comparison.
Uncle Senbi either followed or shot ahead of her, most often airborne. He would leap through trees, land on a branch with a slight touch before launching into the air again.
At times he appeared to hop on the air itself. At other times, he’d touch the ground and an explosion of earth followed as he hurtled back into the sky.
Harnessing and reinforcement. Kai marveled at his abilities. This is the mystic arts. This is shuzan.
Seeing it all made her crave the day she could flex. She dreamed of becoming an Adept, the stage when she could be recognized as a true mystic.
As she’d so often done in the past, she wondered after Uncle Senbi’s realm. But she knew better than to ask. He’d just smile as he always did and say it was of no consequence.
He slowed when they neared the first signs of a snow line, breaking her from her thoughts. “This is as far as we go.”
Grand eagles cries echoed from aeries hidden in the peaks. The haze of the barrier array rose above the trees not too far away.
Kai admired the great expanses of snow stretching upward to where the peaks kissed the clouds. Between the cloud cover she made out the Eastern Sky Islands that were little more than specks. She barely noticed the cold as she imagined the ancient dragons that once lived in the Titan’s Leg.
She frowned. “Uncle Senbi?”
“Yes?” The silver-bearded man was sitting on a boulder with his legs crossed.
“Is it true that beasts and plants or trees don’t have wellsprings?”
“So how do they ascend?”
He shrugged. “If the day should come that you ever meet a Divine Beast or Tree, perhaps you can ask.”
Kai’s eyes widened. “Can they really talk?”
“So I’ve heard, but I’ve never seen it myself.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Enough idle chatter. Ready position and practice zanquan. First, cycle normally, then with the Fire Gale, and lastly by way of the Limit Gate.”
Despite wooden legs, Kai obeyed, her mind occupied by the thoughts of Ascended and Divine Beasts. When she was done, Uncle Senbi had her run back down to where they began and then up the mountain again. She practiced the forms of zanquan sword on her second trip.
By the time the sun was directly overhead she had to crawl to the spot he’d chosen beneath a tree for them to eat lunch. The meal was barley, fish, and plums. When she finished, Uncle Senbi had her spend time cycling before they started up again, this time with zanquan spear.
The evening session featured more running followed by leaping on large stones at the edge of a lake. They didn’t end until the moon had risen. She washed up in the lake. When she got home she was only too happy to crawl in bed.
If this is what not being too hard feels like, I’m not sure if I should be looking forward to when things become difficult. The thought was stuck in her head when she fell asleep.
The next day’s exercises were done with a sack of rocks on her back. That night she didn’t even make it to the bedroom before she collapsed.
On the third day, Uncle Senbi allowed her to rest a little later into the morning. When she woke, her body was so sore that every movement hurt. She chalked it up to an onset of DOMS. By the time warm ups were over, the soreness had faded.
Senbi made up for the late start by making her practice zanquan fist, sword, and spear under the moonlight. She also had to repeat her runs. Night was a lot colder than daytime, and she shivered through every session.
“Do you wish to quit?” Senbi asked on one occasion when Kai fell to her knees.
Teeth gritted, Kai climbed to her feet and resumed a ready position. “Quitting is for weaklings. I’m a mountain.”
Senbi nodded. “Then, begin again.”
Four weeks later, Kai’s body, mind, and soul had adjusted to it all, even the rigors of the various Flows. Her longing for her old life faded, replaced by the wonders of Avros and the immense potential before her. She’d even grown accustomed to chronicling time in terms of cycles, hacules, and thenules, rather than minutes or hours.
But in the back of it all was the reminder of her flaw.