Griots tell tales of a place far east where hope goes to die. They say it is where the heavens wounded the world and left behind the Endless Wastes and its three Desolations.
Ambitious mystics from Dragon Valley, who reached the peak of Sapphire Adept, had ventured to that place to defeat a Divine Beast, consume its core and Aspect, and break through to the fabled Luminary stage.
Only two ever returned. Matriarch Eunike and Patriarch Ahmose.
Kai thought she knew how the failed mystics felt. Hopeless. Desperate. All she needed to do was touch Uncle Senbi.
A touch. Not a strike. One touch. That’s all that stands between me and victory.
She began this particular pursuit at twelve. Four years later, she was no closer to touching Uncle Senbi than on her first try, despite him facing her with his eyes closed. The worst part was knowing he hadn’t even used his aura, which would’ve allowed him to feel her strikes before they landed.
A part of her wished she had a potion to use in the session, but Uncle Senbi insisted she had to succeed on her own first to gauge her true ability. He always made sure she didn’t have a potion in her pouch when they sparred. Particularly after the time she’d sneaked in a Potion of Alacrity.
In the first days after her rebirth, such thoughts had seemed foreign. Now, those thoughts were as much a part of her as the clouds were to the sky. It was as if she’d always been this Kai Bree.
The thoughts also made the four-striped Seed amulet hanging from the leather string around her neck that much heavier. Heavier than the sack of stones on her back.
How am I supposed to help kill an immortal or save the Earth if I can’t get past this? Scowling, she spun the soul ring on her index finger. Maybe I deserve to be called a lame. Or talentless.
“Ready when you are, Little Mountain.”
Eyes closed, hands hidden within the sleeves of his robes, Uncle Senbi was standing no more than a stride in front of Kai, the dark skin of his bald head like polished ebony beneath the morning sun.
An easy smile graced his face, adding more wrinkles that were embraced by the corners of his eyes. His robes hung about him, giving the appearance of a frail body beneath.
A deception. Uncle Senbi was all lean muscle and sinew.
Kai shot a nervous glance over to Dakera. The one-armed man was sitting cross-legged in his usual spot on the front veranda, watching her train. He nodded his encouragement.
“Do you plan to move or do you intend to admire me for the rest of the day?” Uncle Senbi arched a questioning brow. “I know I’m a handsome old man, but still.” He chuckled while stroking his bushy silver beard.
Ignoring the old man’s gibe, Kai focused on her soul, the echo of her within herself. Next, she concentrated on feeling the flow of zan, the life energy connecting her soul to her body.
While zan was a white mist, the essences were no more than a haze. She yearned for the day she’d advance to Neophyte and be able to see them.
Connecting zan outside her body to that within came as easy as drawing in a breath. Starting at her wellspring, she pulled zan through the soul channels that ran like veins around her body.
She visualized the nodes of those soul channels, her body’s vital points, and saw the white mist travel around her body all the way back to her wellspring in a cycle. A cycle took no longer than a breath.
Taking a step to the left in the sand, she continued to cycle, her breathing slow and controlled. With a step came the first slow hand movement of zanquan. Flowing. Circular. Then came a fast movement. A snap of her wrist. More steps and matching hand movements followed, the motions in the directions of the wind, each one with an opposite polarity and duality, bringing balance.
In a few breaths, she was fully into zanquan, hands, feet, and body shifting accordingly, fast one moment, slow the next, soft then hard, hard then soft, cycling zan in conjunction. The brush of her feet through the sand and the snap of her strikes became a song. A harmony. The Heart of Harmony.
In her head, she recited the principles of zanquan as she circled Uncle Senbi. Fluid as the Flows. Violent as the Streams. Hard as the Forms. Obscure as the Abstract.
Within zanquan’s embrace she found serenity. Freedom.
“Good. Very good.” Uncle Senbi nodded appreciatively as he turned with her, his eyes still closed. “Feel the harmony. Call upon the Limit Gate Flow and feel your battle energy rise. Use strict node control so you’re not overwhelmed.”
No sooner had Uncle Senbi uttered the words than Kai did as he said, flaring nodes throughout her body to the first level. Energy surged within her like tiny prickles, running along her skin. The hairs on her arms rose. She felt as if she could beat on a guanzo tree or spar for hours nonstop, sprint from their home on Coiling Ridge down into the valley to Sengar Village.
All while carrying the sack of stones on her back.
And she felt this time would be different. This time I’m going to win.
Kai became absolutely still, but in her head, she was still moving, still shifting into zanquan stances in Shadowless Step. She cycled by way of the Fire Gale, transforming the Limit Gate into the first level of the Stormrage Flow, heat rushing through her channels.
She lunged forward, using the Grand Eagle Conquers to deliver a fist strike toward Uncle Senbi’s midsection. But Uncle Senbi had already stepped aside.
The fist became a roundhouse kick to the head in the form called the Qilin Charges. Another shift by Senbi took him to her back.
While in the same motion, she opened the second level of the Stormrage, tripling her speed as she shifted into a spinning back kick with her other leg. But Senbi was already gone, having continued his circle. He was back at the starting point, hands having never left his sleeves.
Kai let out a resigned sigh. She pressed her palms together over her chest and dipped her head. “I fail yet again, master. I apologize.”
“No need.” Senbi opened his emerald eyes and waved off her apology. “Failure is just another chance to try again. Repetition is the mother of mastery.”
“Yes, master.” Kai fidgeted with her long-sleeved tunic and tried to shrug off her disappointment but couldn’t. Her Seed amulet was even heavier.
“Well done.” Papa nodded in her direction. “You lost, but you were more fluid in Shadowless Step and the Stormrage. You might not have seen it, but you were a hair closer to success.”
“Thank you.” She dipped her head in his direction.
As usual, Papa was smiling. The only time he disapproved of her training was if he felt she wasn’t giving it her all. “Just remember to treat every fight as an exchange of life and death, an exchange where you must engage every sense.”
“Yes, Papa. Your guidance is appreciated.” Kai turned to Senbi. “How is it that you’re able to avoid me so easily while not relying on your aura?”
The old master smiled and shrugged. “Experience, the fact that I’m realms above you, and also the Heart of Harmony.”
“The Heart? How so?”
“You’ll know when the day comes that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between your opponent and what you see in the Heart.”
“Ah.” Kai doubted she could ever reach such a level of mastery. “Uncle, do you think I’ll ever be a normal mystic?”
Uncle Senbi’s brow furrowed. “Why do you wish to be normal when you can be extraordinary?”
Kai couldn’t help the twitch of her lips despite her feelings. Positivity was Uncle Senbi’s way. “I’m fine with reality, Uncle. Extraordinary is for prodigies. Normal would make me happy.”
Kai took a deep breath. “Every normal mystic of my age is already an Adept at Pearl Embodiment or better. They have an affinity to one essence or more. At the very least, they’re working on the first tempering.
“They’re practicing one or all of the four basic techniques. They can flex zan. They’ve started to practice a Way.”
Uncle Senbi’s face was impassive. “These mystics who were born a prodigy or normal, were they also born as Adepts? Were they born as Sprouts?”
“What were they born as?”
“What are you?”
“At what level?”
“One With Zan.”
“A Seed at the peak of One With Zan,” Uncle Senbi pointed out. “How did they, and you, gain and surpass those other levels and realms? Did those accomplishments fall from the heavens? Were you gifted them?”
“No. We trained for them.”
“Ah.” Senbi nodded. “So you worked hard for your achievements, beginning with your Foundation.”
“None of them needed to work as hard as I did,” she grumbled.
“Hard work eventually beats talent if talent refuses to work hard.” Uncle Senbi didn’t so much as blink when he made the statement.
Hands balled into fists, Kai let out the rest of her frustrations in a rush. “But their cultivation isn’t flawed like mine. They can actually pool and condense zan in their wellspring.
“Without pooling, I’ll never pass the Trial of Creation and develop a kernel in my wellspring to become a Neophyte. Without a kernel, I’ll never be able to flex zan much less gain a core.
“It’s impossible for me to be like them. It feels as if I’ll be stuck building my Foundation for the rest of my life. I’m already sixteen. The books say that I’ll never advance to Adept at this point.”
Tears trickled down Kai’s cheeks as she vented. Not tears of sadness. They were a reflection of a lifetime of turmoil and doubt eating at her insides.
Uncle Senbi took his hands from his sleeves, reached out to Kai, and drew her close until he was hugging her. “Little Mountain, what have I said about the word ‘never’?”
Kai rubbed at her eyes with the ball of her palm. She took a shuddering breath. “Never say never.” Remembering the quote made brought a smile.
“Good. What have I taught you about your Foundation?”
“It’s the key to progression, limit breaking . The stronger the Foundation, the farther a mystic reaches.”
“And what have I said time and again about being like other people.”
“Don’t strive to be like anyone. Strive to be different. That way an opponent can’t anticipate your actions.”
“Remember it always, Little Mountain.” His voice became soft. “As for your so-called flaw, it simply means you must continue to work hard.”
She pouted. “That’s all I ever do. Work hard. I work harder than anyone else for very little reward.”
“And that’s what sets you apart. Your quick mind and dedication to work. You must love the work as much as you love the reward.
“You might not notice it, but every bit of hard work counts. It means progress, even if that progress isn’t in the form you wished.”
“I’m just tired of being left behind.” Kai shook her head. “Tired of being one of the weakest. Tired of the sect disciples laughing at me.” She disliked sounding as if she was whining, but she couldn’t help it.
Stroking her soul ring, she leaned into Senbi. He smelled of the orange spice he loved so much.
“They have no honor.” He rubbed her shoulder. “Ignore them. The masters and elders act as if they’ve reached the peak of shuzan, as if they’ve reached enlightenment, as if they know every Way that can be traveled.”
His voice grew hard. “They don’t. The Ways are as countless as the stars, as endless as the sky.
“These same people said you wouldn’t reach Perception or One With Zan. You proved them wrong. Here you stand at the peak of Seed.”
Memories flashed through her head. Memories of her first Soul Test. She relived the elders’ disappointment, their pity, the certainty they held when stating she wouldn’t advance. Kai scowled.
Uncle Senbi spoke, his voice softer. “You’re a lot stronger than you think. Strength is as much mental as it is physical.
“There’s but one person with whom you must compare strength. The person in the mirror. Improve on her. It is you versus you. Believe in yourself. The rest will find its place in the world.”
Kai perked up a bit at those words. “Thank you for your guidance, Uncle.” She sighed. “I just want to be an Adept, be able to flex zan one day , that’s all.” She imagined herself flying, flinging the wind itself, or throwing lightning bolts.
“Flexing zan.” Uncle Senbi snickered. “You’ll be waiting forever, then. Do you know why?”
She frowned. He doesn’t have faith in me after everything he just said? Kai pulled back from him and opened her mouth to answer.
“Think before you speak.” Senbi arched a thick brow, a smile creasing his lips, a twinkle in his wise eyes.
Kai turned her soul ring. He wouldn’t have mocked my flaw. This has to be something else. Something teachable. Something I missed. A technical error in my words.
She thought about Papa’s teachings, Senbi’s lectures, the numerous books she’d read on shuzan and flexing, the many times she’d listened and watched Mistress Anai’s classes.
The answer arrived like a bolt from the heavens. “A mystic doesn’t actually flex zan. They flex their soul which in turn uses zan to carry out the mystic’s intention.”
“Well done.” Senbi smiled.
“Thank you for your guidance, again.” Kai bowed to him.
“You’re welcome.” He nodded slightly. “As for becoming an Adept, remember you must crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. Rush the brush, waste the paint.
“Focus on breaking through to Neophyte. Then you can worry about Adept. Besides, since you mentioned flexing, Neophyte is where you learn your first flex… your aura.”
“Yes, Uncle,” she said meekly. She sighed. Neophyte. Another reminder of my stunted growth.
Senbi looked thoughtful for a moment. “All that talk about work reminds me… I need you to run down to Sengar Village to pick up artificing supplies from Master Meriti.” He tossed her a small pouch of chips.
Kai caught the pouch of gold, silver, and copper chips, at once apprehensive and expectant. She didn’t look forward to running into sect disciples, to the pointing and jeering.
However, Sengar Village meant a chance to watch Mistress Anai teach one of her classes on shuzan. Kai often learned something new. The other sects hated the mistress for teaching anyone who would listen, which made Kai like the old blind woman that much more.
“Well, don’t stand there.” Uncle Senbi shooed her off. “Run along and hurry back. I must start refining tonight during the storm when ion essences are strongest.”
Frowning, Kai looked up to the sky. A few woolly clouds hung in the azure expanse, but nothing to indicate a storm was coming. However, it was still only late morning. The weather changed quickly in the Titan’s Leg Mountains.
With a shake of her head, she tied the pouch of chips onto her belt. After she adjusted the straps on the big sack of stones on her back, she picked up her black-hafted spear, strode over to Papa, and gave him a hug, relishing his familiar musky scent.
Papa ruffled her hair. “Did you remember to carry a lampstone?”
She touched her belt pouch to be certain the smooth round stone was there. “Yes.”
“Good. And do you remember what to do this time if you come across Shanjing?”
Her lip curled at the name people had given to the Ascended bloodwolf. Over the past three weeks the beast had killed a few farmers and a dozen animals.
But the incidents had all occurred well beyond Coiling Ridge, up in areas close to the barrier array.
Kai opened her mouth to remind Dakera that it was unlikely Shanjing would be this far down the mountain. She changed her mind. “I’ll return before night, Papa.”
“That isn’t what I asked.”
She let out a resigned breath. “If I come across Shanjing, I mustn’t run away. I’m to activate the lampstone and rely on zanquan to avoid the beast until you and Uncle arrive.”
“Excellent. You should also take a few potions, particularly Sanguine Purification and Bodybond.”
“Yes, Papa.” She headed around the side of the house to the alchemy lab.
Once inside, she took a pouch from a cupboard then perused the shelves where Papa kept his potions. She picked out seven potions altogether, two Sanguine Purification, two Bodybond, two Alacrity, and one Stoneskin. Kai tucked the potions into the pouch, tied it to her belt, and left.
Once outside, she waved to Uncle Senbi and Papa. “I’m leaving now.”
“Safe travels, Little Mountain,” they both called out.
Humming to herself to chase away thoughts of Shanjing, she turned away, cycled zan, and then broke into a jog, the rocks clacking on her back as she headed down the hard-packed trail.